5 Things You Didn’t Know About Stalingrad

It was the battle that changed the course of World War Two, and saw two titanic armies locked in a bitter fight to the death.

Battle of Stalingrad

On August 23 1942, the German war machine battered Stalingrad with bombs, killing thousands of civilians and reducing the city into a twisted, burning battleground for a major ground assault. This would lead to one of the most notorious sieges of all time, but here are some things you might not have known about Stalingrad...

1. THERE WAS AN ALL-WOMAN REGIMENT

Women played a vital role in the inferno of Stalingrad. The members of the 1077th Anti-Aircraft Regiment were actually little more than schoolgirls, forced into adulthood by brutal necessity. Stories of their exploits are hazy, and garnished with Soviet propaganda, but according to contemporary accounts these girls defended a vital tractor factory in Stalingrad no matter the cost.

Soon after the first German bombs had fallen, Hitler's ground forces marched on the factory and were reportedly met by the fierce young women who aimed their anti-aircraft guns downwards at the troops advancing on foot. The female fighters were eventually overcome, but not before their exploits had become part of Russian folklore.

The Motherland Calls memorial on Mamayev Kurgan at Stalingrad (now Volgograd), Russia.

The Motherland Calls memorial on Mamayev Kurgan at Stalingrad (now Volgograd), Russia.

2. THERE WAS A HELLISH BATTLE WITHIN THE BATTLE

Stalingrad consisted of countless smaller skirmishes, but one particular confrontation became infamous for its sheer body count. It took place on Mamayev Kurgan, a hilly outcrop which overlooks the city. Its sweeping views made it a key strategic target for the Germans, and the Soviets fortified it with trenches and barbed wire. Hitler's men ploughed on and sustained immense casualties to take the hill, only to find themselves under renewed attack by Soviet reinforcements.

There were attacks and counter-attacks, with thousands of soldiers perishing in the unending carnage. By the time hostilities ceased, the hill was literally black from being pummelled by bullets and bombs, and grass wouldn't regrow there until more than a year later.

3. THE CONDITIONS WERE BEYOND BAD

One Stalingrad veteran wrote, "Animals flee this burning hell of a city...the hardest stones do not last for long. Only men endure." Life expectancy of the average ordinary Soviet soldier was one day, and even if bullets didn't get you, starvation and disease would. Rats and horses became common foodstuffs, and - when the tide turned in the Russians' favour - the Germans had it even worse.

Totally encircled by Soviet forces, the Germans found themselves within what they called the "cauldron" of Stalingrad. It fell to the Luftwaffe to drop much-needed supplies, but that became a dark farce as planes often crashed and even carried incorrect cargo. There are accounts of German planes mistakenly transporting bundles of cellophane, heaps of ground pepper, and even a condom shipment to the warzone. Even supposed "treats" went awry, with a consignment of fine wine freezing in the harsh winter and erupting in their bottles.

4. THERE WAS A SNIPER SCHOOL IN THE WARZONE

Perhaps the most notorious warrior of Stalingrad was Vasily Zaytsev, the Soviet sniper who single-handedly picked off hundreds of Germans. Having honed his aiming skills in the some of the harshest landscapes of the Soviet Union, Zaytsev became a feared and legendary figure of World War Two. Not only did he himself kill so many enemy soldiers, but he also somehow managed to set up a sniper training school right in the middle of the Stalingrad warzone.

Here, in a disused factory, he trained dozens of fellow soldiers in the art of remote execution. His pupils became known as the "baby hares" (hare being derived from Zaytzev's surname), and were subject to a rigorous regime which included squatting in the corners of battlefields to observe the enemy for hours. Even being almost blinded by a mortar attack wasn't enough to put Zaytsev off - he simply had surgery and returned to the frontlines.

5. ONE HOUSE BECAME AN ICON OF THE BATTLE

During Stalingrad, hordes of German soldiers laid siege to one ordinary house in Stalingrad for months. This blasted dwelling has gone down in history as Pavlov's House in honour of Yakov Pavlov, the Soviet soldier who led its defence during that epic siege. He had become the leader of his platoon after his superiors had been killed, and along with a small group of men managed to secure the house by lacing it with barbed wire and mines, along with machine gun posts in the windows.

As the house held a key position by the Volga river, the Germans were determined to capture it, but - despite being vastly outnumbered - Pavlov and his men managed to miraculously hold them off, even managing to dig a special trench to send out messages and receive food supplies. Pavlov himself survived the war and lived right until 1981.