139 Victorious Soviet soldier waving Red banner in Stalingrad

Victorious Soviet soldier waving Red banner in Stalingrad.

(Oct. 14, 2022) STALINGRAD! Let he who has never heard the name, or does not understand its import, hang his head in shame. For it was there, on the banks of the Volga River, in the city named for Josef Stalin, that the fate of the world was decided. It is the most famous battle of World War II, and the second most famous in history.

The battle lasted six months and consumed 1 million lives. This is almost as many deaths as the United States has suffered in all of its wars, and 2 1/2 times as many as the U.S. lost in WWII. The Battle of Stalingrad was a microcosm of The Great Patriotic War. This is the name which the Russians have given to the struggle we know as World War II.

In the Battle of Stalingrad, not only were Germans killed, but so were Croats, Italians, Hungarians, Rumanians, Slovaks, and, after the involvement of the 5th SS Wiking Panzer Division, Danes, Norwegians, Finns, Dutch, and Belgians. And, of course, Soviet soldiers from all parts of the U.S.S.R. were killed — Russians, Ukrainians, Uzbeks, Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Tartars, Mongols, Siberians, Turks, Kalmuyks, and Cossacks. And, the Battle of Stalingrad mirrored the war, in that, at first, the Axis forces swept all before them. But slowly, Soviet resistance stiffened and then the Red Army punched back.

Stalingrad was a city situated on the western banks of the mighty Volga River, 244 miles north of the city of Rostov-on-the-Don, and 600 miles southeast of Moscow. The city extended about 30 miles along the great river. Along the riverbank in the northern part of the city were four huge factories: the Tractor Factory, the Barricades Factory, the Red October Gun Factory, and the Lazur Chemical Factory. At the beginning of the war, the Tractor Factory was converted to producing T-34 tanks. The city was dominated by Mamayev Hill.

The city was not always, and is not now, known as Stalingrad. Prior to the Revolution, its name was Tsaritsyn, and during the Russian Civil War, Communist forces under Stalin won a significant victory there. After the Red Army finally prevailed in the Civil War, the citizens of the city of Tsaritsyn changed the name to Stalingrad to honor Stalin’s accomplishments. In the ’60s, in an effort to wash away the excesses of Stalin’s regime, the city was renamed Volgograd.

On June 22, 1941, the German Reich, and its ally, Slovakia, launched Operation Barbarossa. It was (and remains) the greatest offensive in the history of the world, and for almost six months, it swept all before it.

But, when the Japanese Empire and the U.S.S.R. signed a five-year Non-Aggression Pact, and the Japanese made their decision to attack south against the Allies instead of north against the Soviet Union, dozens of divisions of fresh Siberian troops were released and transferred west.

The combination of the fresh troops and the harsh Russian winter were too much for the exhausted Wehrmacht. In December, it was stopped at the gates of Moscow and finally pushed back. But that was only a temporary setback. With the spring thaws of 1942, Axis Armies were on the march again. The Red Army was dealt another crushing blow outside Kharkov (Kharkiv). Sevastopol was captured. Rostov-on-the-Don capitulated. Voronezh fell. Axis forces entered the Caucuses region in search of oil and captured Maikop.

Then, in July, the Sixth Army, under the command of Gen. Frederic Paulus, and the Fourth Panzer Army under the command of Gen. Hermann Hoth, were directed to capture Stalingrad! The assault on Stalingrad was actually an afterthought. The defense of Stalingrad fell to the Sixty-Second Army under the command of Gen. Vasili Ivanovich Chuikov.

But the Sixty-Seventh Army had only recently been soundly trounced by Gen. Paulus’ Sixth Army near the village of Ostrov, 20 miles west of the Don River. With the aid of Gen. Dr. Baron Wolfram von Richthofen’s Luftwaffe, the Germans took 57,000 prisoners and destroyed more than 1,000 tanks during the first week of August.

On Aug. 23, 1942, units of the Gen. Paulus’ Sixth Army reached the Volga River, north of Stalingrad. Also that day, the first bombs fell on Stalingrad. By the time the first bombing attack was over, 40,000 of Stalingrad’s citizens had died. During the bombing, the offices of the Stalingrad Pravda were destroyed. Orders were sent to continue publication, so Mikhail Bodolagin made his way to the Tractor Factory, where he was able to print 500 single-sheet copies of the newspaper, with an editorial which proclaimed, “WE WILL DESTROY THE ENEMY AT THE GATES OF STALINGRAD.”

