President Franklin D. Roosevelt Explains War Strategy to America, Fireside Chat Feb. 23, 1942

President Franklin D. Roosevelt Explains War Strategy to America, Fireside Chat Feb. 23, 1942
In February, 1942 President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Americans to get a world map before his "Fireside chat" heard over the radio. He said, "I'm going to speak about strange places that many have never heard of ... places that are now the battleground for civilization." Photo from the Library of Congress and Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Stalingrad: The Most Important Battle

The Children's Dance Fountain in destroyed Stalingrad,
Photo from Wikimedia Commons and
Original photo by Emmanuil Yevzerikhin on Aug. 23, 1942

By Adrian McGrath

What was the single most important battle of World War II? Of course, historians and strategists can debate this. Was it Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939 which started the war? Was it the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor which brought America into the war? Was it the D-Day Invasion at Normandy which resulted in the liberation of Western Europe? Was it Operation Barbarossa in 1941, Hitler’s initial invasion of the Soviet Union? And so on…

Many battles and campaigns during the war had significant impacts. The Stalingrad Campaign, “Fall Blau” in German or Case Blue, starting in June of 1942 and the battle for the city of Stalingrad itself, however, turned the war from being a possible Axis victory -- with nightmarish consequences for Planet Earth -- into a probable Axis defeat. The German catastrophe at Stalingrad was the turning point of the war in Russia and, in reality, the turning point of the entire war. (Some people consider Stalingrad to be the single most destructive battle in all of human history.) After Stalingrad Nazi Germany was in steep decline; and, barring any major blunders by the Allies, Nazi Germany would probably fall. Japan would then be isolated and overwhelmed by the Allied powers, ending the war.

Adolf Hitler and German General
Walther von Brauchitsch planning the invasion
of the Soviet Union, 1941, Operation Barbarossa.
Photo by Wikimedia Commons 

Because of this Stalingrad can be seen as the most important battle of World War II. Stalingrad changed everything; it doomed the Nazis and the warped, Axis dreams of global conquest.

The Road to Stalingrad

In a sense the disaster at Stalingrad began years before the war when Adolf Hitler was a prisoner in 1924, in jail for treason after the Beer Hall Putsch where the National Socialists (Nazis) tried to take over the German government by force and failed. While in Landsberg prison, Hitler, along with his lieutenant Rudolf Hess, wrote the book Mein Kampf (My Struggle), which outlined Hitler’s sick philosophy and his dreams of future military conquest.

Map of the German Summer Offensive, 1942,
Fall Blau (Case Blue), a two prong attack on
the Caucasus oil fields and the city on the Volga
River, Stalingrad.  Photo by Wikimedia and US Army.

Hitler’s plan was always to acquire something called Lebensraum (Living Space), lands which had natural resources and ample room for the German people to live in and exploit. Hitler chose the lands to the east as his Lebensraum, especially Poland, Russia, and central Eurasia. He also saw the destruction of the Slavic Soviet Union as vital to his racial and political views.

Hitler wanted to destroy Communism, enslave the Slavic People, and annihilate the Jewish People, many of whom lived in Russia then. The Nazis, in their philosophy of hate, considered the Slavic people (Russian, Polish, and Serbian), along with some other people from Eastern Europe, to be "Untermenschen" or subhuman and fit only for slavery or annihilation. Many of the Jews murdered in the Holocaust came from Russia and the USSR. The destruction of the USSR was, therefore, one of Hitler’s main goals.

The Soviet Communists under Joseph Stalin also ruled over a brutal and repressive, totalitarian state. Stalin had in the late 1930s conducted a wide scale purge of Russian society -- often called the Great Purge or Great Terror -- in the political and civilian sectors, fanatically seeking out signs of disloyalty. At least a half of a million Soviet citizens died in this purge. Stalin purged the military officer corps too, arresting and even executing almost anyone he considered to be a threat to him politically. He thereby seriously weakened the Soviet military and made his own nation vulnerable to foreign attack.

Joseph Stalin, dictator of the Soviet Union
during World War II
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Stalin had also brought about the mass deaths of over a million people (perhaps several million people, the exact number is uncertain) through deliberate starvation and man-made famine in the Soviet-controlled Ukraine in the early 1930s. Stalin confiscated food supplies of people in the Ukraine and sent in soldiers to surround the area and enforce his policies. He did this after oppressing some Ukrainian peasants known as Kulaks, who had some financial means and property and who opposed his Communist economic and political policies of collectivism. Stalin feared disloyalty and possible rebellion in the Ukraine. The resulting mass death by starvation was known as the "Holodomor," which means "to kill by famine" in Ukrainian.

The Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union was, therefore, a life and death struggle between two brutal dictatorships with incompatible political philosophies, although both were tyrannies with no civil liberties for the people. In this struggle there would be no chivalry and prisoners-of-war were brutally treated.

