The bloodiest and longest standoff of WWII – the Battle of Stalingrad – lasted 200 days and claimed 2 million lives. Russia is marking the 70th anniversary of this epic struggle, which became the turning point leading to overthrow of Nazi Germany.
The anniversary of the Soviet victory in what was the biggest land battle of WWII will be widely celebrated throughout Russia on Saturday. About 1,000 guests have arrived in Volgograd – formerly Stalingrad – to participate in the celebrations, including a military parade, battle reconstructions, fireworks and more.
In honor of the celebrations, the city is changing back to its old name of Stalingrad. In 1961, following the Soviet policy of deconstructing the cult of personality around Stalin, the city was renamed Volgograd.
On Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted a reception at the Kremlin to honor some 200 WWII veterans. “We have to do everything so the memory of the Battle of Stalingrad, the truth about it, will never fade away,” Putin said. “From this point – from the unbowed city – our forces began their march to Berlin.”
RT has collected the most essential historical facts about the Soviet Union’s military struggle in the Battle of Stalingrad.
– Both in the proportion of combatants that died, and in the total numbers of the dead, Stalingrad is one of the bloodiest battles in history. Around 2 million people are estimated to have perished in just six months.
– For the entire war 13 Russian soldiers died for every 10 Germans. Despite winning a decisive victory at Stalingrad, the ratio of losses was similar, with more than 1.1 million Soviets dying, compared to nearly 900,000 German troops.
Soldiers fighting from a trench, Stalingrad, 1942 (RIA Novosti / Zelma)
– While, Case Blue, the initial offensive of which the Battle of Stalingrad was a major part, was a strategically sound operation, designed to gain access to the Caucasus oil fields, and give the Germans the one resource they naturally lacked, the reasons for Adolf Hitler’s persistence in fighting the battle to the bitter losing end, are less clear. Some historians have speculated that the prestige of capturing the city bearing the Soviet leader’s name made the battle a matter of propaganda as much as tactics, while others say that both sides were simply prepared to endlessly sacrifice men in an earnest belief that victory in the finely-balanced battle could be theirs.
– The battle consisted of three distinct stages. First, during the late summer of 1942, was the relatively easy German approach to the city, supported by the Luftwaffe that reduced Stalingrad to a symbolic pile of rubble as much as a habitable place, using incendiary bombs that produced firestorms. The second, the brutal house-to-house combat, for which Stalingrad is perhaps best-known. And the third, starting from late November, a Soviet counter-offensive in which the exhausted and isolated German forces were encircled and destroyed.
– Stalingrad created the legend of Vasiliy Zaytsev, the sniper who had 225 verified kills just between November 10 and December 17 during the battle.
– While the brunt of the suffering was borne by the ordinary soldiers, the commanders were nearly under the same stress, knowing that a defeat would not only cost them their honor, but considering the administrative methods of their ultimate superiors, their lives. The leader of the 6th Army, Genera Paulus developed a nervous tick that made half of his face shake uncontrollably, while one of the leading Red generals Vasily Chuikov suffered from eczema so severe his entire hands had to be bandaged up. Incidentally, Paulus reluctantly collaborated with the Soviets upon his capture, and lived out his life in relative comfort in socialist East Germany, while Chuikov rose to be the Commander of the Ground Forces of the Red Army and a member of Politburo.
– Chuikov is also credited with developing the tactic of “hugging the Germans” to nullify the Wehrmacht’s superior technical equipment, mobility and ever-present air support. Under this tactic, the Soviet troops would attempt to get as close as possible to the German soldiers, and bog them down in close combat, where skill, courage and plain luck had as much effect as any technical superiority.
– This is one description from a German officer: “We have fought for fifteen days for a single house. The front is a corridor between burnt-out rooms; it is the thin ceiling between two floors … From story to story, faces black with sweat, we bombard each other with grenades in the middle of explosions, clouds of dust and smoke, heaps of mortar, floods of blood, fragments of furniture and human beings … The street is no longer measured by meters but by corpses … Stalingrad is no longer a town. By day it is an enormous cloud of burning, blinding smoke; it is a vast furnace lit by the reflection of the flames. And when night arrives, one of those scorching howling bleeding nights, the dogs plunge into the Volga and swim desperately to gain the other bank. The nights of Stalingrad are a terror for them. Animals flee this hell; the hardest stones cannot bear it for long; only men endure.”
Katyusha rocket launchers firing at the enemy during the battle of Stalingrad in October 1942 (RIA Novosti / Zelma)
– Nikolay Tyukinev fought on the Soviet side: “We were so deeply convinced that the Germans were beasts that we didn’t have a grain of pity for them at all. Different things happened. But you just don’t ask questions in the furnace of a battle. The only way is to fight and not spare the enemy. The enemy didn’t spare us either. We were exterminating each other. In a most terrible way.”
– The street fights created their own heroes. One such man was Yakov Pavlov a sergeant assigned to hold what became known as “Pavlov’s House” an empty shell of a building overlooking one of the central squares, defended almost without reinforcement for two months. Historians have since questioned whether the epic siege of the building was played up as a propaganda symbol.
– Less in doubt is the fact that some of the most intense fighting took place over a hill called Mamaev Kurgan, which changed hands at least eight times during the conflict, at the cost of tens of thousands of lives. Here is an RT report on the confrontation.
– Even as the city was rebuilt in the immediate aftermath of the war, its chilling footprint remained. One war witness explains: “You could constantly smell the stench of decaying human flesh. Far from all the dead bodies had been recovered from under the debris. There were big houses in the center, and their basements still enclosed the dead. This is why, this stench… I can still smell it in those neighborhoods.”
Germany and its Axis allies – Romania, Italy, Hungary, Croatia and Finland – lost more than 800 thousand in the battle; another 541 thousand were taken prisoner. On top of that the Nazi troops also lost thousands of planes, tanks and a vast store of ammunition. These losses proved to be too heavy for Germany. Its Axis allies became confused and disillusioned, with their governments losing credibility at home because of the staggering losses. The countries which until then remained neutral took on a more reserved approach to Hitler.
– Those who were children in 1942 and lived through the entire battle recall their experience with some clarity. “I got back home,” says one, an old man now, “and saw that my house has taken a direct hit. My aunt, everyone who was inside, was dead now. And I thought – what am I to do now?” – this is just one of dozen similar stories from eyewitnesses of the greatest battle of WWII in RT’s documentary, Children of Stalingrad. The interviews, featured in this documentary, can also be found in a separate section of the RT web portal, dedicated to the Great Patriotic War.
Sniper, Hero of the Soviet Union Vasily Zaitsev examining the task to beginners, Stalingrad, 1942 (RIA Novosti / Zelma)
Sergeant Yakov Pavlov, Hero of Soviet Union, at a ruined house, Stalingrad, 1942 (RIA Novosti / Zelma)
Tank fight near Stalingrad, 1942 (RIA Novosti / Zelma)
Commanders of units of the 64th Army of the Stalingrad Front checking the route, 1942 (RIA Novosti / George Lipskerov)
The Battle of Stalingrad. Soldiers at an observation post at a mill(RIA Novosti / Knorring)