900 Days: The World War II Siege of Leningrad

Michael O. Varhola

 

Over a course of nearly 900 days, from early September 1941 until late January 1944, German and Finnish military forces undertook a prolonged military blockade of the Soviet Russian city which at that time was named Leningrad and is today known as St. Petersburg. It was one of the longest and most destructive sieges in history and quite possibly the worst in terms of casualties. 

This historical episode is one of the most fascinating of World War II and can serve as a backdrop for all sorts of stories and adventures, including those featuring military actions on land, sea, and air; crimes like robbery, murder, and cannibalism; and a struggle for survival in the midst of combat, bombardment, starvation, and bitter cold. 

Above we can see an image from August 1942 that shows German prisoners being marched down Nevsky Prospekt, the main street in Leningrad. It also bears mentioning that the name for this article has been taken from the title of a book on the siege by American journalist and author Harrison Salisbury, who was the first regular New York Times correspondent posted to Moscow after World War II, which I strongly recommend it to anyone who is interested following up with a more in-depth look on this subject. 

 

On June 22, 1941, German air forces launched bombing raids into Russia as far as the outskirts of Leningrad, artillery batteries unleashed a barrage on Soviet positions, and about 3 million troops swept across the border into Russia, beginning what was known as Operation Barbarossa.

Above in the image on the left is a group of German Panzer IVs, the workhorse of Nazi armored forces during the war. Many people think of late-war vehicles like the famous Tiger tank as being quintessential to the military forces of the Third Reich, but some 8,553 Mark IVs were produced between 1936 and 1945, whereas only about 15% as many Tiger tanks were manufactured and over just a two-year period. On the right we can see German infantrymen moving past a Soviet border marker on June 22, 1941.

One of the strategic goals of the German invasion of the Soviet Union was the capture of Leningrad, and this key city — symbolic capital of the Russian Revolution, main base for the Soviet Baltic Fleet, and a center of arms manufacturing — was the main target of the Wehrmacht’s Army Group North.

It is clear that Adolf Hitler intended to completely destroy Leningrad and annihilate its inhabitants, a plan that he revealed in both public comments and official communiques throughout the summer and fall of 1941.

"After the defeat of Soviet Russia there can be no interest in the continued existence of this large urban center,” Hitler wrote, for example, in a directive sent to Army Group North on September 29. “Following the city's encirclement, requests for surrender negotiations shall be denied, since the problem of relocating and feeding the population cannot and should not be solved by us. In this war for our very existence, we can have no interest in maintaining even a part of this very large urban population." 

 

In the course of Operation Barbarossa, Feldmarschall Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb — whose charming visage we can see here at lower right — directed his Army Group North to advance on Leningrad and planned on capturing it quickly. 

We can get a sense for the massive scale of Operation Barbarossa, which had a front that stretched from the shores of the Baltic Sea to those of the Black Sea, from this U.S. Military Academy map. 

Army Group North’s 4th Panzer Group advanced swiftly from East Prussia under the command of General Erich Hoepner — who we can see here at lower left — moving northeast through Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, while the slower-moving 18th Army followed the same route. 

By July 19, Army Group North was able to make its first direct attack on Leningrad and was stopped four days later just 62 miles south of the city. From that point onward, German forces continued to occupy the areas south of Leningrad, while Finnish troops captured those to the north, with both endeavoring to surround the city, prevent supplies from coming into it, and cut off all communication with the outside. 

Finnish forces continued their movement toward the city from the north and, on July 31, they attacked the Soviets on the Karelian Isthmus, eventually reaching the line of the Finnish-Soviet border prior to its territorial losses in the Winter War of 1939-1940. Germany expected that the Finnish Army would then continue to move southward, along the eastern shore of Lake Ladoga, in order to completely encircle the city. 

 

By the time the Germans and Finns reached the outskirts of Leningrad, however, the city was not completely unprepared. Within 24 hours of the launch of Operation Barbarossa, military officials in Leningrad had begun to identify defensive positions around the city.

