Leningrad was one of the two major cities of the Soviet Union. Army Group North (AGN) was assigned the task of seizing the city. ANG struck toward Leningrad and during July made rapid progress through the Baltic Republic where they were received as liberators. Then the Germans were slowed by the boggy, forested
country between Lakes Peipus and Ilmen. ANG planned its final drive to Leningrad (August 10). It was here that the German offensive was first blunted. The drive on Lenningrad was part of a pincer movement. The Finns had joined the German invasion in an effort to regain the territory seized by Stalin in 1939-40. The Finns reached their pre-1940 border on the Karelian Isthmus 30 miles north of Leningrad (August 31). Army Group North to the South arrived at the Neva River 10 miles (August 31). southeast of the city. The Finns launched an offensive east of Lake Ladoga toward the Svir River, hoping to join up with Army Goup North driving from the southwest (September 4). Army Group North took Shlisselburg on Lake Ladoga. This severed Leningrad's land links with the rest of the country. Soviet resistance was stiffening, but Lennigrad at this time was within the Hitler's grasp. A confluence of factors, however, combined to save the city. Hitler vascilated as to what was the priority target and where forces should be concentrated. Hitler determined that Leningrad was to be surrounded to avoid costly street fighting. (Later at Stalingradhe changed tactics.) At Liningrad this forced Army Group North into the narrow isthmus to the east, reducing its tactical advantage. Finninsh Field Marshal Baron Carl G. E. Mannerheim, refused to cross the
border and close in from the north. Mannerheim apparently decided that Finland was not going to persue the War beyond retrieving lost Finnish trritory. Then Hitler in on of his many vassilations redeployed Army Group North's panzers (second week of September). This was a critical decession. Hitler left Army Group North only one motorized corps, and ordered that it be held in reserve. In the savage fighting which followed. The Soviets managed to stop the Germans. Lenningrad was, however, cut off from food and fuel. Some supplies could be brought in on an ice road after Lake Ladoga froze, but Stlain refused for several months to evacuate the children. Many were to starve that first Winter. Available food was given primrily to combat troops. The people of the city were put on starvation rations. Refugees without Lenningrad ration cards were left to starve. The Germans subjected the city to incessent artillety fire and Luftwaffe bombing. The German seige lasted more than 2 years. Finally the Red Army opens its offensive to relieve the city (January 15, 1944).
Lenningrad was of course Peter the Great's magnificent city on the Baltic--the crown jewel of Tsarist Russia. The City was remammed to honor Lennin. St. Petersburg was Russia's opening to the West. Russia until Peter was a land locked country. The powerful Swedish monarch controlled the eastern Baltic and blocked Peter's access to the sea. The issue was settled by the Great Northern War (1700-21) which marked the decline of Sweden and the rise of Russia to grear power status. Tsar Peter after reconquering the Ingrian land from Sweden founded the city (May 27, 1703). He named it after his patron saint--the apostle Saint Peter, but it is Peter himself for which the city was best known. Peter built the city almost from scratch. All that was there was the Swedish fortress of Nyenskans and the city Nyen. It was largely marshlands where the river Neva drained into the Gulf of Finland. Peter turned this desolate location into one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. It became referred to as the Venice of the North or the Paris of the East. St. Petersburg became the intelectual and cultural center of Russia, one of the country's two great cities. Among the important cultural facilities of the City was the famed Hermitage Art Museum. Many Tsar's preferred iSt. Ptersburg to the gloomier and more isolated Moscow. This was the case for Rsar Nicholas. It was the storming of the Winter Palace during World war I that marked the end of Tsardom and the launch of the Russian Revolution (1917). After the death of Lenin (1924), the city was remamed in his honor. It was in 1941 one of the largest cities in the world and an important port and industrial city. Its industry included ordnance factories that includedf the massive Kirov Tank Works that produced most of the heavy KV-1 and KV-2 tanks. At the time of World War II, Lenningrad was a city of 2.9 million inhabitants, including 0.4 million children.
