When most people think of the turning point of World War II, they think of D-Day. In all truth, it was Stalingrad. While D-Day is a key moment in the war for American, British, and Canadian forces, in and of itself, it did nothing to bring down Germany. Hitler in all his hubris, and ignorance, brought down the Third Reich long before D-Day. While D-Day did take place on June 6, 1944, the German Army had been in its last throes since the winter and summer of 1943.
The seeds of defeat at Stalingrad were sewn in the summer of 1941. The German army invaded the Soviet Union. The aim of Operation Barbarossa was to capture the western, or European, part of the USSR. The Germans gained massive amounts of land in the Ukraine and the Baltics but the German army was stopped short of Moscow. However, General Winter, as he did against Napoleon, reared his head and forced the Germans back. In December of 1941, the Operation ended.
As a result, in 1942, Hitler ordered more operations in the USSR. Seeing the oil fields in the Caucasus as a necessity to the German Army, and the Luftwaffe, the Germans once again invaded in the summer of 1942. At first, all went well. Then Hilter’s intervention derailed the advance. In the face of an advance, Hitler split his 600,000 man army into two parts. One was to capture the oil fields, the other Stalingrad.
By itself, Stalingrad is of no military importance to the German high command. But because Stalingrad’s root name is Stalin, Hitler thought its capture would be a coup on the propaganda front. Hitler places the operation in the hands of Friedrich Paulus. On 17 July, 1942, the battle began. With the Volga River at it’s back, the city itself could not be surrounded in normal blitzkrieg fashion. Although the Germans would bomb the living daylights out of the city and capture 90% of the city, it could not defeat it.
Under the command of Vasily Chuikov, the Soviet Army held on. It withstood the lightening warfare of the Germans and turned the battle into a contest of urban warfare – something the Germans were not trained for nor was it something the Germans excelled at. The Soviets would prove that if you could withstand the initial advance, the Germans were beatable. Chuikov turned to snipers to draw out and punish the Germans psychologically. One such sniper was Vasily Zaitsev who would be played by Jude Law in Enemy at the Gates.
Hitler and the German high command completely underestimated the resistance capabilities of the Red Army but also the people of Stalingrad. The Germans were not ready for a prolonged attack stretching into winter. The ravages of “General Winter” took its toll on the psyche of many a German soldier but also the tanks and other mechanized forms of war.
On November 19, 1942, the Red Army launched a counter-offensive at Stalingrad. Using a pincer movement made famous in many blitzkrieg attacks, Chuikov and the Red Army surrounds the 300,00 man German Sixth Army. By having to wait on Hitler’s permission to break out, the Red Army grows stronger. Before Hitler could resupply, Paulus would surrender in spite of Hitler’s orders not to give up to the last man.
The defeat at Stalingrad is similar to cutting off one’s legs. The February 2nd defeat shattered not only the ability of the Germans to make war, but also to defend itself in the coming years. Hitler would try one last gasp at the USSR but the Battle of Kursk would end the German’s entree into the USSR. Within a year of Kursk, the Americans, British, and Canadians would be on the beaches of France. With over 500,000 killed or captured at Stalingrad, the Germans would never be the same. The Soviets meanwhile realized they could defeat the Germans and that they could produce weaponry faster, especially tanks. In the coming months, this would be the key to war.