February 2 this year marked the 80th anniversary of the battle of Stalingrad. It was a battle of titanic proportions. Before we deal with this battle, which changed the course of the Second World War, some background information as to events leading up to this battle is in order.
The Soviet leadership well understood early on that the conditions for war were ripening; that the Versailles Treaty that ended the First World War was the basis of nothing more than a truce between wars; that the war to come would be one of horrendous proportions. The Soviet Union did not want war, but it was not up to her to stand aside. In the words of Stalin, “…if war begins, we shall hardly be able to sit with folded arms. We shall have to come out, but we ought to be the last to come out. And we should come out in order to throw the decisive weight on the scales, the weight that should tip the scales” (Stalin, ‘Address to the Central Committee of the CPSU(B)’ in January 1925, Selected Works, Vol 7, pp.13-24).
This being the case, the Soviet Union worked for the maintenance of peace and to delay the onset of the war, and her own involvement in it, so as to build her own economic and military might.
With the passing of the years, it became clear that the Soviet Union, even if she wanted to, could not remain a spectator. In his stewardship of foreign policy, Stalin showed “great caution, restraint and realism. He needed time to build up Russia’s industries and military strength. He was constantly provoked in the east and the west, and in many ways that must have infuriated him, but he never lost sight of the overriding need to delay the outbreak of the war as long as possible. It was for this reason that he placed the greatest emphasis on peace and disarmament in world affairs” (Ian Grey, Stalin – Man of History, Abacus, 1982, p.296).
Pursuit of collective security
With this in mind, the Soviet leadership pursued a policy of collective security and, in the early 1930s, the Soviet Union negotiated non-aggression pacts with Poland and Finland.
In 1933, with the ascent of Hitler to power in Germany, war clouds gathered over Europe. While the Nazi leadership became increasingly aggressive and vituperative, Stalin remained cautious. Careful not to provoke Nazi Germany, Stalin became disturbed by Hitler’s bellicose declaration: “The German-Polish non-aggression pact suggested that he [Hitler] was fostering Poland’s claims to Ukraine and perhaps envisaging that the two countries might somehow share the vast steppes between them” (Grey, ibid., p.298).
In the summer of 1934, the USSR signed non-aggression treaties with Czechoslovakia, Romania and Bulgaria. However, Stalin well understood that the centuries-old hostility of the Poles towards Russia made them the Soviet Union’s most dangerous neighbours.
In 1935 the USSR began exploring the possibility of seeking some accommodation with other capitalist countries. The United States, enjoying great prosperity in the 1920s, had come to delude itself into believing in the superiority of capitalism, refusing even to recognise the Soviet government. The economic depression that began with the crash of 1929 and the need to counter the increasing dominance of Japan in the Pacific had had a sobering effect on the US and ushered in a change in US policy in 1933. The Roosevelt administration, on coming into office, recognised the Soviet Union, and, on 13 July 1935, the signature of a trade agreement promised somewhat friendly relations between the two countries.
In October 1936, the Berlin-Rome axis was formed, followed by the formation of the German-Japanese Anti-Comintern Pact on 25 November, 1936. In March 1938, Nazi Germany seized Austria. The Soviet Union responded to these developments by proposing that Britain, France and the USSR should present a united front against Germany. The British and French governments, however, spurning Soviet attempts at collective security aimed at delaying if not averting war, went on to hold the shameful Munich Conference with Hitler on 28-30 September ,1938, where they surrendered Czechoslovakia into Nazi hands.
The Soviet Union was not even consulted about this Conference, let alone invited to participate in it. Western imperialist countries refused to respond to the Soviet proposals for a grand alliance. In the words of Churchill:
“The Soviet offer was in effect ignored. They were not brought into the scale against Hitler and were treated with our indifference – not to say disdain – which left a mark on Stalin’s mind. Events took their course as if Russia did not exist. For this we afterwards paid dearly” (The Second World War Vol 1, pp. 239-240).
The hatred of communism had clearly won out over all other considerations. Stalin understood the motives that underlay Britain and France’s agreeing to the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia by Germany: “One might think that the districts of Czechoslovakia were yielded to Germany as the prize for her undertaking to launch war on the Soviet Union”, said Stalin (Problems of Leninism, p.604).