One of the main themes of Hitler and the NAZIs from the very beginning was a deep hatred of Soviet Bolshevism. Stalin fir his part entered into a Common Front with the European Demoracies against Fascism and in particular the NAZIs. As a result, it came as huge shock with Stalin and Hitler agreed to a non-aggression pact. Here Stalin seeing the democracies as well as Hitler as a threat was attracted by the opportunity to regain territory that had once been part of the Russian Empire, all of which was territory populated by non-Russian populations. Hitler had war on his mind and saw a peace with Stalin, however, temporary, gave him the opportunity to focus his army on first Poland and then France. What Stalin had not anticipated was that the French Army would collapse after only a few weeks of combat. Ge had anticipated a long bruising war like World war I in wgich Germany would be weakened.
Although it is the NAZI aggressions that are most commonly addressed in World War II histories, the Soviet Union compiled nearly as long a list of aggressions as the NAZIs. Operating within secret protocols to the Non-agression Pact, Hitler and Stalin were in fact close partners in the waging of aggressive war. The Great Patriotic War fought against the NAZIs after the 1941 German invsion came to be an icon in Soviet history. Left unsaid was the fact that Hitler and Stalin were partners in the virtul partition of Europe. After Poland, the first target was Finland, but Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Romania were also targets. The Soviet invasion of Finland had significant repercussions. The Allies for a time considered actively aidinging Finland, but the Germans offensoives in the West soon made that impossible. The poor performance of the Red Army in Finland was a factor in Hitler'd decission to attack the Soviet Union before Britain had been defeated. These aggressions had won the Soviet substantial areas around Lenningrad that seemed to add to the City's security. It had also bought the emnity of the Baltic and Finnish people.
One historian describes Leningrad at peace during the last few weeks of peace. Lenningraders are enjoying the balmy "white nights". Culture despite Stalinist rule flourishes throughout the city. There are composers, writers, musicians and artists. Families with children are vacationing on the warming Baltic coast. [Salisbury] In Moscow Stalin is in denial. The British and Americans warn him of an impending NAZI invasion. Military reports and his own secret service confirm these reports. But Stalin sees a capitalist plot attempting to goad him into provoking the Germans.
The Battle of Britain in many ways changed the course of the War. An invasion of Britain was impossible without air superiority. Hitler, fearing a cross-Channel invasion, decided that the only way to force the British to seek terms was to destroy the Soviet Union. He began shifting the Wehrmacht eastward to face the enemy that he had longed to fight from the onset--Soviet Russia. The nature of the War changed decisevely in the second half of 1941. The Germans invaded Russia in June 1941, launching the most sweeping military campaign in history. It is estimated that on the eve of battle, 6.25 million men faced each other in the East. The Soviets were surprised and devestated. Stalin ignored warnings from the British who as a result of Ultra had details on the German preparations. Stalin was convinced that they were trying to draw him into the War and until the actual attack could not believe that Hitle would attack him. The attack was an enormous tactical success. The Soviets were surprised and devestated. The Soviet Air Force was destoyed, largely on the ground. The Germans captured 3.8 million Soviet soldiers in the first few months of the campaign. No not knowing the true size of the Red Army, they thought they had essentally won the War. German columns seized the major cities of western Russia and drove toward Leningrad and Moscow. But here the Soviets held. The Japanese decission to strike America, allowed the Sovierts to shift Siberian reserves and in December 1941 launch a winter offensive stopping the Whermacht at the gates of Moscow--inflicting irreplaceable losses. The army that invaded the Soviet Union had by January 1942 lost a quarter of its strength. Hitler on December 11 declared war on America--the only country he ever formally declared war on. In an impassioned speech, he complained of a long list of violations of neutality and actual acts of war. [Domarus, pp. 1804-08.] The list was actually fairly accurate. His conclusion, however, that actual American entry into the War would make little difference proved to a diasterous miscalculation. The Germans who months before had faced only a battered, but unbowed Britain now was locked into mortal combat with the two most powerful nations of the world. The British now had the allies that made a German and Japanese victory virtually impossible. After the Russian offensive of December 1941 and apauling German losses--skeptics began to appear and were give the derisory term " Gröfaz "
The extraordinary heroism of the citizens of Leningrad is one of the great sagas of World War II. No city except perhaps Warsaw and Stalingrad suffered more than Lenningrad. The sad experiences and the suffering are without parallel. There are countless tales. And of course the children and elderly were the most at rixk. One of the most tragic is the diary of a little girl whose entire family starved. Or the old man who was driven to desperation by starvation to eat his cherished pet cat and the hanged himself as he could not live without it. [Salisbury] Thousands of Leningraders strarving or freezing to death. Through all the suffering and death one must bear in mind what Hitler had in mind for the city and its inhabitants. His plans were virtually incomprehensable. They were the same for both Leningrad and Moscow. He planned to compeltely erradicate the city and its people--wipe both cities and their millions of inhbitants off the face of the earth.