On June 27, the Leningrad Council of Deputies started to organize civil defense groups and to inform the citizenry of the imminent danger. More than a million people were conscripted to build fortifications and on June 29 construction began on defenseworks to protect the northern and southern approaches to the city.

Ultimately, these civilian workers constructed a staggering total of 16,000 miles of open trenches, 5,000 earth-and-timber or reinforced concrete weapon emplacements, 430 miles of anti-tank ditches, 395 miles of wire obstacles, and 190 miles of timber barricades.

In the south, the line of these fortifications ran from the Neva River to the mouth of the Luga River, and a second line went through the outlying towns of Peterhof, Gatchina, Pulkovo, Kolpino and Koltushy. These defenses were augmented with the fourteen 6-inch guns and four 3-inch antiaircraft guns of the cruiser Aurora, which were removed from the 40-year-old warship and moved inland to the Pulkovo Heights.

Above we can see Aurora as it appears now, with its main guns remounted. This historic vessel is often referred to as a battleship, but it is in fact a cruiser, a type of warship that would have been more lightly armed and armored than a battleship but also been faster, more versatile, and had a greater operational range. 

In the suburbs to the north of the city, the defensive line against the Finns known as the Karelian Fortified Region had been maintained since the 1930s and was at this point returned to service.

In the large photo above we can see the remains of some of the Karelian defenseworks as they appeared in 2012, while the smaller image is from 1941 and shows antiaircraft guns in front of St. Isaac's Cathedral in Leningrad. 


By the second half of August, Leningrad’s defenders had been reinforced by the retreating soldiers of the Soviet Northwestern Front — along with some 300,000 civilian refugees — and a total of 2 million troops were preparing to face off against each other in the battle for the city. 

Germany’s Army Group North was organized into three large formations, the 18th Army, 16th Army, and 4th Panzer Group, which represented a total of 26 armor, infantry, motorized, and panzer grenadier divisions. To these were added seven infantry divisions of the Finnish Defense Forces. 

On the left above we can see some of these German troops, specifically a flamethrower team moving through the Russian countryside in the summer of 1941. 

Soviet military forces in Leningrad on the eve of the blockade were organized into seven large formations, the 7th Army, 8th Army, 14th Army, 23rd Army, Luga Operation Group, and Kingisepp Operation Group, along with a number of separate units unaffiliated with any of these. They totaled 36 divisions, along with numerous separate brigades, regiments, and fortified areas. 

We can see one of the Soviet defenders, a young naval cadet, above on the right. 

One of the Soviet formations, the 8th Army, had originally been part of the Northwestern Front and had retreated through the Baltic states to Leningrad, and was officially assigned to the Northern Front on July 14. 

Of these Soviet formations, however, the 14th Army initially defended Murmansk and the 7th Army defended the region of Karelia north of Lake Ladoga, and they therefore did not participate in the initial stages of the siege. 

 

By August 20, German artillery forces were close enough to begin shelling parts of Leningrad, and over the following weeks attacked targets that included factories, schools, hospitals, and neighborhoods. Such attacks also impeded the evacuation of civilians from the city, and German forces severed the last rail connection with Leningrad when they reached the Neva River on August 30. The following day, Finnish troops crossed the 1939 pre-Winter War border and by September 9 had occupied the Russian towns of Kirjasalo and Beloostrov on the Karelian Isthmus. 

Then, on September 8, the Germans reached Lake Ladoga at Shlisselburg, severing the road into the surrounded city and leaving just a strip of land between the lake and Leningrad unoccupied by German or Finnish forces. On the same day, aerial bombing against the city ignited 178 fires throughout it, and four days later a German bomb destroyed the Badajevski General Store, the largest food depot in Leningrad. 

As we can see from the map above, a simplified version of one from a 1965 East German book on the war, the noose was tightening around Leningrad as the Axis forces prepared for their final assault. 

Surprisingly, however, on September 15, Hitler ordered Army Group North’s 4th Panzer Group to disengage from Leningrad and to instead participate in the German push on Moscow, causing Von Leeb to suddenly lose about a third of his operational strength. He was therefore unable to press home his offensive against the city and had little choice but to lay siege to it for what would become "900 days and nights" and, in the course of this, to bombard and starve its population. 

