At the outset, I feel obligated to acknowledge that I am unqualified to determine to what extent Michael J. Jones's and Antony Beevor's accounts of the Battle of Stalingrad are...and are not...accurate, nor have I read any of Beevor's books. The remarks that follow focus entirely on Jones's book and explain why I hold it in such high regard. Briefly, here are some facts that help to establish the context for the account that Jones provides. After Germany and the Axis powers invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941 and advanced deep into Soviet territory, they suffered a series of defeats and failed in their drive to conquer Moscow. The United States had by then declared war on Germany and Hitler wanted to end the fighting on the Eastern Front or at least minimize it before the U.S. became deeply involved in the war in Europe.
Hitler was determined to invade and occupy Stalingrad because it was a major industrial city on the banks of the Volga River (a vital transport route between the Caspian Sea and northern Russia) and its capture would secure the left flank of the German armies as they advanced into the Caucasus with large oil deposits, desperately needed by the German army. Also, the city bore the name of Hitler's nemesis, Joseph Stalin, and capturing it would be an ideological and propaganda coup. Stalin also had an ideological and propaganda interest in defending the city but there were severe constraints in terms of time and resources. The Red Army, at this stage of the war, was less capable of highly mobile operations than was the German Army. Stalin's strategy was to have his troops engage in combat inside the city, an area that could be dominated by short-range small firearms and artillery rather than armored and mechanized tactics. The Battle of Stalingrad began in August of 1942 and continued until February of 1943. Estimates vary but most military historians agree that the combined casualties were at least 1.5 million and probably more. Jones examines the 65-day period during which the German forces began their siege of Stalingrad and took the battle into the city until the Russians launched a counter-offensive that eventually trapped and destroyed the German Sixth Army and other forces around the city.
There are several reasons why I think so highly of his book. Here are two. First, I was fascinated by the leadership style of Lieutenant-General Vasily Chuikov, Commander of the 62nd Russian Army. As Chuikov later wrote, "The most important thing I learnt on the banks of the Volga was to be impatient of blueprints. We constantly looked for new methods of organizing and conducting battle, starting from the precise conditions in which we were fighting." According to Jones, "Making a stand in such terrible conditions required absolute ruthlessness. Chuikov demanded the utmost of his men, insisting that they hold their lines come what may. It was a pitiless edge of steel behind Stalingrad's defenders."
Jones also quotes Anatoly Mereshko, a 20-year-old lieutenant, who served on the HQ staff of the 62nd Army, working directly under Chuikov. According to Mereshko, "Yuri Bondarev, in his film Hot Snow, did not hide the fact that one of his heroes, General Bessenov, was almost an exact prototype of Chuikov. The words he used when necessary to stop the German advance are virtually the same: `I allow no right of withdrawal. Not a step back! The present lines must be held to the last man. For everyone, without exception, there can b only one justification for leaving their position - death.'" Whenever necessary, Chuikov, could be - and was - merciless. But eventually under his leadership, the Russian forces prevailed.
Having already seen the film Enemy at the Gates, I was especially interested in what Jones shares in Chapter Eight concerning "The Birth of `Sniperism.'" In the film, the Russian sniper (Vassili Zaitsev portrayed by Jude Law) becomes involved in what amounts to an on-going duel with his German counterpart (Major König portrayed by Ed Harris). Both in the film and in reality, the snipers are caught up in the Battle of Stalingrad but there are significant differences that Jones cites, notably Beevor's claim that Zaitsev originated "sniperism." Jones's research suggests that this "is a wonderful myth - but nevertheless propaganda rather than truth. Zaitsev was a skilful teacher [who served with distinction in the 1047th Regiment of Colonel Nikolai Batyuk's 284th Rifle Division, killing more than 200 German soldiers] but he did not initiate the sniper movement." Proper credit should be given to Alexander Kalentiev who served in the same regiment. Be that as it may, Jones provides a wealth of information about the "tough, self-reliant hunters" whose singular temperament and talents as snipers are juxtaposed with the massive forces of two great armies engaged in perhaps the bloodiest combat throughout the entire war.
When concluding his account, Jones quotes Mereshko's observation that "Stalingrad was a smithy for commanders and many of those who distinguished themselves in battle went on to lead armies in their own right." Today, many of those commanders are buried on the Mamaev Kurgan, the hill that dominated the battle for the city. Vasily Chuikov is buried there. "Somehow in the burning hell that was Stalingrad, Chuikov created an army able to withstand everything the Germans threw at it. Their heroic story has struggled hard to come to life, caught between the propagandist clichés of the communist state - insinuating everyone at Stalingrad was heroic, and that the city would never have fallen to the enemy - and Western cynicism, which believes that Red Army heroism was only created at the barrel of a gun. Neither suffices. This terrible fight took Chuikov and his troops to the very limits of human endurance, and their testimony, now finally recovered, possesses a universal significance and power." In November of 1942, on and around Mamaev Kurgan, approximately 300,000 soldiers of the Wehrmacht, Axis allies, and Hilfswilligers were encircled and destroyed in a massive Soviet counter attack.
Even after reading this book, I find it incomprehensible that any of the Russian forces who defended Stalingrad and any of their opponents survived 65 days of being in the "burning hell" until finally, Friedrich Wilhelm Ernst Paulus surrendered on January 31, 1943, a day after he was promoted to the rank of Generalfeldmarschall by Adolf Hitler. I am grateful to Michael K. Jones for helping me to understand and appreciate "the universal significance and power" of what so many suffered and so few survived.