While some may think that D-Day was the moment during WWII when the tides of war had changed in favor of the Allies, in reality it was more than a year and a half before at the Battle of Stalingrad that the Nazis lost their momentum and were beginning to withdraw. Without a shadow of a doubt, the Battle of Stalingrad was the most brutal engagement of WWII and the deadliest battle in the history of warfare. The outcome of the battle put an end to Hitler’s dream of commanding a Global Empire and it marked the beginning of the end for the Nazis. Without this battle, D-Day could have never happened in the first place. Now, let’s actually look at some of the events that happened in more detail…
10. The Casualties
To properly understand the actual scale, brutality, and importance of the Battle of Stalingrad, we have to start at the end, with the casualties. This was by far the bloodiest battle of the whole war, lasting for almost seven months, from mid-July 1942 to February 2, 1943, and involving not just Soviets and Nazis, but also Romanians, Hungarians, and Italians, as well as some Russian conscripts. In the aftermath of the battle, over 840,000 Axis forces lay dead, missing, or captured, while the Soviets suffered more than 1.1 million casualties. More than 40,000 Russian civilians were also killed during the battle. It was, in fact, Stalin himself who strictly forbade their evacuation from Stalingrad, saying that the Soviet soldiers would fight harder knowing that they also had to defend the residents of the city.
To give you a comparison, the D-Day Operations and the ensuing Invasion of Normandy campaign resulted in a total of roughly 425,000 dead or missing soldiers on both sides. Now, over in Stalingrad, of the roughly 91,000 who were still alive by February 2, and who surrendered on that day, only about 6,000 would ever make it back home alive. The rest died of hunger or exhaustion in Soviet work camps, even a decade after WWII had ended. After they were cut off, the Axis forces stranded in Stalingrad – roughly 250,000 – had to endure some of the most horrendous conditions possible. With supplies running thin and with no proper equipment to endure the harsh Russian winter, a lot of them died of starvation or the bitter cold. Many soldiers on both sides had to resort to cannibalism to stay alive. The average lifespan of a new soldier at Stalingrad was one day, whereas for a captain, it was three days. The Battle of Stalingrad is without a shadow of a doubt the bloodiest battle in human history, claiming more lives than many other entire wars combined.
9. Bragging Rights
Today the city is known as Volgograd, but up until 1961, it was known as Stalingrad, the Soviet dictator’s namesake. So, as you can imagine, the city held great importance for both Hitler and Stalin. Now, the city wasn’t attacked just for the sake of its name, but that did play a role here. The main purpose for the Battle of Stalingrad, however, was to secure the northern flank for the German army that was sent south to the Caucasus Mountains towards Baku and the other oil-rich regions there. Oil was Germany’s ‘Achilles Heel’ so to speak, with over 75 percent of it being supplied from Romania – which was already depleting its reserves – by 1941. So in order to have a chance at continuing the war, the Nazis had to take over some oil-rich lands. This search for oil was known as Operation Blue for the Nazis. It was part the even larger Operation Barbarossa, which aimed at invading the Soviet Union – the largest and most powerful invasion force in human history.
Bolstered by the initial victories of the invasion and with the Axis forces literally sweeping through what is now present-day Ukraine and southern Russia, Hitler decided to divide his southern forces. While his northern armies were focused more on besieging Leningrad (present-day Saint Petersburg) and Moscow, the southern group was tasked with Stalingrad and the Caucasus. Present-day Belarus and Ukraine were important industrial zones for the Soviets, and if they were to lose the oilfields, they would have most certainly capitulated. With the Red Army suffering heavy losses during the previous engagements, Hitler believed that Stalingrad would be easy pickings. In the grand scheme of things, the city was not that strategically important, but because of its name, Hitler had to take it. And equally, Stalin had to defend it at all costs. In the aftermath, however, Stalin emerged victorious, the first major victory and a monumental turning point of WWII. And because it happened in his namesake city, it was an important propaganda tool for Stalin during the remainder of the war, as well as the rest of his life.
