The Struggle Outside Leningrad


Soviet soldiers in a trench along the front in September 1941.


  1. 4 January: The Soviet 54th Army attacks the seam of I and XXVIII AK near Pogost’e with two divisions, but is easily repulsed by a German counterattack.
  2. 6 January: Galanin’s 59th Army attacks on a wide front both north and south of Chudovo, but gains only two small bridgeheads across the Volkhov: a Two ski battalions succeed in gaining a toehold in the 61. Infanterie- Division sector. b The 305th Rifle Division and several brigades of the 2nd Shock Army cross the Volkhov near the seam of the 126. and the 215. Infanterie- Divisionen.
  3. 6 January: Ivanov’s 4th Army fails to cross Volkhov south of Kirishi. Although it tried again on 13 January, 4th Army failed to close a pincer around the German I AK.
  4. 7 January: the 305th Rifle Division and brigades of 2nd Shock Army succeed in creating a small hole in the security zone of the 126. Infanterie-Division, but cannot penetrate the main line of resistance.
  5. 13-17 January: Meretskov reinforces the small 59th Army bridgehead and renews the offensive. After four days, a small breakthrough is achieved and 2nd Shock Army’s spearheads advance ten kilometres.
  6. 13-17 January: Fediuninsky’s 54th Army renews attack near Pogost’e and succeeds in capturing the town, but is stopped by German reinforcements.
  7. 21-24 January: The 2nd Shock Army continues to fight its way through the German defences but cannot capture the strongpoints at Spasskaya Polist. Meretskov commits the 13th Cavalry Corps into the breach to exploit.
  8. 25-30 January: Kuchler and Lindemann rush forces to the area to seal off the Soviet breakthrough: a 285. Sicherungs-Division, a Kampfgruppe from 20. Infanterie- Division (mot.) and 2. SS-lnfanterie-Brigade (mot.) form blocking positions on the southern side of the penetration. b The 58. Infanterie-Division arrives to counterattack the southern side of the penetration. c Elements of the 291. Infanterie-Division are transferred from Kirishi to defend the southern approaches to Lyuban. d The SS-Polizei-Division arrives to counterattack the northern side of the penetration.
  9. Line reached by 2nd Shock Army spearheads by end of January 1942. 10 9-20 March: Fediuninsky’s 54th Army resumes the attack near Pogost’e in March and achieves a substantial penetration before stopped by German reserves.

Hitler’s plans for 1942 included capturing Leningrad, as well as Operation Blau, his plan for a southward push toward the Caucasus and Central Asia, but the Germans apparently didn’t realize that they were already dangerously overstretched along the Eastern Front. Making matters worse, the Red Army was beginning to make use of its superior reserves, which began to include women. Women had originally been drafted into the army to fill support positions, but by the spring of 1942, they were being trained and sent to the front as fighter and bomber pilots, anti-aircraft gunners, observers, snipers, mine-clearers and infantrymen. By the end of the war, roughly 800,000 women had served in the Red Army.

As the German offensive along the Eastern Front ground to a halt, one of the problems that German leaders pointed to after the war ended was the effect of the winter weather on German units. The winter of 1941-1942 was especially cold, even by Russian standards, and the Germans found that the weather was an “unforeseen catastrophe, paralyzing everything. On the Leningrad front, with a temperature of 42 degrees below zero, not a rifle, not a machine-gun nor a field-gun has been working on our side.” (Reid, p.314) Meanwhile, German soldiers were reduced to either stealing clothing and blankets from Russian peasants, or taking clothing and boots from Russian corpses left on the battlefield. As one German soldier wrote about their desperate situation: “Their felt boots, unfortunately, we have to cut from their feet, but they can be sewn back together again. We’re not yet as bad as the 2nd Battalion, who chop the dead Russians’ legs off and thaw them out on top of their stove in their bunker.” (Reid, p. 316)

Like the German soldiers, the Russians also suffered from the extreme cold of the winter, and many of the Red Army soldiers stationed within the siege ring also starved to death due to disorganization, theft, and corruption. While at its lowest, Russian soldiers were supposed to receive 500 grams of bread and 125 grams of meat per day, but they often received very little food. An infantryman named Semen Putyakov described the dire conditions of soldiers at Leningrad when he wrote about his experiences. On January 8, he wrote, “Gnawed on horse-bones during wood chopping. Hunger, hunger. My swollen face isn’t going down. They say there’ll be ration increases, but I don’t believe it.” In describing the other men in his unit, he wrote about their “disgusting starvation deaths” and how “it would be better to die in battle with the fascists” than to starve to death within the siege ring (Reid, p.317).

Starvation forced Russian soldiers into extreme acts including killing food carriers who were taking food up to units on the front because they were failing to get their allotted amount of food. As one army officer recalled, “In early January 1942 the divisional commander started getting urgent calls from regimental and battalion commanders, saying that this or that group of soldiers hadn’t been fed, that the carrier hadn’t appeared with his canteen, having apparently been killed by German snipers. Thorough checks revealed that something unbelievable was happening: soldiers were leaving their trenches early in the morning to meet the carriers, stabbing them to death, and taking the food. They would eat as much as they could, then bury the murdered carrier in the snow and hide the canteen before returning to their trenches. The murderer would go back to the place twice a day, first finishing off the contents of the canteen and then cutting pieces of human flesh and eating those too. To give you some idea of the numbers I can tell you that in my division in the winter of 1941-2, on the front line alone – taking no account of units in the rear – there were about twenty such cases.” (Reid, p. 320)

Even though the soldiers stationed at Leningrad were in poor condition, Stalin ordered them to join a winter offensive that first winter because he believed the attack would allow the Soviet Union to recapture Smolensk, parts of Ukraine, and liberate Leningrad. While 326,000 troops took part in the offensive, General Kirill Meretskov, the commanding officer in charge, pleaded for more time to plan the attack and to maneuver his units into position. Instead, Stalin refused to back down from his original timeline of an early January attack, and in the end, Meretskov likely decided to comply because of his fear of being purged, a fate that had occurred to many Red Army officers during Stalin’s rule.

