Above: A wrecked German tank burns fiercely in a suburb of Stalingrad as a squad of Red Army infantrymen run past with their PPSh-41 submachine guns ready for action. It is early fall of 1941 and snow has yet to blanket the city. Credit: National Archives
By Robert Bruce
“The Great Patriotic War” is what the people of Russia and other countries once known as the Soviet Union call WWII. In a monumental struggle against the Blitzkrieg of Hitler’s invasion in June of 1941, incomprehensible numbers of both Red Army soldiers and ordinary civilians perished in the first year alone. Even more suffered horribly from starvation, disease and exposure in the wake of Stalin’s cynically calculated scorched earth policy as everything of possible use to the advancing Germans was carried away or destroyed in place.
Despite terrible hardships the ordinary Soviet soldier and partisan fought on with courage and determination. Often going into combat without enough weapons to go around and severe shortages of ammunition, these tough men and women were rarely known to falter. While cynics may point out that death in battle was much less certain for them than execution by Stalin’s NKVD secret police goons should retreat be even contemplated, they finally stopped the Germans on the outskirts of Moscow a year later. This marked the turning point of the war in the East and the Red Army began taking the offensive.
The epic siege battle of Stalingrad followed, beginning in the scorching heat of August and ending months later in the bitter cold of 2 February 1943. Artillery barrages by an estimated 25,000 guns on both sides in the early weeks of the siege quickly reduced Stalingrad’s major structures to piles of brick, stone and concrete. This bleak and ragged battlefield provided innumerable pockets of shelter for soldiers as they fought at close range in “a bloody, relentless struggle in which single blocks and buildings became major military objectives and in which the opponents often occupied parts of the same building….”
Soon completely encircled by the enemy and unable to be adequately resupplied by air, it was time for German Sixth Army invaders to suffer as graphically described in the US Army’s official history, STALINGRAD TO BERLIN:
“As the front fell back from the west, the inner city, which after months of bombardment had the appearance of a landscape in Hell, became a scene of fantastic horror. Sixth Army reported 20,000 uncared-for wounded and an equal number of starving, freezing, unarmed stragglers. As many as could took shelter in the basements of the ruins where the tons of rubble overhead provided protection against the constant rain of artillery shells. There, in the darkness and cold, the sick, the mad, the dead, and the dying crowded together, those who could move not daring to for fear of losing their places.”
Following the death or capture of over 200,000 men in the Stalingrad pocket, the Germans began a slow, agonizing withdrawal back toward the Fatherland. Relentlessly pushed by ever-growing numbers of Soviets armed and equipped with fresh new tanks, artillery and other weapons from both American Lend-Lease as well as their own factories, Hitler’s Ostfront warriors could do no more than postpone the inevitable. Exactly 27 months after General Strecker surrendered XI Corps at Stalingrad’s famous Tractor Works, the German capitol city of Berlin fell to an unstoppable Red Army.
Hard Men With Tough Weapons
The weapons, particularly small arms, used by the combatants at Stalingrad were essentially the same for the whole course of the war. Their pistols, submachine guns, rifles, light and heavy machine guns, grenades, mines, mortars and the like were sturdy and effective in the hands of determined soldiers. For the Red Army, the emphasis was on production of existing designs with little time or industrial capacity to spare for improvement or innovation.
This photo gallery shows many of the most common types in use by the Soviets and Germans during the war. Most come from the collection of the incomparable Ordnance Corps Colonel J. B. Jarrett, a leader in U. S. Army small arms development in WWII. Colonel Jarrett’s intense personal and professional interest in soldiers and their weaponry led to his acquisition of large numbers of wartime photos from all battlefronts and from many sources. When he died, this immensely valuable resource was rescued from oblivion by another giant in the field of small arms history, Mr. Thomas B. Nelson.
Nelson, one of the driving forces behind the legendary INTERARMCO and later COLLECTOR’S ARMOURY, went on to collaborate in the writing and publishing of an encyclopedic series of extraordinary small arms books. These include THE WORLD’S SUBMACHINE GUNS and companion volumes on machine pistols, assault rifles, fighting shotguns, as well as GERMAN MACHINEGUNS. We are deeply indebted to Mr. Nelson, along with caretakers at the National Archives, Center for Military History and other sources, for allowing complete access to their holdings so that SAR could bring the powerful images seen here to light once again.
While a few of these pictures are identified as having been taken at Stalingrad, most were shot elsewhere. All are typical of the men and weapons of this pivotal struggle and are included as a tribute to the courage and superhuman endurance of infantrymen of both mighty nations who fought to the death at Stalingrad and countless other cities from Moscow to Berlin.
|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V5N12 (September 2002)|