At the end of January 1943, the German armies that had tried to smash the Soviet Union’s third-largest industrial centre surrendered in ignominy…
Sixty-seven years ago, the most momentous battle in modern history was fought out in a city on the Volga River – Stalingrad. On its outcome rested the fate of the world.
It was not the first time the city had been the site of a pivotal battle. In June 1918, during the intervention following the Russian Revolution, the city, known as Tsaritsyn, formed a wedge between anti-Bolshevik forces in the east and the south. After these forces, the greatest threat to the young revolution was hunger. Beyond Tsaritsyn lay the grain to feed Moscow. Stalin was despatched to organise its defence, and the rest is history.
Along with Kliment Voroshilov, Stalin rallied the local workers’ organisations, forged the first regular units of the Red Army and, by August, despite great odds, had crushed the advancing force of General Denikin. The Soviet Republic was saved from starvation and collapse. Those who had defended Tsaritsyn renamed it Stalingrad.
|10 January 1943: the battle for Stalingrad rages, but the Nazi army is doomed.|
By 1940, Stalingrad was the third-largest industrial centre in the Soviet Union, with a rapidly growing population of over half a million. It had become a “showpiece” city, the largest port on the Volga with the biggest tractor factory in the world.
Spirit of the people
Any city is more than just brick and cement, steel and glass. A city is and as with Madrid in 1936, it was the people who gave the city of Stalingrad its particular political complexion.
Adolf Hitler’s Nazis knew this well. In 20th century warfare, with its emphasis on mechanisation and speed, a siege was already something of an anachronism. Yet that was the tactic they opted for when attacking both Stalingrad and Leningrad. They could not afford to bypass either city and leave its spirit intact.
And so a siege was laid with the aim of starving and bombarding the defenders into submission, thereby dealing a blow to the morale of a whole nation.
With the outbreak of war between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in June 1941, Stalingrad – as in 1918 – assumed a special strategic importance. Launching an attack on 23 August, the armies of Von Bock and Von Paulus knew they had four months in which to take the city before winter set in. Through a combination of guerrilla raids, of fortifications manned by a workers’ militia and a simple refusal to give ground, the Germans were kept at bay.
The workers were always having to stop work to bolster the regular units. Once in mid-September the Nazis broke through to the tractor repair shop. The workers there, in what has become a well documented act of bravery, jumped straight into the tanks they had just finished repairing and took them into battle.
They were joined by a battalion of workers’ infantry commanded by a dean of the Mechanics Institute in one of the city’s five universities. This particular battle lasted for two days, until the Nazis were pushed back. Such events contributed to what became known as the spirit of Stalingrad.
Despite the deliberate pessimism of such newspapers as the Daily Mail, every factory canteen and every pub in Britain was the centre of a discussion of the tide of battle, workers everywhere showing their support for the Red Army.
By October the time of the major battle was approaching. Hitler had ordered the capture of Stalingrad “regardless of cost”. Stalin ordered “not a step back”. The city was fought for street by street, house by house.
With winter setting in, the armies of Soviet generals Zhukov and Rokossovsky began an encircling manoeuvre which formed the basis of a general offensive on 15 November, an attack that turned the tables. The lengthy defence of the city had bought important time for the Soviet Union to bring in fresh, crack troops, skilled in winter combat.
More than 330,000 German prisoners were taken as successive battalions of Nazi troops were caught in pincer movements. The last battle of the campaign was fought, ironically, under the heights of Mamaer Kurgan – the same spot where the Bolsheviks had secured Tsaritsyn in 1918.
By 31 January 1943 Von Paulus, along with the armies of 15 other Nazi generals, surrendered.
Two years and three months later, the Red Army entered Berlin. It was because of that momentous battle, which workers worldwide now acclaimed as the decisive victory over Hitler, that Red Army soldiers could carve with pride on the central column of the Reichstag, Germany’s wrecked parliament, “We come here from Stalingrad.”