The end of the North African campaign at Tunis in May 1943 was one of the biggest Allied victories of the Second World War. But Andrew Mulholland has gone further, challenging the accepted wisdom that Stalingrad was a greater catastrophe for the Axis. Is he right?
I want to argue that Stalingrad was far more important. Potentially, the stakes were as high as the USSR’s continued participation in the war.
But to understand the battle’s full significance, we need to highlight the wider strategic context – and not focus on Hitler’s obsession with the city’s name and the horrific ‘rat war’ (Rattenkreig) in the city’s ruins. In fact, just as the Tunisian campaign was won mostly by ‘the hard facts of logistics’, so too are logistics the key to understanding why Stalingrad mattered so much.
The endgame in North Africa
The case for highlighting Tunisia is strong, for it rests on both immense scale and profound strategic impact. Estimates vary for the Axis casualties during this roughly six-month campaign, but it seems probable that about 12,000 men were killed, some 40,000-50,000 wounded, and roughly 250,000 men entered Allied captivity.
That was an entire Army Group, and nearly three times more troops than had been captured at the end of the Stalingrad campaign. Moreover, among those PoWS were many thousands of very experienced men whose loss Hitler could ill afford.
Logistics largely explain that outcome. Throughout the campaign, the Afrika Korps was badly hampered by shortages of petrol and other vital supplies. The Axis powers lacked sufficient ships to move these supplies from Italy to North Africa, and the ships they did have were vulnerable to Allied air and naval attack. Many were lost.
That same lack of ships prevented a timely evacuation when the Afrika Korps retreated into Tunis. There was to be no Axis equivalent of Dunkirk here.
For Mulholland, this Allied triumph was far more important strategically than we have appreciated. Tunis was a ‘body blow’ for the Axis. The Mediterranean was now secure for Allied shipping. So the Allies could start preparing in earnest to invade Sicily and the Italian mainland. The Italian surrender would follow as early as September of the same year.
These points are sound. One might add that the improved safety of the Mediterranean meant that Lend-Lease supply convoys for the USSR could reach Persia via the Suez Canal, avoiding the long and slow haul round the Cape. Also, the Axis surrender at Tunis finally removed any residual land threat to Allied control of the Suez Canal and Middle Eastern oil wells.
But with that broader strategic danger already averted by Montgomery’s victory at El Alamein, was the follow-on Tunisian campaign really a bigger victory than Stalingrad?
The Battle of Stalingrad is generally recognised as one of the critical turning points of the war on the Eastern Front. Up until its latter stages, the Soviet Red Army was generally on the defensive. Thereafter, the Red Army was normally on the offensive. The one really substantial Axis attempt to retake the initiative – at Kursk in July 1943 – was a spectacular failure.
Nonetheless, the Stalingrad campaign remains relatively neglected in the English-speaking world. Even the North African endgame may be better known. Probably most readers of this magazine could name the top British and German commanders in Tunisia – Bernard Montgomery and Erwin Rommel. Who can do the same for the opposing Soviet and German generals in the Stalingrad campaign?
Much of the explanation for this neglect is political. At the time, the British media avidly reported the Soviet ally’s fightback. The Daily Telegraph rejoiced in the victory that had ‘saved European civilisation’. The Times correspondent in the USSR was even allowed to visit the city at the battle’s end.
But after the war the memories faded quickly. As with the popular memory of the First World War, where the Bolshevik Revolution overshadowed Russia’s crucial involvement in the Entente, so the East/West hostility of the Cold War helped focus memories and remembrance in the former Allied powers on fronts that were physically and/or metaphorically closer to home.
Since the demise of the USSR, the situation has improved somewhat. Antony Beevor’s best-selling history of the battle has helped a lot. Probably even more important have been the blockbuster feature films Enemy at the Gates (Jean-Jacques Annaud, 2001) and Stalingrad (Fedor Bondarchuk, English version 2014). But still, who were those Soviet and German generals?
Possibly one name might come to mind. Friedrich Wilhelm Paulus commanded the German 6th Army at Stalingrad. There he became the first ever German Field-Marshal to surrender. Having only just promoted him, Hitler was reportedly furious that Paulus declined to commit suicide.
The German plan
Stalingrad formed just one component of the Axis plan for the 1942 summer offensive on the Eastern Front. Initially code-named Operation Blue, the plan proposed two main operations, which Army Group South was to undertake consecutively.
