It is unique for a military historian to pinpoint a single battle that encapsulates the essence of an entire campaign; this is especially the case with the Eastern Front during World War Two. The fighting on the Eastern Front was some of the hardest in the history of warfare, as the casualty figures show. Soldiers on both sides endured some of the worst conditions imaginable, fighting not only the enemy but also the environment and the incompetence of their own leaders. Yet this campaign is summed up by a single battle, fought at a place neither side thought they would have to reach: Stalingrad.
Before the Battle
In spring 1942, the strategic initiative on the Eastern Front was still firmly held by the Germans. Even though their mighty Panzer divisions had faltered at the gates of Moscow and had been pushed back during the devastating Russian winter, they had survived and had halted another Russian offensive in the south of the country. Spring had arrived, bringing warmer weather and fighting conditions that suited the German Army. Now they were ready to unleash their might against the supposedly still-shattered Soviet forces, finally crushing their resistance and ending the war in 1942.
To finish the Soviet Union off, and to provide fresh resources for the German war effort, Hitler decided to shift the strategic emphases away from Moscow and towards the south and the oil-rich Caucasus. To protect the flank of this push, the city of Stalingrad needed to be taken during the initial phase of the campaign, before the drive south for the oil fields. Even though this city, bearing the name of Stalin himself, was strategically positioned on a bend of the Volga river and was a centre of arms manufacture, this was not the main or even a secondary target of the campaign. The task of taking Stalingrad was given to the German Sixth Army, supported by armoured forces from other army formations.
The Soviet armed forces were in a much better state than they had been the previous year but were still in a precarious situation. After recovering from the initial shock of the invasion, they had begun to make good the huge losses they had endured in the battles around Kiev and Moscow. The training and quality of these replacements still didn't bring them anywhere near the standard of the equivalent German soldier, but their motivation and morale was increasing day by day. The commanding officers were gaining good experience and trust from their political masters, and there was an element of professionalism finally being instilled in them. What was even more important was that the Soviet war industry was starting to recover from the forced migration across the Urals. It was beginning to churn out large amounts of quality equipment, such as the soon to be famous T-34 medium tank. However, the Soviets were in no fit shape to mount an effective offensive in 1942, especially after disastrous campaigns earlier that year. Therefore their military plan for that summer was to continue to buy time with space, and maintain a coherent retreat until they had amassed the forces to finally drive the Germans from their country.
The Initial Drive
Even though everyone knew a German offensive was imminent, the Soviets were surprised when the offensive began in the south. This is because they had expected the Germans to continue the drive for the capital of Moscow. Tactically, this battle seemed to be an exact copy of the previous campaigns on the Eastern Front. The German Panzer divisions pushed forward hard and fast, and advanced deep into the Soviet lines. The infantry divisions followed on behind, mopping up what little resistance remained. But immediately there was a slight difference to this battle, a difference that would lead to one of the biggest misconceptions that was made during the war. Instead of the German pincers swinging around and trapping large numbers of Russian prisoners, the Soviet army was retreating in good order, always just ahead of any German trap. This led Hitler himself to assume that he was correct in believing that the Russian military was on its last legs and just needed one more big push to end it all. It was inconceivable to Hitler that the Soviet military had learned from previous mistakes and had gained experience in buying time with space. So only a short amount of time after the battle had begun, and only after the Sixth army had reached the outskirts of Stalingrad, Hitler ordered the armoured elements of the army in the south to begin the drive for Russian oil.
The Gates of Stalingrad
Despite being stripped of its armoured elements, the Sixth Army still had to capture the whole of the city. So it began the slow process of moving through the built up areas, street by street, and clearing out all resistance. However, to the surprise to the German high command, the Soviet forces began to stand up and fight for every scrap of land in the city. This change in orders had come from Stalin himself, who either did not want the city named after him to fall under the control of the Nazi invader or recognised an opportunity to draw the Germans into a trap. The small numbers of armoured elements the Germans had could not be brought to bear in the tight confines of a city, and so the conflict was reduced to an infantry battle; one where the front line was at best a street, and at worst little more than rooms or even floors of buildings. Even the sewers and basements were fought over bitterly.
