He won battles on a scale no one else even dreamed of: He developed all the tactics of urban combat war from scratch. He destroyed the most invincible fighting force the human race had seen in 700 years since the days of Genghis Khan and his Mongol hoards. He saved the world from the monstrous darkness of genocidal Nazism. And no one in the West has ever heard of him.
This would not have bothered Marshal of the Soviet Union Vasily Ivanovich Chuikov, commander of the legendary 62nd Army that for more than five months fought the huge Nazi Sixth Army to a standstill on the banks of the Volga, always outnumbered by factors of up to 15 to one: The victor of Stalingrad went on to become the conqueror of Nazi Berlin: He was always larger than life.
Chuikov was even a superb writer and historian: His war memoirs are the most vivid, dramatic and analytically brilliant since Julius Caesar wrote The Gallic Wars” more than 2,000 years ago. Nothing equals them.
Yet in the 60 years since a shortened but still excellent version of Chuikov’s memoirs were published in the West, only one combat history, Michael K. Jones excellent “Stalingrad: How the Red Army Triumphed” in 2007 recognizes the pivotal role he played.
It was quite simply the greatest example of military leadership by a single man (or woman) in human history.
The Sixth Army had been the invincible, unstoppable spearhead of the Third Reich’s arms as they conquered Poland, Belgium, France, Yugoslavia, Greece and much of European Russia in only 2-1/2 years from spring 1940 to the fall of 1942.
But in the pulverized rubble of the city of Stalingrad, a city that Gen. Wolfram Frieherr von Richthofen’s air corps, Luftflotte 4, had made a funeral pyre for hundreds of thousands of Russian women and children, they finally met their match.
For the legendary Soviet 62nd Army, clinging to the western bank of the vast Volga River sometimes by as little as 20 yards, was commanded by Chuikov, who miraculously almost overnight became the Red Army’s leading expert on urban combat tactics. At Stalingrad, he literally wrote the book on the tactics of successful urban war.
It was vastly different from anything the Nazi Wehrmacht had ever faced before. The tactics of blitzkrieg, that had conquered all of Europe in a matter of months, were suddenly negated. An army used to advancing hundreds of miles in a week was suddenly losing thousands of casualties for gains of a single house or part of a factory plant, at a time. The German army lost more men fighting to take a single grain elevator, or factory plant or Central Department Store, than it had in swallowing entire nations.
In his great memoirs, Chuikov brings to life the passionate rhythms of the fighting in the city.
“Get close to the enemy’s positions. Move on all fours, making use of craters and ruins. Carry your tommy-gun on your shoulder. Take 10 or 12 grenades. Timing and surprise will then be on your side … Into the building – a grenade! A turning – another grenade! Rake it with your tommy-gun! And get a move on!”
Visiting Chuikov in his headquarters right after the great Soviet victory, the Western war correspondent Alexander Werth, author of the classic “Russia at War,” drew a vivid picture of the great general.
Werth called Chuikov “a tough, thickset type of Red Army officer but with a good deal of bonhomie and a loud laugh. He had a golden smile. All his teeth were crowned in gold and they glittered in the light of the electric lamps.”
Chuikov called Oct. 14, 1942, “the bloodiest and most ferocious day in the entire battle … (The Nazis) threw in three brand new infantry divisions and two tank divisions, supported by masses of infantry and planes … That morning you could not hear the separate shots or explosions; the whole thing merged into one continuous deafening roar … In a dugout the vibration was such that a tumbler would fly into a thousand pieces. That day, 62 men in my headquarters were killed.”
The massacre of Soviet soldiers crossing the Volga from the eastern shore to reinforce the burning city was awful.
“They’d bring across the river – with great difficulty say, 20 new soldiers, either old chaps of 50 or 55 or youngsters of 18 or 19,” Chuikov wrote. “They would stand there on the shore, shivering with cold and fear … By the time these newcomers reached (the front line) five or 10 out of 20 had already been killed by German shells … but the peculiar thing about those chaps was that those among them who reached the front line very quickly became wonderfully hardened soldiers. Real frontoviks.”
But if the Russians endured unimaginable suffering, to the suddenly beleaguered Germans, who actually outnumbered the defenders by ratios of seven to 1 or as much as 15 to one, it was far, far worse.
“We have fought during 15 days for a single house, with mortars, grenades, machine guns and bayonets. Already by the third day, 54 German corpses are strewn in the cellars, on the landings and on the staircases,” an officer in the Wehrmacht’s 24th Panzer Division wrote.
“Stalingrad is no longer a town,” he exclaimed. “By day it is an enormous cloud of burning, blinding smoke; it is a vast furnace lit by the reflection of its flames. And when night arrives, one of those scorching, howling bleeding nights, the dogs plunge into the Volga and swim desperately to gain the other bank. The nights of Stalingrad are a terror for them. Animals flee this hell; the hardest stones cannot bear it for long; only men endure.”
Stalingrad was certainly hell, but Chuikov returned to it in the end. At his own insistence, he was the only Marshal of the Soviet Union not to be buried in the Kremlin wall. His grave is atop the vast Russian war memorial at Mamayev Kurgan, Mamayev Hill, right below the awesome 170 foot free-standing statue of the Rodina-Mat, the Mother Goddess Defending the Homeland, alongside 35,000 of his soldiers. As long as they lived, veterans of the battle visited every day and kissed his grave.