After hearing a lecture by my friend Steve Douglas on the lessons of the battle of Stalingrad, I urged him to write this essay on the topic. Given the current toxic relationship between the United States and Russia–the two predominant thermonuclear-armed states–it is a useful reminder of a crisis moment in world history when the U.S. and Russia were allies against a great common threat. it primarily serves as an invaluable lesson in the role of the subjective factors and leadership in warfare.
STALINGRAD: A LESSON IN THE PRIMACY OF THE SUBJECTIVE IN WAR
November 19, 2020 marked the 78th anniversary of the strategic counteroffensive that the Soviet Red Army launched against the German Wehrmacht at Stalingrad in World War II. The vast, surprise double-pincered armored envelopment that the Soviets launched that day—from apparently out of nowhere—sealed the fate of the German Army in Russia. It was arguably the turning point of the entire war.
Stalingrad was the biggest battle in the most destructive war in the history of mankind. Soviet casualties in the battle that raged between August 23, 1942 and the surrender of Field Marshal Paulus’s 6th Army on February 2, 1943 numbered 1,129,619, including 478,741 personnel killed or missing. That is, the Soviets suffered more dead and wounded in the Battle of Stalingrad, than the U.S. Armed Forces suffered on all fields of battle combined during the entirety of World War II! (982,800 total casualties, including 416,800 killed or missing).
By the time that the Soviets unleashed their November 19th counteroffensive, the badly battered 62nd Army of General Chuikov, which was the principal Soviet military formation in the meager thousands of square meters that remained of Soviet-controlled Stalingrad, numbered only about 6000 men. What had once been a full-sized army of over 100,000 soldiers, had been reduced in size to less than half of an undersized division! And it was facing round-the-clock assaults from the elite formations of Paulus’s 6th Army and the German Luftwaffe that were more than 30 times its size, with seemingly infinitely greater firepower.
What sustained the Soviet soldiers in the face of these indescribable, almost unimaginable horrors? What enabled them to triumph against such overwhelming odds? Insofar as the imperial arrogance of the members of today’s anti-Russia lobby ominously echoes the anti-Soviet arrogance of German political and military strategists in Hitler’s time, they would be well-advised to consider the answers to these questions, before proceeding any further with their dangerous, ill-considered provocations.
The Leadership Question
The Show Trial purge process which Stalin conducted against the Soviet military from 1937-1939 had virtually decapitated the Red Army. Approximately 50% of the officer corps, including 3 out of 5 marshals, 13 out of 15 army group commanders, 57 out of 85 corps commanders, and 110 out of 195 division commanders were executed, imprisoned, or “discharged” in the purge. Only the ascendancy of General Zhukov and the arrival of Arctic-like temperatures and snowfall in November 1941 stopped the German Army from taking Moscow.
While the limited success which the Soviets experienced in some winter engagements against the Germans prompted some expressions of misguided optimism in high level Soviet government circles, those naïve hopes were shattered by the disaster that the Soviets suffered at the 2nd Battle of Kharkov. The sixteen-day battle which ended on May 28, 1942 resulted in 171,00 dead, missing, or captured Red Army troops, and opened the door for the German advance deep into southwest Russia. Soviet losses were compounded by the loss of another 118,00 soldiers when the garrison at Sevastopol in Crimea surrendered to the German 11th Army of Field Marshal Erich von Manstein on July 4, 1942.
So, when the city of Rostov on the Don River fell to the Germans with hardly a fight on July 23rd, Stalin acted decisively to alter the dynamic of defeat and despair. On July 28,1942 Stalin issued his famous Order 227—the “Ni Shagu Nazad!” Order—the “Not a Step Back!” Order. In it, he declared: “Every commander, soldier, and political worker must understand that our resources are not unlimited…To retreat further would mean the ruin of the country and ourselves. Every new scrap of territory we lose will significantly strengthen the enemy and severely weaken our defense of our Motherland…’Not a Step Back!’ this must now be our chief slogan. We must defend to the last drop of blood every position, every meter of Soviet territory, to cling on to every shred of Soviet earth and defend it to the utmost.” (pp. 41-42. Stalingrad—How the Red Army Triumphed, by Michael K. Jones–2007, Pen & Sword Books LTD, Great Britain).
Stalin coupled his Order 227 with a number of initiatives that were designed to awaken and unleash the powerful spiritual, patriotic impulses which had resided deep in the souls of Russian subjects for centuries, long before the birth of Karl Marx or the Bolshevik Revolution. He had come to recognize that Communist sloganeering was simply not sufficient to mobilize the people or the soldiers of the Soviet Union for victory.
