Feb. 2, 2023

The German Defeat at Stalingrad

The German Defeat at Stalingrad

February 2, 1943. The Battle of Stalingrad, one of the bloodiest of WWII, ends in defeat for Nazi Germany.


Cold Open

LINDSAY: This pre-owned luxury episode of history daily originally aired on February 2nd, 2022.

It’s early October 1942, and Europe is in the grips of the Second World War.

The Russian city of Stalingrad lies in smoldering ruin. For over two months, the opposing armies of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany have been locked in a fierce battle over control of Stalingrad. Now, this once elegant city on the banks of the River Volga has become a desolate hellscape of rubble and twisted metal. 

On the top floor of a bombed-out apartment building, Vasily Zaytsev, a Soviet sniper, quietly and calmly surveys the wreckage through his rifle’s sight.

A bitterly cold wind blows in from the north, whipping up ash and snow. Through gaps in the swirling fog, Vasily catches glimpses of the demolished city: the charred remains of a schoolhouse; a frozen fountain; rows of houses reduced to crumbling brick facades…

Vasily cocks his rifle.

Somewhere out there lurking, is a German“super-sniper” whose been terrorizing the Soviets for days. Now Vasily – as the Red Army’s best sharpshooter – has been tasked with finding and killing him.

Through his scope, Vasily spots an upturned piece of sheet metal balanced on a stack of rubble. He suspects this is where the German sniper is hiding. But before he shoots and gives away his own position, Vasily needs to be certain.

He tugs on the communication rope.

From a different vantage point, Vasily’s comrade – a man named Kulikov – feels the rope being pulled. This is his signal. Kulikov raises a mitten attached to a stick above the window ledge. With this technique, they hope to bait the German sniper into shooting. Vasily watches closely, his finger hovering over the trigger…

And then – the German sniper fires at the decoy and reveals his location. Vasily inhales, holding his breath… and squeezes the trigger.

A split second later, the German sniper’s body slumps from behind the sheet metal. Vasily makes a mental note – that’s his two-hundred-and-sixtieth kill. With a look of grim resolution, Vasily reloads and begins looking for his next target.

Between August and November of 1942, the forces of Nazi Germany lay waste to Stalingrad, while Vasily and his fellow Soviet soldiers fight bitterly and desperately to repel the onslaught. By mid-November, the Germans have almost vanquished the Soviet force, and for Germany’s dictator Adolf Hitler, victory seems within reach.

But between November and February, victory will give way to calamity. The tide of the Battle of Stalingrad will turn, and the Soviets will emerge victorious. Hitler will be humiliated, and Nazi Germany will spend the rest of the war struggling to repair the damage it incurred at the Battle of Stalingrad which ended on February 2nd, 1943.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world. 

Today is February 2nd, 1943: The German Defeat at Stalingrad.

Act One: Not One Step Back!

It’s the summer of 1942, six months before the battle of Stalingrad comes to an end.

At this stage in the war, Nazi Germany finds itself in a strong position. The German Army, or Wehrmacht, has conquered huge tracts of territory in Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic regions. Meanwhile, German submarines, known as U-boats, are inflicting heavy damages on Allied ships in the Battle of the Atlantic, giving the Axis powers of Germany and Italy the upper hand.

Encouraged by these developments, Adolf Hitler turns to the Eastern Front. Following a failed invasion of Moscow in the summer of 1941, Hitler has decided to focus instead on the southern part of Russia. One city, in particular, has caught Hitler’s eye.

Stalingrad is an industrial city on the banks of the River Volga. Its riverside location makes it an important shipping hub, connecting western and eastern regions of the country. Stalingrad also contains several factories providing artillery for the Soviet Army. Capturing Stalingrad makes good, tactical sense.

But the main reason Hitler wants to take Stalingrad is less pragmatic and more symbolic. By conquering the city that bears the name of his greatest adversary, Joseph Stalin, Hitler would be inflicting tremendous humiliation on the Soviet leader.

So while Stalin and his generals are anticipating Germany to attempt another invasion of Moscow, a massive ground unit of the Wehrmacht, the German Sixth Army, has instead marched across the grassy plains of southwest Russia.

By late August, they have Stalingrad surrounded.

