By Francis Forsey
As Remembrance weekend has just gone by, I found myself researching the Second World War, purely for self interest. I decided that it was appropriate to write an article on a battle that I thought was highly significant.
The city of Volgograd sits deep in southwest Russia, resting peacefully on the western bank of the Volga River. Its 1 million inhabitants go on with theirs lives; shopping, drinking and going to work as normal. But looming over the city is a
morbid reminder of the events that occurred not too long ago in this city. Under its former name of Stalingrad (1925-1961), the city saw arguably one of the most significant battles in modern history. This article will address the key reasons behind why the Battle of Stalingrad was so significant, and what lessons it taught military historians and advisors.
Brought to life by common culture through the popular video game series, Call of Duty, and the movie ‘Enemy at the Gates’, starring Hollywood heartthrob Jude Law, the sheer brutality of the battle remains immortalized in historic memory. But why was this battle so significant? What about it caused such infamy? Most significantly, the reason behind why this battle is so infamous was the loss of life, both military and civilian. It was in this city that the Soviet Red Army made its last stand, bringing the powerful Nazi war machine to a grinding halt. The consequence of this battle was that it marked the turning point in World War 2, as from this moment on the Nazi forces were on the back foot to Berlin. However, the other consequence of this battle was one of the most catastrophic losses of life that a battle has ever seen. Shown in the table below, the figures are alarming. With over 2 million dead, the battle of Stalingrad was the bloodiest in history.
Table 1 (Source: Encyclopædia Britannica)
|Forces||Death or Wounded|
|Axis (Germans, Romanians, Italians and Hungarians)||800,000 in battle, circa 85,000 in POW camps|
|Allied (Red Army)||1,100,000|
What did we learn from this battle, however? As military historians we must analyze what lessons and presuppositions the has discipline learned as a result of this severe loss of life.
One lesson that this conflict yielded was that the world learned the sheer brutality of a dictator and the ends that a totalitarian ruler is willing to go to ensure victory in conflict. Whats more, it also showed the effect of morale for troops. On July 28 Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, issued Order No. 227, decreeing that the defenders at Stalingrad would take “Not One Step Back.” He also refused the evacuation of any civilians, stating that the army would fight harder knowing that they were defending residents of the city. As a result, 40,000 civilian lives were lost, and tens of thousands of Red Army troops lost theirs at the hands of their comrades by attempting to retreat. It is the scene in ‘Enemy at the Gate’ that perhaps stays in the mind the most; the scene where underprepared Red Army soldiers see that there is no way to win and so turn back only to be shot down by the firing line. Soldiers had to fight to their last breath in Stalingrad, or face death from their own forces. This fear acted as motivation for the soldiers to fight to their deaths, whoever be the deliverer. Pushing through some of the most brutal conditions seen in warfare, the Red Army through guerilla tactics broke the German morale. The sniper corps in particular played a crucial role in this fight. Once the battle was won, the Red Army, aided by propaganda about the great patriotic victory, was almost unstoppable. Now fully mobilised, fully motivated by revenge, and riding the high of victory, Soviet forces pushed back Axis forces into Germany and eventually took Berlin after a short fight.
The second, and perhaps the most significant lesson that was learned from Stalingrad was the importance of preparation. As Emperor Napoleon found out the hard way over a 100 years before, the Russian winter was a devastating force of its own. The Russians had
adapted to their climate, and could thus use it to their advantage. The Germans on the other hand were aware of winter’s deadly potential, however, and began the fight for Stalingrad in July 1942. Their mistake, however, was to underestimate the determination of the Red Army. Thinking that Stalingrad was going to be an easy victory, Hitler, as part of his ‘Fall Bleu’ plan for Southern Russia, ordered his Eastern Front forces to split, and for one group to go to the Caucasus and the other to go to Stalingrad. By spreading out his forces, he overstretched his supplies and strained his supply lines. Moreover, it prevented the German armies from encircling their targets as was seen in other Operation Barbarossa campaigns. As discussed, the cost of retreat was death, and the cost of surrender was the potential death of innocent Russian civilians. Motivated by the fear of death, the Red Army dug in, and began a fierce campaign of attritional defence – slowly chipping away at the German war machine through guerilla tactics.
After five months of the most brutal close-quarter combat in world history, the 107,000 Axis soldiers who remained alive were cold, starving, and out of ammunition. With winter temperatures hitting minus 30 degrees, as quoted by the memoirs of soldiers, the German forces saw their morale plummeting. Surrender was imminent, as Soviet Troops invoked a pincer movement and ensnared the remaining Axis troops. The lesson to be learned from this is that not only that you should never underestimate your enemy, but also that you should not overestimate your own ability to wage war. By splitting his armies in three across the Soviet Union, Hitler had made a crucial mistake. He had stretched his supply lines so thin that the Axis ability to resupply and to wage effective and consistent warfare was extremely limited. Furthermore, his assumptions that the weather would allow for air support only added to this sense of failure. The encircled troops went without air dropped resources or air support right up until their surrender. Had he been alive to observe the battle, Military philosopher and strategist, Clausewitz, would have labeled Stalingrad as Hitler’s primordial strategic error in all of World War Knowing the brutality and unpredictability of Eastern Winters, Hitler should have made different and more pragmatic decisions based upon reason and factual information. By underestimating his foes and overestimating his ow forces, Hitler had doomed his campaign on the Eastern Front to failure. Despite almost taking Leningrad, Moscow, and, one could argue, coming close to breaking Stalingrad, the Axis forces were not prepared; both in the sense of armaments but also in spirit. Soviet forces knew their own climates, and could adapt and overcome this.
With warfare having adapted to overcome the issues seen physically in World War Two, it can be said that the world has learned from this. However, it can be said that American conflicts in Vietnam, the Korean Peninsula and in particular in conflict seen in the War on Drugs have represented a failure to learn. Overestimating your own ability whilst underestimating your foes will almost always doom a campaign to failure. This is perhaps the most significant lesson to be taken away from the Axis invasion of Russia, and most importantly from the Battle of Stalingrad.
Chapman, J. (2016). Remember Stalingrad and its Lessons. RealClear Defence [Online].
Available at: https://www.realcleardefense.com/articles/2016/02/02/remembering_stalingrad_and_its_lessons_108974.html
Limbach, R. (2017.) Battle of Stalingrad. Encyclopædia Britannica [Online]. Available at:
Featured picture is from: http://wallpapersok.com/fr/pictures/224625/version/1920×1080.