With some two million casualties, the Battle of Stalingrad was one of the bloodiest battles of World War Two and in all of history. But how did the nightmare end?
After five months of fighting that started on August 24, 1942, the Battle of Stalingrad ended with the surrender of the German 6th Army on February 2, 1943. It marked a turning point in favor of the Soviet Union in the war, with Soviet soldiers taking the German capital of Berlin in 1945.
To learn more about one of the most violent and costly battles in human history, read on.
Leading Up to the Battle of Stalingrad
Following the launch of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June of 1941, the Germans had successfully taken a great deal of Soviet territory including Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic states, while beginning the siege of Leningrad (modern-day St. Petersburg).
The Germans had initially planned to push on to take Moscow, but the assault was frustrated by unexpectedly fierce resistance and the freezing Russian winter, calling it off in January 1942.
While taking Moscow was important due to its cultural and political significance as the Soviet capital, the Germans decided that it made better tactical sense considering their army’s oil shortages to secure the rich oil fields to the south in the Caucasus and take the important industrial center of Stalingrad (modern-day Volgograd) on the Volga River.
The Germans had cut the pipelines for Soviet oil in Rostov and taking Stalingrad and the Caucasus to the south would cut Soviet oil supplies and potentially provide the Germans with a huge advantage. As the city then bore Stalin’s name, it was of incredible cultural importance for both the Germans and the Soviets.
The Germans decided that they would divide their southern offensive into two, with one force taking the oil fields to the south and aiming to take Baku, before moving to take Stalingrad to the north. The second force was to take Stalingrad before reinforcements by the first force.
The German advance in the south faced fierce resistance as Soviet soldiers set oil fields alight, failing to make the advances they had planned and overstretching their lines, preventing them from reinforcing the assault on Stalingrad. Preparing for the coming conflict, citizens of Stalingrad helped to build defenses as more weapons were built and the Soviet army got ready.
The fight to follow would determine control over much of Soviet industry and oil, as well as the fate of the conflict. On July 28, 1942, Stalin issued Order No. 227 that would set the tone for the summer to come, ordering “Not one step back!”.
The Battle of Stalingrad
After fighting for a month over the Don River, buying the Soviet army time, the German army reached Stalingrad on August 23, 1942, starting the Battle of Stalingrad.
The citizens of the city had stayed behind, and the Soviet forces kept as close as possible to the German lines, fighting house by house, so as to prevent German airstrikes that would also hit German troops. The Germans launched airstrikes regardless, with heavy bombing killing many Soviet and German soldiers and also preventing much-needed Soviet supplies and reinforcements from reaching the city.
The Germans had not anticipated the resistance and had expected the battle to be over relatively quickly, although expectations soon changed when faced with a bafflingly stubborn Soviet defense. Surrounded by German forces, the Soviet army pulled back to the Volga River, with Soviet artillery providing relief from across the river.
When winter came, the tide of the battle started to shift as German forces struggled in the conditions. A counterattack by General Zhukov provided one million new Soviet soldiers to surround the city, while also adding air superiority.
How Did the Battle of Stalingrad End?
Despite orders by Hitler to resist until the last man, attempts to provide air support to the surrounded German soldiers failed and the Germans eventually surrendered on February 2, 1943. With around two million casualties, this was a victory that would set the tone of the rest of the war in Europe.
In the months to follow, the Soviets would win a decisive battle at Kursk and an end to the siege of Leningrad, with fighting across eastern and central Europe, capturing cities like Warsaw, Budapest, and Vienna, and taking the German capital of Berlin in April 1945.
This coincided with Allied breakthroughs in Italy and France and would eventually end the war in Europe.