On 31 January 1943 Red Army soldiers captured Field Marshal Paulus of the German Sixth Army at his headquarters in the centre of Stalingrad. It symbolized the end of German resistance in the city. Over 90,000 Wehrmacht soldiers were taken prisoner, and more than 90% of them would die in Soviet captivity. It was one of the most significant defeats ever suffered by the Nazi state.
How could such a disaster for the Germans have ever occurred? Especially since only a few months before, in the summer of 1942, the German advance across the southern steppes of Russia had seemed to be going so well. In Operation Blue, launched on 28 June 1942, the Germans had moved forward across almost the whole of their southern front, with the 1st Panzer Army in particular making good progress south of Kharkov, taking advantage of the Soviets’ recent disastrous offensive in that area. But, anxious to make even more rapid gains, Hitler changed the objectives of the offensive shortly after it had begun.
‘It was almost like the Tolstoy short story of ‘how much land does a man need’, says Antony Beevor. ‘Hitler kept on increasing the scope of the campaign; he started off by saying on the 1st of June that if we don’t capture the oil fields in the Caucasus I might as well close the war – so for him the vital objective was the Caucasus. 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 Caucasus while Army Group B, which was principally the Sixth 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 he [Hilter] realised that the campaign in the Caucasus was simply running out of steam. The size and the scope of the whole landscape was so huge, and he simply did not have enough men to follow it through, and resistance was becoming stronger from the Soviet armies. So Stalingrad, which had never featured really on the operational plan for Operation Blue, suddenly became an important victory.’
The Germans reached the Volga, the giant river that they saw as the eastern border of their Empire, by mid-summer. Then, on 23 August, they launched the most powerful single bombing raid yet seen on the Eastern Front on Stalingrad, a city which spread out like a ribbon along the Volga’s western bank.
‘He [Hitler] was not achieving what he wanted from the Caucasus,’ says Antony Beevor, ‘and so the Sixth 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 the great disaster in war when a commander becomes obsessed with a particular objective and he loses sight of the wider picture.’
As the Sixth Army pushed forward in an attempt to capture Stalingrad, Hitler demanded greater progress in the south. Operation Blue seemed to be stalling and Hitler was furious – particularly with the difficulties faced by Field Marshal List’s Army Group A, fighting in the Caucasus. The German leader was so angry that on 9 September he removed List from command and took over command of Army Group A personally. Hitler had clearly forgotten that the great victories in France in 1940, and in the early days of Operation Barbarossa in 1941, had been won by allowing his generals to trust their own judgment on the battlefield. And, paradoxically, just as Hitler demanded that his generals sacrifice their initiative, Stalin was starting to trust his own commanders more – a change in attitude that would bring, in a few months’ time, a great victory for the Red Army with Operation Uranus and the encirclement of the German Sixth Army in Stalingrad.
By September 1942, a brutal hand-to-hand battle was being waged inside Stalingrad. As they fought from house to house and street to street, the Germans found that all of the tactical advantages they had possessed in fighting across the steppes were lost in the close confines of the city. Tanks and the mechanized strategy of Blitzkrieg counted for nothing here. Red Army soldiers of the 62nd Army, under the command of Vasily Chuikov – a Soviet commander famous for his ruthlessness – tackled the Germans in encounters that were savage beyond belief. ‘We had knives,’ says Suren Mirzoyan, one of the Red Army soldiers who fought the Germans at close quarters. ‘Do you know when you press a ripe tomato, juice comes out? I stabbed him [a German soldier] with a knife and everything around was in blood. I felt only one thing – kill, kill. A beast… If you were not strong enough physically, the Germans would have swallowed you. Each metre of Stalingrad meant possible death. Death was in our pockets. Death was always on our steps.’
‘Hand to hand combat, positional warfare’ says Joachim Stempel, a German officer with the Sixth Army at Stalingrad, ‘I don’t want to say it was entirely foreign, but they were elements of our training which were very much on the fringe. We were an offensive army, trained for attack, and we were able to defend ourselves, of course, but we didn’t have the experience of the Russian soldiers, whose training, whose nature and whose whole psyche of being tied to their native soil were all thrown into the mix. We didn’t have that, and I think that we had more casualties because we weren’t as close to nature as the Russians.’
With the launch of Operation Uranus – the Soviet offensive aimed at encircling the Sixth Army – in November 1942 and the subsequent failure of the German relief effort, the soldiers of the Sixth Army knew they were doomed. After a miserable Christmas and New Year – during which they were reduced to eating their own horses – the Germans in Stalingrad resigned themselves to their inevitable fate.
Hitler, though, made one last gesture in an attempt to show that the sacrifice of the Sixth Army at Stalingrad had almost a kind of epic, Wagnerian quality. On 30 January 1943, with the Red Army just metres away from German headquarters at the Univermag store in the centre of Stalingrad, Hitler made General Paulus, the commander of the Sixth Army, into a Field Marshal. The message to Paulus was clear. Since no German Field Marshal had ever allowed himself to be captured, Hitler expected Paulus to commit suicide. But Paulus didn’t choose to kill himself, and was captured alive the next day.
The minutes of Hitler’s situation conference, of 1 February, still exist, and demonstrate the anger and incomprehension the Fuehrer felt. ‘What hurts me so much,’ said Hitler, ‘is that the heroism of so many soldiers is cancelled out by one single characterless weakling… What is ‘life’?... the individual must die anyway. It is the nation which lives on after the individual…’i
But with the defeat at Stalingrad, it seemed less likely than ever that the ‘nation’ created by Hitler would live on much longer; because now the Germans would begin their slow retreat back – all the way to Berlin.
i Quoted in General Walter Warlimont, Inside Hitler’s Headquarters, 1939-45, Presido Press, 1964, pp. 303-6
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