On this day, the last of the German forces fighting at Stalingrad surrender, despite Hitler’s earlier declaration that “Surrender is out of the question. The troops will defend themselves to the last!”
The Battle of Stalingrad began in the summer of 1942, as German forces assaulted the city, a major industrial center and a potential strategic coup. But despite repeated attempts, the German 6th Army, under Friedrich von Paulus, and part of the 4th Panzer Army, under Ewald von Kleist, could not break past the adamantine defense by the Soviet 62nd Army, despite pushing the Soviets almost to the Volga River in mid-October and encircling Stalingrad.
Diminishing resources, partisan guerilla attacks, and the cruelty of the Russian winter began to take their toll on the Germans. On November 19, the Soviets made their move, launching a counteroffensive that began with a massive artillery bombardment of the German position. The Soviets then encircled the enemy, launching pincer movements from north and south simultaneously, even as the Germans encircled Stalingrad. The German position soon became untenable. Surrender was their only hope for survival. But Hitler wouldn’t hear of it: “The 6th Army will hold its positions to the last man and the last round.” Von Paulus held out until January 31, 1943, when he finally surrendered. Of more than 280,000 men under Paulus’ command, half were already dead or dying, about 35,000 had been evacuated from the front, and the remaining 91,000 were hauled off to Soviet POW camps.
Pockets of German belligerence continued until February 2. Hitler berated Von Paulus for not committing suicide. Von Paulus, captured by the Soviets, repaid Hitler by selling out to the Soviets, joining the National Committee for Free Germany, and urging German troops to surrender on other battlegrounds in the USSR.