The great siege of Leningrad is known in Russia as the “blockada.” Army Group North approached Leningrad in mid-August 1941. It was urged forward by a fascination the city exerted for Adolf Hitler as a long-despised source of Slavic influence over Europe, as well as Leningrad’s strategic importance as a major Baltic port and center of Soviet war manufacture, especially of heavy KV-1 tanks. It was surrounded by Army Group North on three sides by September 1941. Leon Gure argues that Leningrad should have fallen to the Wehrmacht that autumn. It did not because defenses firmed as the front contracted and because Hitler transferred key Panzer and mobile forces south to reinforce the renewed Army Group Center attack on Moscow (Operation TAIFUN). Half a million people fled or were evacuated from the city before it was cut off, including many children whose parents remained to work in the city’s factories. Except for barge traffic across Lake Ladoga, remaining civilians could not get out once the Germans and Finns closed on three sides of the city, and precious little food, fuel, or ammunition arrived. German artillery kept up a near-constant bombardment until they were pushed back to extreme range by local Soviet counterattacks. Another limiting factor on the artillery threat was a lack of heavy siege guns in the batteries of Army Group North: most of the Wehrmacht’s siege train was far to the south, hard-pounding Sebastopol.
Inside the besieged northern city conditions grew progressively worse at the approach of the first winter of the German–Soviet war. Heavy ammunition and food trucks ran in endless columns, unloading vital cargo onto lake barges until Lake Ladoga grew treacherous with ice. Barge traffic was limited by a lack of harbors and lake craft, which Soviet authorities now scrambled to build. During that dread first autumn and again in the spring, before Ladoga fully froze and just after it began to melt, the only way to bring in supplies to Leningrad was by air, but by then the VVS had been ravaged in fighting all along the Eastern Front. When deep winter set in during December, long columns of trucks navigated a treacherous and constantly shifting ice trail, the “Road of Life” (“doroga zhisni”), across Lake Ladoga, for that was the only way into the city after the Germans occupied the last land bridge, the Shlisselburg corridor. Fortunately, the Luftwaffe was far less effective in bombing the city, barges, or truck convoys than Hermann Göring promised his Führer: the Germans had too few planes in the north and the wrong types for effective city bombing. More docks and barges were added, protected by anti-aircraft guns. Over time, lighter Soviet trucks would be replaced on the ice road by heavier American 3-ton and 5-ton models, shipped to the Soviet Union under the Lend-Lease program. But during the first winter of the siege there was not enough transport and far too few goods arriving, especially food and fuel, to both sustain Leningrad’s swollen civilian population and supply its defenders with the means to hold out.
Even as much larger battles before Moscow and at Viazma-Rzhev were underway, Joseph Stalin and the Stavka ordered an attack to relieve Leningrad: the result was the failed and costly Liuban offensive operation (January 7–April 30, 1942). While it was in progress the population of the old imperial capital suffered the worst winter of starvation and death of its nearly 900-day siege. Food and fuel were quickly exhausted by a city population bloated with refugees. Trucks traveling the “Road of Life” that winter carried mostly ammunition. The trickle of food that arrived was given, out of military necessity, mainly to soldiers manning trenches and batteries along the perimeter defense or struggling through forest and bog in weak, premature offensive operations. More than a million civilians starved or froze to death during that first dread winter of the siege. Two million more emerged in the spring as mere skeletons, having eaten rats, polish, boiled leather soup, tree bark, anything. Some had consumed human flesh. Order was kept by the NKVD, which did not let up arrests or executions even as those dead from more natural causes piled all around the city’s prisons and in its parks and streets. Yet, Leningrad and its defenders held out until spring reopened the Lake to barge traffic. Then barges took out 500,000 civilians over the first half of 1942, reducing the population from a presiege level of well over three million (mainly women engaged in war work, and their dependents) to just under 800,000 in July, then to a sustainable 600,000 by the end of the year. Leningrad stayed under siege, but it became a symbol of Soviet resolution and much more, of an extraordinary capacity of ordinary people to endure calamitous evil and suffering, and to survive.