The Wehrmacht's Army Group North was assigned the task of seizing the Baltic Republics which had been occupied by Stalin and then Lenningrad, the second most important city in the Soviet Union. Field Marshal Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb commanded Army Group North. He was not one of Hitler's favorites, but was a highly respected Wehrmacht professional. He participated in the occupation of the Sudetenland (1938) and commanded Army Group C in the invasion of France (1940). To accomplish this Von Leeb had only 20 divisions. His forces were oranized into the 16th Army (led by Busch), the 18th Army (led by von Küchler), and the 4th Panzergruppe (led by Hoepner). These forces were supported by Luftflotte I. The Spanish Blue Division joned the Germans (September 1941). Army Group North was the smallest and weakest of the three German Army Groups participating in Barbarossa. Although not part of the Army Group North structure, Finland, which had been attacked by the Soviet Union in the Winter War (1940-41), agreed to join in Barbarossa as a co-belgerant. Of all the countries with joined the NAZIs on the Eastern Front, the Finns and Spanish proved the most reliable. The Finns had, however, limited objectives and the Spanish committed only one division.
Barbarossa was not just a miitary campaign, it was the beginning of a genocide against the Slavic people of Eastern Europe. The Jews were the first target, but a similar fate awaited the Slavs. The instrument of NAZI genocide before the development of the death camps and industrialized murder was the Einsatzgruppen. These units were paramilitary formations formed before the invasion of the Soviet Union and assigned the task of killing Jews, gypsies and Communist Functionaries behind the front lines in the areas conquered by the Wehrmacht. The Einsatzgruppen were composed of operational units known as Einsatzkommandos. There were four Einsatzgruppen. Einsatzgruppen A was commanded by SS-Brigadeführer Franz Stahlecker, a protoge of Heydrich fom the SD. They were assigned to the northern Army Group driving from East Prussia throuh the Baltics tooward Lenningrad. The Einsatzgruppe were relatively small units. Each Einsatzgruppe had about 600-1,000 men at any given point. The active members were drawn from various military and security organizations. The primary source was the Waffen-SS. Einsatzgruppen A was composed of Waffen-SS (340), Gestapo (89) Security Service--SD (35), Order Police (133), and Kripo (41). [Taylor, p.501.] The grisly work of the
Einsatzgruppen within days after the launch of Barbarossa. The Einsatzgruppen followed in the wake of the Wehrmacht. At the time of the defense of Lenningrad the operations of Einsatzgruppen and other German attrocities were not wellknown. Only after the Winter Offence before Moscow (December 1941) did the Red Army retake occupied towns and villages and seecwhat the NAZIs were doing. The work of Einsatzgruppen A was not discovered until 1944 when the Red Army broke the seige of Lenningrad and began to drive into the Baltics.
The rapidity and the direction of Army Group North's thrust thtough the Baltics made it clear that the objective was Lenningrad. The city had some natural defenses, the Baltic (Gulf of Finland) to the west and Lale Lagoda to the west. The gepgraphy not only made it obvious where the German attack would come, but deprived the Wehrmahct of its greatest advantage--room for maneuver with its powerful Panzer forces. Between those two natural obstacles the Soviet set the population of the City at work building one of the most formidable defensive lines of World War II. THe Soviet built a series of concentric lines which eventuallu totaled 620 miles of earth works, 400 miles of anti-tank ditches, 370 miles of anti-infantry barbed wire entaglenents, and 5,000 pillboxes. These defenses were built by 0.3 million members of the Young Communist League and 0.2 million additional citzens, both men and women joined in this enormous construction project as the Von Leeb's panzers drove toward the City.
