In September 1942, the Rattenkrieg, or War of the Rats, in Stalingrad had reached a fever pitch. For almost a month, German General Frederich Paulus’ Sixth Army and Gen. Herman Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army fought LtGen. Vasily Chuilov’s Soviet 62nd Army in the rubble of the industrial city of Stalingrad. Chuikov instituted a policy of “hugging the enemy” to neutralize the Germans’ superior firepower. In effect, the Germans had to fight for every street, every block, every building, every floor, and every room. Germans complained of seizing “the kitchen” only to be “stopped at the living room”. Entire companies fought pitched battles through holes in the floor or ceiling, or in the sewers beneath the city.
But the Soviets weren’t passive. They were constantly attacking the northern flank of the Paulus’ drive at Kotluban to ease pressure on the city. After Stalin’s “Not one step back” order, more than 15,000 Soviet soldiers and civilians were killed by the NKVD trying to cross the Volga to safety, but it forced the remaining civilian population to join the fight against the Germans, and stiffened the flagging resolve of Chuikov’s troops in the city. Despite horrific losses, the Soviets continued to poor troops into the city by ferrying them across the Volga, which was under constant bombardment by German artillery and the Luftwaffe.
By the second week of October, Paulus and Hoth had for the most part cleared the southern and central portions of Stalingrad, with the exception of a small beachhead in the center, and could place direct fire on the crossing sites in the north, reducing Soviet reinforcement to nighttime operations only. In the north of the city, the Soviets were anchored on three massive industrial complexes, the Red October Steel Works, the Barrikady Ordnance Factory, and the Stalingrad Tractor Factory. Until recently, the Tractor Factory continued to produce T-34 tanks whose issue were fed directly into the fight, sometimes within minutes of leaving the complex. The T-34s had no sights, so the adhoc crews, mostly civilians, had to aim down the empty barrel, then load and fire the main gun. On the 11th and 12th, the Germans ceased major assaults. It was just the calm before the storm.
At dawn, Paulus assaulted the factory complexes with 90,000 men, 300 tanks, 2000 guns, and waves of Stuka dive bombers and Heinkel level bombers, against Chuikov’s 30,000 men and 80 tanks. The German force was not so much a bludgeon as a giant scalpel carving up the city. German radio direction finders pinpointed Soviet headquarters and blasted them, and then turned to Soviet strongpoints, such as Pavlov’s house, many of which had been a thorn in the German side for over a month (Pavlov’s House held out for 58 days defended by single platoon under the command of Lt Ivan Avanaslev and Sgt Yakov Pavlov). But the initial focus on Soviet headquarters had the detrimental effect of allowing the strongholds to prepare and weather the bombardment. Most Soviet units were out of contact with their commands anyway, and the initial Germans assaults were repulsed. However, the surprised Germans regrouped and seized their initial objectives. (Never trust and artilleryman or air force officer who says, “No one can live through that.”)
The fighting dragged for two days as the panzers prowled the factory floors, assault pioneers reduced Soviet strongpoints with explosives and flamethrowers, followed by intense close combat by what remained of the infantry. The Barrikady Ordanace Factory fell on the 13th and the Red October Steel Works on the 14th. That night the entire elite 37th Guards Division died to a man in the Tractor Factory. Chuikov’s army was split in two, and his headquarters was just 800 yards from the Volga. 3500 seriously wounded men were evacuated across the Volga that night alone.
About 2200 on the 15th, Chuikov, “the Stone of Stalingrad”, requested permission to withdraw. His commissar, Nikita Khruschev, demanded he rescind the request and even had him fired later that night. Chuikov was reinstated, but having won his power struggle with Khruschev asked again. However, Khruschev again protested but contacted STAVKA directly. And this time Stalin came down hard on Chuikov’s immediate superior, Gen. Yeryomenko, to provide Stalingrad with more support (Yeryomenko was hoarding troops on the far side of the river for the planned counterattack). On the night of the 15th, the 138th Rifle Division crossed the Volga and reinforced Chuikov’s battered and broken defenses, sometimes within the sight of the river.
By the night of the 16th, the Germans were spent. It says a lot about the state of the fighting that a single understrength and poorly trained, but fresh unit, could turn the tide of a battle. However, four days of no sleep and constant fighting is about all a human being can handle. The factories of Stalingrad for the most part were taken, but Chuikov and the 62nd Army still held on to a small sliver of the city along the river.