One of Hitler’s strategic goals under Operation Barbarossa was Leningrad, the symbolic capital of the Russian Revolution. As Army Group North (comprising 18th Army, 4th Panzer Army and 16th Army) advanced, the Russians formed the defensive Leningrad Front; further defence was created through the split of the northern Front to create the Karelian Front. Army Group North overcame heavy resistance to launch long-range artillery attacks on Leningrad. After severing ground communications, on 8 September they encircled the city and began a sustained and devastating blockade. In the north, the advancing Finnish Defence Forces stopped at the border and completed the encirclement. German tanks were just 16 km (10 miles) from the city. From here they launched a systematic bombardment, which disabled the power stations that supplied Leningrad with electricity. At the beginning of Leningrad’s notoriously hard winter this was a disaster.
During the siege of Leningrad (8 September 1941–27 January 1944) the Germans engaged in a systematic bombardment of civilian and military infrastructure in an attempt to crush the morale of those trapped inside. By the end of 1941 the incendiary bombs and shells fired into the city had destroyed the wooden warehouses in the southern districts along with all the stockpiled food reserves. Under forced labour many civilians were made to build defensive fortifications within the city as a last line of defence should the Germans break through. Transport infrastructure and power was made unavailable for civilian use meaning that many thousands froze and starved to death in the bitter winter temperatures. The only way to generate heat was to burn wood, and citizens resorted to incinerating furniture and flooring in a futile attempt to keep warm. At the beginning of the siege, reserves of many food staples were only adequate for 35-40 days and people were soon getting only 10% of their daily calorific requirement. Pets were consumed, creative ways of bulking up bread with oats, cellulose and cottonseed, were devised. Dead bodies became sources of meat for the desperate – 1,500 Leningraders were arrested for cannibalism. The death toll continued to mount, and bodies piled up in mass graves.
The only supply route into the city was across the frozen waters of Lake Ladoga, the ‘Road of Life’, which was opened in December 1941. Small amounts of supplies could be brought in and people could be evacuated via truck, but it was dangerous – 40 trucks broke through the ice and sank to the bottom of the lake in the first week of operation alone. Nevertheless some one million people – mainy children, the elderly and the sick – were evacuated by this route. The Soviets launched Operation Iskra on 12 January 1943 in an attempt to form a land bridge, whilst taking advantage of the relocation of German forces south. Following an aerial bombardment, the Leningrad and Volkhov Fronts pushed towards each other and eventually made contact on 18 January, forming a ‘Corridor of Death’ 8–10 km (5–6 miles) wide along the southern shore of Lake Ladoga. A rail link was established to supply the city, however, it was highly treacherous as it was within easy striking distance of German artillery.
In January 1944 Soviet forces broke the German line of defence recapturing hundreds of towns and villages, finally lifting the siege on 27 January 1944. “A task of historical importance has been completed,” said General Govorov. “The city of Leningrad has been completely freed of the enemy blockade and of the barbaric artillery shelling.” The siege had lasted 872 days and had claimed the lives of up to 1.5 million soldiers and civilians. The Soviet government awarded the Order of Lenin to the city, giving it the title of ‘Hero City’ for withstanding the siege. Immediately after the war, huge funds were allocated to the city to repair the devastated infrastructure and a museum was built to commemorate the siege.