“Not One Step Back” – The Battle of Stalingrad

Considered by many historians to be the largest and bloodiest battle in history, the Battle of Stalingrad was undoubtedly hell on earth for those who fought it and the civilians who lived and died throughout the conflict. Fought between 23rd August 1942 and 2nd February 1943, it is estimated that between 1.8 and 2 million people lost their lives.

The battle is generally considered to be the turning point of World War II in Europe: the point at which the allies finally halted the unstoppable juggernaut that was the German Wehrmacht. The German army was bled dry at Stalingrad and German High Command was forced to pull troops from other theatres of the war to replace the manpower lost in the rubble of the ruined city. One of the great ironies of the war was that the German Sixth Army need not have gotten itself entangled in the city in the first place as other German forces were well on their way to the Caucasus and Caspian oilfields when Hitler gave the order to capture the city which bore the name of his ideological adversary.

During the opening stage of the war on the Eastern Front, the Soviets had experienced heavy losses along with mass retreat and desertion. Less than one month before the attack on Stalingrad on 28th July 1942 Joseph Stalin issued Order No. 227 to re-establish order and discipline in the Red Army. It is famous for the line “Not one step back!” which became a Soviet slogan of resistance.

Attack on the City

Despite the failure of Operation Barbarossa to decisively defeat the Soviet Union in a single campaign, the Wehrmacht had succeeded in capturing vast expanses of Soviet territory, including Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic republics. With the initial operations being very successful, the Germans decided that their summer offensive in 1942, codenamed Case Blue, would focus on the southern parts of the Soviet Union. The initial objectives were the region’s strategically important natural resources: the coalmines of the Donets Basin and the oilfields outside Maykop, Grozny and Baku.

En Route

On 23rd July, Hitler personally rewrote the operational objectives for the campaign, greatly expanding them to include the occupation of the city of Stalingrad and the destruction of its industrial capacities. This expansion of objectives was a substantial factor in Germany’s failure at Stalingrad, caused in no small part by Hitler’s hubris and German underestimation of Soviet reserves. Both sides began to attach propaganda value to the city simply because it bore Stalin’s name. It was assumed that the capture of Stalingrad would secure the northern and western flanks of the German armies as they advanced on Baku, with the aim of capturing the Caspian petroleum resources for the Third Reich.

The battle began with heavy bombing from the Luftwaffe. Generaloberst Wolfram von Richthofen’s (cousin of Manfred von Richthofen, the World War One aerial ace, also known as the Red Baron) Luftflotte 4 air fleet dropped 1,000 tons of bombs in 48 hours! Some 400,000 civilians were trapped inside the city as Stalin, in very characteristic fashion for lack of empathy and human suffering, had prevented the civilian population from evacuating in the belief that their presence would encourage greater resistance from the city’s defenders. Much of the city was quickly turned to rubble, although some factories continued production: incredibly, the Tractor Factory continued to produce T-34 tanks until the German troops were through the doors.

Soviet reinforcements were rushed to the east bank of the River Volga, many from as far away as Siberia. The Luftwaffe, who had complete control of the skies, destroyed all the regular ferries before targeting troop barges being slowly towed across the river by lumbering tugs.

Civilian Defender’s

Prior to the attack on the city, the Soviets realized that there were tremendous constraints of both time and resources and ordered that anyone strong enough to hold a rifle be sent to fight – the lucky ones would receive said rifle. Civilians, including women and children, were put to work building trenchworks and defensive fortifications in and around Stalingrad.

Incredibly, the initial defence of the city fell upon the 1077th Anti-Aircraft Regiment which was a unit made up of mostly young female volunteers who had no training for engaging ground targets. Despite this, the AA gunners stayed at their posts and bravely fought the advancing Panzer tanks. The 16th Panzer Division reportedly fought the AA gunners “shot for shot” until all 37 AA guns were destroyed or overrun. The men of the 16th Panzer were shocked to find that they had been fighting female soldiers.

Poorly armed worker’s militias composed of civilians not directly involved in war production were organized by the NKVD (Stalin’s secret police) in the early stages of the battle. These civilians were often sent into battle without rifles, presumably as human shields to soak up German ammunition; poor souls of one totalitarian regime sent to die in front of the guns of another totalitarian regime. Staff and students from the technical university displayed great courage and ingenuity in forming a tank destroyer unit. They assembled tanks from leftover parts at the Tractor Factory and, unpainted and lacking gunsights, drove them straight from the factory floor to the front line.

Street Fighting Men

German High Command had intended to avoid urban, street-to-street conflict where possible. However, with the prize of Stalin’s city on the line this seemed an impossibility and the fighting soon degenerated into some of the most brutal close-quarter combat since the invention of gunpowder. German military doctrine was based on the principle of combined arms: close cooperation between tanks, infantry, engineers, artillery and the air force. The Soviets adopted the tactic of always keeping their front-line forces as close as possible to the Germans to counter the advantage that the Germans had in supporting fire. Vasiliy Chuikov, commander of the 62nd Army, called this tactic “hugging” and it proved to be very effective.

