From the Battles bracket, we begin with one of the bloodiest and fiercest clashes between Soviet forces and the Nazi army, the Battle of Stalingrad. The other was one of the great general Napoleon’s most significant defeat, possibly more important than the loss at Waterloo, the Battle of Leipzig.
As in previous episodes of the Battle bracket, my primary sources are 100 Battles: From Ancient Times to the Present by Paul K. Davis, The Greatest Battles In History, edited by Jack Watkins, and Battles That Changed History by Dougherty and others. I am also using a number of my deep Russian history library.
When I did the Battle of Stalingrad in my other history podcast, Russian Rulers History, it was one of the longest episodes out of 200 plus that I have done. The reason is that the significance of the battle cannot be understated. It was a significant turning point in World War II, also known as the Great Patriotic War to the Soviets. The Battle of Stalingrad is also one of the most prolonged clashes we will cover in this podcast. It began on August 23, 1942, and ended in the brutal cold on February 2, 1943. If you want to hear my 38 minutes coverage of Stalingrad, you can go to email@example.com and search for the battle.
The Battle of Stalingrad was not only the most massive battle in terms of men involved in world history, but it was also the bloodiest. Over two million people fought over the five months that the conflict lasted with close to 1.8 to 2 million either dead, captured or injured. Not only was the loss of life so immense, but it was also the way that many died. The fighting was savage, and no one would come out of it without suffering from a severe form of PTSD.
The human suffering of Stalingrad rivals that of the Siege of Leningrad, happening about the same time during the Great Patriotic War, known to the rest of the world as World War II. For reasons you will see, I will call it by its Soviet name as the fight was indeed for the motherland, and not an ideology like communism.
Beginning on August 23, 1942, and lasting until February 2, 1943, the Battle of Stalingrad would be viewed as a turning point in the war, as the German Wehrmacht would never be the same after it. Their sense of invincibility would be shattered forever, breaking the myth of the unstoppable Nazi war machine. Not only was the loss demoralizing, but the number of men lost was also frankly, irreplaceable. While the equipment losses were staggering as well, they could be replaced. However, by early-1943, post-Stalingrad, the Wehrmacht, would begin to see more and more difficulties in supplying their men on both fronts.
The people of Germany were to see the pinch as well. Before Stalingrad, the Nazi armies were smashing their opponents, there was no one, aside from air bombers, threatening the people of Germany. After the battle, the Red Army would go on the offensive, knowing that they could absorb the losses of manpower, unlike the Germans. It was going to be a battle of attrition as well as a military clash. Stalingrad proved who would come out on top.
By the spring of 1942, the Russians were staggering by the loss of over 3 million men, either dead or captured by the Nazi’s. The Germans had lost over 1 million men as well. With losses like this, the Nazis knew that the same type of broad frontal movement would be impossible. They could hold their lines, but a single target, a kind of spearhead, was what they had in mind. The most essential need for a mobile army is fuel and the south of the Soviet Union, in the Transcaucasus was where almost all the oil that the Red Army used came from.
At the doorway to the rich oil fields of Baku, was the city of Stalingrad. It was also more than just a military target; it was a psychological one as well. It was named after the leader of the Soviet Union, a man that Adolf Hitler despised above all others, Joseph Stalin. To take the city would be a major propaganda win for the Nazi’s. The plan to take Stalingrad was named Operation Blue. One million Germans, along with an additional 300,000 Italians, Romanians, and Hungarians, would try to take the vital crossroad city by the Volga and Don rivers.
Before the German troops even got to Stalingrad, they were in a much-weakened state. The Red Army was retreating slowly, but not without putting up a fierce fight that cost the German’s dearly. By the time they arrived at the gate of Stalingrad, the die was cast. Stalin had issued order number 227 on July 23rd that the Volga River, at the edge of the city, would not be crossed, and that a stand would be made. Stalin didn’t even let the civilian population leave, 400,000 of them would be in peril.
At the beginning of the Battle of Stalingrad, the Germans had about a two to one advantage over the Red Army. Leading the Germans was General Fredrich Von Paulus and General Walter Heitz. Von Paulus was a competent general, but not a real top-of-the-line tactician. He was certainly not prepared to fight the kind of building to building, room to room battle, Stalingrad was to become. On the Soviet side, they had Georgi Zhukov, who we met in episode 56. More importantly, on the ground, they had Vasily Ivanovich Chuikov, someone who was tough as nails and very much capable of leading his men through the type of fight they were about to be forced into.