Hitler turned away from the Battle of Britain incomplete, but believing Britain, though not conquered, was still isolated and weak. So, in June of 1941, Hitler launched the largest land battle in history -- Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union.

German soldiers advance in Fall Blau, 1942
Photo from Wikimedia Commons and Deutsches Bundesarchiv 

Although the Nazis advanced in stunning ways with their Blitzkrieg (Lightning War), destroying huge Russian armies by encirclement with their panzer tanks supported by Luftwaffe aircraft, the Germans failed to capture Leningrad and Moscow. The Germans killed millions of Russians and captured a tremendous amount of “living space” in the western USSR and in the Ukraine. But in December of 1941, the Soviets counter attacked and blocked the German advance. Hitler was sure, however, that in 1942 he could renew the offensive and knock out the Soviet Union.

Lacking the men and material to advance along the entire Eastern Front, Hitler decided to attack only in southern Russia. He would go for the vital oil fields in the Caucasus Mountains -- to distant and exotic places like Baku, Maikop, Batum. Oil was the Achilles Heel for a modern, mechanized military. Planes, tanks, ships, and machines needed oil.

The Germans could cut off the oil the Russians needed by shutting down river traffic on the Volga River. The Russians often shipped their oil supplies up north, especially to Moscow, along the Volga. Hitler could even take the oil fields for the Germans to use. Then he could move his armies north and take Moscow. All this was possible, he thought.

Soviet leaders at Stalingrad.
At left is Nikita Khrushchev, then a Politiburo
member in the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party
Photo from Wikimedia Commons and
Russian International News Agency, RIA Novosti

 To do this Hitler also needed to protect the flank of the German advance. He could do this by driving towards a major industrial city on the Volga. He could protect his flank, cut Volga river traffic, and seize or destroy a major Soviet factory city by besieging or taking the city of Stalingrad.

Taking Stalingrad, it must be made clear, was never the original goal of Fall Blau (Case Blue), the German offensive in 1942. The main goal was the oil of the Caucasus. But Hitler, in his madness, became obsessed with taking (and not merely besieging or isolating) the city of Stalingrad. Incredibly, the reason was because the word “Stalingrad” meant city of Stalin. (“Gorod” or the contraction “grad” means “city” in Russian.)

During the Russian Civil War in the 1920’s, Comrade Stalin led a group of Red Army soldiers and held the city, then called Tsaritsyn, for the Communists defeating the White Army Russians. After that war the city’s name was changed from Tsaritsyn to Stalingrad in honor of Stalin’s actions.

So, the battle for Stalingrad became a personal grudge match in 1942 between two murderous megalomaniacs who would fight to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians.
It was an unnecessary house-to-house battle for a city that never should have been fought -- unnecessary in a military science sense -- that determined the fate of nations and the history of the world.

Fall Blau Warps into “Rattenkrieg”

Savage fighting inside Stalingrad, 1942.
Photo by Wikimedia Commons and Deutsches Bundesarchiv

Case Blue began on June 28, 1942 with a standard German Blitzkrieg -- airplanes attacking and artillery fire, followed by panzer (tank) attacks at key points supported by panzer grenadiers (armored infantry in halftracks), followed by foot infantry. Army Group A would take the oil fields while Army Group B would protect the north flank to the Volga River. The Germans had over 2,000 Luftwaffe aircraft, almost 2,000 tanks, and nearly a million men. The Germans at first smashed through the Russians who had almost two million men. In typical clockwork Blitzkrieg style, the Germans advanced rapidly as they had before in Poland in 1939, in France in 1940, and in Russia in 1941. Now in 1942 they felt confident again and felt the setback in the winter of 1941 before Moscow was temporary.

Red Army soldiers in Stalingrad, 1942
Photo from Wikimedia Commons andRIA Novosti archive 

The Russians were confused, thinking the German goal was Moscow. In fact the targets were much deeper South. But unlike in 1941 the Russians were retreating in better form and were avoiding the mass encirclements that so devastated them in Barbarossa in 1941.

Falsely feeling success was imminent, Hitler began to play “miliary genius,” shifting troops around here and there, weakening his own positions. Rather than proceed to the targets “in detail” or one after the other, he continued to split his forces and attack simultaneously in the Caucasus and towards Stalingrad.

German soldiers fighting inside
Stalingrad, September, 1942
Photo from Wikimedia Commons
and Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung,
Oct. 1, 1942

It was at this point that Hitler doomed his invasion. He foolishly began to shift his focus towards capturing the city of Stalingrad. Stalin’s city became a symbol for the whole conflict -- German aggression and dreams of conquest and Russian determination and resistance.

Red Army soldiers in Stalingrad, 1942
Photo from Wikimedia Commons 

Rather than besiege the city and cut off river -- and oil -- traffic for the Soviets, Hitler decided he wanted to take the city with the German 6th Army under General Friedrich Paulus. Not trained or prepared for urban combat, the German army now had to fight house by house and building by building. The Luftwaffe bombed the city killing thousands, but ironically this made the defense better. The rubble became a splendid battleground for defenders to hide and fight. Soviet snipers were everywhere, and German tanks could not operate well in the debris and rubble of a bombed-out city.

