Secrets of The Dead: Deadliest Battle
Narrator: The battle of Stalingrad is known as one of the pivotal actions of World War II.
It was also the deadliest battle in the history of warfare.
Kevin Farrell: If you had to pick the most important battle of the Second World War, Stalingrad stands at the top.
Narrator: More than one million lives were lost in seven months of unrelenting fighting. And the eventual German defeat destroyed Hitler’s dream of commanding a global empire.
Walter Guenther: Everybody thought that’s the beginning of the end. It sent shockwaves through Germany.
Narrator: For decades after the war, the battle was seen as a defining victory for a cunning Joseph Stalin, whose military strategy stalled the relentless German advance.
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…
Here at the Citadel, the famed Military College in South Carolina, retired US Army Colonel and military historian David Glantz has made a career out of studying the War on the Eastern Front.
Glantz has written more than a hundred books on the Soviet Army and the Soviet/German War.
He is one of the world’s leading experts on the topic. But recently, he has been forced to rethink his understanding of Stalin’s most famous victory.
David Glantz: All the questions I had were now answered. My single volume book on Stalingrad suddenly was transformed into a 3-volume book, from 400 pages to 3 volumes of 900 each.
Narrator: The pivotal battle raged across the Ukraine and Southern Russia during the second half of 1942. It ended in a bloody war of attrition in-and-around the frozen city of Stalingrad.
When the last Axis forces surrendered on February 2nd, 1943, the story of the fighting was cast in Stalin’s favor.
For years, history held that the Soviet dictator had drawn Hitler into a trap. That the Red Army victory over powerful Nazi forces was a masterstroke of Stalin’s ingenuity.
But this is history told by the victors, and the truth is far more complex.
The Battle of Stalingrad was a titanic clash between two of the world’s most infamous dictators: Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler.
Hitler believed that the Communist regime had been created by a “Jewish conspiracy,” since many prominent founders of the Communist movement, including Leon Trotsky, were Jewish. The Fuhrer wanted the country destroyed at all costs.
Kevin Farrell: Adolph Hitler, one of the most studied men in history, obviously one of the most evil, his reasoning was that the fundamental nature of human struggle was a struggle between the races. And in line with this, the Soviet Union represented the combined evils in his words of Bolshevism and Judaism, and was the greatest threat to the Aryan race.
Narrator: Stalin, on the other hand, was a megalomaniac who just wanted power.
Sergei Khrushchev: Stalin was different. Stalin was a tyrant, like Ivan the Terrible. He was a genius of the intrigue. He was like Wizard of Oz, but very evil Wizard of Oz.
Narrator: Sergei Khrushchev’s father, Nikita, knew Stalin well. Nikita would one day become leader of the Soviet Union himself. But during WWII, he served as Stalin’s political officer, and was a member of Stalin’s Military Council. He was a firsthand witness to the dictator’s decisions.
In 1939, Stalin signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler. It effectively gave the Nazis permission to launch an assault on Poland.
Stalin’s pact was a calculated risk—an attempt to buy himself some time. In 1939, the Soviet military was no match for Germany’s war machine. So Stalin wanted Hitler distracted elsewhere while he built up the Soviet defenses.
Sergei Khrushchev: Stalin was a realist and he understood that sooner or later Hitler will attack him. He was not ready in 1941. And then everything was torn apart because Hitler defeated France and Great Britain in weeks in 1940. And when Hitler occupied Paris, Stalin looks like a rabbit sitting in front of a snake.
Narrator: Walter Guenther was a German soldier who fought in France and the Balkans as the Nazi Army cut a path across Europe. He was then deployed to Romania. By 1941, it was clear to him that Hitler was preparing for an attack on the Soviets.
Walter Guenther: We saw more and more German units move to the Romanian-Russian border along the Black Sea. And said, well oh, I hope nothing will happen but June 22nd Hitler attacked.
Narrator: The offensive was called Operation Barbarossa—the largest invasion in history. Over four million Axis soldiers poured into Soviet territory. By September, they had captured more than three million Soviet soldiers and destroyed 20,000 tanks.
No nation or empire had ever endured such losses without falling.
