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Armageddon on the Volga: Stalingrad 1942-1943

Mark Caruthers holds a Bachelor's degree in Geography and History from the University of Arkansas (Fayetteville).

Verdun on the Volga

In the early months of 1942 the immoral leader of Nazi Germany, Adolf Hitler, decision to resume offensive operations in the Soviet Union began to crystallize. His economic advisers convinced him that Germany could not continue the war unless he captured the vital oil fields in the Soviet Union's Caucasus region.

Without the oil from the Caucasus region the Soviet Union's war machine would essentially be dealt a knockout blow, which ultimately spelled defeat for their ruthless Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin. The capture of Stalingrad was vital because it commanded the land bridge between the Volga and the Don Rivers opening the gateway to the vast Soviet oil fields near the Caspian Sea.

If Stalingrad could be captured it would enable the German Army to attack Moscow from behind giving them a vital military advantage. This vibrant city on the riverbanks of the Volga River with its huge weapons factories, and beautiful boulevards was the show piece of the Soviet Union. It would become the scene of deadliest battle of the twentieth century and become a graveyard for over two million German and Soviet soldiers. Marked by a level of brutality unequaled by wars in the past German soldiers who fought at Stalingrad, bitterly named this type of warfare Rattenkrieg ("rat war").

The battle was essentially much like that of the First World War only with better weapons. In its way, the fighting in Stalingrad was even more frightening than the indifferent slaughter at Verdun.

The battle became a horror of company-size actions much of it hand to hand. Field artillery, tanks, and self-propelled guns blasted holes in the walls of re-enforced concrete buildings. Flame throwers spewed burning oil through cellar windows burning women and children to death. A continuous suffocating cloud of dust and smoke hung above the city from crushed stone and mortar which choked soldiers and civilians alike.

The close- quarter combat destroyed buildings, bunkers, cellars and sewers. The battle possessed a savage intimacy which appalled German generals, who suddenly felt they were rapidly losing control over the battle. " The enemy is invisible," wrote on German general to a friend. " Ambushes out of basements, wall remnants, hidden bunkers and factory ruins began to cause heavy casualties among our troops."

House-to-house fighting was widespread. There were times when the Soviets held the kitchen, and the Germans the living room, or the Germans held the first and second floors, the Soviets held the third and fourth floors. Burning houses and factories reddened the sky above the city in darkness.

Whole streets disappeared as the battle progressed. German commanders openly admitted that Red Army soldiers were experts at camouflage, but few would acknowledge that it was German aircraft that produced the ideal conditions for the Soviet defenders.

The battle would become a titanic struggle between two of history's most infamous dictators Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. It would decide who would be the ultimate victor in the Second World War. The Volga River which flows through the city was also an important shipping route. It connected the western European part of the Soviet Union to its distant eastern regions.

Stalin was forced to deploy his strategic reserve of over a million men hidden deep in the Russian countryside to save his beloved city. He would use those troops to surround and destroy what may have been the best army Germany ever put in the field.

These reserve armies were unknown to everyone but those in Stalin's most inner circle. They consisted of ten field armies scattered behind the upper Don and along or near the middle and upper Volga. One of those armies was the 3rd Tank Army. With over 640 tanks mostly the modern T-34 it was the most powerful single armored formation in the Red Army.

Another elite formation in this reserve force was the 1st Guards Army. It was a veteran formation that had earned its title and the higher pay that went with it. The Guards formations were made up of troops who have fought effectively in previous battles giving them a taste of victory.

Completely unknown to the German High Command, to his closest allies Churchill and Roosevelt, even more astonishing, unknown to some members of the Stavka staff (Soviet High Command), this massive secret reserve was equal to half of all German forces on the eastern front in the spring of 1942.

German Tanks on the River Volga

On August 23, 1942, tanks of the 16th Panzer Division halted on the banks of the Volga and gazed at what was the vastness of the Soviet Union beyond the river. Many German soldiers thought the war against the Red Army was won once they reached the Volga.

