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  • Kent Cafferty

Was Stalingrad The Turning Point Of World War Two?

Updated: Jul 1, 2023

The Battle of Stalingrad was not a battle in the traditional sense, as it was a protracted sub-conflict in its own right. There were no grand manoeuvres, no immortal last stands, no sweeping strokes of military brilliance. It was a long and brutal slog for control of a city whose strategic value was limited, but whose symbolic significance grew to represent the struggle between the two great authoritarian leaders of the war. Some have claimed that Stalingrad, being the first major defeat suffered by Germany in the war, marked a turning point. However, I feel that even the meaning of a ‘turning point’ is somewhat vague. In the sense of the point beyond which Germany could no longer win the war, I feel this was actually at Pearl Harbor in 1941. In the sense of this was the point after which the Allies were the ones with the initiative, my view is that the battle of Kursk in 1943 marked this form of turning point better than Stalingrad. I will consider each of these in turn.

One might argue that Stalingrad was the point beyond which Germany could no longer win the war. After all, Operation Uranus (the massive Soviet encirclement of the city that trapped General Paulus and 90,000 Wehrmacht soldiers inside the Kessel, or cauldron, of Stalingrad), took almost 100,000 soldiers out of the equation, as well as a talented German general. Not just that, but the battle for Stalingrad had been a long, attritional struggle. The Wehrmacht had suffered many more casualties even before Uranus, and the futile battle had cost a lot of men, resources and aircraft. After this defeat, one might argue that the back of the German army in Russia had been broken, and there was no longer anything at all to stop the Red Army from rolling all the way to Berlin. One might also point to the fact that German morale, both in Russia and at home, was shattered. The soldiers in Russia, having seen their comrades fall around them for two years, having nearly frozen to death due to lack of proper winter uniforms, having conquered seemingly endless swathes of hostile territory and still facing wave after wave of Russian men and matériel, were low on morale at this point. Being constantly reminded that they were fighting Slavs, supposed to be inferior to them and yet constantly harassing them and inflicting casualties, and fighting on with a doggedness and resistance to hardship almost unrivalled amongst the soldiers of the war, certainly did not help. Up to Stalingrad, at least, the myth of German invincibility remained intact. The panzergruppen (tank divisions) had overrun most of western Russia, and Germany had not yet lost a land battle. After Stalingrad, though, even this crutch was lost, and German morale, like their army, crumbled, to the point where victory was no longer feasible. On the second type of turning point, one might say that after defeating at Stalingrad, the vast offensive of Barbarossa simply ran out of steam. The Wehrmacht was exhausted, demoralized, and simply incapable of launching further attacks on an enemy that simply refused to surrender. With so many men tied up in the East, Hitler was permanently short of men for operations on Western fronts, and in fact, German armies in North Africa, and later Italy, were always fighting against a significantly numerically superior enemy. One might therefore also make the case that, after Stalingrad, the initiative was in the hands of the Allies.

However, I feel the point at which the war became unwinnable came earlier – December 1941, Pearl Harbor. In a later section, I will explain why I feel that even after Stalingrad, the Wehrmacht remained a formidable fighting force, and it was only after the battle of Kursk that the initiative passed to the Allies. After Pearl Harbor, Germany also declared war on the USA. At this point, I feel the war became unwinnable for the Axis. An invasion of America was simply impossible to achieve. The Atlantic Ocean was already far too wide and treacherous for an armada to cross all the way to the United States and land an army. Added to this were British dominance of the seas around Germany, and the enormous might of the United States Navy, which the Kriegsmarine simply could not hope to match in battle. And even if it could, shipping at least a million men across the Atlantic under heavy air fire the whole way, attempting to land them on American soil (witness how difficult the D-Day landings were, when troops ‘merely’ had to cross the Channel), and then conquer a country of over 10 million square kilometres, while unable to resupply troops or vehicles across the ocean, was utterly out of the realm of possibility. This meant Germany would never be able to bring the Allies to their knees but would have to attempt to bleed America dry before they themselves ran out of resources, an endeavour that was doomed to fail. Finally, and most crucially, fighting the USA meant Germany was fighting the world’s greatest industrial powers simultaneously. With an economy ravaged by wartime, and simply numerically far less of everything, especially with the British blockades, there was no way Germany could ever match the industrial might of America, and so it would always be lacking in men and resources, trying to fight a war of attrition against a power with far more capability to manufacture, which it could not hope to invade. Not only this, but as the Lend-Lease program rapidly showed, America’s industrial might meant that Germany’s allies were constantly being reinforced, and their losses replaced (American Willys trucks, for example, became almost ubiquitous within the Red Army), while the same simply did not apply to Germany. I do not believe that the moment America entered the war, Germany was defeated. As indeed it turned out, a long, bloody and difficult struggle still lay ahead. However, I feel that once America entered, it became impossible for Germany to win the war fully – the best they could hope for would be a stalemate. One might suggest Germany could have attempted to wipe out Russia and then try and bleed America sufficiently dry as it landed on the European shores to force it to make peace, but this is simply not feasible. As D-Day later proved, although the Allies would take casualties landing against heavy coastal defences, Germany simply did not have enough men or defences to hold out for long enough, to say nothing of the fact that if Stalin was still not willing to surrender after Hitler had overrun almost the entire Western reaches of his empire, the likelihood that he would make a separate peace was extremely low.

