World War II: Siege Of Leningrad
On the 22nd June 1941, German forces surged across the Soviet border in Operation Barbarossa. The Wehrmacht was split into three major formations- Army Groups North, Centre and South- each with its own objectives. Army Group North under the command of Field Marshal Wilhelm von Leeb, had Leningrad as its goal, a large urban zone of a million souls located on the Gulf of Finland. Von Leeb’s forces, as with the other elements of Barbarossa, made vigorous progress, pushing on through the Baltic States and breaking the Luga River just 75 miles south of Leningrad on the 9th August.
The Advance On Leningrad
Saved For A Siege
The fate of the city seemed assured, not least because German-allied Finnish forces were fighting down from the north between Lake Ladoga and the sea. Important road and rail links into Leningrad fell to the Germans one by one- Novgorod on the 16th August, Chudovo on the 20th- and by the 1st September the German artillery shells were dropping into the city itself. The inhabitants of Leningrad prepared themselves for a battle of survival. From the 9th September, the esteemed Soviet General Georgi Zhukov was in the city, transforming it from a beautiful northern city into a massive fortress ringed by defensive positions, pillboxes and trenches. Yet the direct German assault on Leningrad did not come. On the 6th September, Hitler switched the priority of Barbarossa to objectives further south and drew off much of von Leeb’s panzer strength to support the offensive. Therefore Leningrad would have to be defeated by siege and bombardment.
Throughout September and October, the strategic situation for Leningrad worsened considerably. The major railway stations at Schlisselburg and Mga to the east fell into German hands, and in October von Leeb began an offensive towards the vital railway centre at Tikhvin, which fell on the 8th November. A ring of steel was closing around Leningrad, but the fighting was far from easy for the Germans. The offensive had grossly overstretched an already weakened Army Group North and it faced pressing resistance from the armies of Volkhov Front commanded by General Kirill Meretskov.
By the 10th December 1941, Tikhvin was back in Soviet hands following a huge but crudely handled Red Army offensive and by early January the Germans were forced to re-establish their frontiers further west. Only the narrowest of supply corridors, however, remained for Leningrad’s already desperate people.
Starvation And Resistance
Starvation And Resistance
As the German and Soviet armies outside Leningrad battled for dominance, a horrifying battle against starvation was under way within the city itself. In an especially bitter winter, the citizens of Leningrad were beginning to starve in their thousands, their predicament worsened by a collapse in fuel supplies for warmth.
By the end of November people were trying to survive on a daily ration of less than 9 ounces of bread. Bodies littered every street- people literally died on their feet or curled up in doorways. On one day alone, 13,500 deaths occurred. Film footage of the period shows old people scraping out refuse bins with spoons and putting what they found into their mouths. Cannibalism became one way of surviving, and disturbing looking meat appeared on sale by some street vendors. Every animal, wild or domestic, was killed for food, and other items such as linseed oil and tallow candles found their way on to the menu. Against this horrifying backdrop was the constant German air and artillery bombardment.
The main lifeline to the city was Lake Ladoga, though it was hardly adequate. Supplies were moved by land to Tikhvin, then to disembarkation points such as Novaya Ladoga and Lednevo. Small boats of every military and civilian variety sailed the waters in the non-winter months, frequently under heavy German air assault, to dock in Osinovets, northeast of Leningrad. When Lake Ladoga froze over, up to 400 trucks a day shuttled supplies straight across the ice and took back refugees on the return journey. Conditions for the supply convoys were grim: many truck crews, ship crews and refugees found their graves at the bottom of Ladoga. However, in the spring of 1942 fuel and electricity pipelines were laid across the river, bringing power for cooking and heating. Yet although conditions had improved by the end of1942 blockade conditions existed for nearly 900 days, during which time about one million people died out of a population of 2.5 million. Some sources put the death toll as high as 1.5 million.
Breaking The Siege
In 1942, the Soviets looked to make further gains. In January, a large offensive by the Volkhov Front between Novgorod (just north of Lake Ilmen) and Spasskaya Polist made a 37 mile salient in the German frontline, but the offensive had stalled by March, leaving the Germans to nip out of the salient and completely destroy the Soviet Second Shock Army. Nevertheless, the Soviet attack had alarmed Hitler enough for him to replace von Leeb as commander of the Army Group North (von Leeb had requested a tactical withdrawal in the face of the offensive) with Field Marshal Georg von Kuchler. Kuchler himself would go in August 1942 after he resisted Hitler’s idea for a general offensive to crush Leningrad, codenamed Northern Lights. Manstein then took what was proving to be a poisoned chalice for German commanders.
Between the 27th August and 25th September 1942, there was considerable movement around Leningrad. An offensive by Meretskov against the bottleneck was eventually stopped by Manstein, but his counteroffensive also ground to a halt against the Soviet defence. The critical change in fortunes, however, came in January 1943. The Soviet Leningrad Front under Marshal Leonid Govorov, four armies strong, launched a combined offensive with the Volkhov Front against the German forces in the bottleneck. The sheer weight of men and armour was irresistible and Schlisselburg was back in Soviet hands by the 19th January. By early February, the Soviets were running direct rail journeys into Leningrad, albeit ones under constant German bombardment- the corridor secured by the Red Army was only 6 miles wide.
The worst of the siege was over but the partial blockade ran until January 1944. The Germans held their lines even as they were weakened by Hitler’s redeployment of forces for his 1943 offensives in the Ukraine. On the 14th January 1944, an overwhelming Soviet offensive by both Red Army fronts flooded over the German defences and put the Wehrmacht troops on the retreat. On the 27th January, with the recapture of the Leningrad-Moscow rail line, Stalin officially declared the siege of Leningrad over.
Stalin's Betrayal Of Leningrad
The Betrayal Of Leningrad
The siege of Leningrad became iconic in the years following its liberation, with artists, writers, musicians and historians enshrining the resistance in their work. This publicity soon fuelled Stalin's paranoia- he had long suspected that Leningrad (as Russia's second city) could produce a rival power base to his own. In 1946, he acted against the figures behind Leningrad's resistance, arresting them on false charges. The Leningrad Party Organisation was purged and some 2000 people were executed, imprisoned or exiled between 1946 and 1950, including Pyotr Popkov, Aleksei Kuznetsov and Nikolai Voznesensky, important players in Leningrad's survival and attempted post war renaissance.
© 2013 James Kenny