- On July 29, 1942, Stalin established the Order of Kutuzov Award, to be presented to those officers who conducted effective counterattacks and performed heroically against overwhelming odds on the battlefield. Mikhail Kutuzov had been appointed by Tsar Alexander I on August 29, 1812 to replace Barclay de Tolly as head of the Russian Army and was charged with the mission of defeating Napoleon’s invading French forces. While Kutuzov did not defeat Napoleon at the Battle of Borodino on Sept. 7, 1812, he inflicted sufficient damage on the French, that he helped to create the preconditions for Napoleon’s disastrous retreat from Moscow that winter.
- Also, on July 29, 1942, Stalin established the Order of Suvorov Award, named after a Russian Field Marshal, who had famously served Empress Catherine the Great before his death in 1800. 48 Soviet generals were ultimately awarded the Order of Kutuzov or Suvorov medal during World War II. It should be noted that the masterminds of the Stalingrad counteroffensive, Generals Zhukov and Vasilevsky, were the first and second recipients of the Order of Suvorov First Class medal. As Stalin declared in an appeal to the troops on Sept. 6, 1942, “The Russians have always defeated the Prussians. The military tradition of the Russian people lives on in the heroic deeds of Soviet fighting men.” (pg. 433. Moscow to Stalingrad: Decision in the East. Earl F. Ziemke and Magna E. Bauer)
- In late August 1942, with great pomp and fanfare, Stalin convened meetings in Moscow with the leaders of the partisan movement, which was estimated to have at least 100,000 irregular warfare combatants at that time. By naming Marshal Voroshilov commander in chief of the partisan movement, Stalin, in effect, accorded it the status of a distinct branch of the Soviet Armed Forces.
- Stalin elevated the status of the officer corps of the armed forces in Soviet society with several noteworthy initiatives. The designation of “officer”, which had been banned from all military vocabulary since the Bolshevik Revolution and replaced by the socialistically politically correct term “commander,” was reincorporated into Soviet military life in August. And, more spectacularly, on Oct. 9, 1942, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet abolished the political commissar system, which, since the days of the Bolshevik Revolution, had been invested with absolute veto power over the decision-making processes of any and all military officers. The same Stalin who had decimated the Soviet military leadership with his murderous purges in the 1930’s, was professing his full trust in the independent, professional judgment of the military leadership in 1942.
- In August, Stalin promoted General Zhukov to the rank of Deputy Supreme Commander of the Soviet Armed Forces, making Zhukov second only to himself in leadership responsibility for the Soviet military. In October, Stalin promoted the Chief of the General Staff General Alexander Vasilevsky to Deputy Minister of Defense. Together, Zhukov and Vasilevsky acted as a team, overseeing all aspects of the battlefield conflict with the Germans. They reported directly to Stalin, as his two primary plenipotentiaries.
Birth of a Plan and Advent of General Chuikov
On September 12 Zhukov and Vasilevsky spoke with Stalin about the prospects for a strategic encirclement of Paulus’s 6th Army, to change the complexion of the war altogether. Stalin was intrigued with the idea and dispatched them to Stalingrad to investigate the feasibility of it. He expressly admonished them, that they were to discuss this idea with absolutely no one but himself. They returned to Moscow on September 27th and presented him with a detailed report on their plan, affirming its viability. After some minor alterations, he signed off on it the next day.
The date for the surprise attack was set for November 9th. The commanders of the three Soviet Fronts (army groups) in the Stalingrad region were not to be informed of the plan until mid-October at the earliest. And they, in turn, were not to inform their own command staffs of the plans until November1st! These strictures would give the Front commanders and their staffs little time to prepare for the counteroffensive… But secrecy was of the highest priority.
Zhukov’s and Vasilevsky’s plan was premised on the assumption that the beleaguered troops of the Soviet 62nd Army could continue to conduct such a deadly and effective defense against the Germans, that the 6th Army of Paulus and the 4th Panzer Army of Herman Hoth would become narrowly focused on rooting them out of the city to such an extent, that they would leave their long flanks relatively under-protected, and therefore vulnerable to Soviet attack.
That is exactly what happened, thanks to the extraordinary leadership of the 62nd Army’s Commanding General—Vasily Chuikov. Chuikov was appointed commander of the 62nd Army on Sept. 12, 1942, 6 days after its former commander, General Lopatin, had been arrested for “disobeying Order 227 and lying to the Soviet High Command.” Lopatin had been installed as commander of the 62nd Army after its original leader, General Kolpakchi, had been removed from his post on July 27th because of his poor performance. Chuikov placed the highest priority on the restoration of the morale in the ranks of his men. “If you rely on an order, without preparing the morale of the men who will carry it out, then those men will not swim towards the battle, but back to the bank they set out from. In this situation, posters and slogans won’t help you. “(pg. 89—Jones).