Ten weeks into the operation, Nazi forces had occupied the majority of Eastern Europe, including the Ukraine—the most industrialized area of the Soviet Union.
The next target: Moscow.
But autumn rains brought paralyzing mud, and the Germans were forced to wait for the November freeze before beginning their assault.
The delay gave the Red Army time to call in thousands of Siberian troops, and launch a counterattack as the Germans pressed towards the Capital.
Hitler hoped to deliver a quick, knockout blow. But the Soviets dug in. It was soon clear this would be no easy fight. By late winter, the weather had turned bitterly cold and the Germans were exhausted.
Operation Barbarossa stalled—then faltered—as the Nazis failed to capture Moscow.
But Hitler was not deterred. Believing the Red Army was on the brink of collapse and would never survive another offensive, he began preparations for a new, large-scale campaign. He called it Operation Blue.
David Glantz: He was bound and determined to launch a new campaign in ’42 to finish the job in defeating the Red Army and destroying the Soviet Union. Unlike in ’41, in ’42 he chose to deliver his attack in Southern Russia, a narrower sector. Believing that with the power he had at his disposal he could actually accomplish his objectives.
Kevin Farrell: Case Blau, Operation Blue, the German offensive to be launched in the summer of 1942 was really Hitler’s plan to not just regain the initiative but to remove the Soviet Union from the war.
Narrator: Operation Blue was intended to encircle and destroy the entire Red Army in Southern Russia. That task fell upon German Army Group South.
Hitler divided South into two armies. Army Group A was ordered to seize the caucus oil fields, after Army Group B moved Eastward to secure the Volga river.
The drive to the Volga would be led by the German 6th Army, which Hitler had declared could storm the heavens.
The success of Operation Blue would ultimately depend on one man: General Freidrich Paulus.
David Glantz: General Paulus had commanded 6th Army since the beginning of 1942. Paulus’ strength was his calmness as a commander. The man was an excellent planner, he had planned many of the previous German operations.
Kevin Farrell: He had absolute faith in Adolph Hitler. In fact he was a stern believer in authoritarian rule and this is one of the things that led to his demise.
Narrator: The buildup to Operation Blue was massive. In the spring of 1942, 68 divisions, 3,000 tanks and the largest air force of its day began assembling in southern Ukraine.
One of the men who deployed outside the city of Kharkov was 6th Army Lieutenant Wigand Wuster. He had fought on the Western front, and was confident that the Nazi’s would be victorious.
Wigand Wuster (Translator): As we had unloaded and marched into the city, the German soldiers said: “Don’t be so proud, don’t boast so much. Within a few days you will be much quieter.”
Narrator: Wuster’s fellow soldiers were right. The Eastern Front would not fall as easily as the West.
Stalin had recognized the buildup, and realized that Hitler was aiming to take the Soviets out of the war with one decisive action. He ordered a pre-emptive attack to knock the Germans off balance.
David Glantz: Ultimately Stalin insisted upon some offensive operations if only to disrupt the plans the Germans had for renewed offensive operations for the summer of ’42. This produced 2 local Soviet offensives. The first to be conducted in Kharkov in May 1942 and the second to be conducted in the Crimea.
Narrator: The Kharkov offensive was a full-scale attempt to decimate Hitler’s forces. For two days, the Red Army drove decisively west into German-controlled territory.
It seemed that the Soviet strike was working. But then, the tide turned.
Lieutenant Wuster remembers watching the Red Army advance.
Wigand Wuster (Translator): The Russians broke through near Kharkov. We were thrown into battle as we had unloaded at the station. And there I shot down several Russian tanks with my 10th battery.
Narrator: Wuster wasn’t the only one shooting down Russian tanks. Germany’s superior firepower took its toll. Within days, the Kharkov offensive was turning into a disaster for the Red Army. It was soon strung out over 70-miles—an increasingly difficult line to defend.
To make matters worse, the Soviets saw German tank divisions amassing on both flanks, threatening to encircle their offensive.
Soviet intelligence advised Stalin to order a retreat.
But for Stalin, retreat was not an option.
The Red Army’s Chief of Staff went to Nikita Khrushchev—the ranking member of Stalin’s Military Council—hoping he could change Stalin’s mind. Nikita later told his son about the exchange.
