The Battle of Stalingrad was a brutal military campaign between Russian forces and those of Nazi Germany and the Axis powers during World War II. The battle is infamous as one of the largest, longest and bloodiest engagements in modern warfare: From August 1942 through February 1943, more than two million troops fought in close quarters – and nearly two million people were killed or injured in the fighting, including tens of thousands of Russian civilians. But the Battle of Stalingrad (one of Russia’s important industrial cities) ultimately turned the tide of World War II in favor of the Allied forces.
Prelude to the Battle of Stalingrad
In the middle of World War II – having captured territory in much of present-day Ukraine and Belarus in the spring on 1942 – Germany’s Wehrmacht forces decided to mount an offensive on southern Russia in the summer of that year.
Under the leadership of ruthless head of state Joseph Stalin, Soviet forces had already successfully rebuffed a German attack on the western part of the country – one that had the ultimate goal of taking Moscow – during the winter of 1941-42. However, Stalin’s Red Army had suffered significant losses in the fighting, both in terms of manpower and weaponry.
Stalin and his generals, including future Soviet Union leader Nikita Khrushchev, fully expected another Nazi attack to be aimed at Moscow. However, Hitler and the Wehrmacht had other ideas.
They set their sights on Stalingrad, because the city served as an industrial center in Russia, producing, among other important goods, artillery for the country’s troops. The Volga River, which runs through the city, was also an important shipping route connecting the western part of the country with its distant eastern regions.
Ultimately, Adolf Hitler wanted the Wehrmacht to occupy Stalingrad, seeing its value for propaganda purposes, given that it bore Stalin’s name. For similar reasons, the Russians felt a special need to protect it.
When Hitler proclaimed that upon taking Stalingrad all of the city’s male residents would be killed and its women deported, the stage was set for a bloody, hard-fought battle. Stalin ordered all Russians strong enough to hold a rifle to take up arms in defense of the city.
The 6th Army of the Wehrmacht began their assault on August 23, 1942.
Battle of Stalingrad Begins
Russian forces were initially able to slow the German Wehrmacht’s advances during a series of brutal skirmishes just north of Stalingrad. Stalin’s forces lost more than 200,000 men, but they successfully held off German soldiers.
With a firm understanding of Hitler’s plans, the Russians had already shipped much of the stores of grain and cattle out of Stalingrad. However, the city’s 400,000-plus residents were not evacuated, as the Russian leadership believed their presence would inspire troops.
Within a few days of launching its attack, Germany’s Luftwaffe air force had rendered the Volga River impassable to shipping and had sunk several Russian commercial vessels in the process. From late August through the end of the assault, the Luftwaffe conducted dozens of air strikes on the city.
The number of civilian casualties is unknown. However, it’s believed that tens of thousands were killed, and that tens of thousands more were captured and forced into slave labor in camps in Germany.
By September, the Luftwaffe essentially had control of the skies over Stalingrad, and the Russians were getting desperate. Workers in the city not involved in war-related weapons production were soon asked to take up fighting, often without firearms of their own. Women were enlisted to dig trenches at the front lines.
And yet, the Russians continued to suffer heavy losses. By the fall of 1942, Stalingrad was in ruins.
‘Not a Step Back!’
Despite heavy casualties and the pounding delivered by the Luftwaffe, Stalin instructed his forces in the city to not retreat, famously decreeing in Order No. 227: “Not a step back!” Those who surrendered would be subject to a trial by military tribunal and face possible execution.
With fewer than 20,000 troops in the city and less than 100 tanks, Stalin’s generals finally began sending reinforcements into the city and surrounding areas. Fighting raged in the streets of Stalingrad, with both sides using snipers poised on the roofs of the city’s buildings.
Russian generals Georgy Zhukov and Aleksandr Vasilevsky organized Russian troops in the mountains to the north and west of the city. From there, they launched a counterattack, famously known as Operation Uranus.
Although they again sustained significant losses, Russian forces were able to form what in essence was a defensive ring around the city by late November 1942, trapping the nearly 300,000 German and Axis troops in the 6th Army. This effort became the subject of a propaganda film produced after the war, The Battle of Stalingrad.
With the Russian blockade limiting access to supplies, German forces trapped in Stalingrad slowly starved. The Russians would seize upon the resulting weakness during the cold, harsh winter months that followed.
Russian Winter Sets In
As Russia’s brutal winter began, Soviet generals knew the Germans would be at a disadvantage, fighting in conditions to which they weren’t accustomed. They began consolidating their positions around Stalingrad, choking off the German forces from vital supplies and essentially surrounding them in an ever-tightening noose.
Thanks to Russian gains in nearby fighting, including in Rostov-on-Don, 250 miles from Stalingrad, the Axis forces – mostly Germans and Italians – were stretched thin. Through Operation Little Saturn, the Russians began to break the lines of mostly Italian forces to the west of the city.
At this point, German generals abandoned all efforts to relieve their beleaguered forces trapped in Stalingrad. Still, Hitler refused to surrender even as his men slowly starved and ran out of ammunition.
Battle of Stalingrad Ends
By February 1943, Russian troops had retaken Stalingrad and captured nearly 100,000 German soldiers, though pockets of resistance continued to fight in the city until early March. Most of the captured soldiers died in Russian prison camps, either as a result of disease or starvation.
The loss at Stalingrad was the first failure of the war to be publicly acknowledged by Hitler. It put Hitler and the Axis powers on the defensive, and boosted Russian confidence as it continued to do battle on the Eastern Front in World War II.
In the end, many historians believe the Battle at Stalingrad marked a major turning point in the conflict. It was the beginning of the march toward victory for the Allied forces of Russia, Britain, France and the United States.
In February 2018, Russians gathered in what is now known as Volgograd to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the conclusion of the battle that had ravaged their city.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. “75th Anniversary Of Victory In The Battle Of Stalingrad.” rferl.org.
Barnes, T. (2018). “Russians take to streets in their thousands to mark 75 years since Battle of Stalingrad. Independent.co.uk.
BBC World Service: Witness. “The battle of Stalingrad.” BBC.co.uk.