World War II Book Review: Enemy at the Gates - The Battle for Stalingrad

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Enemy at the Gates: The Battle for Stalingrad by William Craig is one of the finest books on World War II. It inspired the 2001 movie of the same name starring Joseph Fiennes and Jude Law.

First published in 1973, Enemy at the Gates was reissued in 2001 as a movie-tie book for the film of the same name starring Joseph Fiennes, Jude Law, Rachel Weisz and Ed Harris. Today, William Craig's epic account of the battle for Stalingrad remains one of the finest historical works ever published on World War II. Waged from August 23, 1942, to February 2, 1943, the battle of Stalingrad featured two mighty armies locked in mortal combat, with the war on the critical Eastern Front hanging in the balance.

Enemy at the Gates: The Battle for Stalingrad by William Craig, Penguin Books, 2001 (Penguin Group USA)

General von Paulus' German Sixth Army

Author William Craig begins his narrative in early August 1942, with the vaunted German Sixth Army, fresh from crushing victories in the Ukraine, poised to deliver what Adolf Hitler believes will be the final death blow to the Russian Army. In three years of warfare, the Sixth Army is undefeated, having scored stunning victories in Poland, France, Yugoslavia and Russia. Supremely confident, Sixth Army, commanded by General Friedrich von Paulus, is rapidly closing its pincers on two badly battered Soviet armies near the western bank of the Don River. Delighted with the latest war news, Adolf Hitler tells his dinner guests that the Soviet Union is on the brink of collapse, with victory on the Eastern Front almost assured.

Stalingrad, formerly called Tsaritsyn, now becomes the focal point as Hitler's invading legions attempt to destroy the remaining Soviet armies near the Volga. Soon, Stalingrad will become synonymous with a particularly brutal kind of warfare waged in and around its sprawling borders.

Enemy at the Gates: Part I

Enemy at the Gates is divided into two parts, with Part I detailing the German offensive and Part II covering the Russian counteroffensive. Taken together, they provide a powerful account of the historical battle, from both a large and small view perspective.

William Craig's Part I narrative of the massive 600+-plane raid conducted by the German Luftwaffe which opens the battle for Stalingrad is especially good, conveying the absolute terror of modern warfare as practiced from the sky. Other accounts are equally stunning, effectively illustrating the horror that was Stalingrad. Among the many examples:

  • Following the German air raid, a group of naked adults wandered through the fire and smoke, unable to comprehend what had transpired. They were inmates from an insane asylum. Others were equally stunned, including the hundreds of orphans who sat beside the mutilated bodies of their dead parents, simply staring or babbling incoherently, trying to rouse them from their "sleep."
  • When desertion problems threatened to destroy the effectiveness of the newly arrived Soviet 64th Division, stationed 25 miles north of Stalingrad, its commanding officer enacted his own solution. After haranguing the assembled troops, the colonel charged his men with the same guilt as those had already fled. With pistol in hand, the Russian colonel then began counting, executing every tenth soldier with a single shot to the head. When the last bullet had been emptied from his weapon, six soldiers lay dead on the parade field. The colonel holstered his gun, and an officer called out, "Dismiss!"
  • In order to send a gruesome message, one German unit captured a Russian scout, laid him spread-eagled on the ground and thrust a bayonet into his stomach. A squad of Russians went berserk, jumping up from their fighting holes and rushing forward, killing all Germans in their path.
  • One of the more amusing incidents involved Senior Lt. Ivan Bezditko, who commanded a mortar battalion. Bezditko – "Ivan the Terrible" to his men – possessed an incredible appetite for vodka. When any of his soldiers died, he simply reported them "present and accounted for" in order to get their daily vodka ration. After a Russian supply major learned of Bezditko's little scheme, he canceled the lieutenant's alcohol provision. Bad move, as the vengeful Bezditko then trained his mortars on the supply officer's warehouse, delivering three rounds right on the building. Out of the rubble staggered the shaken supply officer, who was simply told by headquarters to restore Bezditko's vodka pipeline, for the hard-drinking lieutenant had just been awarded the Order of the Red Star.

Also examined primarily in Part I is the deadly role the sniper played in the bombed-out streets, cellars and sewers of Stalingrad. "When the panzers bogged down in narrow streets," the author writes, "Russian soldiers doused them with Molotov cocktails. From windows, enemy snipers picked off whole squads of unwary foot soldiers."