There was not an iota of doubt in Stalin’s mind that Britain and France were giving every encouragement to Germany to march in an easterly direction, leaving them to enjoy peace while Germany and the USSR destroyed each other.
Having met stubborn refusal by France and Britain to enter into a collective security agreement with the USSR, the Soviet Union was obliged to look for some other way of defending her interests. On 10 March 1939, Stalin delivered a speech at the 18th Party Congress of the CPSU(B). In this speech he castigated the Western powers for the concessions made by them and the motives underlying their behaviour in the following terms:
“The war is being waged by aggressor states [i.e., Germany, Italy and Japan] who in every way infringe the interests of the non-aggressive states, primarily England, France and the USA while the latter draw back and retreat, making concession after concession to the aggressors”. They were activated, said Stalin, by the fear of revolution, but also by the policy of letting the Soviet Union and Germany “weaken and exhaust one another, and when they had become weak enough they would appear on the scene with fresh strength and dictate conditions to the enfeebled belligerents. That would be cheap and easy” (ibid., p.603). Concluding his Report he said: “We stand for peaceful, close and neighbourly relations with all the neighbouring countries having common frontiers with the USSR”.
On 15 March 1939 German troops invaded Czechoslovakia. Stalin sent a note of protest to Berlin. Public opinion in the West was outraged by the rape of Czechoslovakia. Up to the last, the Soviet Union tried her level best to reach some sort of agreement with the Western powers, but to no avail.
“For Stalin”, says Ian Grey, “the inescapable conclusion was that the leaders of the British government were so blinded by hostility towards the Soviet regime that not even to avert the horrors of war would they consider an alliance with Soviet Russia against Germany” (op.cit., p.307).
Non-aggression pact with Germany
Stalin’s foremost concern was to gain time to allow for the strengthening of Soviet industry and the armed forces. His second concern was that the Soviet Union should not be in the position of fighting on its own the war he knew was coming, let alone of having to fight against the combined forces of the foremost imperialist countries. Reluctantly, he now turned to the possibility of a non-aggression pact with Germany (see Churchill, op.cit., p.306). Even as late as 4 August 1939, Schulenburg, the German ambassador to Moscow had reported to Berlin that the Soviet government was, in fact, “…more prepared for improvement in German-Soviet relations, but the old mistrust of Germany persists. My overall impression is that the Soviet government is at present determined to sign, with England and France, if they fulfil the Soviet wishes. Negotiations, to be sure, might still last a long time, especially since the mistrust of England is also great … It will take a considerable effort on our part to cause the Soviet government to swing about” (ibid., p.305).
Impatient though he was to invade Poland, as well as deeply disturbed by the presence of the Anglo-French military mission in Moscow, Hitler made every effort to court Moscow. Faced with the time-wasting tactics of the British, with negotiations going nowhere, Stalin responded favourably to Hitler’s urgent telegram of 20 August, requesting him to receive the German Foreign Minister, Ribbentrop, on 22 August or at latest the 23rd.
On the night of 23 August, Stalin received Ribbentrop, and the text of a non-aggression pact was agreed upon. This freed Hitler to launch his invasion of Poland and gave the Soviet Union more time. Churchill observed that “… at the moment”, this policy was “realistic to a high degree” (ibid., p.307).
In Churchill’s view, the pact was a shrewd move to keep the USSR out of the war. Undoubtedly it was a brilliant move by the USSR – a move that turned the tables on the Western imperialist powers that had spared no effort to embroil the Soviet Union in a war with Germany.
The start of World War II
On 1 September 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland. Two days later the Anglo-French ultimatum expired and they were at war with Germany. All their anti-Soviet manoeuvrings had landed them in this situation. The Soviet Union accelerated its own preparations. The Soviet defence industries were making gigantic efforts and were catching up. The USSR needed time, and every month counted.
