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Hugging the Enemy

General Vasily Chuikov, Commander of the 62nd Army at Stalingrad

General Vasily Chuikov, Commander of the 62nd Army at Stalingrad

We know a whole lot more about Field Marshal Friedrich Wilhelm Ernst Paulus, who commanded the German 6th Army besieging Stalingrad, than we know about General Vasily Ivanovich Chuikov, who fought the German war machine to a draw by his creative leadership of the Soviet 62nd Army. Part of the reason is that we have letters from Paulus and his staff describing the horrors of the siege of Stalingrad, letters that were to give Hitler and Goebbels fits as they tried to devise their own myth as to what really happened on the banks of the Volga.

What really happened was one of Stalin’s generals, who lived in a society where candid comments in private letters were used by the NKVD (predecessor of the KGB) as evidence of disloyalty to Stalin. Whatever Chuikov may have thought, it was what he did that made him one of Stalin’s favorite generals.

Both Hitler and Stalin had issued contradictory clear-cut orders regarding Stalingrad. Hitler insisted that the Wehrmacht capture the city at all cost, and that surrender was not an option. Stalin, on the other hand, issued equally clear-cut orders that the city must be held at all costs, and that surrender was not an option.

For almost six months, Chuikov invented a new kind of urban warfare in which the idea was to “hug the enemy.” By staying close to the Germans, Chuikov prevented the aerial bombardment by the Luftwaffe in that it turned out to be as dangerous to the Nazis as to the Red Army. By this time, much of the city was rubble. Chuikov ingeniously hid artillery and tanks in the ruins, and used small squads of six to eight men, supplemented by sharpshooters, to attack pockets of Wehrmacht troops. Extensive use was made of hand grenades and Molotov Cocktails.

Frequently, burnt-out tanks became bases for these squads, as the men were protected by the wrecked tank above their heads. The following is a quote from Chuikov:

The Germans underestimated our artillery. And they underestimated the effectiveness of our infantry against their tanks. This battle showed that tanks forced to operate in narrow quarters are of limited value; they’re just guns without mobility. In such conditions nothing can take the place of small groups of infantry, properly armed, and fighting with utmost determination. I don’t mean barricade street fighting—there was little of that—but groups converting every building into a fortress and fighting for it floor by floor and even room by room. Such defenders cannot be driven out either by tanks or planes. The Germans dropped over a million bombs on us but they did not dislodge our infantry from its decisive positions. On the other hand, tanks can be destroyed from buildings used as fortresses.

For five months, Chuikov fought the Germans to a draw. During this time, Marshal Georgi Zhukov formulated his Operation Uranus, which led to the encirclement and surrender of Paulus’s 6th Army.

Even as his men were out of ammunition and close to starving to death and being eaten alive by lice and other vermin, Hitler prevented them from surrendering. As it became obvious to the Fuehrer that Stalingrad was lost to him, he preferred the German people to think that the 6th Army committed mass suicide rather than surrender to the Russians. In the end, the 90,000 men who remained did surrender. Total German casualties were between 500,000 and 850,000 killed, wounded or captured.

Chuikov later led one of the armies converging on Berlin, where he accepted surrender of the city from General Helmuth Weidling. After the war, in 1955, he was made a Field Marshal by Khrushchev and eventually served as a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

Even under a tyrant such as Stalin, it is possible to find heroism and innovation such as Chuikov’s. Because we tend to see World War Two as mostly a Anglo-American alliance, we have suppressed any knowledge of the awful 3,000-mile front that was the war in Russia, called by them the Great Patriotic War. They earned their victory … the hard way.