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LAURENCE REES: Why do you think the major German advance in 1942 failed at Stalingrad?

ANTONY BEEVOR: For a start it was almost like the Tolstoy short story of 'how much land does a man need?' Hitler kept on increasing the scope of the campaign, he started off by saying on the 1st of June 1942 that ‘if we don’t capture the oil fields in the Caucuses I might as well close the war’, so for him the vital objective was the Caucuses. But then he became distracted, he tried to change the plan halfway through and wanted the two parts of the operation which were going to be run in sequence to take place together, and as a result they did not have sufficient strength for all of their objectives. The whole of Army Group A was to capture the whole of the Caucuses while Army Group B, which was principally the 6th Army under General Paulus, was to advance towards Stalingrad. Not, to begin with, to capture it, but instead to destroy the weapons factories and everything like that, and also secure that particular flank. Later,when he realised that the campaign in the Caucuses was simply running out of steam, that the size and the scope of the whole landscape was so huge that he simply did not have enough men to follow it through and resistance was becoming stronger from the Soviet armies, Stalingrad, which had never featured really on the operational plan for Operation Blue, suddenly became an ersatz victory. He was not achieving what he wanted from the Caucuses and so the 6th Army was ordered to capture Stalingrad, and this was where his obsession with the city that bore Stalin’s name became a trap. It was the bait, and it’s always a great disaster in war when a commander becomes obsessed with a particular objective and he loses sight of the wider picture.

LAURENCE REES: How big a mistake was Hitler's decision to split his forces like that?

ANTONY BEEVOR: It was a major mistake in the sense that he simply could not achieve his objectives in the Caucuses as a result. He didn’t need such a large screening force on that particular flank along the Volga, and the idea that they could then sweep all the way down to Astrakhan, without having really established strength there, was widely optimistic. But above all it came to the point that the Allied armies, Hungarian, two Romanian armies and the Italian eighth army were totally ill equipped and untrained to resist serious Soviet attacks.

LAURENCE REES: So even if Hilter hadn’t made the decision to split his forces, this was going to end badly?

ANTONY BEEVOR: It was almost certainly going to end badly simply because of the huge spaces involved, and the logistical problems of resupplying all of these particular armies. But his major mistake was completely underestimating the Red Army. When he informed Field Marshal List in the Caucuses that his new objectives were to take the whole of the eastern seaboard of the Black Sea and the Caucuses with just 2 armies, List could hardly believe the order when he received it, and he thought Hitler must have secret intelligence which he know nothing of which confirmed that the Red Army had as good as collapsed. But they weren’t actually seeing any evidence of this.

LAURENCE REES: And yet in the early days, Operation Blue was successful because the Germans were capturing enormous amounts of territory. But were they partly successful because the Russian technique was simply not to fight them?

ANTONY BEEVOR: Well, Russian technique had changed in two ways. The first part of Operation Blue was an attack on Voronezh, and they found that the Soviets were actually able to defend Voronezh with desperate ferocity and courage, and for the first time one saw them using cities as major defensive positions, and that gave them a huge advantage. The great advantage of mechanisation and aerial power, which the Germans had, tended to be lost in city fighting; and the other change was that Stalin had at last given permission to his commanders to pull back to avoid encirclement. There’s a slight paradox, because he’d just issued Order No.272 saying that anybody who retreated was to be executed, but at the same time he allowed retreat, and that made all the difference in avoiding these encirclements which had happened the year before.

LAURENCE REES: And there was another change wasn't there? That Stalin now give his military commanders more freedom to use their initiative?

ANTONY BEEVOR: Well, Stalin was much more of a realist than Hitler. What’s interesting is that Stalin had been a total disaster in 1941, refusing to believe the intelligence and the warnings of Operation Barbarossa. At the beginning of Operation Blue one has to remember that he was convinced that the attack was still going to come towards Moscow. When, for example, German orders were captured by the Russians Stalin refused to believe he had the German plans in front of him. They were actually put on his desk and he just chucked them away and refused to acknowledge them. But I think that the point was that Stalin had realised what mistakes he’d made. Hitler refused to acknowledge any mistakes, but Stalin realised the mistakes he’d made and that’s when he started to listen to his generals, and that is why Stalingrad was not just a turning point psychologically in the war, it was a real turning point in the handling of Soviet Armies. It was also a turning point in the confidence of Soviet generals being able to face up to Stalin a little bit more, and also have less fear of the NKVD, and I think that this is a very important thing. Beria used to threaten generals in the crudest way possible, but generals were now realising that in fact they were starting to get more of a whip hand because of the desperate situation.

LAURENCE REES: Would you say the battle for Stalingrad was a close run thing?

ANTONY BEEVOR: It was a very close run battle for the city, but even if the Germans had occupied the whole of the west bank of the Volga at Stalingrad that still wouldn’t have signified a major victory in German terms, apart from having reached the symbolic Astrakhan/Archangel line - which Hitler had always defined as his ultimate objective. A lot of the German troops there thought: ‘We’ve made it! Here we are on the Volga! It’s the end of the war!’ But they didn’t realise that there was a huge steppe beyond and the Russians could have gone on retreating to the Urals if necessary. The point about Stalingrad really was that it was the perfect trap, and by focusing all of the efforts of the 6th Army there it allowed the weak flanks manned by the two Romanian Armies on either side of the 6th Army to be the perfect objectives for an encirclement operation, which the Germans never believed the Red Army was capable of mounting.