Sergei Khrushchev: His tears are going on his face and he told Comrade Khrushchev you have to understand what’s happening. If we will not pull our troops out we would lose everything. And then my father told I call Stalin and Stalin was at his country house sitting with his close associates. Comrade Stalin told my father, don’t put your nose in the military affairs, you understand nothing and he hang his telephone. And the next day the Germans start this offensive on both sides, they encircle half a million of the soldiers and they lost everything.
Narrator: To the south, Stalin’s offensive on the Crimea Peninsula also ended in disaster. The Red Army attack was no match for Nazi General, Eric von Manstein.
Von Manstein was a hero in Germany for his work in the West. He was the commander of the 11th Army, which had steamrolled across France in a matter of weeks.
He had little trouble repelling the Russian attack.
David Glantz: The impact of these defeats was catastrophic for the Soviets. Because it meant that on the eve of German Operation Blue, the German summer campaign, the Red Army was deprived of something like 500,000 troops defending in Southern Russia. They had no troops to plug those holes.
Narrator: On the morning of June 28th 1942, Operation Blue began.
German Army Groups A and B attacked with a staggered offensive. First to strike was Group B—which included Paulus’s 6th Army.
Then came Group A, heading to the all-important oil fields in the Caucuses.
The staggered attack meant the German Air Force could provide deadly air cover to one Army Group and then the other.
The Nazis quickly opened up a 200-mile gash in the Red Army line. For the German soldiers pressing forward, it was almost too easy.
Walter Guenther: You saw infantry to the right and to the left. At least the feeling you are not alone in an unknown country and, uh even being attacked there is help to the right as well as to the left of you.
Wigand Wuster (Translator): We marched on. For a long time we were only marching, and our horses got exhausted. Then we used Russian tractors or tanks we had taken. We were like a group of gypsies moving eastward.
Narrator: The lead-up to Operation Blue has been well-documented. But how the ensuing battle actually played out is not as well known. It is here that the newly uncovered records are overturning accepted wisdom.
David Glantz: What’s unique about the battle of Stalingrad in terms of source materials today is that we now have ground truth on the battle. I mean the records of those armies and soldiers who participated in the fighting. For example, in the case of the German records we now have daily records of German 6th Army, which had been lost for over 50 years.
Narrator: Many of the 6th Army documents have only recently been located.
And on the Soviet side, all but the most heavily-censored accounts were hidden from Western historians until the USSR dissolved.
David Glantz: Whatever books were published were generally politically oriented books published to proclaim the glories of the Red Army’s victories, explain their defeats, but in so far as possible cover up the blemishes and warts on that military record.
Narrator: For years, crucial documents were stuck behind the Iron Curtain. But in 2000, nine years after the fall of the Soviet Union, they were finally released.
David Glantz: If you examine these records, records that weren’t available to previous historians, you can identify certain misconceptions that pertain to how and why the battle was conducted, and the outcome of the battle overall. We can now take these misconceptions and convert them into truths.
Narrator: The most poular of these misconceptions deals with Stalin’s strategy as the Nazis advanced. History tells us that Stalin ordered his men to fall back, luring the Germans into a trap within the confines of the city.
The plan looks like military genius—a great achievement that has made its way into Soviet lore.
But David Glantz has discovered that this popular story is false.
David Glantz: There are 2 fundamental myths that have been destroyed by the new archival releases. The first is that Stalin deliberately, once the Germans began Operation Blue, ordered his troops in Southern Russia to withdraw.
Narrator: In fact, the archives reveal Stalin gave strict orders for his men to hold their positions at all costs.
David Glantz: This volume of Stavka orders and directives contains orders from the Stavka regarding Stalin’s desire that his armies stand fast and fight. I quote from a 9 July order “there can be no sort of withdrawal.”
Narrator: Stalin believed that under no circumstances should his men fall back. And if they were driven back, they were ordered to execute a “fighting withdrawal”—battling tooth and nail for every inch of ground they gave up.
But no matter how adamant Stalin’s orders, the Red Army was no match for the overpowering Nazi advance.
David Glantz: The armies that conducted those stand-fast operations and fighting withdrawals were largely destroyed by the German juggernaut as it advanced across Southern Russia.
