18 August 2022
John C Pursley investigates the protracted and deadly siege of the northern Soviet city in WWII.
On 23 August 1939, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union entered a political and mutually beneficial Treaty of Non-aggression. Drafted by foreign ministers Joachim von Ribbentrop and Vyacheslav Molotov, the agreement was a neutrality pact basically dividing eastern Europe into German and Soviet geographical areas of influence. The treaty served as a written assurance that peace would be upheld by each government and affirmed the promise that neither party would become assist another nation against one another.
Although not publicly known until the end of WWII, the pact between the Soviets and Germans also incorporated a just-in-case clause clarifying the limits of their spheres of influence in the event future world affairs shifted the physical boundaries of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland.
On 1 September 1939, less than two weeks after the signing, Germany invaded Poland with the Soviets following suit on the 17th. 20 days later, on 6 October, Poland capitulated, her territory annexed and divided by a new border separating the two major powers.
The terms of the mutual non-aggression pact were violated on 22 June 1941 when the massive invasion, code-named Operation Barbarossa, was launched by the Germans against the Soviets with three primary objectives in mind. The plan was to take the coal and iron fields in the Donet basin to the south as those natural resources were essential to the German war effort. The next two objectives were more personal to Hitler as he intended to demoralise the USSR by destroying the heavily populated cities of Moscow and Leningrad, which wereresponsible for 11% of all Soviet industrial output. A directive sent to Army Group North made it clear that the ultimate fate of Leningrad was to be flattened and areas to the north of the River Neva given to the Fins.
Left: Map of the Siege of Leningrad showing the encircling German and Finnish forces
Each objective was to be swiftly attacked by a combined force of tanks from various army groups, formed and operating as separate entities. It was believed they would clear the path so the slower infantry divisions could follow in their wake, eventually forcing the Russians to either surrender or die.
To resist the invading forces over 1,000,000 civilians were used to construct fortifications on the north and south sides of the city, and multiple lines of defence around the perimeter. Normal citizens, whose only previous training had been held on weekends, were also conscripted in the usual ruthless Russian manner into the militia.
Some of the militia members were armed with a rag-tag assortment of weapons to include some military rifles, machine guns, shot guns, and training rifles, but unfortunately, not enough to go around. A great percentage of the defenders possessed only Molotov cocktails and hand grenades. The Soviet military was in little better position as none of the army groups had any reserve units and a single breach in their defensive lines by German forces would spell disaster for the city.
Right: While their parents served in the militia or built barriers around Leningrad, children were put to work making arms for the defence of the city
Army Group North, under the command of Field Marshall Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb, advanced towards Leningrad, severing the last rail connection to the city on 30 August. The Germans had reached the Neva River. On 6 September, Hitler recalled the 4th Panzer Group for an attack on Moscow but even so, two days later, the main road to the city was cut when German forces reached Lake Ladoga at Shlisselburg. Only a narrow strip of land between the lake and Leningrad remained unoccupied. With Finnish forces to the north, Leningrad was to be encircled and starved into submission.
The two attacking Panzer divisions were quickly bogged down in the anti-tank ditches and earthworks hastily constructed by the city dwellers. After weeks of mobile fighting, the German commanders were slow to adapt to the close defences and suffered heavy casualties including four consecutive commanders of the 6th Panzer Division and many tanks. The Russians fought with extreme tenacity but, by the evening of 10 September, the Germans were facing the last line of the defensive positions which were about six miles south-east of Leningrad.
Left: Civilians were drafted into the militia and used every type of weapon made available to them
Once darkness had fallen the Germans quietly moved many tanks forward of their main positions and surprised the unsuspecting Russians as they executed their predictable nightly counterattacks, breaking up their formations as they attempted their advance. In the early morning twilight, squadrons of Stuka dive bombers supported the attack of the 1st Panzer Division, which had already lost 50% of its numbers.
Although they were short of heavy guns, as with all other weapons, the defenders were well supplied with medium and heavy mortars and used them as artillery against the attackers. Naval guns from ships of the Soviet Baltic fleet on the coastal sector bombed the German rear positions and a great number of Russian troops in KV tanks stood their ground against the aggressors.
On Friday, 19 September, 276 German bombers in six air raids hit the city killing 1,000 civilians and was the heaviest aerial attack Leningrad would suffer during the war. Many of the previously wounded and recuperating victims in the cities’ five hospitals were killed by the bombing.
On 21 September, the Germans were considering their options regarding the complete destruction of the city because occupation would make them responsible for a supply of fuel and food for the people. The German High Command resolved to blockade Leningrad, continue aerial and artillery bombardment and, if they were first into the city the following spring, any survivors would be sent into captivity and the buildings demolished. On 7 October Hitler ordered the commander of Army Group North not to accept capitulation.
After November, the Germans reduced their numbers to a single army, continued the siege and made no attempt to advance. The Russians also reduced their manning to a number barely enough to withstand the enemy. The siege had become a secondary concern for both forces.
