Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Stalingrad I

The battle in Stalingrad had been about who would control the river frontage on the west bank of the Volga. While Chuikov’s 62nd Army occupied the riverfront, replacements, ammunition, vodka (lots!), food and medical supplies could be ferried across from the Soviet-controlled east bank. The Germans kept the Volga under artillery fire and air attack but it wasn’t enough to stop the river traffic, which in any case moved mainly at night. And while the 62nd Army was entrenched and resupplied on the west bank of the Volga the German position in Stalingrad remained under constant threat of counter-attack. By hanging on in Stalingrad and avoiding complete defeat, Chuikov had effectively won the battle for the city.

Despite their superior numbers and firepower, the Germans were being drawn into a battle that would involve them in a very different kind of fighting from that with which they were familiar. Much of Stalingrad already lay in ruins following extensive aerial and artillery bombardment. The rubble would obstruct concentrated, mobile attacks by combined air, armour and infantry, while providing cover for defenders. Though out-numbered and out-gunned the defenders would have many advantages in the close combat of the innumerable small battles fought among the city’s ruins.

General Hans Doerr, who fought at Stalingrad, was the author of one of the earliest German studies of the battle: Campaign to Stalingrad (Der Feldzug nach Stalingrad, 1955). In a celebrated passage he set the scene for what was to come:
‘The battle for the industrial area of Stalingrad, which began in the middle of September, can be described as “trench” or “fortress” warfare. The time for conducting large-scale operations was gone for ever; from the wide expanses of the steppeland, the war moved into the jagged gullies of the Volga hills with their copses and ravines, into the factory area of Stalingrad, spread out over uneven, pitted, rugged country, covered with iron, concrete and stone buildings. The mile, as a measure of distance, was replaced by the yard . . .

For every house, workshop, water-tower, railway embankment, wall, cellar and every pile of ruins, a bitter battle was waged . . . The distance between the enemy’s army and ours was as small as it could possibly be. Despite the concentrated activity of aircraft and artillery, it was impossible to break out of the area of close fighting . . .’ (Chuikov, 1963, p.135)

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