Famous WW II sniper battle is a myth?

Seeing the tv ads for the new flick ‘Enemy at the gates’ inspired me to do a little web-digging on the famous Vassili Zaitsev and his German opponent Konig (or is it König or Königs or Könning or Könings or even Thorvald or Thorwald?) and their sniper vs. sniper duel during the battle of Stalingrad.

The name problem just the begining of the confusion. Apparently there are plenty of people out there who say this classic man-to-man battle never even took place.

A quick Google search will yield lots of hits like this: http://www.operation-flashpoint.net/sniperhistory.htm#Zaitsev

So who’s got The Straight Dope on this story?

The History Channel presented it as true. Of course, The History Channel is not exactly rigorous in its quest for accuracy.

From what I remember reading as a teenager, and from this website: The Red Army Snipers, I would say that the character of the russian sniper (Vasily Zaitsev) in the movie is “real”, the character of the german sniper is drawn from more than one real-life person but principally from SS Colonel Heinz Thorwald, and the movie will be as close to the facts as is customary with any big-budget motion picture.

I don’t know anything about this story. But the link you posted described his opponent as an SS colonel. Don’t colonels have other things to do besides go sniping, like running regiments or brigades?

…we now return to your question already in progress.

The first time I saw a reference to the story was in a book called One Shot, One Kill, by Charles W. Sasser. The book inspired a pseudo-biographical (I am told) film about Marine Sniper Carlos Hathcock starring Tom Berringer.

The book is mighty thin on sources. I do not recall if the author interviewed any of the participants or not. (Most of the writing on Hathcock comes from personal interviews.)

But that’s the rub. If the story is to be believed at all, then you have to agree that that particular section of Stalingrad was vacated by both sides, leaving only four participants–the two snipers and their spotters–and three-at-most survivors. One bought it right there, and there was a lot of war to fight after that. German survivors of Stalingrad–and the imprisonment afterward–were mighty few and far between.

That’s all I can offer right now. I’ll start digging through my “too bad for Goodwill” pile of books.

I don’t know wevets, I’m not a military expert. In any case you’ll see that the site to which I provided a link relates the Zaitsev-Thorwald duel but also mentions that there seems to be no historical record of SS Colonel Thorwald in German archives.

However, having read a fictionalized and stirring account of the duel in a WWII book as a teenager, I still hope that it is true and that no one will come and shatter another of my romantic illusions and disprove a story that I repeated to several people when I was younger.

Hey Johnny LA, What made you say: “The History Channel is not exactly rigorous in its quest for accuracy.”

What isn’t accurate?

IIRC (from the History Channel), the German colonel was the officer in charge of training all the snipers in the German army. He was sent to Russia explicitly to take out Zaitsev, who had by that time built up quite a reputation.

My memory’s a little faulty, and I don’t have my references at hand… but I’ve read One Shot One Kill as well as Enemy at the Gates (the nonfiction history of Stalingrad from which the upcoming movie borrows its title) and some other material, and I’m familiar with this event.

Russian sniper Zaitsev is easily verifiable; he was a real guy. His German counterpart, however, is more difficult to nail down. He shows up in Russian records, usually under the name of Konigs, but there’s no corresponding verification on the German side. Zaitsev’s duel was major fodder for Russian propaganda publication; political officers were all over Stalingrad sending edited updates back home. (IIRC, a young Nikita Khrushchev was one of them.)

Based on what I’ve read, my guess is as follows:

Zaitsev and his sniper corps were a major pain in the ass for the Germans. While they never totaled a body count to compare with, say, a couple of hours of artillery fire, it’s very demoralizing to have your lieutenant’s head explode while you’re drinking coffee in a supposedly safe spot. Zaitsev was lauded as a hero in Russian publications, so the Germans decided they’d have to take him out simply for morale purposes.

That much is verified; here’s where the WAG begins.

The Germans, targeting him specifically, brought in more than one would-be assassin. Zaitsev evaded them all, and probably killed more than one. (He survived the war.) The Germans, not wanting to be embarrassed, never published anything about it. The Russians, wanting to simply and streamline the story, combined the various German snipers into one mythical figure, essentially manufacturing the one-on-one aspect out of similar but more mundane real-life events; this kind of archetypal battle would obviously play better in the newspapers back home.

So what you end up with is conflicting stories based on political need: The Russians describe a single supersniper who was actually a composite, and the Germans avoid talking about it. The single supersniper can’t be verified in the German records because he doesn’t exist, but the Russian records must have been based on something. Hence my conclusion that the true story of the “duel,” inasmuch as it can ever be known for certain, probably lies somewhere between the apparently irreconcilable alternatives.

Again, I stress this is just my WAG, based on everything I’ve read. I haven’t seen this hypothesis advanced by any historian (or rejected, either, FWIW), but it seems reasonable to me. Take it as you will…

I also wish to know if there are some facts to back up this statement.

Johnny ?

Just a word on the scope here. I don’t know how Stalingrad was laid out before its destruction, but a couple of blocks in a demolished city can cover a lot of distance, particularly rubble-filled and horizontally. The undulations of the terrain, combined with the elevation of remaining structures, are perfectly suited for the work of a sniper. Soldiers on the ground could easily–and no doubt did–spend entire nights and possibly days within a few dozen yards of each other, but snipers and artillery observers viewing from above could rain down seemingly random death upon those who coalesced at any time. A good sniper, with a good scope, gun, elevation and from a good series of vantage points could make a whole area untenable, a few well-placed shots at a time. Remember Charles Whitman? A city the size of Stalingrad could easily be composed of a thousand blocks. Vacating a four-by-four or even larger grid the size of the square the battle supposedly took place in could easily be ordered verbally on a level not recorded in reports.

