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the strategic implications

of the battle of stalingrad


Colonel T. C. Luther

United States Army

Professor A. Williams

Project Adviser

This SRP is submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements of the Master of Strategic Studies Degree. The views expressed in this student academic research paper are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

U.S. Army War College

Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania 17013

AUTHOR: Thomas C. Luther
TITLE: The Strategic Implications of the Battle of Stalingrad
FORMAT: Strategy Research Project
DATE: 17 March 2004 PAGES: 36 CLASSIFICATION: Unclassified

The Battle of Stalingrad was probably the largest battle in World War II and a key turning point in the war on the Eastern Front. This paper will review, on a macro level, the German campaign that began in the Spring of 1942 and concluded with the surrender of the German VI Army, with an emphasis on the Battle of Stalingrad itself. It then will examine the key consequences and lessons learned from the campaign, including lessons of military strategy and leadership. Where appropriate, the paper will make observations about lessons from Stalingrad that are applicable to the U.S. military today.



List of illustrations vii

the strategic implications of the battle of stalingrad 1

Conduct of the Campaign 2












The need for reserves 18


the key role of intelligence 19

The importance of aggressive and adaptive leadership 20

conclusion 21



List of illustrations


FIGURE 2. the GERMAN attack at stalingrad 8

FIGURE 3. The soviet counteroffensive 11

the strategic implications of the battle of stalingrad

“They were being sent into an image of hell. As darkness intensified, the huge flames silhouetted the shells of tall buildings on the bank high above them and cast grotesque shadows… As they approached the shore, they caught the smell of charred buildings and the sickly stench from decaying corpses under the rubble.”1

Anthony Beevor, author of Stalingrad

“…a different outcome in the Battle of Stalingrad could scarcely have changed the end result of the war… Because of its tremendous size, spaces, and distances, Russia could only be conquered by Russians.”2

General (Ret) Uhle-Wettler, German Army

When one visits the huge, “Mother of Russia” war statue in Stalingrad (now renamed Volgograd), Russia, one gets the impression that an epic battle took place there. And, indeed, an epic battle—the World War II Battle of Stalingrad between Germany and the Soviet Union—did take place there. The battle, which lasted six months, produced over 1.5 million casualties and led to the destruction of an entire Germany army and half of another.3 It also at one point tied down seven Soviet armies.4 The magnitude of these figures makes the battle hard to imagine, but it is clear that Stalingrad was one of the largest and longest single battles in military history.

Stalingrad also is significant in that it marked a key turning point in the war on the Eastern Front. While the ultimate outcome of Germany’s war effort in the East probably was determined by its failure to defeat the U.S.S.R. in its 1941 campaign (Operation BARBAROSSA), Stalingrad was the high water mark of Germany’s eastward advance. After its defeat at Stalingrad, the Reich never again occupied as much Soviet territory and, with brief exceptions, was in retreat.

The purpose of this paper is to examine briefly the Stalingrad campaign, with an eye to its strategic implications or lessons learned. I will first describe the conduct of the battle, including the events leading up to and immediately following it. I will then discuss the more important consequences and lessons learned, with a focus on the significant strategic and operational mistakes that led to the German defeat.

Conduct of the Campaign


The Battle of Stalingrad occurred a year after the Germans’ invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 in Operation BARBAROSSA. The aim of BARBAROSSA was to launch a massive, surprise attack against the Soviet Union that would capture most of the territory west of the Urals and force Moscow to capitulate. BARBAROSSA did achieve some profound successes: the Germans advanced to Leningrad in the north, the outskirts of Moscow in central Russia, and Kharkov in the south. In the process, they encircled and annihilated Soviet divisions by the dozen, taking advantage of their mobile, armored warfare, or “blitzkrieg,” tactics. But, the Soviet or “Red” Army’s resistance proved stronger than expected and the campaign dragged on into the winter, for which the German troops were unprepared. A Soviet counteroffensive launched in December 1941 then brought the German advance to a halt. One reason the German advance was thwarted was Hitler’s decision to attack the U.S.S.R. across a broad front from the Barents to the Black Sea, thereby diluting the German Army’s, or Wehrmacht’s, combat power. Of course, the broad offensive also forced the defending Red Army to spread its forces thin, but it was more of a liability for the Germans because it prevented them from concentrating enough combat power to take Moscow—the principle strategic objective.

There were several important outcomes of BARBAROSSA that affected Germany’s subsequent war effort in the East. First, since BARBAROSSA failed to defeat the Soviet Union, the war in the East would continue into a second year and further tax Germany’s military resources. Secondly, the campaign cost Germany dearly in manpower and material, with the Wehrmacht sustaining over a million casualties.5 The most important outcome, though, was that, by failing to win in the first year, the Germans gave the Soviets time to mobilize for war. Given the vast resources of the U.S.S.R., this meant Germany would face ever increasing Soviet military capabilities as the war progressed, while her own capabilities were expended.