In the city, civilians crowd around radios, anxiously listening to news bulletins. They have been monitoring the German advance for weeks. Soviet generals sent troops to slow the enemy’s march towards Stalingrad, but the German Sixth Army is simply too powerful: the soviet troops are no match for the 250,000 German infantrymen, supported by more than 500 Panzer tanks.

Though they are outnumbered by almost 100,000 men, the Soviet generals are determined to repel the invading force. General Vasily Chuikov is the commander of the 62nd Army, the division of the Red Army tasked with defending Stalingrad. And he knows the stakes. He declares: “we will defend the city, whatever the cost.”

On August 23rd, an air-raid siren penetrates the late summer afternoon. Civilians dive under kitchen tables. Schoolteachers usher children beneath desks. The city’s dogs begin to collectively whimper. And although he knew about the impending attack, Stalin refused to evacuate Stalingrad’s 400,000 civilians. He believes their presence will motivate his soldiers defending the city.

Then at around 3:00 PM, the first bombs drop.

From garrisons set around the perimeter of Stalingrad, the Luftwaffe – the German air force – deploys a seemingly endless wave of large Heinkel aircrafts and smaller Stuka dive-bombers. In the first 48 hours, the Luftwaffe flies approximately 1600 sorties, dropping over 1,000 tons of bombs on Stalingrad, considerably more than London suffered at the height of the Blitz, the German bombing campaign against the United Kingdom.

The destruction is unprecedented, as is the civilian loss of life. It’s estimated that 40,000 people die in the initial attack. By the time the last bomb drops, Stalingrad has been reduced to rubble and embers.

The Germans form a defensive ring around Stalingrad, preventing supplies or reinforcements from reaching city. The commander of German Sixth Army, General Friedrich Paulus, is a meticulous military tactician. And so far, his assault is going according to plan.

Once the bombardment is over, the German cavalry and infantry divisions enter the city. While Luftwaffe planes swoop and dive and spit bullets at enemy artillery units, wave after wave of Panzer tanks roll in to eliminate any survivors.

By September 12th, two and a half weeks since the siege began, only 20,000 Soviet soldiers remain, leaving many civilians to fend for themselves. Children are forced to dig trenches and repair fortifications. Mothers and wives wield anti-aircraft guns, refusing to leave their posts, even as the German Panzers bear down on them.

Eventually, the Soviets fall back and base themselves in apartments and houses, sometimes fighting hand to hand to defend the city from the Germans.

In spite of being outnumbered, the Soviets mount a heroic defense, but the German Sixth Army continues their advance. By mid-November, they've managed to take control of 90% of Stalingrad. Three-quarters of the Soviet army is dead, and those who remain have been pushed back to a small strip of land on the west bank of the Volga river. A full Soviet defeat seems inevitable.

Stalingrad itself has become a scorched wasteland. In the words of one German officer: “Stalingrad is no longer a town… Animals flee this hell; the hardest stones cannot bear it for long; only men endure.” 

But soon, the Germans will be put to the test. The Russian winter is about to arrive, bringing terrible conditions for which the German Army is not prepared. And by the time the first frost sets in, the Soviet generals will already be planning their counter-attack.

Act Two: Operation Uranus

It’s late November 1942, two months before the German defeat at Stalingrad.

The German Sixth Army, under General Friedrich Paulus, has driven the Soviet 62nd Army onto a position on the west bank of the Volga river. Three months of fighting has left the German force exhausted and depleted, but seemingly on the verge of victory.

But General Paulus, the meticulous tactician who commanded this siege, has made a fatal mistake. He committed his troops to the city, where they became entangled in bitter urban warfare with the Soviet troops. In so doing, he left his flanks vulnerable to attack.

On November 19th, the Soviets use this to their advantage. They launch a counter-attack, codenamed Operation Uranus.


In a pincer move, two Red Army units attack the Germans’ northern and southern flanks.

The Red Army units quickly overpower the small German divisions defending the flanks, and then spread out, encircling the city, until they link up on November 23rd. Their pincer movement seals 300,000 German and axis soldiers inside Stalingrad, in a small portion of the city that will become known as “the Stalingrad cauldron.”

