The German advance to Stalingrad between 24 July and 18 November
On 23 August the 6th Army reached the outskirts of Stalingrad in pursuit of the 62nd and 64th Armies, which had fallen back into the city. Kleist later said after the war:
The capture of Stalingrad was subsidiary to the main aim. It was only of importance as a convenient place, in the bottleneck between Don and the Volga, where we could block an attack on our flank by Russian forces coming from the east. At the start, Stalingrad was no more than a name on the map to us.
The Soviets had enough warning of the Germans' advance to ship grain, cattle, and railway cars across the Volga and out of harm's way but most civilian residents were not evacuated. This "harvest victory" left the city short of food even before the German attack began. Before the Heer reached the city itself, the Luftwaffe had rendered the River Volga, vital for bringing supplies into the city, unusable to Soviet shipping. Between 25 and 31 July, 32 Soviet ships were sunk, with another nine crippled.:p.69
The battle began with the heavy bombing of the city by Generaloberst Wolfram von Richthofen's Luftflotte 4, which in the summer and autumn of 1942 was the most powerful single air formation in the world. Some 1,000 tons of bombs were dropped in 48 hours, more than in London at the height of the Blitz.:p.122 Much of the city was quickly turned to rubble, although some factories continued production while workers joined in the fighting. The 369th (Croatian) Reinforced Infantry Regiment was the only non-German unit selected by the Wehrmacht to enter Stalingrad city during assault operations. It fought as part of the 100th Jäger Division.
Stalin rushed all available troops to the east bank of the Volga, some from as far away as Siberia. All the regular ferries were quickly destroyed by the Luftwaffe, which then targeted troop barges being towed slowly across the river by tugs. Many civilians were evacuated across the Volga. It has been said that Stalin prevented civilians from leaving the city in the belief that their presence would encourage greater resistance from the city's defenders.:p.106 Civilians, including women and children, were put to work building trenchworks and protective fortifications. A massive German strategic bombing on 23 August caused a firestorm, killing thousands and turning Stalingrad into a vast landscape of rubble and burnt ruins. Ninety percent of the living space in the Voroshilovskiy area was destroyed. Between 23 and 26 August, Soviet reports indicate 955 people were killed and another 1,181 wounded as a result of the bombing.:p.73 Casualties of 40,000 were greatly exaggerated,:p.188–189 and after 25 August, the Soviets did not record any civilian and military casualties as a result of air raids.[Note 4]
Approaching this place, [Stalingrad], soldiers used to say: "We are entering hell." And after spending one or two days here, they say: "No, this isn't hell, this is ten times worse than hell."
October 1942: German officer with a Russian PPSh-41 submachine gun in Barrikady factory rubble. Many German soldiers took up Russian weapons when found, as they were more effective than their own in close quarter combat.
The Soviet Air Force, the Voyenno-Vozdushnye Sily (VVS), was swept aside by the Luftwaffe. The VVS bases in the immediate area lost 201 aircraft between 23 and 31 August, and despite meager reinforcements of some 100 aircraft in August, it was left with just 192 serviceable aircraft, 57 of which were fighters.:p.74 The Soviets continued to pour aerial reinforcements into the Stalingrad area in late September, but continued to suffer appalling losses; the Luftwaffe had complete control of the skies.
German soldiers on their way in Stalingrad
The burden of the initial defense of the city fell on the 1077th Anti-Aircraft Regiment,:p.106 a unit made up mainly of young female volunteers who had no training for engaging ground targets. Despite this, and with no support available from other units, the AA gunners stayed at their posts and took on the advancing panzers. The German 16th Panzer Division reportedly had to fight the 1077th's gunners "shot for shot" until all 37 anti-aircraft guns were destroyed or overrun. The German 16th Panzer Division was shocked to find that, due to Soviet manpower shortages, it had been fighting female soldiers.:p.108 In the early stages of the battle, the NKVD organized poorly armed "Workers' militias" composed of civilians not directly involved in war production for immediate use in the battle. The civilians were often sent into battle without rifles.:p.109 Staff and students from the local technical university formed a "tank destroyer" unit. They assembled tanks from leftover parts at the tractor factory. These tanks, unpainted and lacking gunsights, were driven directly from the factory floor to the front line. They could only be aimed at point blank range through the gun barrel.:p.110
Soviets preparing to ward off a German assault in Stalingrad's suburbs
By the end of August, Army Group South (B) had finally reached the Volga, north of Stalingrad. Another advance to the river south of the city followed. By 1 September, the Soviets could only reinforce and supply their forces in Stalingrad by perilous crossings of the Volga under constant bombardment by artillery and aircraft.
On 5 September, the Soviet 24th and 66th Armies organized a massive attack against XIV Panzer Corps. The Luftwaffe helped repulse the offensive by heavily attacking Soviet artillery positions and defensive lines. The Soviets were forced to withdraw at midday after only a few hours. Of the 120 tanks the Soviets had committed, 30 were lost to air attack.:p.75
A street fight in Stalingrad
Soviet operations were constantly hampered by the Luftwaffe. On 18 September, the Soviet 1st Guards and 24th Army launched an offensive against VIII Army Corps at Kotluban. VIII. Fliegerkorps dispatched wave after wave of Stuka dive-bombers to prevent a breakthrough. The offensive was repulsed. The Stukas claimed 41 of the 106 Soviet tanks knocked out that morning, while escorting Bf 109s destroyed 77 Soviet aircraft.:p.80 Amid the debris of the wrecked city, the Soviet 62nd and 64th Armies, which included the Soviet 13th Guards Rifle Division, anchored their defense lines with strongpoints in houses and factories.
Fighting within the ruined city was fierce and desperate. Lieutenant General Alexander Rodimtsev was in charge of the 13th Guards Rifle Division, and received one of two Heroes of the Soviet Union awarded during the battle for his actions. Stalin's Order No. 227 of 27 July 1942 decreed that all commanders who ordered unauthorized retreat would be subject to a military tribunal. However, it was the NKVD that ordered the regular army and lectured them, on the need to show some guts. Through brutal coercion for self-sacrifice, thousands of deserters and presumed malingerers were captured or executed to discipline the troops. At Stalingrad, one source estimated 14,000 soldiers of the Red Army were executed in order to keep the formation. Recently declassified materials show in period from 1 August to 15 October, 278 Soviet deserters were executed on Stalingrad front According with NKO (Peoples Commissar of the Defense) between August 1 and October 15, deserter statistics for Stalingrad Front included: detained – 15,649 deserters, arrested - 244, executed - 278, sent to penal companies -218, sent to penal battalions - 42, sent back to their units and distribution points - 14,833 men "Not a step back!" and "There is no land behind the Volga!" were the slogans. The Germans pushing forward into Stalingrad suffered heavy casualties.