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Siege of Leningrad

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From September 8, 1941 until January 27, 1944 troops from the German army surrounded the city of Leningrad in an attempt to starve it into submission. Of the approximately 3.5 million residents, as many as 1 million civilians had died from cold, hunger and shelling. Hundreds of thousands of Soviet soldiers were killed. This paper provides a brief rehearsal of the people and locations involved in the 900 day Siege of Leningrad.

Siege of Leningrad 1941-1944

On August 23, 1939 the Soviet Union and Germany signed a Non-Aggression Pact. This agreement and its secret protocol, provided time for both Germany and the Soviet Union to prepare for future military actions and provided for a repartition of Poland with each country assuming control of approximately one half of the country. The agreement remained in force until June 22, 1941, when Germany launched Operation Barbarossa a three pronged attack against the Soviet Union in three sectors: the Northern Group, the Central and the Southern Group attacked the north, central and southern parts of Soviet Union respectively (Salisbury, 1969, 92; Pavlov, 1965, 168).

The previous year, Germany had quickly moved through France, Denmark and Norway and had begun the blitz in England the previous year and hoped to do the same through Russia in 1941 (Salisbury, 1969, p. 4). Germany was to find the going to the east wasn’t as easy.

Field Marshal von Leeb, the commander of the group led the northern attack to accomplish his mission to capture “all naval bases on the Baltic and taking Leningrad by July 21 (Pavlov, 1965, 2). He led the Sixteenth and Eighteenth armies and the Fourth Panzer Group for a total of 500,000 men (Pavlov, 1965, 2). On June 22 he engaged the Soviet Eighth and Eleventh Aries and was able to push forward. By July 21, he was short of his Leningrad goal by 125 miles. To the west of the city, German forces had occupied land on both the west and east sides Schlisselburg this gave the German Army control of a major railroad terminus.

Although von Leeb’s progress would seem to indicate that he would need all of his forces, half of the tanks from the Fourth Panzer Group were transferred to Moscow to bolster the attack there. In addition Hitler “ordered the city and its whole population to be obliterated by bombing, shelling, starvation and disease” (Ziemke, 1995, 684). These revised orders indicated to von Leeb that he wouldn’t be able to accomplish his goal in the initial time frame and he began to prepare for a longer operation.

By Autumn 1941, the advance into Leningrad had stalled and German troops encircled the City of Leningrad forming a blockade commonly known as “The Siege of Leningrad”. By September 8, 1941 this blockade was in place, but Germany’s hope of winning by siege was disappointed despite maintaining a blockade until January 27, 1944) Not only did the city not surrender, but the war industries in the city continued to operate despite the conditions (900-Day, 2001-2006).

In December 1941, Hitler had tired of von Leeb and relieved him of command. Hitler named Colonel General Kuechler commander of Army Group North. Kuechler was to remain commander until January 1994 but he was unable to advance the lines or to achieve victory.

The Soviet leadership at the time of the German invasion was headed by Andrei Zhdanov, the Leningrad party chief. In theory Zhdanov’s power was second only to Stalin’s. The military leader Stalin appointed was Marshal Voroshilov. According to Ziemke (1995, 685) both men were reluctant to act out of fear of reprisals from Stalin. This fear proved real when they were confronted by Stalin on August 21, 1941 because they had finally decided to organize a Leningrad Defense Military Council and assigned it the responsibility of “directing the work of building defense lines around and inside the city, … increasing the output of arms and ammunition for the front and the workers’ battalions …” (Pavlov, 1965, 13). For the Soviets, military action at Leningrad remained fairly static until August 27, 1942 when General Meretskov led an attack on the eastern side of the bottleneck. Combined with Govorov’s simultaneous attack on the bottleneck in January 1943 ground and security had been secured to build a railroad into Leningrad to help deliver supplies and evacuate those needed.

One cannot help wondering what was the strategic importance of Leningrad that Germany was willing to engage in a such a protracted operation. Leningrad was located on the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea on the Bay of Finland. The country Finland lay to the northwest, separated by the disputed territory of the Karelian Isthmus. To Leningrad’s northeast lay Lake Ladoga which would be an important supply and evacuation route during the blockade. To the southwest lay the Baltic States, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Approximately 400 miles to the southeast was Moscow, the Soviet Capital. The River Neva flows from Lake Ladoga, through Leningrad into the Bay of Finland (Salisbury, 1969, p. 96).

