Six lessons from Stalingrad
This Brief looks at the turning point in Nazi Germany's Eastern Offensive. It identifies six principles that underwrote Hitler's humiliating defeat, and which remain relevant today.
‘Tis the god Hercules, whom Antony loved,
Now leaves him.
- Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra
When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, the army was divided into three groups: North, Centre and South. The key objective of Army Group South was to capture the oil fields in the Caucuses, since oil supplies were the Achilles heel of the German war economy. This was the key action on the Eastern Front in 1942. The entire Army Group South might have gone to the Caucuses, but Hitler intervened, splitting it into two. The 17th Army and the 1st Panzer Army went south to the Caucuses, but the 6th Army and 4th Panzer Army moved east to the Volga and Stalingrad.
Why was Stalingrad important? The initial objectives were the destruction of the industrial capacity of the city and to secure the northern and western flanks of the German armies as they advanced on the Caucuses. Hitler ordered all male civilians in Stalingrad to be killed after capture of the city and all women and children to be deported.
The 6th Army had considerable initial success and by 23 August, it had reached the outskirts of Stalingrad. German bombing reduced much of the city to rubble. Stalin rushed all available troops to the area. Soviet air forces were completely overcome by their German counterparts. House by house and street by street fighting ensued. By the end of November, the German forces had captured 90% of the city.
However, total concentration on the city created weakness in the German flanks. This proved to be a fatal flaw. Soviet forces attacked to the north and south of the city on 19 November and had encircled the city four days later. The 6th Army was ordered not to break out, in the belief that the encirclement could be broken by a German relief force, and that the German Air Force could supply the 6th Army. It was soon realised that the German Air Force had nowhere near the capacity to deliver requisite supplies. Moreover, the relieving ground forces, though they reached within 50 kilometres of Stalingrad, bogged down and had to go on the defensive against Soviet troops.
The 6th Army slowly starved and started to run out of ammunition. Its fighting capacity was degraded, and street to street fighting resumed. This time the Germans were beaten back and on 2 February 1943, the remnants of the 6th Army surrendered, despite Hitler’s insistence that the Army fight to the last man. Pockets of fighting continued for another month and then ceased. Germany lost 200 000 men, compared with 50 000 men at El Alamein in North Africa in November 1942. It never recovered on the Eastern Front.
The war had turned defensive for Germany, and the loss of German morale was very great. With good reason: the war in Europe was over in little more than two years.
What are the lessons of this story?
1. Misunderstand or ignore economics at your peril. All the advice given to Hitler, except by sycophants, warned that invading the Soviet Union would create a large net drain on Germany's economy. He ignored the advice.
2. Don’t assume that, because you are at the top, you know everything. Hitler frequently revised or dictated the military plans of his generals. This was particularly true of the campaign against the Soviet Union.
3. Don’t micromanage. Buoyed by the initial success of the 6th Army, Hitler ordered the accompanying 4th Panzer Army to go south to the Caucuses. That led to a major traffic jam and the order was reversed. The net effect was to weaken the German position.
4. Evaluate advice critically. It was Goering, in charge of the German Air Force, who advised Hitler that it could supply the encircled 6th Army. His advice was boastful and known at the time to be wrong. The Air Force could never supply more than 15% of the 6th Army’s needs.
5. Watch your flanks. Total concentration on one objective can lead to failure even in achieving that objective itself. The city of Stalingrad itself became the German obsession at the cost of not securing bridgeheads elsewhere and losing focus on the wider south Soviet Union theatre.
6. Never underestimate the political consequences of a major blunder. Hitler realized immediately that his reputation for invincibility was gone. He was so depressed that Goebbels had to read the speech on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of Nazi access to state power on his behalf on 30 January 1943. Hitler aged rapidly in the remaining two years of his life. By mid-1943, Germans knew that the war would be lost. The will to fight was ebbing and Goebbels, with all his propaganda about total war, could not revive it.
Charles Simkins is Senior Researcher at the Helen Suzman Foundation.
This article first appeared as an HSF Brief.