From August to November, 1942, the Germans fought for the city. In many cases battles were fought in the sewers and cellars. This became known as “Rattenkrieg” or the war of rats. Eventually, the Germans held 90 % of Stalingrad. It appeared they were winning. But they were not.

The Russians, now guided by the brilliant Georgi Zhukov, sent in just enough men and supplies across the Volga to reinforce a small beachhead in Stalingrad, while huge Russian forces lined up miles away from the city preparing to attack the German flanks and encircle the 6th Army.

A Red Army soldier waves a flag of victory, 1943,
in Stalingrad. Photo from Wikimedia Commons
and Deutsches Bundesarchiv, original photo by
Georgii Zelma.

The German flanks were protected by poorer quality Axis allies, such as Romanian, Hungarian, and Italian troops, while better trained and equipped German troops were wasted in the Rattenkrieg. German generals warned Hitler of this dangerous situation and possible entrapment, but he ignored them. The Germans also were fooled and thought the Soviets did not possess the reserves they had.

Meanwhile, the original main aim of Fall Blau largely failed in taking or destroying the oil fields in the Caucasus because of stiff Soviet fighting, difficult mountainous terrain, and very lengthy supply lines. The Germans did take Maikop, but could only bomb Grozny from the air, and failed to reach the Baku area at all.

Marshal Georgi Zhukov, the brilliant
military leader of the Soviet Union.
Photo by Wikimedia Commons.  

And now on November 19, 1942, Zhukov launched his massive counterattack called Operation Uranus as the winter came on -- a second winter for which the German army was unprepared and ill equipped. Zhukov struck north and south of Stalingrad trapping the 6th Army. Hitler refused to allow the army to retreat from Stalingrad, instead he planned to supply them from the air. Boastful Hermann Goring said he could do this, but the mission failed, leaving the Germans in Stalingrad to starve and run out of ammunition and medical supplies.

A relief force call Wintergewitter was sent under the very capable Erich von Manstein, but it was stopped. The German 6th Army was now doomed. Hitler ordered Paulus to fight to the last round and not surrender. He even promoted him to Field Marshal, knowing no German of that rank had ever surrendered before.

But it was all too little, too late.  

Symbolic of the end of the Stalingrad Campaign --
a defeated German soldier, starving and freezing, surrenders
to a Russian soldier, 1943.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons and Deutsches Bundesarchiv 

What was left of the once proud German 6th Army surrendered to the Soviets on February 2, 1943. After eight months of brutal fighting -- from June, 1942 until February, 1943 -- and after much initial success, Fall Blau had ended in a complete German defeat and disaster. Stalingrad had profound and dreadful consequences for the Nazis. In addition to the massive loss of men and material and the permanent halt of a German advance to the East, the Russians, who were badly beaten in the past, now felt confident that they could meet and defeat any German army in the future.

German Field Marshal
Friedrich Paulus surrenders
at Stalingrad, 1943
Photo from Wikimedia and Deutsches Bundesarchiv 

The Germans lost about 300,000 men in the encircled city of greater Stalingrad. The other Axis forces of Hungary, Italy, and Romania lost about 100,000 each in the campaign. In the Fall Blau operation the Germans lost about 200,000 men (outside of the city of Stalingrad). Germany and the Axis were now running out of manpower.

The losses on the Soviet side were simply staggering, perhaps as many as 2,000,000 men died in the entire campaign, Fall Blau and the fight for the city. And the Soviets still won. The Russians had many more men left to fill the ranks of the Red Army, and factories beyond the Ural Mountains now operational to make tanks, equipment, and the machines of war … plus ample supplies sent to Russia from America. From now on the Soviets would drive westward towards Berlin.

Stalingrad was the turning point of World War II.

Sources and Further Reading:
Stalingrad: The Turning Point by Geoffrey Jukes, 1968, Ballentine’s Illustrated History; Stalingrad 1942 by Peter Antill, 2007, Osprey; Russia at War by Vladimir Karpov, 1987, Vendome Press; Wikipedia article on Case Blue ; Wikipedia article on Battle of Stalingrad ; All photos are cited at the captions with links. Note: Learn more about the battle at the website of the Museum Panorama of the Stalingrad Battle.


  1. Fascinating article. clear insight.

  2. Thanks! Unfortunately, many people in the West do not understand the importance of Russian Front during World War 2. We, understandably, tend to focus on things we are more familiar with like the Normandy Invasion, the Battle of the Bulge, and Pearl Harbor. And to a lesser extent the North African and Italian Campaigns with battles like El Alamein or Anzio. But the vast majority of the German troops during the war and the vast amount of German casualties were on the Russian Front. All the Fronts and the battles were important around the global, but we should also remember what happened in the USSR and especially at Stalingrad.