31st January 1943 saw one of the major turning points of World War II when the German Sixth Army surrendered at Stalingrad.
When Adolf Hitler had ordered the capture of Stalingrad the previous September he believed that the Red Army was on the point of collapse and that the fall of the city named after the Soviet leader would be the knockout blow, both physically and psychologically. However, he had completely overlooked not only the size of the force that was ready to be launched against the Germans but also the determination of the Russian people to oppose him. Also, just like Napoleon Bonaparte more than a century before, he had ignored the effects of the Russian winter which comes early and with devastating consequences.
The battle for Stalingrad was savage and costly, as troops fought their way through the city street by street and building by building, most of which were soon reduced to rubble.
The snow began falling on 12th November and on 22nd November the entire Sixth Army, of nearly 300,000 men, was surrounded and cut off from its supply lines. Thousands of men died from exhaustion and starvation, as well as from Red Army attacks.
When surrender was eventually forced on the Germans there were only 91,000 prisoners to be taken, including 22 generals. An eye-witness remarked that the generals appeared to be in considerably better shape than the soldiers under their command.
Of those 91,000 men, only 5,000 survived being prisoners of war and were released when the war ended. Even so, the final tranche of 2,000 men did not get home until 1955, ten years after peace had been declared.
© John Welford