Army Group North stormed into Lithuania from East Prussia (June 22). They were opossed by General Kuznetzov's Northwestern Front. Von Leeb smashed through the Dvina Line and then the Stalin Line entering into Latvia. The rapid progrress through July was slowed by the boggy, forested country between Lakes Peipus and Ilmen. Hitler throughout the Summer was constantly interfearing with his generals and making changes in objectives and deployment. Army Group Center was by far the strongest formation. Its task was to seize Moscow and because the bulk of the Red Army was deployed there his generals believed that their lay the opportunity to deal a death blow to the Soviet Union. Hitler to the horror of his commanders constantly peeled off important elements of Army Group Center to support operations north and south. In the hope of taking Lenningrad Hitler ordered that the 3rd Panzergruppe (led by Hoth) be detached from Arny Group Center (July 1941). The Panzers broke through the Soviet defenses and the German 16th Army attacked to the North East (August 8). The 18th Army cleared Estonia and advanced east to Lake Pipus. The 4th Panzer Army had drove to within 30 miles of Leningrad (end of August) Army Group North planned its final drive to Leningrad (August 10). The drive on Lenningrad was part of a two-front movement. The Finns had joined the German invasion in an effort to regain the territory seized by Stalin in 1939-40. Meanwhile the Finns had pushed South East on both sides of Lake Ladoga reaching the old Finnish Soviet frontier (August 31). But here to the German's horror they went on the defensive and did not press the attack.
It would be up to the Germans to take the city on their own from the south. Army Group North arrived at the Neva River, only 10 miles from the City (August 31).
Less than 2½ months after the launch of Barbarossa, the Wehrmact was at the gates of Lenningrad. Army Group North took Shlisselburg on Lake Ladoga (September 8). This severed Leningrad's land links with the rest of the country. The Germans called for the city to surrender. This began the longest seize of World War II which would last 900 days. Soviet resistance was stiffening, but Lennigrad at this time was within the Hitler's grasp. A confluence of factors, however, combined to save the city. Hitler vascilated as to what was the priority target and where forces should be concentrated. Hitler determined that Leningrad was to be surrounded to avoid costly street fighting. (Later at Stalingrad he changed tactics.) At Leiningrad this forced Army Group North into the narrow isthmus to the east, reducing its tactical advantage. And here the Red Army stood behind the hastily built, but formidable defenses.
Finland had joined Barbarossa not as a NAZI ally, butvas a co-beligerant. They had none of the mesianic commitment to war or the racial hatred of the NAZIs. They did want the area of their country back that Stalin had seized in the Winter War (1940-41). I am not sure to what extent the Finns had made that clear in the talks with the Germans preceeding Barbarossa. Finnish Field Marshal Baron Carl G. E. Mannerheim, refused to cross the old Soviet-Finnish
border and close in on Leningrad from the north. Mannerheim apparently decided that Finlad nd was not going to persue the War beyond retrieving lost Finnish territory.
Then Hitler in on of his many vassilations redeployed Army Group North's panzers (second week of September). This was a critical decession. Hitler finally resolved his indecision about Moscow. It was now to be the primary focus. Panzer Groups 2 and 3 were to drive toward Moscow. And they were to be reinforced by Panzer Group 4 which had been deployed with Aeny Group North on the Lenningrad front.
Hitler with Führer Directive 35 left Von Leeb and Army Group North only one motorized corps, and ordered that it be held in reserve. Von Leeb began the final push towards Leningrad (September 9). The Germans were 7 miles from the City. Hitler thought the City was his, however, he ordered Vom Leeb not to storm it. He did not want the Wehrmacht to be destroyed in street fighting. (The Wehrmacht's subsequent failure to take Lenningrad may have influenced his later decesion in Stalingrad.) Rather Von Leeb was ordered to starve the City into submission.
Marshal Zhukov is one of the great commanders of World War II. He is one of the young officers whose careers were advanced by Stalin's devestating Red Army Purges. He was advanced to Chief of Staff. He played a desisive role at the critical battles of the War. This began even before the War when Zhukov oversaw the offensive against the Japanese 16th Arny at the Khalka River (July-August 1939). At the time of Barbarosa, Stalin had promoted Zhukov to Red Army Chief of Staff. Eben with stalin, however, Zhukov was no yes man. When the Germans began to encircle Kiev, he advised a withdrawl. Stalin refused and dismissed Zhukov. The result was a massive Soviet defefeat. The Germans bagged 0,6 million Red Army soldiers at Kiev. Zhukov was assigned to oversee the defenses of Lenningrad.