Narrator: Red Army Commander Anatoly Merezhko, who was moving westward with his cadet company, witnessed the Soviet front collapsing around him.
Merezhko saw men retreating to stay alive, not an organized effort to draw Hitler’s Army into a trap.
Anatoly Merezhko (Translator): We went to the crossroads of the fields and there we met groups of people who were running away from Kharkov, dragging along, hopeless soldiers from the Red Army. They were all so depressed and hopeless that they sometimes gave us their weapons.
Narrator: Merezhko and his company did their best to slow the Germans and conduct fighting withdrawals. But each day, they would lose miles to the ferocious Nazi onslaught.
Around them, the Russian soil ran red with the blood of their countrymen.
Anatoly Merezhko (Translator): Often we retreated leaving the dead unburied; we just left them on the ground seized by the Germans. The hardest thing was to look into the eyes of old people, women and children, who asked us why we were leaving them. You understand how hard it was to listen to those pleas. The tears appeared in the eyes, but we really could not stop the Germans.
Narrator: The emboldened Axis forces pushed forward, using both guns and psychological warfare to break the spirit of the Soviet soldiers.
Anatoly Merezhko (Translator): The Germans were dropping leaflets with the following inscription: “Stalin’s little devils, fight against your commanders; surrender or else you will be destroyed.” And on one of those days the distance between our positions was 300 meters, the Germans announced from the speakerphone: “Look what will happen with you if you do not surrender!” We saw how they took out five half-naked people at the fortifications and shot them down.
Narrator: The Nazi methods were working. Despite Stalin’s orders to stand and fight—or at least battle in retreat, the Red Army was in disarray. Men on the run, just trying to survive.
Stalin was livid when he heard the news from the front.
Sergei Khrushchev: when they saw this magnitude of this defeat and when there was all these Germans rolled through there and there was no possibility to stop anybody, Stalin called Khrushchev, my father, he told come here to Moscow.
Narrator: As the ranking member of Stalin’s Military Council, Khrushchev knew he would bear the brunt of Stalin’s ire.
Sergei Khrushchev: Khrushchev, my father, came to Stalin’s Dacha. Stalin asked him, comrade Khrushchev do you remember what happened to the Russian Imperial General who lost that battle in East Prussia from 1914? And my father told yes I remember it was General Somsonov he committed suicide. And then Stalin answered please eat your soup and answered nothing. But my father did not want to commit suicide. Really he did not think it was his fault, it was Stalin’s fault.
Narrator: Today’s military strategists agree. Most believe that if Stalin had ordered an organized retreat and given his men time to regroup, they could have re-established their defenses and avoided much of the slaughter that took place.
But the iron-fisted Stalin refused to back down.
In fact, recently-discovered archives show just how far he was willing to go to stifle the Nazi offensive. In Stalin’s eyes, resistance was the highest priority. His troops had to keep fighting.
On July 28th, 1942, Stalin resorted to draconian measures. Order 2-2-7, issued by the Commissary of Defense proclaimed: “Not One Step Back.”
Stalin would not let his forces retreat.
To enforce 2-2-7, he ordered each army to create “blocking detachments,” with instructions to shoot panicked soldiers who were abandoning the front.
Merezhko hoped the blocking detachments, and new arrivals like his cadets, would stem the tide of fleeing men.
Anatoly Merezhko (Translator): We thought that we would stop the retreat. In the end though the order set up the barrier but the retreats continued. But we needed to stop the panic, which almost all the divisions were overwhelmed with. Especially those, who took part in Kharkov’s operation. They were frightened not only by the infantry, tanks, and aviation but even just the word, “Germans” made them run away.
Narrator: The blocking detachments were placed under the command of the NKVD—the Soviet police forces. One report reveals that they detained more than 600,000 troops, arrested more than 25,000, and shot as many as 10,000 of their own countrymen.
Ironically, the NKVD did a better job of pulling Soviet soldiers out of circulation than the Germans. The initial success of Operation Blue had left the Nazis unprepared for the vast numbers of captured men.
Hitler had enough troops and firepower to defeat the Red Army, but not enough to round up prisoners and transport them away from the front.
