Commentary: On the 12th July 1942 the Germans launched a massive offensive, called Operation Blue, over the rich farmland of Russia towards the vast steppes beyond. Hitler soon decided to split the offensive into two, with Army Group A heading for the oil of the Caucasus, and Army Group B moving towards the river Volga. And it was here at the city of Stalingrad that the Germans would fight one of the most brutal battles of the war. The German Sixth Army confronted the Soviet 62nd Army. In Stalingrad, soldiers of the Wehrmacht fought soldiers of the Red Army in houses, in sewers, in factories. It was not the kind of struggle the Germans were used to.
Words of Joachim Stempel (German soldier, Stalingrad): 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. The Russians had the advantage in trench warfare and hand to hand combat, there’s no doubt. As a tank unit, we were used to driving tanks.
Words of Suren Mirzoyan (Soviet soldier, Stalingrad): I felt only one thing: kill, kill. 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.
Commentary: And in the streets and sewers of Stalingrad the attitude of the soldiers of the Red Army began to change.
Professor Robert Citino: I think it had found a moment, and it had anchored itself in a couple of positions. And I’m thinking of Stalingrad and the Caucasus, where suddenly it realised, like Montgomery’s men of the Eighth Army had undoubtedly realised at El Alamein, like the Americans realise sometime as they were retreating from the Kassarine Pass, that we’re still here, we’re still alive. They’re flesh and blood like we are. They are not supermen, despite Nazi propaganda proclaiming them to be supermen. And suddenly those armies had anchored themselves. For the Soviet army, of course, it was in the street fight in Stalingrad and then the mountain fight in the Caucasus. And from that point, once the Germans had lost a kind of operational superiority, only at that point I think can we say that the resources, the superior resources of the Allies could begin to tell.
Commentary: Here at his dacha outside Moscow, Stalin considered how best to deal with the German offensive in Stalingrad.
Professor Robert Service: Stalin was a great learner. He wasn’t a very good forgiver, but he was a great learner when his personal interests were at stake. And he came to the conclusion that he was running the army too brutally, that he had to trust the professional judgment of his own high command.
Commentary: Trusting people did not come easily to Stalin, but he knew that if he didn’t start trusting his generals that he might lose the war.
Simon Sebag Montefiore: The single best decision was Stalin’s decision to listen to his generals. It was the moment when he turned to his generals and said, ‘There’s an opportunity at Stalingrad, isn’t there. What is it? Make a plan. Two of you make a plan.’ And the two generals - Vasilevsky and Zhukov - suddenly Stalin treated them totally differently. He shook their hands and he said, ‘Go away. Plan it.’
Commentary: This plan became Operation Uranus. One of the most ambitious offensives of the whole war. It was launched on the morning of the 19th November 1942.
Words of Ivan Golokolenko (Soviet soldier, Operation Uranus): We felt confident that we were capable of beating the enemy successfully. And this operation remained the most memorable, the brightest event. I remember I felt as if I had wings, I felt as if I was flying. Before that I used to feel depressed, but now it was as if I had opened my wings and I was capable of flying in the sky.
Commentary: The Soviet plan was sophisticated. Rather than advance directly on Stalingrad, two different attacks were made more than 90 miles away from the city, in an attempt to trap the Germans in a vast encirclement. And the plan worked brilliantly. This is a Soviet reconstruction of soldiers from the twin offensives finally meeting up at Kalach, west of Stalingrad.
Professor Robert Citino: There’s a complete failure of German intelligence to detect Soviet build up north of Stalingrad, east of the Volga, and also a transfer of Soviet forces from a defensive arc around Moscow into the southern sector. The Germans hadn’t really hit the main Soviet armies yet in Operation Blue, even when they had reached Stalingrad. And of course that’s going to come to light.
Commentary: Hitler, confronted with the news that soldiers of the Sixth Army were trapped in Stalingrad, refused to allow them to retreat.
Antony Beevor: He somehow believed that holding firm, you know if a German soldier holds firm he will always be right. And it was this whole notion of the triumph of the will, the idea that somehow moral decision and decisiveness would somehow overcome everything. And this is where one sees, if you like, Hitler’s military decision making deteriorating. His graph was going down, if you like, while Stalin’s in fact was going up.
Commentary: Goering, commander of the Luftwaffe, promised that he could supply the Sixth Army from the air. Hitler believed he could.
Antony Beevor: He was persuaded by Goering, in the most irresponsible way imaginable, that somehow the Luftwaffe would be capable of resupplying this army a quarter of a million strong. It was preposterous.
Commentary: A rescue attempt was launched through the snow, led by General Manstein, to try and relieve the Sixth Army. But that too came to nothing with Stalingrad still 30 miles away. By the end of December 1942 it was clear to everyone – the Sixth Army was doomed.
Words of Gerhard Munch (German soldier, Stalingrad): I believed in the leadership, the political and military leadership. That they would not let an army be encircled and be destroyed. But when nothing happened we sort of became critical and said, ‘It can’t be right to sacrifice an army. For who? And for what?’
Commentary: In January the Red Army mounted its final assault on Stalingrad itself. And in the process captured Field Marshal Paulus, the German commander who had refused to commit suicide as Hitler had wanted. At Stalingrad the Soviets took more than 90,000 Germans prisoner.
Words of Suren Mirzoyan (Soviet soldier, Stalingrad): I drank a toast and said, ‘After Stalingrad I am no longer afraid.’
Commentary: For the Soviets, Stalingrad was not just a physical victory, but a psychological one. Now, they would begin to push the Germans back.
The colour photo of Hitler and his generals is copyright bpk/Walter Frentz, and is used with permission.