What has the Soviet Union ever done for us? Well, to put it bluntly, the USSR saved our asses. Between 1941 and 1945 three quarters of the armed forces of the 3rd Reich were systematically ground down by the Soviet people at almost unimaginable human cost. Compared to the horror Hitler unleashed in the east, everything we officially celebrate about the Second World War in Europe - the victories in the desert, the Normandy landings, the doomed heroism of Arnhem, these were but sideshows to the bloody main act that played out on the Russian steppe. That's why everyone with a progressive bone in their body should at least spare a thought for the events that came to a close 70 years ago today on the banks of the Volga.
After conquering or subduing all of continental Europe under the hegemony of Nazi Germany, Hitler's Operation Barbarossa was a gamble that aimed to knock out the Soviet Union in a single, almighty blow. It almost succeeded. From 22 June 1941 Germany and its allies advanced deep into the USSR across a front some 1,800 miles long, inflicting almost crippling losses and taking hundreds of thousands of POWs. By December advance forces were poised just 16 miles from the Kremlin. Rumours abound that at the darkest hour, Stalin had his train ready for a quick get away. But fatefully he elected to stay to publicly front the successful Soviet winter counter-offensive. Using reserves fresh from Siberia, it hit the German front lines with all the force of an avalanche and pushed the invaders well away from Moscow.
Come summer 1942 and the scales were already tipping against the Nazis. Having declared war on the United States on the same day Japan attacked Pearl Harbour, it was only a matter of time before its vast industrial potential would come into contention. And so Hitler gambled again. An offensive in southern Russia toward the oil fields of Baku could cut the Soviets off from their primary source (the region was responsible for 90% of the USSR's oil production), capture Stalingrad, and, crucially, shorten Axis fuel supply lines for further military operations. In sum, it could have knocked the USSR out of the war. Case Blue, as the overall operation was called launched at the end of June and, like Barbarossa, was initially successful. But buoyed by this success Hitler modified the plan to give the Wehrmacht additional, multiple objectives - just as lengthening supply lines and fuel shortages began to bite. This operational confusion brought the Red Army crucial time to ship out crucial food and rolling stock resources from Stalingrad, and rush in more reinforcements.
The Battle of Stalingrad proper began that summer as it came under heavy and sustained bombardment from the air. By August's close the majority of the city was rubble. However this ultimately proved the Nazis' undoing. The Luftwaffe's bombs scattered debris across the city's streets, making them impassable to tanks and other vehicles. Partially destroyed and collapsed buildings were also perfect fortresses, and it forced the German 6th Army to engage in house-to-house fighting. Very quickly Stalingrad became an abattoir of attrition. The fate of the 20th century turned upon unknown and undocumented battles in living rooms, across roof tops, in the dank of Stalingrad's drains. Apartment blocks, factories, train stations, all became strategic strongpoints. The city locked two million soldiers in a death grip unparalleled in the history of warfare before or since. Despite this, the Germans continued to make slow progress and by November occupied 90% of the city. But this ultimately fruitless effort marked the high point of the Nazi advance.
As the Germans tried to break the city's remaining resistance the Red Army reserve crashed into their lightly-defended northern and southern flanks. The Soviet attack swept aside the under-equipped Romanian and Hungarian divisions with such speed that it took just four days to encircle Stalingrad. The besiegers became the besieged as some 265,000 Axis troops were cut off from their lines. Permission was sought from Hitler for the army to stage a break out. He refused. Believing Goering's boasts the Luftwaffe could resupply the army from the air, a trickle of supplies were flown in while a German relief offensive to re-open the land route to Stalingrad barely got within 40 miles of the suburbs. With food and ammunition running low, intense fighting continued as the Soviets threw fresh troops into the city. The battle ground on for a further two months but the conclusion was foregone. On the 31st January 1943, the head of the 6th Army, Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus, surrendered as the Soviets closed in on his HQ. On the 2nd, apart from a few holdouts, the remainder of the army laid down its arms and capitulated. Some 22 generals and 105,000 troops went into captivity, of which only about 6,000 ever returned home again. Of the rest, between 25,000 and 35,000 were evacuated before the last air field was overrun in late January. In total Stalingrad claimed 850,000 Axis dead, missing, wounded or captured. Soviet casualties were approximately double at just under 1.7 million.
This was the blow from which Nazi Germany would never recover. There was two more years of the bloodiest, fiercest fighting imaginable between Stalingrad and Berlin but the writing was on the wall. Everything else the Wehrmacht managed in the east, including the thwarted offensive at Kursk, could at best only delay the inevitable. But it was an inevitable whose delay was bought by countless deaths and the devastation of entire countries.
Despite the awful crimes of Stalin and his regime, the barbarity of Nazi Germany was an order of magnitude greater than anything else ever seen in history. Had Hitler been victorious a new dark age would have settled over Europe and, quite possibly, Africa and the Middle East too. The Holocaust was a foretaste of a world of routine industrialised mass murder and the enslavement of tens, if not hundreds of millions. The Battle of Stalingrad ensured this Nazi hegemony, this hellish abyss was not fallen into.
All of us, wherever we are, owe the Soviet people who lived, fought and died battling Germany's military might the profoundest of debts. And we owe it to their memory and ourselves to ensure nothing of its like ever happens again.