According to Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, the attack on Leningrad was based on “(a) the capture of Leningrad, by which he (Hitler) proposed to join up with the Finns and dominate the Baltic; and (b) the possession of the raw-material regions of the Ukraine, the industrial centers of the Donets and later the Caucasus oil fields” (Salisbury, 1969, 92). Although these goals are militarily of value, as the German army advanced, these goals were achievable from other locations and the protracted blockade doesn’t seem justified.

Ziemke (1995, 683, 684) writes that “Stalin and Hitler waged a personal power struggle over it.” It would not have been out of character for Hitler to demand the destruction of Leningrad because it was named for one of the founders of the Bolsheviks, much like his insistence maintaining the attack on Stalingrad because it was named after the Soviet leader. This led to a decisive defeat of the German army.

At the beginning of the Siege of Leningrad, there were approximately three million citizens in Leningrad during the siege these people were to suffer greatly. In July it became apparent that Leningrad would have even more trouble than normal in obtaining the food and fuel necessary for its citizens would need to survive the winter. Nonetheless little was done due to the fear Zhdanov and Voroshilov had of Stalin mentioned above. The first winter of the siege came early and was unusually cold Ziemke (1995, 684).

In part this helped because the Soviets were able to drive trucks across the frozen Lake Ladoga to deliver food and to evacuate people from Leningrad. During the summer, boats were used in the fashion, but this was not sufficient to provide sufficient supplies. Air drops were also made to provide relief. Despite these efforts supplies were scant until the reestablishment of railway connections.

During the siege somewhere at least 641,000 people died (900-Days, 2001-2006) though some estimates are as high as one million civilians in addition to hundreds of thousands of Soviet soldiers killed in combat (Trachtenberg, 2006, 76). Throughout the blockade hundreds of thousands of citizens were evacuated though one wonders if they were evacuated that were adequate for survival (Ziemke, 1995, 684).

Although Leningrad suffered great losses, he winner of the Siege of Leningrad must be considered a victory for the Soviets. Leningrad was not destroyed as ordered by Hitler. Leningrad won a war of attrition. They simply outlasted the German army through hard work, courage and great resolve.

The effects of the siege for the Soviets were twofold. On the morale level, the survival of Leningrad against the German Army was a source of great pride and motivation for the Soviet Army and the Soviet Citizenry. It helped develop a feeling of nationalism that inspired Soviet citizens against a foreign enemy. On the military level, the courageous people of Leningrad occupied a major German force for nearly three years while the rest of the Soviet Army fought in other locations.

Although the ranks of the German forces at Leningrad were at times raided to provide German troops elsewhere the people of Leningrad occupied enough German soldiers to allow other Soviet Military operations to be more successful. These successes combined with the Allied victory in Northern Africa and the Allied landing at Normandy in 1944 ultimately led to the defeat of Germany.


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Fomina, Polina. (2004, Jan/Feb.). Siege. Russian Life, .28-32.


Glantz, David M. (1998, July). The Red Army at War, 1941-1945: Sources and Interpretations. The Journal of Military History, 62, 3, 595-617.


Pavlov, Dmitri V. Pavlov (1965). Leningrad 1941: The Blockade. (John Clinton Adams, Trans.). Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.


Salisbury, Harrison E. (1969). The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad. New York and Evanston: Harper & Row, Publishers.


Simmons, Cynthia (1998, Mar-Jun.). Lifting the Siege: Women’s Voices on Leningrad (1941-1944). Canadian Slavonic Papers, 43-65.


Skrjabina (1971). Siege and Survival: The Odyssey of a Leningrader. (Norman Luxenburg Trans.). Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois Press.


Trachtenberg, Peter. (2006, Spring). Under Siege: A Modest Museum in St. Petersburg Honors a Heroic 900 Days. New York Times Magazine, 76-77.
Weinberg, Gerhard L. (1998, Apr.) Unexplored Questions About the German Military During World War II. The Journal of Military History, 62, 2, 371-380.


Ziemke, Earl. (1995), Siege of Leningrad. In Dear, I.C. B. (General Editory) & Foot, M.R.D. (Consulting Editor). The Oxford Companion to World War II (683-686). Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press.

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