Stalingrad Duel

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"Black devils"(Soviet marines) landing. Autumn 1942.

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Hitler, on 2 September he issued an order that when the city was taken the entire male population was to be liquidated and all the females deported. Like Leningrad and Moscow, Hitler wanted Stalingrad to be erased from the face of the earth.

But, before that final solution could be imposed on the city, the Germans had to capture it. The first problem they faced, as Stephen Walsh points out (2000, p.52), was that as they were unable to employ their favourite tactic of the Kesselschlacht – the battle of encirclement. Stalingrad was a long, very narrow city that stretched for some 30–40 miles along the western bank of the Volga. Little development had spilled over to the east bank because the Volga was too broad, up to a mile wide at some points. Stalingrad was too extensive to be easily enveloped by German forces who were already over-extended and at the end of very long supply lines, and who would be subject to strong opposition from Soviet divisions protecting the city’s flanks along the river’s banks. On the other hand, the city’s narrowness (never more than 4 or 5 miles wide) invited a direct frontal assault with the aim of breaking through to the riverbank across a broad front.

An alternative tactic, much canvassed after the event, would have been to attack from the north and south along the Volga with the aim of taking control of the riverfront and isolating the defending Soviet forces within the city. But attacking on such narrow fronts would have had its own problems and would have been fiercely contested by the Soviets, who well understood the importance of control of the river bank, the lifeline for their armies in Stalingrad. Besides, the Germans expected to take Stalingrad quickly, if not easily, whatever method they adopted, and they almost succeeded in doing so.

Stalingrad was a city of three main sections. In the south was the old town, which bordered on the city’s railway stations and the central landing stage river dock area. In the central section was a modern city centre with wide boulevards, department stores, civic buildings and public amenities. The north of the city was dominated by three huge factories along the river front: the Dzerzhinskii Tractor factory, which had been converted to tank production; the Barrikady ordnance works; and the Krasnii Oktyabr (Red October) metal plant. Important features of the city from a military point of view were:

(a) the high banks of the Tsaritsa River, which flowed into the Volga and bisected the southern section of the city;

(b) Mamayev Kurgan – an ancient burial mound and, at over 300 feet, one of the highest hills in the city, with commanding views of the centre and north of Stalingrad and across the Volga; and

(c) the defensive shelter offered by the high banks and bluffs of the west side of the Volga, which rose to 1000 feet in places.

The main German attack force was Paulus’s 6th Army – the strongest field army in the Wehrmacht – conqueror of Poland, France and the Ukraine. Supporting the 6th Army was the 4th Panzer Army, making a total of 21 enemy divisions attacking in the Stalingrad region, although many units were under strength by the time they had fought their way to the Don and Volga. According to Soviet figures, 13 of these enemy divisions (170,000 men, 500 tanks and 3000 artillery pieces) were deployed on the 40-mile front of Stalingrad and its environs. Air support was provided by the Luftwaffe’s 8th Air Corps, which had about 1000 planes. Facing the Germans was a Soviet force of 90,000, with 2000 artillery pieces, 120 tanks and just under 400 planes.

The same imbalance of forces prevailed on the narrower front of the city of Stalingrad itself. On its 25-mile front the Soviet 62nd Army – the main defending force in the city – was 54,000 strong (as against 100,000 Germans), had 900 artillery pieces (against 2000), and 110 tanks (facing 500). The size and composition of both armies fluctuated, depending on casualties and replacements, but those kind of numbers and force ratios prevailed throughout most of the battle that was to follow.

The two main commanders were Paulus, and, on the Soviet side, General Vasilii Chuikov, who took charge of the 62nd army on 12 September. Paulus is a controversial figure (as losing generals often are) but the consensus is that he was a highly-competent but unimaginative staff officer, an operational technician rather than a field commander, at least not one to be involved in a Rattenkrieg (rats’ war) as the German soldiers in Stalingrad called the battle. Chuikov, on the other hand, may have lacked operational refinement but he was a tough and determined fighter, independent, outspoken and abrasive – and universally acclaimed as the ideal commander for a brutal and wearying city scrap. The contrast between the two is summed up by the fact that throughout the battle Chuikov was in the thick of it, often under direct fire, his command headquarters pushed back to the water’s edge of the Volga, while Paulus (not unreasonably) stayed away from the combat zone and commanded his troops from the rear.

Despite their superior numbers and firepower, the Germans were being drawn into a battle that would involve them in a very different kind of fighting from that with which they were familiar. Much of Stalingrad already lay in ruins following extensive aerial and artillery bombardment. The rubble would obstruct concentrated, mobile attacks by combined air, armour and infantry, while providing cover for defenders. Though out-numbered and out-gunned the defenders would have many advantages in the close combat of the innumerable small battles fought among the city’s ruins.

General Hans Doerr, who fought at Stalingrad, was the author of one of the earliest German studies of the battle: Campaign to Stalingrad (Der Feldzug nach Stalingrad, 1955). In a celebrated passage he set the scene for what was to come:

‘The battle for the industrial area of Stalingrad, which began in the middle of September, can be described as “trench” or “fortress” warfare. The time for conducting large-scale operations was gone for ever; from the wide expanses of the steppeland, the war moved into the jagged gullies of the Volga hills with their copses and ravines, into the factory area of Stalingrad, spread out over uneven, pitted, rugged country, covered with iron, concrete and stone buildings. The mile, as a measure of distance, was replaced by the yard . . .

For every house, workshop, water-tower, railway embankment, wall, cellar and every pile of ruins, a bitter battle was waged . . . The distance between the enemy’s army and ours was as small as it could possibly be. Despite the concentrated activity of aircraft and artillery, it was impossible to break out of the area of close fighting . . .’ (Chuikov, 1963, p.135)