World War II: Siege of Leningrad

Siege of Leningrad
Anti-aircraft guns during the Siege of Leningrad. (Public Domain)

The Siege of Leningrad took place from September 8, 1941 to January 27, 1944, during World War II. Lasting 872 days, the Siege of Leningrad saw large numbers of casualties on both sides. Despite several assaults, the Germans were unable to bring the Siege of Leningrad to a successful conclusion.

Axis

  • Field Marshal Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb
  • Field Marshal Georg von Küchler
  • Marshal Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim

    Soviet Union

    Background

    In planning for Operation Barbarossa, a key objective for German forces was the capture of Leningrad (St. Petersburg). Strategically situated at the head of the Gulf of Finland, the city possessed immense symbolic and industrial importance. Surging forward on June 22, 1941, Field Marshal Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb's Army Group North anticipated a relatively easy campaign to secure Leningrad. In this mission, they were aided by Finnish forces, under Marshal Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim, which crossed the border with the goal of recovering territory recently lost in the Winter War.

    The Germans Approach

    Anticipating a German thrust towards Leningrad, Soviet leaders began fortifying the region around the city days after the invasion commenced. Creating the Leningrad Fortified Region, they built lines of defenses, anti-tank ditches, and barricades.

    Rolling through the Baltic states, 4th Panzer Group, followed by 18th Army, captured Ostrov and Pskov on July 10. Driving on, they soon took Narva and began planning for a thrust against Leningrad. Resuming the advance, Army Group North reached the Neva River on August 30 and severed the last railway into Leningrad (Map).

    Finnish Operations

    In support of the German operations, Finnish troops attacked down the Karelian Isthmus toward Leningrad, as well as advanced around the east side of Lake Ladoga. Directed by Mannerheim, they halted at the pre-Winter War border and dug in. To the east, Finnish forces halted at a line along the Svir River between Lakes Ladoga and Onega in East Karelia. Despite German pleas to renew their attacks, the Finns remained in these positions for the next three years and largely played a passive role in the Siege of Leningrad.

    Cutting Off the City

    On September 8, the Germans succeeding in cutting land access to Leningrad by capturing Shlisselburg. With the loss of this town, all supplies for Leningrad had to be transported across Lake Ladoga. Seeking to fully isolate the city, von Leeb drove east and captured Tikhvin on November 8. Halted by the Soviets, he was not able to link up with the Finns along the Svir River. A month later, Soviet counterattacks compelled von Leeb to abandon Tikhvin and retreat behind the River Volkhov. Unable to take Leningrad by assault, German forces elected to conduct a siege.

    The Population Suffers

    Enduring frequent bombardment, the population of Leningrad soon began to suffer as food and fuel supplies dwindled.

    With the onset of winter, supplies for the city crossed the frozen surface of Lake Ladoga on the "Road of Life" but these proved insufficient to prevent widespread starvation. Through the winter of 1941-1942, hundreds died daily and some in Leningrad resorted to cannibalism. In an effort to alleviate the situation, attempts were made to evacuate civilians. While this did help, the trip across the lake proved extremely hazardous and saw many lose their lives en route.

    Trying to Relieve the City

    In January 1942, von Leeb departed as commander of Army Group North and was replaced by Field Marshal Georg von Küchler. Shortly after taking command, he defeated an offensive by the Soviet 2nd Shock Army near Lyuban. Beginning in April 1942, von Küchler was opposed by Marshal Leonid Govorov who oversaw the Leningrad Front.

    Seeking to end the stalemate, he began planning Operation Nordlicht, utilizing troops recently made available after the capture of Sevastopol. Unaware of the German build-up, Govorov and Volkhov Front commander Marshal Kirill Meretskov commenced the Sinyavino Offensive in August 1942.

    Though the Soviets initially made gains, they were halted as von Küchler shifted troops intended for Nordlicht into the fight. Counterattacking in late September, the Germans succeeded in cutting off and destroying parts of the 8th Army and 2nd Shock Army. The fighting also saw the debut of the new Tiger tank. As the city continued to suffer, the two Soviet commanders planned Operation Iskra. Launched on January 12, 1943, it continued through the end of the month and saw the 67th Army and 2nd Shock Army open a narrow land corridor to Leningrad along the south shore of Lake Ladoga.

    Relief at Last

    Though a tenuous connection, a railroad was quickly built through the area to aid in supplying the city. Through the remainder of 1943, the Soviets conducted minor operations in an effort to improve access to the city. In an effort to end the siege and fully relieve the city, the Leningrad-Novgorod Strategic Offensive was launched on January 14, 1944. Operating in conjunction with the First and Second Baltic Fronts, the Leningrad and Volkhov Fronts overwhelmed the Germans and drove them back. Advancing, the Soviets recaptured the Moscow-Leningrad Railroad on January 26.

    On January 27, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin declared an official end to the siege.

    The city's safety was fully secured that summer, when an offensive began against the Finns. Dubbed the Vyborg–Petrozavodsk Offensive, the attack pushed the Finns back towards the border before stalling.

    Aftermath

    Lasting 827 days, the Siege of Leningrad was one of the longest in history. It also proved one of the costliest, with Soviet forces incurring around 1,017,881 killed, captured, or missing as well as 2,418,185 wounded. Civilian deaths are estimated at between 670,000 and 1.5 million. Ravaged by the siege, Leningrad had a pre-war population in excess of 3 million. By January 1944, only around 700,000 remained in the city. For its heroism during World War II, Stalin designed Leningrad a Hero City on May 1, 1945. This was reaffirmed in 1965 and the city was given the Order of Lenin.

    Selected Sources

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    Your Citation
    Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Siege of Leningrad." ThoughtCo, Jun. 10, 2017, thoughtco.com/world-war-ii-siege-of-leningrad-2361479. Hickman, Kennedy. (2017, June 10). World War II: Siege of Leningrad. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/world-war-ii-siege-of-leningrad-2361479 Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Siege of Leningrad." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/world-war-ii-siege-of-leningrad-2361479 (accessed December 16, 2017).