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REMEMBERING AN EPIC BATTLE THAT DECIDED HISTORY

Seventy years ago around this time, the Battle of Stalingrad reached its formal conclusion when the ragged remnants of the Wehrmacht’s famed 6th capitulated. On January 30, 1943, the 10th anniversary of his accession to power as German chancellor, Adolf Hitler received news of the imminent destruction of this elite formation. The Fuhrer promoted its commander, General Friedrich Paulus, to field marshal, hoping that he would do the honourable thing and commit suicide since no German field marshal had ever endured the purgatory of surrender. The freshly minted field marshal disappointed his Fuhrer by choosing life over death. The next day, January 31, came the denouement, as Paulus and his staff of 24 generals and 90,000 men of all ranks surrendered and went into captivity. The titanic struggle that had gripped the world from the opening day of the city’s siege on August 25, 1942 had run its course.

The first notable comment appeared in The Washington Post on February 2, 1943 in an article by Barnet Nover: “Stalingrad’s role in this war,” he wrote, “was that of the Battle of the Marne [1914], Verdun [1916] and the Second Battle of the Marne [1918] rolled into one.”

In May 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt presented a ‘scroll’ from the people of the United States of America to the city of Stalingrad “to commemorate the gallant defenders whose courage, fortitude and devotion during the siege… will inspire forever the hearts of all free people. Their glorious victory stemmed the tide of invasion and marked the turning point in the war of the Allied Nations against the forces of aggression”.

Their Great Patriotic War also saved Europe from its worst crisis since the fall of Constantinople in 1453.

Britain’s prime minister, Winston Churchill, paid tribute to Russian valour at the Tehran Conference of the Big Three in November 1943. Then followed a solemn presentation of the honorary “Sword of Stalingrad — a gift from King George VI and the British people.” Joseph Stalin, deeply moved, raised the sword to his lips and kissed it. Some witnesses detected tears in his eyes, others were not so sure, but Stalin’s bearing and the spontaneity of his gesture left an abiding impression on all privy to the scene.

Seventy years on, the battle of Stalingrad has lost none of its allure; it is now the stuff of legend. The heroism, courage and fortitude of its Russian defenders resonated in the conduct of their German adversaries. But the odds were too great: as the struggle intensified and hopes of a German victory receded. Stalin’s exhortation “Not a step back!” (Order No 227) was Russia’s moral moment comparable to Churchill’s May 1940 “blood, toil and sweat” speech. Russians and Germans fought for every building, room and stairway. Each step became a mile. Soviet snipers, men and women, hung in dark corners taking a heavy toll of enemy lives. The cry of despair from the diary of Lieutenant Weiner of the 24th Panzer Division transcends time. “We have fought during 15 days for a single house with mortars, grenades, machine-guns and bayonets… And imagine Stalingrad, eighty days and nights of hand-to-hand struggles… Stalingrad is no longer a town. By day it is an enormous cloud of burning, blinding smoke… And when night arrives, one of the scorching bleeding nights, the dogs plunge into the Volga and swim desperately to gain the other bank. The nights of Stalingrad are a terror for them. Animals flee this hell; the hardest stones cannot bear it for long: only men endure.”

German columns had marched across the southern steppe amidst clouds of dust, setting alight villages and towns, killing and maiming the local population in the total war of ethnic extermination and plunder. Lebensraum and the oil and mineral wealth of Soviet Russia took the Wehrmacht to Stalingrad, where hubris met nemesis in a contest of wills. At stake was the new dark age of perverted science.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man. In General Vasily Chuikov, the Soviet 62nd Army, entrusted with the defence of Stalingrad, the Red Army possessed a genius for urban warfare. The battle hung in the balance, when across the Volga came the telling reinforcements of General Alexander Rodimtsev’s 13th Guards Division, an elite combat-ready formation, and Siberian forces.

The supreme command and the general staff, with Aleksandr Vasilevsky and Georgy Zhukov in the lead, along with the supreme commander-in-chief Stalin, devised the vast Soviet counter-offensive of encirclement in three stages (code-named Uranus, Little Saturn and Kessel). The trap would be sprung by a large formation led by Generals Konstantin Rokossovsky and Nikolay Voronin, the chief of the artillery, with both presiding over the final rites of the 6th Army.