The toughest fighting could be found around important sites and buildings, a mythical status now grew about them. These buildings included the towering Grain Store and the Red October Tractor Factory. At the height of the fighting, the tanks that were being built in the factory rolled straight out and into the thick of action, unpainted and with the factory workers themselves manning the tanks. Soon, the battle for the city took on a life of its own, drawing the attention of both Hitler, obsessed with its capture and Stalin, obsessed with its defence. Yet it was Hitler who became too drawn in, which led him to ignore the coming of colder weather and the obvious build-up of the Russian reserves.
As another Russian winter approached, Germans found themselves in control of nine-tenths of Stalingrad, while the Russians held a strip of land on the western bank of the Volga. The German soldiers could almost see the light at the end of the tunnel. Yet, what the Germans did not know was that the Russians had already begun the build-up of their forces for a counter-offensive. The Soviet war industry was now going at full steam and producing vast amounts of arms and equipment, but instead of sending these resources straight into the battle for Stalingrad, the Soviet high command sent only enough to maintain the foothold on the western bank.
The rest of the forces were amassing on either side of the Germans inside Stalingrad, with the intention of breaking through and trapping the German Sixth Army inside the city. Opposite these forces, protecting the German flanks, was a Romanian army to the north and a Bulgarian army to the south. These were not third-rate forces, as the Germans claimed after the battle, but they were not as good as the German forces and lacked any real ability to defend against armoured forces. The Russians knew this and planned to smash through these weaker forces with their new tanks.
The Russian Counter
The Russians unleashed their counter-offensive just as the snows began to fall, using the now hardened ground to help their armoured fists break through the shocked Axis forces. The Germans were taken completely by surprise, and after a short time the two Soviet drives had met up and the Sixth Army were surrounded in Stalingrad. The German army were far from totally trapped; in fact, if the Sixth Army had been ordered to break out west, the Russian army would have had difficulty in stopping them. Yet it was at this time that Hitler made another mistake, dooming the thousands of German soldiers inside the city. Listening to the ever boastful Goering, and still obsessed with Stalingrad's capture, he ordered the Sixth Army to continue fighting for the city while they were re-supplied by the planes of Goering's Luftwaffe.
This was not a totally unreasonable plan. During the previous year the Luftwaffe had successfully maintained an air bridge to trapped German forces after another Soviet counter-offensive. The problem with this assumption is that the circumstances surrounded these situations were slightly different. The Luftwaffe had previously re-supplied a brigade-sized force, over a short distance during good weather, and allowed the trapped forces to be rescued by ground forces. Now they had to re-supply an army group, over a longer distance, during the dead of a Russian winter. The German aircrews were given an almost impossible task, and during the months that followed they never once met the daily quotas of supplies needed to keep the soldiers alive, let alone fighting.
An Army Besieged
There was a saying among the soldiers of the Sixth Army that they no longer feared death, as hell could not be any worse they what they were enduring in Stalingrad. In the months that followed the encirclement, it's easy to understand why. With the trapped German forces safely secured in Stalingrad, the Soviets were not just content to let them slowly starve to death. They continued the offensive west, as they simultaneously started to drive into the city and begin its liberation. So with the terrible fighting of the previous autumn returning, the Russian winter and the continued reduction in supplies, the German high command began begging Hitler to give permission for the Sixth Army to break out. However, Hitler refused to listen to his generals, and instead ordered some of the German armoured forces north, away from the oil fields in order to link up with the trapped German army. Initially, this appeared to work, especially if the Sixth Army had then been ordered to break out when the German Panzers had stalled in their attack. But yet again, Hitler would not listen to generals and refused to give an inch of the city back the to Soviets.
