Germany invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. The capture of Leningrad—in German leader Adolf Hitler's words the "hotbed of Communism"—was one of the strategic goals of the campaign. Hitler assigned the task to Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm R. von Leeb's Army Group North. Leeb was confident, believing his troops would be supported by the Finns striking from the north. The Finns had re-entered the war to regain the territory lost to the Soviets in the Winter War of 1939–1940. Indeed Finnish forces soon were driving south both east and west of Lake Ladoga toward the Svir River and Leningrad.
On July 8 the German Fourth Panzer Army reached the old fortress of Schlusselburg (now Shlisselburg), east of Leningrad, which guarded the point where the Neva River flows out of nearby Lake Ladoga. Taking Schlusselburg would cut off Leningrad from the Soviet interior. The siege of the city, actually a blockade, officially began on July 10. Leeb's hopes for a quick victory were dashed, however, when the Finns merely reoccupied their former territory.
After gaining these lines in late September, the Finns did advance a slight distance into Soviet territory to about 26 miles from Leningrad, but only to shorten their front lines on the Karelian isthmus. They steadfastly refused to take part in operations against Leningrad. This was a major factor in Leningrad's survival. Leeb's operations against the city were also severely handicapped when he 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; he specifically prohibited accepting surrender, were it offered. He intended not to take the city by storm but rather to starve it into submission. He was, he declared, "indifferent" to the plight of the civilians.
Leningraders were in difficult straits. Authorities in the city had done little to prepare for a blockade. Although Leningrad was believed to be a major German military objective, efforts to evacuate part of the population suffered from bureaucratic delays. Andrei Zhdanov, the Communist Party boss in Leningrad and second in the party hierarchy only to Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, and Marshal Kliment E. Voroshilov, appointed by Stalin to defend the city, were reluctant to order any measures that might be branded as defeatist. Only on July 11, 1941, therefore, had the Leningrad Party Committee ordered the civilian population to participate in the construction of tank traps and other defensive positions in front of the city. Between July and August nearly half the city population aged 16 to 55 was engaged in this effort, which proceeded under constant German artillery and air attacks. The city government also ordered the establishment of civilian combat units, men and women alike, but they were poorly trained and had virtually no weapons.
In normal circumstances, Leningrad was dependent on outside sources for its food, fuel, and raw materials for 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. In mid-October Hitler 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 November 8 the Germans took the vital rail center of Tikhvin, about half way to the Svir. Stalin then shifted major reinforcements north and in mid-December Hitler authorized a withdrawal. Soviet troops re-occupied Tikhvin on December 18.
Rations inside the city had been cut to a starvation level of 900 calories per day. 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, on stray animals and/or the glue from wallpaper. Hunger even led to instances of cannibalism. The hardships were not evenly shared, and Communist officials ate relatively 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. This route was insufficient to overcome the fuel shortage though. The temperature dropped to 30 degrees below zero, but there was still no heat, no light, and no public transport. Surprisingly, a number of factories continued to function, producing weapons, munitions, and even some tanks. The Russians 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 (Army Group) to strike the German lines from Lake Ladoga to Lake Ilmen. After punching a narrow gap in the German lines, however, the Soviet offensive faltered. When Stalin refused to allow a withdrawal, in June the Germans cut off the Soviet forces and restored their lines. Soviet authorities, meanwhile, between January and July 1942 managed to evacuate 850,000 people from Leningrad, including a large number of children.
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. Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein, dispatched to Leningrad, replied with a counterattack in September. The Soviets nevertheless managed to lay both pipelines and electric cables under Lake Ladoga. The Germans responded with small E-boats and the Italians operated some midget submarines in the lake.
In January 1943 Meretskov's forces and Red Army troops in Leningrad, which the Russians had managed to reinforce and were now commanded by General Leonid A. Govorov, struck the Germans from the north and east in Operation SPARK. The offensive was successful, with the two Russian armies meeting at Schlusselburg on January 19, breaking the siege, and opening a 10-mile corridor. On February 7 a Russian train reached Leningrad through the corridor and across the Neva on track over the ice. Although this line came under constant German attack and had to be repaired daily, it operated continuously thereafter.
On January 14, 1944, Govorov and Meretskov, with a superiority of 2:1 in men and 4:1 in tanks and aircraft, again struck the German positions. Hitler refused to authorize a withdrawal and the Soviets drove the Germans back in bitter fighting. On January 27, 1944, with the Leningrad-to-Moscow railroad line re-opened, Stalin declared the "900-day" blockade at an end.
During the German siege, perhaps 1 million people in Leningrad—40% of the prewar population—died of hunger, with the majority perishing in the winter of 1941–1942. The entire city was within range of German artillery fire throughout the siege, 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. Like the bombings of Dresden and Hiroshima, it became a national and international symbol of the horrors of war. Spencer C. Tucker
Fadeyev, Aleksandr. Leningrad in the Days of the Blockade. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1971; Inber, Vera. Leningrad Diary. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1971; Meretskov, K. A. Serving the People. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1971; Skrjabina, Elena. Siege and Survival: The Odyssey of a Leningrader. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1971.
Spencer C. Tucker