When the battle commenced, the Nazi’s had about 170,000 men ready to take the city. Opposing them were about 90,000 fighting Red Army men and some women. As was the Modus Operandi of the Germans, they sent in waves of Luftwaffe bombers to supposedly soften up the city, basically turning it into rubble. This was to turn into a massive mistake as it took away the German’s greatest strength, the Panzer tanks, away. Because there was so much debris around the city, the tanks couldn’t move quickly and were more challenging to defend. Whoever was to win the Battle of Stalingrad, it would be at the hands of the infantry.
What Chuikov and Zhukov decided was to find a way to nullify the Luftwaffe as well. They did this by ordering their men to stick as close to the Germans as possible so that the bombers couldn’t hit them without causing losses to their own men. Throughout September and towards the end of October, the Germans were on the offensive and doing quite well. The Red Army had the Volga River at the back with the Nazis controlling about 90 percent of the city. Paulus’s Sixth Army had beaten the Red Army time and time again, but it wasn’t enough. They tried one more offensive to take the rest of the city in November, but it was too little too late.
What Paulus, Hitler, and the rest of the German High Command did not know was that the Battle of Stalingrad was being used by Stalin as a delay tactic. He was building up a vast army behind the Volga, one with over a million men along with 900 tanks. Stalin ordered Georgi Zhukov to launch Operation Uranus.
Paulus, seeing the desperate situation his troops were in, asked permission to retreat, seeing that he was about to be encircled. Hitler refused, ordering Von Manstein, another of his generals, to begin an offensive to reprieve the Sixth Army and the Fourth Panzer division. It failed to reach the Germans, falling about sixty miles short.
Operation Uranus was launched on November 19, 1942. It was meant to isolate completely and then crush the Nazis, denying their fighting men, any food, or other supplies from reaching them. Hermann Goering, the head of the Luftwaffe, claimed that he could airlift supplies into Stalingrad, but that boast was just that, a boast. There was no way to fly in enough to feed, let alone arm the men on the ground.
By January 1943, Von Paulus requested permission to surrender, which Hitler refused. Instead of doing the right thing for the men, the Nazi leader decided to promote Von Paulus to Field Marshal on January 29th, thinking that there would be no way that he would surrender because of his new position. The men under his command knew the end was at hand. Commanders under Paulus began to surrender. Four days later, on February 2nd, it was over. Ninety-one thousand men, most barely alive, gave themselves up to the Soviets. Of those, only 5,000 would return to West Germany in 1955. One of my uncles was one of the freed soldiers. My parents helped him and his family come to America shortly after that. He never spoke of the tragedy he went through, according to his children.
Time now, to move on to the Battle of Leipzig.
We are now in 1813, and Napoleon Bonaparte had rebuilt his shattered army after the disaster caused by his invasion of Russia. The new Grande Armee was filled with raw recruits, different in many ways from his battle-hardened men who took Europe by storm. There was another glaring weakness of Napoleon’s new army, they had little to no cavalry. Almost all the horses that they had at their disposal were lying in the fields of Russia. Napoleon had lost his means of gathering intelligence about the opposition’s position, and troop strength was gone.
Luckily for the French leader, his opponents were in a state of disarray themselves. Petty jealousies made it hard to combine their forces to stamp out the Napoleonic threat once and for all. Russia, Prussia, Austria, and several German principalities viewed each other with suspicion. Who would take the lead, and who would follow? All these questions hindered their ability to cooperate with each other.
In the early part of 1813, Napoleon would win fight after fight but never winning that decisive blow which would knock his opponent out of what he knew would be a significant effort against him. Austrian Foreign Minister Karl von Metternich had put together a truce which Napoleon agreed to on June 4th as he understood that vast armies were being put together to attack him. He needed the following two months to gather his wits and supply his men for the fight to come.
Napoleon was a master of the concept of divide and conquer. He knew that if he attacked portions of the armies against him, instead of fighting in one big battle, he was going to come out on top because of his superior generalship.
Napoleon had over 300,000 men at his disposal in Germany. Still, some were being held back in defensive positions in cities like Hamburg and Dresden. The Allies learned from their past mistakes and used the same tactical ideas that Napoleon used, divide, and conquer. They decided to attack armies of the French generals’ subordinates, men who were not of Napoleon’s caliber.
Battle after battle was fought with the Allies making great strides. On October 16, 1813, the Battle of Leipzig began. Napoleon had around 160,000 men at his disposal, including a small cavalry contingent of 10,000 horses, far less than he was used to. That group was led by his trusted Marshal, Murat. The allied forces 57,000 Prussians led by Field Marshal Gebhard von Blucher along with 160,000 Austrians and Russians. They were further aided by 65,00 Swedes and Russians under the command of one of Napoleon former General’s Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte. This gave the opponents of Napoleon a 280 – 160,000-man advantage, something a younger French General could have handled, but this was not the Napoleon of old.
