Volgograd was a city that stretched for eighteen miles along the banks of the river Volga in deepest Russia. The oilfields of the Caucasus were near, and the huge town was a crucially important manufacturing and communications centre, where a quarter of Soviet Russia’s vehicles were made. The city controlled traffic up and down the Volga. With the coming of the Soviets, and the re-naming of important Russian cities such as Petrograd/Leningrad, Volgograd went the same way and became Stalingrad, after the great Georgian leader.
In 1942 Adolf Hitler, still flushed with success, changed his mind over an invasion of Britain and opened up Operation Barbarossa (q.v.). This was a frontal assault on Russia, with whom the Fuehrer had signed a non-aggression pact. Hitler knew that if he could control Stalingrad he would control the main supply line that linked southern Russian agriculture and oil from Baku and Grozny with Moscow and the industrial north.
His best generals informed him from the depth of their great experience, that Germany would not be strong enough to take both the Caucasus and Stalingrad, but as usual he ignored their advice, perhaps encouraged by his armies’ capture of Sebastopol (Crimea) and Rostov. But these two assaults were too far apart from each other to provide mutual support, and then Hitler made another of his classic mistakes; he ordered his only reserves in the south to go to Leningrad (St. Petersburg/Petrograd) which was also under siege from the Red Army.
The German advance across country to Stalingrad was successful and fast but the defence was ferocious though most of the city had been reduced to rubble by continuous bombardment (ground-force shelling and aerial bombing and straffing). Each street and the ruined houses in it had to be fought for, mostly hand-to-hand fighting. Many medals were hard-won in the battle for Stalingrad.
The Germans reached the river in the city centre when winter arrived, but the remaining Soviet defenders were still ranged along the left bank, fighting desperately. Meanwhile Marshal Zhukov, Russia’s best soldier, was preparing a counter-attack using fresh troops, of which Russia seemed to have an inexhaustible supply. The attack began in November 1942 with a devastating artillery bombardment. The assaults took place from the north and south of the remains of the city with the two prongs meeting in just four days. General Paulus and his 6th Army of nearly 300,000 men were encircled and cut off. Hitler might have told them to fight their way out, which they might possibly have done, but instead he listened to Goering who promised massive air support for the 6th Army. None appeared.
Von Manstein (q.v.) tried to reach Stalingrad but was held up by strong resistance thirty miles short of the city. The famous general ordered Paulus to break out while he could, but Paulus refused to do so without the Fuehrer’s express order. When it came it said he must fight to the death of the last man! This direct order Paulus also ignored and surrendered in February, 1943.
34,000 German troops were evacuated by air, 140,000 at least were killed in the fighting and the rest, including General Paulus were captured. They included some 24 generals. The Germans had lost war material equal to 6 months production. They suffered one of their greatest defeats at Stalingrad, and lost their reputation for invincibility. A withdrawal towards Germany and home began which did not end until Berlin fell at last in May 1945.