Chuikov made it a point to visit his soldiers in their forward positions any and everywhere on the battlefield, soliciting their insights on how better the 62nd Army could combat the Wehrmacht. Word rapidly spread throughout the ranks that Chuikov was a “soldier’s general” who listened to his troops and spared no effort to get them the backup and supplies that they needed. Chuikov said, “The soldier is often his own general in street fighting. You can’t be a commander if you don’t trust your own soldiers’ skills.” (pp. 88-89, Jones)
Chuikov knew that he had to “de-awesomize” the combined arms warfare capabilities of the German Wehrmacht in the minds of his men, if he were going to prevent the Germans from taking Stalingrad. Respect for the Wehrmacht was healthy; but to harbor awe of it was paralytic and deadly. Chuikov told his men to think of Stalingrad as a breakwater against the Fascist wave of Germans. Lt. Anatoly Mereshko, a 20-year-old member of the 62nd Army staff summarized his thinking:
“Imagine a strong wave from the sea. It hits the coast with tremendous force. But when you have breakwaters in the sea, the wave gets broken. The same was true in the steppe. There the Germans had the power of the whole wave. In the city, they were broken into smaller streams. Houses, especially stone houses, became obstacles. And the further the Germans went into the city, the more resistance they received from the flanks. The Germans did not change their tactics at all…But a town gives a completely different war arena—especially ruin. We could split into small groups and occupy strongholds—to split their river into tributaries. We were very successful in achieving this.” (pp 9-10 Jones)
Consulting closely with his troops, Chuikov devised new forms of deployment and battle, that were calculated to maximize the impact of small ad-hoc groups of soldiers, and individual soldiers, such as snipers, in deployment against the Germans in the shattered, congested cityscape of Stalingrad. For example:
- The “storm group” unit for assaults on buildings originated in this process;
- Night assaults were developed as a new form of offensive action;
- The “hug the enemy” mode of deployment was developed in this context, as a way to neutralize the effect of the Germans’ overwhelming air superiority. Chiukov noticed in one after-action report, that the Germans neglected to call in an air strike against a Russian gun position, because the gun position was so close to the German lines, that the bomber pilots would have risked hitting their own troops. The “hug the enemy” positioning radically reduced the number of air strikes that the Soviet troops in forward positions subsequently received.
- The Red Army soldiers discovered that their German opponents did not have much of a stomach for room-to-room, building-to-building, hand-to-hand individualized combat situations. Whereas the Germans had seemed almost invincible in motorized combat on the vast reaches of the Russian steppes, they were revealed to be decidedly mortal and unhappy in conditions of close, personal combat. This realization gave the Soviet infantry a tremendous psychological edge in their struggles with the Germans in the ruins of the city.
It is no doubt one of the great ironies of the Battle of Stalingrad, that the 62nd Red Army won in no small measure due to the fact that its soldiers, beginning with its commander Vasily Chuikov, operated on the (Prussian) principle of Auftragstaktik. Auftragstaktik, or “mission orders”, had always been the hallmark of Prussian military excellence, since the early nineteenth century when Prussia worked with Czar Alexander I to defeat Napoleon. According to that principle, officers were encouraged to use their own judgment to determine how best to fulfil their “mission orders”. Creative, innovative thinking, not blind obedience to rigid orders, was encouraged at all levels of the Prussian Army. This is exactly what Chuikov meant, when he said, “the soldier is often his own general in street fighting.” Later he said, “the most important thing I learned on the banks of the Volga, was to be impatient of blueprints. We constantly looked for new methods of organizing and conducting battle, starting from the precise conditions in which we were fighting.” (pg. 85 Jones).
The Spiritual Substance of Victory
Notwithstanding the effectiveness of the innovations that Chuikov and his staff made in battle in 1942, those innovations do not explain how the Soviets were able to triumph at Stalingrad. Chuikov, himself, said, “The defense of Stalingrad is a paradox of military science. The encirclement and our final offensive at Stalingrad can be understood in terms of military science—but our defense is impossible to comprehend through any system of rational analysis.” (pg. 10 Jones) ….” It was beyond the understanding of any of us.” (pg. 7 Jones)
Lieutenant Vladimir Turov, an infantry officer in the 62nd Army echoed those sentiments when he said, “In terms of our military understanding, how we held out at Stalingrad is still a complete mystery to us.” (pg. 10—Jones)
Chuikov created an environment that was defined by an unrelenting, spiritually animated, all-encompassing commitment to the fulfilment of an historically-grounded mission whose realization would determine not only the future of Russian society, but that of the world as a whole. The spirit of Chuikov’s 62nd Army was encapsulated in the Oath that all its veterans, and all new troops that joined after Oct. 17, 1942 recited.
