Stalingrad by Antony Beevor is a book every man should read. The brutal, five-month struggle between the German Wehrmacht and the Red Army broke new records in human brutality. The Soviet counter-offensive towards the battle’s end, trapping and annihilating the Sixth Army, became the high water mark of the German Reich. It is perhaps the closest humanity has ever come to answering the question – what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?
10. Striving for intoxication
In an attempt to forget the living hell they were fighting in, soldiers on both sides went to enormous lengths to dull their senses. After passing it through a gas mask filter, many drank antifreeze, or industrial or surgical alcohol. Many were poisoned, blinded, or even died as a result.
Tobacco, too, was heavily valued, with most soldiers smoking constantly in battle. Finding paper with which to roll up cigarettes sometimes proved difficult. Soldiers risked execution for picking up enemy propaganda leaflets for such a purpose.
9. Being in the 13th Guards Rifle Division
You may have heard of these guys if you’ve ever seen the film “Enemy at the Gates” or played the Russian campaign in Call of Duty. Both start with a scene where a boatload of soldiers crosses the Volga River into the burning inferno of Stalingrad.
Of the 10,000 men who began crossing the Volga on September 14th 1942, over half were dead within a few days and only about 300 survived the “Stalingrad academy of street fighting.” This was hardly atypical. The average life expectancy of Russian soldiers fighting in the city often dropped below 24 hours.
One craft was recorded with 436 bullet holes after a single crossing. Many went across with no training or ammunition, or had to wait for the man next to them to die so they could pick up his rifle.
8. Women warriors
Your average woman today has to do very little to be declared a “hero” in the media. A key feature of Soviet Russia however was that everyone was equally oppressed, meaning woman could be sent in to do the dirtiest of work just as men. Many served as pilots, anti-aircraft gunners, snipers and surgeons.
Take Zinaida Gavrielova, an eighteen-year-old medical student. As the head of the Russian 62nd Army’s hundred-strong “sanitary company” her job consisted of crawling forward under fire to rescue wounded soldiers and dragging them back to the Volga bank.
Or Gulya Koroleva, a twenty-year-old who left her baby son home in Moscow to volunteer as a nurse. During the battle she was credited with having “brought over a hundred wounded soldiers back from the front line and killed fifteen fascists herself.” She was awarded the Order of the Red Banner…posthumously.
In the air, several all-women aviation regiments were formed, led by the famous Marina Raskova. Flying outdated biplanes whose top speed was below the stalling speed of Luftwaffe fighters, the Germans soon nicknamed them the “night witches.” They flew more than 24,000 sorties during the war at a time when Western women had barely left the kitchen.
7. The NKVD
How do you convince a million Russian peasants to fight and die in a living hell like Stalingrad?
The military wing of the communist party, the NKVD, was tasked with “maintaining discipline” at Stalingrad. They carried out 13,500 executions during the battle. Some heinous crimes meriting death included –
- Retreating without orders
- Self-inflicted wounds
- Attempting to surrender
- Failing to shoot at any comrades trying to desert or surrender
- Being in command of any troops which had deserted or surrendered
The list of possible infringements, described as “extraordinary events,” was endless. One lieutenant captured shortly before the battle in August managed to escape his German captors. Upon reporting for duty again he was arrested, treated as a deserter and sent to a penal company.
Even a soldier who discharged himself from a field hospital to return to his unit could be condemned as a deserter. One man was convicted of a self-inflicted wound according to the logic that he had tried to “hide his crime by applying a bandage…”
Paranoia was so great behind the Russian lines that groundcrews at airfields were forbidden to count the number of airplanes on the ground at any one time. It soon became common practice to place a second line of NKVD troops behind the frontlines to prevent desertions and shoot at any who wavered.
6. The feldgendarmerie
Not to be outdone, the Germans had their own equivalents of the NKVD – among them the Feldgendarmerie.
Even out in the steppes of southern Russia, 2,000 km from Berlin, Jews were forced to wear a yellow star on their sleeve and anyone found to be a member of the Communist party was handed over to the SS. Over 60,000 civilians were deported back to Germany as slave labor. Farmers were tortured to find where they had hidden their grain and their homes were torn down for firewood.
Maintaining law and order grew harder as the battle turned against the Germans, particularly among their so-called “allies.” To make up the numbers promised, one Romanian division contained 2,000 convicts previously sentenced for crimes such as rape and murder.
Tens of thousands of Russian defectors soon made up the 6th Army’s ranks as well. Loathing the Soviet regime and fearful of reprisals, they were perhaps the German’s most reliable helpers, though as Slavs, they all had to be re-labelled as “Cossacks” before they were allowed to wear German uniforms.
