Operation Barbarossa is winding down. Hitler’s vow to be in Moscow by Christmas 1941 has been proven a blunder by the Russian winter. The mad German leader now begins a plan to renew his fortunes which had been riding high since 1939.
Instead of a grinding war to the north where Stalin, Russia’s own all powerful dictator, is strongest,, he will launch his armies to the south, with its rich oil reserves. The objective is to cut the Soviet Union in two.
In his way is the major industrial city of Stalingrad. Hitler plans to reduce this namesake of the despised Russian leader to rubble.
Two mighty armies are launched in a blitzkrieg so successful in earlier battles. There is one difference. So desperate are the Germans for troops, many of the divisions comprise low quality (by German standards) Italians, Romanians, and Hungarians.
Leading the attack on Stalingrad is another unknown quantity, General Friedrich von Paulus, recognized more for his compliance to Hitler than for any military ability. On his incapable shoulders lay all Nazi hopes of winning the war.
On August 23, a massive German air strike of 2000 bombers announces von Paulus’ arrival at Stalingrad. By the 25th, Stalin declares a state of siege.
Two days later, Chief of the General Staff General Alexander Vasilevsky, along with General Georgy Zhukov are put in charge of the Stalingrad defense.
Zhukov and Vasilevsky’s plan is to fight a war of attrition for the city, to wear down the German invaders. At Stalingrad, everyone will participate, women alongside men. Some will fight, others will pull wounded from the battlefield. It will be a people’s war.
Germans attack the Soviet lines as much as ten times a day. Still the Russians hold fast. Civilian workers assist in building defenses.
By early November the German troops are near exhaustion. Their invasion is stalled everywhere, and the Russians are making limited counter attacks.
On November 19, the battle suddenly changes focus. The Soviet reserve armies are cast into the fray, attacking the weak Romanian divisions in the northwest and putting them to flight. Russian troops are also attacking to the south of the city.
Hitler’s generals can see they are being surrounded, and advises their leader to withdraw von Paulus from Stalingrad. They are rebuffed.
Three days later it is too late. Paulus is cut off.
Inside Stalingrad are the cream of the German Army, 22 divisions totaling 330,000 men and thousands of horses. The troops will eat the horses or starve.
Goering, head of the Luftwaffe, in a foolish boast, claims he will supply the trapped Germans by air. 600 tons a day are needed, but less than half will get through.
Hitler sends his best general, Manstein, architect of the blitzkrieg of France, to break the encirclement. He fails.
In January, General von Paulus will ask Hitler’s permission to surrender, to no avail. On the 31st, however, the inevitable comes. Von Paulus is captured and surrenders along with 2/3 of his Army. Only the 11th Corps chooses death over capitulation, and is wiped out.
Of von Paulus’ army, only 100,000 men remain. Altogether the campaign costs Hitler 1.5 million soldiers and 60 divisions. It will also, 3 years afterward, cost him the war.
President Roosevelt will later write: “Their (the Russian people) glorious victory stopped the wave of invasion, and became a turning point in the war of allied nations against the forces of aggression.”