Although this trend was not decisive in 1942 when the Battle of Stalingrad began, it nonetheless allowed the Soviets to continue the war effort and limited Germany’s war fighting capability. By 1943, the trend became more pronounced, allowing the Red Army to field many more forces than the Germans. Thus, by the Battle of Kursk in 1943, the Red Army had a superiority in manpower of more than two to one.6

As the Russian winter relented in the spring of 1942, the German High Command planned a new offensive, Operation BLUE, for the summer. Because of Germany’s losses in the previous year, this offensive would be smaller in scope and focus on the South. Hitler’s aim was to interdict Soviet oil and lend-lease shipping on the Volga River, seize the oil fields in the Caucasus, and set the stage for a later advance into the Middle East.7

On the Soviet side, the Supreme High Command, or Stavka, prepared to defend against another German offensive. Although captured documents revealed the Germans’ advance would be in the South, Stalin dismissed this intelligence as a ruse and was convinced Moscow would be the German objective.8 So, the Red Army put its main effort on defending the center of the front and, as a result, was not well-prepared for the approaching German campaign.

In the lead up to Operation BLUE, a coincidental development occurred in the South that proved costly for the Soviets. In its December 1941 counteroffensive, the Red Army had pushed a salient into the German line near Barvenkovo and, in May 1942, decided to attack from the salient to retake Kharkov and relieve German pressure elsewhere on the front. At the same time, the German Army Group South decided to envelop the salient to straighten out its line before launching Operation BLUE. Neither side was aware of the other’s intentions and, as misfortune would have it, the Red Army attacked first from the middle of the salient on May 12. It encountered little resistance because the Germans had already deployed to the sides of the salient for their own attack. With the Soviets’ southern flank exposed, the Germans attacked into the Soviet rear, destroying three Soviet armies and capturing some 240,000 prisoners.9

With the Barvenkovo Salient eliminated, the Germans began Operation BLUE on June 28, 1942. Army Group South first advanced to Voronezh and attempted to take the city. However, the Stavka, concerned the attack was a prelude to an advance on Moscow, reinforced Voronezh, strengthening the Red Army’s resistance. Rather than risk the campaign becoming bogged down, Hitler directed Army Group South to by-pass the city and press eastward to Stalingrad.

The German advance initially was very rapid. Having suffered severe losses at Barvenkovo, the opposing Soviet forces—the Southern and Southwestern Fronts—could not

halt the German advance and, rather than fall victim to another encirclement, withdrew eastward until they could establish a defensible line. Unaware the Red Army was doing a strategic withdrawal, the Germans assumed the lack of resistance meant, as Hitler stated, that “the Russian is finished.”10

It was at this time that Hitler took a decision that would later prove unfortunate for the Germans. Whereas Operation BLUE originally called for sequential attacks—first to Stalingrad and then to the Caucasus, Hitler directed that the attacks be done concurrently. For this purpose, he split Army Group South into two groups—Army Group A, which was to proceed to the Caucasus, and Army Group B, which would advance to interdict the Volga River at Stalingrad. The General Staff warned Hitler that this decision would spread the Wehrmacht too thin and not allow sufficient forces to protect its flanks. But, Hitler was anxious to achieve his war aims quickly and rejected his generals’ concerns. Hitler’s confidence—and that of some of his top commanders—that Army Group South could take the Caucasus and interdict the Volga s
imultaneously reflected in part their view that the Russians were an inferior people (“untermensch”) who could not stand up to the Germans.11

Hitler’s decision against his generals’ recommendations reflected a growing trend in his direction of the German Army’s operations. Whereas, in the early years of the war, Hitler allowed his generals to handle operational matters, he was now making those decisions himself and ordering actions his generals considered militarily unsound.

With Army Group South split in two, Army Group A, composed of the I Panzer (armor) and XVII Armies, pressed toward the Caucasus, while Army Group B, composed of the II, IV Panzer, and VI Armies, advanced toward Stalingrad. By far the largest formation was the VI Army, which spearheaded the advance to the city. The VI army was commanded by General Friedrich Paulus, a career General Staff officer who had a reputation for being thorough and hard-working, but not decisive.13 This disposition was to play a key role in the approaching battle at Stalingrad.

As Army Group B advanced, Hitler made another fateful decision in July, ordering that Army Group B not only establish a position on the Volga, as originally planned, but seize the city of Stalingrad as well.14 As this was not necessary to meet the military objective of interdicting the Volga, it appears Hitler’s decision was motivated by political considerations or a personal desire to capture the city bearing the Soviet leader’s name. In any event, it placed greater demands on the VI Army, which, as the main force of Army Group B, would have to expend considerably more resources to invade the city.

When it became clear the Germans were advancing against Stalingrad, the Red Army formed a new front, the Stalingrad Front, to defend the city. Composed of the 51st, 57th, 62nd, and 64th Armies, the front established a defensive line to the west of the Don River, roughly 70 miles west of Stalingrad. On July 23, the VI Army attacked the Soviet line, and after a series of engagements, the Stalingrad Front withdrew to the east bank of the Don. Several days later, the IV Panzer Army attacked the southern flank of the front, forcing it to pull back to a new line on the Myshkova River, roughly 40 miles southwest of Stalingrad. In the course of this engagement, much of the 51st Army was destroyed.

At this point, the Germans underwent an operational pause as they prepared for their attack against the city itself. Meanwhile, because of the extensive frontage being defended by the Stalingrad Front, the Stavka split it in two, creating a Southwest Front in the north and a Stalingrad Front in the south. The stage was set for the battle for the city.

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