Germany’s Sixth Army Capitulates at Stalingrad
Consumed with conquering the Soviet Union from the moment he assumed the German chancellorship in 1933, Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler’s ambitious plan to dismantle Soviet Russia and colonize its people was nearly realized in 1941. With Great Britain under siege from the Luftwaffe and unable to mount any serious challenge to Nazi rule over Western Europe, Hitler overruled his top military commanders and ordered the invasion of the Soviet Union, codenamed Operation Barbarossa, in June 1941.
In the attempt to subdue Communism, Hitler’s armed forces suffered losses exceeding 1,000,000 men.
Retreating from the ultimate prize, Moscow, the Wehrmacht regrouped and prepared for its 1942 summer offensive, codenamed Operation Blau. Aiming to drive deep into southern Russia, capture Stalingrad, seize vital petroleum assets at Baku, Grozny, and the entire of Azerbaijan, Hitler kicked off the campaign in July 1942. To achieve the goal of striking at Stalin’s city, Hitler assigned the Sixth and 17th Armies and the First and Fourth Panzer Armies under the command of Field Marshal Fedor von Bock and later General Maximilian von Weichs. Hitler’s largest, the Sixth Army had been instrumental in overwhelming Polish farms and France’s pleasant countryside; it hDs also emerged largely unscathed after victories against the Red Army early on in Barbarossa. Unexpectedly, however, in late summer 1942, Hitler broke the army into separate groups, stripping the Sixth Army of most of its armor and fuel and granting it to the Fourth Panzer for use in its campaign further south against the Caucasus. Hitler still expected the Sixth Army, led by General Friedrich Paulus, to take Stalingrad.
Following weeks of dramatic successes, German troops reached Stalingrad in late August and introduced themselves with days of aerial bombardments over the city. Entering the city in early September, fierce fighting erupted between the Germans and the Red Army, resulting in hundreds of thousands of military and civilian dead. The advance slowed to a virtual halt by intense house-to-house fighting over city blocks, by November Romanian and Hungarian allies protecting Germany’s vulnerable flanks to the north and south began to crumble under the weight of intense Soviet attacks.
Enveloped by a Soviet offensive German intelligence either ignored or failed to see, the Sixth Army was suddenly cut off, and 265,000 German troops found themselves completely surrounded in Stalingrad by the Red Army. Forbidding a breakout to the west to link with a rescue effort mounted by the Wehrmacht’s Army Group Don, Paulus was ordered by Hitler to remain and fight until the last man. Utter insanity, many German generals had ordered their troops to jettison unnecessary equipment and prepare for a breakout west. Unmoved, Hitler ordered Luftwaffe chief, Herman Goering, to stage an operation supplying the encircled troops by air. A task requiring 500 tons daily, only once did Goering’s once-invincible air force surpass a 300-ton threshold. Slowly tightening the noose around the city, the Red Army pushed east toward the city, and west to drive back any German counteroffensive. As the Reds drove eastward, the last remaining serviceable airfields at Pitomnik and Gumrak fell into Red hands, cutting off vital supply and further strangling the dying Sixth Army.
After rejecting Soviet surrender terms and being split into three separate pockets within the city, Paulus pleaded for permission to surrender his expiring army. Refusing, Hitler actually promoted Paulus to Generalfeldmarschall (Field Marshal) on January 30, with the expectation Paulus would take his life before submitting to Stalin’s demands.
One day following, his troops exhausted, malnourished, out of ammunition and living in rags among immobile armored vehicles, Soviet troops broke through the southern pocket of the city and fought their way to Paulus’ headquarters. Reluctantly greeted by Paulus aide and de-facto commander, General Arthur Schmidt, surrender terms were negotiated. Hours later, Paulus, Schmidt, and Colonel Wilhelm Adam were led away to interrogation. On February 1, General Walter Heitz waved a white flag in the city center; and on February 2, XI Corps commander General Karl Strecker laid down his arms in the north of the city. In a final transmission to Berlin, Strecker signaled: XI Corps has done its duty. Long live Germany.” The final message deliberately omitting the customary “Heil Hitler,” did not go unnoticed among the Nazi elite.
Following the surrender, 91,000 German troops, including 22 generals, entered Soviet captivity. Many succumbed in typhus-ridden prison camps or died from starvation, maltreatment or forced labor. The few remaining, an estimated 6,000, toiled in Siberian camps until their return in 1955.
While it remains the subject of debate whether Stalingrad was the decisive turning point of the war on the Eastern Front, it is undeniably true the loss of the Sixth Army’s 300,000 men and material contributed significantly to a severe drop in morale within the German army and among the German population.