Stalingrad: Researching the Lighthouse

The recent Russian invasion of Ukraine means it’s unlikely any western historians will visit again for quite some while.
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Stalingrad: Researching the Lighthouse

Stalingrad, the greatest battle of any theatre of conflict during the Second World War. That’s the story I had always been told growing up. As a nine-year-old boy in the mid-1970s, I was given as a birthday present a book of the greatest battles in history, one of which was Stalingrad. The descriptions of the bitter house-to-house fighting between the German and Soviet forces for the city named after Joseph Stalin, amid the bitterest of Russian winters (varying between -20 to -40 degrees) captivated my imagination. It continues to do so.

Antony Beevor’s bestselling book on the battle in 1998 was based on his access to the Soviet military archives – a unique window for western historians sadly now closed – as well as first-person interviews with survivors from the doomed German Sixth Army led by General Friedrich Paulus. Beevor set the benchmark high, combining a thorough but readable strategic overview with first-person testimonies, thus offering the reader a fresh insight into this iconic campaign. It rightly won major awards, but also provided a stimulus for the next generation of military historians coming through today.

Many books have been written about Stalingrad from a variety of perspectives: David M.Glantz, Joachim Hellbeck, Michael Jones and Jonathan Trigg’s books have all given some fresh perspective to it. It can, I suppose, be legitimately asked then: ‘Does the world need another book about the battle?’ As we know, it’s all about the research. If there is new material: official correspondence, personal letters, diaries, photographs, etc. that when analysed can give the reader a new insight into this seismic struggle, then of course, it needs to shared.

That nine-year-old boy pouring over his favourite book, was by 2020 a successful publisher and wannabe writer. Having earned my history degree, I had been lucky enough to build a career in the world of publishing nonfiction history titles, working with the likes of Sir Simon Schama, Alex von Tunzelmann, Michael Wood and William Taubman. As with many of my contemporaries in this business, who harbour a passion to write about the subject, I was no different, too. I had published many books on the war on the Eastern Front 1941-45, it’s armies, tactics, leaders and weaponry. Yet, Stalingrad still captivated my imagination, and particularly one legend from it – Pavlov’s House.

For those unaware of the tale, your average Russian citizen today, holds the defence of Pavlov’s House in the winter of 1942 as close to his heart as a patriot from Texas wells up whenever he watches a Hollywood remake of the siege of the Alamo in 1836. Both buildings, from different points in history and geography, represent the same thing – the valour and defiance of an outnumbered, small band of defenders holding out against the might of an army hellbent on their destruction and the conquest of their country. Pavlov’s House has this in spades: a four-storey building, with reinforced cellars, belonging pre-war to the Party’s elite and situated in prime real estate, with views across the majestic River Volga. It was a stone’s throw away from busy thoroughfares, department stores and easy access to the city’s new Train Station Number 1.

By the time of late September 1942, the Sixth Army had battered its way into what was now a ruined city, destroyed from the air by incessant Luftwaffe raids. The defending remains of General Vasily Chuikov’s 62nd Army was hanging onto small strips of embankment by the skin of its teeth, waiting for reinforcements to arrive from the north, cross the Volga under murderous enemy fire and join the fight.

Sergeant Jacob Pavlov of the 7th Company, 3rd Battalion, 42nd Guards Rifle Regiment, 13th Guards Division led by Major General Alexander Rodimtsev was one of a few hundred survivors of the original ten thousand men of his formation that had crossed the Volga into the city a few weeks before. The destruction of Pavlov’s division in the Stalingrad meatgrinder was a metaphor for the Red Army’s colossal losses overall – at least 1.5 million casualties by the finish. By holding a slither of territory on the west of the Volga, Chuikov’s defenders were still tying down German troops who now occupied ninety-five per cent of the twenty-mile-long city. A new Red Army doctrine of an ‘active defence’ meant more offensive action for the 13th Guardsmen in the centre of the city, where the legend of Pavlov now began.

A four-storey building stuck out in the middle of No Man’s Land where Rodimtsev’s division held the line, facing two badly mauled Wehrmacht infantry divisions: the 71st and 305th. The height of the apartment block offered unparalleled views in all directions for at least five miles. Both sides wanted it for obvious strategic reasons. Chuikov’s headquarters had given it the codename of ‘The Lighthouse’. Pavlov was selected to lead a small four-man team into the building. He surprised the German defenders, killed or drove them off, and was then reinforced by his platoon within twenty-four hours. What followed, according to legend, was a brutal siege lasting fifty-eight days, where Pavlov’s small band (whose members happened to come from all fifteen of the Soviet republics) fought off daily air, armoured and infantry attacks. Vastly outnumbered, but imbued with fervent socialist ardour, PPSh-41 submachine guns, bags of grenades and anti-tank rifles, the building was never retaken. When the battle was over, a victorious Vasily Chuikov looked out on the scene around the building, declaring more Germans had died here than had been killed capturing the whole of Paris. A gleeful Soviet propaganda machine churned out this, as well as other legendary stories from the battle, reinforcing the country’s morale and willingness to carry on the fight that was killing their citizens in their millions.