Suddenly, the German Sixth Army finds itself trapped inside a demolished city with no way out. With insufficient clothing and dwindling provisions, the onset of a harsh Russian winter could prove disastrous.

The question becomes whether or not the trapped Sixth Army should attempt to break out from the cauldron or surrender. General Paulus insists that he lacks both the personnel and the equipment to successfully fight his way out. To even attempt it would be suicidal, he thinks. But Adolf Hitler disagrees. 

Hitler’s desire to conquer Stalingrad has always been rooted in his personal rivalry with Stalin. Now that the invasion has failed, the German Führer needs to find a way to spin this disaster into a tale of German heroism. So he orders Paulus to attempt a breakout of Stalingrad, despite the odds.

From the comfort of his Austrian mountain retreat, Hitler consults with the head of the Luftwaffe, his loyal servant Herrmann Göring. Göring wants to please Hitler. So instead of offering sound military advice, he reassures the Führer that the Luftwaffe’s planes will save the day. Göring insists that he can provide the trapped soldiers with all the supplies they need, flying planes over the Soviet barricades and air-dropping food, fuel, and ammunition. 

But both Göring and Hitler underestimate the task at hand. The Sixth Army is slowly starving. They would require 700 tons of supplies every day in order to survive. Repelled by the winter weather and Soviet anti-aircraft guns, the Luftwaffe is only able to provide 85 tons a day.

On December 23rd, the air-drop mission is abandoned. General Paulus knows that surrender is the only option; but Hitler forbids it, saying that the longer the Sixth Army holds out, the better it is for the German war effort because it “draws away the Russian divisions from [the Front].”

But as winter conditions worsen, and starvation and disease spread, the German generals trapped in Stalingrad will be forced to make a difficult choice: defy Hitler’s orders, or die a slow and agonizing death.

Act Three: Surrender

It’s January 22nd, 1943, just days before the German defeat at Stalingrad.

General Friedrich Paulus, commander of the German Sixth Army, has just received an offer of surrender from the Soviet high command. With 50,000 German soldiers critically injured, and almost no medical supplies, the suffering and misery is indescribable. All food is gone, starving men have resorted to eating their own horses. Soon, they will be forced to resort to cannibalism.

But after Paulus requests Hitler’s permission to surrender, the Führer replies with a telegraph, ordering the Sixth Army to stand fast “to the last soldier and the last bullet.” He assures Paulus that this heroic struggle will be remembered in German military folklore.

And already Hitler is turning his loss into a PR victory. In a public announcement on January 30th, Josef Goebbels – Hitler’s propaganda minister – declares: “The heroic struggle of our soldiers on the Volga should be a warning for everybody to do the utmost for the struggle for Germany's freedom and the future of our people.”

But that struggle is about to end.

On January 31st, Soviet forces storm into General Paulus’ headquarters in a ruined Stalingrad department store. Paulus will later deny surrendering, but there is no doubt he accepts his arrest without resistance. Two days later, the last of the German generals admits defeat. 

On February 2nd, 1943, the Battle of Stalingrad comes to an end. Of the 300,000 soldiers who were trapped in the cauldron, only 90,000 remain. They are all arrested and marched to Soviet prison camps. Only 5,000 will survive the rest of the war.

The Battle of Stalingrad was the bloodiest of World War II, claiming nearly two million lives. It is remembered as the worst defeat in German military history, and the turning point of the war. Shortly after, Josef Goebbels will make his famous speech at the Berlin Sportpalast in which he announces that the tide of the war is turning against Germany and that the German people must now adopt “Total War”, a policy in which every civilian resource is used in the conflict.

But even after resorting to total war, Hitler’s military will never recover from the defeat at Stalingrad; hundreds of thousands of men are dead or captured. The great German military machine will falter and its forces will be driven into retreat. Hitler will take his own life and Nazi Germany will surrender. This downfall began when the momentum shifted and the Germans faced defeat at the Battle of Stalingrad, which came to an end on February 2nd, 1943. 


Next on History Daily. February 3rd, 1869. The famous actor Edwin Booth, the brother of President Lincoln’s assassin, fights to reclaim his tarnished family name by opening the original Booth’s Theater at 23rd & 6th in New York City.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham. 

Audio editing by Mollie Baack. 

Music and sound design by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.