To their right, Stalingrad blazed from the first of General von Richthofen's air raids on the city. Hitler told General Paulus that with his Sixth Army, the most powerful force in the Wehrmacht, he could "storm the heavens."

The German Sixth Army with nearly a third of a million men, combined with two corps from the Fourth Panzer Army was the largest and best equipped formation in the Wehrmacht. The Sixth Army had marched victoriously through Europe in September 1939, and in June 1940, never knowing defeat, it was the tip of the spearhead as Germany's blitzkrieg rolled through Europe.

The sudden powerful German strike into the northern suburbs of Stalingrad would split the Russian armies defending Stalingrad, cutting their communications along the Volga, and rattle Stalin's nerves in the Kremlin.

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It had a decisive impact on the course of the summer campaign that was not immediately clear at Hitler's headquarters near Vinnitsa. At first sight it looked like a brilliant stroke, that would lead to the capture of the city by Army Group B, and directly added needed support to Army Group A.

It was beginning to run into trouble in the northern Caucasus. But instead, it would narrow the field of battle to an area no larger than the state of Delaware where the war of movement, a German specialty, would give way to a war of attrition, a Russian specialty.

A third drawback, in committing the 6th Army to the Volga, the German High Command compelled Stalin to release the bulk of his forces he was holding for such an emergency. By the end of the week, Stalin would begin to activate his reserve armies, preparing the Red Army for a massive counterattack from the north, which would eventually spell doom for the German Sixth Army.

For the citizens of Stalingrad, Sunday August 23, 1942, was a day which would never be forgotten. This model city of which they were so proud, with its gardens along the high west bank of the Volga, and the tall white apartment buildings which gave the place a modern, cubist look would soon disappear, reduced to rubble and a vast graveyard.

After the first heavy air raids on the city, nights looked as though the whole city and the river itself was on fire. There were explosions everywhere. Splintered rafters and crumpled plaster of buildings crashed three or four stories into cellars. There were incoherent shouts from men and women who were running to escape the horror, which was now the reality of living in the flaming hell that had become Stalingrad.

At the time of the battle, Stalingrad was the Soviet Union's third largest city which lay sprawling along a narrow band of land twenty miles long and five miles deep on the Volga riverfront.

Richthofen's aircraft began to carpet-bomb the city in relays, "and not just industrial targets, but everything, said one student present that day." The huge petroleum-storage tanks on the banks of the Volga were also hit. A ball of flame rose about 1,500 feet into the sky, and over the following days, the column of black smoke could be seen from over two hundred miles away. Blazing oil spread across the Volga as the petroleum-storage tanks continued to burn.

Bombs destroyed the telephone exchange and the waterworks, and the main Stalingrad hospital. The attack on the hospital so terrorized the doctors and nurses that they ran away, abandoning their patients, some of whom were left for days without food or care.

In the afternoon, the German panzer crews looked up, squinting against the sunlight, saw waves of Junker 88 and Heinkel III bombers, as well as a squadron of Stukas, in tightly packed groups, flying towards Stalingrad.

On their return a mass of shadows passed across the steppe. The Stuka pilots sounded their sirens to greet their advancing troops. The panzer crews waved back with delight to the Stuka pilots. In the distance, they could already see the columns of smoke rising from the city. General Paulus's headquarters would brag that Stalingrad, the city of Stalin, the starting point of the Russian revolution, would fall beneath his feet.

The most horrendous toll fell upon the city of Stalingrad's inhabitants who were forced to call it home during the battle. Of Stalingrad's estimated 850,000 residents in 1940, only 1,500 would remain alive in the burning pile of rubble that once was Stalingrad after the battle ended. Many residents would die from starvation and drinking polluted water. More civilians died in the battle of Stalingrad than the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.

Although Soviet officials had considered evacuating children and nonessential citizens before the battle. Joseph Stalin their leader, decided to refuse evacuation of Stalingrad's citizens across the Volga River. This he felt, would force his troops, especially the locally raised militia and Red Army soldiers to defend the city even more desperately.

