What D-Day was for the Allies in the West, the Battle of Stalingrad was for the Russians in the east. 

The people of Stalingrad suffered two great misfortunes in the Second World War. Firstly they had the poor judgment to be in between Hitler and The Eastern European oil fields and secondly, Stalin named the city after himself. Both factors made it a make or break battle for both the Germans and the Russians. If Hitler could not reach the oil he was destined to lose as soon as his supplies ran out. Synthetic oil plants were being bombed by the Americans by day and the British and Commonwealth at night. The strategy behind the bombing was to find areas of German production that could not be substituted and try to deprive them of it by bombing the factories. So, along with communication lines like roads and railways, ball bearing factories and the industries of the Ruhr were natural targets. But for Hitler, it was all about oil. He needed those Russian oil fields more than anything. 

Stalin knew the strategic importance of stopping the Germans at the Volga, but more importantly, the political and symbolic importance of the river in the heart of Russia was vital in his mind. Plus his defending generals knew that Stalin would have been apoplectic with rage if ‘his’ city had been captured and when Stalin raged, people died.

It was a battle that moved from floor to floor in buildings, sometimes a single room would be the only prize at the end of a hard fight. The biggest German mistake was to weaken the line on either side of Stalingrad so that the Russians could brilliantly burst through on both flanks and encircled the Germans in an ever shrinking trap. The German commander Paulus wanted to save his men and break out of the trap, effectively retreating from the city to do so. Hitler forbade it and promoted the General to Marshal using valuable cargo space to send him the elaborate baton that goes with the rank. No German Marshal had ever surrendered. But Hitler’s blind stupidity made this Marshal’s surrender inevitable.

Goering boasted that his Luftwaffe could keep the encircled army supplied from the air, but like his other boasts, it soon hit the brick wall of reality. The army was starved of food and ammunition, the two things a soldier needs to fight. Medical supplies were almost non-existent. The German doctor Hans Dibold had the care of thousands of wounded men, no nurses, no drugs, no equipment. Lots of things in war stories are funny, crazy, miserable and deeply saddening, but the one thing that struck me as truly shocking is a story from this particular doctor.

Imagine the subterranean scene of this ‘hospital’. No lights beyond what the doctor carried, he passed from cellar to cellar doing the little he could for the men in his care. His lamp makes a moving pool of light, showing each awful case in turn. He says that when a man dies in such circumstances, his temperature is suddenly and briefly elevated. The lice on the dying man’s body would sense the imminent death of their host and immediately create two bluish smears on either side of the poor wretch. They would then descend migrate to the patients in the adjoining beds, to jostle for space with the resident lice on them.

What Wellington called “The Butchers Bill” for Stalingrad is as follows: In a little over five months, the Russians lost over 1,000,000 men, women and children killed. The Germans 800,000 dead and 110,000 captured. Of these 110,000 only 6000 returned home. The remainder died at the hands of the Russians. No one counted the wounded. There were too many. Stalingrad was not Hitler’s first defeat, but it was the first time the Nazi regime admitted defeat, and after Stalingrad, Hitler lost every battle.

What D-Day was for the Allies in the West, the Battle of Stalingrad was for the Russians in the east. 

(c) Paul Hannah

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