8 September 1941–27 January 1944

The Siege of Leningrad, the Soviet Union’s second largest city, was one of the longest and most destructive sieges in the history of warfare. This lengthy blockade was undertaken by Army Group North, the Spanish Blue Division and the Finnish Army between 1941 and 1944, and resulted in the deaths of an estimated 700,000 civilians.

Leningrad was a vital city in the Soviet Union. By 1940, it had a population of 2.54 million, making it the fourth largest city in Europe. Its factories produced about 10 per cent of the Soviet Union’s entire industrial output, including much of its high-quality steel and the new KV-1 heavy tank.

As war in Europe approached, Stalin resolved to safeguard Leningrad by pushing the Soviet Union’s vulnerable border areas back as far as possible from the city. After Finland refused to sell part of the Karelian Isthmus adjoining the Leningrad Military District, the Red Army seized the land by force between November 1939 and March 1940. Next, Stalin moved against the pro-German Baltic republics, and in June 1940, Soviet troops marched into Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. After this, Stalin moved three armies with 440,000 troops into the former Baltic States in an effort to secure Leningrad against any threats from the west.

Leningrad was not identified as a major target in the planning for Operation Barbarossa. However, Hitler was adamant that it should receive equal priority with Moscow and Kiev on the axes of advance. It lay in the path of Army Group North, led by Field Marshal Ritter von Leeb, which consisted of the Sixteenth and Eighteenth Armies and General Erich Hoepner’s 4th Panzer Group, totalling 475,000 troops in 28 divisions.

In the opening days of Barbarossa, Leningrad’s ability to defend itself was seriously compromised. The Soviet forces in the Baltic States were badly defeated in the first 18 days, with most of their tanks and aircraft lost. Some 30,000 civilian volunteers in Leningrad were employed to help build defensive fieldwork on the approaches to the city, and 160,000 recruits were organized into eight people’s militia divisions in July. These divisions fought a successful delay on the Luga River that stopped Army Group North’s headlong advance towards Leningrad for nearly a month. By the time the Germans finally overwhelmed the Luga Line on 16 August, Leningrad’s defenders had built a series of dense fortified lines on the south-west approaches to the city.

However, the German advance shifted eastwards, severing the Leningrad–Moscow rail line at Chudovo on 20 August. With Soviet forces in retreat, von Leeb dispatched XXXIX Army Corps to encircle Leningrad from the south-east while massing the rest of Army Group North for a direct assault on the city.

By 2 September 1941, Finnish forces had advanced to the 1939 borders between Finland and the Soviet Union. On 4 September, German artillery began shelling Leningrad, and four days later the city was entirely surrounded by Army Group North. The German encirclement trapped four armies – the 8th, 23rd, 42nd and 55th – inside the city and the nearby Oranienbaum salient, with a total of 20 divisions and over 300,000 troops. There were about 30 days’ food reserves on hand in the city, but this was further reduced when the Luftwaffe bombed the Badaev food warehouses on 8 September.

General Georgy Zhukov, newly appointed commander of the Leningrad Front, arrived on 9 September as General Georg-Hans Reinhardt’s XXXXI Army Corps began to assault the outer defences of the city. On 16 September, the German XXXVIII Army Corps reached the Gulf of Finland, and the following day, the German 1st Panzer Division managed to approach to within 12km of the city. Zhukov launched a 16-day counter-offensive westward towards Siniavino beginning on 10 September, but this failed to take its objective and casualties were heavy.

On 8 November 1941, in an effort to eliminate the final Soviet links to the encircled city by severing the rail lines that supported the Lake Ladoga barge traffic, the Germans captured Tikhvin. Without this rail junction, the food situation in the city became critical. However, 11 days later a Soviet counter-attack led by 4th Army was launched and it was retaken on 9 December; the Germans, threatened by encirclement, withdrew west.

Meanwhile, on 22 November 1941, the first major Soviet truck convoy managed to cross Lake Ladoga on an ice road and bring some relief to Leningrad. The civilian death toll continued to rise: during the last four months of 1941, German artillery fired over 30,000 rounds into Leningrad, which, in addition to air raids, killed about 4,000 civilians.

On 6 January 1942, the newly established Soviet Volkhov Front launched the Lyuban winter counter-offensive aimed at breaking the blockade. In March, the Soviet 2nd Shock Army was cut off in the Volkhov swamps by German forces.

The Soviets launched a series of failed offensives against the Siniavino Heights over the summer of 1942, but it was not until 18 January 1943 that the Soviet 2nd Shock Army and 67th Army linked up north of Siniavino, establishing a small land corridor into Leningrad. On 15 September 1943, the XXX Guards Rifle Corps finally captured the Heights.