On September 19, 276 German bombers launched what would be the heaviest air attacks against Leningrad during the war, killing 1,000 civilians — including many that had fled into a shopping bazaar that was struck — and numerous soldiers that were recuperating from battle wounds in five hospitals hit by bombs. On the same day German troops were stopped just six miles from Leningrad and civilians had to join in the fighting on the defensive lines. 

 

Hitler defined Finland's role in Operation Barbarossa in a directive in which he stated "The mass of the Finnish army will have the task … of tying up maximum Russian strength by attacking to the west, or on both sides, of Lake Ladoga.” His plan was to then reward Finland by granting it the territories north of the Neva River. 

In the main image above we can see Finnish infantrymen marching toward Leningrad as part of the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union. In the smaller image at right we can see Hitler meeting with Finland's Marshal Carl Gustav Mannerheim and its President Risto Ryti. 

By August, the Finns had advanced to the 1939 Finnish-Soviet border and were within 12 miles of the outskirts of Leningrad, threatening the city from the north. At this point, however, they had advanced as far toward the city as they intended to and shifted their emphasis to the province of Eastern Karelia, which they considered to be historically part of Finland. They also began preparing to defend their newly-established border and territories. 

Over the next three years, Finland did little else to contribute to the siege of Leningrad, rejecting German pleas to advance farther south from the Svir River in occupied East Karelia, some 100 miles to the northeast, or even to conduct aerial attacks or systematic shelling against the city. 

Finland’s President Ryti, in fact, declared to the Finnish Parliament that the aim of the war was to restore the territories lost during its 1939-40 Winter War with the Soviet Union and to gain more land in the east in order to create a "Greater Finland.” 

"The Germans aimed us at crossing the old border and continuing the offensive to Leningrad,” Ryti said after the war. “I said that the capture of Leningrad was not our goal and that we should not take part in it [and] Mannerheim and [the] Minister of Defense agreed with me." 

Soviet leaders responded to this clear reticence on the part of the Finns to continue advancing toward Leningrad, and on September 5 moved two of the divisions guarding the Karelian Isthmus in the north to the German sector in the south. 

 

What became known to the Soviets as the Leningrad Front was initially commanded by Marshal Kliment Voroshilov, but on September 10 Joseph Stalin appointed General Georgy Zhukov to take on both this role and that of Baltic Fleet Commander. 

In the main picture above, which was taken in 1942, we can see Soviet infantrymen in one of the trenches surrounding the city. On the right, we can see two Soviet soldiers, one armed with a distinctive DP-28 light machinegun, in the trenches of Leningrad on September 1, 1941. And on the left we can see a pair of Soviet BT-5 light tanks speeding toward the front down Valdarksi Street in Leningrad in 1941. What I think makes this last image particularly interesting is that these tanks do not have any sort of unit markings on them, which would normally be the case, and that is because they have been driven out of the factories where they were manufactured and straight to the front lines without even being painted. 

By September 1941, Leningrad’s link with the Soviet Volkhov Front was severed. The 8th Army of the Volkhov Front, deployed south of Leningrad, nonetheless had the responsibility of maintaining a connection with the city in coordination with the Ladoga Flotilla. Air cover for the city was provided by Baltic Fleet naval aviation units and the 6th Air Army. 

According to Zhukov, before the war Leningrad had a population of 3,103,000, with an additional 282,000 in the suburbs. Protecting and evacuating civilians from Leningrad was part of the city’s counter-siege operations, efforts that were carried out in conjunction with Baltic Fleet naval forces and the Ladoga Flotilla, which played a major role in helping with evacuation of non-combatants. And as many as 1,743,129 people, including 414,148 children, were evacuated between June 29, 1941, and March 31, 1943, and were relocated to the Volga area, the Urals, Siberia, and Kazakhstan. 

