2nd February this year marks the 76th anniversary of the end of the Battle of Stalingrad, the largest and bloodiest battle the world has ever seen. As the Soviet and Axis powers fought for control of the city, the vicious urban conflict became a meat grinder, with around 2 million causalities, including civilians, caused by the end of the five-month battle.
Historians are in no doubt that Stalingrad was a key turning point in WW2, if not the main turning point. Nazi Germany suffered the complete loss of its greatest, largest and most battle-hardened army, the Sixth Army, and the defeat marked the end of German expansion eastwards; from that point onwards the Third Reich was fighting a defensive war. A chink in the armour of the supposedly unstoppable Nazi war machine had been exposed, boosting Allied morale.
However, what if that pivotal moment in WW2 had ended differently? What if Stalingrad had fallen, how would the war have then played out? Here are four different scenarios that might have occurred…
1. The war drags on a little longer but with the same result
So Stalingrad has fallen and the Germans have conquered the city. But at what cost?
In our timeline, Germany suffered 80% of its casualties during WW2 on the Eastern Front, a good portion of those at Stalingrad - around 850,000 casualties along with a vast amount of military equipment. It was the single biggest defeat in the history of the German army and the battle took a hefty toll on the Nazi cause. In any scenario in which the German army takes Stalingrad, the bloody street-to-street combat ensures the Germans will suffer great losses, impacting the effectiveness at which it can continue to carry out its eastern offensive.
With Stalingrad behind them, the Germans now stagger on towards the oilfields of Baku in the Caucasus, one of the main objectives of their 1942 summer offensive into southern Russia, known as Case Blue. The vast majority of Germany’s oil comes from Romania but stocks are running low, meaning the Soviet oilfields are extremely important for Hitler’s war efforts.
However, the Soviets destroy the oil production facilities during their retreat. In all likelihood, it will take the Germans somewhere between 1-2 years to repair these facilities and have them producing the fuel that the mechanised Nazi war machine so desperately craves.
Even if the Germans can get the oilfields up and running quicker than a year, their already overstretched supply lines will be pushed to the limit. They’d have to build, secure and protect a route that the oil could be transported along connecting the Caucasus all the way back to the West.
Although the Soviets have lost Stalingrad, they still vastly outnumber the Germans and their strong resistance continues. They target German supply lines, especially those carrying oil, and make a number of attempts to retake Stalingrad.
Hitler’s belief that Slavs are ‘sub-human’ and his policy of complete annihilation means his forces gain little favour from the various nations/non-Russians within the Soviet Union, who no longer see the Nazis as liberators but instead take up arms against them.
Without the immediate benefit of the oilfields, combined with the sheer size and logistical complexity of Russia, defending the Caucasus stretches the Wehrmacht beyond its limits.
Although delayed, the outcome of the war remains the same as in our timeline, with Germany eventually retreating from Russia and losing the war.
2. The Eastern Front becomes a stalemate, the Nazi’s still lose the war
Although the first scenario is perhaps the most likely, with any what-if question, the various answers depend on the assumptions that you make. So let’s assume in this scenario that the Germans manage to take Stalingrad with relative ease or in fact by-pass the city completely, deciding to engage in mobile warfare instead, a tactic at which they excel.
So, with Stalingrad behind them and the Sixth Army still intact, the Germans confidently advance towards their main goal, the oilfields in the Caucasus. Although the Soviets leave little for the Germans to utilise in the short term, the German acquisition of the oilfields means that the Soviets have been cut off from their main supply of oil, around 86%. The importing of Land-Lease material from the US to the USSR via Iran, known as the Persian Corridor, has also been significantly reduced.
With plenty of manpower still at their disposal, the German army continues pushing east. As per the first scenario though, the supply line situation remains the Achilles heel for the German army. Without also having the time and money to invest in upgrading the transportation network in Russia, the small amount of resources the Germans can extract from the Caucasus proves to be of little help in keeping their war machine fed.
However, with the Soviets now being starved of oil and with no great propaganda victory at Stalingrad, morale is at an all-time low in Russia. In the immediate term the Soviets are unable to shift the Germans from their country, but at the same time, the Germans are unable to inflict the killer blow to the Soviets due to logistics and supply. Instead, a stalemate ensues.