Left: Anti-aircraft guns were not enough to protect the city from years of continual German aerial bombardment
However, despite its diminished strategic significance, the suffering and sacrifice of Leningrad’s dwindling population had just begun. The rapid advance of the Germans happened so suddenly that the demand for military items and ammunition had taken complete precedence over the needs of the civilian population and few humanitarian supplies had been brought in before the siege began.
Hunger and cold became the city's greatest enemies. By the end of September, the city's oil and coal supplies were exhausted resulting in buildings without central heating and, as the Russian winter set in, water pipes froze and broke, denying drinking water to the population. Any electricity or fuel was designated for military use only.
Right: Two female Russian soldiers preparing for the German attack on Leningrad during the summer of 1941
Within two months all that was edible had been consumed including pets and rats. From November 1941 to February 1942, citizens were issued 125 grams of bread per day, of which a good portion consisted of sawdust, floor sweepings and other unpalatable combinations, but only if they could survive the walk to a food distribution kiosk in temperatures as cold as -30 °C.
Fatalities from starvation peaked during that time at 100,000 per month and people dying on the streets became commonplace. The dead could not be buried in the frozen earth, so corpses piled up in the city's streets, parks and other open areas.
Right: One of millions of starving citizens living on a few hundred calories a day in the form of bread made mostly from sawdust and floor sweepings
During that period rumours of cannibalism were noted, which for a starving population would not be totally out of the question. However, studies conducted decades later concluded the reports were anecdotal second-hand horror stories and not personal experience. There were, however, instances of police threatening to imprison uncooperative suspects in a cell with cannibals.
To compound the misery for the people, the Germans incessantly bombarded them with constant air and artillery attacks that only increased in intensity during 1942 with the arrival of new equipment. The next year several times as many bombs were used on the city.
There was little medical attention given to civilians as the hospitals were damaged and without heat, water or electricity. Patients lay in their beds fully clothed with blankets piled upon them; sheets could not be laundered, and medicine was almost non-existent. The only saving grace for the city was ironically, the Russian winter as supplies were transported across frozen Lake Ladoga from the harbours of Lednevo and Kabana. However, the gale winds of October had caused the ice to form in irregular heaps leaving crevasses of unfrozen water. The trips began slowly on 18 November across 5in thick ice and those were on foot using ponies drawing sleds with small loads. A week later trucks were used, but nine were initially lost in the unfrozen crevasses.
Left: An actual piece of the bread-like concoction that was fed to the citizens of Leningrad during the winter of 1942
However, as winter progressed the ice thickened, and trucks began making the journey despite being strafed by the German air force. Finally, in the middle of January the ice froze to over 3ft which allowed more trucks on the route capable of carrying heavier loads. Over 1,000 trucks were lost that month, but a lifeline was created. To support their military operations during the siege, planes from the Russian Baltic Fleet Navy flew over 100,000 sorties against German positions. On the return trips from the city, thousands of weak and elderly were evacuated. The loss of population through death and departure somewhat minimised the strain on those remaining in the city. A total of 1,400,000 people made it out in this manner.
The spring and summer of 1942 brought reinforcements to the besieged city over the now thawed sea route across Lake Ladoga. Material and food deliveries increased from 1,500 tonnes in May to over 3,500 in June. The ships were able to evacuate wounded and additional suffering civilians.
Left: Supplies intended to sustain the besieged people of Leningrad were transported across frozen Lake Ladoga from the harbours of Lednevo and Kabana
As Leningrad slowly recovered thanks to the influx of supplies, the Germans realised the Soviets could eventually become strong enough to threaten their far northern flank and made plans for the German 11th Army, backed by the 8th Air Corps, to conduct a full-scale assault of the city.
To this end, 800 heavy pieces of field artillery were placed on rail cars to form a siege train that were intended to surround the city at critical points. Fortunately for the Russians they were better prepared this time and launched attacks against the Germans at the end of August which disrupted the Nazi plans.
Most of the German forces ended up being deployed in other locations to prevent the Soviets from choking off their access to the Lake Ladoga corridor and the attack on Leningrad was called off.
The siege began to lift at the beginning of 1943 when the Soviets took a narrow passage about five miles wide along the southern shore of Lake Ladoga and established a rail link. Food rations were increased, and the city's situation was greatly stabilised. By January 1944, the Soviets had managed to push the German Army back from Leningrad, signifying the end of the 872-day siege. Most of the imperial palaces and other historic landmarks in and near the city were destroyed along with 5,723 civilian deaths by German aerial bombardment. Starvation and loss of public utilities resulted in the additional deaths of up to 1,500,000 soldiers and civilians.
Left: Although the Germans came close to destroying the city of Leningrad, they were not so successful at breaking the spirit of the populace
There is good news for militaria collectors as authentic Medals for the Defence of Leningrad are available and cost from £30, with award documents for the medals costing around £50. Have a look at www.collectrussia.com for these medals, along with uniforms from Privates to Generals and Admirals, dress daggers, bayonets, hats, helmets, flags, boots, buttons and propaganda posters.
In general, WWII Russian items are less expensive than German militaria and a lot of it is available, but the items are rapidly gaining in popularity and price.
Left: Medals for the Defence of Leningrad are available on-line for about £30
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