Soviet Snipers Influence the Battle

Soviet snipers concealed themselves in heaps of rubble created during the battle for Stalingrad inflicting heavy casualties on German soldiers. The most successful Soviet sniper was Ivan Mikhailovich Sidorenko of the Soviet 1122nd rifle regiment, who made approximately 500 kills by the end of the war.

Vasiliy Grigor ' yevich Zaytsev was credited with 242 kills during the battle. Snipers from the Siberian 284th Rifle Division would decimate the German troops who occupied Stalingrad during the battle.

Vasily Zaytsev traveled a meandering path to the role of sniper. Born in 1915, he grew up in the Chelyabinsk region east of the Ural Mountains, in Western Siberia. Zaytsev got his first rifle at the age of twelve. But only his grandfather saw the small boy as a born hunter, inviting the youngster along to stalk goats and wolves. In February 1937, at the age of 22, he enlisted in the Soviet Navy, and was assigned as a petty officer in the 4th Submarine Brigade at the Pacific port of Vladivostok. Zaytsev was a quartermaster when word came in August 1942 that the Germans were advancing on Stalingrad.

A key center for industry and weapons production, Stalingrad extended like a ribbon 25 miles along the Volga's west bank. The factory district in the north included the Red October Steelworks, which produced 10% of Soviet steel, and the Dzerzhinsky tractor plant, which was a major producer of T-34 tanks in the Soviet Union.

Stalingrad was a city that had been reborn during the prewar Soviet industrialization campaign. In 1930 Stalingrad had around 150,000 residents, by the time war broke out, the population of the city had swelled to over 850,000 citizens, not including more than 100,000 refugees who were fleeing the advancing German war machine.

Four thousand miles to the east in Vladivostok, men of the 4th Submarine Brigade, which included Zaytsev, volunteered to join in the epic struggle at Stalingrad. On the way to Stalingrad Zaytsev pleaded to be a rifleman, his platoon leader consented to his request. The train carrying Zaytsev's platoon stopped in Burkovka, 10 miles east of Stalingrad, from the village the soldiers marched to the River Volga's east bank.

Across the river the entire city of Stalingrad appeared to be on fire as a thick cloud of black smoke hovered over the city. Overhead, German pilots were shooting down one Soviet plane after another. That night Zaytsev's division, the 284th Rifle Division, was ferried across the Volga into the flaming ruins. His division was sent immediately into the battle for Mamayev Hill, the most hotly contested patch of Stalingrad. For the next four months, both sides would battle for control of the hill.

During the battle for Mamayev Hill, an enemy bunker protected by snipers was holding up Soviet attacks. A superior ordered Zaytsev into the battle, telling him to take two snipers. As they neared the location of the bunker, shots suddenly rang out forcing the trio on their stomachs crawling back to their own lines.

Zaytsev and his comrades would attempt to approach the bunker for the next five hours with similar results. Their attempts gradually revealed the enemy sniper to be located somewhere far on the back side of the bunker. Grabbing a trench periscope, Zaytsev scanned the battlefield as the Soviet infantry charged the bunker, which was putting up a lethal wall of machine-gun fire.

The German sniper, perhaps assuming he had killed Zaytsev and his comrades rose up into view. Zaytsev immediately shot and killed the sniper. Zaytsev then continued on and went for the machine-gunners in the bunker, suppressing their automatic fire.

Afterward, the Soviet infantry took the bunker without losses. So began the legend of Vasily Zaytsev, by late February 1943, he was at the Kremlin accepting the Hero of the Soviet Union, his nation's highest honor.

In the course of the battle for Stalingrad, Soviet snipers would kill over 10,000 German soldiers, but the numbers don't show the psychological impact they had on the battlefield. German veterans of Stalingrad described shots coming from behind stumps, from out of pipes, and from beneath the corpses of fallen soldiers.

With no end in sight, the German Army began transferring heavy artillery to Stalingrad, in an effort to pound the Soviet forces into submission. Dora was the name of a German 80cm railway gun used in the battle for Stalingrad. It was developed in the late 1930s by Krupp as siege artillery to destroy the main forts of the French Maginot Line, the strongest fortifications in existence.