As the Germans continued their advance toward Stalingrad, surrounding it on three sides, Gen. Chuikov’s Sixty-Second Army withdrew into the city. Now, the German advantage of mobility would be nullified, and the fighting would be block-to-block, street-to-street, building-to-building, room-to-room.

That kind of fighting was perfect for snipers. The Soviets were only able to supply and reinforce Gen. Chuikov’s Sixty-Second Army by ferrying men, weapons, and food across the Volga, and then usually only at night, because otherwise German artillery and the Luftwaffe took too heavy a toll.

On Sept. 20, 1942, the 284th Division was ferried across the Volga and moved into the line against the Germans. One of the soldiers in that division was Vasili Zaitsev (played by Jude Law in the movie). Zaitsev had grown up in the village of Elininski, in the foothills of the Ural mountains. In the summers he had worked as a shepherd and had become an expert shot while hunting deer in the forest around his village.

Within 10 days of his arrival at Stalingrad, he had killed almost 40 Germans. The Soviet press, eager for a hero, trumpeted his exploits, and his fame spread. Zaitsev began training others in his art. One of them was a pretty, 19-year-old blond, named Tania Chernova (played by Rachel Weisz) from New York, who was in Belarus to rescue her grandparents when the Axis invaded. After they were murdered, she began fighting as a partisan in Belarus, but made her way to the city on the Volga, because it presented a greater opportunity to kill the hated Germans, which she called “sticks.” Soon the two became lovers.

In the meantime, Zaitsev’s fame had spread across the line to the Germans. It began affecting morale. To combat the problem, the Germans summoned the head of their sniper school in Zossen outside Berlin, Maj. Erwin König (played by Ed Harris, in the movie). König was the top sniper in the world at the time, with almost 400 confirmed kills.

The Soviets learned of his presence at Stalingrad from a prisoner. The commander of the 284th Division, Col. Mikali Batyuk, said, “I think that the German super sniper from Berlin will be easy meat for us. Is that right, Zaitsev?” Zaitsev responded, “That’s right, comrade Colonel.” But first Zaitsev had, “ . . . to find him, study his habits and methods and . . . wait for the right moment for one, and only one, well-aimed shot.”

Unfortunately for Zaitsev, the German had the advantage. The Germans had been studying the Soviet leaflets describing Soviet sniper techniques and reading the newspapers, and, of course, getting reports from German front-line troops. Although Zaitsev had killed many of the German snipers, he had only been able to accomplish that by patiently studying their habits for days. In the case of Major König, he knew nothing of his habits.

For several days, Soviet shooters watched the front lines through their field glasses. Then quickly, two Soviet snipers — Morozov and Sheykin — were killed with single rifle shots in that same area of the city. The Soviets knew the German killer was on the hunt!

One afternoon, Zaitsev and a friend, his spotter, Nikolai Kulikov, (played by Ron Perlman) crawled to the edge of no-man’s land between Mamayev Hill and the Red October Plant, near where the two Soviet snipers had been killed, and waited. At sunset, they saw a German helmet, but Zaitsev held his fire. It could have been a trap.

Before dawn on the next day, they were back at their position. At sunset they returned to the Soviet lines, not having fired a shot and having seen nothing of the German sniper. On the third day they were joined by Commissar Igor Danilov, (played by Joseph Fiennes) who had come to witness, and publicize, Zaitsev’s victory.

Shortly after dawn, Danilov spotted the German sniper and raised himself up, shouting, “There he is. I’ll point him out to you.” With that, the German shot him in the shoulder. Unlike in the movie, he was not killed. But Danilov’s sacrifice had allowed Zaitsev to zero in on the German’s position.

In front of him, to his left, was a disabled tank. To his right was a pillbox. Between them was a sheet of iron resting on a pile of bricks. Zaitsev didn’t think it was the tank, and the firing slit in the pillbox had been sealed up. Zaitsev suspected that the pile of brick was the German’s position.

To flush him out, the Soviet soldier hung a glove on the end of a piece of wood and slowly raised it above his position. When the German rifle cracked, Kulikov hissed, “There’s our viper.” The next morning, the two Soviet soldiers moved their location so that they had the afternoon sun at their backs. And there they waited for the rest of the day.

