02 February 2007

On this date in 1943

.....the deadliest battle in human history ended.

The siege of Stalingrad had lasted five months. After the initial German Blitzkrieg invasion of the Soviet Union in June of 1941 failed to bring victory within a few months as Hitler had hoped, and the German Army had already endured its first Russian winter without managing to capture Moscow or Leningrad, the invaders changed their aim southeastward, toward Stalingrad on the Volga river. Capturing Stalingrad would have cut off access from European Russia to the Soviet oilfields in the Caucasus area, while giving the Germans access to those same oilfields and potentially opening the way for a German invasion of the Middle East. The Germans and their Axis allies (mostly Romanians, Italians, and Hungarians) overran most of the city in September of 1942, reaching the Volga but never managing to cross it.

In doing so, they had pushed hundreds of miles east of their main front line, which ran from the Sea of Azov to Leningrad. This created a huge salient which turned out to be strategically vulnerable. The Soviet counterattack in late November, designated Operation Uranus, cut off the salient and surrounded the German Sixth Army in Stalingrad. After this, it was a matter of tightening the noose, as the Germans in Stalingrad could only receive supplies by air, which became increasingly difficult. By January the German troops were starving, lice-infested, and suffering almost as much from the sub-zero cold as from enemy action. The eventual surrender, against Hitler's direct orders, was considered the worst military disaster in German history up to that point.

There were many reasons for the Germans' defeat. Hitler consistently underestimated the Soviets (as he also did with the US and Britain). Soviet equipment and its maintenance were better adapted to the extreme cold of the Russian winter than was that of the invaders. The knowledge that the Nazis' plans for Russia included genocide, enslavement of survivors, and extinction of the Russians as a nation, stiffened the determination to resist, even in people who would never have fought willingly for Stalin's ghastly regime. The Soviets developed innovative forms of urban guerrilla warfare for which the Germans were unprepared. The Soviet willingness to use women in combat (something which startled the Germans) increased the number of soldiers available. Contrary to widespread belief in the West, military aid to the Soviet Union from the West was not a major factor -- the Soviets considered Western equipment inferior to what they themselves could produce. Food aid, however, did make a big difference.

After Stalingrad, more than two years of bloody struggle still lay ahead before the capture of Berlin and the end of the war. One could argue that the decisive battle of the European theater was not Stalingrad but Kursk, five months later. However, Stalingrad broke the Germans' aura of invincibility and inevitable victory, and represented the first really large recovery of territory from the invaders.

Estimates of the total death toll from the battle of Stalingrad vary over a surprisingly wide range. The official Soviet estimate of the number of Soviet soldiers killed is 1,100,000, though estimates in the range of 400,000 to 500,000 are more commonly found elsewhere. The Soviets recovered 250,000 bodies of German and other Axis troops after the battle, and estimates of total German/Axis deaths range as high as 400,000. The Soviets took over 100,000 Axis prisoners, few of whom survived to return to their own countries. In any event, it is clear that the death toll from this one battle exceeded -- probably far exceeded -- that of the entire American Civil War.

Main source: Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege 1942-1943, by Antony Beevor.

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Blogger mendip said...

To echo what you said in the second to last paragraph, amongst old wargamers the expression used to be that Stalingrad assured that the Germans wouldn't win WWII, and Kursk assured that they'd lose it.

02 February, 2007 04:25  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A little reported factor in the War on the Eastern Front is the harsh discipline imposed on the Soviet soldier. According to NO SIMPLE VICTORY by Norman Davies (page 99), the Soviet Army "was held together by discipline of unimaginable ferocity (198,000 were shot by the NKVD in 1941-42 alone" and that number does not include most of what went on in Stalingrad.

03 February, 2008 09:55  

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