The Nazi Tide Stops

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

The Battle of Stalingrad (August 1942 – February 1943) was the decisive military encounter of World War II that stopped the German southern advance and turned the tide of the war. From its victory at Stalingrad, the Red Army began a series of offensives that relentlessly took it all the way to Berlin by April 1945.

The main object of the Nazi offensive in the summer of 1942 were the oil fields of Baku, the seizure of which would have deprived the Red Army — and the rest of the Soviet Union — of its principal fuel supply. As part of this offensive, the German Sixth Army under General Friedrich von Paulus was supposed to take Stalingrad, strung out along the west bank of the Volga. Aside from the strategic significance of occupying contiguous territory from the Don to the Volga, the symbolism of capturing the city that bore the Soviet leader’s name evidently weighed in Hitler’s decision to divert forces en route to Baku to the siege of Stalingrad. The German Sixth Army commenced its advance on August 21 and, after over two months of withering bombardment gained control of nine-tenths of the nearly totally destroyed city. But with their backs to the Volga and mindful of Stalin’s Order No. 227 (“Not One Step Back!”), the Soviet defenders held on, engaging the besiegers in house by house combat.

On November 19, Soviet forces commanded by General Georgii Zhukov and numbering approximately a million soldiers attacked both German flanks in a massive pincer movement. After five days, the Red Army had trapped approximately 250,000 of the enemy. The Luftwaffe’s attempts to provide food and fuel supplies by air were thwarted by Soviet artillery. Rations dwindled, soldiers froze to death, and ammunition ran out. Compared to an original contingent of 400,000 troops, the Sixth Army contained only 110,000 including two thousand officers by the time Paulus surrendered on February 2, 1943. Soviet casualties were estimated at 750,000 killed, wounded or missing in action. Although the war would last for another two years, its outcome after the Battle of Stalingrad was no longer in doubt.

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