These WWII Photos Reveal The Harrowing Reality Of The Battle Of Stalingrad

It’s October 1942 and the vicious Battle of Stalingrad, the Nazi attempt to seize the Soviet city, is into its third month. But the Stalingrad Tractor Factory has continued to produce T34 tanks despite coming under heavy attack. Finally, on October 16, production stops. But only because Nazi troops are actually on the factory floor.

This desperate incident at the tractor factory is a telling indication of the relentless attack on Stalingrad (today known as Volgograd) by the Nazis and its stubborn defense by the Soviets. Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler had personally ordered that the city, located on the Volga River in southern Russia, should be captured.

Stalingrad had strategic value for the Germans as it would aid their advance on the vital Baku oilfields to the south in present-day Azerbaijan. The city was also a center for war production. But it seems that Hitler was equally motivated by the propaganda value of seizing a city named after the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. Equally, Stalin was determined that the city should not fall.

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And Hitler’s plans for Stalingrad were barbaric. All men would be killed; women and children would be deported to meet who knows what fate. The attack on Stalingrad started on August 23, 1942. Aware of the imminent assault, the Soviets had shipped off supplies such as cattle and grain so that they wouldn’t fall into the hands of the Nazis.

However, Stalin had forbidden the evacuation of the 400,000-strong civilian population. They now had to bear the brunt of the first part of the Nazi attack, a massive aerial assault. The German air force, the Luftwaffe, dropped around 1,000 tons of bombs on the city in only two days. The die was cast for months of bitter fighting.

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Actually, the Battle of Stalingrad should never even have happened in 1942. But Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s attempt to conquer the Soviet Union, had not gone to plan. If it had, the Soviets would have been entirely under the Nazi thumb by the winter of 1941. But subduing the Red Army had not been quite as easy as Hitler had imagined.

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To get to the point where Hitler’s forces were at the gates of Stalingrad, we need to go back briefly to the beginning of the Second World War. That had started in Europe on September 1, 1939 after the Nazis had invaded Poland. But at that point the Germans and the Soviets had a pact of non-aggression, signed in August 1939.

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This treaty, known as the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact after the two men who signed it, guaranteed that the Soviets and Nazis would not attack each other. However, Hitler went ahead and broke the agreement in June 1941. In fact, he double-crossed Stalin in the most emphatic way possible by launching Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union.

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Initially, the Barbarossa assault was a great success for the German army which swept east across Soviet territory. But the seemingly unstoppable advance came to a halt towards the end of 1941 at the gates of Moscow. In the face of determined opposition, the Germans were unable to take the capital city. And then the Russian winter set in and the war turned into one of grinding attrition. This was not what the Nazis had banked on.

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Fast forward to the spring of 1942 and with troops rested and the weather improving, Hitler was now sure that he could finish off the job in Russia. But for the moment he’d leave Moscow to one side. Instead he planned a massive attack on the south of Russia, which would include the capture of Stalingrad.

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As well as damaging Soviet arms production, the assault on Stalingrad would have the advantage of disrupting transport links along the navigable stretches of the River Volga. As we’ve seen, the attack commenced with a massive bombardment of the city on August 23. Next, German tanks and infantry poured forward to take the city.

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At first, the main opposition they faced came from the women of the Red Army’s 1077th Anti-Aircraft Regiment. Although they’d had no instruction in how to do this, the women turned their anti-aircraft guns onto German troops and armor on the ground. And they did so with some success, despite the fact that most of the women had only just graduated from high school.

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According to the official Soviet war history, the women of the 1077th fought alone for two days. During that time they destroyed or damaged 83 German tanks and 15 military transports and repelled three German battalions. Turning their weapons to the purpose for which they were intended, the women also shot down 14 Luftwaffe planes.

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This determined defensive action against the odds was an omen of events to come. But in the early stages of the battle the Russians’ hastily improvised opposition to the well-trained Nazi troops was at times chaotic. Workers’ militias were sent into battle, many of them entirely unarmed. Tanks were put together and driven straight from the factory into the conflict.