Over the coming months/years, German manpower and resources are worn thin through its defence of the Caucuses and attempts to move further east. With Moscow still in Soviet hands, Stalin continues to orchestrate attacks on the German forces. With Germany still fighting a war on two fronts, in the end, it becomes too much to bear; Russia bleeds the Germans dry whilst the Western Allies apply the final blow.
3. The Soviets surrender but the Western Allies hold firm
In many scenarios it is hard to envisage Nazi Germany ever defeating the Soviet Union in the way Hitler wanted – complete extermination.
However, if we replay scenario two again but this time Germany manages to fight its way to the oilfields in the Caucuses fast enough to take them intact then there’s a (small) chance they could force a Soviet surrender. With no heavy loses at Stalingrad, Germany still have the battle-hardened troops available to continue their expansion eastwards. They now also have fully operational oil refineries at their disposal whilst the Soviets would be cut off from their main supplies.
It’s a big if, but if that did happen, the Soviet army would be in serious trouble and unlikely to continue repelling the German advances for long. With Soviet morale continuing to fall, Stalin’s position at the top could be in jeopardy, if any sort of civil war breaks out, the German’s would of course be the beneficiaries.
So let’s say the Soviets are now forced to sue for peace. With a significant military power now out of the war and the vast resources of the country at the disposal of the Germans, millions of soldiers and thousands of aircraft and tanks fighting on the Eastern Front are now freed up to be used elsewhere.
However, Germany’s path to overall victory is far from done. Constant uprisings in Russia plague the Third Reich whilst it struggles to immerse the country into its empire. Most importantly though, the UK and USA are still in the war and ultimately the success of the American Manhattan Project is the downfall of Nazi Germany.
With the atomic bomb being dropped on a number of German cities, the Nazi regime, just like the Japanese before them, is forced to sue for peace.
4. The Nazis conquer Europe and win the war
Although it is the worst possibility of them all, it is perhaps the least likely. A lot of chips needed to land in Hitler’s favour for Nazi Germany to have won the war but that doesn’t mean historians haven’t calculated ways in which it could have been done. Stalingrad it seems was one such sliding doors moment, a battle that could put Germany on a path to overall victory. Even at the time, the world understood the significance of that bloody urban conflict.
Writing in his diary on 1 January 1943, British General and Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Alan Brooke, wrote:
‘I felt Russia could never hold, Caucasus was bound to be penetrated, and Abadan (our Achilles heel) would be captured with the consequent collapse of Middle East, India, etc. After Russia's defeat how were we to handle the German land and air forces liberated? England would be again bombarded, threat of invasion revived... And now! We start 1943 under conditions I would never have dared to hope. Russia has held, Egypt for the present is safe. There is a hope of clearing North Africa of Germans in the near future... Russia is scoring wonderful successes in Southern Russia.
Even the Daily Telegraph declared on 18 January 1943 that Russia had ‘saved Continental civilisation, and with it, perhaps, our England too.’
Although a stretch, it could be argued that the fate of Stalingrad and the fate of Europe were one and the same. So how could it have panned out in Germany’s favour after Stalingrad?
Following on from the previous scenario, Stalingrad has fallen with little loss of German life, the Caucasus oilfields have been taken intact and Russia has sued for peace freeing up a vast amount of German troops to head for other fronts, including North Africa.
Finally being given the manpower and resources he’s been crying out for Field Marshal Rommel, The Desert Fox, turns the tide in North Africa in Germany’s favour. Soon Egypt falls, cutting Britain off from its vital Mediterranean transport route. The Middle East follows suit, Britain has now lost its oil.
German resources are shifted to the Atlantic, putting even more pressure on British supply lines. With large amounts of German manpower moved from the Eastern to the Western Front, the Allied invasion of France (D-day) does not occur. Huge numbers of aircraft are released from the Soviet conflict meaning the Germans can undertake a second Battle of Britain and this time the Luftwaffe takes control of the skies. A land invasion comes next and Britain falls.
Whilst America still prevails in the Pacific and the Manhattan Project is a success, the US has lost the ability to launch its bombers from the British airfields, meaning Germany remains out of reach of US atomic bombs. Europe has now fallen. With the resources of Russia now at their disposal, Nazi Germany becomes a global superpower.
The US and Germany reach a peace agreement, potentially heralding in an alternative Cold War but this time played out between the Americans and the Nazis.
Whether or not Stalingrad could have won the war for Germany is up for interpretation, but one thing is for certain, losing it cost them the war.