As Meretskov no doubt feared, the lack of coordination among Red Army units resulted in the Soviets inflicting little damage to the Germans, and they were unable to drive them back from Leningrad and the other cities. As the German General Franz Halder summed up in his diary in January, “Continued enemy attacks, but nothing on a major scale.” A second attack in February did gain a measure of success when the newly created Soviet Second Shock Army managed to force a pocket in the German lines, but even as 100,000 Soviet soldiers held the pocket, their attempts to widen it were unsuccessful, and on March 2, Hitler ordered German units under the command of Georg von Küchler to cut the pocket off from the main body of the Soviet army. The Germans were successful at trapping the Second Shock Army, with only a small corridor connecting it to the main body of the Soviet forces. By mid-March, the spring thaw had made the corridor impassable, and the Second Shock Army was no longer able to receive supplies from the main body of the Red Army. As one survivor of the Second Shock Army recalled of the desperate situation the Soviet soldiers found themselves in, “We were completely helpless, since we had no ammunition, no petrol, no bread, no tobacco, not even salt. Worst of all was having no medical help. No medicine, no bandages. You want to help the wounded, but how? All our underwear has gone for bandages long ago; all we have left is moss and cotton wool. The field hospitals are overflowing, and the few medical staff in despair. Many hundreds of non-walking wounded simply lie under bushes. Around them mosquitoes and flies buzz like bees in a hive… The main problem, though, was hunger. Oppressive, never-ending hunger.” (Reid, p. 325)

Eventually, the remnants of the Second Shock Army attempted a breakout, during which many soldiers were either killed or captured. In the aftermath of the war, the surviving members of the Second Shock Army became part of a Soviet narrative that claimed they had engaged in deliberate mass defection to the enemy. Some survivors were hanged for treason, and others had to treat their time in the army as a secret.

Overall, the winter offensive from January-April 1942 along the Leningrad and Volkhov Fronts saw 308,000 Soviet casualties out of 326,000 troops committed to the assault. As one Russian soldier recalled of the offensive that “you couldn’t help thinking and comparing: why are the Germans so well-trained, while all we do is try to overwhelm them with numbers? Why do they use technology and brains, while all we’ve got is bayonets? Why is it that every time we attack, our blood flows in rivers and our dead pile up in mountains? Where are our tanks?” (Reid, p. 329-330)

In the spring and summer of 1942, continued setbacks hit the Red Army. In addition to the defeat of the Second Shock Army, a Russian army of 200,000 men was encircled and forced to surrender at Kharkov, while the Soviets also lost the strategically important port of Sevastopol, home of Russian’s Black Sea Fleet, where 106,000 Soviet troops defended the city for about five months against a combined 203,000 German and Romanian soldiers until Stalin finally conceded the port city.

Meanwhile, as the spring thaw made its way to Leningrad, the city’s survivors began to return to a measure of normality, even as many city residents dealt with guilt over the death of family and friends over the past winter. As Lidiya Ginzburg wrote of Leningrad’s “Siege Man”:

“Siege people forgot their sensations but remembered facts. Facts crept slowly out from the dimness of memory into the light of rules of behavior which were now gravitating back to the accepted norm.

‘She wanted a sweet so much. Why did I eat that sweet? I needn’t have done. Any everything would have been that little bit better’… Thus Siege Man thinks about his wife or mother, whose death has made the eaten sweet irrevocable. He recalls the fact but cannot summon up the feeling: the feeling of that piece of bread, or sweet, which prompted him to cruel, dishonorable, humiliating acts.” (Reid, p. 334)

For Soviet leaders in Leningrad, the most important issue as spring began was to prevent outbreaks of disease. This required mobilizing citizens to collect the thousands of corpses that had been unburied during the winter, and the cemeteries, which were already overflowing, became mass graves for the winter dead. City leaders also tried to mobilize the remaining city residents into a gardening drive so that the starvation of the previous winter would not be repeated if the siege was not lifted during the year. Leningraders created vegetable gardens in public parks and squares, while many residents also created vegetable boxes in the windows of their apartments.

Leningrad’s leaders also continued to take large quantities of food from the peasants living in rural areas within the siege ring. Understandably, this left the peasants irate with the rest of Leningrad’s residents, and their resentment occasionally took the form of open defiance toward the Soviet government. As one Russian peasant woman stated, “I can’t wait for Soviet rule to end. It has bankrupted the peasants, left us hungry and barefoot, and now you’re stripping us naked. But I’m not going to bow down before you fine gentlemen. Your reign’s coming to an end. You sent all the good people out of the village, but just you wait, it’ll be your turn next.” (Reid, p. 347)

Anna Reid: Leningrad: The Epic Siege of World War II, 1941–1944. Walker and Co., New York 2011. ISBN 978-0-8027-1594-4

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