Yeltsin invokes the spirit of Stalingrad: Christopher Bellamy, Defence Correspondent, reflects on the turning point of the Second World War

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THE MOST terrible but ultimately decisive battle of the Second World War, which cost two million lives, ended 50 years ago today. Yesterday the Russian President, Boris Yeltsin, called on the spirit of Stalingrad to help carry Russia through its present hardships. But times have changed. Next week, the city's tractor factory - one of the key objectives in the battle for Stalingrad, now Volgograd, the sprawling city on the Volga - is to be privatised, the first such plant to be sold off.

As the Russians honour the dead on both sides today, Russian military historians have revealed that more Soviet troops died than German - 1.1 million to 800,000, and that 13,500 of the Soviet troops were executed for cowardice, failure or suspected disloyalty. The Battle of Stalingrad was the real turning-point of the war. Even Winston Churchill - no great admirer of the Russians - later admitted that it was 'Russian valour and generalship' which 'tore out the guts' of the Nazi war machine.

Yesterday Russian and German veterans who fought at Stalingrad traded war memories and embraced. 'Everybody has hugged me. Nobody has cursed us for being Germans. It's unforgettable,' said Gerhard Dengler, a professor of international relations from Berlin who attended the opening of a new exhibition at the Stalingrad museum.

As a 20-year-old artillery officer, he was one of 91,000 Germans alive when the last unit surrendered, trapped in the giant pincer movement. Six thousand survived years in Soviet prison camps. About 1,000 are still alive.

The bones of some of the two million dead and their metal equipment, ploughed into the ground, still surface around Volgograd. The imaginative generalship to which Churchill referred locked the Germans in a vice before the Red Army attacked far behind, into their exposed flanks, trapping more than 200,000 of them. It was a classic encirclement operation, which General Norman Schwarzkopf had in mind nearly 50 years later as he unleashed Operation Desert Storm in the Gulf.

Mr Yeltsin said yesterday that 'at the time final victory seemed very, very far away. We find ourselves today at a similar turning- point, a difficult moment in Russian history.'

'Stalingrad is a convincing testament that however difficult it might be, our people can find the strength and the resolution to overcome harsh ordeals together,' he continued. 'The difficulties, the deprivations will be overcome and we will triumph because behind us is Stalingrad]'

The recent revelations about casualties are part of a determined Russian attempt to come to terms with a shrouded past. For years, a figure of 20 million Soviet dead, plucked from the air by a Soviet general, was accepted as the official death-toll for the Soviet-German war. The real figure was probably at least double. The losses in the disastrous opening battles, and at better-documented battles such as Stalingrad, were all underestimated.

Sergei Mikhalyov, of the Russian Institute for Military History, recently said Germany lost 800,000 troops in the battle of Stalingrad. To put that into context, about 400,000 British soldiers died in the six years of the Second World War.

Stalingrad will endure as a byword for extreme courage, determination and endurance. The Second World War's equivalent of the battle of Verdun in 1916, the story of Stalingrad is a catalogue of grim superlatives. German troops closed on the sprawling city at the end of August 1942. The Red Army fought street by street and house by house, drawing the dangerously over-extended Sixth Army into the burning city.

Meanwhile, the Red Army prepared an encirclement breathtaking in its scope and sweep. Launched on 19 November, 1942, Operation Uranus involved more than a million Soviet soldiers, 13,000 guns, 894 tanks and 1,150 aircraft, slicing from north and east far behind the German troops still locked into Stalingrad itself.

Hermann Goering boasted that he could supply the encircled pocket by air, but weather and the Red Army's determined attacks frustrated this hope. Encircled, bombarded, starved and out of ammunition, the Sixth Army was split into two groups. The southern, with their commander, Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus, surrendered on 31 January: the northern on 2 February.

Stalingrad, a city on the edge of Asia, was founded in 1589 as Tsaritsyn. Stalin's association with the city went back to the Civil War, when he claimed to have played a key role in its defence in 1918-19. The city was a crucial industrial and communications centre, dominating the approaches to the Caucasus and beyond, to the oil-fields of Azerbaijan. It also bore Stalin's name. It was strategically important and also deeply symbolic for Stalin and Hitler. Stalin ordered 'not a step back'. When the tables turned, Hitler forbade Paulus to surrender. When he ran out of ammunition, he had no choice.

(Photograph omitted)