The Oath Not to Surrender Stalingrad stated: “The Germans have destroyed the avenues and brought down the factories of Stalingrad; but Stalingrad has remained invincible. Its burned-out houses, its very stones are sacred to us. We swear to our last drop of blood, to our last breath, to our last heartbeat that we shall defend Stalingrad, and hold the enemy back from the Volga. We swear that we shall not disgrace the glory of Russian arms, and we shall fight to the end. “(pg. 233– Jones)
Acting as the true leader that he was, Chuikov, the Russian patriot, led what amounted to a religious crusade of his communist and atheist soldiers against the invading fascists. Anatoly Kozlov, a veteran of the battle, recalled that the swearing of the Oath “involved swallowing a piece of Stalingrad’s soil. By doing so, men swore to fulfil their mission under any circumstances—including giving up their lives.” (pg. 234 Jones) It was as if, in swearing the Oath and swallowing the soil, soldiers were taking Communion in a Christian Church, and the bread/body of Christ was the soil of Stalingrad.
And their pathway to immortality was paved with the sacrifices that they and their fellow members of the Red Army were making in Stalingrad. Kozlov reported that, “Our soldiers created their own rituals during the battle.” (pg. 234 Jones) Often men would swear over the dead body of a fellow soldier, that they would take revenge on the German Army. The war correspondent Vasily Grossman witnessed this ritual and its effect, reporting that “It was as if the dead had passed on their strength to the survivors, and there were moments when ten resolute bayonets successfully held an area which had (previously) been held by an (entire) battalion.” (pg. 234 Jones)
Lieutenant Mereshko said of this battlefield ritual: “It seemed unbelievable that anyone could continue to hold out, but when a division of thousands was reduced to a couple of hundred soldiers, they would hold the ground for their dead friends.” (pg. 234 Jones)
Lieutenant Alexander Fortov, the commander of an artillery unit in the 112th Division reported that, “After the battle ended, guys in my company turned to the Bible. We began to read sections of the Old Testament to each other. We were all atheists and communists, but those passages really spoke to us. It was as if someone really understood what we had gone through.” (pg. 248 Jones)
In an illuminating discussion that the son of Vasily Chuikov, Alexander, had with the author Michael K. Jones, after his father died, Alexander reported,
“I remember sorting through my father’s papers after his death…I came across a small, hand-written prayer and immediately recognized his writing. The paper was old and creased, the ink faded. The scrap of paper would have been folded and kept as a talisman. My father—a committed communist—never spoke about it. But I know from other members of the family, that he carried it with him during the war.”
The prayer read as follows: “O Powerful One! The one who can turn night into day, and rough soil into a garden of flowers. Make light everything that is hard for me—and help me.” (pg. 249 Jones). “That is how we were defending Stalingrad,” Alexander Chuikov said to Michael K. Jones. (pg. 249)
Under Vasily Chuikov’s leadership, this spiritual mission orientation came to dominate and animate every important aspect of life and death in the 62nd Army. As Chuikov told Vasily Grossman in an interview, “On other parts of the front they are worried that cowardice will spread amongst the men; here at Stalingrad it is courage which is infectious.” (pg. 135 Jones)
Ivan Burlakov, a defender of Stalingrad’s Barrikady Factory spoke of the extraordinary quality of the spiritual bond that came to predominate among the soldiers: “We spoke of the saying of (Generalissimo) Suvorov—‘Though you may perish in the attempt, come to the aid of your comrade-in-arms.” (pg. 11 Jones)
Led and inspired by the indomitable spirit of Vasily Chuikov, the 62nd Army held its vital ground in Stalingrad until the Red Army finally, after a ten-day logistical delay, launched its great encirclement of the German 6th Army on November 19th. As Zhukov and Vasilevsky had anticipated, the Germans left their long flanks outside of Stalingrad undermanned and vulnerable to attack, as they poured all their effort into the fight against the remnants of the 62nd Army in the smoldering ruins of Stalingrad.
It is noteworthy that, given the secrecy strictures that Stalin had imposed on the operation from the outset, the first that anyone in the 62nd Army knew of the counteroffensive was at midnight on November 18th. The heroic resistance that the 62nd Army conducted at Stalingrad was done without the benefit of any direct knowledge of the impending strategic counteroffensive. It was done for its own sake!