Battle of Stalingrad

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The Battle of Stalingrad was a major turning point in World War II. While not Germany's first setback, it was one of the most important, and one from which it never recovered.

The first major setback for the Third Reich at war occurred at the outskirts of Moscow at the end of 1941 when the Soviet Union counter-attacked and drove the Germans back. The reasons for this were the obvious ones of the unexpected (for the Germans) difficulty of the Russian winter and the overextending of supply lines over the vast expanse of the steppes.

In the spring of 1942, a new target was set for Army Group South as they drove towards the Volga: Stalingrad, the city that bore the name of the Soviet leader and opened the route to the Urals. The German Armies arived at Stalingrad on September 16, 1942 after successful campaigns that added the cities of Kharkov, Sebastopol and Rostov to their conquests on the Eastern front. The battle at Stalingrad was one of the most uncompromising engagements of the entire war. With both sides promoting a no retreat, no surrender policy, intense street fighting-- which in many cases degenerated into bayonette affixed hand-to-hand battles-- ensued and parts of the city changed hands as much as three or four times a day.

On November 19, 1942 the Red Army unleashed a massive counter attack on the German forces around Stalingrad and, using a pincer strategy, eventually managed to encircle the Germans fighting for supremacy within the city. This severed the already strained Nazi supply lines and left 300,000 Reich soldiers with diminishing ammunition and food supplies.

Hitler reiterated his order of no surrender to his trapped armies and, after assurances from Reichsmarshal Goering, promised that all the necessary supplies would be dropped in by the Luftwaffe. In fact, only a fraction of the transports actually managed to reach their target as the Soviet anti-aircraft defences surrounding Stalingrad were far stronger than anticipated.

Meanwhile, during the first few days of January 1943, the rest of Army Group South began its withdrawal from the Caucuses, dashing the encircled soldiers' last hopes for release. A month later (Febuary 2, 1943) the German forces in Stalingrad, hungry and alone (there were stories of soldiers on watch dropping dead from hunger), surrendered to the Soviet Union in what was to prove the first big defeat of the Third Reich and the beginning of the end for Hitler.

The historian William L. Shirer, in his monumental history of World War II, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, eloquently summarized the importance of the Battle of Stalingrad with these words:

Coupled with El Alamein and the British-American landings in North Africa it marked the great turning point in World War II. The high tide of Nazi conquest which had rolled over most of Europe to the frontier of Asia on the Volga and in Africa almost to the Nile had now begun to ebb and it would never flow back again. The time of the great Nazi blitz offensives, with thousands of tanks and planes spreading terror in the ranks of the enemy armies and cutting them to pieces, had come to an end.