8. Not One Step Back!
Given by Joseph Stalin himself on July 28, 1942, Order No. 227 is more commonly known as the “Not one step back!” order. In light of the disastrous situation of the Great Patriotic War, as the Eastern Front was known to the Soviets, Stalin issued this order so as to put an end to the mass desertions and unauthorized and chaotic retreats happening up until that point. Western USSR – which included present-day Ukraine and Belarus – was the most heavily industrialized part of the country, as well as the so-called breadbasket of the Soviet State. Much of its civilian population lived in these parts, so even though the USSR was huge, constant retreat was not a viable option. This order meant that no military commander should issue any direction of retreat, no matter the situation, if they hadn’t received such orders from higher up. Those who disobeyed this order were to be sent to a military tribunal.
Each frontline, Stalingrad included, was to have penal battalions. These were made out of roughly 800 middle-ranking commanders with disciplinary problems, as well as regular soldiers who would serve under them. These soldiers were also made out of deserters, so-called cowards, or other troublemakers. These battalions would be sent to the front lines, and always in the most dangerous battles. In addition, there were barrier troops, also known as anti-retreat forces. Each Army was supposed to have several barrier troops, made out of 200 personnel apiece. Their purpose was stay at the rear and round up or shoot deserters, or those who were trying to retreat without orders to do so. An estimated 13,500 soldiers were killed this way at Stalingrad alone, as “betrayers of the motherland.”
7. The T-34 Tank
Up until 1942, the Soviets were far behind the Germans, as well as their Western Allies, in terms of armor and armored vehicles. Nevertheless, they were already developing the T-34 tank as early as 1939. By June 1941, there were only 1,200 T-34s in use throughout the Eastern Front, around the time Hitler initiated Operation Barbarossa. By the end of the war, however, its numbers ballooned to over 84,000. It was by far the most mass-produced tank of the war and considered by many as “the finest tank in the world” at the time. The previous Soviet model, the T-26, was no match against the Panzer III – the German ‘workhorse’ up until that time. It was slower-moving, lightly armored, and severely outgunned. In 1941 alone, the Nazis destroyed over 20,000 Russian T-26s. But with the arrival of the T-34, the tables had turned, putting the Panzer III at a disadvantage.
The T-34 was not perfect by many standards, but it was, nevertheless, a weapon not to be reckoned with. It was fitted with a V12 engine, giving it speeds of more than 30 miles per hour, as well as the ability to work in freezing temperatures. It also had a 76.2mm main gun and two machineguns. Its tracks were wider than its predecessors’ and its counterparts’, making it more maneuverable in the so-called sea of mud in autumn and spring, as well as the heavy snows of winter. Most notable was its sloped armor. This gave the T-34 the protection it needed, without adding to the overall weight. And as the Germans were soon to discover, most of their shots simply bounced off its armor. The T-34 was the main reason for the development of the Nazi Panther tank design. The T-34 was also fitted with railings on its upper side, so as to also double as infantry transport. The only effective way to destroy a T-34 was to get up close and personal with it, usually when an infantryman would throw a grenade inside through one of its slits, or somehow destroy the engine from behind. Another way was to use the heavier anti-aircraft artillery on it.
Its biggest advantage, however, was the fact that it was easy and cheap to produce in huge numbers. As you may expect, it wasn’t confortable, and it lacked many finishing touches – like paint, for instance. Many T-34s were rolled into battle immediately after leaving the assembly line. One such factory was in Stalingrad itself. Nevertheless, it was also designed to be driven easily by relatively inexperienced crewmen. This is what really set the T-34 apart from its German counterparts. The first T-34 army was deployed in a counteroffensive just prior of the Battle of Stalingrad on the banks of the Don River. This counteroffensive inflicted heavy losses on the German army and postponed the actual assault of Stalingrad by up to three weeks. This setback also reduced the Nazis’ resources and gave a serious blow to morale. None of them were expecting a Soviet counteroffensive during this stage of the war, let alone the T-34.
6. The Rats’ War
Assault on the city began with heavy aerial bombardment, reducing Stalingrad to nothing more than charred buildings and rubble. It is estimated that roughly 40,000 soldiers and civilians died in the first week of the air raid. The Soviets stubbornly refused to retreat to the eastern side of the Volga River, knowing full well what that meant for both their war effort, as well as their lives. The Russians had the civilian population – women and children included – dig trenches, sometimes even as close as 30 feet away from the German line. With constant shelling by both artillery and aerial bombers on both sides, the Battle of Stalingrad soon turned into a ‘Rattenkrieg’, as the Germans called it, meaning rats’ war.