By the time of Leipzig, Bonaparte was worn and older, heavier, and not as energetic as he was pre-Russian invasion. His troops were not the battle-tested men he was used to leading, and many of his senior generals were dead or on the sidelines. All of these problems were to face Napoleon at this crossroads battle.
Both sides relied heavily on their artillery, which was used in a very savage way. The damage inflicted by cannon shot was devastating. The worst though, was when a Prussian cannon made a direct hit on a French ammunition wagon. The ensuing explosion was so destructive, it demoralized the enemy. It took one of Napoleon’s most competent generals out of action, Marshal Marmont.
A cavalry charge by Marshal Murat against the artillery of the Austrians was initially successful. Still, it was subsequently beaten back when Tsar Alexander I of Russia sent in his reserves as a countermeasure. This was a strong example of the cooperation between the allies that was lacking during the early years of the Napoleonic Wars.
Bonaparte knew that the jig was up and needed to get out of town and fast. The only way he knew how to retreat was through a fighting withdrawal. On October 18th, he headed back into the city of Leipzig. Just then, his former ally, Crown Prince Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, made it to the fight. According to many historians, had he arrived two days earlier, this would have been the end of Napoleon, and there would never have been a Waterloo.
Unfortunately for Napoleon, there was only one road out of Leipzig, through the town of Lindenau and over a narrow bridge across the Elster River. The French leader ordered 30,000 men to be the rear guard as his troops made their way slowly over the bridge. The bridge had to be destroyed to prevent the Allies from following. Still, it was taken down prematurely, sealing the fate of the 30,000 left behind. Most died with the river at their backs, with a number drowning, trying to swim to the other side.
Retreating back to Paris, Napoleon was down to 100,000 men. The war of attrition was going badly for the French, but the Allies were hurting as well. A peace treaty was offered to allow Napoleon and the French to return their borders to the ones before the war, but foolishly, Bonaparte refused. It would lead to his abdication and exile. Aside from another go at it with the Battle of Waterloo, which we shall visit in episode 88, Napoleon was finished.
Now it’s time to head on over to the scorer’s table.
The first fifteen points are to be handed out to the number of people involved in the battle. This is a hand down victory for the Battle of Stalingrad. Over 2.2 million men were fighting it out in the Soviet city, whereas about 420 thousand were at Leipzig. Given the difference in times, I’m not going to penalize the earlier conflict as much so 15 points to Stalingrad and 10 to Leipzig.
The next point giveaway is for how the battle affected the rest of the world in their time. Stalingrad was earthshattering to the Nazi war machine, although they did not let the public know the outcome for a few months. The Allies knew that the mystique of German military superiority was shattered and that the oil that the Nazi war machine so desperately needed was out of reach. The Battle of Leipzig was very much the same as Napoleon was no longer viewed as the genius he was thought to be and that the French were severely depleted in their strength after their enormous losses. Looking at the immediate effect, I’d have to give a slight edge to Leipzig as it led to the end of the Napoleonic Wars within a short time. Twenty points for the 19th-century conflict, seventeen for Stalingrad.
The long-term outcome of the Battle of Stalingrad was the eventual defeat of the Nazis. However, it would take a titanic effort to complete the job in the next couple of years after its end. The Battle of Leipzig’s aftermath would redraw the lines of Europe, and lead to a time of relative peace until the breakout of the Crimean War in 1854. For these reasons, I’m giving Leipzig the twenty-five points and Stalingrad twenty.
The final and biggest point giveaway is the forty points for how the battles affected their country for the better. Stalingrad was the beginning of the end for the Nazi invasion of Russia that began with Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1941. Still, the loss of life on the Soviet side was staggering. The fact that Stalin left civilians in the city, knowing they would die there, showed a callousness that only a few evil leaders would ever try. The men were fed to the Nazi war machine with little care. It did end up being for the overall good of the country, but the cost was enormous.
With Leipzig, as I mentioned earlier, the aftermath ushered in an era of peace that lasted for about 40 years. It was a well-needed respite for Europe, especially for the German people who had the war waged back and forth through their countryside, killing up to 50 percent of those living there. For these reasons, I’m giving the Battle of Leipzig the full 40 points with Stalingrad receiving 35.
The final score is Leipzig 92, Stalingrad 85. One of the last battles of the Napoleonic War moves on to the second round to face off against the ancient world conflict, the Battle of Zama.
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