Early on the morning of 23 August 1942, the 16th Panzer Division raced eastwards over the steppe from the river Don. That same evening, it halted on the bank of the Volga. The tank crews gazed across towards Asia. They had reached the designated boundary of the Third Reich’s eastern territories. Messerschmitt fighters performed victory rolls above their heads. Many soldiers thought that the war was won. To their right, the city of Stalingrad blazed from the first of General von Richthofen’s air raids, which killed 40,000 civilians. The only resistance the panzer crews faced came from anti-aircraft guns operated by young women barely out of high school. ‘We had to fight shot for shot’, the division reported, ‘against thirty-seven flak positions manned by tenacious fighting women until they were all destroyed.’ Thus began the most pitiless, and perhaps the most important, battle in history.
Hitler had told General Friedrich Paulus that with his Sixth Army, the most powerful in the Wehrmacht, he could ‘storm the heavens’. But then, in a bold encirclement by Soviet armoured forces, over a quarter of a million Germans were trapped far from home, and increasingly far from help. Stalingrad marked not just the psychological turning-point of the war, it was the first major modern battle fought in a city, with thousands of helpless civilians caught up in its horrors. In this titanic struggle between Stalin and Hitler, men were driven beyond the limits of physical and mental endurance. National loyalties were also dislocated. Paulus’s Sixth Army depended on 50,000 Soviet citizens in German uniform, while the NKVD used German Communist writers in its tactics to wear down the besieged.
Antony Beevor’s completely fresh account finally conveys the reality of one of the most terrifying conflicts ever known. Within a conventional narrative, he concentrates not on strategy, but on the experience of soldiers on both sides. His account is enriched by primary sources never used before, including reports on desertions and executions from the archives of the Russian ministry of defence, captured German documents, interrogation of prisoners, private diaries and letters from soldiers on both sides, medical reports and interviews with key witnesses and participants. It is an unforgettable story.