On July 17, 1942, 60 years ago to the day, the Battle of Stalingrad -- one of the biggest in the Second World War -- began.
It had two stages: the first -- the Stalingrad strategic defensive operation -- started on July 17 and lasted until November 18, 1942. It was carried out by troops of the Stalingrad and South Eastern fronts assisted by the Volga military flotilla. In the course of the operation additional forces were committed: units of the South Eastern Front, five combined arms armies, two tank armies, 56 divisions and 33 brigades.
Says Gamlet Dallakian, a veteran of the battle: "Smashed at Kharkov, bled white, and forced to retreat towards the Don, we thought the war was lost and we would not be able to withstand a strong enemy".
Things were desperate indeed. The Hitlerites had overrun Ukraine, Byelorussia, the Baltics and nearly the whole of the Krasnodar Territory and the North Caucasus. "There was no way of stopping the Germans, they were breathing down our necks while we were retreating to the Don," Dallakian said.
Real fighting began in the Don curve, on distant approaches to Stalingrad. According to Dallakian, the signals battalion he was serving in lost more than two-thirds of its complement in a matter of 30 minutes.
The following description of the beginning of the battle of Stalingrad is given by staff of the Battle of Stalingrad panorama museum: scorched steppe, blazing sun, wearied Soviet soldiers, and smug Germans. Soviet men walking by foot, Germans riding on motor-cycles and tanks.
Despite stubborn resistance, Soviet soldiers had, under pressure from overwhelming enemy forces, to pull back to the left bank of the Don. Fighting on the outer defensive perimeter lasted a full month. The Germans had failed to capture Stalingrad in their stride. The only inroad the enemy managed to make was 60-80 kilometres, but they continued to fight their way to the Volga, burning everything as they pushed forward.
"The No 277 'No Retreat' order issued on July 27 was a correct one, despite its harshness," believes the veteran. "If there had not been one, matters would have been bad for us." It was on August 23 that Hitlerite tanks supported by motorised infantry reached the northern environs of Stalingrad. On that day massive bombing of the city began, with enemy planes making up to 2,000 raids a day. Thousands of bombs rained on the city. "Everything was burning -- the city, the air, the Volga," Dallakian recalls those days.
The bitter fighting that unfolded in the Don curve and continued near and in Stalingrad not only depleted the enemy's offensive might and exhausted the main strike group of armies on the southern wing of the Soviet-German front, but also paved the way for a decisive counter-offensive of Soviet troops.
The second stage of the battle -- the Stalingrad strategic offensive operation -- kicked off on November 19, 1942 and ended on February 2, 1943. The operation was carried out by the South-Western, Don, and Stalingrad fronts, helped by the Volga flotilla. In the course of the fighting additional units were thrown in: the 1st and 2nd Guards and the 5th and 6th strike armies, five tank and three mechanised corps, and six brigades.
During the operation Soviet troops encircled and mauled down the main forces of the 4th Panzer and 6th field German armies, and smashed the 3rd and 4th Romanian and the 8th Italian armies. Enemy losses totaled over 800,000 men. With the German grouping surrounded and eliminated between January 10 and February 2, 1943, more than 91,000 troops were taken prisoner, including 2,500 officers and 24 generals, among them Field Marshal Paulus. All in all, the enemy lost in the battle for Stalingrad about 1.5 million men in killed, wounded, captured and missing -- one-quarter of its forces fighting on the Soviet-German front.
The Battle of Stalingrad lasted exactly 200 days and nights. It marked a turning point in the war. According to Dallakian, "we not only won the battle, we came to believe that we would carry the day in the war and overcome the Hitlerites."
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