On the second type of turning point – initiative – I feel that the battle of Kursk fulfils these criteria better than Stalingrad. Though the Wehrmacht was weakened after Stalingrad, it was far from finished. Despite losing 90,000 men in the Kessel, and suffering other casualties, the majority of the 4 million-strong force that had entered Russia at the start of Operation Barbarossa (the codename for the invasion) remained intact. Russian military tactics remained somewhat backward, though they were rapidly improving, as evidenced at Kursk. The Germans were still deeply entrenched in Russia, and making further inroads. Indeed, the very fact that they were able to launch an assault of such magnitude at Kursk is surely proof that the Wehrmacht were far from obliterated after Stalingrad, and their attempt to do so demonstrates a determination, however misguided, in the German HQ to push the Russians back and end Barbarossa once and for all. However, after Kursk, not Stalingrad, I feel that the Wehrmacht (at least in the East) were well and truly broken. The Battle of Kursk was a prolonged firefight over many days that involved a massive German assault on heavily fortified Russian positions at Kursk. Although the Germans dealt more casualties than they took, it was a Pyrrhic ‘victory’, as they lost so many men in the process that their army was simply incapable of mounting proper resistance. Russian manpower enabled them to replace the catastrophic losses they had suffered so far, but the Germans could not. Much like Napoleon after Borodino, Kursk was not a victory in the traditional sense of a rout of the enemy for the Russians, but rather in the sense that it left the Germans (or the Grande Armée in Napoleon’s case) incapable of fighting on. After Kursk, the Russian push to Berlin was almost entirely seamless – though the Wehrmacht put up stubborn resistance, the Red Army marched inexorably towards Germany, and Germany was never able to regain the initiative. Coming after Stalingrad and Operation Torch (the Allied invasion of North Africa that slowly but surely pushed back the Afrika Korps under the command of the “Desert Fox”, Erwin Rommel, whose talents were so in demand that he was later withdrawn from Africa to attempt to stem the tide in Russia), Kursk was Hitler’s last gamble in the East, a desperate attempt to crush the Russians once and for all so he could turn his attention to the problems in the West that were growing increasingly difficult to handle. When it failed, I feel the initiative fell to the Allies, and indeed, barring the failed, despairing throw of the dice that was the Ardennes Offensive, Germany did not have a major offensive for the rest of the war and was pushed back on all fronts.

Hence, in conclusion, I do not feel we can say Stalingrad was the turning point of the Second World War. It was unquestionably an extremely important and pivotal moment, but not, in my opinion, the most crucial turning point. In terms of when Germany could no longer win the war, I feel that once she declared war on the two greatest industrial powers of the age simultaneously, victory became impossible. Victory was far from immediate or easy for the Allies, yet in the long run, it became inevitable that Germany would simply run out of manpower and resources, and could not win this war. In terms of the moment the initiative changed hands, I feel this occurred at the Battle of Kursk. After Stalingrad, the mood in the Russian camp was not one of triumphant victory, but a sense of pleasant surprise that Operation Uranus had succeeded so well, and one that Russia was finally making a mark on this war and giving as good as it got, rather than retreating deep into its heartland, taking appalling, even embarrassing, casualties as it did so. Only after Kursk was there the realization that the ball was now in their court, and, if done correctly, the way to Berlin now lay open, albeit a long way away. Only after the losses at Kursk were the Wehrmacht rendered so weakened as to be incapable of mounting another major offensive, and reduced to having to fight as best a rearguard action as they could. Hence, I do not feel Stalingrad was the turning point of the war


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