The Lighthouse of Stalingrad: the hidden truth at the centre of WWII’s greatest battle

A besieged city, a hostile army enveloping on all sides, and a ruthless commander refusing to surrender – this was not 1942, but 1919, when the city in southern Russia then known as Tsaritsyn was on the verge of being captured by the anti-revolutionary Whites.

The Bolsheviks had taken power in the Russian Empire just two years previously, in a stormy revolution backed with popular support as fierce in Tsaritsyn as it was in St Petersburg or Moscow. But in the subsequent war to defend that revolution, the city on the western banks of the Volga river found itself in a precarious position. So the Bolshevik leadership sent a young and already ambitious commissar from Georgia, one Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin, to defend it.

Stalin quickly applied the ruthlessness for which he later became notorious. Refusing to withdraw the Red soldiers within the city, he instead demanded it be transformed into a fortress, a ‘Red Verdun’, in preparation for a siege. The plan worked. Three White assaults were repulsed and by January 1920 the city was secure. To consolidate his victory, Stalin ruthlessly executed any perceived collaborators, even setting whole villages alight if he suspected inhabitants of disloyalty.

Five years later, Stalin, now head of the Soviet Union following Lenin’s death, had the city renamed in his honour. As a vast trading port, with a rich supply of fish from the river and raw materials from the factories on its banks, ‘Stalingrad’ would help power the promised Soviet economic miracle.

Surprisingly, however, when Nazi Germany launched Operation Barbarossa and invaded the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, Stalingrad was not an immediate target. The city was initially just a name on the map for the German High Command, symbolic perhaps but not as strategically important as Moscow or Leningrad (the renamed St Petersburg) or the oil fields deep in the southern Caucasus.

It was only when Barbarossa finally faltered in the winter of 1941 that the city caught Hitler’s eye. With the Case Blue initiative, Army Group South, which had originally intended to go after the oil fields, would be split into two sections, A and B. While A would continue after the oil, B would conquer the city, making it part of a supply route that would help replenish beleaguered and overstretched German forces across the vast Russian steppe.

It very nearly worked. With their path cleared by the merciless aerial bombing of Generaloberst Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen (cousin of the Red Baron), Army Group B, the bulk of which was formed by the German Sixth Army, commanded by Friedrich Paulus, reached deep into the city – as far as the banks of the Volga – by early September. Key landmarks, such as the State Bank, the Univermag Department Store, and one of the city’s main railway stations, fell into German hands. Soon, it was joked, the Berlin to Stalingrad express would be up and running.

Toe hold

Yet despite the German onslaught, the soldiers of the Soviet 62nd Army doggedly maintained a ‘toe hold’ on the western bank of the Volga. With the river at their backs, they fought street-by-street, house-by-house against the Wehrmacht. This close-quarters fighting was initially a desperate, haphazard tactic. But 62nd Army commander Vasily Chuikov soon realised it could be transformed into a deliberate and highly effective strategy.

Chuikov ordered all large-scale operations be halted. Instead, smaller shturmovye ottriady (‘storm troops’), comprising just handfuls of well-armed men, would prowl through the complex urban environment. They moved through backyards, through sewers – but almost never through the streets. It was a high-risk approach, but it soon brought the German advance to a halt.

In late September, one such unit, led by a young sergeant, Yakov Pavlov (proudly of peasant stock), captured an empty apartment building overlooking 9 January Square, in the very heart of the city. Although badly damaged, the building was structurally sound, with its cellars providing a perfect hiding place for Pavlov and his men. The upper floors, meanwhile, afforded a clear view of the surrounding suburbs and the river, as well as the Mamayev Kurgan, a large hill in the north of the city, which had been ferociously fought over.

For its strategic importance, Soviet commanders soon began referring to the building as ‘The Lighthouse’. Pavlov and his platoon, mindful of Stalin’s notorious ‘not one step back’ order, fought tenaciously to hold it, as the building was now a physical wedge into the German front line.

By the end of October, a report had appeared in Stalinskoe Znamya (Stalin’s Banner), the 62nd Army’s own newspaper, proclaiming the miracle of ‘Pavlov’s House’, as they referred to it, and the bravery of its defenders. The house, the paper added, was ‘a symbol of the heroic struggle of all defenders of Stalingrad’.

Soon, national Soviet newspapers like Isvestia and Pravda took up the story and ran their own increasingly feverish versions. The image of the defiant house – representative not just of Stalingrad’s defence, but of the resistance of every family and every home across the Soviet Union – was too good a piece of propaganda to pass up.

