Soviet forces, in comparison, were of a much poorer quality. Political commissars were attached to every unit and they had a mandate to execute on the spot any soldier who they deemed as failing in their duty, including commanders. Soviet tanks were old and slow and their small guns couldn’t penetrate the armour of the Germans’ much better Panzers. The Red Air Force was practically wiped out.
So when the German Northern Army Group struck through the Baltics and drove towards Leningrad, 800 miles away, the Soviet defenders could do nothing to stop them. As the Wermacht drove through Latvia and Lithuania there was hardly any Soviet resistance: the Russians just ran away.
It wasn’t until August when the Germans reached Russian territory that Soviet defences stiffened. It wasn’t enough to hold the Panzers back, however, especially with complete German supremacy of the air.
Following the disasters at Minsk and Smolensk further south, the Red Army decided not to waste away its northern forces in one-sided battles against the Wermacht and instead pulled them back to Leningrad. There the soldiers and citizens, side by side, prepared the city for a battle bydigging trenches, barricading roads and buildings and setting up anti-aircraft guns on the roofs of tall buildings.
In a pre-arranged move Finland declared war on Russia and, using German equipment, attacked from the north. They were looking to avenge the Winter War and “teach the Russkis a lesson”.
A massive German army approached Leningrad from the south-west while the Finnish army approached from the north. By early November Leningrad was completely surrounded and cut-off from the rest of Russia.
After the Battle of Kiev, where the Germans had had to fight house-to-house for three months, Hitler decided that Leningrad wasn’t worth such a costly battle. So long as this strategic location was isolated it couldn’t pose a threat to the drive on Moscow, so he decided to besiege the city and “starve them out”. German and Finnish artillery ringed the historic city and Army Group North settled down in their trenches to stop anything from coming in or out.
Inside Leningrad the power and water was cut. The only supply route the city had was across Lake Ladoga. The Russians still held the far banks of this enormous inland sea, so every boat that could be found on the lake was requisitioned and food, medicine and ammunition were ferried across while civilians were ferried out of the city. As the boats made the journey day and night, they were under constant attack from German aircraft. Thousands died trying to keep Leningrad alive.
There was never enough food, however, and rationing was instituted in the city of 4 million. At the start of the siege adults were rationed to 100 grams of food per week, but as winter set in and there was no end in sight, that was reduced to 60 grams and then to 30 grams. Children were given less than 10 grams of food per week.
Coal, too, was rationed and by mid-November there was only enough coal to keep some key factories running. The average citizen had to shiver in their apartment without heat.
German artillery shelled the city constantly, and bombers raided it every day. Walking down the street became dangerous but Leningraders soon developed a dark sense of humour about it. “How was your run to work this morning?" people would ask each other.
As the worst winter in 40 years set in, people started dying. They starved to death, they froze to death, they were killed by bombs and shells, and disease spread throughout the city.
Lake Ladoga frozeover and Red Army engineers, under constant attack by the Luftwaffe, built an ice-road. Army trucks took over from the boats but it was still never enough. Leningrad required a bare minimum of 10,000 tons of food a day to survive, but the Army was only able to bring in 4,000 tons. They could only evacuate 2,000 civilians a week, starting with the elderly, children and mothers. Men and women without children could not be evacuated and had to endure the siege.
Many of the ice-truckers fell through bomb craters in the ice. Many of the trucks broke down in the harsh conditions. The ice-road was the only lifeline to Leningrad and the Russians were determined to keep it open. Red Army truckers were willing to sacrifice their lives if they could bring even one load of food to the people of the city.
By January the Germans were being pushed back from the gates of Moscow, but in Leningrad there was no relief in sight. 1,000 people a day were dying in Leningrad by February 1942.
In March the weather warmed and the snow thawed. The ice road was kept open as long as possible but eventually the Russians had to abandon it. Due to large ice flows boats could not cross it. In the city scenes of horror met the people as the snow melted and thousands of bodies were revealed. The people organized themselves into brigades and a massive cleanup was undertaken before disease spread. German guns shelled the city the entire time.
Almost as a miracle the city council was able to get a power connection to the Russian side of the lines and, for the first time since the siege began, the electric trams started working. Although they served no purpose militarily, they buoyed the spirits of the people. The standard fare of 10 kopyecka per passenger (free for children) was even maintained!
In April of 1942 the Red Army launched a limited offensive to the east of Leningrad. They were able to force open a corridor to the city in the German lines and rails were quickly laid by army engineers. By May, trains were bringing food and coal into the city. By this time the German drive onto the Caucasus’ was under way and most of the Luftwaffe planes were needed in the south, so the trains passed through relatively unharmed. 100,000 civilians were evacuated by August, when the Germans managed to pinch off the corridor and resume the siege.
Another autumn and another winter set in for Leningrad, still surrounded and under siege. This time, however, the city was prepared. Throughout the spring and summer every open piece of land was turned into a vegetable garden. Every piece of wood that could be torn off a doorframe or park bench was stockpiled for fuel. The trains had brought warm clothing and medicine and food, and most of the young, old and weak had been evacuated. An additional 100,000 Red Army soldiers had also been brought into the city to help out over the winter. The Germans still shelled and bombed the city but the winter of 1942-1943 was much better in comparison to the previous year. The death rate in Leningrad fell to under 100 per day.
Leningrad rode out the siege for the rest of the winter, and the Red Army garrison was even able to infiltrate behind German lines and wreak havoc with their supplies. In the spring of 1943, following the massive Soviet victory at Stalingrad, far to the south, the Red Army forced open the corridor to Leningrad again. This time the Germans weren’t able to close it. After the battles of Moscow and Stalingrad and the huge battle at Kursk they didn’t have the resources left to maintain all three army groups. Supplies poured into Leningrad, although the city was still in range of German artillery. By late 1943 the Soviets had regained control of the skies over northern Russia and German bombers could no longer roam freely over the city without being shot down.
In the winter of 1943-1944 the Soviets turned their attention to the German Army Group North. 1 million Soviet soldiers with 20,000 tanks, 8,500 artillery pieces and 1,500 aircraft attacked the forces surrounding Leningrad. By this point the Red Army was a different beast than it had been two years earlier. The fearsome T-34 tank could match the German Panzers in a head to head fight, their soldiers were not the down-trodden conscripts of 1941 but were a motivated and avenging citizen’s army defending their homeland. Most of the corrupt commissars had been replaced with driven professionals, and a string of impressive Soviet victories had lifted the spirits of the troops.
The German defences broke apart in the face of such a large offensive and entire divisions were overrun. Army Group North retreated west and the Finns quickly did an about face and pulled back to their own borders. The siege of Leningrad was over.
The siege had lasted 900 days and 1.1 million people died, the vast majority of them civilians, but Leningraders were proud that they had endured and that the “Venice of the North”, although scarred and battered, was still alive and still fighting.