21 January 2013, 09:03

The Battle of Stalingrad - a key turning point of the Second World War

The Battle of Stalingrad - a key turning point of the Second World War
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On February 2, 2013, Russia will be celebrating the 70th anniversary of the victory in the history-making Battle of Stalingrad. This epic battle on the banks of the Volga River marked a key turning point of the Second World War. And that brings us to a letter sent in by Antonio Lombardi from La Crosse, Wisconsin, in the United States.

On February 2, 2013, Russia will be celebrating the 70th anniversary of the victory in the history-making Battle of Stalingrad. This epic battle on the banks of the Volga River marked a key turning point of the Second World War.

And that brings us to a letter sent in by Antonio Lombardi from La Crosse, Wisconsin, in the United States. He writes: “I would like to find out more about how this important anniversary will be celebrated in Russia. Are there many veterans still alive? I grew up listening to stories about Stalingrad from my late father who was a veterinary in the Italian cavalry and spent 18 months in Ukraine. Despite the war, my father had wonderful memories of Russia, the country, its people and its culture. I regret not having been able to fulfill his desire to see Russia one more time before his passing. My best wishes for a future of peace and prosperity to all Russian people. The sacrifice of millions of Russian lives must never be forgotten”.

Let’s hope it will never be forgotten. Now decades separate us from the years of the Great Patriotic War, as is known in our country. Although volumes have been written about that faraway war, including the Battle of Stalingrad, some historians rightly point out that we know surprisingly little about the heroes of those battles and their exploits.

That especially concerns today’s younger generation, to whom it all sounds like ‘ancient history’. Fortunately, many Russian families preserve memories of their relatives – dads or granddads – who fought in the Second World War. Here are a few lines from an essay written by an 11th grade student of a high school in Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad): “War is not my personal memory and not my personal experience. However, I think that it’s necessary for my generation to explore the 1940s to understand something very important about the people of today”.

In fact, those who defeated Stalingrad seventy years ago were ordinary people. They were not made of steel, but they had to go through all imaginable trials. Besides, many of them hadn’t even turned eighteen at that time. They were much younger than you and me are now…

“Young Soldiers of Stalingrad” – that’s the title of a book published in Russia a few years ago. The book’s editor, Arnold Braverman, claims that there were about 2500 young Stalingrad defenders aged between 16 and 18. Twenty-seven percent of them were girls – they were nurses, snipers and even sappers. Arnold Braverman himself fought with the 8th Air Force Army, having received his first combat award at the age of 16.

Alas, the number of surviving Stalingrad defenders is dwindling all the time. Even the youngest of them are nearly 90 now. In November of 2012 there were 949 veterans of the Battle of Stalingrad living in Volgograd. All in all, last year Russia had over 3 million surviving World War Two veterans. Over 500 of them are centenarians. We bow low to all of them!

Back to the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad, though. The Moscow-based Historical Perspective Foundation has published a book dedicated to the Battle of Stalingrad as described in wartime reports by British and American newspapers, such as The Times, The Boston Globe and The New York Herald Tribune. It’s titled “The City of Steel. The Failure of Hitler’s Costliest Gamble”. Initially published in English, the book will be translated into Russian for the Russian audiences.

A little more statistics. I read on a website designed especially for the 70th anniversary of the victory at Stalingrad (stalingrad70.ru) – a very good site, by the way - that over one thousand Soviet writers contributed to the country’s war effort by serving as war correspondents. Every third of them perished in the Great Patriotic War, and every fifth – fought his way through the Battle of Stalingrad.

Here is how this epic battle on the Volga was described by a prominent Soviet war correspondent Yevgeny Krieger:

“Millions of Soviet people feel anxious, proud and pained about Stalingrad… Fighting in the city raged in the basements, on the roofs of buildings, in the gardens and in the courtyards. The city defenders camouflaged as stones, blended with the city, and the stones ‘grew alive’. …The world, dumbfounded by Stalingrad staunchness, was waiting for an explanation of what was naturally taken as a miracle. And the people who worked that miracle said: “The explanation is our will and our absolute faith in our total victory.”

Fierce fighting at Stalingrad raged for 200 days and nights, with cumulative losses exceeding two million people. Which means that hundreds were dying there daily. Our archives have preserved the voices of some of the people who survived that fierce battle. For them it was an inferno…

“That’s the way it was. One aircraft went zooming up, and another went into a dive. One swooped down, and another flew up…” Those were the words of Matryona Stolnikova at Stalingrad. “It was nightmare. Black bomb craters marked our streets. Our homes crushed in ruins. Everything was ablaze. Everything that loving hands had created over the long years. They, the Nazis, were monsters, not human beings.”

In October of 1942 a German officer wrote: “Stalingrad is no longer a town… Animals flee this hell; the hardest stones cannot bear it for long; only men endure”…

Not only men, actually. In addition to the city defenders that included quite a few women, there were some civilians left – those who had no opportunity to leave the besieged city… An ordinary elderly Russian woman, Maria Timofeyeva, had a small kerosene stove in her home and cooked food for Red Army soldiers. Gradually the soldiers began to address her as ‘Mother’. This is how her story is described by an American historian Albert Axell in his book Russia’s Heroes. The author titled this episode “The Cabbage Soup in Hell”.

