Winning the Battle of Stalingrad with Biological Warfare

In his excellent Stalingrad book, Antony Beevor notes that the German army suffered an unusually high loss of manpower during the battle due to illnesses, with many soldiers incapacitated and cramming field hospitals for days on end. It makes sense to explain that away as a result of the awful conditions in which the life-or-death clash of the 20th century was fought. But there may be other explanations: for example, the release of biological agents by a desperate Red Army.

Greg Cochran has been writing about this in his blog for a while, and it makes sense: one doesn’t need to have played a whole lot of wargames about the Stalingrad battle and the wider Fall Blau campaign in general, to understand that, if one was to release biological agents to make sure one wouldn’t lose a given battle, regardless of international law, decency or consequences, Stalingrad was the place.

The city, now called Volgograd, lies at the very end of European Russia. There is pretty much nothing behind, in particular in logistic terms. With the Germans in control of Stalingrad, Moscow would have been effectively cut from its largest supply of oil, the Caucasus, and Fall Blau would have had serious chances of succeeding in its ultimate goal: that of taking Baku and get all that precious black oil for the Nazi empire. Stalin was back against the wall on this one.

If the objection is: surely, Stalin would have never done that, allow me to laugh it off and point you in the direction of any biography of the man. Stalin did enthusiastically support the use of poison gas against anti-Communists forces during the Tambov rebellion of 1921, because the rebels had no way to retaliate in kind.

If the objection is: surely nobody in the Allies camp would have done that, perhaps out of fear of the Germans going chemical on them, then one only needs to have a look at “Human Smoke,” a 2008 book in which Nicholson Baker reviews several of the less appealing features of the Allies’ war effort.

As Baker shows, Aylmer Haldane, UK commander of troops in Iraq in the 1920s, used mustard gas extensively with the full support of Winston Churchill. On September 2, 1940, the New York Times published a story called  “Woods Are Bombed” depicting a devastating British air attack with incendiary bombs on the famous Black Forest, east of Baden, the dense woods of the Oberharz Mountains, the forest district of Grunewald, on the outskirts of Berlin, and forests in Thuringia. The British used special phosphorus cards for that (Note: the German Blitz against Britain started Sep 7 that year). Use against enemy soldiers, or civilians? Churchill was fully prepared to unleash chemical weapons if and when the Germans invaded Britain; or even before.

The Germans, interestingly, did refuse to use their chemical stockpile, even when the enemy was already in Berlin. Which means maybe Stalin wasn’t ready to go that far either.

So, tularensis may have been the thing, Cochran says. There is no evidence but there’s a lot of hearsay and speculation, including some coming from Soviet scientists, Wikipedia informs me, unreliably. So this, of course, may be yet another conspiracy theory:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) regard F. tularensis as a viable biological warfare agent, and it has been included in the biological warfare programs of the United States, Soviet Union and Japan at various times.[35] A former Soviet biological weapons scientist, Kanatjan Alibekov, has alleged that an outbreak of tularemia among German soldiers shortly before the siege of Stalingrad was due to the release of F. tularensis by Soviet forces. Others who have studied the pathogen “propose that an outbreak resulting from natural causes is more likely”.[36][37] In the US, practical research into using rabbit fever as a biological warfare agent took place in 1954 at Pine Bluff Arsenal, Arkansas, an extension of the Camp Detrick program.[38] It was viewed as an attractive agent because:

it is easy to aerosolize
it is highly infective; between 10 and 50 bacteria are sufficient to infect victims
it is nonpersistent and easy to decontaminate (unlike anthrax)
it is highly incapacitating to infected persons
it has comparatively low lethality, which is useful where enemy soldiers are in proximity to noncombatants, e.g. civilians
The Schu S4 strain was standardized as “Agent UL” for use in the United States M143 bursting spherical bomblet. It was a lethal biological warfare agent with an anticipated fatality rate of 40 – 60%. The rate-of-action was around three days, with a duration-of-action of one to three weeks (treated) and two to three months (untreated), with frequent relapses. UL was streptomycin resistant. The aerobiological stability of UL was a major concern, being sensitive to sunlight, and losing virulence over time after release. When the 425 strain was standardized as “agent JT” (an incapacitant rather than lethal agent), the Schu S4 strain’s symbol was changed again to SR.[citation needed]

Both wet and dry types of F. tularensis (identified by the codes TT and ZZ) were examined during the “Red Cloud” tests, which took place from November 1966 to February 1967 in the Tanana Valley, Alaska.[39]

No vaccine is available to the general public.[40] The best way to prevent tularemia infection is to wear rubber gloves when handling or skinning wild lagomorphs and rodents, avoid ingesting uncooked wild game and untreated water sources, wear long-sleeved clothes, and use an insect repellent to prevent tick bites.[41]


About David Roman

Communicator. I tweet @dromanber.
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