With the momentum of this attack completely stalled some distance from the besieged Sixth Army, all hope for the German soldiers in Stalingrad was extinguished. The final nail in the coffin was when two of the three German-controlled airfields in Stalingrad fell to the Soviets. This finally ended all pretence of the air re-supply operation being effective. The soldiers were now surviving on a few scraps of black bread with some butter, with perhaps a very rare piece of meat or cheese - far below the rations required for survival throughout a bitter winter. The German doctors then began to notice men dying of a strange illness that none of them had seen before; it turned out to be malnutrrition. Yet even after all of this, the fighting and the torment continued, and the soldiers were ordered to fight to the bitter end. The commander of the Sixth Army, General Von Paulus, was even made a Field Marshal by Hitler, and reminded that no German Field Marshal had ever been captured alive. However, their sacrifice may not have been completely in vain, since there was a military justification for the city holding out. The German forces that had been ordered south of the city, to the oil fields, had now been ordered to retreat before they were cut off. The troops in Stalingrad therefore pinned down the Soviets in order to prevent this.
Yet however noble their sacrifice or important their struggle, no army could endure the conditions suffered by the men of Stalingrad for long. By the time the German public heard a Christmas radio message from Stalingrad, the city had already fallen; the message was faked for propaganda purposes. Field Marshal Paulus surrendered at Stalingrad in order to save the lives of himself and his men. Still, perhaps they would have fought to the bitter end if he and the 600,000 captured men of the Sixth Army had known that only 5,000 of them would survive their capture and see Germany again after the war. This was the final ironic twist, bringing to a close the horrors of the battle for Stalingrad.
After the Battle
The 1942 summer offensive was the high watermark for the German military forces on the Eastern Front. With the capture of the strategically positioned Stalingrad and the oil rich lands to the south, Hitler would have secured the resources needed to continue the war indefinitely. The Soviet Union would have been in a highly weakened state after the fighting. This could have led them to sue for peace or more likely, enter a bitter stalemate that lasted years and years. There was even the possibility of the German army pushing even further south, and with Rommel approaching the Suez Canal, the British presence in the Middle East and its oil would have been threatened. Yet this was probably unlikely, unless Turkey was convinced to join with the Axis forces. Some more imaginative types have even proposed the idea that if the Middle East had fallen under the grip of Nazi Germany, there was the possibility of a strategic link-up with the Japanese forces in India. That would have surely led to a combination of resources that would have guaranteed the final victory for the Axis powers and Japan.
This was not the last hard battle to be fought on the eastern front; in fact, the Soviet forces were again defeated not long after Stalingrad. With the freeing up of troops after the surrender, the Russian army had pushed further west for the city of Karkov, but were then soundly defeated at the gates of the city by the reorganised German army. It was also the German army, not the Soviet army, which launched the next offensive at the Battle of Kursk. It can additionally be argued that the Soviet military economy had already recovered enough that the Soviet Union could have continued to fight if they had lost Stalingrad, although they would have then needed access to Western oil.
However, with all the suffering and hardship that was endured by both sides at Stalingrad, it would be impossible to belittle its importance to the soldiers that fought there. The battle was a crucially important stage in the fighting on the Eastern front. It was clearly the German high watermark and the threat it posed to the Soviet strategic position was serious. Before the battle, the German forces were at the height of their powers, and had only been defeated by the harsh Russian winter. The Soviet forces, on the other hand, were disorganised, unmotivated and poorly-equipped. After the Battle, the German forces were still a force to be feared, but so were the Soviets. What had really changed was the mythology surrounding Hitler. He had now begun to take more control away from the generals, making the decisions himself. These decisions turned out to be disastrous, and Hitler would never have the full confidence of the German military, again.
The battle for Stalingrad was without a doubt the turning point on the Eastern Front, and coupled with the importance of that front, the turning point of the European conflict in World War Two.