Fighting the bitter cold of Russian winter and resolute defenders, not to mention hunger and fatigue, the 6th German Army could make no progress. Five months after entering Soviet territory, General Friedrich von Paulus sent a message to Adolf Hitler seeking permission to surrender the German position near Stalingrad on January 24, 1943. Der Fuhrer flatly refused the request, setting his soldiers up for a crushing defeat.
In late August 1942, Nazi battalions had already pushed into western Russia and galloped to victories against overmatched Soviet troops. Determined to capture the key asset of Stalingrad (now Volgograd) on the Volga River, Hitler ordered von Paulus to push forward, confident the desperate Soviets would be little more than speedbumps on the way to securing oilfields on the Black Sea.
By mid-October, it seemed as if Der Fuhrer’s predictions were correct: von Paulus stood on the outskirts of the city at the head of the 6th Army and part of the 4th Panzer Army. After comprehensive losses at German hands in 1941, Soviet forces were built primarily on the men and women strong enough to fire a rifle — to call many of them soldiers would have been generous — and it should have been an easy task for von Paulus and his men to march in and demand surrender. Indeed, vicious Luftwaffe (German Air Force) bombing runs reduced the city to ruins and allowed German soldiers to take much of Stalingrad without a fight.
In early November, however, the tables turned for Soviet fighters. Called in to support the defense of North Africa, the Luftwaffe could no longer provide air cover for the army below, nor could it soften the ground ahead by dropping ordinance on the two groups of Russian soldiers pinned between the Germans and the rapidly-freezing Volga. Isolated with no hope of resupply, Stalingrad’s remaining defenders forced the opposition into house-to-house fighting in order to stall the German advance until reinforcements could arrive.
Boosted by the arrival of supplies from the United States, the Soviet Army split in half to sweep in behind the German units to the north and south of the city on November 19, 1942. Known as Operation Uranus, the Russians joined up in Kalach on the 23rd, completing a ring around von Paulus’ units. An estimated 285,000 German and allied soldiers were now trapped, freezing in the bone-chilling cold.
The following day, Field Marshal Erich von Manstein made a fateful decision: the army would hold its position and receive resupply from above while a counter-offensive was organized. This “air bridge,” according to Air Marshal Herman Goering and his advisers, would be sufficient to allow the Germans to capture the city with a second assault from the west as the weather warmed in the early months of 1943.
Nazi leadership did not count on the resolve of the Soviets. The army dug in and formed a double-sided line — some troops and artillery pointed toward Stalingrad while others faced outward to protect from the arrival of reinforcements. With anti-aircraft guns filling the sky with flak, a minimal number of German aircraft were able to drop cargo. What did make it through was useless: spices for food which had not arrived and fuel for trucks that were not going anywhere thanks to the Soviet blockade.
With his men starving, Hitler received a request from von Paulus to allow a surrender on January 24, 1943. Soviet envoys guaranteed safety for those Germans inside Stalingrad, as well as free transfer to any country they wished when their time as prisoners came to an end at the close of World War II. Believing Nazi forces should never entertain thoughts of retreat, Der Fuhrer encouraged his frostbitten troops to fight “to the last soldier and the last bullet.”
On the ground in Stalingrad, reality was much different. Under heavy bombardment from the Soviets, von Paulus capitulated on February 2nd. Less than a third of the soldiers under his command in August remained to be taken prisoner. Frustrated with Nazi incompetence during the battle, von Paulus eventually became a part of the Soviet political machine, encouraging his homeland to surrender and going so far as to testify against his former colleagues at the Nuremburg Trials.
Also On This Day:
1848 – James W. Marshall finds a gold nugget close to Sutter’s Mill outside Sacramento, California and launches the Gold Rush
1857 – The University of Calcutta is founded
1962 – Brian Epstein signs to manage The Beatles, molding them into the suit-wearing act that would take the world by storm
1965 – Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill dies
1972 – Shoichi Yokoi, a Japanese soldier unaware World War II is over, is found on the island of Guam after hiding for 28 years
You may also like :
January 24, 1965 – Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill Died