The first was to advance roughly 300 miles from Khar’kov and Voronezh to seize the right (western) bank of the River Volga in the vicinity of Stalingrad. This strike would cut off Soviet forces retreating from the south-west, neutralise Stalingrad’s munitions factories, and close the Volga to commercial shipping.
It would also secure the flank and rear for the second operation – an offensive through Rostov-on-Don into the Caucasus. Here, the primary goal was to seize the USSR’s vital oilfields around Maikop, Groznyi, and ultimately Baku. In the process, the Axis powers would also occupy much of the USSR’s remaining grain-growing territory west of the Ural Mountains.
Control of Soviet oil was Hitler’s main concern for the summer. He is reported to have told his generals on 1 June 1942 that ‘if we don’t take Maikop and Groznyi, then I must put an end to the war’. By the same token, depriving the Soviets of both the oil and so much grain might have forced them to sue for peace.
As a whole, then, this two-part campaign had the same broad strategic aim as Operation Barbarossa – the invasion of the USSR – in 1941. Back then, the idea had been to force the implosion or surrender of the USSR by capturing Leningrad, Moscow, and the Ukraine before the onset of winter. But for various reasons none of those objectives had been completely fulfilled. The 1942 plan was intended to finish the job by different means.
In the event, Hitler was so intent on getting the oil quickly that he brought forward the Caucasus attack. The two operations were to proceed concurrently and separately, starting on 28 June.
Army Group South was split into Army Groups A and B for these attacks. Army Group A was to capture Rostov, seize the oil pipeline, and invade the Caucasus. Army Group B, with the 6th Army as its largest component, was to aim for the Volga and Stalingrad.
These decisions have been seen as disastrous for the attackers. They reduced the concentration of force and, among other things, deprived the 6th Army of the panzer divisions needed for a rapid advance to Stalingrad. They help explain why the Soviet forces retreating from the south-west escaped encirclement west of the River Don, and also why the Soviet command had time to put Stalingrad on a war footing.
Of course, one might object that, as some German generals suspected at the time, the original plan was too ambitious for the available resources anyway. If that is correct, Hitler’s changes simply meant that the eventual German losses were even greater.
We should remember, however, the contemporary Soviet perspective. To Stalin, his commanders, and indeed his Allies, the dual threat seemed very real as the Axis attacks made spectacular progress during July and August 1942.
The campaign in reality
The Axis offensives put the USSR under extreme pressure throughout the summer and into the autumn. The Volga was effectively closed from 23 August, over two months earlier than normal. In the Caucasus, the Baku oilfields were soon the only fully operational ones still in Soviet hands. No wonder Stalin issued his notorious Order of the Day ‘Not One Step Backwards’ on 28 July.
But eventually both offensives hit serious trouble. In the south, Army Group A failed to capture Groznyi, and the Caucasus campaign ground to a halt in November.
Meanwhile, Paulus initiated a full-scale assault of Stalingrad on 12 September, confident of victory in 10-14 days. His forces steadily pushed the defenders into several small pockets of territory alongside the river.
But final victory proved elusive. In the city’s ruins, General V I Chuikov’s Soviet 62nd Army continued to resist with fanatical determination. Subsequent German attacks in October and November squeezed those pockets further, but failed to eliminate them all. Still the city did not fall.
Then came disaster for the invaders. With insufficient forces to strike south to the Kuban, Army Group B occupied a massive salient. On the northern flank, it stretched from Stalingrad back to the city of Voronezh, following the River Don for much of its length. In the south, from only about 15 miles downstream of the city, the Soviets still held the right bank of the river. And this conjuncture allowed the Soviet Command to plan a massive counter-offensive (Operation Uranus) that began on 19 November.
The Soviet strategy was to exploit the salient to trap most of the 6th Army and parts of the 4th Panzer Army in the Stalingrad region with a huge pincer movement. Thanks to careful preparation, the Soviets achieved almost total surprise. Completed within just nine days, Uranus was a resounding success. Approximately 270,000 Axis troops were trapped in what became known as der Kessel – ‘the cauldron’.
The Soviet Command then devised a follow-up offensive, Operation Saturn, to capture Rostov-on-Don and trap Army Group A as well. But in mid December, a strong German counter-attack to free the 6th Army (Operation Winter Storm) forced the Soviets instead to strengthen their position (Operation Little Saturn).
Again the Soviets were successful. And with the Luftwaffe unable to airlift more than a fraction of the necessary supplies, the German 6th Army was now doomed.