In the spring of 1940, the lightning advances of Nazi armies in the West gave further urgency to Soviet preparations:
“The German occupation of Norway and Denmark was followed in May by the invasion of the Low Countries and evacuation of British troops at Dunkirk. But the most shattering to the Russians was the abysmal collapse of France and the German occupation of Paris on 14 June. Stalin had expected that the French army, secure behind the Maginot Line, would be more than a match for Germany. Attention focused on Britain, now under Churchill … there was general fear that Britain would make peace with Germany, freeing Hitler to turn eastwards. Soviet industrial production was accelerated” (Grey, p.316).
The Soviet government did its best to delay war with Germany – a war which it knew was not far off. There were conflicting intelligence reports and rumours of German troop concentrations for an imminent German invasion.
“Stalin regarded these reports with scepticism. He remained deeply mistrustful of Britain. There was, it seems, no limit to the perfidy of which he believed Britain capable. He was convinced that Britain and the United States were doing everything possible to incite Hitler to attack Russia and that Britain in particular saw a German campaign in the east as the one way to save herself from catastrophe. He believed that the British government had recently held secret talks with Nazi officials, seeking to reach an agreement at the expense of Russia. The flight of Hitler’s deputy Rudolf Hess to Scotland on 10/11 May, 1941, intensified his suspicions of British secret diplomacy” (Grey, p.320).
Hitler invades the USSR
In view of the Western manoeuvres over the previous decade, Stalin was fully justified in being suspicious of rumours and reports emanating from several quarters. All the same, “… a directive was issued. It ordered all Soviet units on the fronts of Leningrad, Baltic, Western, Kiev and Odessa military districts to come to immediate readiness for a possible sudden German attack” (Grey, p.321).
Adds Grey, “Transmission of the directive was completed by 0030 hours on June 22, 1941. At 0400 hours the German invasion began”.
The German forces, with 3 million troops in 162 divisions, with 3,400 tanks and 7,000 guns, advanced in three groups – the northern group in the direction of Leningrad; the centre group towards Moscow; and the southern group into Ukraine.
Through their perfidious surprise attack, in breach of the non-aggression pact, the Germans had an initial advantage and managed to capture large swathes of Soviet territory. On 28 June, the Germans captured Minsk, the capital of Belorussia.
On 3 July, twelve days after the German invasion, Stalin broadcast to the nation. This historic speech, devoid of rhetoric, inspired the Soviet people and ignited Soviet patriotism in them. “He spoke as friend and leader, and it was this assurance they had been waiting for”. Soviet people everywhere, especially in the armed forces, as they listened to Stalin’s words, felt an enormous enthusiasm, pride and patriotic fervour. They suddently felt much stronger.
“Comrades, citizens, brothers and sisters, fighters of our army and navy! I am speaking to you, my friends”, were his opening words. Then, “…with a profound instinct for the mood and needs of the people, he described their predicament, and every word burned with his own implacable will to victory” (Grey, p.329). Not wanting to hide the truth from the people, he went on: “Although the enemy’s finest units of his air force have already been smashed and have gone to their death on the field of battle, the enemy continues to push forward”. “The enemy is cruel and implacable …, out to seize our lands … out to restore the rule of the landlords, to restore tsarism … to germanise [the people of the Soviet Union] to turn them into slaves of German princes and barons” (Grey, pp.329-330).
He went on to tell the Soviet people the harsh truth that they were locked in a life-and-death struggle with a treacherous and vile enemy, and that they must be utterly ruthless in beating him; that in case of forced retreat, they must resort to a scorched earth policy, not leave anything behind for use by the enemy; that in areas occupied by the enemy, guerrilla units must be formed, making life unbearable for the enemy, who must be hounded and annihilated.
One of the first and most important directives of the newly-created State Defence Council was to transfer industries to the east out of reach of the Nazis. “The evacuation of 1,523 industrial units, many of them enormous, including 1,360 major armament plants, was a tremendous undertaking, and in human terms a heroic achievement” (Grey, p.328).
Smolensk fell on 5 August 1941. By the end of that month, the German forces had cut Leningrad off from the rest of the USSR. Notwithstanding these setbacks, the morale of the Soviet people remained high. Despite the best Soviet efforts to prevent such an outcome, Kiev fell on 16 September 1941 – the most severe loss that the Red Army had suffered.