German snipers proved to be equally lethal, with several of them methodically picking off seven Russian soldiers who had been holed up in an upstairs room. The Russians had previously repulsed their German attackers, flinging back the satchel charges the enemy had thrown at them. They finally fell when German sharpshooters, equipped with telescopic sights, arrived on the scene and tracked them through the windows.

Additional sniper stories also appear, including one on Tania Chernova, the female Russian sniper who claimed 80 kills during three months of combat. Her own tour of duty came to an end when the woman in front of her stepped on a mine. Other stories include a report on the impromptu Russian sniper school set up at the Lazur Chemical Plant whose graduates went directly to the edge of no-man's land to practice their newly-acquired craft, and the deadly cat-and-mouse game waged by two opposing super snipers, Russia's Vassili Zaitsev and Germany's Major Konings.

Russian infantry in white camouflage storm a factory in Stalingrad (Georgi Zelma, Izvestia)

Enemy at the Gates: Part II

Part II begins with the big Russian counteroffensive – dubbed Operation Uranus – which began at 6:30 AM on November 19, 1942. In less than 96 hours, the massive Russian counterattack proves to be a huge success, as the 250,000 troops of the German Sixth Army soon become encircled in a pocket 30 miles wide by 20 miles long. Hitler orders General von Paulus to hold his ground while the Luftwaffe is saddled with the impossible task of flying in 700 tons of supplies a day to the embattled Sixth Army.

As with Part I, the book's second section also features numerous stories which ably illustrated the madness of Stalingrad. Among the entries:

  • Sgt. Albert Pfluger fired his .75-millimeter antitank gun at a Russian T-34 tank. The shell cut through the turret and out tumbled two Russians soldiers who were sent scurrying up a hill. Pfluger tracked one of the men with his rifle but let him go, thinking to himself, "My God, if you've been that lucky, who am I to shoot you now?"
  • The Luftwaffe refused to allow army quartermasters to supervise their air shipments to the trapped soldiers. As a result, worthless supplies often showed up, such as thousands of right shoes only and millions of neatly packaged contraceptives.
  • The famished German Army was forced to eat a variety of things in order to survive: field mice, horse brains, dogs and goats. One starving Italian officer consumed an entire box of automotive lubricant, thinking it was butter.
  • A German shell burst neatly decapitated one Russian soldier. Before he died, he could be seen as a tiny, three-foot figure waving his arms wildly while his severed legs and hips lay nearby.
  • The temperature, which sometimes dropped down to 30 degrees Fahrenheit or worse, exacted a terrible toll in frostbite cases and sudden heart attacks. In addition, many soldiers simply froze to death.
  • Lice infestations nearly drove their human hosts to the brink of insanity, covering their victims from head to ankle. When a man died, the lice could be seen leaving the cooling body like a large gray blanket, searching for another live food source.

Despite Hitler's insane order to fight to the death, Field Marshal von Paulus surrenders his defeated Sixth Army to the Russians in order to avoid complete annihilation. Marching into captivity are Paulus and 23 other generals, 2,000-2,500 officers and over 90,000 enlisted men – the broken remains of the once mighty German Sixth Army. In all, more than 500,000 Germans, Italians, Rumanians and Hungarians are herded up by the victorious Red Army in a battle which claimed nearly two million lives.

The late William Craig (1929-1997) spent five years researching and writing Enemy at the Gates, poring over countless documents and traveling to three continents where he personally interviewed hundreds of survivors from the battle. His efforts paid off handsomely, as Enemy at the Gates is a must book for any serious student of the Second World War.

German soldiers take up a position near a disabled Soviet T-34 tank (German Federal Archive)

Vital Book Statistics

  • Enemy at the Gates: The Battle for Stalingrad by William Craig (Penguin Books, 2001)  
  • Soft Cover 472 pages with 17 photos
  • Price: $16
  • Memorable passage: "Like strings of gulls, flying in perfect V's, the Stukas and Ju-88s droned over the sun-drenched city and tipped over into their dives. Their bombs fell into the crowded residential area and, because of the long drought, flames spread like wildfire. In seconds, Stalingrad was ablaze."

Top Image

  • A jubilant Russian soldier waves the Soviet flag over the central plaza of Stalingrad in 1943 (German Federal Archive) 

3 comments

Phoenix Montoya
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Posted on Oct 28, 2010
Leslie Pryor
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Posted on Oct 16, 2010
Ron Siojo
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Posted on Oct 16, 2010