This is the story that fed a nation in the final years of the Great Patriotic War, continued to do so through the decades of the Cold War, and now to Putin’s regime where he links the war in Ukraine to the defence of Stalingrad. Only a few months ago with the country commemorating Stalingrad’s eightieth anniversary, troops dressed in WWII fatigues followed a single T-34/85 trundling ominously across the city’s main square. Enormous banners of legendary heroes from the battle dressed up the arterial transport routes into what is now known as Volgograd as well as office and apartment blocks – one of which was Sergeant Pavlov himself.

Soviet troops

The occupancy and defence of Pavlov’s House did actually take place, but the story bearing its name and propagated to this day reads like a plot of the Seven Samurai. I even managed to buy a second-hand copy of Pavlov’s recounting of it in a Moscow book shop in 2019. This spurred me on to look at the battle of Stalingrad through the prism of this building, and the two opposing formations situated around it, who both fought in the city for five months, and whose survivors still clung to their original buildings. The German 71st Infantry Division led by Major General Alexander von Hartmann, and, Rodimtsev’s 13th Guards Rifle Division. To do this I needed to travel to Germany and Russia to undertake research. One factor against me doing this – the Covid pandemic!

Travelling to Germany was out of the question, so I decided to place adverts in various German newspapers requesting any family veterans of surviving veterans from the 71st Division to contact me. I received over thirty replies and five of the stories went into the final book, the highlight being the complete personal archive of a regimental commander within the division whose memoir had remained hidden with his immediate family for decades: Colonel (later Major General) Friedrich Roske. His revealing recollections he put down on paper, added with sketches of the city during the fighting and letters he had sent home to his wife in Dusseldorf gave me a unique insight from an actual combat commander who would survive the battle, and then serve 12 years in Soviet gulags before returning to West Germany in 1955. By Christmas of the following year, Roske took his own life, for reasons still unknown to his family. But his record of service on the Eastern Front is now part of the Stalingrad story.

For the Soviet side of my research, I was fortunate to be in contact with the Panorama Museum in Volgograd. This museum was established in the 1950s, on the banks of the Volga, scene of Rodimtsev’s division had stormed their way back into the heart of the German-occupied city, and a stone’s throw away from the scene of arguably its most famous fight – Pavlov’s House. Though the museum’s many displays and detailed murals are popular with tourists, this wasn’t what I had come here to see. Showing my pass and walking through a metal barrier past security, I was given access to the nearby building housing an incredible array of artefacts and thousands of files containing eyewitness testimonies, diaries and letters supplied by the veteran survivors themselves across the decades since. It is a treasure trove and would become the core material of my book that told a different story about the famous house less than a hundred meters away.

My contact at the museum, whose name for obvious reasons today I cannot publish, was keen to facilitate my journey which involved supporting my application for an academic travel visa. Through many email conversations he was keen that more western historians look at the museum’s extensive archives and promote true stories of what happened during this titanic struggle. As he said:

We do not need to fall back on the legends of the past, but be proud of what actually happened here.

Pretty much every major unit, military, civilian and political, who served at Stalingrad is represented and from the 13th Guards Rifle Division, I studied over four hundred files across my week-long stay in the museum archives. From ordinary riflemen to young combat leaders, artillerymen, NKVD commissars, medics, naval ratings, and boatmen ferrying the wounded and supplies – I studied many stories. For Pavlov’s House, I ensured I looked at least a dozen testimonies of the unit – the 42nd Rifle Regiment commanded by Colonel I. Elin – where the iconic building’s location was situated. It would tell a completely different story than the one promoted since the winter of 1942 by Soviet propaganda, and which I outline in my book.

My research trip was successful as well as being incredibly enjoyable. I met many ordinary Russian museum academics and local historians during my time in Volgograd. All with a passion for the subject and a desire to promote factual study of the battle. I was even surprised to find there is (or perhaps that is now ‘was’) a group who are desperate to petition the local city government to change the name of Pavlov’s House to the actual commander who led the building’s occupation and defence and has since been lost to history. In the current climate, this campaign will almost certainly fail, but I have tried to bring back to life the real heroes of this famous siege to a wider audience. I hope it succeeds.

Iain MacGregor is the bestselling author of The Lighthouse of Stalingrad: The Hidden Truth at the Centre of WWII’s Greatest Battle.