Defending the Gates: Vasily Zaitsev

The 2001 Movie Enemy at the Gates brought a Russian sniper into the limelight once again- Vasily Zaitsev. Centered around the 1942 Battle of Stalingrad, Zaitsev, played by Jude Law, dukes it out with German sniper Erwin Konig. While the movie is not entirely realistic, the two really did exist. So who was Vasily Zaitsev and why is he so important?

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Vasily Zaitsev

Born in Yeleninka, a small town about an hour away from Magnitogorsk, Vasily Gergorovich Zaitsev was a natural hunter. His peasant origins made him an easy target for the Soviet military, who traditionally drew its forces from the massive peasant population. Zaitsev traveled to Magnitogorsk to study at a technical school. Eventually, he enlisted in the Russian Navy and became a bookkeeper in the Far East Fleet.

Vasily Zaitsev volunteered to join the 284th Rifle Division in the Soviet Army. The Division recruited most of its troops from Siberia and Eastern Russia in order to transfer more experienced troops from the quiet Manchurian Front to the German Invasion. Zaitsev’s sharpshooting ability was quickly noted, and he was trained as a sniper. He relied on a simple 1891 Mosin-Nagant Rifle, a veteran of the First World War. The Russian is most revered for his actions at the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942, in which he killed 225 soldiers & officers as well as 11 snipers. Zaitsev’s heroics made him a morale boost for the Soviets and a threat to the Germans. When Erwin Konig, a renowned German sniper, was sent to deal with him, Zaitsev managed to kill him on Mamaev Hill. Working with Nikolai Kulikov, the sniper developed his own tactics and sniper school during the battle. Firstly, Zaitsev never fired from the same spot. Movement was key in order to prevent any enemies from locking onto a particular position. “Sixes” was another of Zaitsev’s tactics. Three teams of 2 men would be positioned in order to cover a large area to maximize sight and damage. Zaitsev trained other snipers such as Tania Chernova, who he shared a relationship with.

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Zaitsev’s Mosin-Nagant Rifle

In January 1943, Zaitsev was hit by a mortar round and nearly blinded. He was immediately taken to a hospital where he slowly recovered. On February 22, he was awarded Hero of the Soviet Union. Zaitsev returned to combat later in the war, ending it in 1945 as a captain. Chernova thought Zaitsev was dead until 1969, when she finally learned he was alive and married.

Vasily Zaitsev is immortalized in William Craig’s book, Enemy at the Gates, and in the 2001 film of the same name as well as War of the Rats by David L. Robbins. Zaitsev died in December 1991, and was initially buried in Kiev before being moved to Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad). He was buried with full military honours.

Gebirgsjäger: The Alpine Warriors of the German Army

The Gebirgsjäger were the alpine troops of the German army during the Second World War, serving in many regions throughout the war. Using pack animals, these elite troops of the German army were tasked to defending and attacking mountainous areas where many regular troops would be unable to fight in. After the Anschluss, the German annexation of Austria, the Gebirgsjäger were formed, inspired by the Tyrolean Jägers of the Austro-Hungarian Army in the First World War.

The Gebirgsjäger wore a patch with an edelweiss depicted.The edelweiss is a flower found normally in alpine conditions and high altitudes. They wore the regular feldgrau uniform, but with hiking boots, and sometimes skis or snowshoes. They also wore a Bergmutze, similar to the cap of Austrian troops in the First World War. The cap could be buttoned under the chin to provide warmth in freezing temperatures. As well as their specific uniform, Gebirgsjäger carried a special carbine called the G33/40, produced in Czechoslovakia. The steel plate at the bottom was used to crunch into ice to give a soldier a stabilizer while scaling rocks and mountains. A small number were produced, but they were perfect for mountain warfare. Many Gebirgsjäger used Russian weapons because they were better designed for cold weather.

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Gebirgsjäger in the Russian mountains

With the German Blitzkrieg into Poland and Norway, many Gebirgsjäger were placed in Army Group South. The Blitzkrieg smashed through Poland towards Russia, and by 1941, Operation Barbarossa was in full swing. The Gebirgsjager fought through the mountainous country of Ukraine. The 1st Mountain Division managed to capture the city of Lviv (then Lvov). They crashed through the Stalin Line and into the Caucasus. The Gebirgsjäger lifted a German flag on top of Mount Elbrus. The Gebirgsjäger also fought ferociously in Hungary as well as Northern Greece.

In 1942, Operation Edelweiss was launched in an attempt to capture oil fields in the Caucasus. Spearheaded by Gebirgsjäger units, the Germans swept through Baku and along the Volga River. The Gebirgsjäger assaulted the western slopes of Mt. Elbrus along with Romanian Mountain Troops. They were held by the Soviet rear guard, eventually capturing the mountains with some difficulty. They attempted to reach the coast near Sukhumi in order to outflank Soviet positions, but poor weather and stiff resistance held their advance. Over the operation, the Germans took some 10,000 casualties, but managed to squeeze their way towards Stalingrad.

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Gebirgsjäger cap badge

A recurring theme for mountain troops was heavy casualties with success. The inexhaustible number of Soviet troops managed to hold the alpine troops in battle, but the Gebirgsjäger deserve credit for their abilities and quality throughout the Second World War.