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Students and lecturers from a technical college built these tanks from various parts left lying around in the factory. The tanks went into action without so much as a coat of paint. They even lacked sighting mechanisms for their guns. The tanks could only fire accurately at point blank range and the gunners aimed by peering down the length of the gun barrel.

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Stalin now rushed every fighting man and woman he could to Stalingrad. For him, it was unthinkable that this city should fall to the Germans. Planes from all over Russia were deployed to the city and troops earmarked for the defense of Moscow were assigned to the Stalingrad battle. Other troops came from as far away as Siberia.

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The civilians who had been denied the chance to escape, apparently because Stalin believed this would make the defenders fight all the harder, were also put to work. Men, women and children dug trenches and built earthworks to defend the city. And after that first German bombardment and the continuing attack, the city streets now lay in ruins.

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And the defending Soviets were also at a great disadvantage when it came to the fight in the air. In the first week of the battle, the Luftwaffe succeeded in destroying 201 Soviet aircraft. Even after a reinforcement of 100 craft in August, the Russians were left with just 192 airworthy planes. More reinforcements arrived in September, but the Nazis enjoyed almost total control of the air over the city.

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Students and lecturers from a technical college built these tanks from various parts left lying around in the factory. The tanks went into action without so much as a coat of paint. They even lacked sighting mechanisms for their guns. The tanks could only fire accurately at point blank range and the gunners aimed by peering down the length of the gun barrel.

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Fighting in the city was now being conducted on a desperate house-to-house basis. Stalin ordered that deserters should be detained and many were executed or sent to prison camps. And as the Germans slowly made their way into Stalingrad, their losses mounted. The Soviets now adopted a tactic of picking defensible buildings and holding out in them for as long as possible.

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Apartment buildings, offices and warehouses were turned into strongholds defended by five to ten soldiers. If the Germans overran a position, reinforcements would be sent in as quickly as possible in an attempt to recapture it. Firefights went on all over the city. In some cases there was even fighting in the sewers.

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One Soviet stronghold became especially famous – Pavlov’s House. This was an apartment block where a platoon led by Sergeant Yakov Pavlov dug themselves in. They kept the Germans at bay for two months from late September until November 25. This type of dogged defense made the German advance desperately slow.

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House-to-house fighting was so intense that buildings had to be won by fighting from room to room. In some cases, the Germans were on one floor of a building while the Russians were on another with two sides firing at each other through the floors and ceilings. Some positions such as the strategic Mamayev Kurgan Hill were lost and re-taken again and again.

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Other key points in the city were also fiercely contested. At one point, the Soviets and the Germans exchanged possession of Railway Station Number 1 no fewer than 14 times in a six-hour period. The Russian counterattacking force, the 13th Guards Rifle Division, had 30 percent of its men killed in 24 hours.

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The Germans continued to fight their way through the city as September rolled on. By the 27th, they were in control of the south of the city but the Russians still held the centre and the north. Crucially, the Soviets still controlled the ferries that brought supplies and reinforcements to them via the Volga River.

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The ruined terrain proved a rich hunting ground for snipers, both German and Russian. One particular Soviet rifleman earned fame and was honored as a Hero of the Soviet Union. In a matter of weeks, Vasily Grigoryevich Zaytsev killed a total of 225 Nazi troops. Eleven of his victims were themselves snipers.

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The stress on the troops fighting on both sides in the battle, not to mention on the civilians trapped in the city, was immense. Even the leaders felt it. The commander of the German forces, General Friedrich Paulus developed an involuntary twitch on the left side of his face. His counterpart Vasily Chuikov’s eczema was so bad his hands had to be swathed in dressings.

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By the end of September, the fiercest theater of combat had moved to the industrial area of the city. This included the Barrikady Arms Factory, the Red October Steel Factory and the Tractor Factory. This last workshop continued to build tanks even while under bombardment, as we heard earlier. On October 14, the Germans launched a ferocious attack, outstripping even the intensity of their earlier assaults.

