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Battle of Stalingrad
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Battle of Stalingrad
The Commanders
by Mike Yoder

The principal adversaries in the battle for Stalingrad marked a sharp departure in tradition for European armies. Up to and including World War I, high ranking officers in both the German and Russian military had been drawn from the ranks of the nobility. Now the son of a Hessian book-keeper and a Russian peasant would square off against one another in the largest clash of arms the world has ever seen. 

Generaloberst Friedrich Paulus had joined the German army in 1910. He had risen to the rank of Captain during the First World War, and had been largely involved in work as a staff officer. He married well, winning the hand of a beautiful young woman of the Romanian nobility, Elena Rosetti-Solescu, whose friends called her "Coco". 

Paulus served both in the Balkans with the Alpenkorps, and at the Battle of Verdun
He stayed in the post-war Reichswehr, rising as high as Major before Hitler came to power. Paulus had a strange fixation for a soldier. He despised dirt, bathed and changed uniforms several times in a day, even on the rare occasions he ventured into the field. He grew professionally as an excellent staff officer, contenting himself with sand-table models of various battle-field scenarios.

However, on at least one occasion he was called upon to command a battalion during a field exercise. Paulus's performance was found lacking, and a superior noted in an evaluation, "This officer lacks decisiveness!" The following is a direct quote from his commanding officer of the time. As it turns out, this statement is indicative of what could be expected of him as a soldier.
"A typical Staff officer of the old school. Tall, and in outward appearance painstakingly well groomed. Modest, perhaps too modest, amiable, with extremely courteous manners, and a good comrade, anxious not to offend anyone. Exceptionally talented and interested in military matters, and a meticulous desk worker, with a passion for war-games and formulating plans on the map-board or sand-table. At this he displays considerable talent, considering every decision at length and with careful deliberation before giving the appropriate orders."

With the advent of Hitler and the expansion of the German army, Paulus moved steadily up the ranks of officers attached to the General Staff. By the outbreak of war in 1939, Paulus was a Major General, and on the staff of Gen. Walther von Reichenau's 10th Army. Von Reichenau was probably the very antithesis of Paulus. An ardent Nazi, coarse and unkempt, he loathed routine paper work, preferring duty in the field. During the Polish campaign, he set an example for his troops by swimming across the Vistula river. He was perfectly content to let Paulus handle the organizational duties, and as a result, his army was running as efficiently as a Swiss watch.

Renamed the 6th Army for the 1940 campaign in the West, von Reichenau and Paulus spearheaded the attack through Belgium, establishing their army as one of the elite of the Wehrmacht. Theirs was among the forces which pinned the British Expeditionary Force and the Remnants of the French Army against the sea at Dunkirk. Chosen for the cross-channel invasion of Britain, Paulus worked up the operational details for an amphibious assault by the 6th Army.

With the cancellation of Operation Sea-Lion, Paulus found himself back in Berlin, under Gen. Franz Halder, working up operational plans for Operation Barbarossa. To work with the chief of the German General Staff was a plum of a career opportunity for him. He impressed Halder with his intellectual precision, his meticulous preparations and staff work. Ironically, Paulus laid down the basic operational plans for the ultimate fate of the 6th Army, as well as his own.

With the dismissal of Field Marshal von Rundstedt as Commander, Army Group South, Field Marshal von Reichenau was moved up from 6th Army to replace him. Von Reichenau recommended his old deputy to be the new commander of the 6th Army. It was intended that von Reichenau would assist Paulus through the transition and change of command. But von Reichanau died of complications from a heart attack and stroke (largely brought on by the stress of the Russian campaign) on Jan 17, 1942. At the age of 51, Paulus had achieved his life's ambition - command of an army in the field.

Lt. General Vasily Ivanovich Chuikov was likely the very mirror image of his opponent. Born of Russian peasants in 1900, Chuikov was a mechanic's apprentice from the age of 12, worked at various odd jobs, such as a bell-hop, and joined the Red Army in 1918. With the onset of the Russian Civil War, Chuikov served as a private soldier in forces commanded by Commissar Josef Stalin. Ironically, his first battle was for control of a small town on the Volga river named Tsaritsyn. 