The Germans were anxious to seize Lenningrad. Victory there would have allowed Army Group North to turn south and join Army Group Center's assault on Moscow. The desive battle in the defense of Leningrad was fought at Tikhvin, about 100 km east of the City (October-December 1941). Von Leeb until approaching Lenningrad had not experienced a well-organized Red Army defense. This changed when he encountered the defenses of the City and Zhukov's defensive tactics. Hitler transferred forces from Army Group North to Army Group Center to strengthen the drive toward Moscow. Von Leeb with his forces depleted by Hitler's orders concentrated his remaining strength for an attack on Tikhvin, a key rail center. Von Leeb decided that rather than continue to assult Lenningrad's formidable defenses to move southeast around the City and Lake Ladoga and link up with the Finnish forces to the east of the Lake. This would complete the isolation of the City. The German capture of Tikhvin would mean the loss of the last Soviet rail link to the southeast coast of the Lake Ladoga. Von Leeb believed that this would compel Lenningrad to capitulate. The Germans entered Tikhvin after heavy fighting (November 8). This was, however, not to be an another easy victory for the Germans. The weather had turned cold and the Gernans were having serious supply problems as well as difficulty with their equipment freezing up. Kirill Meretskov, the newly appointed commander of the Soviet 4th Field Army aggressively resisted further German advances. Stripped of Panzers forces, Army Group North was vulnerable. Meretskov managed to retake Tikhvin (December 10). It was at Tikhvin that the Red Army delivered the first substantial defeat of the Wehrmacht. And on the same day, Zhukov who had been recalled to Moscow to organize the capital's defenses launched the Red Army offense before Moscow. Rather than being able to support Army Group Central, Von Leeb was forced to ask for support to maintain the Lenningrad front.
The Soviets managed to stop the Germans in the savage fighting which followed. ThecGerman drive brought the Germans within artillery range of the City. The Germans subjected the city to incessent artillety fire and Luftwaffe bombing.
Lenningrad's 2.9 million civilians and influx of 0.5 million defenders were cut off from the rest of the Soviet Union. The city with its huge population was unprepared for a seige. Food and fuel stocks were very limited, sufficent only for about 1-2 months. `Public transportation ceased to operate. As Winter 1941-42 descended on the City there was no heating, no city water, almost no electricity, and pitifully little food. The Winter proved to be particularly severe. The food rations fell to only 125 grams (about 1/4 of a pound) of bread per day (January 1942). The result was mass mortalities. An estimated 0.2 million Leningraders died at the peak of the winter due to starvation and the cold (January-Febrruary 1942).
Even so the defenses held and some war plants continued to operate. The cold winter weather offered one advantage. A roads was built over frozen Lake Ladoga--the famous "Road of Life" ("Doroga zhizni"). This allowed some supplies could be brought in on the ice road, but Stlain refused for several months to evacuate the children. Many were to starve that first Winter. Available food was given primrily to combat troops. The people of the city were put on starvation rations. Refugees without Lenningrad ration cards were left to starve.
Several hundred thousand people were eventually evacuated from the City.
