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Battle of Stalingrad
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Battle of Stalingrad
Death of City
by Mike Yoder

On Russian military maps it is simply Hill 103. Mamaev Kurgan, or the Tatar Mound, commands a view of central Stalingrad and the surrounding steppe. At it's summit today is the largest free-standing statue in the world. Rodina - Mother Russia - nearly 150 meters high and brandishing a sword weighing 14 tons, faces West and exhorts her sons to follow. But in 1942, the tide of battle rolled across this hill so many times that defenders and attackers alike lost count of the number of times that it changed hands. Mamaev Kurgan was subjected to so much shell - fire that the shrapnel and scrap metal churned into the soil prevented grass from growing there after the war. The entire hill has been turned into a park and massive monuments bear witness to the tragedy that befell the city on the Volga.
From it's humble origins as the town of Tsaritsyn, Stalingrad had benefited from the decision of Soviet planners to develop the region. By 1942, it was the third largest city in the Soviet Union, sprawling in a narrow band for nearly 20 miles along the Volga river-front. Under successive 5 Year Plans, the Russians had erected the Krasny Oktyaber Tractor factory, the Barrikady Metal Works, and the Lazur Chemical Plant. As a gathering point for Volga river barge traffic, it shipped grain, oil, farm machinery, chemicals and other products to the interior of the Soviet Union. Converted to war-time production, the factories of Stalingrad now produced tanks, guns, and other vital war materiel for the Red Army.
At the opening of Barbarossa, the war seemed a long ways off, and of little immediate concern to the citizens of Stalingrad. Although most young men were away serving with the military, life continued as it always had. But by the middle of August,1942, the Stalingrad City Soviet began giving consideration to evacuating children and non-essential civilians. However, the bulk of the population was still in the city in late August when the battle got underway. The Luftwaffe sent Luftflotte 4 to commence air raids on the city, and the first of these set downtown Stalingrad aflame, reducing much of it to rubble. With central Stalingrad in flames, the editors of the local paper put together an improvised edition of Stalingrad Pravda. On a hand-cranked press, without power, they printed out a one page edition with a banner headline proclaiming, "We Will Smash the Enemy at the Gates of Stalingrad!" Over 40,000 civilians were killed in these first raids, and an evacuation began in earnest. The Luftwaffe commanders recognized that the boat traffic taking civilians across the Volga was also shuttling reinforcements into the city. German pilots strafed and bombed the landing in a concerted effort to panic the civilians flocked on the shore.  Thousands more died under the bombs and guns, but the ferry traffic continued unabated. 

The first elements of the 6th Army breached the city in the northern residential suburb of Rynok. Gen. Hans Hube's 16th Panzer division was the first to reach the banks of the Volga, and Stalingrad was boxed in from the north. The Luftwaffe continued to pound the city into rubble, and Stalingrad would continue to burn for the next few months. The first of many bizarre, grotesque sights emerged as the inmates of the insane asylum came out of the ruins, wandering dazed and naked through the streets.
By Sept. 1st, the 62nd Army was fully engaged throughout the city, and the battle began in earnest. The rubble and the ruins of Stalingrad now posed serious problems of movement for the Germans. With the Panzers unable to maneuver quickly through the debris choked streets, Paulus's war of rapid movement was over. Chuikov had turned several key buildings into strongholds, and the Germans attempted to advance through paths which were zeroed in on by Soviet artillery.
German gains were now measured in yards and inches, as the determined Russians made them fight for every house and building which remained standing. Stuka dive bombers continued to hammer the Russian strong points, inflicting numerous casualties. The survivors, though bloodied, merely found new hiding places in the rubble and continued to fight on. Despite horrendous losses, the Germans systematically leveled the city block by block and relentlessly pressed towards the Volga.
While it was still capable of production, the Krasny Oktyaber plant continued to produce T-34 tanks and drive them directly into battle, often crewed by the workers who built them. Those civilians not cowering in cellars now pitched in to aid in the defense of the city. One German Panzer battalion over-ran a position, only to be sickened when they discovered that the defenders were women.

