What was the Battle of Stalingrad? A masterclass guide with Author Iain MacGregor
Updated: Jun 29
We learned loads and loads reading 'The Lighthouse of Stalingrad' for our recent review. Stalingrad was the setting for one of the most important battles in World War 2, and author Iain MacGregor's account was equal parts fascinating, thrilling, and absolutely terrifying.
We were delighted to have the opportunity to speak to Iain and learn even more about The Battle of Stalingrad, truly our brains are now cram-packed to bursting with knowledge - and so soon will yours!
Here then is our expert guide (with a real life expert!) on why the Battle of Stalingrad is so important to learn about.
Imagining History: Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, Iain. Before we dive into looking at the Battle of Stalingrad in more detail. Could you give our readers a brief overview of your new book, ‘The Lighthouse of Stalingrad’?
Iain MacGregor: My narrative centres on two main stories amid the backdrop of WWII’s and indeed the world’s greatest and bloodiest battle – fought from 23 August 1942 – 31 January 1943. Rather than take a strategic approach as many great scholars such as David M. Glantz have so brilliantly done, I wanted to drill down and focus on the fight for the heart of the city – the modern centre created as a showpiece of the pre-war Soviet state. Though hundreds of thousands of troops would fight for every room, floor, and cellar of each building during the battle, I wanted to showcase the first encounters between the German 71st Infantry Division (the ‘Lucky Division’) and the Red Army’s premier combat unit the 13th Guards Rifle Division.
The ‘Lighthouse’ is the second element of my book. To Russians today its other name is uniquely important – ‘Pavlov’s House’. It was portrayed as the Russian ‘Alamo’ representing the best fighting spirit to defend the city and defeat the German Sixth Army.
Why is Stalingrad considered the most decisive battle of the Second World War? Why is it such an important battle for the budding history student to learn about?
It is seen by a great many military historians and Russians in general as the turning point of the first half of WWII. It is where the German armed forces, until then seen as a serial winning juggernaut of combined arms (aerial assault, armoured thrust, and infantry encirclement). Stalingrad would see this formidable machine stopped and then destroyed. Though it would take the Soviets another two years of bitter fighting to end up in Hitler’s Berlin, it was their victory at Stalingrad that was the first step in this journey. It smashed the aura of German invincibility once and for all.
What made the Lighthouse such an important strategic building in the conflict?
The four-storey building had originally been built to house highly skilled engineers and technicians working in the key industrial factories to the north of the city. Party officials were also given apartments there. It was situated in one of the new modern, tree-lined squares created in the 1930s as part of the city’s facelift. By the time of the fighting, the frontline between the two sides left the building marooned in No Man’s Land. The side that managed to take and hold it would thus be able to have a perfect vantage point to view the battlefield, as well as a jumping-off point to launch an attack. The Red Army gave it the codename of ‘Lighthouse’. The small Soviet garrison that defended it would be supposedly led by Junior Sergeant Jacob Pavlov – hence it was labelled by the Soviet press as ‘Pavlov’s House’.
How did you go about researching your book?
I first travelled to Moscow and then Volgograd (the modern name given to Stalingrad in the 1960s) to visit archives. In Volgograd, their main museum which celebrates/commemorates the battle has an incredible archive of eyewitness testimonies from Red Army veterans that have been donated since the 1950s. It proved a treasure trove of information.
How did you manage to track down and unearth these previously unpublished soldier testimonies?
For the German side, I visited museums and archives, and then placed adverts in German newspapers to make contact with deceased veteran’s families. I managed to collect many valuable testimonies, diaries, letters, and photographs. I was lucky enough to be introduced to the son of one of the main commanders of the German Sixth Army, who had led his regiment from the 71st Infantry Division into Stalingrad on the first day of the battle – and he survived the next five months of fighting. He left behind for his family a personal mini-memoir, as well as sketches, maps, and photographs. I then interviewed some key people whose relatives had been commanders during the battle.
Why are these forgotten stories so important to share with readers?
They are vitally important as they tell a new side of what is a very familiar story. Like many major historical events, as time goes by, the facts are updated and re-assessed from what new material we uncover. This was always my intention. I wanted to look at the battle in a new way, through the eyes of eyewitnesses the world has not yet heard from. For me, it now gives greater relevance to what the battle means to Russians today, which as we see today, when in the wrong hands can subvert history and give the pretext for further bloodshed in our own time.
What do you hope readers will have learned, understood, or discovered, once they’ve finished ‘The Lighthouse of Stalingrad’?
That the recording of and telling of history is fluid and eventually the truth will be uncovered and due credit given. Equally, how the myths and legends of this battle are so ingrained in the Russian psyche that they have not lost their ability to rally a nation for new fights today. I hope my book will give the reader an understanding of how on the one hand Soviet propaganda was vital to defend a city and so save a country, but on the other hand, would then be used to propagate a new campaign that left in its wake many unheralded stories that the system hoped might never see the light of day. I would argue my book changes that.
The Lighthouse of Stalingrad: The Hidden Truth at the Centre of WWII’s Greatest Battle by Iain MacGregor is available from 28 July (£25, Constable).