Deadliest Battle

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The Battle of Stalingrad is known as one of the most pivotal actions of World War II. More than a million lives were lost in seven months of unrelenting fighting, and the eventual German defeat destroyed Hitler’s dream of commanding a global empire. For decades after the war, the battle was seen as a defining victory for a cunning Joseph Stalin, whose military acumen and carefully executed withdrawal baited Hitler’s invincible army into a closed-range, urban battle of attrition that slowly decimated the German forces. But now, newly-released archives from behind the Iron Curtain are allowing a more detailed analysis of the fighting, and revealing a very different picture of the battle that changed the course of history.

The documents, combined with rare archival footage, detailed eye-witness accounts from survivors on both sides, and commentary from Sergei Khrushchev, whose father Nikita served on Stalin’s Military Council before becoming leader of the Soviet union himself, reveal a tale of complicated campaigns, titanic clash between the armies of two egotistical leaders who refused to back down, and poor decisions that cost hundreds of thousands of lives. More than a half-century later, the full impact of the horrific battle is finally being revealed.

THIRTEEN’s Secrets of the Dead: Deadliest Battle uncovers the evidence that described a forced retreat by the Russians, not a tactical one, in addition to much fiercer fighting in the countryside than previously thought. The battle not only turned the tide of the war in the East, it established the Soviet Union as an emerging superpower for the looming Cold War. The film premieres nationally Wednesday, May 19, 2010 at 8 p.m. (ET) on PBS (check local listings). Actor Liev Schreiber (Taking Woodstock and X-Men Origins: Wolverine) narrates.

“The Battle of Stalingrad is a classic case of history being written by the victors,” says Jared Lipworth, executive producer of Secrets of the Dead. “The Soviets won, so the historical writings make Stalin out to be a great military leader who made all the right decisions. But when you look back at the first-hand reports from the front and examine the orders he gave, you see a very different scenario and a far more inglorious Stalin.”

With vivid archival footage, Deadliest Battle brings to life this unforgettable chapter in war history. The documentary features survivor accounts from Germany’s 6th Army Lieutenant, Wigand Wuster, soldier Walter Guenther and Red Army Commander Anatoly Merezhko, as well as detailed analysis of declassified records by retired U.S. Army Colonel and military historian David Glantz. Sergei Khrushchev recounts colorful stories about the tense relationship between his father and the testy, egomaniacal Stalin. In June of 1941, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union with the largest troop offensive in military history. The offensive, called Operation Barbarossa, employed over four million Axis soldiers. Within ten weeks, Nazi forces had occupied most of Eastern Europe. But they were stalled by bad weather and a Soviet counterattack before they could capture Moscow. A year later, Hitler, determined to take down the Soviet Union, embarked on a new campaign to encircle and destroy the Soviet forces in southern Russia and capture the country’s valuable oil fields. The new offensive, called Operation Blue, proceeded so well that Hitler decided to capture the strategically irrelevant but unfortunately-named city of Stalingrad, just to embarrass his nemesis, Stalin.

Popular misconceptions focus on Stalin’s strategic retreat as the Nazis advanced. This organized withdrawal is said to have lured the Germans into a trap within the confines of the city. It’s an ingenious plan, but it didn’t happen. In fact, recently disclosed documents have revealed that Stalin gave strict orders for his men to resist at all costs—never to retreat. And he even ordered the creation of ‘blocking detachments,’ which were instructed to shoot any soldiers who abandoned the front. One report indicated that these detachments detained more than 600,000 of their own troops, and killed more than 10,000.

With the offensive going so well for the Nazis, Hitler prematurely declared victory and diverted his forces, including the 4th Panzer tank army, to other locations. This gave the Red Army a chance to regroup and counter-attack the remaining German forces near the village of Kotluban. History has all but overlooked this action because of the huge number of Soviet troops who were killed, but in actual fact, it set the stage for the victory in Stalingrad and sealed the fate of Hitler’s forces.

By the time the campaign was over, 750,000 Soviet and 850,000 Axis forces had been killed. And more civilians died in the battle of Stalingrad than in the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. The battle was a turning point in world history, and now, the way it actually played out can finally be told.

THIRTEEN’s Secrets of the Dead: Deadliest Battle was produced by Timeline Productions for THIRTEEN in association with WNET.ORG. Brian J. McDonnell is producer/director/editor, Michael Eldridge is producer/writer, Michael L. McKimmey is producer/editor/camera-person, and Jim Hayden is executive producer for Planet Pictures. At THIRTEEN, Jared Lipworth is executive producer. William R. Grant is executive-in-charge.