 

It was critically important for the Soviet military forces to be able to keep supplies flowing into the invested city if it wanted to be able to maintain a defense of it. They established this route across the southern part of Lake Ladoga and the corridor of land between the lake and Leningrad that remained unoccupied by German and Finnish forces. 

During warmer months, materiel was transported across Lake Ladoga to Leningrad via watercraft of various sorts, as we can see in the image above from the Russian RIA Novosti state news agency of barges being used to ferry supplies across the lake. 

During the winter, when the surface of the lake froze, this supply route was kept open by trucks and other vehicles driving over what became known as "the Ice Road." 

Critical food supplies were thus transported across the lake to the village of Osinovets, and from there some 27 miles via a small suburban railway into Leningrad. 

Starting in November 1941, when the ice road over Lake Ladoga became operational, this supply route was also used in reverse to evacuate civilians from the besieged city. 

Security for this supply route, which the Axis forces obviously had an interest in disrupting and continuously attempted to do both on the surface and from the air, was provided by elements that included the Ladoga Flotilla, Soviet Air Defense Forces assigned to the Leningrad Front, and dedicated security troops. 

This supply route into and out of Leningrad across Lake Ladoga was, appropriately, referred to as the “Road of Life.” It was, however, very dangerous, and there was a substantial risk of vehicles becoming stuck in snow or sinking through ice that became weakened near the end of the cold-weather months or which was broken by constant German bombardment. Because of the great number of people who died while traversing this route, it thus also became known to many as the "Road of Death.” 

 

Despite the valiant efforts to supply Leningrad, civilians in the city suffered from extreme starvation, especially during the winter of 1941–42. From November 1941 to February 1942, each citizen received a ration of just 125 grams of bread per day, some 50–60% of which consisted of sawdust and other inedible elements. And for about two weeks at the start of January 1942, even this meager food was provided only to military personnel and workers. 

In the face of extreme temperatures that dropped as low as -22 °F and public transportation being out of service, traveling even a mile or two to a food distribution facility was too much for many people. Deaths peaked in January and February of 1942 at 100,000 per month, mostly from starvation. People often collapsed in the streets and residents soon became accustomed to the sight of death. 

Hunger and the threat of starvation caused some people to resort to criminality, and during those first two desperate months of 1942 at least 1,216 people were murdered for their ration cards. 

A rarer but much more extreme response to starvation was cannibalism. NKVD secret police reports indicated that the first instances of people being used for food occurred on December 13, 1941, and ranged from a plumber killing his wife to feed his sons and nieces, to a mother smothering her toddler to feed her three older children. 

Nearly two-thirds of cannibals were, in fact, women, often unsupported and with dependent children and typically with no previous convictions, which allowed for a certain degree of leniency in legal proceedings. Just 2% of the people charged with cannibalism had any criminal records, some 44% of them were unemployed, 90% were illiterate, and only 15% were longstanding residents of the city. More instances of cannibalism occurred in the suburbs and outlying districts than in the city itself. 

During the one-year period from December 1941 to December 1942, the NKVD arrested 2,105 cannibals and divided them into two categories: corpse-eaters, who were usually sent to prison, and people-eaters, who were generally shot. Instances of corpse-eating were, in any event, significantly greater than that of people-eating, and in a typical month perhaps 15% of the people arrested for cannibalism had actually murdered the people they ate. 

In the image shown here, by the way, we can see people gathering water from shell-holes on Nevsky Prospect. 

 

Germany and Finland’s two-and-a-half year siege of Leningrad caused the largest loss of life and the greatest destruction ever experienced by a modern city, exceeding those suffered even by Stalingrad, Moscow, or Tokyo during World War II. Many schools, hospitals, and other civil structures in Leningrad and its suburbs were badly damaged or destroyed by air raids, artillery bombardment, or resulting fires, including 840 factories, 9,000 wooden houses, and 3,200 residential buildings. 

In the image above at upper left we can see nurses helping people wounded during an artillery attack on September 10, 1941. In the image at lower left we can see painted on a wall a notice that says “Citizens! This side of the street is the most dangerous during an artillery barrage.” And in the image on the right we can see Soviet ski troops near the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad. 

