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Photograph by Jennifer E. Berry

‘The Soviet troops are sacrificial lambs. Divisions that come in with 10,000 men have 500 the next day’

A retired U.S. Army colonel fluent in Russian, David M. Glantz writes data-rich tomes that synthesize his research in the recently opened Soviet archives. His goal: to debunk long-standing myths with what he calls “ground truth.” His latest epics, To the Gates of Stalingrad and Armageddon in Stalingrad (both published in 2009, with a third volume due next year), recast history’s biggest battle in a new light. For example, he and coauthor Jonathan M. House are the first historians to use archival material from the brutal Soviet secret police force, the NKVD, which was charged with maintaining discipline in the Red Army. “Its documents are surprisingly candid about declining morale, the amount of censorship, numbers of deserters, and so on,” Glantz says, “a human dimension of the battle often speculated upon but never before documented.”

What do you mean by ground truth?
I mean examining the records of both sides to finally strip away the myths and begin to restore reality. You can’t reach judgments regarding political, diplomatic, economic, or social factors in the war as a whole unless you have reached sound decisions regarding how the war was conducted, to what end it was conducted, and so forth. Historians today are focused not on operational but social issues. But it all sits on the structure of military reality.

Why choose Stalingrad?
There have been hundreds of books on the battle, dating back to the early 1950s. Many early ones were German memoirs, or about specific Germans. In the 1980s and 1990s, many were essentially derived from those sources plus a narrow base of Soviet sources, the predominant one being memoirs by Vasily Chuikov, who headed the Soviet Sixty-second Army; those are quite accurate and very good. But over time, all these books incorporated the same basic conclusions about the campaign as a whole and the battle for the city. And many of those conclusions are simply wrong.

For example?
One common perception is this: unlike in Barbarossa in 1941, where the Soviet army resisted the Wehrmacht and took immense casualties, during Blau in 1942 Stalin very quickly withdraws his forces and decides to trade space for time; once he gets back to a more defensible line, he launches a counteroffensive. That’s flat wrong. From Blau’s very beginning, Stalin’s orders are to stand and fight. His strategy throughout the war is to attack everywhere at every time, in the belief that somewhere someone will break.

Does the Red Army attack on the road to Stalingrad?
Despite widespread belief otherwise, there’s some horrendous fighting, generally caused by Soviet forces in counterattacks, counterstrokes, and even counteroffensives. The most important comes in July along the Germans’ northern flank. Stalin commits a tank army as well as other new formations that didn’t exist in 1941. There are major tank battles, 500 to 1,000 Soviet tanks.

What do these achieve?
In the first operations they’re very poorly led, and so don’t achieve that much—except that they bleed the Germans. The same thing happens at the end of July: two new Soviet tank armies appear at the bend of the Don River and launch counterattacks in support of the new Sixty-second Army. This huge tank battle goes on for nearly three weeks, and throws the German plan right out the window.

The number of Germans in the attacking infantry force is far smaller than in 1941, and many of the infantry units trailing in the panzers’ wake are Romanians and Italians, who aren’t really interested in dying for the führer. So in 1942, although Russian armies are encircled and their fighting ability destroyed, the troops get out and either go to ground or rejoin the Red Army later.

What happens to the German plan?
As Sixth Army advances, it has to protect its flanks, especially along the Don. So an ever-smaller part of the army is committed forward. After they clear the bend in the Don, they mount an offensive to seize the city. This is probably the most important point in the Battle of Stalingrad. They plan to seize the city by crossing the Don and advancing to the Volga in two pincers headed by panzer corps: get them into Stalingrad from the north and south, and seize it without a fight.

What stops them?
As soon as they launch their attacks, the Soviets begin counterattacks. They’re often suicidal and futile, but totally preoccupy the northern panzer corps and prevent it from turning any forces south toward the city. That leaves three German divisions in hedgehogs stretched along a 40-kilometer road. They never get into the factory district in the north end of the city, which becomes the site of the last battles. The southern pincer does what it is supposed to. But the Soviet reaction north of the city thwarts [Sixth Army commander Friedrich] Paulus’s plan.

Where does that leave him?
With one infantry corps—the only force he has to reduce the city. It has three infantry divisions in it, and a few other supporting groups—only one-third of Sixth Army. Since he can’t get into Stalingrad with his armor, he goes in from the west on foot—block by block, street by street. He does try to lead attacks with armor, until each of those panzer divisions is worn out. By the time he’s in the center city and trying to get into the north, German armor is gone and he’s in a slug match. By October 1942, his regiments are battalions, divisions are regiments, and Sixth Army is probably a corps.

What is the Soviet strategy?
To feed just enough troops into the city to keep it from falling. They are sacrificial lambs. Divisions that come in with 10,000 men have 500 the next day. Many divisions are fragments. The 13th Guards, always described as an elite force, was destroyed two months before; they’re sent in half-trained and one-third equipped. The 284th Rifle Division, popularized in the film Enemy at the Gates—only one of its three regiments has rifles. It’s like Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope. It was so brutal that Stavka, the Soviet high command, forbade A. I. Eremenko, Stalingrad front commander, and his commissar, Nikita Khrushchev, from crossing the river into the city: Stavka was afraid they’d develop an affinity with the poor troops dying there and decide to abandon it.

How do the Germans react?
For them it becomes a meat grinder. Every division they send in is weakened, so they have to pull new ones off the flanks. According to Sixth Army’s loss figures, most divisions go in rated combat-ready. Within a week, they’re rated either as weak or exhausted. The attrition rate is phenomenal. The Luftwaffe’s rubbling of the city only exacerbates things. In early November, they run out of divisions. It’s a true war of attrition.

How do they maintain the offensive?
They take all the engineer battalions out of Army Group B, which makes the final attack on November 11. So they have nobody to defend the Don, except Italians and Romanians. Hungarians are already in the line. Army Group B’s left flank is an allied army group. The Soviets understand that weakness from their intelligence, and that’s where they launch their counteroffensive.

What kind of leader was Stalin?
The myth is that Stalin micromanaged the first year, then at about the time of Stalingrad began deferring to his commanders, and thereafter the commanders fought the war under his general guidance. That’s wrong. He was hands-on throughout. In 1941, his stubbornness and insistence on fighting back cost him a lot, but also ensured that Hitler’s key assumption—that the Red Army would dissolve once it was smashed—didn’t happen. By 1942, after Leningrad and Moscow, Stalin and Marshal Georgi Zhukov think alike. They understand that even if you have to ruthlessly expend manpower, resistance will wear down a numerically weaker opponent. That tactic cost probably 14 million military dead—the price of defeating a more experienced, battle-worthy, savvy Wehrmacht.

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2010 issue of World War II. Click here to hear Glantz discuss his Stalingrad trilogy in a HistoryNet podcast.