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The Battle of Stalingrad
second world war
Battle of Stalingrad: The Turning Point
Harry Dalton, Campbell High School, 2012
The following essay was written as part of the Year 10 Studies of Society and the Environment course at Campbell High School, 2012.
During the Second World War, there were numerous turning points. Historians define a turning point as an event, which decisively changed the course of the war. Although there is little consensus as to which single event had the biggest effect on the outcome of World War II, the battle of Stalingrad is commonly recognised as a major turning point, which would ultimately decide the outcome of the conflict in Europe.
In June 1941, Nazi Germany began a full-scale invasion of the Soviet Union, codenamed ‘Operation Barbarossa’. Hitler had been planning the invasion of Russia for some time and saw it as part of his plan for providing Germany with ‘Lebensraum’ or living space. If successful in his conquest, he would be able to exterminate all the Jews and Bolsheviks of Eastern Europe, rid the world of Comintern
and gain much needed reserves of raw materials. The defeat of the Red Army would ensure the Soviet Union no longer posed a threat to Nazi Germany’s military dominance in Europe. Hitler invaded Russia with a combined army of over three million soldiers, made up of the German army as well as armies from fellow axis powers Romania and Italy as well as thousands of tanks and aircraft; it was the largest land invasion of the war and the largest invasion in the history of warfare.
The invasion of Russia consisted of three army groups: attacking the north, south and centre of the Russian border. Each Group had specific objectives to achieve. Army Group North was intended to reach Leningrad, Army Group South was to march to Smolensk and then Moscow, and Army Group South was to capture Ukraine and then continue towards the Volga and the oil fields of the Caucasus. Hitler did not believe the Soviet Army would be able to hold out against the efficient and well-oiled war machine of the Wehrmacht, which would wage Blitzkrieg – lightning war – decimating the soviet forces in a matter of weeks allowing for the capture of all the major western cities of Russia before the onset of winter. The German offensive was initially successful, with invading forces capturing vast amounts of territory as they moved eastward throughout the spring of 1941. However, the Wehrmacht failed to defeat the Red Army as quickly as had been expected and months of hard fighting ensued.
Capturing the oil fields of the Caucasus was one of Hitler’s main goals in the conquest of Russia. However, he believed cutting the oil supply to the Soviet Army was a more urgent priority. For this reason, in July 1943, half of Army Group South was tasked with taking the Soviet city of Stalingrad situated on the Western bank of the Volga River while the other half would continue towards the oilfields. Despite Hitler devoting the entire sixth Army as well as the fourth Panzer Army to the attack on Stalingrad, the Axis forces were unable to take the city. In the confines of the cityscape environment the German army was unable to employ the mechanised infantry tactics it was accustomed to using and the city became the scene of intense urban warfare with both sides sustaining high losses.
By this point the German Army’s supply lines were stretched increasingly thin due the rapid German advance and urgently needed supplies took increasingly longer to reach the front line. The German army was also ill prepared to endure the onset of the harsh Russian winter, which would be one of the coldest on record and one of the main factors contributing to the German defeat. "My hands are done for, and have been ever since the beginning of December. The little finger of my left hand is missing and - what's even worse - the three middle fingers of my right one are frozen. I can only hold my mug with my thumb and little finger. I'm pretty helpless; only when a man has lost any fingers does he see how much he needs then for the smallest jobs. The best thing I can do with the little finger is to shoot with it. My hands are finished."
Stalin, aware of the imminent attack on Stalingrad had issued the order ‘Not a step back’, emphasising the importance of depriving the invading army of further territorial gains while also aware of the symbolic importance of defending the city that bore his name. The Red Army utilised the vast reserves of manpower available to it, sending scores of untrained and poorly armed men to Stalingrad, where they were used as cannon fodder. However, under the command of Marshal Zhukov, the Soviets were able to gradually encircle the German sixth army, which subsequently surrendered despite Hitler’s order to fight to the last man.
The result was the utter ruin of Hitler’s war plans in the Far East, most notably the failure to secure the Volga and the precious oil reserves of southern Russia at the expense of an entire army. This was the first major defeat for the German military. Prior to Stalingrad, no opposing force had achieved such a decisive victory over Hitler’s Wehrmacht. It was the first major Soviet victory and signalled a change in the tide of the conflict in the East. After the victory at Stalingrad and capture of the sixth Army, Soviet forces almost immediately began counter offensives against the German army, pushing through German lines and starting a march westward that would not stop until it reached Berlin in 1945. The defeat of the German army at Stalingrad not only served as a much needed morale boost for Soviet forces, but also as a beacon of hope for oppressed peoples across Europe. "News of Stalingrad flashed round the world, giving heart to anti-Nazi resistance movements all over Europe. Before Stalingrad, Resistance leaders had only been able to indulge in small-scale sabotage… After Stalingrad they began to dream of liberation."
Were Stalingrad to have fallen the outcome of the war could have been infinitely different; Axis powers would have gained control of the Volga, thereby severing the oil supply to the rest of Russia and crippling the Red Army. An allied victory in Europe would have ultimately been much harder to achieve had Nazi Germany been successful in securing a new oil source and defeating the Soviet Union. Failing to capture Stalingrad resulted in Hitler losing what would have been a crucial strategic advantage in the war. This defeat signalled a turning point in the war: it began the Russian counter offensive and marked the end of Nazi Germany’s conquest of Europe.
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The Communist International, or, Comintern was a Soviet organisation, which perpetuated and controlled the international communist movement.
Anonymous German soldier,
Norman Davies, Europe A history, London, 1997, p. 1032
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