Josef Stalin needed a tough officer to manage the Soviet 62nd Army in its defense of Stalingrad. Vasily Chuikov was that man. During his briefing, Chuikov was told that the Germans were determined to take the city at any price but there could be no Soviet surrender. Chuikov was asked how he interpreted his task. He answered, “We will defend the city or die in the attempt.”
Immediately after Chuikov arrived, he learned that soldiers were deserting to the eastern side of the Volga River away from the city. Chuikov mandated that all crossings should be secured and anyone attempting to cross the Volga was to be executed. Stalin’s city would be turned into a graveyard for both sides.
Friedrich Paulus, commander of the German Sixth Army, told Hitler that he estimated he could take the city after 10 days of fighting. But as the Germans entered the city, fresh Soviet reinforcements, including elite Guards divisions, counter-attacked fiercely.
Soviet soldiers stubbornly resisted despite the German army’s technical and tactical advantages. Paulus’ troops secured Mamayev Kurgan, a large man-made Tartar burial mound in the center of Stalingrad that could provide artillery observers an ideal view of the river and city. The Soviet 95th Rifle Division was nearly destroyed defending the Kurgan hill, but it exacted a fearful toll from the German attackers.
Chuikov developed new tactics to mitigate German advantages, including the German overwhelming superiority in the air. Chuikov ordered his men to “hug” the enemy – stay at close quarters with German front line units so that the enemy could not use their air support and artillery without risk to their own men.
As the battle ground on through September and October, it became called “Verdun on the Volga” after the incredibly bloody 11-month long battle in the First World War. To the average German soldier fighting in Stalingrad, it became “Rattenkrieg” or War of the Rats. German soldiers feared the growing number of effective Soviet snipers, and ambushes by Soviet defenders armed with submachine guns that suddenly appeared from the city’s rubble.
Chuikov’s no-retreat orders made it clear that “there was no land beyond the Volga.” In two months of fighting, the 62nd Army was shattered, but it still clung to a narrow slice of Stalingrad along the Volga River. Most important, Chuikov had worn down nearly a dozen German divisions – thereby fatally weakening the German Sixth Army.
As winter descended, a massive Soviet counter-attack in November surrounded the decimated German Sixth Army. Of nearly 250,000 trapped German and axis soldiers only about 91,000 became captives two and a half months later when Paulus surrendered on February 2nd, 1943. Historians still argue which battles were the most decisive, but this was the first disaster on this scale suffered by Adolf Hitler’s forces – Nazi Germany never regained the initiative in World War Two after Stalingrad.
Photo: German machine gun from the calculation of the Soviet tank T-34 in Stalingrad.