Attack on Moscow
Hitler now turned his attention to capturing Moscow. In his 12 October 1941 Order of the Day, he addressed his troops facing Moscow: “Today is the beginning of the last great decisive battle of this year”.
To counter panic and rumours that Stalin and the Politburo had fled the city, the Secretary of the Central Committee on October 17 broadcast to the nation that Stalin was in Moscow, and he denounced rumours that Moscow would be surrendered, making it clear that spies, diversionists and panic-mongers were liable to be brought before NKVD tribunals and summarily punished. Stalin’s presence, combined with the fact that the German advance was being slowed down, helped to restore order.
On 6 November, to mark the 24th anniversary of the October Revolution, Stalin addressed the delegates attending a special celebration. Ian Grey writes that Stalin did not address the people frequently, “a speech by him was a special event, particularly at this time, when the capital was in danger” (Grey, p.337).
He told the Soviet people that Hitler’s blitzkrieg had already failed, expressing supreme confidence in the might of the Red Amy and the resistance of the Soviet people. He attributed the reverses suffered to the perfidious breach of the Soviet-German pact and the advantage gained by the Nazi forces with their surprise attack. He called for massive increases in production of tanks and aircraft.
Another reason for the reverses of the Red Army, he said, was the absence of a second front in Europe against the German-Fascist troops, with the result that “Germans are not required to split their forces and fight on two fronts in the West and the East … our country is carrying on the work of liberation single-handed without any military assistance against the combined forces of the Germans, Finns, Romanians, Italians and Hungarians” (‘24th anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution’, speech delivered at the joint celebration meeting of the Moscow Soviet of Working People’s Deputies and Representatives of Moscow party and public organisations, 6 November 1941).
Denouncing Nazi imperialists with angry scorn for their arrogance, the strident ‘Untermensch’ propaganda, and the savagery and bestiality that characterised their treatment of prisoners, he spoke with great emotion in words which aroused Soviet patriotism and the Soviet masses’ burning hatred towards the enemy.
“And it is these people without honour or conscience, these people with the morality of animals, who have the effrontery to call for the extermination of the great Russian nation – the nation of Plekhanov and Lenin, of Belinsky and Chernyshevsky, of Pushkin and Tolstoy, of Gorky and Chekhov, of Galinka and. Tchaikovsky, of Sechenev and Pavlov, of Repin and Sigrikov, of Suvorov and Kutuzov! The German invaders want a war of extermination against the Soviet Union. Very well then! If they want a war of extermination, they shall have it! Our task now … will be to destroy every German to the very last man who has come to occupy our country. No mercy for the German invaders! Death to the German invaders!” (ibid.).
The following morning (7 November), Stalin reviewed the traditional October Revolution parade on Red Square. The troops he addressed were on their way to the front; the distant thunder of artillery gave his speech a dramatic immediacy:
“The war which you are fighting”, he told them, “is a war of liberation, a just war! May you be inspired in this war by the heroic examples of our great ancestors … May the victorious banner of the great Lenin inspire you. Death to the German invaders! Long live our glorious country, its freedom, its independence! Under the banner of Lenin – Forward to victory!”.
Ian Grey rightly observed that Stalin was “speaking with passion and sincerity … from the depth of his being … Russia was his country, and he believed that the harsh years of building and reconstruction and now the savagery of the war would in due course yield victory to the Russian people in the form of justice, freedom and prosperity” (op.cit., p.338).
The texts of his two speeches were circulated speedily among the troops and civilians, and copies of it were airdropped in occupied territory. “Every Russian read them avidly. They brought a dramatic and extraordinary uplift in the morale of the troops and of the civilian population. The upsurge of national feeling and the veneration of Stalin were inseparable. He had given expression to their love for their native soil and their hatred of the cruel and arrogant enemy” (Grey, p.339).
“The massive setbacks and the immediate threat to Moscow”, observed Grey, “would have unnerved most men, but the impact on Stalin was to strengthen his grim determination to fight. No single factor was more important in holding the nation from disintegrating at this time” (Grey, p.335).
