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On 30 January 1943 Friedrich Paulus was promoted to the rank of Generalfeldmarschall. On the very next day, this freshly minted field marshal did something no German field marshal had ever done before: he surrendered.
Just one year earlier things were very different for the Germans. In January 1942, Paulus was promoted to the rank of general and commander of the German Sixth Army. In this role he led the attack on Stalingrad, his mechanised forces surging down the River Don valley towards the River Volga.
By August, the Germans had reached the city. They had no way of knowing that their advance would mark the furthest extent of German control. From this point, the Soviet steamroller would steadily, mercilessly and irresistibly roll back German conquests.
Stalingrad was one of the most brutal battles in a war of staggering brutality. The ruined city proved a formidable theatre for vicious street fighting. Battles lasting days and weeks were fought for each block and the close quarters rewarded the defenders and their improvised weapons.
By the time the Russian winter fell, the German position was hopeless. The Soviets had executed a brilliant pincer manoeuvre to completely surround the German Sixth Army. Soviet air power had increased and improved, preventing the Luftwaffe from successfully supplying the beleaguered land forces from the air.
By January 1943, the soldiers were slowly starving. Thousands of miles away, German Army headquarters were trying to prevent the army from surrendering. Adolf Hitler sent Paulus a telegram on 22 January rejecting Paulus’s request to be able to surrender and making clear that the army’s orders were to fight “to the last soldier and the last bullet”.
Paulus’s promotion on 30 January was a clear message from Hitler and army headquarters – fight to the death or retain honour by suicide – surrender to the Bolsheviks was not acceptable. Paulus ignored the pressure from the ‘Bavarian corporal’ and surrendered the next day.