Hitler ordered the 6th Army to resist to the last man, and told Army Group A to withdraw from the Caucasus. In effect, the 6th Army was required to continue resistance at Stalingrad so as to help the evacuation of the Caucasus – an ironic inversion of the original campaign plan.
The end came with Paulus’s surrender on 31 January 1943 and the last surrenders of German holdouts on 2 February.
Central to Mulholland’s case for Tunis over Stalingrad is a comparison of the numbers of prisoners taken. He sets the 250,000 men captured at Tunis against the estimated 90,000 who surrendered at Stalingrad in late January and early February 1943.
He then focuses on just the last few days of two long campaigns, and ignores key differences in their character. The one involved a six-month retreat to a final surrender with relatively few fatalities; the other involved a mass encirclement with numerous fatalities. When total losses are computed, however, the overall outcome in each case was the destruction of a whole army group of some 250,000-300,000 men.
But unlike Tunisia, Stalingrad was not isolated from other land fronts. Indeed, as we have seen, this campaign was always intimately associated with the Caucasus campaign, even if Hitler himself mangled the connection by running them simultaneously. The Wehrmacht’s failure to relieve the 6th Army necessitated the retreat of Army Group A from the Caucasus.
So it is logical to look at the combined losses from the two operations between 28 June 1942 and 2 February 1943. That figure very likely exceeded 900,000 men killed or captured. The twin-pronged Axis offensive in southern Russia in 1942 was among the biggest and bloodiest campaigns in the history of warfare.
Strategic impacts compared
Whereas the Allied victory at Tunis transformed the strategic situation in the Mediterranean, the strategic stakes of Operation Blue extended to the whole European theatre. We have seen that, for Hitler, Russian oil was decisive for the whole war.
For Stalin, too, defeat in the south, above all at Stalingrad, could have been disastrous. At worst, it could have forced him to make peace with Hitler and settle for some kind of isolated rump state east of the Urals. What chance then for the Western Allies to defeat Hitler by 1945?
Why and how might the loss of this one city have forced the USSR out of the war? After all, the Soviet government would certainly have continued the fight even if Leningrad and Moscow had both fallen in 1941 or 1942. Was Stalingrad really any different?
The answer is yes. Hitler’s obsession with capturing the city named after Stalin does help explain why the campaign ended so badly for the Germans, but the crucial strategic issue was not the name: it was the location.
The River Volga was the city’s raison d’être at its founding in the 17th century as a Cossack trading outpost named Tsaritsyn. It was also the key to the city’s strategic significance in both world wars in the 20th century. Despite the arrival of the railway in the 1860s, the Volga remained busy with non-urgent bulk freight thanks to competitive tariffs, and even today the river is important for freight. As Mawdsley reminds us, Hitler referred frequently in his speeches to the Volga as an economic artery.
The main commodities moved at the time were logs, grain, and oil products. The timber was floated downstream from the northern forests for processing, whereas the grain and oil were sent upstream to cities like Nizhnii Novgorod, Kazan, and Rybinsk, mostly for onward shipment by rail.
The grain originated mainly from the steppe regions of south-east Russia and the northern Caucasus. The oil products came from the Caucasus. They were shipped across the Caspian Sea to Astrakhan in the Volga delta, then barges took them to the Volga oil terminals.
The Volga’s logistical importance became abundantly clear during the First World War. The reason was shortages of train and route capacity on the Russian railways. The river continued to move oil and grain, but now it became critical for the oil supply, because the Caucasus railways were overloaded with military traffic to and from the Caucasus Front, where Russia was fighting the Ottoman Empire.
Also, a crucial new northbound traffic was coal from the Donbass mining region in the southern Ukraine. Capacity shortages limited the amount of coal that could be sent directly north by rail. So some of the production went east by rail to Sarepta, a small harbour just south of Tsaritsyn, then north by barge. Over 400,000 tonnes of coal were planned for this route in the 1915 navigation season.
An almost identical logistical challenge arose in 1941. Now, however, huge territorial losses caused the problem. The German advance cut most of the trunk railway routes between Moscow, the southern Ukraine, and south-east Russia in autumn 1941.
Additionally, by capturing Rostov-on-Don briefly in November 1941, the Germans cut the Caucasus oil pipeline and made the railway between Stalingrad and Tikhoretskaia the only rail route to and from the Caucasus. Once again the Volga became vital for moving grain and oil during the navigation season. Moreover, from 1942 Lend-Lease supplies used this route as well.
