While the Soviet generals exhorted the Russian troops struggling and dying in the warehouses, grain elevators, house cellars and barricaded streets of Stalingrad to hold out just a little bit longer and keep the Nazi horde pinned to their positions, two great battering rams of Red Army infantry, tanks and artillery were stealthily concentrating on both sides of Paulus’ overextended legions. The German High Command was not totally oblivious to the growing threat. Such a massive buildup could not go unnoticed. Army Chief Franz Halder warned Hitler in September that the 6thArmy’s weakened flanks manned by less reliable satellite nation armies were a disaster in the making. Hitler, always suspicious of the old guard Wehrmacht, admonished Halder for his defeatism and declared: “What is needed now is National Socialist ardor!” He replaced him with the staunch Nazi General Kurt Zeitzer. Hitler simply refused to believe that Stalin had the reserves to launch a counter-offensive of any consequence. Zeitzer urged Paulus to press his attack in the center and take the last remaining piles of rubble that were once Stalingrad. The Führer had deluded himself into thinking the city that bore the name of his most hated rival was all but his.
He was wrong.
Operation Uranus, as the Russians code-named their massive two-pronged hammer blow, opened up on November 19, 1942 with a spectacular artillery and rocket barrage aimed at the weak lines of the Romanian 3rd Army that was tasked with holding the flank of the 6th Army positions on the Volga 50 miles northwest of Stalingrad. At the sight of thousands of screaming Red Army soldiers racing all around them and swarming T-34s blasting pillboxes and crushing their comrades trapped in their trenches, the Romanians broke and ran. On November 20, a second Soviet onslaught was launched to the south of Stalingrad against points held by the Romanian 4th Corps. The Romanian forces, made up primarily of infantry, collapsed almost immediately. Soviet forces raced west in a pincer movement, and met three days later near the town of Kalach, sealing a ring around 300,000 trapped German, Italian, Romanian, and Hungarian soldiers.
Having been assured by his Air Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering that the Luftwaffe could supply Paulus’ suddenly-surrounded men by air, Hitler denied his general on the scene permission to break out of Der Kessel (“the cauldron”), as they had come to call the Stalingrad pocket, before the enemy ring around them was reinforced and solidified. The Fuehrer stubbornly refused to give up the ground his men had fought so hard to occupy, even though now it was not conquered territory but rather a potential mass grave. Hitler simply would not admit that another offensive in Russia had failed. When only a fraction of supplies needed to maintain the 6th Army actually made it in, the men inside were doomed and the battle was lost. Now, assaulted by another vicious winter, hopelessly trapped either in a dead city or out on the exposed steppe with the screaming winds tormenting their steadily weakening bodies, desperately short on ammunition, and suffering from starvation, frostbite, and disease with no hope of rescue (a German relief column under the vaunted General Von Manstein sent in to try and break through the Kessel was beaten back), the 6th Army was eventually pressed, hunted down and wiped out.
In a last tantrum of defiance Hitler promoted Paulus to Generalfeldmarschall, with the understanding that no German field marshal had ever allowed himself to be taken alive. But Paulus, declaring he’d not take a bullet for "that Bohemian Corporal,” surrendered anyway and went into a decade of Soviet captivity. On 2 February, 1943 the last remaining Axis soldiers in Stalingrad followed suit. 91,000 thousand wretched, ill, and starving prisoners were all that were left of the once magnificent 6th Army. Of these captives only 5,000 would ever see home again. 850,000 Axis soldiers were killed, disabled or captured at Stalingrad while the Russians suffered more than a million losses of their own. At least 200,000 civilians were killed in the fighting as well. It was a costly victory for Stalin’s army. But for Hitler, the battle had been a catastrophe. An entire army was erased from the order of battle. The magnitude of the Germans loss was unimaginable. In July 1943 the Ostheer would launch one more massivive armored offensive at Kursk, but that was to cut off a Russian salient, not advance farther eastward. Stalingrad was for all intents and purposes the beginning of the long retreat for the Germans and the ascendency of the Soviet Union to superpower status. As the Germans lamented: “Enjoy the war, because the peace is going to be awful.”
By 1945 when their soldiers stood upon a conquered pile of smoking rubble and corpses that was once the Nazi capital of Berlin – the taking of which would cost the Russians yet another 300,000 lives – the Soviet Union could count their dead at over fifty-five times those of their U.S. allies. As was noted before, in that time the Red Army had pushed the Ostheer back 1,300 miles from the Volga River and engaged and destroyed over 600 German divisions as compared to 175 on the Western Front…formations that Hitler could not commit to repel the Western Allies in Normandy. One wonders how the war in Europe would have played out had the Soviet-German Non-aggression Pact remained in place. But with two of the world’s most brutal and megalomaniacal dictators along with two of the world’s most powerful armies facing each other, the war in the East was a fait accompli–which though a catastrophe for both nations, was a blessing to the American, British, and Canadian troops who landed against a much weaker opponent on D-Day than would have otherwise been the case.
With such a traumatizing war experience inflicted upon a nation whose leaders have been known for treachery in the past, is it any wonder we see their shadowy imprints on this election…as it turns out within Democratic as well as GOP operative circles. It is interesting to note, as author/historian Victor Davis Hanson does, that the USSR was the only power in World War II to make a pact with all of the other belligerents save China: they cut a deal with Germany and Italy in 1939, Japan in August 1941, Great Britain and the United States in 1941 as well…and Stalin kept his word to the Axis powers with more rigor than he did his own Allies. So it is interesting to see the Democrats, whose leader declared to challenger Mitt Romney back in 2012 with his patented dismissiveness that “The 1980s called, they want their foreign policy back. The Cold War is over.”
For the Russians it never was. And their ascendency to the threat level that has the left so apoplectic today, now that it is politically expedient to be so outraged, began on the banks of the Volga River in winter of 1942. It’s not a bad thing to know.
Final Sidenote: Such war stories also explain Germany’s obnoxiously manic passivism that has led them to welcome with open arms the agents of their own cultural destruction in the form of Mideast migrants, to whom they owe no moral obligations just for past sins committed against the citizens of Stalingrad and the like. Fortunately for the world they are not the same people who invaded Poland in 1939 and didn’t stop fighting until 1945 when their country was in ruins and their Fuehrer and millions of his followers, military and civilian, were dead. But it would behoove them, not in any devotion to Hitler, Himmler and Blitzkriegs, but rather in the love of Bach, Beethoven and Biergartens, to reclaim a little bit of the mettle and national confidence that prompted Charles de Gaulle’s observation when visiting Stalingrad after the war. He gazed at the Volga and remarked: “A truly amazing people.” Ah yes, said his guide, the Russians. “No,” de Gaulle corrected him. “The Germans. That they should have come so far.”