190 The Allies Gain Ground

31.6: The Allies Gain Ground

31.6.1: The Battle of Stalingrad

The Battle of Stalingrad has been described as the biggest defeat in the history of the German Army and a decisive turning point in the downfall of Hitler in World War II.

Learning Objective

Argue for or against the categorization of the Battle of Stalingrad as a turning point in the war

Key Points

  • The Battle of Stalingrad was marked by constant close quarters combat and direct assaults on civilians by air raids, and it is often regarded as one of the single largest and bloodiest battles in the history of warfare.
  • By mid-November, the Germans had nearly taken Stalingrad in bitter street fighting when the Soviets began their second winter counter-offensive, starting with an encirclement of German forces at Stalingrad and an assault on the Rzhev salient near Moscow.
  • By early February 1943, the German Army had taken tremendous losses; German troops at Stalingrad were forced to surrender, and the front line had been pushed back beyond its position before the summer offensive.
  • It was a turning point in the European theater of World War II; German forces never regained the initiative in the East and withdrew a vast military force from the West to replace their losses.

Key Terms

Battle of Moscow
The name given by Soviet historians to two periods of strategically significant fighting on a 600 km (370 mi) sector of the Eastern Front during World War II. It took place between October 1941 and January 1942 and was part of the German Operation Barbarossa.
Operation Barbarossa
The code name for Nazi Germany’s World War II invasion of the Soviet Union, which began on June 22, 1941.


The Battle of Stalingrad (August 23, 1942 – February 2, 1943) was a major battle on the Eastern Front of World War II in which Nazi Germany and its allies fought the Soviet Union for control of the city of Stalingrad (now Volgograd) in Southern Russia, on the eastern boundary of Europe.

Marked by constant close-quarters combat and direct assaults on civilians by air raids, it is often regarded as one of the single largest (nearly 2.2 million personnel) and bloodiest (1.7–2 million wounded, killed, or captured) battles in the history of warfare. The heavy losses inflicted on the German Wehrmacht make it arguably the most strategically decisive battle of the whole war and a turning point in the European theater of World War II. German forces never regained the initiative in the East and withdrew a vast military force from the West to replace their losses.

The German offensive to capture Stalingrad began in late summer 1942, using the German 6th Army and elements of the 4th Panzer Army. The attack was supported by intensive Luftwaffe bombing that reduced much of the city to rubble. The fighting degenerated into house-to-house fighting, and both sides poured reinforcements into the city. By mid-November 1942, the Germans pushed the Soviet defenders back at great cost into narrow zones along the west bank of the Volga River.

On November 19, 1942, the Red Army launched Operation Uranus, a two-pronged attack targeting the weaker Romanian and Hungarian forces protecting the German 6th Army’s flanks. The Axis forces on the flanks were overrun and the 6th Army was cut off and surrounded in the Stalingrad area. Adolf Hitler ordered that the army stay in Stalingrad and make no attempt to break out; instead, attempts were made to supply the army by air and to break the encirclement from the outside. Heavy fighting continued for another two months. By the beginning of February 1943, the Axis forces in Stalingrad had exhausted their ammunition and food. The remaining elements of the 6th Army surrendered. The battle lasted five months, one week, and three days.

Photo of Soviet soldiers attacking a house in Stalingrad. In the background are the ruins of buildings and rubble filling the streets.
Battle of Stalingrad: Soviet soldiers attack a house, February 1943


By the spring of 1942, despite the failure of Operation Barbarossa to decisively defeat the Soviet Union in a single campaign, the Germans had captured vast expanses of territory, including Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic republics. Elsewhere, the war had been progressing well: the U-boat offensive in the Atlantic had been very successful and Rommel had just captured Tobruk. In the east, they stabilized their front in a line running from Leningrad in the north to Rostov in the south. There were a number of salients, but these were not particularly threatening. Hitler was confident that he could master the Red Army after the winter of 1942, because even though Army Group Centre had suffered heavy losses west of Moscow the previous winter, 65% of its infantry had not been engaged and was rested and re-equipped. Neither Army Group North nor Army Group South had been particularly hard pressed over the winter. Stalin was expecting the main thrust of the German summer attacks to be directed against Moscow again.

