February 3, 2013

Russian Sacrifice at Stalingrad

The Motherland Statue (in Volgograd formerly Stalingrad) in commemoration of the Battle of Stalingrad.

German advance (Summer 1942) into Soviet oil-Stalingrad region.  Stalingrad's geographical position helps us to understand why Hitler's Sixth Army was doomed. Now called Volgograd, it sits on the Volga River, which runs from north to south, toward the Caspian. 
February 2, 2013 marks the 70th anniversary of the end, in 1943, of the 200-day Battle of Stalingrad.

More is written by the US and UK about D-Day than about the vastly larger and more costly Battle of Stalingrad. The Cold War and ignorance of English speakers about about warfare outside the Anglosphere comes into this.

The Battle of Stalingrad began in the summer of 1942 and ended in January 1943. Stalin had decided to hold the line at the city named after him, no matter the expense. This meant enacting one of the most controversial measures known in modern warfare: all Russian soldiers running away from the fighting would be shot by specially assigned NKVD operatives. 

In this huge battle, the Nazi army suffered not only its first major defeat, but one that essentially paved the way for the collapse of the Third Reich. The ability of the workers state to defeat the seemingly invincible fascist army lifted the morale of every antifascist and anticapitalist armed movement worldwide, from Mao's Red Army to the French Resistance.  

The Battle of Stalingrad had a different character since most noncombatants were evacuated across the Volga before the worst fighting began. Therefore, any book on the subject would tend to be focused on the battle itself rather than the texture of everyday life under siege.


The battle of Stalingrad has also inspired two sharply contrasting films in recent years that are both available in home video. German director Joseph Vilsmaier's 1993 Stalingrad is a powerful antiwar film that focuses on the disintegration of the German army under the combined forces of the Soviet army and the brutal Russian winter.


Made in 2001, Jean-Jacques Annaud's Enemy at the Gates is much less successful. Although Annaud is French and his film was made in Europe (with the largest budget in the continent's history), Enemy at the Gates represents a Hollywoodization of material that would defy such a treatment. Instead of focusing on the massive social forces that made the German defeat possible, Annaud would have us believe that victory revolved around the feats of an individual sniper with Russian women snipers dependent on him.

The Soviet Union had something that Germany sorely lacked: sheer numbers. Vast numbers of inexperienced youth were drafted into action, with very little training. This led to enormous casualties in face of the better-trained and equipped Wehrmacht. Even schoolchildren were mustered into action. In chapter seven, "Not One Step Backwards," Beevor writes:


Younger schoolchildren, meanwhile, were put to work building earth walls round the petroleum-storage tanks on the banks of the Volga. Supervised by teachers, they carried the earth on wooden stretchers. A German aircraft suddenly appeared. The girls did not know where to hide, and the explosion from a bomb buried two fourteen-year-old girls. When their classmates dug them out, they found that one of them, Nina Grebennikova, was paralysed with a broken back. Her shocked and weeping friends cleaned off the wooden stretcher, and carried her on it to a Stalingrad hospital, next to where the Tsaritsa gorge opens on to the Volga.


In early autumn the fighting had concentrated in the rubble strewn streets of downtown Stalingrad.

While urban trench warfare proceeded through the end of 1942, the Soviet Union was operating munitions factories twenty-four hours a day in the Eastern part of the country not yet under Nazi control, as it drafted a huge new army to dislodge the invaders. The stubborn fighting in Stalingrad prevented the Nazis from moving eastward. After the new Soviet forces were assembled, a top-secret decision was made to surround Paulus's Sixth Army from the north and the south. This counter-attack coincided with the full brunt of the Russian winter for which the German army had no contingency plans.


Russian counterattack (Operation Uranus, November 1942 on) to trap German 6th Army at Stalingrad. Click to Enlarge.




Not only were the Nazis short of food, ammunition and water, they lacked winter combat gear. Since Hitler had gambled that the fighting would be long over prior to the onset of winter, his ill-equipped soldiers began to suffer frostbite and worse. To survive, many removed the underclothing of dead Soviet soldiers or wrapped rags around their shoes.





German losses at Stalingrad were staggering. Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus's Sixth Army began its campaign with 600,000 soldiers. On January 31, 1943, he disobeyed Hitler and surrendered. On February 2 the last of Paulus's remaining 91,000 troops became Soviet prisoners. Of those taken captive, only 6,000 lived to return to their homeland, years after the end of the war.


The Soviets recovered 250,000 German and Romanian corpses in and around Stalingrad and total Axis deaths (Germans, Romanians, Italians, and Hungarians) are estimated at 800,000.

At one key battle for control of (the tractor) factory, there were more casualties than during the entire [German invasion of] France the previous year. Official Russian military historians estimate that 1,100,000 Soviet soldiers lost their lives in the campaign to defend the city, all this in a span of six months.


 Russian children honour the memory of the millions of Russian soldiers who died for them.