In spite of the heroic efforts of it's defenders, the 62nd Army was being driven back slowly but surely. Chuikov struggled to maintain communications with his beleaguered forces, but realized that the best he could hope to do was to give general instructions. He later stated that, "In Stalingrad, every man had to be his own General!" Russian positions which were by-passed continued to fight on, without orders, reinforcements, or supplies. Many would hold out for weeks, until finally running out of food and ammunition. All continued to exact a heavy toll of the enemy up to the moment they were over-run and killed.
Among the units Chuikov committed to the battle in the early stages was the 13th Guards Division of General Alexander Rodimtsev. Rodimtsev was a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, and something of a national hero. Briefed by Chuikov on his assignment, Rodimtsev declared, "I am a Communist. I have no intention of abandoning the city". One of Rodimtsev's junior officers would be hand-picked by the commander of the 62nd Army himself to carry out a vital, but near suicidal mission - hold the railroad station in downtown Stalingrad.
Lt. Anton Kuzmich Dragan received these orders from Vasily Chuikov in person. Gathering a platoon of less than 50 men, Dragan and his soldiers proceeded to frustrate the Germans in an epic room by room struggle for control of the depot for nearly three weeks. Breaking through walls, crawling over the rafters, and burrowing under the floor boards, the Russians would yield a portion of the building to the Germans only to emerge elsewhere and start the struggle all over again.
Exchanging gunfire down hallways, lobbing grenades back and forth between rooms, Dragan's men inflicted as many casualties as possible on the enemy. In spite of this heroic resistance, Dragan's force was eventually reduced to a handful of men. Running out of ammunition, their rations gone, one of his soldiers took out a bayonet and carved on the wall, "Rodimtsev's Guardsmen fought and died for their country here". Under cover of darkness, Dragan and 5 of his soldiers slipped out of the building, made their way through enemy lines, and later rejoined the fight.
Supplies and reinforcements converged upon Stalingrad from all regions of the Soviet Union. The battle was now a test of will between the two dictators, Hitler and Stalin. Ample materiel was available on the east bank of the Volga, but with the Germans in command of the river from the north and south, everything was now funneled through the ferry landing in central Stalingrad. Holding that landing became Chuikov's top priority, for without it, the 62nd Army would wither and die.
The east bank of the Volga now became a huge marshaling yard for men and materiel, including a large field hospital for tending to the wounded. From this point, the Red Army now deployed batteries of the newly developed Katyusha mortars. Also called "The Stalin Organ" these truck launched rockets would leave their racks with an ungodly screech, and were deadly accurate. Very effective as a psychological weapon as well as for the damage they inflicted, Katyushas now rained down on Stalingrad by night and day.
The Soviet Air Forces, now equipped with modern aircraft such as the Yak 1, began to contest the Luftwaffe for air superiority over the city. For the first time in the war, German soldiers on the ground were receiving the punishment from the air which the Luftwaffe had inflicted upon their enemies. Among the pilots confronting the Germans was a pretty, 22 year old blonde woman named Lidia Litviak. Litviak, who was called Lily by her friends, was an alumnus of the famous 588th Night Bomber Regiment, better known as the Night Witches. With a white flower painted by her cockpit, Litviak became a national hero, nicknamed "The White Rose of Stalingrad". Litviak shot down 12 enemy planes, survived Stalingrad, but was killed in July, 1943, at the Battle of Kursk.
With rockets, bombs and shells pouring into the city around the clock, Stalingrad now resembled a scene out of Dante's Inferno. The burning city cast a glow which could be seen from 30 miles away at night. By day a gruesome pall of smoke and dust churned up out of Stalingrad, truly a glimpse of Hell on Earth. This fearsome sight panicked many Russian reinforcements being ferried into the city from across the river. Some would take their chances with the frigid waters of the Volga and jump overboard from the shuttle boats rather than join the battle for the city. Soviet political officers would accompany each boatload to maintain order and discipline, and shoot all would be deserters on the spot.
Although both commanders had ample forces at their disposal, the narrow approach to the city and the bottleneck of the river crossing forced them to feed their units to the battle one piece at a time. The Germans were slowly gaining ground, but at the cost of excessive casualties. Likewise, Chuikov's delaying tactics were working, although at an enormous price in blood. The stress was also starting to exact a physical toll from both men. Paulus had developed an uncontrollable tic in his eye, and Chuikov was experiencing an outbreak of eczema which kept his hands bandaged much of the time.
The situation in Stalingrad also had repercussions in Berlin. With grave concerns over the exposed left flank, Halder continued to express his misgivings to Hitler. In mid-October, with no immediate end to the battle in sight, Halder and Hitler quarreled for the last time. Hitler dismissed Halder, replacing him with Gen. Kurt Zeitzler, a spineless yes-man. Now all sound military logic and sense of restraint was removed from Hitler's presence. The German war-lord was free to do as he wished with his armies.
With reckless self-confidence, Hitler proclaimed to the German people that, " the enemy in the East has been struck down, never to rise again". But although the Soviet 62nd Army had been reduced to three small pie -shaped pieces of land on the west bank of the Volga, Friedrich Paulus had not yet captured 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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