David Glantz: Although the Germans destroyed in the neighborhood of 6 Soviet armies, and encircled many of those forces, they simply did not have the infantry strength to police up, to capture those individuals that they encircled.
Narrator: Many potential prisoners escaped. Those who didn’t were kept in outdoor cages, where freezing conditions and lack of food meant almost certain death.
But for the Nazis, prisoners were a minor concern. Operation Blue was proceeding as planned, and what was left of Stalin’s Red Army was being pushed steadily eastward.
By early July, a jubilant Adolph Hitler proclaimed: ‘The Russian is finished.”
Anticipating the impending collapse of the Soviet Union, Hitler modified Operation Blue. First, he ordered the 6th Army to seize Stalin’s namesake—the city of Stalingrad.
The rest of Army Group B was split off to take the Caucuses, while a major portion of Army Group A was sent north to attack Leningrad.
Hitler’s confidence was premature. He was proclaiming victory before the battles had been won.
He was spreading his forces too thin, pulling much-needed mechanized support away from his infantry.
The 6th Army was hardest hit. As the men prepared for their assault on Stalingrad, the 4th Panzer—their supporting tank Army—headed to the Caucuses.
This left the 6th Army vulnerable as it moved towards the city.
The Panzer Mark III’s were workhorses of the Nazi Army. Designed by Daimler-Benz, the heavily-fortified, 23-ton tanks could reach speeds of up to 21 miles per hour.
Another variation was the Sturmgeschutz III, built on the chassis of the Panzer. This artillery weapon, known as the StuG, sat low to the ground and was equipped with a powerful 75-millimeter gun. It was a true “tank killer.”
The German tanks outgunned and outmaneuvered their Soviet counterparts. Stalin was relying on the T-26, a slow-moving, lightly-armed vehicle. In 1941, the Nazis destroyed more than 20,000 Soviet tanks.
Kevin Farrell: We tend in the West to think of our own technological supremacy, but we often overlook the fact German Panzer design, if you will the advances that they tried to push and they did succeed achieving remarkable advances in their armored fleet, these were designed to combat Soviet numerical advantage but also Soviet technological advantage.
Narrator: The 6th Army would be more vulnerable without the Panzer Army’s support, but at that time, it hardly seemed to matter.
In July of 1942, Soviet resistance was crumbling, and Hitler’s troops were driving towards Stalingrad.
The rest of the world was falling as well. Continental Europe was under Nazi control.
In Africa, legendary Field Marshall Erwin Rommel had driven British forces back into Egypt and was poised to take Cairo.
And Nazi subs were prowling the US coastline, menacing the Allies newest partner.
David Glantz: Operation Blue was proceeding so well that Hitler now wanted his new prize, the city of Stalingrad. While not as strategically important as the oilfields in the Caucuses, taking Stalin’s namesake city would be a body blow to the Soviet Army. Like the misconception of Stalin’s retreat, it was once again believed that the road to the city was a simple one.
Narrator: It turned out to be anything but.
As the Nazis rumbled toward Stalingrad, the Soviets were regrouping as best they could. Stalin began deploying newly formed armies into the Don Bend—a section of the Don River that formed a sideways “U.” It was an ideal spot to make a stand.
This desperate gambit has been known about for years, but only recently have we realized how effective it was.
And how many German soldiers it killed.
David Glantz: Stalin ordered those forces to conduct multiple counter-strokes and strategic counter-offensives.
Narrator: The fighting was fierce. This was the first major Red Army counter-offensive since the start of Operation Blue. The two sides engaged in Voronezh, a city near the Don. The Soviets had a new weapon.
David Glantz: Stalin committed a brand new tank army, the first the Red Army had ever employed, the 5th tank army, into action Northwest of Voronezh.
Narrator: This was a deadly unit, boasting Stalin’s latest tank, the T-34. The Soviet’s finally had an answer to the German Panzer.
Production on the T-34 had begun in 1940, but only in ‘42 had it begun to dominate the battlefield. Just in time to throw fear into the hearts of complacent German soldiers who had gotten used to success.