In this the most difficult hour in the life of the Soviet Union, “British and American military opinion, with only a few dissenting voices, was that Russian resistance would soon be crushed” (ibid. pp. 339-340). But they were to be proved wrong.
The German offensive against Moscow came to a halt early in October 1941. The Soviet Union strengthened its defences against a second German onslaught and brought up reserves. “Within fourteen days 100,000 officers and men, 300 tanks, and 2,000 guns were moved into position (ibid. p.343).
On 13 October 1941, fierce fighting began on all the routes into Moscow; in places the Germans came to within 15 miles of the city. By the end of October the German advance was slowing to a halt, but on November 15 they launched a new offensive, reaching almost the outskirts of the city. They were not able to advance any further. As soon as the German attack came to a halt, Stalin, Zhukov and Timoshenko began planning for a winter counter-offensive.
Launched on 4-5 December, the winter offensive was spectacularly successful. By mid-January 1942 the Germans had been hurled back from Moscow, in some places as far as 200 miles. Let Ian Grey take up the story of the epic battle:
“The battle of Moscow had been an epic event. Zhukov considered that it was a turning point in the war. It had involved 2 million men, 2,500 tanks, 1,800 aircraft, and 25,000 guns. Casualties had been horrifying in scale. For the Russians it had ended in victory. They had suffered the full impact of German Blitzkrieg offensive, and, notwithstanding their losses … they had been able to mount an effective counter-attack. They had begun to destroy the myth of German invincibility… They had, moreover, relieved Moscow” (p.344).
Meanwhile, after the capture of Kiev in September 1941, the Germans had managed to occupy the whole of western Ukraine and most of the Crimean peninsula, except for Sevastopol, which lay under siege. After the most savage fighting, despite the heroic resistance put up by Soviet soldiers, Sevastopol fell on 4 July 1942. Rather than surrender, officers and Commissars committed suicide. In the words of Ian Grey,“It was a heroic, tragic defeat” (p.347).
German turn towards Stalingrad
The German strategy now was to move eastwards in the direction of Stalingrad. By the end of July 1942 the Nazis had captured the whole of the Donbass, accounting for 60% of Soviet coal production and the centre of the southern industrial region.
In the midst of exhortations to officers and men to fight to the death, Stalin’s Order of the Day ‘Soviet Soldiers! Not a step back!’ made a deep impact. The Order was read out to the troops on all fronts.
A new Stalingrad Front was created on 12 July 1942. Just at this time, when the fate of the USSR hung in the balance, Churchill arrived in Moscow personally to break the news that there would be no second front in 1942. It was nothing short of a stab in the back, leaving the Soviet Union to confront the might of Nazi Germany all by herself. Stalin taunted Churchill by accusing the British of cowardice and being afraid to fight the Germans. More importantly, the British were pursuing their pre-war policy of letting the Germans and the Soviets fight each other to exhaustion and enjoying the spectacle from the sidelines.
The German advance continued, but more slowly owing to stiff Soviet resistance. However, by 14 August 1942, the German forces were advancing on Stalingrad from three directions – south, north-west and north.
On 23 August 1942 the Germans began the final stage of their attack on Stalingrad.
By this time, while the Soviet armament supplies had improved considerably, the Germans were suffering from shortages, and their ranks were being decimated in fierce fighting.
“Stalin followed the battle closely. He had daily reports from Zhukov and other commanders at the front.
“On the evening of September 13, 1042, Stalin met Zhukov and Vasilevsky. Shaking hands with them on their arrival in his office, Stalin exclaimed angrily: ‘While hundreds of thousands of our Soviet people are giving their lives in the struggle against fascism, Churchill is bargaining over a score of Hurricanes. And these Hurricanes of his are junk – our pilots don’t like them’” (Grey, p. 358).
In early November 1942, the Germans on the Soviet-German front had 266 Divisions with a total strength of 6.2 million men, more than 70,000 guns and mine throwers, 6.600 tanks and assault weapons, 3,500 combat aircraft and 194 warships (see Zhukov, in The memoirs of Marshal Zhukov, Natraj Publishers, Dehra Dun, 1985, p.396).