The Red Army converted multi-floored apartment blocks, factories, warehouses, street corner residences and office buildings into a series of well defended strongpoints manned with 5-10 soldiers. Stalingrad had become an impregnable wasteland of rubble, military detritus and mini fortresses. Bitter fighting raged for every street, factory, ruined house, basement and even staircase. The battle was even taken below the city and into the sewer, with the Germans calling this underground urban warfare RattenKreig (Rat War).

Each building had to be cleared room by room. German soldiers bitterly joked about capturing the kitchen but still needing to fight for the living room and the bedroom. Some of the taller buildings in the city even experienced vicious floor-by-floor combat with Germans and Soviets on different levels of the building firing at each other through holes in the floors.

Fighting on and around the Mamayev Kurgan, a prominent hill south of the industrial sector in the north of the city, was particularly merciless with the position changing hands many times. This hill would later play a pivotal role in the battle.

In another part of the city, Sergeant Yakov Pavlov led a Red Army platoon who had fortified a four-story building that oversaw a square 300 metres from the river bank. This building was later known as Pavlov’s House. The soldiers surrounded the structure with minefields, set up machine-gun positions at the windows and breached the walls in the basement for better communications. The soldiers found about ten civilians hiding inside the basement of the house. These soldiers held their ground for two months without relief. As testament to the doggedness of the defenders, Pavlov’s House was labelled Festung (Fortress) on German maps.


Aside from the prospect of close quarter combat at any moment whilst on the front line was the terror of being shot from afar. Both sides used snipers to inflict casualties in the ruined city. The most famous Soviet sniper of the battle was Vasily Zaytsev with 225 confirmed kills. The 2001 film Enemy at the Gates, stars Jude Law as a fictionalised version of Zaytsev.

Operation Uranus

After three months of bitter fighting through the streets of Stalingrad, the Wehrmacht finally reached the banks of the river Volga in November 1942, capturing 90% of the city and splitting the Soviet forces into two narrow pockets. Despite this, fighting, especially on the slopes of Mamayev Kurgan and inside the factory area, continued. The German 6th Army had already lost 60,548 men, including 12,782 killed on reaching the banks of the river by 20th November.

By this time, ice floes had begun to appear on the Volga. Recognising that the Axis troops were ill prepared for offensive operations during the winter, the Stavka (Soviet High Command) decided to conduct several offensive operations themselves.

Snow Tank

The other Axis powers of Italy, Hungary and Romania also had forces in the south of Russia. These troops were generally less-well equipped, less-well trained and less-well fed than their counterparts in German uniform. This, unsurprisingly, led to poor morale within the ranks of these armies. Red Army Marshal Georgy Zhukov stated that “Compared with the Germans, the troops of the satellites were not so well armed, less experienced and less efficient, even in defence.” These were the troops who were tasked with protecting Army Group B’s flanks and they were thinly stretched. It was not uncommon, for example north of Stalingrad, to find a single Hungarian platoon (approximately 40 men) defending a stretch of 1-2 kilometres. Similarly, the southern flank was held only by the Romanian 4th Army and beyond that, a single German division (10,000 -20,000 men) covered 400 kilometres. These numbers demonstrate how wildly massive the Eastern Front was.

German General Friedrich Paulus had requested permission to withdraw the 6th Army behind the relative safety of the river Don. His request was rejected outright by Adolf Hitler. This would prove to be one of the Fuhrer’s many costly mistakes over the war.

On 19th November, the Red Army launched Operation Uranus. Thinly spread, deployed in exposed positions, poorly equipped and outnumbered, the Romanian 3rd Army, which held the northern flank of the German 6th Army was overrun. No preparations had been made to defend key points behind the front lines and the response of the Germans was indecisive with poor weather conditions preventing the Luftwaffe from staging an effective air action against the Soviet offensive.

“Compared with the Germans, the troops of the satellites were not so well armed, less experienced and less efficient, even in defence.” – Marshal Zhukov

The next day, on 20th November, the Soviets launched a second offensive to the south of Stalingrad, focusing on points held by the Romanian 4th Army. This Romanian force too was swept aside with relative ease by large numbers of Soviet tanks. The two Soviet forces raced west and linked up on the 23rd November at the town of Kalach 72 kilometres west of Stalingrad. The German 6th Army was now cut off from their comrades and surrounded in what they referred to as a Kessel or cauldron.

