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Vasilii Zaitsev and the Sniper Duel of Stalingrad

A senior air warrior, graduate from the Staff College and a PG in military studies. He is qualified to write on war and allied matters.



A duel between two warriors is something that thrills everybody. The blind poet Homer (2nd century AD) eulogized the duel between the Greek warrior Achilles and the Trojan prince Hector during the siege of Troy. He gives a thrilling account of this duel in the Iliad. Hector lost and Achillies tied him behind his chariot and dragged him around the fortress city of Troy only to be killed by an arrow that struck his heel. Similarly, many other duels have got the attention of men since time immemorial. The battle of skill between the warrior Saladin and King Richard also comes to mind. Over the centuries duels went out of fashion and died down by the end of the 19th century. Right up to the 19-century duels between two protagonists were thought of as acts of honor. Alexandra Dumas gives a romantic connotation of the duels in his novels.

A Duel in the 20th Century

As the 20th century was ushered in, the duel as we knew it earlier had ceased to exist. A duel in the 20th century appeared an anachronism. They were out of fashion in the modern age. Despite this, the Second World War saw a sniper duel between a Russian rifleman Vasilii Zaitsev and a German officer. We do not have confirmed details of the officer but there is no doubt he was equally brave. The officer was probably Major Heinz König. He was an instructor at the armies sniper school This epic battle between these two was spread over 4 during the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942-43.

The Battle of Stalingrad is one of the most important battles of the Second World War. It was a do or die battle and the Russians threw everything they had in this battle, which became a matter of prestige for both Stalin and Hitler. The Russians had coined a slogan ”There is no land beyond the Volga for us”, as they steeled themselves against the Germans. Field marshal Paulos matched wits with the Communist leader especially sent by Stalin-Nikita Khrushchev.


The duel

Vasilii Zaitsev

Vasilii Zaitsev was a distinguished rifleman of the Soviet army. Over the years he had built up a reputation as a top-class sniper. With the battle of Stalingrad in progress Zaitsev was detailed to proceed to Stalingrad to help in the war effort against the German army. The rifleman was given a one-point agenda to kill as many officers as possible. The Russian military leadership considered officers as high-value targets for the Soviet Army. In this life and death battle with the Wehrmacht, Zaitsev's instructions were clear; to kill as many officers of the Wehrmacht as possible.

Zaitsev moved to Stalingrad and set about his task in earnest. The city had been badly bombed but this was a blessing in disguise for he could move between the bombed-out buildings and pick his targets at ease. He rarely targeted common soldiers and concentrated on killing the officers only. He was fit and alert and had a lethal aim.

We have the figures available now from the Soviet and German archives. Zaitsev killed 242 Germans during a period of 2 months (October-November 1942). Losing so many officers to sniper fire dented the morale of the Wehrmacht. These killings spread panic in the enemy ranks and they wondered who the unknown Russian sniper was and how he could be eliminated. Field marshal Paulos was also apprised and he recommended as a countermeasure a sniper to be sent to Stalingrad to eliminate the Russian sniper.

The Entry of Major Heinz

The stage is now set for a magnificent duel. After due deliberation, the high command selected Major Heinz Konig of the sniper school He was supposed to be a master sniper and was the best in his field. On receiving orders of his transfer to Stalingrad the major immediately checked his bags and flew down to the city. Major Konig's main task was to seek out the Russian sniper and eliminate him. Unlike the Russian sniper who was targeting officers, the major's only task was to kill Vasili.

Major König landed in Stalingrad and got ready for his task. He surveyed the map of the city and plotted the places and points from which the Russian sniper had shot the German officers. This gave him a fair idea about the movements of Vasilii. He made plans to kill Vasilii. Russian intelligence was aware of the arrival of the ace from Berlin and Zaytse was briefed and told to be ready.

The Duel in Stalingrad

Thus was launched a duel between two sharpshooters, one a Russian and the other a German. Zaitsev was not sitting idle as he was aware that the ace was from the sniper training school and obviously he must be very good. He surmised that the ace would try to track him from the points from where he had killed the German officers.

Both the adversaries tracked each other as they played a cat and mouse game. This game continued for four days. On the fourth day, Major König drew first blood and with his unerring aim shot dead two close companions of Vasilii. This was a shock to the Russian Ace and he wanted to take revenge. For a long time, there was absolute silence and that is when major Konig made the fatal mistake. He assumed that he had killed Vasilii Zaitsev. To relieve his tension he came out of his hiding place to have a smoke. In that split-second, Zaitsev shot him dead.

Major Konig was a heartless man and just a little before, he had hanged a young Russian lad who had been acting as a courier and spy for the Russians.


Fact or Fiction

Many Germans after the war have opined that the duel is fiction. But the archives of the Wehrmacht do mention another name as a sharpshooter. There could be a mix up of names, but the evidence certainly points to a sniper coming to Stalingrad. The telescope of Major Konig’s rifle is preserved as an exhibit at the Armed Forces Mueseum in Moscow. I have visited this museum and seen the rifle used by the Russian sniper as well as the telescopic sight of Konig's rifle.

Last Word

Vasilii Zaitsev died in 1991. Before that, he authored a book about his exploits. He was re-buried in Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad) in 2006. Colonel Donald Paquette of the US Sniper School attended the reburial and laid a wreath as a sign of respect to the legendary sniper. The Americans were aware of his exploits and accordingly honored him.

There is an excellent movie on the subject based on the book "Enemy at the Gates".It is a fictionalized account of this famous duel and is a compelling movie.

No article on snipers can be complete without a word on women snipers. The Russians had plenty of them but that calls for another article.


MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on January 08, 2021:

Pamela, thank you for your valuable comment

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on January 08, 2021:

Vanita, sweet of you to have spared time and commented

Vanita Thakkar on January 08, 2021:

Very informative and interesting, though not pleasant as it is about violence and killings. That is what wars are all about.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on January 07, 2021:

Thank you, Pamela, so nice of you to have commented.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on January 07, 2021:

This is a fascinating story, MG. I think a 4 day dual is amazing, and it sounds like the best man won.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on January 07, 2021:

Thank you Colonel for commenting and a bit of information provided by you.

Lt Col Parduman singh on January 07, 2021:

An excellent article.I have also visited the museum and seen the rifle used. The incident is true. The Indian army also has an excellent sniper school at Mhow in central India.I have read somewhere that Vasilii used to hunt wolves when he was a boy and that's how he was accustomed to the use of rifles.

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