Kevin Farrell: The T34 was the most numerous Soviet tank of World War 2. Of all types they made about 83,000. This was produced in large numbers, it was easy to produce, and quick to produce. Generally considered the best general-purpose tank of the Second World War. It had sloped armor, it had wide tracks. All these things made it extremely survivable and fast maneuverable in virtually any type of terrain. A 12 cylinder diesel engine, it was quite powerful for the time and gave it a cruising speed of well over 30 miles per hour. It was equipped with a 76 millimeter gun and two 7.6 mm machine guns.
Walter Guenther: There was only one thing everyone was afraid of and that was the Russian tank T34. Even the regular gun did not penetrate the Russian front of the tank. But they had to use the 7.5 cannon, which was originally used against the airplanes.
Kevin Farrell: To destroy a T34 with say a 37mm anti-tank gun, it would literally bounce off the front and the side slope of the tank. So as far as a tank went, it was reliable, it had sufficient firepower and it offered great protection for its crew.
Wigand Wuster (Translator): With the T-34 they could do what they wanted, we had nothing to counter it. It was really bad.
Narrator: The Germans best hope for defeating a T-34 was with a combination of airpower and close-quarter combat. Ground troops needed to be within 250 yards to have any chance of stopping it.
Kevin Farrell: They would have to get very close and they would aim for vision slits or they would aim for the engine compartment and try to reduce the tank that way. Once it would be immobile, dismounted soldiers could approach from the rear and climb on top of the tank, ideally tossing a grenade into the crew compartment, or slinging the grenade even under the main gun system and immobilizing it that way. The typical tank engagement in the Second World War, even on the Eastern Front, took place at less than 300 yards. So we are already describing close engagement ranges. When we are looking at soldiers destroying a T34 up close, we are talking literally getting along side it.
Narrator: On the road to Stalingrad, Wigand Wuster came face-to-face with numerous T-34s. Sometimes, it was only luck that allowed him and his men to survive.
Wigand Wuster (Translator): I sent out a soldier to look round the corner to watch when the Russians were coming and soon one was approaching, only a single one. I think he was lost and didn’t know where to go. The soldier informed us and we aimed at the corner. When it appeared we fired and it was torn into 1000 pieces.
Narrator: Wuster and his men won that battle, but going after lost tanks was not a repeatable strategy. What had once looked like a cakewalk into Stalingrad, had become a titanic struggle.
The 6th Army, attempting to clear the Don Bend alone, was surprised by the ferocity of the Soviet defense. Without the 4th Panzer to assist them, the Nazis were taking a beating from the Red Army and its T-34s.
David Glantz: When Paulus’ 6th Army attempted to move Eastward, this operation, in which the Soviets committed not only their 62nd Army but 2 new tank armies inflicted heavy losses, perhaps as many as 10,000 men on German 6th Army and prevented 6th Army from fulfilling it’s mission for upward of 3 weeks.
Narrator: These losses were far more severe than previously believed. The Soviets’ counter-offensive was exacting a heavy toll.
Walter Guenther: There was one very bad experience, a young lieutenant who knew everything better and could not be convinced that you had to be very careful even if you don’t have contact with the Russians. He took his unit, about 50 people to the right and to the left of him, 25, and advanced somehow through the Russian line, we didn’t know exactly where they were. And the Russians waited until the Germans approached them with 50 feet and killed all of them. So out of 50 people 2 people survived.
Narrator: The Army that Hitler had famously boasted ‘could storm the heavens,’ was being driven into the ground of Southern Russia.
The 6th Army was severely depleted by the time it finally arrived on the banks of the Don.
David Glantz: That meant that when Paulus began his drive on Stalingrad he did so with forces drastically reduced in strength and that ultimately would tell on the effectiveness of that drive.
Narrator: But here, poised on the bluffs overlooking the Don River, it seemed that the German war machine was regaining momentum, finally back on a role.
Paulus’s next objective was to capture the land-bridge that let into Stalingrad.
This time, he would get help. Hitler, infuriated by the 6th Army’s slow progress in the Don Bend, had recalled the 4th Panzer Army from the Caucuses.
Paulus planned a two-pronged, pincer attack, sending the 6th Army at the city from the north, while the 4th Panzer attacked from the south. They would close in on Stalingrad along the banks of the Volga.
On August 22nd, the first German units crossed the Don, establishing a bridgehead on the east bank. At dawn on the 23rd, the armored vehicles followed.
