ENEMY AT THE GATES
The Battle for Stalingrad
Waged in 1942 and 1943, the Battle for Stalingrad was one of the defining moments of World War II and helped shape the political landscape for the rest of the
20th Century. In the summer of 1942. the Nazis launched a massive invasion of Russia, America's ally during the war and the nation bearing the brunt of the fighting against the Germans. In an amazing feat of
logistics and fighting skill, the Nazis crossed 1,000 miles to reach Stalingrad, a major industrial center on the Volga River.
The Germans were confident they could capture the city and thereby cut traffic on the Volga River to southern Russia. The city would also provide a northern anchor for the German drive into the oil fields of the Caucuses, and capturing Stalin's namesake city would be a major propaganda coup for Hitler. The Soviets put up heroic resistance, however, and Stalingrad was the easternmost point reached by the Nazis in World War II. Germany's failure to take the city marked a turning point in the war, and from that time on, the German army found itself in retreat.
Early in the war, the Soviet Union suffered a string of defeats by the Germans, and the loss of Stalingrad could trigger the collapse of the entire nation. Stalin ordered that the city must not fall, whatever the cost. Poorly trained and sometimes unarmed Soviet troops were poured into battle, followed by Russian security forces with orders to kill anyone who might try to flee or retreat. In addition, authorities forced several thousand civilian residents to remain in the city in order to give Soviet soldiers something more than ruined buildings and streets to defend.
Among the city's defenders was the real Vassili Zaitsev, an expert sniper and trainer of other snipers who became a national celebrity and hero.
Eventually trapped within Stalingrad and cut off from reinforcements and supplies by encircling Soviet forces, General Frederich von Paulus, commander in chief of the German forces, surrendered in February 1943, despite orders from Hitler to fight to the last man. An estimated 800,000 Axis troops from Germany, Romania, Italy and Hungary, and untold numbers of anti-Communist Russians fighting on the German side had died. Approximately 1,100,000 Soviet soldiers lost their lives (many thousands executed by their own security police for
supposed desertion or treason). Of the city's peacetime population of 500,000, only a few more than
1,000 people remained at the end of the battle, the rest having fled or been killed.
It was the most disastrous military defeat in German history. Two entire armies — the Sixth and the Fourth Panzer — essentially disappeared, and the battle helped bleed the German military dry. It also galvanized the once-pessimistic Soviet population, who began to believe that the war could be won, and it gave courage to resistance forces in other nations occupied by the Germans.
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