The Germans invaded the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941. The capture of Leningrad—a city described by Adolf Hitler as the "hotbed of Communism"—was one of the major strategic goals of Operation barbarossa. Field Marshal Wilhelm von Leeb commanded Army Group North, advancing northeast toward the city. He believed that his troops would soon take the city in cooperation with the Finns, who had reentered the war. Finnish forces, meanwhile, drove south, both to the east and the west of Lake Ladoga, toward the Svir River and Leningrad.
On 8 July, the German Fourth Panzer Army reached the old fortress of Shlisselburg east of Leningrad, guarding the point at which the Neva River flows out of nearby Lake Ladoga. Taking it cut off Leningrad from the Soviet interior. The siege, which was actually a blockade, officially began on 10 July. Leeb's hopes for a quick victory were dashed, however, when the Finns merely reoccupied the territory taken by the Soviets in consequence of the 1939–1940 Finnish-Soviet War (also known as the Winter War), thus halting some 26 miles north of Leningrad. The refusal of the Finns to push beyond the Svir or their pre-1940 borders was a major factor in the city's survival. Leeb also lost much of his Fourth Panzer Army, which Hitler diverted to the drive on Moscow.
Hitler ordered Leningrad obliterated through artillery fire, air attack, and blockade; moreover, he prohibited any acceptance of a surrender, were one to be offered. In mid-October, he ordered Leeb to make a wide sweep of some 150 miles around Lake Ladoga to link up with the Finns on the Svir River. On 8 November, the Germans took the vital rail center of Tikhvin, about halfway to the Svir. Josef Stalin then shifted major reinforcements north, and in mid-December, Hitler authorized Leeb to withdraw. Soviet troops reoccupied Tikhvin on 18 December.
Authorities in Leningrad had done little to prepare the city for a possible blockade. Although the city was believed to be a major German military objective, efforts to evacuate part of the population suffered from bureaucratic delays. The party boss in Leningrad, Andrei Zhdanov, second only to Stalin in the party hierarchy, and Marshal Kliment E. Voroshilov, appointed by Stalin to defend the city, were reluctant to order any measures that might be branded defeatist.
On 11 July, the Leningrad Party Committee ordered the civilian population to take part in the construction of tank traps and other defensive positions in front of the city. Between July and August, nearly half of the population between the ages of 16 and 55 engaged in this effort, which proceeded under constant German artillery and air attacks. The city government also ordered the establishment of some civilian combat units made up of workers, men and women alike, but they were poorly trained and had virtually no weapons.
In normal circumstances, Leningrad was entirely dependent on outside sources for its food and fuel and for the raw materials used in its factories. Now it had to find food for some 2.5 million civilians as well as the forces of the Leningrad Front and the Red Banner Fleet in the Baltic. By November, rations had been cut to the starvation level. The soldiers and sailors received priority in the allocation of food, and rationing authorities literally held the power of life and death. Rations were cut again and again, beyond the starvation level. People tried to survive any way they could, whether on stray animals and on the glue from wallpaper. Hunger even led to instances of cannibalism. The hardships were not, however, evenly shared, for Communist officials ate well throughout the siege.
Lake Ladoga was the only means of accessing the rest of the Soviet Union. In winter, trucks were able to travel on a "road" across the ice, and in summer, some boats got through. But this route was insufficient to overcome the fuel shortage. The Soviets rebuilt the rail line from Tikhvin, but the Germans bombed and shelled it, as well as the Lake Ladoga route.
In January 1942, Stalin ordered General Kirill A. Meretskov's Volkhov Front to strike the German lines from Lake Ladoga to Lake Ilmen, but after punching a narrow gap in them, the Soviet offensive faltered. When Stalin refused to allow a withdrawal, the Germans cut off the Soviet forces in June and restored their own lines. Soviet authorities, meanwhile, managed to evacuate 850,000 people from Leningrad, including a large number of children, between January and July 1942.
Hitler's plans for the summer 1942 campaign called for the destruction of Leningrad and the occupation of the area between Lake Ladoga and the Baltic in order to free up the Finns for operations against Murmansk. In August, Meretskov carried out another attack against the eastern part of the German lines. Field Marshal Fritz Eric von Manstein, sent to Leningrad by Hitler, replied with a counterattack in September.
That summer, the Soviets managed to lay both pipelines and electric cables under Lake Ladoga. The Germans brought in E-boats, and the Italians also operated some midget submarines in the lake. In January 1943, in Operation spark, Red Army troops in Leningrad (which the Soviets had managed to reinforce and which were now commanded by General Leonid A. Govorov) and Meretskov's forces to the east struck the Germans from the north and east. The offensive was successful, with the two Soviet armies meeting at Shlisselburg on 19 January, thus breaking the siege and opening a 10-mile-wide corridor. On 7 February, a Soviet train reached Leningrad through the corridor and across the Neva on tracks over the ice. Although this line came under constant German attack and had to be repaired daily, it operated continuously thereafter.
On 14 January 1944, Govorov and Meretskov struck German positions, with their forces outnumbering the Germans by a ratio of 2 to 1 in men and 4 to 1 in tanks and aircraft. Yet Hitler refused to authorize a withdrawal, and bitter fighting ensued. Ultimately, the Soviets were successful, driving the Germans back. On 27 January 1944, with the Leningrad-to-Moscow railroad line reopened, Stalin declared the "900-day" blockade at an end.
During the blockade, perhaps 1 million people in Leningrad—40 percent of the prewar population—died of hunger, the majority of them in the 1941–1942 winter. The entire city was within range of German artillery fire, and the bombing and shelling claimed many of the city's buildings and architectural and art treasures, including works from the Hermitage Museum. The travail of Leningrad became the chief subject of Soviet war literature. Similar to the bombings of Dresden and Hiroshima, the siege of Leningrad became a national and even a worldwide symbol of the horror of war. Eva-Maria Stolberg and Spencer C. Tucker
Fadeyev, Aleksandr. Leningrad in the Days of the Blockade. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1971.; Gure, Leon. The Siege of Leningrad. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1962.; Inber, Vera. Leningrad Diary. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1971.; Meretskov, K. A. Serving the People. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1971.; Salisbury, Harrison. The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad. New York: Harper and Row, 1969.; Skrjabina, Elena. Siege and Survival: The Odyssey of a Leningrader. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1971.
Eva-Maria Stolberg and Spencer C. Tucker