Army Group North watched anxiously. Occupying a relatively inactive front, it had been neglected during most of 1942, had not fully replaced its losses of the previous winter, and was committed to a static defense that might be attacked at any of a number of critical points. Around Leningrad, particularly at the “bottleneck”—the narrow tie-in to Lake Ladoga—Army Group North functioned as the main support of German strategy in northern Europe. If the hold on Leningrad were broken, Germany would, in the long run, lose control of the Baltic Sea. Finland would then be isolated; the iron ore shipping from Sweden would be in danger; and the all-important submarine training program would be seriously handicapped.

In the 16 months they had held the “bottleneck” the Germans had built a tight network of defenses in the swampy terrain and had converted Schlüsselburg, several small settlements, and scattered patches of woods into fortified strongpoints. But, with only six to eight miles between fronts, one facing west and the other east, the defenders had little room to maneuver. The Russians had found highly instructive their experience in the summer, and in the intervening months had rehearsed every tactic and maneuver for taking each individual German position. This method the Germans themselves had used in 1940 to train for the assaults on the Belgian forts.

The attack on the “bottleneck” began on 12 January. Sixty-seventh Army, its troops wearing spiked shoes to help them climb the frozen river bank, struck across the ice on the Neva River while Second Shock Army, on the east, threw five divisions against a 4-mile stretch of the German line. Methodically, the Russians chopped their way through, and by the end of the first week had taken Schlüsselburg and opened a corridor to Leningrad along the lake shore. Thereafter, in fighting that lasted until the first week of April, the two Soviet fronts made little headway. When the fighting ended, they held a strip 6 miles wide, all of it within range of German artillery. When the battle ended, Army Group North claimed a defensive victory, but its hold on the second city of the Soviet Union was not as tight as before.

In the summer of 1943 the Army Group North zone, by comparison with the other army group zones, was quiet. In a battle that flared up toward the end of July around Mga, Leningrad Front’s performance fell far below that of the commands operating against Army Groups Center and South. The front-line strengths of the opposing forces in the Army Group North zone were almost equal. The army group had 710,000 men. Leningrad, Volkhov, Northwest, and Kalinin Fronts, the latter straddling the Army Group North-Army Group Center boundary, had 734,000 men. For the future, however, Army Group North also had to reckon with some half a million reserves echeloned in depth behind the northern fronts. In artillery the two sides were about equal, but again the Russians were known to have substantial reserves. In mid-July Army Group North had 49 tanks, 40 fit for combat. The Russians had 209 tanks at the front and an estimated 843 in reserve. By 15 September Army Group North had 7 tanks still serviceable. In the last six months of 1943, First Air Force, which was responsible for air operations in the army group zone, flew just half as many sorties as its Russian opponents.

During August air reconnaissance detected increasing enemy activity off both Army Group North flanks. A rise in the number of boats making the short but extremely hazardous trip in the Gulf of Finland between Leningrad and the Oranienbaum pocket indicated that the Russians might soon attempt to break out and unite the pocket with the front around Leningrad. In the south Kalinin Front, under Yeremenko, began a build-up opposite the Army Group North-Army Group Center boundary. To meet those and other possible threats, the army group created a ready reserve by drawing five infantry divisions out of the front. In the first and second weeks of September the OKH ordered two of the reserve divisions transferred to Army Group South.

On 19 September, in conjunction with the Army Group Center withdrawal to the PANTHER position, Army Group North took over XXXXIII Corps, the northernmost corps of Army Group Center. That transfer brought the army group three divisions, forty-eight more miles of front, and responsibility for defending two important railroad and road centers, Nevel and Novosokol’niki. By late September no one doubted that the Russians were preparing for an offensive in the vicinity of the North-Center boundary. That area of forests, lakes, and swamps, and of poor roads even by Russian standards, heavily infested by strong partisan bands, had long been one of the weakest links in the Eastern Front. During the 1941 winter offensive the Russians had there carved out the giant Toropets salient, and in the 1942-43 winter campaign they had encircled and captured Velikiye Luki and nearly taken Novosokol’niki. Compared with the losses elsewhere, particularly after Stalingrad, these were mere pinpricks; but there always was a chance that the Stavka might one day try the big solution, a thrust between the flanks of the two army groups to the Gulf of Riga.

In the second week of September 1943 Army Group North had begun work on the PANTHER position, its share of the East Wall. The north half of the PANTHER position was laid behind natural obstacles, the Narva River, Lake Peipus, and Lake Pskov. The south half was not so favorably situated. It had to be stretched east somewhat to cover two major road and rail centers, Pskov and Ostrov, and the tie-in to Army Group Center had to be moved west after the Nevel breakthrough. Nevertheless, when it was occupied it would reduce the army group frontage by 25 percent, and, unlike most of the East Wall, it had by late 1943 actually begun to take on the appearance of a fortified line. A 50,000-man construction force had improved the communications lines back to Riga and Dvinsk and had built 6,000 bunkers, 800 of them concrete, laid 125 miles of barbed wire entanglements, and dug 25 miles each of trenches and tank traps. During November and December building material rolled in at a rate of over 100 carloads a day.