Since the initial operations were so successful, the Germans decided that their summer campaign in 1942 would be directed at the southern parts of the Soviet Union. The initial objectives in the region around Stalingrad were the destruction of the industrial capacity of the city and the deployment of forces to block the Volga River. The river was a key route from the Caucasus and the Caspian Sea to central Russia. Its capture would disrupt commercial river traffic. The Germans cut the pipeline from the oilfields when they captured Rostov on July 23. The capture of Stalingrad would make the delivery of Lend Lease supplies from America via the Persian Corridor much more difficult.


The German public was not officially told of the impending disaster until the end of January 1943, though positive media reports ended in the weeks before the announcement. Stalingrad marked the first time that the Nazi government publicly acknowledged a failure in its war effort; it was not only the first major setback for the German military, but a crushing, unprecedented defeat where German losses were almost equal to those of the Soviets. Prior losses of the Soviet Union were generally three times as high as the German ones. On January 31, regular programming on German state radio was replaced by a broadcast of the somber Adagio movement from Anton Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, followed by the announcement of the defeat at Stalingrad.

On 18 February, Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels gave the famous Sportpalast speech in Berlin, encouraging the Germans to accept a total war that would claim all resources and efforts from the entire population.

Based on Soviet records, more than 10,000 soldiers continued to resist in isolated groups within the city for the next month. Some have presumed that they were motivated by a belief that fighting on was better than a slow death in Soviet captivity. The Israeli historian Omer Bartov claims they were motivated by National Socialism. He studied 11,237 letters sent by soldiers inside of Stalingrad between December 20, 1942 and January 16, 1943 to their families in Germany. Almost every letter expressed belief in Germany’s ultimate victory and their willingness to fight and die at Stalingrad to achieve that victory. Bartov reported that many of the soldiers were aware that they would not be able to escape from Stalingrad, but in their letters to their families boasted that they were proud to “sacrifice themselves for the Führer.”


Stalingrad has been described as the biggest defeat in the history of the German Army. It is often identified as the turning point on the Eastern Front, in the war against Germany overall, and the entire Second World War. Before Stalingrad, the German forces went from victory to victory on the Eastern Front, with only a limited setback in the winter of 1941–42. After Stalingrad, they won no decisive battles, even in summer. The Red Army had the initiative and the Wehrmacht was in retreat. A year of German gains during Case Blue had been wiped out. Germany’s Sixth Army had ceased to exist, and the forces of Germany’s European allies, except Finland, had been shattered. In a speech on November 9, 1944, Hitler himself blamed Stalingrad for Germany’s impending doom.

Stalingrad’s significance has been downplayed by some historians, who point either to the Battle of Moscow or the Battle of Kursk as more strategically decisive. Others maintain that the destruction of an entire army (the largest killed, captured, wounded figures for Axis soldiers, nearly 1 million, during the war) and the frustration of Germany’s grand strategy made the battle a watershed moment. At the time, however, the global significance of the battle was not in doubt.

Regardless of the strategic implications, there is little doubt that Stalingrad was a morale watershed. Germany’s defeat shattered its reputation for invincibility and dealt a devastating blow to morale. On January 30, 1943, his 10th anniversary of coming to power, Hitler chose not to speak. Joseph Goebbels read the text of his speech for him on the radio. The speech contained an oblique reference to the battle which suggested that Germany was now in a defensive war. The public mood was sullen, depressed, fearful, and war-weary. Germany was looking in the face of defeat.

The reverse was the case on the Soviet side. There was an overwhelming surge in confidence and belief in victory. A common saying was: “You cannot stop an army which has done Stalingrad.” Stalin was feted as the hero of the hour and made a Marshal of the Soviet Union.

The news of the battle echoed round the world, with many people now believing that Hitler’s defeat was inevitable.




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