On This Day: Battle of Stalingrad begins

The bloodiest fight of World War II saw 1,000 Luftwaffe planes drop bombs on the Soviet city

On This Day: Battle of Stalingrad begins

AUGUST 23, 1942: The Battle of Stalingrad – the bloodiest fight of World War II - began on this day in 1942 after Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet city bearing its dictator’s name.

The Wehrmacht’s 6th Army, from which only 6,000 of its 330,000 soldiers survived the epic clash, quickly encircled the metropolis on a vital trade river near oil fields.

On the same day 1,000 Luftwaffe planes dropped bombs on Stalingrad, which means “Stalin’s town” in Russian, and reduced much of the symbolic city to rubble.

The Red Army remained inside after transferring the city’s grain and cattle stocks - but not evacuating its 850,000 civilians – to the western banks of the Volga.

But the Germans, who began fighting for the city two years to the day after the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact was signed, became encircled themselves as winter set in.

The battle lasted five months and led to two million casualties – including the deaths of 478,741 Soviet soldiers and 40,000 civilians – before the Germans capitulated.

The Soviet victory represented the turning point of the war for the Allies, with the Germans finally being forced back in the East and withdrawing troops in the West.

To the USSR it also embodied the triumph of communism over fascism and deeply humiliated Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler, who ordered his soldiers to fight to their deaths.

Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, who was shamed by the Nazi’s June 1941 invasion and 600-mile advance of four million troops, also made Stalingrad his top priority.

So air-equipped Germans and Soviet troops were forced to fight from house to house as civilians starved amid temperatures as low as –30C and outside bombardment.

A British Pathé newsreel reporting the later liberation of the city provides a terrifying glimpse of the city, including hundreds of thousands of bodies imbedded in ice.

It also shows the twisted remains of some of the invaders’ 1,500 tanks and 6,000 artillery pieces destroyed by the Soviets, who lost three times as much weaponry.

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Yet, despite being ordered not to surrender, German commander Friedrich Paulus, whose troops were massively outnumbered, capitulated on February 2, 1943.

The career soldier defied Hitler despite being promoted to field marshal three days earlier – and having been told that no German so senior had ever been taken prisoner.

He hoped to save the lives of his remaining 107,800 soldiers, who were filmed surrendering en masse and being marched out of Stalingrad.

But unlike Paulus, who the Soviets allowed to resettle in communist East Germany after the war, only 6,000 of his men ever returned home.

Around half are believed have died while being marched to labour camps in Siberia, where 50,000 others were worked to death.