The struggle for Tsaritsyn, and the subsequent defeat of the White Army there, was a milestone in Stalin's career. Years later, as Soviet Dictator, Stalin would rename Tsaritsyn after himself. From the 1930's on, it would be known as Stalingrad.

Chuikov would distinguish himself as a soldier there, and within a year, found himself with a field commission, a member of the Communist party, and commander of a regiment in the Red Army. In the years following the Civil War, he attended to his neglected education. He graduated from the prestigious Frunze Military Academy in 1925. As the son of a peasant, possessed of a good war record, and the epitome of the new class-less society, here was an officer clearly headed for higher command.

Through some miracle which benefited the Russian people, Chuikov survived Stalin's purges of the Red Army. Although promoted to fill the resulting vacancies, he was never advanced beyond his merits or abilities. Stalin's paranoia swept the ranks of the Soviet military of all who were considered politically suspect, no matter what their military ability or war record. Chuikov was obviously considered politically reliable, and his military credentials were impeccable. Equally capable men found themselves in the Gulag, and Vasily Chuikov stood head and shoulders above the mediocrities who were now in control of much of the Red Army.

Chuikov served in the Polish Campaign of 1939, when the Red Army moved into Eastern Poland, in accordance with the secret protocols of the German-Soviet pact. Here he made his first contact with the German Army, and saw first-hand what the new style of warfare was about. He also served in the ill-fated Winter War with Finland in December of 1940. There the outnumbered Finns inflicted disproportionate casualties upon the Red Army, and revealed great weaknesses in the training, equipment, and fighting abilities of the Russians. 

Chuikov was serving a tour as the Military Attaché in China when Operation Barbarossa was launched. Recalled to Russia in early 1942, he was posted as the deputy commander of the Soviet 64th Army. By this point in his career, he had emerged as an aggressive, opinionated, and determined officer. Possessed of a volatile temper, he held short shrift for anyone who disagreed with him about military matters. On occasion, he was known to use his walking stick to strike subordinates who had displeased him. With the Red Army in headlong retreat, many came to displease him.

In August of 1942, as the German armies approached Stalingrad, it appeared that the primary defense of the city would fall upon the Soviet 62nd Army. The commander of the 62nd, General V.I. Lopatin, despaired of their ability to hold the city. When he confided these fears to Gen. Yeremenko, commander of the Stalingrad Front, he was immediately dismissed. Yeremenko looked about for a successor, a man who would display the tenacity and spirit needed to rally the Russian soldiers and hold on the Volga. His first choice for the job was Vasily Ivanovich Chuikov.

Summoning Chuikov to his command post, Yeremenko appointed him the new commander of the 62nd Army. Echoing Stalin's proclamation, Yeremenko had also issued a directive to all his army commanders, to take "Not another step back". Countersigned by Soviet Commissar Nikita S. Krushchev, this order was backed up with instructions for the NKVD to shoot anyone who failed to comply. Directing Chuikov to hold Stalingrad at all costs, Yeremenko asked of him, "Comrade General, how do you interpret your assignment?"

Chuikov did not hesitate. He told the Front Commander, "We do not dare lose the city!" He then assured Yeremenko and Krushchev that the 62nd Army would hold at Stalingrad or die in the city. Leaving to take stock of his new command, he first determined that he could not match the firepower of the Wehrmacht out on the open steppe. He laid plans for a street fight, pinpointing future strong-points where the enemy would be forced to pass on their march to the Volga. He positioned his artillery, and registered his guns where the Germans would be concentrated in the greatest numbers. He then issued a proclamation to his soldiers - "There is no land past the Volga" - and awaited the arrival of the 6th Army in Stalingrad.

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Copyright © 2003 Mike Yoder.

Written by Mike Yoder. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Mike Yoder at:

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Published online: 02/04/2003.

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