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Determined defense of the Barrikady Factory continued until the end of October. Nevertheless, save for a few pockets of resistance, the Red Army was now forced on to the eastern bank of the Volga River which ran through the city. This meant that the Nazis were now in control of some 90 percent of Stalingrad, or what was left of it.

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But the German achievement was a pyrrhic victory. From the start of the battle on August 23 up until November 20, the Russians had killed nearly 13,000 Germans and wounded more than 45,000 more. And because many German soldiers and aircraft had been diverted from the operation to take the Baku oilfields, that mission did not succeed. This was an important strategic victory for the Soviets.

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In November, the Soviets decided it was time to counterattack the Nazi forces in and around Stalingrad. The Soviets had recognized that the German flanks to the north and south of the city were relatively weak. The bulk of the German effort had gone into capturing the city itself. The Russians prepared to launch their offensive, Operation Uranus.

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The Soviet plan for Operation Uranus called for an attack on both of the German flanks. Breaking through them would allow a pincer movement that would surround the Germans at Stalingrad. Their hopes for success were increased by the fact that many of the Nazi troops on the flanks were Romanian, Hungarian or Italian rather than German.

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The Red Army embarked on Operation Uranus on November 19, 1942. A massive force which included 18 infantry divisions, eight tank brigades and various other formations went on the attack. And for once the Germans were caught on the hop, with their positions ill-prepared and poorly defended. By November 23, the Russians had achieved their objective of surrounding the German forces at Stalingrad.

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A Nazi force of some 265,000 – 210,000 of them Germans – was now effectively trapped in a pocket by the Red Army. As well as those troops, some 10,000 Russian civilians and some thousands of Red Army soldiers who had been taken prisoner were also stuck in with the Germans. Things were looking irredeemably bleak from the Nazi point of view.

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What made the German position look even less encouraging was a speech that Hitler had made in September 1942. In it, he had declared that the Nazis would never retreat from Stalingrad. And Hermann Göring, the Luftwaffe supremo, claimed he could supply the trapped Germans by air. In the event, he could not fly in anything like enough supplies and ammunition.

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The truth was that the German troops now surrounded by the Soviets needed over 800 tons of supplies each day. The maximum that the Luftwaffe could supply was less than 120 tons. Yet Hitler insisted that the trapped soldiers must sit tight and await rescue. Starvation loomed for the Germans as well as a lack of fighting equipment.

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A German attempt to rescue the Stalingrad force, Operation Winter Storm, was launched on December 12, 1942. After bitter fighting, the offensive failed with the Germans in full retreat by Christmas Eve. The Russians actually offered the surrounded Nazis two chances to surrender during January 1943. The German commander, Paulus, was ordered by the Nazi high command to refuse.

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On January 30, Paulus told Hitler his forces were on the brink of total collapse. Hitler’s response was to promote Paulus to field marshal, and insist that he and his men fight to the death. And Hitler made the pointed comment that no German field marshal had ever surrendered alive. Paulus took this as a suggestion that he should commit suicide, but dismissed the notion.

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On January 31, 1943, Paulus and his surviving senior staff were taken prisoner by the Soviets. Bar a few pockets of stubborn hold-outs, it was the end of German resistance at Stalingrad. By February 2, the Russians had taken some 91,000 German and other Axis troops prisoner. After a vicious battle that had lasted for more than five months, it was an unprecedented military disaster for Hitler and his Nazis.

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Many historians view the German defeat at Stalingrad as the turning point of the Second World War. Yet the cost had been terrible. Some estimates say that the Axis powers’ losses amounted to nearly one million men killed, wounded or captured. Soviet casualties were even higher, at over 1.2 million. The Battle of Stalingrad had been a hideous bloodbath. But it proved the beginning of the end for Hitler.

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