5. Being a civilian
Nearly a million people lived in Stalingrad on the verge of the battle. While hundreds of thousands fled in last-minute evacuations many remained trapped on the west bank of the Volga. Despite all odds, about ten thousand were still alive upon the German surrender in February 1943.
Civilian dwellings were often buried deep underground. The Tsaritsa Gorge in southern Stalingrad was home to thousands who dug enormous caves into it’s sides. Others survived in cellars or even sewers. During breaks in the fighting women could be seen emerging to cut the meat off dead horses before rats got to them.
Disease, the cold and starvation slowly killed thousands. Civilians who fled from the city and made the arduous trek across the steppe often found little shelter for many days. The remnants of families huddled together at night were found by roadsides, babies died in their mother’s arms because of the cold and bitter winds.
4. Being captured
Despite enticing many Russians to surrender with promises of adequate food and shelter, the Germans offered little sympathy to their prisoners. Prison camps were little more than a barbed wire enclosure out on the open steppe. Food supplies stopped entirely after the German encirclement. Of the 3,500 Russian prisoners trapped with the 6th Army only 20 survived, and that had been by resorting to cannibalism.
The attitude of the Russians was no different. Their treatment of the invaders who had spent the past two years busily murdering, pillaging and raping their homeland was predictable. Of the 290,000 Germans surrounded in November, 90,000 survived to be taken prisoner, of which only 5,000 ever saw their homes again.
3. Surviving the winter
Once winter hit, temperatures around Stalingrad plunged to as low as -30 Celsius. Meat and food froze into barely edible blocks that had to be sawed open because they were too hard for knives. By October the Volga had begun to freeze over. Many Russian reinforcements were crushed by incoming ice floes while trying to cross.
Within the German encirclement, called the “Kessel” (cauldron), there was eventually no fuel left to melt snow for washing or shaving. A bath and clean underwear were as distant a dream as a proper meal. Soldiers’ minds went blank because the chilling of their blood slowed down mental activity. Walking wounded and sick made their own way to the rear through the snow. Many stopped to rest and never rose again.
There they sit like hairy savages in stone-age caves, devouring horseflesh in the smoke and gloom, amidst the ruins of a beautiful city that they have destroyed
2. The German surrender
Ever since the Germans had advanced upon Stalingrad in August, Stalin and his generals had been planning a massive counter-offensive. Hitler believed that Russia’s armies were finished. However, the three million Axis troops fighting on the Eastern front were still facing five million Russians. Stalingrad had become the bait in one of the largest traps in history. On 19th November 1942 the trap was sprung.
Every imaginable horror faced the beleaguered German troops. As winter came the ground became too hard to dig trenches, causing thousands to eventually die of exposure. Food supplies were running dangerously low by December. Even when food was delivered, many soldiers quickly died from over-eating, akin to concentration camp survivors.
As clean clothes became as elusive as a hot meal, lice spread to nearly every member of the Sixth Army. Epidemics of typhus, dysentery, and a dozen other diseases swept through the German ranks.
A scene of utter chaos pervaded at Pitomnik airfield, the only major airstrip within the Kessel. Thousands of critically wounded were packed in rows along its edges while the burnt-out husks of destroyed aircraft and piles of stacked corpses lay nearby. So desperate was the need for fuel that the signpost at the airfield’s edge was removed and replaced with the gruesome sight of a horse’s leg stuck in a mound of snow with the sign re-attached to it’s top.
The final blow began in January 1943 when the Russians began their assault to crush the Kessel. The remains of the 6th Army retreated east towards the ruins of Stalingrad. The spectacle of defeat grew more terrible the closer retreating soldiers came to the city:
As far as the eye can see lie soldiers crushed by tanks, hopelessly moaning wounded, frozen corpses, vehicles abandoned through lack of fuel, blown-up guns and miscellaneous equipment…
1. Child “traitors”
Civilians in Stalingrad didn’t just have the Germans and the elements to worry about; running afoul of the Soviet side was tragically all too easy.
In their desperation for food many civilians begged the Germans for help, who occasionally obliged. As many simple tasks in Stalingrad were dangerous because of Soviet snipers, German soldiers sometimes promised young Russian boys and girls a crust of bread in return for something as simple as refilling their water bottles down by the Volga.
When the Soviets realized what was happening they shot children on such missions without hesitation. This was not just a local anomaly, but rather an official Soviet policy. Stalin had ordered the previous year that Red Army troops were to kill any civilians obeying German orders, even if under duress.
Stalingrad has far too many anecdotes to mention here about what happens when hell descends to Earth. Both sides showed absolutely no mercy. Every red-blooded man should give it a read.