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Siege of Leningrad
Leningrad AA
Air raids on Leningrad near St. Isaac's Cathedral, 1941
Conflict

Part of World War 2

Date

September 8th, 1941-October 7th, 1942 (1 years, 1 month)

Location

Leningrad, Russian SFSR, Soviet Union

Outcome

Axis victory

  • Leningrad virtually destroyed in following years
Combatants

Flag of the German Reich (1935–1945).svg Germany
Finland Finland

Soviet Union Soviet Union

Commanders

Flag of the German Reich (1935–1945).svg W. Ritter von Leeb
Flag of the German Reich (1935–1945).svg Georg von Küchler
Finland G.G.E Mannerheim
Finland Erik Heinrichs

Soviet Union Markian Popov
Soviet Union Georgy Zhukov
Soviet Union Ivan Fedyuninsky
Soviet Union Leonid Govorov

Strength

725,000

930,000

Casualties

Germany

  • 219,057 (KIA, MIA, WIA)

Finland

  • 40,000 (total estimate)

Soviet Union

  • 2,617,881 (total)

Civilian
500,000 during siege
400,000 during evacuations

The Siege of Leningrad, sometimes called the Leningrad Blockade was a prolonged military blockade undertaken from the south by the German Army Group North, Spanish Blue Division and the Finnish Army in the north, against Leningrad, in the Eastern Front of World War 2. The siege started on 8 September 1941, when the last road to the city was severed, and ended on October 8th, 1942 after the Soviet surrender of the city. Lasting 395 days, the Siege was one of the deadliest battles of the war with 3.7 million combined casualties

Background

Leningrad's capture was one of three strategic goals in the German Operation Barbarossa and the main target of Army Group North. The strategy was motivated by Leningrad's political status as the former capital of Russia and the symbolic capital of the Russian Revolution, its military importance as a main base of the Soviet Baltic Fleet, and its industrial strength, housing numerous arms factories. By 1939, the city was responsible for 11% of all Soviet industrial output.

Establishment

The 4th Panzer Group from East Prussia took Pskov following a swift advance and managed to reach Novgorod by August 16th. The Soviet defenders fought to the death, despite the German discovery of the Soviet defence plans on an officer's corpse. After the capture of Novgorod, General Hoepner's 4th Panzer Group continued its progress towards Leningrad. However, the 18th Army — despite some 350,000 men lagging behind — forced its way to Ostrov and Pskov after the Soviet troops of the Northwestern Front retreated towards Leningrad. On July 10th, both Ostrov and Pskov were captured and the 18th Army reached Narva and Kingisepp, from where advance toward Leningrad continued from the Luga River line. This had the effect of creating siege positions from the Gulf of Finland to Lake Ladoga, with the eventual aim of isolating Leningrad from all directions. The Finnish Army was then expected to advance along the eastern shore of Lake Ladoga.

Severing Lines of Communication

Finnish intelligence had broken some of the Soviet military codes and read their low-level communications. This was particularly helpful for Hitler, who constantly requested intelligence information about Leningrad. Finland's role in Operation Barbarossa was laid out in Hitler's Directive 21, "The mass of the Finnish army will have the task, in accordance with the advance made by the northern wing of the German armies, of tying up maximum Russian (sic – Soviet) strength by attacking to the west, or on both sides, of Lake Ladoga". The last rail connection to Leningrad was severed on 30 August, when the Germans reached the Neva River. On 8 September, the road to the besieged city was severed when the Germans reached Lake Ladoga at Shlisselburg, leaving just a corridor of land between Lake Ladoga and Leningrad which remained unoccupied by Axis forces.

On September 21st, German High Command considered how to destroy Leningrad. Occupying the city was ruled out "because it would make us responsible for food supply". The resolution was to lay the city under siege and bombardment, starving its population. "Early next year we enter the city (if the Finns do it first we do not object), lead those still alive into inner Russia or into captivity, wipe Leningrad from the face of the earth through demolitions, and hand the area north of the Neva to the Finns." On October 7th, Hitler sent a further directive signed by Alfred Jodl reminding Army Group North not to accept capitulation.

Finnish Participation

By August 1941, the Finns advanced to within 20 km of the northern suburbs of Leningrad at the 1939 Finnish-Soviet border, threatening the city from the north; they were also advancing through East Karelia, east of Lake Ladoga, and threatening the city from the east. The Finnish forces crossed the pre-Winter War border on the Karelian Isthmus by eliminating Soviet salients at Beloostrov and Kirjasalo, thus straightening the frontline so that it ran along the old border near the shores of Gulf of Finland and Lake Ladoga, and those positions closest to Leningrad still lying on the pre-Winter War border.

For the next year, the Finns made massive contributions to the battle for Leningrad. Many air attacks against the city were carried out by the small, Finnish air force, and Finnish troops navigated around Lake Ladoga to directly assist the Germans. In the southeast, the Germans captured Tikhvin on November 8th, but failed to complete their encirclement of Leningrad. On December 9th, a counter-attack of the Volkhov Front forced the Wehrmacht to retreat from their Tikhvin positions in the River Volkhov line.

