Academy of Street Fighting: Tactics during the Battle of Stalingrad

The Battle of Stalingrad started on the River Don and ended when the Soviets destroyed the Sixth Army’s flanking formations north and south of the city. But the heart of the battle was in the streets of Stalingrad itself. This is where the Russian soldiers and militia held the German on slaught. Where the defenders demonstrated an unexpected aptitude for urban warfare. And where both sides developed new tactics to deal with fighting in built up areas.

German

Chuikov wasn’t impressed by German infantry, artillery or armour in the July battles in the Don bend (Chuikov, 1963). The German infantry were strong in automatic weapons and relied on weight of fire, but were neither rapid nor resolute. The artillery and mortars only fired at the main defensive line, and not in depth. The armour was sluggish, cautious and indecisive, and only attacked with infantry and air support. At night panicky German forward posts blazed away with machine guns, and fired tracer rounds and flares. German columns travelled at night with their headlights blazing. In contrast Chuikov was impressed by the Luftwaffe. German combined arms attacks also impressed him, but he found them predictable – the Germans always attacked with planes, then artillery, then tanks, and finally infantry. Chuikov believed if he could break that pattern he could defeat the Germans.

In the September battles German tactics involved assigning 3-4 tanks to each infantry company (Clark, 1965).

The Germans reintroduced the ‘Storm wedges” of WWI (Beevor, 1999). These comprised assault groups of 10 men armed with a machine-gun, light mortar and flame-throwers. They were used to clear bunkers, cellars and sewers.

Russian artillery observers were a priority target for German snipers and anti-tank guns (Beevor, 1999). Enemy flame-thrower operators were also priority targets.

The Germans favoured day light attacks, only partly because during they day they would have air support (Chuikov, 1963).

Soviet: The Stalingrad Academy of Street Fighting

Chuikov ordered his men to stay close to the enemy – typically within 50 m (Beevor, 1999; Chuikov, 1963). This was to reduce the potency of the German artillery and air support.

The Soviets used defence in depth, at least in the sense of having multiple lines, even if the actually distances were small (Chuikov, 1963). Infantry, artillery, and HQ positions were all organised as strongpoints, thus giving providing defence in depth. The front line strongpoints (‘breakwaters’) and obstacles channelled the massed German attacks (Beevor, 1999). Obstructions of various kinds were used to partition off squares and streets, thus making enemy manoeuvre more difficult. The approaches to the obstructions and the obstructions themselves were always covered by fire. In ordinary circumstances both sides tried to avoid the open streets and squares as they were exposed to enemy fire, but when attacking the Germans were forced into these areas as they provided the best avenues for advance. In the channels between the ‘breakwaters’ the advancing Panzers encountered mines (‘gherkins’ to the Russians), then then anti-tank defensive line ( dug in tanks and anti-tank guns) 200-300 m behind the front line. In addition the Soviets kept reserves in particularly significant and/or strong buildings.

Although some strongpoints in the Soviet defence were planned other strongpoints were created as isolated groups of Soviets dug in behind enemy lines (Chuikov, 1963). Some of these groups managed to hold out for considerable periods of time. The strongpoints were strengthened buildings (one or more) containing a squad, platoon, company or battalion as appropriate. Major-General Doerr (1955, cited in Chuikov, 1963) believed the Russians much more experienced at barricading buildings for defence. A centre of resistance comprised a group of strongpoints with a common firing network, under a single administration.

The buildings of a strongpoint were adapted to allow all round defence, and the garrison was expected to fight in isolation for several days (Chuikov, 1963). Strong stone or brick buildings were preferred, with the favourite being burnt out stone buildings; they were favoured because the enemy could not burn them out again. The gaps between strongpoints were barricaded and covered by fire. Trenches linked the strongpoints to other buildings. The defenders were infantry with grenades, incendiaries, machine-guns and anti-tank rifles; they always included snipers, sappers, chemical experts and a medic. Aside from any casualties they inflicted snipers had the effect of keeping the enemy stressed at all times (Beevor, 1999). Garrisons might also have mortars, individual artillery weapons, anti-tank guns, flamethrowers, tanks, and/or self-propelled guns. Everything was short range, whether infantry fire, heavy machine gun, individual artillery, or anti-tank fire. Artillery observers in the garrison would ensure the strongpoint had indirect artillery support. Soviet artillery was, however, massed on the eastern shore of the Volga and typically did not shell front line positions but aimed at enemy lines of communications and units that were forming up for attack (Beevor, 1999).

Defence in a building was multi-tiered (Chuikov, 1963). Troops in semi-basement and lower floors would direct fire along the street. Troops in upper floors or the attic fired onto the roof of vehicles, into streets, yards and neighbouring buildings, or at distant targets. Infantry would be posted throughout the building. Heavy machines guns would be in lower or upper floors, or outside, depending on the situation. Individual artillery pieces, tanks, and some heavy machine guns, were usually posted in a detachment outside the building, either behind or on the flanks; their job was to defend the approaches to the building and gaps between buildings. Tanks and artillery were, however, sometimes hidden in buildings; certainly most Soviet tanks ended up as immobile firing points buried in rubble. If the defenders faced German tanks the men would move to the cellar and upper floors where the tank guns could not reach them.

