Seventy years ago today, on February 2, 1943, the last German troops in Stalingrad surrendered.
The fight for Stalingrad was huge in terms of lives lost and prisoners taken. (Estimates of total casualties vary, but are somewhere between one and two million.) It’s easy to argue that the German defeat on the Russian steppes was the most important turning point in World War II. Probably bigger than D-day or El Alamein or Midway.
In 1942, German strategy with its Army Group South was to take the oil fields in the Caucasus. As part of this campaign, the Germans needed to secure the area between the Don and Volga rivers, including the city of Stalingrad. German troops entered the city on September 12. They outnumbered the Soviet defenders, but every building (and often every room in every building) became a struggle. Both sides suffered heavy losses, but by mid-November, Germans forces had managed to take almost 90% of the city.
On November 19, the Soviets launched a counteroffensive on the steppes west of Stalingrad. Soviet troops moving from the north and from the south succeeded in encircling the German Sixth Army and their allies from Romania, Italy, and Hungary. At that point, the German army probably could have broken out, withdrawn, and regrouped. But Hitler refused to let them leave. Goering’s promise of resupply by air failed miserably, and an attempted relief offensive led by General von Manstein was turned back by the Soviets.
Slowly, the German men and their allies inside the Soviet ring lost ground. They were surrounded, starving, running out of ammunition, and facing determined Soviet advances and a freezing Russian winter. Bit by bit, the noose was tightened, and more soldiers fell. About 110,000 German troops surrendered during the last days of the battle. Less than 6,000 returned home.
The Nazis had lost in the east. The end would take another two years, but the Nazi Empire had reached its high-water mark and from then on would shrink.
The leader of the German Sixth Army was General Friedrich von Paulus. Last fall, while I was reading a book about Stalingrad (Enemy at the Gates—recommended if you like nonfiction history books), my husband was reading up on his Roman history, specifically the wars against Carthage.
The battle of Canae took place in what it now southern Italy on August 2, 216 BC. The Roman army faced their enemies from Carthage (and her allies), who were assembled in an arch. The Romans attacked the center, and almost broke through, but were drawn into the Carthaginian line. Their enemies attacked their flanks, the Roman army was surrounded, and 50-70,000 Romans (out of an army of 80-85,000) were slaughtered.
Carthage was led by Hannibal Barca. The Roman leaders were Tarentius Varro and Aemilius Paullus.
Paullus and Paulus. Both surrounded and their armies largely slaughtered. Does anyone else find that spooky?
Visit again next week for What’s in a Name, Part II.