And with Uncle Joe ready to put anyone in front of a firing squad, what Soviet officer is going to admit that a single man held up a company, a battalion, or larger unit? Not one who wants to stay unperforated. So the lack of “faithful reports” doesn’t suprise me at all.

(Aside: Good snipers know to wait for the leaders to show themselves. Ever see those shots of George Patton dressed like a private with no insignia? That cocksure bastard wouldn’t have done that if he weren’t afraid of snipers. He’s the guy who insisted that men go into battle wearing ties.)

The practice of sending a sniper to hunt a sniper is a fairly sound and well-practiced one in modern warfare. They are often habitual, but meticulous, men who follow patterns of sorts, not unlike serial killers. Denis Winter implies that schitzophrenics (who might have been people of any number of mental illnesses or neuroses) were sought out by the B.E.F. as snipers in the Great War, perhaps because they didn’t crack up as quickly as “sane” men. What better way to track an iceblood than to sic another on him? It worked for Thomas Harris.

So I’m saying that the story is plausible, but not verified in my mind. My copy of the book I read seems to be long gone, so until someone can provide some references to primary sources, I remain on the fence.

I’m with you. That is such a great story, it should be true even if it isn’t.

Which, unfortunately, is a hallmark of urban legend. But I’m still hoping.

Hmm… this reminds me of a recent film I saw about a similar sniper duel in Yugoslavia. Darn it, I can’t remember the name of the film. Anyway, two former rifle marksmen from the Yugoslavian Olympic team are on separate sides of the war. One becomes a sniper, the other swears never to touch his gun again. The pacifist eventually recognizes the bullets that a sniper used to kill his child, they came from the same Olympic class rifle he also owns. So he goes on a sniper hunt, to kill his former teammate. A chilling movie, and supposedly 100% true…

Chas, I was reminded of the same movie. It had some powerful moments. According to my search the title was “shot through the heart”. Though this doesn’t sound at all familiar to me the story line was unmistakable.

I don’t recall anything specific on their programs, but there have been times when I heard them say something and then said, “Huh?”

I’m afraid that at this pre-caffeine moment, I can only remember one specific time they passed on information that has long been debunked as an Urban Legend: The “Ring Around the Rosie” segment on one of their little “filler” segments. They said that it had to do with the Plague. Snopes (BTW, I also have some accuracy issues there too) provides cites and logical arguments to the contrary. THC showed another one of those segments about a different topic (sorry, I don’t remember) and I thought, “Not quite.”

Now, THC does have a lot of good, accurate programming. But IMO they are in the business of entertainment. Some of what they show is outdated. While statements made in an outdated segment were true at the time, they may be false when new information is discovered. I’m not suggesting that THC should re-shoot someone else’s work, but I think they should provide the updated information at the end of the show more often than they do.

When I read this thread I thought, “Hey, I recently saw a documentary about this. Of course it happened!” But since THC has shown things that I doubt (again, sorry for the lack of cites), I’m not sure.

Well, there is a book out about it. Titled War of the Rats It was based on the story of the Stalingrad Snipers. IIRC the author gave some good historical information about this and added a fictional flair (I do remember the German spotter was a composite of different german soldiers.)
I cannot recall the author and do not have time to track the book down here at the house. I can tell you it was a great read about Stalingrad snipers and this 1 on 1 dual.
The author was pretty straight forward in regards as to what in his book was fiction that he created and what he found to be historical.
If anything find the book and read it. I read it and believed it would make a great movie.

there be my 2 cents!


They way I look at it is this.

We have two sources of information on the duel.

One of them is Nazi Germany and the other one is Communist Russia niether one of them is noted for their truth teling.

But I have seen the upcoming movie and I liked it.

I second the recommendation for TWotR. Just pulled it up easily on Amazon. It is presented as a novel, but I do not recall the extent to which certain individuals may or may not represent composites. A great read.

Oh yeah, I read War of the Rats also. In comparing it to the known historical material I’ve seen, I wouldn’t put a lot of stock in it. The author (David Robbins, IIRC) has certainly done his homework in terms of the layout, the strategy, the shifting lines, etc., and does an excellent job of capturing the grimness, cold, and grit of the battle, but beyond that, I’d treat it as fiction. The extensive backstory he gives the German sniper – backstory no historian has been able to uncover – is proof enough.

I still think what we have is a fiction that’s been spun from a similar but less mythic reality for political purposes.

‘Noble sniper’ Zaitsev of 284th Rifle Division (62nd Army) was the second-best sniper in the Stalingrad campaign, with 149 claimed kills (the top sniper was known only as ‘Zikan’ and scored 224). Propaganda about their successes helped drive a rush of applications for the new art of ‘sniperism’, and Zaitsev became a tutor for new recruit snipers (‘zaichata’). He was also sent to arrange ‘conferences’ to spread ‘sniperism’ to other parts of the front.

Tactics used included digging a network of trenches with fake positions from which pulley-operated white flags could be raised to encourage Germans out (Sniper Kovbasa, 64th Army). Sniper Danielov used scarecrows with salvaged Red Army equipment to lure out inexperienced German soldiers. ‘Noble sniper’ Ilin, credited with 185 kills, used to hide in a length of pipe.

As for the truth of the story…

(All information from Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad, pretty much the definitive work about the campaign)