The defence was very, very active (Chuikov, 1963). Soviet rear defences and reserves were expected to isolated and eliminated any German penetrations with counter-attacks, and only went over to defence in their prepared positions if things when badly. Counter-attacks were preferably against the flank or rear of the enemy – made possible because the breakwaters would be bypassed. Similarly an enemy attack could be forestalled by a flank, rear, or even frontal, attack as they formed up.

The defenders tried to separate the Panzers from their supporting infantry (Chuikov, 1963). Mortars were aimed just behind the Panzers to discourage the enemy infantry; similarly machine guns were also used to block the infantry’s advance. In addition to their anti-tank rifle, anti-tank riflemen were armed with petrol bombs and grenades. Buildings were also a weapon when blown up as the enemy approached past or through them.

The factories had extensive underground work – sewers, communications and water-supply systems (Chuikov, 1963). Initially the Soviets were unfamiliar with them and made little use of these. Only as the fighting intensified and the soldier integrated with the local factory administration did they start using the underground system.

From the end of September Chuikov encouraged the regiments to form “storm groups” (i.e assault units) (Chuikov, 1963). It was these storm groups which formed the basis of the Soviet counter-attacks. They infiltrated between German positions, slipped into enemy held buildings, took them by assault, then entrenched to repulse the inevitable German counter-attack. Where possible a storm group would get within grenade throwing range (say 30 m) before launching their attack.

The composition of each storm group depended on available resources and the specific situations, but they were usually based on a platoon of infantry (20-50 men), supported by two or three guns, one or two squads of sappers and chemical warfare men, and possibly tanks (Chuikov, 1963). Storm groups, particularly once the Germans were entrenched in the city, were often supported by larger detachments. For example, the attack on the Railwaymen’s House had three storm groups of 6-8 men each, supported by 82 other men.

The storm group was divided into assault group(s), reinforcement group(s), and reserve group(s) (Chuikov, 1963):

  • Assault group(s): Their job was to break in and take the building. Each assault group had 6-8 men with with sub-machine-guns, 5-12 grenades (‘pocket artillery’), knives and sharpened spades; collectively these were always under a single commander.
  • Reinforcement group(s): Once the commander of the assault groups signalled “We’re in”, the reinforcement groups would move in from different directions. Once inside they would capture firing positions, set up, then block any attempted enemy interference from outside. Given their role this group had machine guns, sub-machine guns, mortars, anti-tank rifles and guns, crow-bars, picks and explosives. They often included sappers and snipers. The reinforcement group(s) came under the command of the commander of the storm group. The machine gunners, anti-tank riflemen and mortar gunners entered the building first. Their assistants followed with ammunition and food for one day. The men occupied the centre and upper floors to cover the approaches to the building. Once established they occupied further firing points in front of and on the flanks of the building. When the building was in their possession they entrenched, adapted existing fortifications, built new ones, and dug communication trenches.
  • Reserve group(s): These formed the basis of new assault groups, prevented enemy attacks from the flanks, and if necessary, blocked any counter-attacks.

Assaults were often conducted without a preliminary bombardment, the element of surprise being considered paramount (Chuikov, 1963). On the other hand, infantry guns and tanks – previously moved into hidden positions – were used at point blank range to destroy enemy posts. Chuikov describes how an storm group form the 45th Rifle Division (Sokolov) lugged a 122mm howitzer piecemeal into the Red October factory, assembled it, then blasted a breach into the area controlled by the Germans. Similarly the 39th Guards Rifle Division used a 203mm guns in the direct fire mode in the fighting at the Red October factory; in this case the range was 200-300 m. Anti-tank incendiary shells from the 45mm anti-tank gun were used to destroy simple German fortifications in buildings.

Sappers and chemical warfare men made breaches in walls, smoked out the enemy, and dug underground mines (Chuikov, 1963). In sewers flame-thrower men and sappers with explosives accompanied the storm group.

Storm groups used both smoke and darkness to conceal their activities, particularly when preparing for an assault (Chuikov, 1963).

Personal reconnaissance was encouraged at all levels, from squad to regiment (Chuikov, 1963). In the case of a storm group, the commander had to discover the size of the enemy garrison, the type of building, the thickness of the walls and floors, whether there is a cellar, where the entrances and exits are, what fortifications and obstacles there are, whether the garrison has communication trenches to the parent body, the enemy firing positions (including from neighbouring buildings) and resulting dead zones, and the behaviour and routine of the defenders.

The Soviets favoured night time attacks, partly to avoid enemy aircraft, and partly because the Germans were jittery at night (Chuikov, 1963). If they weren’t attacking, the Soviets would use the night time hours to entrench further; in fact any lull in the fighting was used for this.

The only Russian artillery on the west bank was truck mounted Katyusha rocket launchers (Beevor, 1999). These were positioned on the edge of the Volga, under the shelter of the bank.

References

Beevor, A. (1999). Stalingrad. Penguin.

Chuikov, V. I. (1963). The Beginning of the Road: The story for the Battle for Stalingrad. Macgibbon and Kee.

Clark, A. (1965). Barbarossa. Cassell.

Erickson, J. (1993). The Road to Stalingrad: Stalin’s war with Germany: Volume One. London: Weidenfeld.

Wikipedia: Urban Warfare

2 comments to Academy of Street Fighting: Tactics during the Battle of Stalingrad

  • cliff

    I learned what little I know from a game called Squad Leader. It crudely tries to explore the terrible losses on both sides in a short period of time.

  • George day

    this is excellent. the battle was far more complicated than I thought.

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