By the end of August, there were good reasons for the Russians to leave Stalingrad. Russia’s 62d Army counted only 20,000 soldiers at the time. The 62d had retreated into the city, herded eastward by the Sixth Army’s advance across the Don River. Just as it took refuge inside Stalingrad, the 62d would be assigned a new commander. Sixth Army was then in the business of becoming the single largest formation of the entire Wehrmacht, with a strength approaching one-third of a million men. Its commander, General Friedrich Paulus, estimated that his army would need ten days to take the city and then fourteen days to regroup and cross the Volga to the steppes beyond.
The main body of the German offensive jumped off early in the morning of 24 August. Starting from its lodgment on the eastern banks of the Don River, 16th Panzer Division meant to race the thirty-five miles between the Don and Volga River and capture Stalingrad by coup de main. The night before, elements of the 79th Panzer Grenadier Regiment had made their way to the Volga, digging in along the river near the northern suburb of Spartanovka. All day long, the German advance was covered by the Luftwaffe’s 8th Air Army, part of Luftflotte IV, which also staged saturation raids against the city. By the end of the first day, much of Stalingrad was wrecked. The systems for sewage treatment and water and much of the power were destroyed by the bombing, although somehow the power station in the southern part of the city managed to continue operating. The main hospital and all the major factory complexes suffered numerous direct hits. The streets were already full of rubble, and those inhabitants who could still function began burrowing into any protection they could find. Because Stalin had initially refused to let the citizens of the city evacuate, civilian casualties were already high. Stalin insisted, however, that the local militiamen would fight that much harder if they knew their fellow citizens were still in the city.
Neither side had committed wholeheartedly to the idea of fighting to the last man for this city. For the Germans, Stalingrad was only a way point at the moment, a river town marking the boundary between the southernmost of their army groups and those in the north. The almost casual manner in which the city became important is belied by the speed with which it became important. Each side began to see in Stalingrad what they had not seen before—a place where one could do important damage to the enemy. Within two weeks of first contact, both sides had made their commitment, and the buildup began. By early October, the Germans had nine divisions in the area, some 90,000 men in all, with 2,000 guns, 3 00 tanks, with about 1,000 aircraft in support. At the same time, inside Stalingrad, the Russians had 55,000 men, supported by 950 guns and 500 mortars, 80 tanks, and about 180 aircraft. Only by early December did Sixth Army reach its uppermost strength; the Sixth Army’s Quartiermeister reported a ration strength of 275,000 men.
The German troops that had collected at Stalingrad, it should be emphasized, were troops that could not be employed elsewhere. For the Russians to succeed, all that was required was to keep as many German troops tied up at Stalingrad as possible. Over a quarter of a million troops sounds like success. In the meantime, the Russians were able to assemble more than a million troops for their December counteroffensive, Operation Uranus. The effect of Uranus would be to cut 6th Army’s lines of communication and thereby isolate it from the sustenance of the whole German army. Not for the first time was a besieger himself besieged, and at the end of January 1943, the Germans remaining in the Stalingrad pocket surrendered.
Of all the battles of the Second World War, Stalingrad was one of the most decisive. The battle produced results, permanent results, that Russia could not have achieved elsewhere at the time. The Germans’ defeat here impaired their capacity to prosecute the war as they preferred and challenged their material and psychological balance. No less important, the defeat called into question Hitler’s strategic wisdom even more seriously than had the defeat of the Luftwaffe over Great Britain.
For sheer scale of destructive savagery, few modern battles could match that of Stalingrad. Some writers have seen a new form of warfare emerging from the rubble and cellars of this battle. Of course, it was not so new after all, but it was special, and it certainly was new to those who fought there (as it is always true that battle itself is new at some point to those who fight in them). In the half-light between knowledge and experience, the truth of the matter sometimes goes astray, that’s all. Stalingrad’s inherent drama is so intense that it impaired judgment then and still does.
Stalingrad was certainly a siege but not a particularly well-conducted one, as sieges go. At no time was Stalingrad ever completely isolated. The city’s line of communication to the rear was tenuous, always in danger. But it was never closed. In this respect, the Volga River was a very real asset for the defense. The river posed enough of a barrier to discourage adventurous enemy sorties, but not such a barrier that it could not be crossed by its defenders. Beyond the river, the village of Krasnaya Sloboda functioned as an immediate rear support area and fire base. This is where General Vasili Chuikov’s 62d Army kept its heavy guns—to its credit and to its benefit. Simply finding a place in the city proper for gun lines, not to mention protecting them, were problems solved by the river. Chuikov was smart enough—and tough enough—to refuse when his artillery commander begged him to allow the gunners to fight alongside the men.
So, there was the lifeline across the river that could not be—or was not—cut. On the eve of one of the largest German assaults, Luftflotte IV was flying 3,000 sorties a day over Stalingrad. How many sorties were directed toward the river crossings and Krasnaya Sloboda and everything else that moved on the east side of the river is not known. Accounts agree that the Luftwaffe concentrated on direct support for the troops in the city proper, although even the pilots themselves wondered at the good that was being done by repeatedly bombing rubble. By this time, Stalingrad had been Luftflotte IV’s primary mission for more than six weeks.
The Red Army fired more ammunition in the battle of Stalingrad than in any other operation of the war. Part of this dubious record derives from the sheer length of the siege. The siege of Leningrad was longer, but it was a classic investment, like the siege of Paris, in which the assailants did most of the shooting, but never broke into the city proper. The enemy broke into Stalingrad right away, established lines of investment, and sortied at will into the city. The Germans rarely had much difficulty getting into Stalingrad; staying there was the problem.
The difference between the two sieges is telling. Stalingrad was part of an operational plan that aimed to project German power well beyond the Volga. From the German perspective, a secure Stalingrad was important, perhaps even critical. At Leningrad, the prospects for a follow-on offensive after the siege were a good deal more problematic. Hitler’s ambition to cut the Soviet line of communications from Murmansk-Archangel could not compare as a strategic priority with the Caucasus oil fields—although perhaps it should have. Leningrad and Stalingrad looked different because, among other reasons, of what each side needed from victory.