Stalingrad: How the Red Army Survived the German Onslaught
By Michael K. Jones. Foreword by David M. Glantz. 320 pp. Casemate, 2007. $32.95.
A Red Army veteran once told this reviewer, “If you dig down anywhere in Volgograd, just pick a spot at random—you will find human remains.” That macabre revelation, delivered in a matter-of-fact, straightforward manner by a man who had endured the Battle of Stalingrad’s 199 days of pure hell, is a raw testament to the struggle’s well-known ferocity. Yet it could also serve as a fitting epigram for the modern city of Volgograd, which rose phoenix-like from the ashes of World War II’s greatest clash of arms: the city is quite literally built atop the bones of those who died fighting for it.
Stalingrad: How the Red Army Survived the German Onslaught, Michael K. Jones’s outstanding new book, uses memoirs, eyewitness accounts, and recently opened Soviet archival material to uncover how the soldiers of Gen. Vasily Chuikov’s Sixty-second Army overcame incredible odds to save Stalin’s namesake city from German invaders during the battle’s critical first three months. The story describes a desperate struggle in which a newfound martial spirit proved more vital to victory than innovative tactics or timely artillery support.
Jones’s book might just as aptly be subtitled, “How the Red Army Won,” and that theme sets this book apart from standard accounts, such as Antony Beevor’s excellent Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege, which focus primarily on “how the Germans lost.” Here, for once, readers do not view the battle from Gen. Friedrich Paulus’s well-staffed, comfortable and heavily protected German Sixth Army headquarters. Instead, we are consigned to Chuikov’s Spartan, primitive command bunker. There, he and his small, hard pressed staff are “living by the hour; by the minute” while scrambling to “defend Stalingrad or die in the attempt.” (This is what Chuikov promised Stalingrad Front commander Andrei Yeremenko and his Front commissar, Nikita Khrushchev, when he took command of Sixty-second Army on September 12, 1942). Given this framework, German actions chiefly appear as threats and challenges to which Chuikov and his Soviet defenders must react. Initially this may seem to make Jones’s account appear unbalanced, yet the book’s Red Army perspective on Stalingrad is important for two reasons: first, it provides a too-often ignored Soviet point of view on the battle, and second, the compelling testimonies of the Red Army veterans who fought it cut through much of the Communist-era mythmaking about how the battle actually unfolded.
The half-century-long cold war, arriving hard on the heels of World War II, turned “our gallant Russian ally” into the “Evil Empire” almost overnight. (It also transformed our Nazi enemies into rehabilitated “good German” anti-Communist bulwarks.) With the Soviet perspective absent (or worse, distorted by the Communist era’s cult-like fabrications about the Great Patriotic War), Western accounts of the battle became filtered through a German lens, inevitably dominated by the “how the Germans lost” theme. Meanwhile, the Soviet version promoted throughout the cold war was discounted because it was tainted by Communist revisionism, which exaggerated or tailored famous incidents to showcase the purported key role played by members of the party and Komsomol (Young Communist League). It is no accident, for instance, that the two heroes of Stalingrad’s most well-publicized incidents— Jacob Pavlov, defender of “Pavlov’s House” and sniper Vasily Zaitsev—belonged to Komsomol. As Jones notes, “Stalingrad would subsequently be portrayed as a victory of Communist zeal, with enthusiastic Komsomol members leading the way.” The truth is, as Jones reveals, that only a small proportion of Stalingrad’s defenders were card-carrying Communists—about 10 percent of Red Army officers and less than 3 percent of enlisted men.
Since Stalingrad’s format relies primarily on the eyewitness accounts of participants, Jones’s work very much resembles Jonathan Bastable’s highly readable Voices From Stalingrad (a key difference being that Bastable’s book also includes German veteran accounts). The result is compelling, drawing us into a vivid, illuminating account of how much of a “near run thing” the legendary Red Army victory actually was. But this book does more than just shatter myths. For one thing, it introduces some formerly unknown heroes of the battle, such as Captain Naumov, the actual commander of the “Pavlov’s House” garrison; Alexander Kalentiev, the real instigator of Stalingrad’s grassroots “sniper movement”; and unheralded division/brigade commanders Feodor Smekhotvorov and K. M. Andryushenko. The timely arrival of Smekhotvorov’s 193rd Division saved the vital Volga crossing site, the Sixty-second Army’s lifeline. Andryushenko led the unfairly overlooked defense of the Orlovka pocket, the far northern anchor of Stalingrad’s defense that, according to Chuikov, “saved the rest of us.” For another, Stalingrad goes a long way toward rehabilitating Chuikov’s reputation. Long portrayed simply as a physically abusive bully who won by slaughtering his soldiers, the Russian general is shown to be a tactical innovator (as evidenced by his creation of the Russians’ highly effective small unit “storm group” assaults) and was the key figure in instituting the “morale and motivation [that] transformed the 62d Army into a fighting force of stupendous power.” Chuikov’s indomitable fighting spirit—which these veterans claim eventually infected an entire army whose spirit earlier had been badly broken by the Germans on the steppes west of Stalingrad— fueled this triumph of the will.
Originally published in the May 2008 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.