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The Battle of Stalingrad: D-Day On Every Steroid Imaginable
When I say “turning point of World War 2,” the first thing that probably comes to mind is the 1944 Operation Overlord, aka D-Day. That’s when about 175,000 troops from America, Great Britain, and Canada landed on the beaches of Normandy to save France (no one really knows why).
There were about 15,000 casualties total, the Nazis were kicked out, and the Allies could advance on Germany to beat back the other people. What many history classes conveniently forget to mention, however, is that the Soviets were already marching en route to Berlin, and had been since 1943, after the Battle of Stalingrad.
This was one of the bloodiest and longest ordeals in history, marked by brutality on both sides and a cruel fight for survival. Basically, Hitler had ordered his troops to capture Stalingrad, and that was totally not cool with… well, Stalin.
For seven months, the Nazis fought to take the city, and at times they actually controlled over 90% of it — but the Soviet defenders just kept on fighting. Whether this was because of personal bravery or Stalin’s retreat-and-you’ll-be-shot policy is up for debate.
Some days during the battle, the average time a soldier was expected to last was less than 24 hours. Can you imagine that? Getting an order that says “To Stalingrad” and knowing that your life expectancy just went from 70 years to “a few hours from now?”
Both sides were equally ambitious in their desire to kill each other: when the Germans erected wire nets in windows to stop grenades, the Soviets attached fishhooks to them so they clung to the wires. When Russians retreated to homes, the Germans would bomb them with all they had. Apartment buildings were converted to strongholds armed with more weaponry than seen in all of the Rambo movies combined. Combat in houses was so close-quartered and intense, Germans would bitterly joke about capturing the kitchen but still fighting for the living room. At one point, a single railway station switched hands 14 times in a period of six hours. My point is, you just could not stop these two armies from killing the heck out of each other.
One particular apartment building, nicknamed Pavlov’s House, is probably the most hardcore make-shift fortress in the history of make-shift fortresses. Sergeant Yakov Pavlov took Stalin’s Order 227, “Not one step back,” to heart, and decided to turn a centrally-located apartment building into the Death Star. He surrounded the house with four layers of minefields and barbed wire. Then he put a machine gun in every single available window that faced the square.
And early on, he had discovered that an anti-tank gun on the roof was especially effective, because he could shoot at tanks’ roofs and they couldn’t elevate their guns high enough to shoot back. I don’t know why anyone would stick around long enough to learn this information, but I also don’t have a legendary house named after me. Anyway, this one man took out about a dozen tanks this way. I’ll rephrase that: an unprotected human being shot at the most heavily-armored vehicle on the planet until it exploded. And then did it 10 more times. And lived.
The Germans obviously weren’t psyched about losing the house, so they tried their best to retake it. They all died. And they continued dying every time they charged the house. They actually kept on dying to the point where Pavlov’s men had to run outside and kick over heaps of Nazi soldiers so the bodies couldn’t be used as cover by the next wave. German maps reportedly had the house labeled as a fortress (with good reason), and the Soviet commander at Stalingrad later bragged that more Germans died trying to take Pavlov’s house than capturing Paris.
After two months, the rest of the Russian troops finally got their stuff together and moved the front lines a little bit away from the building; the Germans never did get Pavlov’s House back.
By the time the house was relieved by the Russian counter-attack, it was November — winter was coming. To make a long story short (and sum up basically every failed invasion of Russia), the Soviets were much better equipped and trained for the weather, so they launched an offensive and lots of Germans died because of the cold and bullets. The Soviets actually outflanked the Nazis and surrounded them, trapping them between General Winter and Comrade Stalin, and effectively crippled one of the most experienced fighting forces in the world. German Commander Paulus eventually surrendered in direct violation of Hitler’s orders — then again, Hitler was the one who put him in such a crappy situation so it might have been out of spite.
The final outcome of the battle? The German army was in full retreat for the remainder of the war, and 91,000 Germans were taken prisoner, part of a much larger 2 million casualties at Stalingrad. That’s more than the population of Manhattan. And you thought D-Day was bad.