Remembering the turnaround of the battle at Stalingrad 80 years ago

The German surrender on February 2, 1943 paved the way for defeat of fascism

Getty Images
Getty Images

John Ellison

Eighty years ago, on February 2, 1943, the Soviet Union’s sustained defence of the city of Stalingrad (now Volgograd) ended with the surrender of 91,000 soldiers of the German 6th Army under General von Paulus.

The battle for the city had raged since the previous September. The figures of human losses, unpublicised, besides German prisoners of war, were, for Germany, almost 150,000 and for the Soviet Union were around half a million.

The Nazi failure to win the struggle for Stalingrad, and to advance in the south to the oil producing centres of Grozny and Baku, represented a huge setback for Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa, launched on June 22, 1941.

His war had stalled, to the relief and delight of many in Britain, where many on the Left had been campaigning with large public support for a second front, a landing in France to match the eastern front and to draw away German divisions from the east.

Five months after the Stalingrad victory, in July 1943 in the region of Kursk, 900,000 German soldiers using 2,700 tanks faced a Soviet army half as large again, which lost a quarter of a million men but won the battle. The tide of the war was now turned, and a long German retreat westwards began.

The political context behind the Second World War can be skeletally summarised, though not quite in accordance with the mainstream popular narrative.

Take the key participant countries in turn. The Soviet Union was socialist at its core (capitalism gone, basic living standards, full employment, anti-colonial, with no intentions or imperial drive to expand its territory but ever-ready to defend itself against external aggressors), yet with a superstructure headed by Stalin that was deeply authoritarian.

Nazi Germany, fascist Italy and imperial Japan (capitalist, seeking to expand their empires or, in Germany’s case, to create a new one beyond its eastern borders, and to destroy the Soviet Union and exterminate Jewish populations in doing so).

Britain, seeking to hold on to its quarter of the world’s land surface, appeasing, not objecting to the aggressors’ advances so long as its own empire was safe.

Then came “the little war” from September 1939 between Britain and France and Nazi Germany, with Britain alone after France’s collapse in summer 1940, but receiving increasing military aid from the United States. Then came “the big war” in the east.

If the battle for Stalingrad and its outcome are familiar historical events, less well-known is the fact that the Nazi invasion of June 22, 1941 was, in the House of Commons, the War Ministry and the Foreign Office, mostly expected to be a pushover.

Once begun, there were some in Britain’s ruling elite who were attracted to the idea of the mutual extermination of the Nazi and Soviet armies.

Colonel Moore-Brabazon, Minister of Aircraft Production, expressed his personal association with this approach — as best for Britain — to a meeting attended by trade unionists in late July 1941.

A few weeks later, his statement was publicly reported and given press attention. Yet although the Soviet Union was supposed to be now an ally of Britain, Moore-Brabazon remained in his post until early 1942.

Well hidden from public gaze was Churchill’s assumption (supported by Labour ministers) that the empire’s protection was the first priority, and that the Soviet Union should bear the main brunt of the war, which was what occurred.

Wrote AJP Taylor in his English History 1914-1945: “Soviet Russia did most of the fighting against Germany, sustained nine-tenths of the casualties, and suffered catastrophic economic losses.”

Much more recently, Norman Davies wrote in his Europe at War: “Sooner or later people will have to adjust to the fact that the Soviet role was enormous and the Western role was respectable but modest.”

This was accurate, though the term “respectable” was misused, as if the war could be viewed as a sporting contest.

Nevertheless, Churchill’s prioritising of an anti-Nazi war over his loathing of communism was famously clear in his immediate response to Operation Barbarossa.

The previous day Downing Street secretary John Colville had recorded: “The PM says a German attack on Russia is certain and Russia will assuredly be defeated. He thinks that Hitler is counting on existing capitalist and right-wing sympathies in this country and the US. The PM says he is wrong: he will go all out to help Russia.”

“Help,” for three years ahead (in the form of military supplies from the US and Britain), proved to be the watchword, not “Fight Alongside as Equal Partners”.

The entry into the war by the US in December 1941, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, soon led to London-Washington military strategy discussions.

In spring and summer 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt and US General Marshall quietly put much pressure on the Churchill government to open a joint second front in France, but were repeatedly rebuffed.

Churchill and his military leaders asserted that any such landing would be overcostly if not suicidal. Churchill’s second, and decisive, anti-second front device was to propose, confidentially, a substitute campaign in the Mediterranean.

The US leaders had little choice but to accept this.

In Egypt (where Britain “governed the governors”), significant numbers of British troops were already present, and in early November 1942 these were supplemented by the mainly American “Torch” landings in north-west Africa.

A combination of these units was to evict German and Italian forces from Africa in May 1943, to land in Sicily soon after, then to enter mainland Italy. Most of Britain’s three million-plus army stayed at home.

Churchill’s refusal of an early second front across the Channel and insistence on a less dangerous Mediterranean front caused delay in the dispatch of US troops to Britain, and enabled senior US officers to transfer landing craft to the Pacific war against Japan.

The story is told by US military historian Norman Gelb in his Desperate Venture (1992). He points out that whereas the campaigns in north Africa, and later in Italy, were slowed down by mountainous terrain, giving solid advantages to defenders, better conditions applied along the coastline of France, where military leaders would learn from errors.

Gelb writes: “British calculations about the resistance Allied troops would have met in an earlier invasion of France were very much inflated.”

Left-wing Labour MP Aneurin Bevan in the House on September 9 1942 gave no quarter to Churchill, stating that “if Stalingrad falls and the Russians are driven behind the Urals, the working-class people of this country will be asking why.” He called Churchill’s continuance in office a national disaster.

The Stalingrad outcome must have been less likely had the extraordinary transfer of Soviet factories from the west to the east by train, and their rapid reassembly when relocated, not taken place by early 1942.

War correspondent Alexander Werth was decades later to identify another critical factor in his Russia at War: “It may seem strange today to think that the immense People’s War was successfully fought under the barbarous Stalin regime. But the people fought, and fought, above all, for ‘themselves,’ that is, for Russia; and Stalin had the good sense to realise this almost at once.”

Soviet ambassador Ivan Maisky’s diary on February 5 1943 shrewdly summed up the British response to the Stalingrad victory: “…England’s reaction to the Red Army’s successes … general amazement … from the top to the bottom of the social pyramid … great admiration for the Soviet people, the Red Army and Comrade Stalin personally … The higher the strata … the more the sense of admiration is mixed up with other feelings … won’t the Bolsheviks get too strong? … Won’t … the likelihood of the ‘Bolshevization of Europe’ rise too high? … These two contradictory feelings lie side by side in the bosom of the British ruling class and find expression in the sentiments of its two main groupings, which may be called the Churchillian and Chamberlain groups, for short … Although the Churchillian group is now undoubtedly the dominant one, English policy nevertheless tends to steer a middle course between the two trends…”

The second front finally arrived on June 6 1944 (D-day), with Churchill increasingly obsessed by fears of communism’s westward spread.

(IPA Service)

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(Courtesy: Morning Star)

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