In September the army group staff had begun detailed planning for Operation BLAU, the withdrawal to the PANTHER position. The staff estimated that the million tons of grain and potatoes, half a million cattle and sheep, and military supplies and other material, including telephone wire and railroad track to be moved behind the PANTHER line, would amount to 4,000 trainloads. The withdrawal itself would be facilitated by the network of alternate positions that in the preceding two years had been built as far back as the Luga River. The 900,000 civilians living in the evacuation zone, particularly the men who could, if they were left behind, be drafted into the Soviet Army, raised problems. The first attempts, in early October, to march the civilians out in the customary treks produced so much confusion, misery, and hostility that Küchler ordered the rear area commands to adopt less onerous methods. Thereafter they singled out the adults who would be useful to the Soviet Union as workers or soldiers and evacuated most of them by train. During the last three months of the year the shipments of goods and people went ahead while the armies worked at getting their artillery and heavy equipment, much of which was sited in permanent emplacements, ready to be moved. At the end of the year, having transported 250,000 civilians into Latvia and Lithuania, the army group could not find quarters for any more and called a halt to that part of the evacuation.

The army group staff believed that logically BLAU should begin in mid-January and be completed shortly before the spring thaw, in about the same fashion as Army Group Center had executed BÜFFEL the year before, but on 22 December the chief of staff told the armies that Hitler would probably not order BLAU unless another Soviet offensive forced him to. At the moment, Hitler’s opinion was that the Russians had lost so many men in the fighting in the Ukraine that they might not try another big offensive anywhere before the spring of 1944.

Toward the end of the month it appeared, in fact, that Hitler might be right. The bulge on the Army Group North right flank was worrisome, but the Stavka had shifted the weight of the offensive to Vitebsk, for the time being at least. In the Oranienbaum pocket and around Leningrad the Leningrad and Volkhov Fronts had been ready to attack since November, but with the trouble at Nevel out of the way the army group was less concerned than it had been. Intelligence reports from Eighteenth Army indicated that the units in the Oranienbaum pocket, in particular, had been strengthened; and boat traffic between Leningrad and Oranienbaum had been usually heavy during the fall, continuing until some boats were trapped in ice. On the other hand, almost no new units had appeared, and Leningrad Front seemed to be depending for its reinforcements on the Leningrad population. While an offensive sometime in January appeared a near certainty, the longer Eighteenth Army’s intelligence officers looked the closer they came to convincing themselves it would be cut in the modest pattern of the three earlier offensives around Leningrad.

On 29 December the OKH ordered Küchler to transfer to Army Group South one of his best divisions, the 1st Infantry Division which Eighteenth Army was depending on to backstop some of its less reliable units in the Oranienbaum-Leningrad sector. When Küchler called to protest, Zeitzler told him he would not need the division; Hitler intended to execute Operation BLAU after all and would tell him so personally the next day. During the noon conference in the Führer headquarters on 30 December, Küchler, expecting to receive his orders, reported on the state of the PANTHER position and the time he would need to complete BLAU. In passing, he remarked that he had talked to Generaloberst Georg Lindemann, Commanding General, Eighteenth Army, who “naturally” had asked for his army to stay where it was even though he lost 1st Infantry Division. To a question from Hitler, Küchler replied that the Eighteenth Army front was well fortified, almost too well, in fact, since the army did not have enough troops to man it completely. Hitler then terminated the conference without mentioning Operation BLAU.

Küchler did not fully realize what had happened until the next day, after an order had come in to transfer another good division to Army Group South. Zeitzler told the army group chief of staff that Hitler had begun to falter in his decision as soon as Küchler made the remark about Lindemann’s wanting to keep his army where it was. He thought it would take at least a week to talk Hitler around again. By day’s end the chief of staff had a memorandum marshaling the arguments for BLAU ready for Küchler to sign, but that was scarcely enough. Lindemann would have to be persuaded to reverse himself, since in such instances if in almost no others Hitler always took the word of the man on the spot.

On 4 January—by then a third division was on its way to Army Group South—Küchler went to Eighteenth Army headquarters and, citing the necessity to husband the army group’s forces, almost pleaded with Lindemann to reconsider. Lindemann replied that his corps, division, and troop commanders in the most threatened sectors were confident they could weather the attack. After that, none of the army group’s arguments counted for much. Hitler told Zeitzler he was only doing what Küchler wanted. Nor could Küchler and his staff draw any comfort from the knowledge that Lindemann was probably motivated mainly by a desire to draw attention to himself—as a senior army commander he had never had so good an opportunity to show what he could do directly under the eyes of the Führer. No less disquieting for the army group was the knowledge that it was committed to repeating an error which had already been made too often in the Ukraine. To the operations chief at OKH the chief of staff said the army group was marching to disaster with its eyes open, putting forces into positions which in the long run could not be held.