“One morning Maria Gavrilovna told her ‘sons’ that today she would give them a feast – hot cabbage soup. Where she managed to find a head of cabbage nobody knows. At dusk, when the firing slackened, the well-known figure … waddled across the street, carrying a piping pot of cabbage soup. All of a sudden the men heard the deadly crackle of enemy rifle fire; but they saw Maria Gavrilovna walking calmly, not hurrying, so as not to spill the soup. The Russians returned the fire to defend their much-treasured visitor. But when she climbed the stairs, without spilling a drop of soup, the men noticed blood …beneath her kerchief. Putting down the pot of soup she sank to the floor without saying a word. She never regained consciousness. The soldiers buried her that night … in the courtyard. On her grave they wrote: “Here lies Maria Gavrilovna Timofeyeva, Mother of the 12th Trench Mortar Battalion”.

By November of 1942 the Germans had seized almost the entire city, rather, what was left of it, as Stalingrad was in ruins. Their advance, though, was hampered by fierce street fights. A German General reportedly said: “The mile, as a measure of distance, was replaced by the yard…” There was deadly fighting for each street, house, cellar or stairwell, when grenades, bayonets and daggers were put to use. For about two months a handful of Red Army men defended a building that blocked the way of the Nazis to the Volga. Ivan Afanasyev who commanded the platoon defending that building recalled:

“The house was more than half surrounded. There was only a narrow strip of land behind us occupied by our troops, and that was kept under constant artillery and mortar fire. We could only get to our position to replenish our supplies of food and ammunition at night, running a great risk.

In the cellars of that house there were some 30 civilians who had not made it in time to get across the Volga. We were their only hope of salvation. There were only about fifteen of us, but for them we were the army itself. Only one thing had any importance for us. That was to hold out, since for us beyond the Volga no land existed.”

The magnitude of the battle was such that the losses sustained by both sides were horrendous. Suffice it to mention that average life duration of Red Army soldiers arriving at Stalingrad was sometimes less than 24 hours. Horrible statistics! The Germans too had to pay a high price for their temporary success, which eventually turned into a great tragedy for them. “The God of War has turned over to the other side”. That was Hitler’s remark after the 6th Army under von Paulus surrendered at Stalingrad. With such a massive loss of manpower and equipment, Nazi Germany simply couldn’t resist the Soviet offensive that followed soon.

Mr. Horst Krueger from Hannover, Germany was a teenager during the war, and, therefore, he remembers it fairly well. “I had turned 13 at the time, it is the age at which people wake up to current developments. I followed news reports daily. At first all they said sounded good but gradually I started realizing that the combat engagements in the suburbs of Stalingrad spelled the beginning of a catastrophe. And, indeed, the frontline started shifting closer to us, and finally your men hoisted a flag over the Reichstag,” Mr. Krueger wrote.

Now seven decades have elapsed since the epic Battle of Stalingrad, and almost seven decades since the last shots of the Second World War were fired. It’s to be regretted that our two peoples had to fight each other in that war of annihilation.

By the way, one of the sister cities of Volgograd (that’s how Stalingrad is called now) is Cologne in Germany. There were plans to invite Wehrmacht veterans to Volgograd for the celebrations, which will take place on February 2. However, this is a sensitive issue for some Russians, at least for those who lived through the horrors of the Nazi bombing and shelling, who survived by sheer miracle and who lost their near and dear ones during Soviet-German hostilities. Such horrors are not easy to forget. On the other hand, German veterans, for whom the war was also a tragedy, believe a visit to Volgograd would be very important for the current and future generations of the two countries, as well as for the entire Europe. Some of them have been quoted as saying that they would be glad to accept the invitation, if health permitted.

The main activities to mark the 70th anniversary of the Victory at Stalingrad will, naturally, be held in Volgograd. They will include laying wreaths at the Eternal Flame on Mamayev Mound, which was the site of fierce fighting back in 1942 and 43. The opening of a memorial stele with the names of fallen Stalingrad defenders is scheduled for February 2, the anniversary date. A parade of the Volgograd garrison troops in the morning, artillery salute and fireworks in the evening – all that will take place in Volgograd on February 2.

On February 3, a joint Russian-German concert by the Volgograd and Osnabrueck Symphony Orchestras will be held. In addition to other masterpieces of world classics, they will perform Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, whose leitmotif is: “All Men Shall Be Brothers”.

The 70th anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad will also be celebrated in Moscow, Rostov-on-Don, Kazan, and many other Russian cities. All in all, over 50 different events are planned nationwide, among them concerts, theatre performances, museum expositions, film festivals, auto rallies, brass band festivals and TV programs.

And, in closing, we would like to mention briefly an online Victory Map, a project initiated by the Volga-Media news agency. It’s the so-called ‘people’s virtual map’ of Great Patriotic War memorials created by Internet users. All Russians can take part in this project by adding new locations that saw intense fighting during the war, since Stalingrad was defended by soldiers and officers from all parts of our country.

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