“None the less the greatest credit for victory in the war surely belongs to the Soviet population itself. It was the Soviet men and women who sowed the fields, operated the lathes, stormed enemy positions, and survived siege and occupation. They often did so with signal heroism under conditions of unspeakable deprivation”- William C. Fuller, pp. 390.
“For us, there was no land beyond the Volga”- Vasily Zaitsev
In the summer of 1942, the German forces undertaking the southern advance in the Soviet Union started an offensive in the region around Stalingrad. The purpose of this offensive was to deal a death blow to the Soviet fuel supply by seizing the oil field of Baku; without their oil, the Soviet war effort would be crippled and German victory would be certain. During the initiation of this offensive, Hitler ordered the German Sixth Army to take the namesake of the Soviet leader, Stalingrad, a city embanked along the Volga.
The Battle of Stalingrad, as it is now known, would become among the longest and bloodiest battles in the history of warfare, and turn the tide of the Great Fatherland War in favor of the Soviet Union. The Battle of Stalingrad demonstrated the strength of the Soviet spirit and the essence of what this historic fight really was: it was a battle not for just a city, but for the survival of the Fatherland and its citizens. Hundreds of thousands of brave men and women would go out and fight with “signal heroism under conditions of unspeakable deprivation”- but one man stood out among all the rest. His name was Vasily Zaitsev.
Born in the Ural Mountains in 1915, Vasily Zaitsev spent most of his early years hunting in the harsh winter conditions with his grandfather and brother; during this time, he learned his marksmanship skills that would earn him fame moving forward. After finishing his schooling in his teen years, Vasily served in the Soviet Navy in various administrative positions, away from any combat role. Following the onset of Operation Barbarossa, Vasily requested transfer to a front line unit to fight back against the Nazi invaders. Vasily’s request was granted, and in the late days of September he crossed the Volga river with the 284th rifle division and linked up with the 62nd Army at Stalingrad.
Vasily’s skill with a rifle quickly brought him fame within Stalingrad, as he killed nearly 300 enemy fighters during the Battle, including an enemy officer at 800 meters with the standard issue Soviet fighting rifle, the Mosin Nagant. Most notably ( veracity still unconfirmed), Vasily went head to head with the Commander of the Berlin sniper school during the battle, ultimately killing the officer (referred to as Heinz Thorvald/Erwin Konig). Vasily also began to command and teach a unit of snipers during Stalingrad, in hopes of changing the tide of the battle with a strategy known as “sixes”. The “sixes” strategy taught by Vasily allowed soviet snipers to cover large areas in teams, compensating for their limited troop numbers in the earlier months of the Battle. His students, the “zaichata”, would go on to be credited with over 6000 kills during Soviet involvement in World War II.
When asked why he joined the fight, and continued after his grievous injury, Vasily was quoted as saying “For us, there was no land beyond the Volga”. His story is so notable, and still talked of today, because Zaistev was the embodiment of the Soviet Defender, of Stalin’s order No. 227 (Not One Step back), and the resilience of the Soviet people over all. Vasily represented the national realization that this war was ” a national struggle…for the survival of Russia” (pp. 391) . For his bravery and contribution to the defeat of the Germans at Stalingrad, Vasily Zaistev was given Russia’s highest military honor, the Hero of the Soviet Union medal.
It was this attitude and type of heroism that allowed the Soviets to persevere through the horrors they suffered through at Stalingrad and the entirety of the War in Russia. This token heroism was not limited to Vasily alone; citizens from all walks of Soviet society came to arms in defense of their beloved homeland to ensure its survival. This remarkable Battle, and the remarkable men and women who fought it, changed the course of the war through their grit and resilience in the face of the greatest enemy they had ever faced. By pushing the Germans out of Stalingrad, the Soviets essentially turned the tide of the war and helped trigger the Nazi’s to retreat back into Germany- the momentum gained allowed the Soviets to follow in pursuit, and ultimately sack Berlin at the end of the War.
Prominent Russians: Vasily Zaitsev. (n.d.). Retrieved March 26, 2018, from https://russiapedia.rt.com/prominent-russians/military/vasily-zaitsev/
The Nazi Tide Stops. (2017, June 18). Retrieved March 26, 2018, from http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1943-2/the-nazi-tide-stops/