Stalingrad: Death of an Army
By Scott Cowin

The Battle for Stalingrad began in late August, 1942 as part of the German summer offensive to capture the Caucuses region of the Soviet Union. Besides cutting off the Volga river to traffic, the Germans intended the occupation of Stalingrad to be the linchpin for defending the advancing German drive into the treasure trove of natural resources contained within the Caucuses region. For the Russians, the attack offered the chance to lure the German troops into close-quarter city battle, thereby eliminating many of the German advantages of mobility. Once the battle began, both sides were drawn into a vicious mass slaughter of soldiers and civilians alike in close-combat street fighting the likes of which had never been seen before. The film Stalingrad follows the fortunes, not only of the tormented city, but also of a fictionalized, but very realistically portrayed, German assault unit. In 1942, battles within the city occurred on a small-unit level with handfuls of men fighting street to street, house to house, and sometimes room to room with unbelievable ferocity. As the weeks dragged on, the Germans captured much of the city, but the Soviets held on to small beachheads west of the Volga river. From the eastern side of the river, Soviet artillery and reinforcements continued to give whatever assistance they could to the embattled troops and citizens defending the city. Fortunately for the Russians in the long run, but at terrible cost in the short term, the street to street combat turned into a struggle of attrition from which the Soviets could more easily recover loses than the Germans. In turn, the German 6th Army, the largest German army on the Eastern Front, hampered by weather, distances, and short supplies, was daily pounded down in the meat grinder of Stalingrad.

While the Germans besieged the city and assaulted the Caucuses, Hitler, against the advise of many of his generals, ordered German allies to continue manning the vulnerable lines between the 6th Army and its western and southern connections to other German army units. Italian, Hungarian, and Romanian troops guarded these lines which protected the 6th Army's left and right flank but lacked the strength to oppose concerted Soviet attack, a weakness it did not take the Russians long to discover and to prepare an operation attacking the weakly held flanks of 6th Army. On November 19, 1942, the Soviets launched Operation "Uranus." The Soviets, attacking both sides of the poorly manned flanks of 6th Army, soon cut it off from the German lines. Over a quarter of a million men were trapped inside a pocket. The Commander of the 6th Army, General Frederick Paulus, received advice from his peers and subordinates to break out of the trap, but in Berlin, Hitler rejected any such notion and forbade Paulus to give any ground, declaring Stalingrad now "a German Fortress" which would be supplied from the air by the Luftwaffe. General Paulus, steadfastly but tragically, obeyed orders and refused to authorize any attempt to break through the Russian encirclement. Ultimately, Paulus' loyalty proved costly for the rank and file soldiers trapped in the city.

Despite Hermann Goering's assurances, the Luftwaffe failed to supply the besieged 6th Army as initially promised, thus contributing greatly to the 6th Army's surrender on February 2, 1943, after more than two months of encirclement and continuous battle. It was one of the great allied victories of the war, and many argue it was the turning point of the war in Europe.

The film Stalingrad focuses on a Sturmabteilung (assault battalion) ordered into the center of Stalingrad to assist in the city fighting. The movie follows several of the soldiers of this assault battalion who survive the first bloody assault within the city. From there the movie showcases, through the eyes of these soldiers, many of the historically documented episodes of the battle. The storming of a factory by the unit telescopes the two epic struggles for the infamous Tractor Factory and the Red October Factory both in downtown Stalingrad. The unit takes horrendous casualties but succeeds in occupying the factory. In the actual battle, the factories traded hands daily, sometimes hourly, in assaults and counter assaults.

Following the assault on the factory, the unit, holed up in the ruins of a building lamenting their 60% casualty rate, receive their mail with the inevitable good and bad news from their families back home. They are literally across the street from a Soviet unit, no doubt doing the same thing. Later, several of the soldiers venture down into the sewers of the city, wandering actually and metaphorically into the subterranean and unknown core of the city. One of the men, to his shock, encounters a female Russian soldier. In battle throughout World War II, the desperate Russians proved far less hesitant about using females in combat than their Germans counterparts, who for ideological reasons disapproved even of letting their women work in factories much less fight.

Subsequently, several of the soldiers cause a scene in a treatment area for the wounded while trying to save a comrade's life. As a result, the whole group, or rather what's left of it, are banished to a penal unit. The contempt the Germans held for such penal battalions is vividly examined. Although both the Germans and the Russians used such penal units to punish soldiers who were charged with anything from hoarding to disobeying orders, the film displays the low regard in particular the German Army had for such penal battalions. Traditionally such units were given the worst assignments, such as mine clearance or leading the first wave in afrontal assault. If a soldier survived or a unit performed well, the reward might be a return to the former unit and rank. Often, however, such units experienced high casualty rates if not certain death.

In the film after completing a dangerous mine-clearing assignment, the penal unit is called upon to fill a gap in the German lines and defend it against a Soviet attack. Although the unit barely accomplishes this, it performs valorously thus earning reinstatement to what is left of its once proud and large assault battalion.