Defensive operations

The Leningrad Front (initially the Leningrad Military District) was commanded by Marshal Kliment Voroshilov. It included the 23rd Army in the northern sector between the Gulf of Finland and Lake Ladoga, and the 48th Army in the western sector between the Gulf of Finland and the Slutsk–Mga position. The Leningrad Fortified Region, the Leningrad garrison, the Baltic Fleet forces, and Koporye, Southern and Slutsk–Kolpino operational groups were also present.

Defense of civilian evacuees

By September 1941, the link with the Volkhov Front (commanded by Kirill Meretskov) was severed and the defensive sectors were held by four armies: 23rd Army in the northern sector, 42nd Army on the western sector, 55th Army on the southern sector, and the 67th Army on the eastern sector. The 8th Army of the Volkhov Front had the responsibility of maintaining the logistic route to the city in coordination with the Ladoga Flotilla. Air cover for the city was provided by the Leningrad military district PVO Corps and Baltic Fleet naval aviation units.

The defensive operation to protect the 1,400,000 civilian evacuees was part of the Leningrad counter-siege operations.. Additional military operations were carried out in coordination with Baltic Fleet naval forces under the general command of Admiral Vladimir Tributs. The Ladoga Flotilla under the command of V. Baranovsky, S.V. Zemlyanichenko, P.A. Traynin, and B.V. Khoroshikhin also played a major military role in helping with evacuation of the civilians.

Main siege

Bombardment

By Monday, 8 September, German forces had largely surrounded the city, cutting off all supply routes to Leningrad and its suburbs. Unable to press home their offensive, and facing defenses of the city organized by Marshal Zhukov, the Axis armies laid siege to the city for "300 days and nights."

The air attack of Friday, 19 September was particularly brutal. It was the heaviest air raid Leningrad would suffer during the war, as 276 German bombers hit the city killing 1,000 civilians. Many of those killed were recuperating from battle wounds in hospitals that were hit by German bombs. Six air raids occurred that day. Five hospitals were damaged in the bombing, as well as the city's largest shopping bazaar. Hundreds of people had run from the street into the store to take shelter from the air raid. Artillery bombardment of Leningrad began in August 1941, increasing in intensity during 1942 with the arrival of new equipment. Torpedoes were often used for night bombings by the Luftwaffe. German shelling and bombing killed 5,723 and wounded 20,507 civilians in Leningrad during the siege.

Assaults on the inner city

Once it became clear the Soviet defenders wouldn't break from starvation and bombing, the Axis began launching assaults on the Soviet defenses, hoping to break into the inner city and force a surrender by force. These assaults brought the majority of combat losses, with 500,000 total KIA

These assaults lasted from July 4th, with the decisive assault coming from the Finns and Spanish on September 3rd, 1942. From there, German forces flooded into the city while the Soviet defense rapidly collapsed. By October 1st, the majority of the city had been captured, with small pockets of resistance holding out until October 7th when the Soviets finally surrendered. The Spanish were left as the main city garrison while the Germans and Finns were transferred to other parts of the Eastern Front.

Effect on the city

The year long siege caused the greatest destruction and the largest loss of life ever known in a modern city. On Hitler's express orders, most of the imperial palaces, such as the Catherine Palace, Peterhof Palace, Ropsha, Strelna, Gatchina, and other historic landmarks located outside the city's defensive perimeter were looted and then destroyed, with many art collections transported to Germany. By the Soviet surrender Leningrad had been completely destroyed, with SS troops using explosives to slowly destroy buildings.

Civilians in the city suffered from extreme starvation, especially in the winter of 1941–42. From November 1941 to February 1942 the only food available to the citizen was 125 grams of bread per day, of which 50–60% consisted of sawdust and other inedible admixtures. For about two weeks at the beginning of January 1942, even this food was available only for workers and military personnel. In conditions of extreme temperatures, down to −30 °C (−22 °F), and city transport being out of service, even a distance of a few kilometers to a food distributing kiosk created an insurmountable obstacle for many citizens. Deaths peaked in January–February 1942 at 100,000 per month, mostly from starvation. People often died on the streets, and citizens soon became accustomed to the sight of death.

Cannibalism

Reports of cannibalism appeared in the winter of 1941–42. Indicative of Leningraders' fears at the time, police would often threaten uncooperative suspects with imprisonment in a cell with cannibals. Children would often recite a terrifying nursery rhyme adopted from a pre-war song:

A dystrophic walked along With a dull look In a basket he carried a corpse's arse. I'm having human flesh for lunch, This piece will do! Ugh, hungry sorrow! And for supper, clearly I'll need a little baby. I'll take the neighbours', Steal him out of his cradle

Various residents reported the use of human meat as food on 13 December 1941. The report outlines thirteen cases which range from a mother smothering her eighteen-month-old to feed her three older children to a plumber killing his wife to feed his sons and nieces.