In his new history of Stalingrad, of which ‘Pavlov’s House’ forms a central part, author Iain MacGregor is careful to remind us how exaggerated the story quickly became. Although he had led its capture, Sergeant Pavlov was invalided out of the house early on, after being wounded in a doomed assault on a German-held building, the so-called ‘Milk House’, just across the square. Yet it was still a crucial asset, visited by commanders as senior as General Georgy Zhukov. And Chuikov’s joking claim that the house had proved harder for the Germans to take than Paris was strangely credible given the surrounding carnage.

It was this appalling pile-up of corpses that began to chill spines throughout the German High Command. Paulus watched in horror as his best men were cut down and replaced by rookies – easy prey for the Soviet snipers, who were themselves the subject of much mythologising in the months and years to come.

With the city refusing to fall and the crisis worsening for the Wehrmacht, Franz Halder, Chief of General Staff of the Army High Command, resigned his position on 24 September. His relationship with Hitler had broken down, with the Führer refusing to heed his sceptical advice. Halder’s outgoing warning, of a ‘crisis coming’ involving huge contingents of fresh Soviet troops amassing east of the Volga, was similarly ignored.

above The centre of Stalingrad following its liberation, February 1943. The ‘toe hold’ that Soviet troops managed to maintain on the western bank of the Volga river allowed the German advance to be slowed and ultimately defeated.
The centre of Stalingrad following its liberation, February 1943. The ‘toe hold’ that Soviet troops managed to maintain on the western bank of the Volga river allowed the German advance to be slowed and ultimately defeated. Image: Wikimedia Commons.


The warning was prescient. On 19 November, the Soviets launched Operation Uranus, a vast counter-attack targeting the overstretched German lines to the north-west of the city. The plan was kept secret even from the Soviet commanders on the ground until hours before it went into effect, partly to keep the Wehrmacht tied down within the city and leave their weakened flanks exposed.

Those flanks, guarded by two under-equipped Romanian armies, were quickly shattered by the operation, a two-pronged attack that would trap hundreds of thousands of German troops within the city. As a ‘turning point’, its importance cannot be exaggerated: just as the Nazi leadership was disintegrating, the Soviet Union demonstrated it could move off the defensive and deliver bold and ingenious tactical moves.

Rescue attempts by Army Group A, now renamed Army Group Don and commanded by Erich von Manstein, failed. It became clear that the German army, now exhausted and severely depleted, would be staying in the city for Christmas. Hitler, echoing Stalin two decades earlier, believed the city must be not surrendered – but for different reasons. ‘We are not coming back here a second time,’ he told underlings. ‘That is why we must not leave here.’

What few civilians were left in Stalingrad hunkered down with their occupiers for the winter. Neither had any food. As one Valentina Savelyeva, then just five, remembered, ‘we ate clay and nothing but clay… my mother would throw away the bits that were soaked in blood.’ The only source of water was the scorched Volga.

Later chapters of MacGregor’s book benefit hugely from the previously unpublished memoirs, diaries, and letters of German Major General Friedrich Roske. They provide an excellent insight into the truly dire situation the Wehrmacht faced that Christmas, taking refuge in their dugouts as loudspeakers set up by the Soviets taunted them about their looming defeat.

Roske himself played an important role in the surrender of the Sixth Army at the end of January. He was subsequently imprisoned for 12 years, returning to West Germany in 1955 – before killing himself the following year. His boss, Paulus, famously refused to commit suicide after Hitler disingenuously promoted him to Field Marshal. He too was captured and became something of a Soviet propagandist for the remainder of the war.

MacGregor returns to Pavlov’s House as a postscript. The building was reconstructed after the battle, with an adjoining memorial assembled from rubble that surrounded the site. Pavlov himself was garlanded as a war hero, receiving the Order of Lenin and many other decorations – even though, as a fellow soldier who knew him later recounted, ‘there were many others like Pavlov who haven’t entered the history books’.

The Lighthouse of Stalingrad is, at just 300 pages, fairly slight for a hardback history title. But it still provides an utterly compelling account of the battle, much enhanced as has been mentioned by the Roske material and also that of the more junior Unteroffizier Albert Wittenberg.

The story, particularly of the Lighthouse, shows us just how tenaciously a people will fight when their land, and indeed their homes, are being overrun by a foreign aggressor. As MacGregor pointedly reminds us, it is a lesson that at least one of Stalin’s successors appears to have forgotten.

The Lighthouse of Stalingrad: the hidden truth at the centre of WWII’s greatest battle
Iain MacGregor
Little, Brown, hbk (£25)
ISBN: 978-1472135216