While the USSR had by this time a total strength of 6.1 million men, 72,500 guns and mortars, 6,014 tanks and 3008 combat aircraft. The Supreme Command had at its disposal 25 Divisions, 13 armourer corps, and 7 independent rifle and armoured brigades.
Numerically the forces confronting each other were almost equal (see ibid.).
To prepare for the Soviet counter-offensive a total of 27,000 vehicles were employed to transport troops and freight; the railways carried 1,300 goods wagons daily. Troops and freight for the Stalingrad front were carried in the exceptionally difficult conditions of the autumn freezing of the Volga. Between November 1 and 19, 160,000 men, 10,000 horses, 430 tanks, 600 artillery pieces, 14,000 vehicles and nearly 7,000 tons of armaments were ferried across the Volga (see Zhukhov, p.402).
For the Soviet counter-offensive, named Operation Uranus, which began on 19 November 1942, the Soviet Union had concentrated in the Stalingrad-Don area a total of a million men, supported by 13,500 guns and mortars, and over 300 rocket batteries, as well as 1,100 aircraft.
“It was a brilliant feat of planning and organisation, carried out by Zhukov and Vasilevsky, under the active direction of Stalin; it was crowned by a resounding victory. This troop concentration had been completed in the course of just 60 days” (Grey, p. 358).
Stalin understood that without air superiority the war could not be won. He therefore “… paid due heed to air support for ground operations” (Zhukov, p.404).
“Stalin maintained personal control over the organisation and reserves of the Air Force … Stavka’s representative, overseeing … operations, made personal report to Stalin daily”. Stalin carefully built up the air reserves. Nikitin, a deputy Commander in Chief of the Air Force, wrote that Stalin kept a check on aircraft production “daily noting in his own notebook” the deliveries of new planes. “He personally allocated equipment to air forces, attaching the greatest importance to the air support for the Stalingrad offensive” (Grey, pp.358-359).
Soviet industry had, however, achieved phenomenal results since the great evacuation of the autumn and winter of 1941-1942, bringing a dramatic improvement in the equipment of the Red Army – not merely in quantitative terms but also in quality. As a result the Soviet forces now had an upper hand.
“Stalin took a direct interest in the development of weapons, and indeed his approval was needed before any prototype or major change went into production. The improved T-34 medium tank and the IS heavy tank were, the Russians claimed, the most effective tanks in the war, and most German officers admitted their superiority. The Russian artillery, and especially the rocket artillery, had a devastating fire power. By 1943 Russian rifles and guns had a more rapid rate of fire and greater endurance. The leading aircraft designers, Tupolev, Yakovlev and Lavochkin, who reported directly to Stalin on their work, produced more effective planes, and gradually he had built up under his control a powerful air force …” (Grey, p. 365).
By November 12, having finalised the details of the Stalingrad front operational plans, Vasilevsky and Zhukov telephoned Stalin to say that they needed to report personally in relation to the pending offensive. “We saw Stalin next morning. He was in a cheerful mood, he asked us to detail the state of affairs at Stalingrad and the progress being made in preparations for the counter-offensive” (Zhukov, p.405).
“Stalin listened attentively. By the way he smoked his pipe, smoothed his moustaches, and never intervened even once, we could see that he was pleased” (ibid., p.406).
The Soviet counter-offensive was launched on 19 November. By 25 November, Vatutin, Rokossovsky and Yeremenko’s forces, meeting near Kalach, had successfully encircled the German Sixth Army and a corps of the Fourth Panzer Army.
Soviet partisans operating in the enemy rear did all in their power to obstruct the movement of German troops. “Braving Nazi terror and in spite of all the precautions, our gallant patriots derailed dozens of German troop trains” (ibid. p.416).
In his 28 December 1942 Report to the Supreme Command, NF Vatutin, commander of the south-western front, covering the progress of the offensive, described the situation as follows:
“All confronting forces, some 17 divisions, have been wiped out and stocks captured. We have taken more than 60,000 prisoners, about the same number have been killed. The painful remnants of these forces are hardly offering any resistance, except for a few pockets” (see ibid. pp.417-418).
The successful blow struck by the troops of the south-western and Stalingrad fronts on the Kotelnikovo and Morzovsk directions sealed the fate of Paulus’s encircled troops in Stalingrad (ibid.p.419).