With complete air superiority overhead, Paulus’s army broke the early morning silence with the roar of tank engines. The final drive on Stalingrad had begun.
Anatoly Merezhko (Translator): We heard the rumble on the steppe. A lot of the enemies’ tanks moved forward. The Germans attacked with a tank corps, which destroyed the defense of our 2 small divisions. That corps, not facing any resistance, moved in parade form, marching on Stalingrad. Our right-flank battalion of cadets got caught under the thrust of that corps. A small number of tanks separated from that parade march and buried the cadets alive in them. That happened approximately one kilometer from us. All the cadets were weeping from futility. Our friends were dying and we could not help them.
Narrator: By late afternoon, the 6th Army gazed down upon the Volga from Stalingrad’s northern suburbs.
Paulus unleashed the German air force.
Anatoly Merezhko (Translator): At 4 p.m. there appeared an armada of aircrafts, which moved in several tiers toward Stalingrad. The bombing of the town had begun. The black puffs of burning fuel were coming up several kilometers into the sky. At night there was the solid glow in Stalingrad.
Narrator: The bombing continued for days. The civilian death toll exceeded 200,000. More civilians died in the battle of Stalingrad, than in the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. The city was reduced to rubble.
Hitler awaited his prize.
In Moscow, Stalin was enraged by the failure of his forces, and the seemingly unavoidable fall of his namesake city. True to form, he directed his ire at his commanders, both military and political.
Nikita Khrushchev believed he was about to be purged.
Sergei Khrushchev: Stalin looked at him, go back to Front. And my father told that I have no doubt that he will arrest me in the car. Because it was a Stalin tradition to arrest people when they left his place. So he told, what I can do, I travel to the military airfield and nobody arrested me. Then I entered my plane and I flew to Front. And I safe only when I landed at Stalingrad. So at that time it was much safer in Stalingrad than in Moscow.
Narrator: For Khrushchev, fear of Stalin trumped the fear of Nazi bombs.
The bombs kept coming. And German ground troops drew ever-closer to the smoking ruins of the city. It was almost time for the bloody urban fighting that would be so well-documented after the war.
Less well-documented were a series of hard-fought battles north of the city. David Glantz has discovered that these forgotten confrontations were a turning point in the war. They decided Germany’s fate before the Nazis ever set foot in Stalingrad itself.
It is here, at a place called Kotluban, that the Russians would make their greatest stand. Here, not in Stalingrad, where the tide of the campaign would turn.
David Glantz: Beginning in late August, continuing in September and into October the Soviets launch four offensive operations collectively known as the Kotluban Operations, named after the village of Kotluban, nestled in the broad steppe region northwest of Stalingrad. In those operations the Soviets commit between two and four armies in near suicidal attacks against the German northern flank.
Narrator: Hastily coordinated and poorly controlled, these attacks resulted in more than 200 thousand Red Army casualties.
They were haphazard, dangerous missions that slowed the German assault, but left Soviet soldiers like Anatoly Mersezhko scrambling for their lives.
Anatoly Merezhko (Translator): On August 24, we were told that we would counterattack the Germans in order to cut off the 8 kilometer long corridor. Neither our regiment, nor any in the artillery and the aviation trained for this attack. We attacked blindly. We cut off the corridor, but suffered large losses. After 2 days the Germans sent additional forces and threw us back.
Narrator: The heavy losses and eventual German success have relegated these battles to the footnotes of history—another Soviet failure in the run-up to Stalingrad.
But there is another side to the story.
David Glantz: The Soviets suffered appalling casualties at the battle of Kotluban, both in terms of personnel and in terms of tanks, however, the net effect of this was that Paulus’ 6th Army now faced the dismal prospect of reducing Stalingrad city primarily with infantry since 14th Panzer Corps’ tanks were tied up elsewhere.
Narrator: The battles at Kotluban had pinned down Paulus’s tanks, leaving the German 6th Army to advance once again with little mechanized support. Glantz believes this gave Stalingrad a chance to survive.
On September 13th, 1942, the 6th Army finally attacked in force. The battle for the city was on.
David Glantz: In essence Stalingrad becomes a giant meat grinder. Into which 6th Army commits 1/3 of its force early September, by late November in will commit its entire army.
