4 September 2023
by Sara Jolly
Sara Jolly reviews The Lighthouse of Stalingrad: The Hidden Truth at the Centre of WWII’s Greatest Battle by Iain MacGregor [Paperback / ISBN-13: 9781472135209], Constable, London, 2022
Unexpectedly, Iain MacGregor begins his book not in 1942, when Hitler’s forces began their offensive in southern Russia, but in 1982, with the burial of Vasily Chuikov, the commander of the 62nd Army that had defeated the Germans at Stalingrad forty years earlier.
The highly decorated Chuikov was buried with full military honours, not in the Kremlin walls in Red Square, as is the custom for distinguished generals, but almost a thousand kilometres south of the capital, in the memorial complex built on Mamayev Kurgan, Height 102, which had been one of Chuikov’s most famous command posts during the battle for Stalingrad. As MacGregor movingly puts it, ‘Now his last wish had been granted: to be buried with his men on Height 102, the commander of the old 62nd Army to lie forever with his troops.’
After this prologue, which is based on a detailed interview with Chuikov’s grandson, we move to present day Volgograd where the author is on a week’s visit, researching the oral testimonies of Red Army survivors of the battle. These recordings are archived in the Panorama Museum, which is devoted to preserving the memory of the great battle which was a crucial turning point in World War II.
As he walks through the centre of the town, MacGregor is reminded at every turn that this was once a major battlefield. The embankment wall towering above the Volga still boasts the stark message, daubed in tar in 1943 by a Red Army guardsman : ‘Here they stood to death, Rodimtsev’s Guardsmen, having defended, they conquered death!’
But the focus of his exploration of the city is the building at 61 Penzenskaya Street (now 39 Sovetskaya Street), a building which he says ‘has held my imagination since as a boy I read of the ferocious battle fought here in the Second World War.’ It has been rebuilt as an ‘ordinary, though quite smart, residential building designed in the style of the city’s pre-war architecture,’ but hugging the western gable of the new, yellow-painted building is a jagged memorial built of battered, red bricks from the ruins of the destroyed house, with an inscription which translates as ‘In this building fused together heroic feats of warfare and labour.’
At the time of the battle, this apartment block quickly became known in the press as Pavlov’s House, in honour of the junior sergeant who led a five-man ‘storm group’ to clear the property of Germans, occupy it themselves and turn it into a mini fortress. Such is the fame of this building and its occupants that there is even a ‘Pavlov’s House’ game in the Playstation franchise, Call of Duty. MacGregor wryly notes that his own teenage son is among the next generation who are actually learning what he calls an erroneous version of the battle’s story via this popular video game.
It is MacGregor’s contention that there was a deliberate and skilful mythologizing of this building and the events that took place there, for understandable propaganda purposes. His re-evaluation of the story of ‘Pavlov’s’ House (the building was actually code-named ‘the lighthouse’) is one of the new elements MacGregor brings to his analysis of the Battle of Stalingrad, a subject which has already been written about by many western authors and military historians, perhaps most notably by Antony Beevor.
Another fresh aspect of MacGregor’s book is the bringing of ‘new voices to the established storyline.’ In addition to interviewing Chuikov’s grandson, he also talks to the son of Junior Sergeant Pavlov and studies the oral and written testimonies of many participants in the battle during research trips to Volgograd, Moscow and Berlin.
In Berlin he discovers an unpublished, handwritten memoir by Major General Friedrich Roske, who ‘was an eye witness to some of the key moments across five months of battle in the centre of the city’ and who acted as confidant to General Paulus during the final days before the Germans surrendered. The generous quotes from this and other memoirs add greatly to the intimacy and humanity of this account, which might otherwise overwhelm the reader with its mind-numbing statistics on the colossal loss of life and materiel on both sides.
MacGregor spends the opening chapters taking the reader through the first year of the war – Germany’s early successes, and Hitler’s decision to attack the south, to give him access to Ukrainian wheat, oil in the Caucasus and a strategic communications hub at Stalingrad, a large, modern, highly industrialised city on the banks of the vast Volga river.
But the heart of his book is devoted to a vivid and detailed account of the 200 days of battle for the city of Stalingrad; a battle of ferocious hand-to-hand street fighting which he characterises as ‘success measured in metres and bodies.’
When the Germans partially occupy the city, the first troops to reach the Volga triumphantly fill a little bottle with river water to take back to their commanders as a symbolic trophy.
Meanwhile, on the east bank of the Volga, General Chuikov is appointed Commander of the 62nd Army, tasked by General Yeromenko the Commander for the Stalingrad Front, and Nikita Khruschev, the Military Commissar for the Stalingrad Front, to hold Stalingrad at all costs. Chuikov vows,‘We will hold the city or die there.’ That evening he crosses the Volga to enter the occupied city, and in MacGregor’s lively description, ‘scurried, ducked, and drove rapidly away from German artillery and mortar fire.’ He is taken to his command post on the Mamayev Kurgan. ‘Stopping the car, we climbed the kurgan on foot, hanging on to bushes and some kind of thorn trees. Finally, we heard the long-awaited cry of the sentry. “Halt! Who goes there?” The command post. A gully, clods of freshly dug earth, dugouts.’
MacGregor closely follows the changing fortunes of Chuikov and his colleague Major General Rodimtsev, commander of the elite 13th Guards Rifle Division, and on the German side, General Paulus, the Commander of the Sixth Army and Lieutenant Colonel Friedrich Roske, the Commander of Infantry Regiment 194, during the months of battle, which started with the ferocious carpet bombing of Stalingrad by the Luftwaffe and ended with the surrender of Paulus, by now promoted to Field Marshal, and his Sixth Army.
The victory at Stalingrad still takes pride of place in Russians’ memory of their history, and Putin has always taken every opportunity to bask in the reflected glow of that extraordinary feat of courage and patriotism, visiting the city many times.
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine occurred when this absorbing book was already being edited, but MacGregor has managed to interpolate a couple of relevant comments , noting tartly, for example, that Putin ‘seeks to use such history as a pretext to invade a sovereign nation at the time of this book’s completion’ and that while ‘the losses and suffering [in the battle of Stalingrad] are unimaginable for today’s history students to contemplate …the devastation inflicted upon the Ukrainian cities of Kharkiv and Mariupol in 2022 gives one an idea.’