Finishing the job
In late December 1942, the State Defence Committee met to discuss the question of finishing off the Nazi troops trapped in Stalingrad as soon as possible, and thus release the two fronts engaged there for the quicker destruction of Nazi forces retreating from the Caucasus and the south.
“Stalin kept on hurrying the front commanders”.
At the State Defence Committee, Stalin suggested: “Only one man should direct operations to destroy the encircled enemy grouping. The fact that there are two front commanders is interfering with this.”
Zhukov notes: “This view was seconded by the committee members present.
“’Who gets the mission?’, Stalin asked.
“Somebody suggested K K Rokossovsky for the job.
“’Why don’t you say anything?’, Stalin turned to me.
“’I think both commanders are worthy’, I said. ‘True, A I Yeremenko will feel hurt if we put the forces of the Stalingrad Front under K K Rokossovsky’.
“’It is not the time for feeling hurt’, Stalin retorted curtly. Then he ordered ‘Call A I Yeremenko and notify him of the State Defence Committee Decision”.
So Zhukov phoned Yeremenko and told him that the State Defence Committee had decided to give Rokossovsky the job of snuffing out the enemy’s Stalingrad grouping (Zhukov, pp.420-421).
In January 1943 the position of the trapped German forces was catastrophic. “They had no prospect of relief, stocks had run out, troops were on starvation rations, hospitals were packed, the death rate from injury and disease was steep. The end was in sight.
“To avoid bloodshed, the Supreme Command ordered the Don Front Command to present the 6th Army with a surrender ultimatum on generally accepted terms. Despite the inescapable catastrophe, the Nazi command ordered its troops to reject the ultimatum and to fight to the last ditch, meanwhile holding out promises of relief that it never meant to fulfil” (Zhukov, p.422).
On 22 January, after the partial success of its 10 January offensive, the Front launched a fresh offensive. This is how an intelligence officer of Paulus’s 6th Army described the Soviet-compelled German retreat in his reminiscences:
“We were forced back along the entire front … This, true, was more in the nature of a flight … of downright panic in places… The road of retreat was strewn with corpses, which blizzards, seemingly out of compassion, soon blanketed with snow… Now we are retreating without order”. And further: “Out-racing death which easily caught up to pluck out whole batches of victims, the army rolled back on to a small scrap of land that was an inferno (Joachim Wieder, Catastrophe on the Volga, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1965, pp.95-100).
“The southern group of Germans was snuffed out on January 31, its remnants with General Field-Marshal Paulus, Commander of the 6th Army at their head surrendering. The remnants of the northern group capitulated on February 2. The great battle on the Volga, where the biggest-ever group of troops of Nazi Germany and its satellites met with a disastrous end, was now over” (Zhukov, p.423).
The battle of Stalingrad was exceptionally fierce. Between 19 November 1942 and 2 February 1943, a total of 32 Divisions and 3 Brigades were wiped out, while another 16 Divisions lost troops numbering half to three-quarters of their strength.
Total German losses in the Volga-Don-Stalingrad area ran into some 1.5 million men, 3,500 tanks and assault weapons, 12,000 guns and mortars and 3,000 aircraft, and great amounts of other equipment. “This crippling toll had a telling effect on the overall strategic situation, shaking Nazi Germany’s entire war machine to its foundations” (ibid.).
Going into the causes of the German debacle and the epoch-making victory of the Red Army, Zhukov lists the following:
1. German underestimation of the forces and potentialities of the Soviet Union, the indominable spirit of the people, hand in hand with an overestimation by the Nazis of their own forces and capabilities;
2. Skilful utilisation of the surprise factor, correct selection of the directions of the main effort, and accurate detection of the weak points in the German defences;
3. Correct determination of the manpower and materiel requirements for the quickest possible breakthrough of the tactical defences, the full-scale exploitation of an operative breakthrough with the object of enveloping the enemy main grouping;
4. The armour, mechanised forces, and aviation’s complete domination of the air, which played a decisive role in swiftly enveloping and routing the enemy;
5. The clarity of purpose, firmness and foresight which characterised the Red Army;
6. The Party and political work conducted by the Military Councils, political bodies, Party and YCL organisations and commanders “who fostered in the soldiers’ confidence and bravery, and encouraged mass heroism on the battlefield, thus contributing to the defeat of the Nazi army”(Zhukov, p.424);
7. “The strength and might of the Soviet people, a people nurtured by Lenin’s Party, a people whom no oppressor will ever bring to their knees” (Zhukov, p.426).
