19 August 1942 – 2 February 1943

Red Army soldiers fight in the ruins of the Red October Factory in the heart of Stalingrad in January 1943, shortly before the final defeat of the German 6th Army. Both sides displayed an exceptional endurance in harsh conditions and under continuous fire. More than 600,000 soldiers died during the gruelling five-month battle for the city.

Stalingrad was one of the longest battles of the Second World War and the bloodiest. It has rightly come to symbolize the epic struggle between the German armed forces and the Red Army. It was regarded at the time as a turning point in the war against the Axis states, and has remained a firm favourite for anyone reflecting on the key moments when the tide turned in the conflict. The battle was also an exceptional test of men under fire, first for the Soviet 62nd and 64th Armies as the Germans advanced into the city, then for the German 6th Army as it faced encirclement and annihilation. Men on both sides were pushed to the limits of endurance and beyond. More than 400,000 lost their lives in the effort.

Neither side had predicted the battle. Hitler decided to open his summer campaign in the south of Russia in 1942, and detailed his forces to capture the Caucasus oilfields and cut the Volga river link with northern Russia around the city of Stalingrad. He expected a quick victory, and thought the Red Army would crumble. Stalin and his generals expected a renewed assault on Moscow and put the bulk of their forces in the centre and north of the Soviet–German front line. When the German Operation Blue opened on 19 June, the German army found the south to be even weaker than expected. Progress was rapid and by 19 August the German 6th Army, commanded by General Friedrich Paulus, and units of the 4th Panzer Army had arrived at the outskirts of Stalingrad. Paulus expected to capture the city in days and to cut the vital Volga trade route.

The city was defended by the Soviet 62nd and 64th Armies, which had retreated in growing disorder across the steppe and into the city. Here they dug in and waited for the Germans. They were supported by no more than 300 aircraft, and the artillery and rocket launchers on the far side of the river. Otherwise the Soviet defenders were outnumbered and outgunned by the 250,000 Axis forces (including Italian and Romanian divisions) that had begun the campaign. On 19 August Paulus began his assault and four days later he had reached the Volga north of the city. On 23 August 600 German bombers pounded the city, reducing great areas to ash and rubble. Slowly the defenders were pushed back towards the river until they controlled only a factory area in the north, the area around the Central Station and the small hill, Mamayev Kurgan, which dominated the central area. Under constant bombardment, they fought in many cases to the death. A few weeks before, Stalin had issued Order number 277 ‘Not a Step Back’, by which any retreat or withdrawal was to be treated as cowardice.

On 7 September the Soviet commander in the city, General Alexander Lopatin, did order a withdrawal and was promptly sacked. He was replaced by General Vasily Chuikov, a tough, brave, no-nonsense commander, who shared the hardships of his men and risked his life over and over again. The Stalingrad front was placed under General Andrei Yeremenko, who, like Chuikov, was a tough commander who was wounded seven times during the battle, but continued to command from his hospital bed. A week after Chuikov arrived, Paulus launched what the Germans thought would be the decisive push to drive the Red Army out of its last redoubts and capture the western bank of the Volga. The German advance was remorseless; the 62nd and the 64th were divided when the Germans reached the Volga to the south of the city. The Central Station changed hands fifteen times. Mamayev Kurgan was charged by one side, then by the other. A trickle of reinforcements and supplies made its way to Chuikov; ferries full of the wounded crossed the other way.

The courage of the Soviet defenders was exceptional. Some failed to cope and it is claimed that over 13,000 were shot for desertion or dereliction of duty. For the rest Stalingrad became a symbol for which they were prepared to give their lives. Chuikov bullied his men but he also inspired them. They became adept at the art of street fighting, a form of urban guerrilla warfare that has become familiar since 1945, but which had not yet been seen in the war. By day German forces, supported by tanks and aircraft, blasted their way forward street by street, block by block; by night Soviet soldiers would work their way back through the ruins, using knives and bayonets to kill their opponents silently, or sometimes rushing an isolated German unit with terrifying yells and machine-gun fire. German soldiers learned never to show themselves for fear of Soviet snipers – skilled hunters who killed anything that moved. The ruins proved a useful asset for the Red Army, slowing down the movement of tanks and providing hundreds of foxholes and hidden alleyways from which to launch a sudden ambush.

Unknown to either side in Stalingrad, the Soviet high command had devised a way to end the battle. In September General Zhukov, Stalin’s deputy, and the chief-of-staff, Alexander Vasilevski, drew up a plan to cut across the long, exposed Axis flank, strike at the weaker Italian and Romanian divisions, and encircle the 6th Army, cutting it off from effective rescue. It was a bold plan but Stalin accepted it and agreed to use all the reserves to build up, in complete secrecy, a force of over 1 million men, 14,000 guns and 979 tanks on either side of the long Axis flanks. German intelligence failed to detect it. The whole plan depended on the ability of Chuikov to keep his small and battered force fighting for the month it took to organize the counter-strike. This was the supreme test. On 9 November Paulus prepared one more assault to clear the remnants of Chuikov’s forces. Bitter hand-to-hand fighting left both sides exhausted. On 12 November the fighting slowed down and the Germans dug in.

Chuikov’s small force had done enough. On 19 November the counter-strike, Operation Uranus, began. The weaker Axis divisions crumbled and within five days the two prongs of the Soviet attack met at Kalach on the Don Steppe. Paulus was encircled with 330,000 of his men. Hitler refused to allow him to break out and an attempt by Field Marshal Erich von Manstein to drive through the Soviet lines to rescue the 6th Army was too weak in deteriorating winter weather. The fighting resumed in Stalingrad, but this time it was the German army doing the desperate defending. Operation Kol’tso (‘Ring’) began on 10 January and the 47 Soviet divisions and 300 tanks quickly cleared the approaches to the city. With nowhere to go and with constant orders from Hitler’s headquarters to stand firm, Paulus and his men displayed a remarkable courage, fighting against heavy odds an unwinnable and pointless battle. On 31 January Paulus finally surrendered. German forces to the north of the city surrendered three days later. Famished, poorly clad and ill, the defenders trudged into captivity where most died on the route. The extraordinary courage of the Soviet defenders had made it possible to inflict the largest defeat the German army had ever experienced: 147,000 dead and 91,000 prisoners. For the final siege the Red Army paid with 485,000 dead, injured or missing. Chuikov went on to become a marshal and to capture Berlin; Paulus was recruited by the Soviet side as leader of a ‘Free Germany’ movement among German prisoners of war and ended up in retirement in East Germany.