The Kessel

The surrounded Axis personnel comprised nearly 300,000 Germans, Romanians, Italians, Croatians and Soviets who had volunteered for the German army. Army Group Don was hastily formed under Field Marshal Erich von Manstein who advised Hitler not to order the 6th Army to break out, stating that he could break through the enemy lines and relieve them. This advice, along with Hermann Göring’s boast that the Luftwaffe could supply the besieged troops with an air bridge sealed the 6th Army’s fate.

On November 27th, Paulus thought to assuage his beleaguered troops by concluding with the slogan “Hold on! The Fuhrer will get us out!” The Russian winter and heavy shelling of the airfields hampered the Stalingrad air bridge and the men trapped inside the Kessel began to suffer visibly from shortages in food and munitions.

The Soviets consolidated their forces around Stalingrad and fierce fighting to shrink the pocket began. Army Group Don undertook Operation Winter Storm in order to relieve the trapped 6th Army and it was initially successful. By 18th December, von Manstein’s forces had pushed the Soviets back to within 48 kilometres of the 6th Army’s positions. The starving and encircled Axis forces made no attempt to reach the relief army. Some German officers requested that Paulus defy Hitler’s orders to stand fast and instead attempt a break out, but Paulus refused. On the 23rd December, von Manstein’s forces abandoned the attempt to relieve Stalingrad and went, instead, on the defensive against continued Soviet onslaughts. It was noted by Zhukov that “The military and political leadership of Nazi Germany sought not to relieve them, but to get them to fight as long as possible so as to tie up Soviet forces.” German High Command sought to gain as much time as possible in order to withdraw forces from the Caucasus and redeploy troops to form a new front to check a Soviet counter-offensive.

The Stavka began a massive propaganda campaign at the end of November in an attempt to persuade the Axis forces to surrender. Aircraft dropped hundreds of thousands of leaflets describing the hopelessness of their situation and a delegation of German communist exiles broadcast political messages over loudspeaker. These attempts proved futile. On 6th January, two weeks after Army Group Don aborted its relief operation, General Rokossovsky offered Paulus terms for an honourable surrender. Paulus chose to ignore the deal.

The Soviet’s final push to crush the encircled German troops began on 10th January 1943. Pushing from the west, soldiers on the Don Front drove the enemy back into the city, whilst at the same time, troops intensified attacks from the banks of the Volga. On 26th January the two forces joined at the Mamayev Kurgan hill, cutting the German forces into two separate Kessels, one in the north, the other in the south of the city. General Paulus was repeatedly forced to give up his quarters during the retreat further into the city.

On January 30th, the tenth anniversary of Hitler’s coming to power, Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels read a proclamation that included the sentence: “The heroic struggle of our soldiers on the Volga should be a warning for everybody to do the utmost for the struggle for Germany’s freedom and the future of our people, and thus in a wider sense for the maintenance of our entire continent.” Hitler promoted Paulus to the rank of Generalfeldmarschall. The implication was clear: no German field marshal had ever surrendered and if Paulus were to do so he would shame himself as the highest ranking German officer ever to be captured. Hitler expected Paulus to choose suicide over disgrace.


In the morning hours of January 31st, a German officer emerged from a department store in the aptly named Square of Fallen Soldiers with a white flag and offered terms of surrender. A group of Red Army officers were escorted into the basement where Paulus’ army staff were assembled (minus Field Marshal Paulus himself) and discussed the terms of surrender. The south Kessel had fallen but the soldiers trapped in the north Kessel in the Tractor Factory held out until 2nd February.

Around 91,000 exhausted, ill, wounded and starving soldiers were taken prisoner, including a whopping 22 generals. Hitler was apoplectic and reportedly stated that Paulus could have “freed himself from all sorrow and ascended into eternity and national immortality, but he prefers to go to Moscow.”

Aftermath of Carnage

The disaster at Stalingrad marked the first time that the Nazi government publicly acknowledged a failure in its war effort, although the public was not officially told of the imminent catastrophe until the end of January. On February 18th, Goebbels gave his famous Sportpalast speech, encouraging Germans to adopt a total war that would claim all resources and efforts from the entire population. With the prospect of the “Bolshevik hordes” from “Asia” threatening to cross into Europe, fighting on seemed like the only way out for the terrified population. Which they did, with greater intensity than before, as the war raged for a further two years.

Of the 91,000 Prisoners of War captured in the Kessel it was not until 1955 that the last of the 5,000-6,000 survivors were repatriated to West Germany. The other 85,000 men became casualties of ruthless Stalinist policies.

When Red Army troops recaptured Stalingrad, they counted 7,655 civilian survivors who had miraculously survived in the ruins of the frozen city. As the clean-up began, mass graves filled with residents that the Germans had executed were discovered. Several thousand German prisoners were put to work in February 1943, clearing bodies and defusing bombs and would eventually help rebuild the city that they had destroyed.

The Rest is History

For a more in-depth look into the Battle, I highly recommend Stalingrad by Antony Beevor which I listened to as an audiobook.

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