For 28 months Leningrad was besieged. Repeated efforts to break through the German encirclement failed. Its defense turned into a World War I–style fight of trenches, mortars, shelling, and frozen mud. The defenders in Leningrad Front would lose 317,000 men, while Volkhov Front lost just under 300,000 before the siege was lifted. The Red Army’s Siniavino offensive operation (August 19–October 20, 1942) to break the German hold on the Shlisselburg corridor failed dismally, but had the merit of interrupting a German offensive to envelop Leningrad slated for September: NORDLICHT . In January 1943, the Red Army began a third counteroffensive to relieve Leningrad: SPARK was a concerted drive to restore a land link to the city. Guided by freshly promoted Marshal Georgi Zhukov, the attack began on January 12, 1943. Six days later Shlisselburg fell. The siege was not over, but a critical land bridge varying from five to seven miles wide was opened, curving around the south shore of Lake Ladoga. Engineers speedily laid a new rail line through the corridor. During the Battle of Kursk and follow-on operations KUTUZOV and RUMIANTSEV in July–August, 1943, a small offensive was also assayed to widen the land corridor of Lake Ladoga and to prevent Army Group North from reinforcing German positions farther south. It was minimally effective, but cost over 21,000 Soviet casualties. More relief came as a result of Operation SUVOROV (August 7–October 2, 1943): two tank armies attacked the hinge of the two Wehrmacht army groups, Center and North, and pushed the Germans from Nevel.
On January 4, 1944, the Red Army began its “Leningrad-Novgorod offensive operation.” It was conducted by three Fronts comprising 1.25 million men and 1,600 tanks and self-propelled guns, spread across a frontage of 300 miles. The VVS flew nearly 1,400 aircraft over the operation, a figure the Luftwaffe could no longer match. Army Group North had 740,000 men but few tanks, guns, or aircraft. Among its units were less reliable or competent Luftwaffe field divisions and inexperienced Nordic troops of the Waffen-SS. The offensive unfolded as three loosely coordinated operations by the separate attacking Fronts. Instead of starting from the Shlisselburg corridor—the jump-off position of three earlier and failed Soviet offensives in the Leningrad region—the attack came from the southwest: 44,000 troops struck out from the Oranienbaum (Lomonosov) pocket. A second thrust started in the outer suburbs of Leningrad. Together, these two attacks overran the German siege guns that had plagued the citizens of Leningrad for two years. Army Group North hastily evacuated its last toehold in the Shlisselburg corridor and was harried back to the Neva and Luga Rivers. Novgorod was liberated on January 20. A week later the blockade of Leningrad was finally broken when the Moscow railway was reopened. The Soviet breakthrough and pursuit of German 18th Army was not a complete victory, however: the Germans were not encircled or smashed, but instead slipped away in a fairly orderly withdrawal. Many lived to fight and kill Russians on some future bloody day.
During the first two weeks of February German 18th Army fell back another 100 miles to the old border with Estonia, for a total retreat distance of 150 miles in some places. Hitler still would not grant the urgent request by Army Group North commander, Field Marshal Georg von Küchler, to be allowed to withdraw to the more defensible position of the Panther Line. Instead, Hitler sacked Küchler and replaced him with Field Marshal Walter Model. The new commander was able to halt the Soviet offensive in front of Narva and Pskov during the first week of March. Model was greatly aided by an early onset of the northern rasputitsa, well-prepared field positions, and the heavily wooded and swampy terrain that impeded Red Army tank movement. By April, with Model called south to put out another of the fires then breaking out along the Eastern Front, most of German 18th Army had escaped the planned Soviet trap and fallen back to the Panther Line. Hitler demanded that new position be held, issuing another Haltebefehl order. The line was held, until July 1944. The Red Army was thus stopped shy of its short-term goal of reentering Estonia. After 28 months of siege—nearly 900 days—Leningrad surged back to life, 150 miles behind the frontline and safe from German guns and bombs.
Suggested Reading: Leon Goure, The Siege of Leningrad (1962); Bruce Lincoln, Sunlight at Midnight (2002).