In addition, we would add that Stalin played an exceptionally crucial and brilliant role in this victory, which no other single person could have done at the time.
Role of Stalin
Zhukov in his memoirs, written after the death of Stalin, acknowledges Stalin’s role in the victory:
“Today, after Stalin’s death, the idea is current that he [Stalin] never heeded advice and decided questions of military policy all by himself. I can’t agree with it. When he realised that the person reporting knew what he was talking about, he would listen, and I know cases when he reconsidered his own opinions and decisions. This was the case in many operations” (Zhukov p.464, Grey p.368).
These words of such an authoritative person as Zhukov, who worked very closely with Stalin during the course of the war, demolish the lies propagated by that renegade, Khrushchev, and the bourgeois scribblers who pass for historians in the centres of imperialism.
Ian Grey, one of the very few bourgeois historians who have shown some objectivity, had this to say on the role and style of functioning of Stalin:
“According to Zhukov and Vasilevsky, Stalin was always prepared to listen to views contrary to his own, provided they were based on facts and presented lucidly… Indeed he went so far as to declare that front commanders should themselves decide the timing of their counteroffensives”. Even Grey could not resist the temptation of adding: “But the habit of command was deeply implanted and he always took control” (p.368).
Significance of the victory
The Soviet victory at Stalingrad turned the tide of the war in favour of the Soviet Union. With this victory, the Soviet armed forces began driving the Nazi hordes out of Soviet soil.
This was a victory not only for the Red Army, and the Red Air Force, the Red Navy but for the entire Soviet people who had laboured day and night to provide the army with the wherewithal successfully to rout the enemy.
“Faithful sons of Russia, Ukraine, Byelorussia, the Baltic Republics, Kazakhstan and Central Asian Republics earned deathless fame by their staunchness and mass heroism” (Zhukov, p.424).
With the Soviet victory at Stalingrad, even Nazi officers and generals, as well as German people, began to show more openly their aversion to Hitler and the entire Nazi political leadership as the victories promised by Hitler evaporated with their troops in the catastrophe in the Don and the Volga.
According to Lt-General Westphal, the Soviet victory at Stalingrad “came as a deep shock to both the German nation, and their army. Never before in all of Germany’s history had there been so fearful an end of so large a force” (quoted in Zhukov, p.424).
With the rout of the armies of Germany and her fascist allies, Germany’s influence on her allies declined precipitously; discord and friction set in, consequent upon loss of faith in Hitler’s leadership and a desire to back out of war in which he had embroiled them.
Further, the Soviet victory had a very sobering effect on neutrals and those who were still pursuing a wait-and-see policy, compelling them to acknowledge the vast might of the USSR and the inevitable defeat of Hitlerite Germany.
The Soviet victory brought joy to people throughout the world.
After the victory at Stalingrad, Zhukov was decorated with the Order of Suvorov (1st Class).
Zhukov regarded this decoration “… not only as a great personal honour, but also as a summons to bring nearer the hour of the complete rout of the enemy, the hour of full and final victory” (p.425).
Five other Soviet Generals, including K K Rokossovsky, were also awarded the Order of Sovorov following the victory at Stalingrad.
On the 80th anniversary of the victory of the Red Army at the battle of Stalingrad, we bow our heads to the heroic Soviet soldiers, and civilians, who sacrificed so much to achieve this victory and thus saved humanity from the clutches of fascism.
It is especially important to honour the heroes of Stalingrad presently as the Neo-Nazi warmongering Nato alliance is waging a war against Russia with the same aims that the fascists of yore, the Hitlerites, had against the USSR, i.e., to dismember and subjugate it.
Glory to the heroes of Stalingrad!!