Vasilii Zaitsev and the sniper duel of Stalingrad: Reads More like a Legend
The blind poet Homer eulogised the duel between the Greek warrior Achilles and the Trojan prince Hector during the siege of Troy. Similarly many other duels have got the attention of men since time immemorial. The battle of skill between the warrior Saladin and King Richard also comes to mind. Over the centuries duels went out of fashion and died down by the end of the 19th century.
A Duel in the 20th Century
A duel in the 20th century looks out of place. This was so because duels went out of fashion in the modern age. Despite this the Second World War saw a sniper duel between a Russian rifleman Vasilii Zaitsev and a German officer. The German officer was equally brave and determined and probably was Major Heinz König. The setting for this epic battle that lasted 4 days was the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942-43.
The Battle of Stalingrad is one of the most important battles of the Second World War. It was a do or die battle and the Russians threw everything they had in this battle, which became a matter of prestige for both Stalin and Hitler. The Russians had coined a slogan ”There is no land beyond the Volga for us” , as they steeled themselves against the Germans.
Vasilii Zaitsev who had made a name for himself as a sniper was transferred to Stalingrad. The Russian military leadership gave Vasilii a one point agenda to use his skill as a sniper to kill as many German Army officers as possible. German officers were high value targets for the Soviet Army as it fought a life and death battle with the Wehermacht.
Zaitsev obediently moved to Stalingrad and set about his task in earnest. He moved in the bombed out city with his rifle picking up German officers with deadly accurate fire. As per figures available now, Zaitsev killed 242 Germans during a period of 2 months (October-November 1942). These killings spread panic in the German ranks and they wondered who the unknown Russian sniper was and how he could be eliminated.
The Entry of Major Heinz
The matter was considered at the German headquarters and Major Heinz König of the German sniper school was ordered to proceed to Stalingrad. His task was clearly delineated. He was to eliminate the Russian sharpshooter in the quickest possible time.
Major König landed in Stalingrad and as a dedicated soldier he got ready for his task. He accordingly made plans to kill Vasilii. Russian intelligence was aware of the arrival of the German ace from Berlin and Zaytse was warned to be ready to face the German sniper
The Duel in Stalingrad
Thus was launched a duel between two sharp shooters, one a Russian and the other a German. Zaitsev was advised to formulate his plans carefully as Major König was the best German sniper as he was from the Sniper Training School.
Both the adversaries tracked each other as they played a cat and mouse game. Major König drew first blood and with his unerring aim shot dead two close companions of Vasily. He assumed that he had killed Vasilii Zaitsev and revealed himself by coming out of his lair for a smoke. This was a fatal mistake as Vasily Zaytse shot him in a split second. It was a decisive victory.
Earlier to his death Major Konig had hanged a young Russian lad who had been acting as a courier and spy for the Russians.
Fact or Fiction
Many Germans after the war mentioned that the duel was fiction. But the German archives do mention another name as a sharp shooter. There could be a mix up of names, but evidence certainly points to a German sniper coming to Stalingrad. Also the telescope of Major Konig’s rifle is there for all to see, as it is preserved as an exhibit at the Armed Forces Museum in Moscow.
Vasilii Zaitsev himself authored a book after the war and died in 1991. He was re- buried in Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad). Colonel Donald Paquette of the US Sniper School attended the reburial and laid a wreath as a sign of respect to the legendary sniper in 2006.
This episode has been fictionalised by William Craig in his book ’Enemy at the Gates’. An excellent movie was also screened based on the book.