In June 1941, as Stalin clung to the belief that reports of German troops massing on the border were part of an English plot, the Sixth Army (which Hitler declared could ‘storm the heavens’) was already invading. It would halt only at the banks of the Volga, where the battle for Stalingrad began. A titanic clash between Hitler and Stalin, this was the most pitiless and bitterly fought conflict in the history of modern warfare. The final death toll is impossible to know for certain, but estimates place it between 1.7 and 2 million, with as many killed by cold, starvation and disease as by bullets.
Tens of thousands of Russian recruits enlisted, many of whom fought without weapons or rations. ‘My dear parents,’ wrote one corporal, ‘if it’s possible, send me some food. I’m so ashamed to write this, but the hunger is too much.’ The losses suffered were horrendous. Despite such conditions, one German soldier wrote, ‘everyone in Stalingrad who still possesses a head and hands, women as well as men, carries on fighting’. While some were driven by patriotic fervour, others were terrorised by Stalin’s brutally efficient counter-intelligence group SMERSH. Deserters were executed as a matter of course; even children forced to fill German water bottles were regarded as collaborators and shot. In January 1943 the Russians encircled the German army – who were under orders to ‘fight to the last bullet but one’ – and the battle reached its horrifying close.
As he reveals in his new introduction, Antony Beevor was fortunate enough to gain unprecedented access to Russian military archives, most importantly uncensored reports written to Stalin – a window of opportunity that has now closed. Beevor’s masterly and ground-breaking narrative history will ensure this battle remains enshrined in the popular imagination.
Read more about the life and work of Antony Beevor