Leningrad was something of a paradox in World War II. It was a major objective in the German invasion plan, and a priority for the Soviet defense. At the same time, it soon became a secondary front, with most of the activity on both sides playing out south of Moscow. For the best part of three years, Leningrad became the center of a static front reminiscent of the trenches of World War One. The main novelty of this trench system was that it contained a major city which had housed more than two and a half million people before the war began. Leningrad became the site of a siege that lasted 900 days, and the remaining civilian population was as much a part of it as the soldiers of either side.
Since the founding of St. Petersburg in 1703, Russia has had effectively two capitals. Under the Tsars, westward-leaning St. Petersburg was the official capital, with the landlocked traditional capital of Moscow in the secondary role. Under the Communists, the priority of the two capitals was reversed, for many of the same reasons. St. Petersburg was renamed in memory of Lenin, and it was transformed from a window to the outside world into a bulwark against it. It was the center of a frontier Military District and, through neighboring Kronstadt, the headquarters of the Baltic Fleet. It was a major military and economic center, as well as a powerful symbol for the Soviet state.
When the Germans organized Operation Barbarossa, Leningrad stood alongside Moscow and Kiev as the primary targets. Each objective was the responsibility of one of the three Army Groups, although some measure of cooperation was always intended. Army Group North was to capture Leningrad, with some help from Army Group Center before it turned southeast toward Moscow.
German progress was rapid in the beginning of the invasion, and Army Group North drew within striking distance of Leningrad in two months of fighting. Soviet efforts at defense were ill-coordinated, and Stalin and his high command, the Stavka, tried several times without success to bring them under control. On July 14, 1941, Marshal Voroshilov proclaimed that Leningrad was to be defended with all possible effort.
The vanguard of the German advance passed within range of Leningrad’s artillery on August 19, marking this date as the official beginning of the battle. Within three weeks, Leningrad was largely surrounded. The Finns, from whom the Soviets had seized much of their frontier in 1940, were prepared to return the favor, and the recovery of the lost territory began in earnest on August 20. With the Finns bearing down from the north and the Germans spreading out in the south, the Soviets were increasingly hemmed in. On September 8, the Germans captured a fortress to the east of Leningrad called the Shlissel’burg, effectively completing a ring around the city. For most of the next three years, the main avenue of Soviet reinforcements would be across Lake Ladoga.
Stalin responded to this unfolding disaster by placing a rising star in the Red Army, General Georgi Zhukov, in command of the Soviet defense. Zhukov assumed his new command on September 13; the next day, he was ordering counterattacks that succeeded in buying the Soviets some time and a little bit of room. By the 26th, this front had settled into a relatively static positional war.
Zhukov stretched the truth, at least, when he declared success to Stalin on October 6. He claimed that German attacks had ended, and that he had seen evidence of a shift in German attention to the road to Moscow. The latter point was true enough, but the former was accurate only insofar as the prospect of a ground offensive on the city had dwindled. The Finns were relatively quiescent behind their 1939 borders, while the Germans were preparing for a more protracted conflict. This did not mean, however, that the Germans were adopting a passive posture. Rather, Hitler had changed the nature of the objective presented by Leningrad on September 22. The capture of a live city was no longer an option; only utter destruction was acceptable in the Führer’s eyes. Bombing missions, artillery, starvation and disease were the means to be used. Ground forces were mainly on hand to prevent the city’s rescue.
In light of these orders, the continuation of air and artillery attack on the city combined with the shift to a positional war in a ring around the city should have signaled that Leningrad’s ordeal was only beginning. Stalin accepted Zhukov’s report, however, and summoned the general to Moscow to conduct the defense of that city. The commanders who remained behind settled into a siege posture as well, with an emphasis on ensuring the flow of supplies, which came primarily by boat but also partially by air. Quantities were fairly small in either case, and the Soviet defenders had to make do with limited resources. More surprising is the fact that the flow of material went in both directions. Some civilians were evacuated in this way, but much of the space on outbound trips was taken by goods that were still being produced in Leningrad, including munitions.
Any support for the defenders was unacceptable for the German strategy, and Hitler ordered an attack on the railroad hub of Tikhvin, through which the Soviet resupply effort passed. This objective was taken with heavy losses on November 8, and for two weeks, the state of Leningrad’s defenders reached a new level of desperation. Then the lake froze over, and on November 22, the first resupply effort reached Leningrad across the ice. German control of Tikhvin was effectively nullified, and in any event, Hitler expected a victory at Moscow in December, so German forces were permitted to withdraw from the town on December 18.
The war did not end in 1941, and 1942 saw several offensive efforts on both sides, but always in a role subordinate to fighting in the south. The Soviets sent General Meretskov to relieve the city in early January, although this effort was really an extension of the main counteroffensive around Moscow. In the event, the effort went poorly, and the Germans trapped and captured an entire Shock Army under General Vlassov, who in 1944 would switch sides to aid the Germans. Later in the summer, Hitler decided to send General Manstein north with substantial forces to push for a resolution, but detached pieces of Manstein’s command along the way, ruining the ability of the force to serve as intended. Ultimately, it was only able to aid in the defense of the German lines in the face of a new Soviet offensive under Meretskov, and that effort alone took three months to conclude.
1943 was dominated by the painstaking effort on the part of the Soviets to penetrate the lines around Leningrad and gradually to crack the siege. On January 12, the Soviets began a coordinated effort under the name of Iskra (or Spark) near the Shlissel’burg, and a week later, they had managed to control a narrow corridor to the city. They used this to lay new railroad track, including a portion resting on the frozen surface of the lake, and bring in supplies by rail. The Soviets never lost this narrow corridor, but for the rest of 1943, they built upon it only slowly and with the greatest of effort. For their part, the Germans saw that they could not hold on indefinitely, and made plans for a fighting retreat, but failed to secure Hitler’s permission.
Thus, the Germans were still in position around Leningrad on January 14, 1944, when the Soviets opened a new offensive. The old city of Novgorod was recaptured on the 20th; a week later, the Germans had accomplished under duress what Hitler refused to permit freely. They retreated, and on the 27th, their front lines were no nearer to Leningrad than fifty miles away. That same day, Stalin announced the official end of the siege.
Dear, I.C.B. The Oxford Guide to World War II. Oxford, 1995
Forczyk, Robert. Leningrad 1941-44. Osprey, 2009
Glantz, David M. Siege of Leningrad 1941-1944: 900 Days of Terror. MBI Publishing Company, 2001
Parrish, Thomas. Simon and Schuster Encyclopedia of World War II. Simon and Schuster, 1978
© 2013. All rights reserved.