The fully assembled gun weighed nearly 1,350 tons and could fire shells weighing seven tons to a range of 29 miles. It was the largest caliber rifled weapon ever used in combat, the heaviest mobile artillery piece ever built-in terms of overall weight and fired the heaviest shells of any artillery piece in the Second World War. It was destroyed near the end of the war to avoid capture by the Red Army.

The Battle for Mamayev Kurgan

When forces of the German Sixth Army launched their attack on the city center of Stalingrad, on September 13, 1942, Mamayev Kurgan was the scene of particularly fierce fighting. Control of the hill became vitally important as it offered a commanding view over the entire city of Stalingrad. Soviet troops, workers, old men, and the women and children were at work preparing strong defensive lines on the slopes of Mamayev Kurgan containing trenches, barbed wire, and minefields reminiscent of the Western Front during the First World War.

On the morning of September 10, 1942, on Mamayev Kurgan activity was feverish. Men and women dug tank traps across all roads leading into Stalingrad from the west. Buildings on the outside of town were occupied and organized for all-round defense.

Gullies and the Tsarista River that sliced through Stalingrad to the Volga were mined. The Tsarista, like Tsaritsyn as the city was called before it became Stalingrad in 1925, was named not for the tsars but by ancient Tartars who called it the Yellow River as they did the old site of Stalingrad which they named Yellow Island.

As it flowed to the Volga the Tsarista divides old or lower Stalingrad from the new or upper part of town. There was movement everywhere. Surprisingly, the not-a-step-back directive had something of a calming effect upon Stalingrad's population. Veterans and recruits were told and believed that what was coming was the decisive struggle, which would determine whether the war would be won or lost.

On the following day, General Vasily Chuikov was given command of the 62nd Army the main force defending Stalingrad, he would become the army's fourth commander in two months. He was given command of the defense of Stalingrad just as the battle reached its most spectacular stage.

Chuikov allegedly declared, "We shall hold the city or die here." Soon afterward the assault on the city would begin sending shock waves of explosions along the crater-pitted top of Mamayev Kurgan.

German shells and bombs churned the Kurgan, a major objective. Everywhere throughout the city Red Army commanders called for help. The only answer was to stand to the end. German forces were able to capture the hill only after taking very heavy casualties. Much of the fighting was at close quarters, with bayonets and hand grenades.

Once they captured the hill, they started firing on the city center of Stalingrad, as well as the main railway station under the hill. That same day, the Soviet 13th Guards Rifle Division arrived in the city from the eastern shores of the Volga River under heavy German artillery fire.

The division's 10,000 men immediately were rushed into the battle for Mamayev Kurgan. On September 16, 1942, they recaptured the hill and kept fighting toward the railway station, before the day ended most all of them had been killed. Soviet forces would hold onto the slopes of Mamayev Kurgan until the German forces surrendered control of the city in February 1943.

Operation Uranus

The Red Army counter-attacks and encircles the Sixth Army at Stalingrad November 19-23 1942.

The Red Army counter-attacks and encircles the Sixth Army at Stalingrad November 19-23 1942.

Operation Uranus

The crippling blow fell on the Germans on November 19, 1942, when the Red Army unleashed a massive counterattack of more than a million fresh troops and 900 tanks in a large pincer movement to surround Stalingrad, code named Operation Uranus.

On November 23,1942, Russian spearheads met at Kalach closing the trap around the Sixth Army sealing the fate of more than 300,000 German troops left fighting in Stalingrad. One reason for the Red Army success was that some attacks fell on areas held by Germany's allies. Due to a lack of resources Hitler's generals had used their allies' armies to hold the flanks around Stalingrad. German troops were used as the tip of the spear in the attack on Stalingrad.

The Third and Fourth Rumanian Armies and the Italian Eight Army were powerful on paper but lacked the fighting spirit and equipment of German soldiers. Soon they were overwhelmed by the Red Army's tidal wave of tanks and troops and were in full retreat. Under front-line pressure few of Germany's allies could match the fighting qualities of German troops. This lack of support was an important factor in sealing the destiny of the Sixth Army.