The battle turned into a guerrilla-style war of attrition soon enough, with countless soldiers dying on both sides for every square inch of the city. Every street, every basement, room, hallway, or attic needed to be cleared out of enemy units before moving on. There were many cases of multi-story buildings with each level being alternatively occupied by the Germans or the Soviets. They would shoot at each other through holes in the floor. No place was safe. There were fierce battles fought in the streets, trenches, sewers, blown up buildings, and even overhead industrial pipelines. Initial Nazi armor and aerial advantage proved of limited use in this rats’ warfare, which gave the Soviets the advantage.
5. Pavlov’s House
If there was a symbol to represent the Soviets’ resilience to constant attacks from the German forces during the Battle of Stalingrad, then Pavlov’s House was it. This was a four-story apartment building overseeing the “9th January Square.” It had enormous strategic importance for the Russians, as it was a great vantage point, giving the defenders a half-mile long line of sight to the west, north, and south. Being located on the western bank of the Volga River, it was a crucial and key location for the Soviet resistance. Its name comes from Junior Sgt. Yakov Pavlov, who was an acting platoon commander after all senior sergeants were killed in battle. He was in charge of a platoon of the Soviet 13th Guards Rifle Division tasked with repelling the Nazis. His platoon was reinforced several days after he took charge, bolstering his squad to 25 men. They were also supplied with machine guns, anti-tank rifles, and mortars.
Pavlov ordered his men to surround the building with four layers of barbed wire and mines, and placed machine guns at every available window facing the square. Some of the mortars and anti-tank rifles were placed on the roof of the building. This proved to be a major advantage as the German tanks trying to roll in close to the building were blown up by the rifles from above. While the tanks could not elevate their guns to shoot at the roof of the building, they were instead attacked on the thin turret-roof armor. Nevertheless, the Germans stormed the building day and night in attempts to take the building once and for all. In the meantime, the Soviets breached the walls of the basement and connected it to trench system that was bringing in supplies from across the river. Food and water were in short supply, though.
The platoon under Yakov Pavlov withstood all the German attacks for almost two months from September 27 to November 25, 1942. They were then relieved by a Soviet counterattack. The commanding general of the Soviet forces in Stalingrad, Vasily Chuikov, jokingly said that the Germans lost more soldiers and tanks in trying to take Pavlov’s House than they did taking Paris. Moreover, in the maps and documents retrieved from the Germans once the whole battle for Stalingrad was over, the commander’s personal map had the building encircled with the hand-written word “Castle” next to it.
4. Height 102.0
Located close to the center of the city is Mamayev Kurgan. This is a 102 meter tall hill (335 feet) that has a great view of the surrounding city and countryside. It also offers a great view across the Volga River to the east. And as you can imagine, this hill was heavily fought over during the Battle of Stalingrad. The first German attack on Height 102.0 came September 13, 1942. Prior to their arrival, the Soviets heavily entrenched themselves on its slopes, digging trenches and laying out barbed wire and mines. Nevertheless, the hill and the railway station at its base were conquered one day later. Over 10,000 Soviet soldiers lost their lives in that battle. Only two days later, the Russians took back the hill. In fact, Mamayev Kurgan exchanged hands 14 times during the entire Battle of Stalingrad.
By the end of the fighting there, the once steep slopes of the hill were flattened by the almost constant shelling. Throughout the entire duration of the winter, the hill was never covered in snow due to the many explosions. Even after spring came, the hill remained black, as no grass was growing on the scorched earth. It was estimated that anywhere on the hill there were between 500 to 1,250 shards of metal found on every square meter of soil. Even today, people can find scraps of metal or pieces of human bones scattered on the hillside. Mamayev Kurgan is also the final resting place for over 35,000 civilians who died in the city and over 15,000 soldiers who defended the position. Vasily Chuikov, the Soviet commander during the battle, is also buried there – the first Marshal of the Soviet Union to be buried outside of Moscow. As of 1967, the hill is also the site for the colossal monument known as “The Motherland Calls.” From the base to the tip of its sword, the statue measures 279 feet in height (87 meters). To give you a comparison, the Statue of Liberty is only 151 feet tall (46 meters).
