Why Stalingrad?

The great plain of  Europe stretches from the coast of the English Channel across the Low
Countries, Germany, Poland, and the Soviet Union to the foothills of the Urals. Occasionally, as
if about to change its character, it gathers into the folds of undulating hills, but always it subsides
again into monotonous flatness. Bounded on the north by the sea, and on the south, at least until
the Ukraine, by mountains, it has for centuries been the stage on which first the tribes of Europe,
Celt, Teuton, and Slav, then the fanatics of religion, and finally the more formalised, but no less
warlike, armies of the national states which succeeded them, have enacted the gory dramas in
which European history so deplorably abounds.

Inevitably in the absence of commanding heights, the most important defensive barriers of the
plain are its great rivers, Rine, Elbe, Oder, Vistula, Bug, Dvina, Dniestr, Dniepr, Don, Volga,
and their tributaries, which flow across it to the north or south. And it was on the banks of the
mightiest of these, the Volga, and its scarcely less great neighbour, the Don, that the great
complex of battles know to history as " Stalingrad" took place in 1942 and early 1943.
Here where the immense cornfields of the Ukraine give way to the ravines and gullies of the
Volga basin, the armies of two militant ideologies clashed in a fight for possession of a city,
not originally considered a prime military objective, but which by the symbolism of its defence
came dominate the efforts of both sides, and brought the Nazi attempt to forge an Empire in
the East crashing down in ruins.

The Battle for Stalingrad

After the narrow failure of Hitler's invasion of Russia in 1941 the German Army no longer had
the strength and resources for a renewed offensive of that year's scale, but Hitler was unwilling
to stay on the defensive and consolidate his gains. So he searched for an offensive solution that
with limited means might promise more than a limited result. No longer having the strength to 
attack along the whole front, he concentrated on. the southern part, with the aim of capturing the 
Caucasus oil which each side needed if it was to maintain its full mobility. If he could gain that
oil, he might subsequently turn north onto the rear of the thus immobilised Russian armies
covering Moscow, or even strike at Russia's new war-industries that had been established 
in the Urals. The 1942 offensive was, however, a greater gamble than thatof the previous
year because, if it were to be checked, the long flank of this southerly drive would be exposed
to a counterstroke anywhere along its thousand-mile stretch.

Initially, the German Blitzkrieg technique scored again - its fifth distinct and tremendous success 
since the conquest of Poland in 1939. A swift break-through was made on the Kursk-Kharkov
sector, and then General Bwald von Kleist's 1st Panzer Army swept like a torrent along the
corridor between the Don and the Donetz rivers. Surging across the Lower Don, gateway to
the Caucasus, it gained the more westerly oilfields around Maikop in six weeks.

The Russians' resistance had crumbled badly under the impact of the Blitzkrieg, and Kleist had
met little opposition in the later stages of his drive. This was Russia's weakest hour. Only an 
instalment of her freshly raised armies was yet ready for action, and even that was very 
short of equipment, especially artillery.

Fortunately for Russia, Hitler split his effort between the Caucasus and Stalingrad on the Volga, 
gateway to the north and the Urals. Moreover when the first attacks on Stalingrad, by Paulus's 
6th Army, were checked in mid-July, although narrowly checked, Hitler increasingly drained
his forces in the Caucasus to reinforce the divergent attack on Stalingrad. This was by name, 
'the city of Stalin' so Hitler could not bear to be defied by it - and became obsessed by it. 
He wore down his forces in the prolonged effort to achieve its capture, losing sight of his initial 
prime aim, the vital oil supplies of the Caucasus. When Kleist drove on from Maikop towards
the main oilfields, his army met increasing resistance from local troops, fighting, now to defend
their homes, while itself being depleted in favour of Paulus' bid to capture Stalingrad.

At  Stalingrad  the  Russians' resistance hardened with repeated hammering, while the directnesa, 
and consequent obviousness, of the German attacks there simplified the Russian Higher 
Command's problem in meeting the threat. The Germans' concentration at Stalingrad also, and
increasingly, drained reserves from their flank-cover, which was already strained by having to 
stretch so far, nearly 400 miles from Voronezh along the Don to the point where it nears the 
Volga at Stalingrad, and as far again from there to the Terek in the Caucasus. A realisation of 
the risks led the German General Staff to tell Hitler in August that it would be impossible to 
hold the line of the Don as a defensive flank, during the winter, but the warning was ignored by
him in his obsession with capturing Stalingrad.

The Russian defenders' position there came to look more and more imperilled, even desperate,
as the circle contracted and the Germans came closer to the heart of the city. The most critical 
moment was on October 14th. The Russians now had their backs so close to the Volga
that they had no room to practise shock-absorbing tactics, and sell ground to gain time. But 
beneath the surface, basic factors were working in their favour. The German attackers' morale
was being sapped by their heavy losses, and a growing sense of frustration, so that they were 
becoming ripe for the counter-offensive that the Russians were preparing to launch, with new 
armies, against the German flanks which were held by Rumanian and other allied troops of 
poorer quality. This counter-offensive was launched on November 19th. Wedges were 
driven into the flanks at several places, so as to isolate Paulus's 6th Army, By the 23rd the
encirclement was complete, more than quarter of a million German and allied troops being 
thus cut off. Hitler would permit no withdrawal, and relieving attempts in December were 
repulsed. Even then Hitler was reluctant to permit the 6th Army to try to break-out westward
before it was too late, and air supply had proved inadequate.

The end came, the end of a battle of over six months' duration, with the surrender of Paulus
and the bulk of what remained of his exhausted and near-starving army on January 31st, 
although an isolated remnant in a northerly pocket held out for two days longer.

Gero -1998