The military historian, Chris Bellamy, set the result in context. “Along with the Carthaginians’ encirclement and annihilation of the Romans at Cannae in 216 BC, Zhukov’s destruction of the Japanese at Khalkin Gol in 1939… it was from a purely military point of view one of the greatest encirclements of history. But its staggering scale in spatial and human terms, especially given the very thin margins available to the Soviet High Command, and its strategic and political consequences must make it the greatest encirclement of all time.”

When the guns at Stalingrad fell silent the picture was one of utter desolation, bodies of men and horses strewn everywhere, in common possession of a spectacularly gruesome burial ground.

Germany and its Axis auxiliaries, Hungarians, Romanians and Italians on the Eastern front, suffered a million-and-a-half dead, wounded and captured. Nearly 50 divisions, almost the equivalent of five whole armies, were eliminated. The losses in material were of a similar order. Blown was the myth of German invincibility.

“Russians,” writes the authoritative Geoffrey Roberts, “distinguish between povorot (a turning point) and perelom (a breaking point). Moscow and Kursk were undoubtedly great turning points in the war on the Eastern Front, but Stalingrad was also the breaking point, the point of crisis and of radical transformation in the strategic situation… Collectively, the battles of Moscow, Stalingrad and Kursk determined the outcome of the Soviet-German conflict and hence the outcome of the Second World War as a whole.”

The Soviet Union bore the brunt until the Anglo-American landings in Normandy, Operation Overlord, June 6, 1944, opened the long-awaited Second Front. Operation Bagration was launched on June 22, three years to the day, of Operation Barbarossa, Germany’s unparalleled 3.8 million-strong invasion of Soviet Russia. Bagration decimated the Wehrmacht’s vaunted Army Group Centre, releasing the trapdoor for the Red Army’s drive to Berlin. The scale of the German defeat — their most catastrophic of the war — doomed the state itself, said the Panzer commander, General Niepold.

Soviet losses in the Great Patriotic War totalled 27 million dead, of whom 11.7 million perished on the battlefield. The Red Army, for its part, demolished 600 German divisions. Hitler holed up in his bunker, watched, broken and helpless, the Gotterdammerung of his projected Thousand Year Reich. Trapped in a psychedelic bubble of daily injections of drugs and stimulants and the enabling fascist salute, the Fuhrer played his final card with a shot to the head, so escaping the ultimate ignominy of witnessing the Soviet flag aloft the Reichstag from the unprepossessing garden of his bunker and crematorium.

The prophetic warning by General Erich von Ludendorff at the end of World War I — “A mistake in strategy cannot be made good in the same war” — was ignored, as the hubristic Wehrmacht commanders committed not one but many strategic errors in their Russian campaign. They were outfought, outthought and outflanked through the deception tactics of Maskirovka, by a galaxy of stellar Soviet generals, Zhukov, Vasilevsky, Koniev, Rokossovsky, Malinovsky, Bagramian et al, each a master of the operational art. The pivot of the war effort, however, was Stalin. Zhukov affirmed, his voice taking on a special tone, that “here was a real military commander of modern world war on a large scale [and] a worthy Supreme Commander-in-Chief”. The memoirs of Vasilevsky, Rokossovsky and Koniev endorse the verdict. Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke, the chief of Britain’s general staff, noted in his diary that Stalin possessed a “military brain of the very highest calibre”, while Averell Harriman, the wartime American envoy to Russia, in a conversation with the writer, Albert Axell, called Stalin “one of the greatest war leaders in history”. “Without Stalin they never would have held,” he said. Churchill, post Potsdam, wrote of “this amazing and gigantic personality”. M.N. Roy, who knew Stalin well from his comintern days, joined the chorus of critical acclaim.

The Georgian Djugashvili, son of a freed serf and cobbler, grew into the all powerful Russian Stalin. The Russia he inherited, loved, admired and identified with, had been broken on the wheel of the First World War, the Civil War and the Allied intervention. With blood and iron, The Man of Steel and The Grand Inquisitor, gulag, terror, warts and all, forged a colossus, the 20th century’s sole rival to American global hegemony.