One of the strongest aspects of Stalingrad is the portrayal of the steadily diminishing numbers and morale of the assault unit within the context of the larger struggles and problems. The depiction of the penal units with their indifference to, and expenditure of, lives is an excellent example. Another example is the way in which the film visually and continually reminds the viewer of the "body count" for the wounded, the dying, and the dead. The terrible toll of wounded begin to pile up early in the film and in the first aid station where the soldiers find themselves in trouble. The awful conditions and overwhelming numbers of wounded being treated among the ruins which held the cut-off 6th Army are pathetic. Equally well presented, however, is the Teutonic warrior code of discipline. Even though the 6th Army was cut-off, it still conformed to the rigorous discipline standards of the German Army, hence the soldiers earlier banishment to the penal unit. In the film, this banishment coincided with the coming of the Russian winter and the trial and tribulations which accompany it. As so often in Russian history, "General Winter" becomes almost as human a character as the men who fight and endure under his battle plan. Against the backdrop of a blizzard, this section of the movie accurately portrays, albeit on the small-scale of the assault unit, the terrible conditions under which most of 6th Army's units were actually fighting the Soviets on the Russian steppes just outside Stalingrad. Using the unit as a microcosm for the 6th Army, the film shows some of the less known and certainly most brutal sides of the battle outside the city proper.

Finally, three of the soldiers, of the handful who survive, decide to desert and attempt to board a plane out of the trapped pocket. Knowing the desperate plight of the 6th Army, the pilots of the Luftwaffe braved the weather, inefficiency, and Russian fighters to bring supplies into and wounded out of the pocket. When it became clear that there would be no breakout or any successful relief force, space on these few planes became priceless. The three soldiers steal identification tags and attempt to board a plane as wounded being airlifted back to Germany. They fail as the very last plane leaves the besieged pocket of Stalingrad on January 23, 1943.

In the last few days before surrender, the three exhausted men discover that a much-despised officer has hoarded unheard of supplies into which the soldiers delve. As they gorge on the treasure of food and drink, they each also reach a new level of self-evaluation, one to commit suicide while the remaining two agree to try an almost certainly futile escape from the city. They, as with many of the real soldiers actually trapped at Stalingrad have no future except endurance. Stalingrad does a wonderful job depicting the street and steppe fighting as well as the terrible winter conditions with which the Germans contended. The gritty realism of the scenes reminds the viewer of Das Boot which had the same production team. Das Boot and Stalingrad also share a sense of the claustrophobia of combat troops whether crammed into a tin can of a submarine, a rubble of factory, or vermin infested sewers. As with many war movies the opposing side receives little screen time and therefore little insight and even, occasionally an error or misinterpretation. For example, during the house to house fighting the depleted Sturmabteilung capture and win the aid of a Russian boy, an apprentice cobbler, who helps them with their boots. After some of the same soldiers return from the penal unit, one of their first assignments is to execute Russian prisoners, one of whom is the young boy. After a crisis of conscience which ends in a confrontation with a much despised officer informing them it is either the boy or them, the soldiers kill all of the prisoners including the boy.

Although poignant, historically there are some problems with the sequence. In actuality, records have shown that there were thousands of Russians fighting for the Germans during the battle. They were almost entirely ethnic Ukrainians and Cossacks from the German occupied territories west of Stalingrad whose inhabitants hoped the Germans would liberate their territories. They fought valiantly for the invaders, much to the surprise of the Soviets. As in the American experience in Vietnam. it was often hard for the Germans to tell the "good" Russians from the "bad" Russians. Although atrocities, such as the death of the youth, occurred at Stalingrad, some German officers had enough sense to know that wholesale executions of prisoners might not only deplete their native military auxiliary support, but also undermine the ethnic loyalties of the territories they sought to conquer. Their admonitions fell on the deaf ears of Hitler and his minions.

Moreover, the Germans, trapped in the pocket with dwindling supplies, could spare little ammunition for such executions. Indeed, the prisoners the Germans took were simply left without food and medical attention to suffer and die. The war on the Eastern Front was one of bitter hatred and as many recent authors have proven, it was not merely the SS who committed wide-scale atrocities. So the crisis of German soldiers hesitating to kill Russians, even a boy they knew, seems less plausible today than it did twenty years ago.

Finally the film thoroughly depicts the agony of Stalingrad. Three recent scholarly works give a more accurate depiction of the battle of Stalingrad than many previous works and support the emotional response evoked by the film. Antony Beevor's Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege, 1942-1943, published in 1998 (Penguin Putnam Inc.), does a splendid job of revising or correcting past inaccuracies and shedding new light on the battle with the use of recently declassified Russian sources. In 1992, Stalingrad: Anatomy of Agony, by V. E. Tarrant, (Leo Cooper Publishing) presents a shrewd, poignant, short, readable work on the battle, while Paul Carell's Stalingrad: The Defeat of the 6th Army, (Shiffer Publishing, 1993), gives the military destruction of the German forces detail by detail.

Yet, despite different approaches, all three authors point out in various ways that even with the fall of Stalingrad, the war was not over for the German soldiers who survived. Of the approximately 91,000 German soldiers who surrendered at Stalingrad, the Soviet Union repatriated less than 6,000 to Germany almost ten years later. Of a total of 3,155,000 German soldiers abandoned in Russia, only approximately 2,000,000 would ever be allowed to return home.