Sergei Khrushchev: And they fought against everything in each basement, in each flat in the apartment building and you can have one stage it was Germans, then Soviets, then Germans, then Soviets.
Narrator: Without the rugged treads and heavy guns of their tank units, the Germans were forced to fight street-to-street, building-to-building.
David Glantz: What happens is a German division will come in. It will come in with an average strength of medium-strong in terms of combat rating, within two weeks after entering combat it’s reduced in strength to weak or exhausted. On the other side of the firing line the Soviets are doing the same thing, but they are doing so in economy of force measure, they are feeding in just enough troops to keep the fire, fires of combat burning in downtown Stalingrad.
Narrator: The Soviets were holding on, just playing for time. Because north and south of the city, Red Army reinforcements were preparing to launch another major attack.
David Glantz: The Germans are trying, trying against time, fighting time and Soviet will, to squeeze out those final pockets of Soviet resistance. They will never do so because on the morning of 19 November German troops in the city of Stalingrad can now hear distant guns to the Northwest and to the South. Those guns are announcing the sounds of the opening of a Soviet offensive.
Kevin Farrell: Operation Uranus was the, the Soviet effort to close the gap, to conduct 2 massive pincers. One from the north and one to the south. The Soviets had done their intelligence and knew where the German lines were weak and they penetrated them.
Narrator: More than one million Red Army soldiers converged on the German troops. Three days later, the Soviet pincers closed near the city of Kalach, trapping over 270 thousand men.
For the Germans, one hope remained. The High Command turned to Field Marshal von Manstein, whom Hitler had previously sent north to Leningrad. Now, he was asked to head back south, and scrape together a rescue operation.
On the morning of December 12th, the 6th Army heard the distant sounds of battle as Manstein’s men approached.
But the Field Marshall, whose battle plan had conquered most of Western Europe, could not break through the Soviet ring.
As the guns of Manstein’s relief force faded into silence, reality set in for the encircled 6th Army.
The Soviets began their final assault with the largest artillery barrage in history. The Germans were on their last legs.
In January, Adolph Hitler promoted General Paulus to Field Marshal. But it was hardly an honor.
No Field Marshal had ever surrendered. It was the Fuehrer’s way of telling Paulus to fight to the death, or commit suicide. For Hitler, surrender in the city with the name of his nemesis was just not an option.
But Paulus, for the first time in his career, was unsure about following Hitler’s commands. He saw the carnage all around him. Two thirds of his 270 thousand men were dead. Those who survived were starving, freezing, and certain of defeat.
So on January 31st, 1943, Paulus defied his Fuehrer and walked into captivity. The battle for Stalingrad was effectively over.
Wigand Wuster (Translator): We got out of a destroyed house, out of the basement; some Russians were standing there with their machine guns. So we had our arms up of course. We were so exhausted that somehow we didn’t care. I was rather apathetic that I wasn’t even afraid of anything.
Narrator: A thousand miles away in Germany, the unthinkable news that the fabled 6th Army had fallen, sent shockwaves through the country.
Kevin Farrell: Throughout Germany once news of the defeat at Stalingrad was announced to the German people, that hundreds of thousands of German families that had soldiers engaged in the battle, they knew what that meant. They knew they had lost their sons, they had lost their husbands, that he was not coming home, in a way that no other battle or campaign had touched all of Germany at once on such a vast scale.
Narrator: The Battle for Stalingrad lasted more than seven months. It resulted in more than 750,000 Soviet casualties, and more than 850,000 from the Axis lines.
Of the half a million civilians who had once populated the city, only 1500 remained.
It was the winter of 1943, and while victory in Europe would not be official for more than two years, the inexorable German slide into defeat had begun.
The Soviets defended Stalingrad, and within 26 months put Berlin under siege.
The D-Day invasion turned the tide in the west, but if the Soviets had not turned the Nazis back at Stalingrad, the war might have reached a very different end.
David Glantz: The impact of the battle of Stalingrad on the course and outcome of World War Two, in particular the Soviet-German portion of the war is fundamental. It is fundamental because the battle of Stalingrad clearly indicated to all involved that Germany was going to lose the war.