Hitler is finally forced to abandon the attack on Moscow (December 5). The Japanese decission to strike America, allowed the Soviets to shift Siberian reserves west to stop the Germans. The failure of the Axis to coordinate strategy doomed Barbarossa. A Japanese spy in Tokyo had informed Stalin well before the actual attack on Pearl Harbor. The Soviet Siberian forces were well trained in Winter warfare, Zukov launched his winter offensive stopping the Whermacht at the gates of Moscow (December 6). German intelligence failed to pick up any indication of the Soviet preparations. The Wehrmacht was stuned at the extent of the Soviet offensive, assuming that the staggering victories in the Summer had crippled the Red Army. There were no preparations made such as winter clothing or assessing the performance of weapons in extemely cold winter conditions. Hitler had assummed that the camapign would defeat the Soviets in a summer campaign before the onset of Winter. The Soviets inflict staggering losses of men and material--irreplaceable losses. Hitler demanded that the Whermacht stand and fight. He even replaces Guderian for disobeying his order not to withdraw (December 20). (Guderian was reportedly only rearranging his front line in order to shorten and make it more defensible.) Hitler's obstinancy may have saved the Wehrmacht from an even greater dissater than what ocurred. An entire Germany Army, the 16th Army of more than 90,000 men, was essentially cut off and only supplied with an enormous effort by the Luftwaffe. A land corridor was not restablished until April 1942. The massive Axis army that invaded the Soviet Union had by January 1942 lost a quarter of its strength amd huge quantities of tanks, artillery, and supplies. These losses of men and material by the Wehrmacht were especially grevious and Germany did not have the manpower resources or industrial capacity to fully repace and reequip a new army. Most accounts of World War II point to Stalingrad as the turning point of the War. The Soviet stand before Moscow may have been the decisive action of the War. It certainly meant that Germany had lost its best opprtunity to destroy the Soiviet Union and Red Army. What many historians fail to note is that while the Wehrmct had occupied large areas of the Soviet Union, they were still, on the perifery of Russia. What they had occupied was the Baltics, Poland, Belarus, and areas of the Ukraine. Russia, much of the Soviet arms industry, and key resources like oil was still in Soviet hands.
The German seige lasted nearly 3 years. The Red Aemy offensive before Moscow (December 1941) dealt a devestating blow to the Wehrmacht. The German losses in men and material was staggering. The Wehrmacht in fact never recovered from the losses. As a result, when the Germans prepared their 1942 summer offensive they did not have the capability to launch attacks all along the front. Hitler attracted by the resources of the Ukraine and Caucauses chose the south. This left the nprthern front around Lenningrad relatively quiet. Neither side had the resources to launch major attacks. After the 1942 offensive ended in disaster at Stalingrad, Hitler again chose the south in 1943, attacking at Kursk (July 1943). The German situation had deteriorated to the point that they could only mount at attack in one sector of the southern front. It would be the largest tank battle in history. Kursk was another costly German defeat. During all of 1942-43 the Germans maintained the siege of Leningrad. The Soviets held on to Tikhvin and thus were able to supply the Lenningrad defenders.
The Red Army afters its victory at Kursk (July 1943) seized the initiative on the Eastern Front. At first the Red Army advanced in the south, liberating the western Ukraine. The growing strength of Soviet forces permitted them to launch increasingly successful attacks in the borth. Finally the Red Army opened its offensive in the north to relieve Lenningrad (January 15, 1944). The city was finally relieved (January 27).
World War II was a catasteophe for the Soviet people. And the bulk of the casualties were not in the miltary, but Soviet civilians, both by NAZI atricities, unitentional actions, anfamine. There is no way of knowing the nmber of any certainty. The numbr we see most commonly is about 25 million people, although we see numbers as high as 45 million. What ever the number, it is clear that millions of children were left without theur parents and even more with just one parent. Thus the orphanage system had to be expanded. We do not have details on just what the Soviets did to care for all these children. We note one Lenningerad (St. Petersburg) orphanage--Leningrad Home No. 9, a city that suffered through a devistating 900-day NAZI seige.
Glantz, David. The Battle for Leningrad, 1941-1944 (Lawrence, KS, 2002).
Haupt, Werner. Army Group North: The Wehrmacht in Russia 1941-1945.
Pavlov, Dmitri V. Leningrad 1941: The Blockade. Translated by John Clinton Adams. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1965).
Salisbury, Harrison E. The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad. This is the definitive work about the heroic resistance of the people of Lenningrad to NAZI aggression.
Taylor, Telford. The Anatomy of the Nuremberg Trials: A Personal Memoir.
Navigate the CIH World war II Section:
[Return to Main Barbarossa page]
[Return to Main military style page]
[Biographies] [Campaigns] [Children] [Countries] [Deciding factors] [Diplomacy] [Geo-political crisis] [Economics] [Home front] [Intelligence]
[POWs] [Resistance] [Race] [Refugees] [Technology] [Totalitarian powers]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Images] [Links] [Registration] [Tools]
[Return to Main World War II page]
[Return to Main war essay page]
[Return to CIH Home page]