3. The Grain Elevator
The southern edges of the city were made mostly of wooden houses. Following the German air raids that dropped thousands of incendiary bombs there, these houses were reduced to charred pieces of timber, with only the brick chimneys still standing among the rubble. But between them, there was a massive concrete grain elevator that dominated the neighborhood. Its walls were incredibly thick; it was virtually impervious to artillery fire, like a fortress. By September 17, the entire area was under German control, with the exception of the grain elevator and the 52 Soviet soldiers inside. After they received some supplies, they were walled in. For the following three days, the Germans mounted at least 10 attacks a day on the elevator with the intent on capturing it, but all of them failed. As one survivor described it, “In the elevator, the grain was on fire, the cooling water in the machine-guns had evaporated, the wounded were thirsty, but there was no water. This is how we defended ourselves 24 hours a day for three days.”
By day, they were fighting from the top of the tower, shooting at the enemy with both machine guns and anti-tank rifles. By night, they were fighting at the base of the tower, fending off German troops that were trying to get inside. On the second day, a Nazi tank carrying a white flag approached. From within it a German officer emerged with an interpreter, demanding the Soviets surrender or be obliterated. Their answer was, “Tell all your fascists they can go to hell in an open boat! You two ‘voices of the people’ can go back to your lines, but only on foot.” The tank than began to roll away, but it was immediately stopped in its tracks after it was hit by several anti-tank rounds.
2. Unlikely of Soviet Heroes
One of the most notable heroes of the Battle of Stalingrad was Vasily Zaytsev (if you’ve seen the movie Enemy at the Gates, that name should sound familiar – he’s the central character). A simple farm boy from the Ural Mountains, Zaytsev spent his childhood with his grandfather hunting deer and wolves in the mountains. With the start of the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Zaytsev volunteered for the front lines and ended up at Stalingrad. The battles there were known for the snipers, and none were more famous than Zaytsev. He took the scope from an anti-tank weapon, mounted it on his Mosin-Nagant rifle, and used to kill enemies hiding behind walls. During the Battle of Stalingrad he had a total of 225 confirmed kills. He even had a sort of sniper training school going, and had a team of 28 others with him, striking fear and bullets in the enemy’s heart.
Somewhat similar was the 1077th Anti-Aircraft Regiment. When the Nazis began attacking Stalingrad from the north, the Soviets were severely undermanned to deal with them there. This is when the anti-aircraft regiment lowered their guns to the lowest point and began firing at the invaders, holding the advance for two days. In the end, all of the 37 guns were destroyed, their positions were overtaken by the Nazis, and the regiment suffered heavy casualties. But only after they were finally overtaken the 1077th Anti-Aircraft Regiment did the Nazis realize that it was made up of only girls barely out of high school.
1. Operation Uranus
The operation was launched in mid-November 1942 and aimed at stranding Hitler’s 6th Army within Stalingrad. With close to a million soldiers, the operation involved two forces striking from different directions, rather than hitting the Germans directly in the city of Stalingrad. The aim was to strike at the flanks of the army, which were defended by Romanian, Hungarian, and Italian troops. These were undersupplied, undermanned, and their lines were stretched far too thin. The Axis forces did not believe that the Soviets were capable of mounting such a powerful offensive and were caught completely by surprise. Ten days into the offensive, the two Soviet forces met at the town of Kalach, some 60 miles west of Stalingrad, and the Nazi 6th Army was completely cut off. The German high command urged Hitler to allow the army fighting in Stalingrad to retreat and reestablish a connection with their supply lines. Hitler would not have it, not conceiving the alternative of abandoning the banks of the Volga.
With winter setting in fast, the stranded German army could only be supplied by air. These supplies were nowhere near to being sufficient, or even adequate in most cases. In the meantime, the Volga River was frozen solid, and the Soviets could more easily supply their own troops. In December, Hitler ordered the launch of Operation Winter Tempest in an attempt at rescuing the stranded army. The special army corps was meant to come from the west and pierce a way through to Stalingrad. Hitler, however, forbade the forces in Stalingrad from attacking from the east, and the operation failed. By January, the Germans were surrounded by six Soviet armies. One month later, what remained of the army Hitler once claimed ‘could storm the Heavens’ was surrendering.