In 2012, this column revisited several major battles of 1942, including Midway and El Alamein. Midway destroyed Japan's strategic offensive capabilities. El Alamein began the Western Allies' long drive to Berlin. Winston Churchill saw Britain's North African victory as, "perhaps, the end of the beginning."
Subsequent allied victories on the Western and Eastern fronts proved Churchill correct, with Stalingrad the eastern end of the beginning.
However, the defeat Adolf Hitler's war machine suffered at Stalingrad was far more thorough, demoralizing and militarily devastating. Stalingrad and combat operations linked to the city fight cost the Germans between 500,000 and 800,000 casualties (killed, wounded and captured). Germany lacked the manpower and training capacity to replace such a ghastly loss of experienced combat troops. Equipment losses were enormous. Little wonder more than a few scholars contend that Germany lost WWII in Stalingrad's rubble-strewn streets.
Other strategic considerations support the case for Stalingrad's significance. North Africa and the Mediterranean were secondary German efforts. Conquering Eastern Europe, to include Russia's European and Central Asian territory, fulfilled fundamental Nazi ideological goals (among them, Lebensraum in the east).
Full control of Russia's vast store of natural resources would give the Nazis the resource base to pursue global domination. A Royal Navy sea blockade could not strangle German industries supplied with petroleum produced by Greater Germany's Caucasian oil fields. If the panzers had quickly seized Stalingrad in August 1942, crossed the Volga River and smashed Russian resistance in the region, Gross Deutschland today might well include Azerbaijan, parts of Kazakhstan and the Caspian Basin.
The ifs in the last sentence are big ifs, however. Russia is huge. In fall 1942, Stalingrad may have been a city too far, given fragile German supply lines. Russian commanders saw the city as a trap for German panzers, where Russian infantrymen could "hug" German infantry, limit their mobility and force them into a extended battle of attrition, just as General Winter arrived with snow and ice.
The Russians set the trap. With the German Sixth Army enmeshed in Stalingrad, in November 1942 the Russians attacked the German flanks, isolating German forces in the city.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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