This helps explain why the Germans aimed to close the Volga with their 1942 offensive. Successful completion of the Stalingrad operation would not simply have secured the rear and flank of Army Group A’s invasion of the Caucasus. Full success with Operation Blue would have deprived the Soviets of much of their grain, oil, and US military supplies.
In that nightmare scenario, the Soviet regime might well have seen no alternative to a separate peace with Hitler. The Western Allies would then have had to wage the war in Europe without the advantage of a huge second front in the East. Could they really have prevailed by 1945 without deploying nuclear bombs against Germany?
As the summer of 1942 ended, the Soviet war effort hinged on the regime’s ability to find enough food for the front-line armies and to keep moving oil out of Baku. The oil situation demonstrates just how difficult this challenge was. Food, equipment, spare parts, and other supplies for the wells had to be sent across the Caspian Sea to Baku, while the oil itself had to travel in the opposite direction. Theoretically, three routes were possible for this traffic, but all were problematic.
The shortest route involved the railway between Astrakhan and Saratov, roughly parallel with the left (eastern) bank of the Volga. But by August 1942 that line was within range of German aircraft, and its northern section became the last available railway for supplying Stalingrad. So long as the Stalingrad campaign continued, this route was impassable for transit traffic.
Hence two other routes had to be used, despite their problems. One involved a detour of several thousand kilometres on single-track railways via Samarkand, Tashkent, and Orenburg. The other involved a hastily built railway from the Caspian port of Gurev to the Orenburg line; but, though it was only 500km long, its southern section was potentially exposed to German air attack. Supply-lines vital to the entire Soviet war economy were hanging by threads in the latter part of 1942.
The German evacuation of the Caucasus and the surrender at Stalingrad decisively eased this situation. By the end of the spring thaw in 1943, the Volga could again be used for transit freight, and emergency repairs were under way to restore the rail connections between Baku and European Russia through Rostov and Stalingrad. The Soviet regime had weathered its most severe crisis, and the odds for Allied victory were much shorter.
The defeat of the Axis 1942 summer offensive against Stalingrad and the Caucasus really was a massive victory for the anti-Axis coalition. It put an end to Axis hopes of knocking the USSR out of the war. During the next two years, the Eastern Front would consume more Nazi resources than any other front, and contribute hugely to Hitler’s eventual downfall.
The ruins of Stalingrad city and Chuikov’s 62nd Army became symbols of that victory, and deservedly so. Whatever the political differences between the West and Russia, we should give the huge Soviet sacrifice its full due. •
Professor Anthony Heywood holds a Chair in History at the University of Aberdeen, specialising in modern Russian history. He is co-editing the centennial book series Russia’s Great War and Revolution, 1914-1922, and is preparing a book about Imperial Russia’s railways in the First World War, 1914-1917.
28 June Start of Operation Blue to take Stalingrad (Army Group B) and Caucasus (Army Group A)
23 July Fall of Rostov-on-Don to Army Group A
28 July Stalin issues Order 227 – ‘Not One Step Backwards’
23 August 6th Panzer Division reaches River Volga First big air-raid on Stalingrad
12 September Start of German assault on Stalingrad city
27 September Start of first German assault on Stalingrad’s factory district
11 November Start of final German assault
12 November First heavy snowfall
19-27 November Soviet Operation Uranus encircles most of German 6th Army in der Kessel at Stalingrad; well over 250,000 Axis troops trapped
20 November Formation of Army Group Don under Field-Marshal Manstein
12-23 December German Operation Winter Storm fails to lift encirclement, but helps force scaling down of Soviet Operation Saturn to Little Saturn
16-30 December Soviet Operation Little Saturn forces retreat by German force trying to lift encirclement
28 December Army Group A ordered to evacuate Caucasus
10 January Start of Soviet Operation Ring – final offensive against 6th Army
22 January Hitler prohibits surrender
2 February Last surrenders by 6th Army units
John Erickson (1975) The Road to Stalingrad: Stalin’s War with Germany, vol.1, Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
Geoffrey Jukes (1985) Hitler’s Stalingrad Decisions, University of California Press.
Antony Beevor (1998) Stalingrad, Viking Books.
Evan Mawdsley (2016) Thunder in the East, Bloomsbury.
David Glantz and Jonathan House (2017) Stalingrad, University Press of Kansas.
All images: WIPL, unless otherwise stated.