Investment of the city also caused extreme privation and famine throughout Leningrad and the surrounding area through the disruption of utilities, water, energy, and food supplies. Overall, this resulted in the deaths of as many as 1,500,000 soldiers and civilians and prompted the evacuation of a similar number, mainly women and children, many of whom died during their removal from starvation, exposure, and bombardment. This siege is, in fact, considered by many historians to have been an element of the Nazi policy of genocide against the peoples it hated the most. 

Axis artillery bombardment of Leningrad that began in August 1941 increased from June through September of 1942, when the Germans brought in heavy railway-mounted guns to pound the city with 1,800-pound shells. Shelling of the besieged city intensified even more in 1943, when the amount of ordinance dumped on Leningrad was significantly increased. Such aerial bombing and artillery shelling killed 5,723 civilians and wounded 20,507 of them in Leningrad throughout the course of the siege.

 

Throughout the course of the siege both sides continuously tried to bring it to an end in their favor and several significant attempts were made to do so. The first was a Soviet counterattack launched on November 10, 1941, which achieved some measure of success between then and the end of the year by forcing the Germans to retreat from the town of Tikhvin, 120 miles east of Leningrad, back to the Volkhov River. This prevented the Germans from joining Finnish forces on the Svir River east of Leningrad and completing their encirclement of it. 

On January 7, 1942, Soviet forces followed up with the disastrous Lyuban Offensive Operation, which lasted 16 weeks and led to its 2nd Shock Army being cut off and destroyed. During this period, the Soviets also launched the battle for the Nevsky Pyatachok bridgehead, an encounter that dragged on until May 1943 but was only partially successful and inflicted very heavy casualties on both sides. 

On August 27, 1942, the Soviets attempted to relieve the city by launching the Sinyavino Offensive, the goal of which was to allow the 8th Army and a reconstituted 2nd Shock Army to link up with the forces of the Leningrad Front. This assault preempted by a couple of weeks a plan the Germans had in the works to capture the city, Operation Nordlicht, or Northern Light — using troops freed up following the Axis capture of Sevastapol — and forced them to counterattack with troops that were supposed to participate in it. Neither side was aware of the other's plans until after the respective operations were launched and they eventually fought each other to a standstill. 

Germany deployed its famed Tiger tank for the first time during Operation Northern Light, in fact, and in this image we can see one of them in action during the subsequent battle. 

It was some months before the Soviet forces were able to muster another major offensive. That attack came on January 12, 1943, with the launch of Operation Iskra, Spark, a full-scale offensive conducted by both the Leningrad and Volkhov Fronts that, after a savage battle, manage to overcome German fortified positions south of Lake Ladoga. On January 18, the two Soviet formations made contact with each other, opening up a seven-mile-wide land corridor into the besieged city and allowing some relief to be provided for it. 

The following month, Soviet forces launched Operation Polyarnaya Zvezda in an attempt to complete the lifting of the siege, but by April 1 this effort had failed. 


In what had become a war of attrition between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, however, the tide had turned and eventually the outcome of the siege became inevitable. 

In mid-January 1944, the Soviets launched a combined effort by the Leningrad and Volkhov Fronts that was supported by a number of other elements, including air support from the Baltic Fleet, which aimed at ending the siege. And on January 27, the Soviet troops drove the German forces from the southern edge of the city and forced them back as much as 60 miles. Before they retreated, the German armies acted on direct orders from Hitler to loot and destroy the historical residences of the Tsars, including the Catherine, Peterhof, Gatchina, and Strelna Palaces, along with other historic landmarks located outside the city's defensive perimeter. As part of these depredations, a large number of valuable art collections were removed, including the famous Amber Room of the Catherine Palace. 

By summer of that year, the Finnish Defense Forces had also been driven back from their positions around the city and to the northern end of the Karelian Isthmus. After nearly 900 days, the loss an unprecedented number of people, and the virtual destruction of one of the world's great cities, the epic siege was broken Leningrad was, finally, relieved.