As the sun dipped below their backs, Zaitsev noticed the light reflect off a piece of glass under the sheet of iron. He motioned to Kulikov to raise his helmet over the top of the parapet. The German fired and Kulikov rose screaming. Falling for the ruse, the major relaxed, thinking that he had bested the Soviet super sniper in the ultimate duel. He lifted his head slightly, to see his “victim.” Zaitsev squeezed the trigger on his Mosin Nagant Model 91/30 rifle and shot him between the eyes.

By the end of October, Zaitsev had killed nearly 100 Germans and been awarded the Order of Lenin. His lover, Tania, had broken almost 40 “sticks.”

One day, at the end of the month, she and several student snipers had assumed a position on the top of a building and zeroed in on targets. But Zaitsev had forbidden them to fire without his approval. Meanwhile the Germans came and went before her very eyes.

Losing patience, when a column of German infantrymen burst into the open, she screamed, “Shoot!” When the firing had ceased, 17 Germans lay dead. But all the Germans weren’t dead. Within minutes, German artillery had zeroed in on their position, killing the students. Tania survived, and when Zaitsev heard the story, he slapped her to the ground for her stupidity, and told her that she was responsible for the deaths of her friends.

In other respects, the battle wasn’t going well for the Soviets. The Germans drove inexorably towards the Volga, and by now, controlled at least 95 percent of the city. Ice floes on the Volga prevented the ferries from crossing. Food and ammunition were running low. The wounded could not be evacuated. Losses could not be replenished.

But Marshals Zhukov, Vasilevski and Stalin were planning a surprise. And on Nov. 19, they sprung it. That day a half-million Soviet troops under the command of Gen. Konstatin K. Rokossovski assaulted the area held by the Third Rumanian Army, commanded by Petre Dumitrescu, on the left of Gen. Paulus’ Sixth Army. Gen. Dumitrescu’s Rumanians were stretched too thin and were ill-equipped to face the masses of T-34s crashing in on them.

The next day, the Fourth Rumanian Army, commanded by Constantin Constantinescu-Claps, to Sixth Army’s right, suffered the same fate. The two pincers met on Nov. 23, at Sovetsky, west of Stalingrad, surrounding Gen. Paulus’ Sixth Army, elements of the Gen. Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army and elements of the Gen. Constantinescu-Claps’ Fourth Rumanian Army.

In mid-December, Tania led a patrol of three other snipers on a mission to kill Gen. Paulus. However, one of the members stepped on a mine which ripped a gaping hole in Tania’s stomach. Zaitsev rushed to her side and carried her to a hospital. The next morning, she was transferred across the Volga, ending her participation in the battle.

In her three months at Stalingrad, she had broken 80 “sticks.” She was eventually transferred to a hospital at Tashkent in Uzbekistan. Although she would live, the wounds that she received would prevent her from ever bearing children.

After the surrender of the remnants of Gen. Paulus’ Sixth Army, on Feb. 2, 1943, she received a letter from a friend who informed her that her lover had died in an explosion near the Red October Plant in the final weeks of fighting. She was crushed.

In 1969, she learned that, although Vasili had been grievously injured in that explosion, and for a while, blinded, he had recovered completely and married someone else. Once again, she was crushed.

Zaitsev finished the war as a lieutenant and was awarded the Hero of The Soviet Union star. He was credited with killing 242 of the enemy at Stalingrad, and 400 total. Truly an “Ace” by any standard! However, the top Soviet sniper, Ivan Sidorenko finished the war with 500 kills, and the champion sniper of all time was Simo Hayha of Finland with 542. The two Stalingrad adversaries are tied for 11th on the all-time list with Sulo Kolkka of Finland.

After the war, Zaitsev married and settled in Kiev, which is the Capitol of the Ukraine, and found employment as the director of an engineering school.

Stalingrad was the high-water mark of the Wehrmacht. The result was the destruction of the Second Hungarian Army, the Rumanian Third and Fourth Armies, the Fourth Panzer Army, the German Sixth Army, and the Italian Eighth Army.

In addition, the Axis were forced to pull back from the Caucuses, abandon Rostov and Tagenrog, and, except for the ill-advised offensive at Kursk, in July of 1943, the Axis were now reacting to the Red Army, which would begin its inexorable march west, ending in Berlin.

Some say that, although the characters all existed, the duel never occurred, and that it was a product of Soviet propaganda. In any event, it makes for a hell of a story!

Next week: Battle of Santa Cruz

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