On the Eastern Front · July 27, 1941

On this date in 1941, five weeks after the launch of Opera­tion Bar­ba­rossa, Nazi Ger­many’s sur­prise attack on the Soviet Union, Adolf Hitler paid a visit to the head­quarters of Army Group North. Led by Field Marshal Wil­helm von Leeb (1876–1956), Army Group North had begun its first attack on Lenin­grad (present-day St. Peters­burg) the month before, when it abruptly halted some 60 miles south of the city.

Leeb’s stop order infuriated Hitler. He once pri­vately described the no-nonsense prac­ticing Catho­lic as an “incor­rigible anti-Nazi” and placed Leeb under Gesta­po (secret police) sur­veil­lance. Never­the­less, Hitler valued Leeb’s mar­tial skills suffi­ciently to recall the gene­ral from retire­ment in 1939 for the inva­sion of Poland, and the next year, 1940, he placed Leeb in com­mand of Army Group C during the inva­sion of France and the Low Coun­tries. Leeb’s army, now des­ignated Army Group North, was tasked with de­stroying Soviet forces in the Bal­tic States and then driving on to Leningrad. The city—the Soviet Union’s second largest—was chiefly prized militarily because it lay across the path of the Germans’ advance into the north of Russia.

During his July 1941 visit to Army Group North Hitler ordered Leeb to take the city by Decem­ber. Six weeks later Leeb’s army had the city com­pletely encircled. With­in days Hitler reversed him­self and ordered Leeb not to take the city. Lenin­grad must be erased from the face of the earth by star­va­tion, Hitler told the troops in September, not by full-scale assault; he had no inter­est in saving the lives of its civil­ian popu­la­tion. “Requests for sur­ren­der resulting from the situ­a­tion of the city will be rejected, as the pro­blem of housing and feeding the popu­la­tion cannot and should not be solved by us.”

Between Janu­ary 1942, the month Leeb was relieved of com­mand, and Janu­ary 1944, Soviet defenders launched seve­ral coun­ter­of­fen­sives, but the night­marish 872‑day siege of Lenin­grad—the longest siege in modern history—was only lifted on Janu­ary 27, 1944, in part because Wehr­macht mis­for­tunes else­where along the East­ern Front drained man­power and mate­riel from around Lenin­grad. Some 2.5 mil­lion Lenin­graders endured the siege and a little less than half of them (1.1 to 1.3 mil­lion by the best esti­mates) died from the cease­less shelling and aerial bombing or were victims of star­va­tion, disease, and exposure to the brutal cold.

German Siege of Leningrad, September 8, 1941, to January 27, 1944

Siege of Leningrad: Nurses tending wounded in Leningrad, September 10, 1941Siege of Leningrad: Leningraders evacuating homes destroyed by German bombing

Left: Nurses help people wounded in the first bom­bard­ment of Lenin­grad, Septem­ber 10, 1941. Of the roughly 30,000 medi­cal doc­tors and 100,000 medi­cal nurses in prewar Lenin­grad, less than half survived the siege.

Right: Citizens of Leningrad leave their homes destroyed by Ger­man bombing, Decem­ber 10, 1942. Between June and Septem­ber 1942, Ger­mans sta­tioned newer and heavier artil­lery cap­able of firing 800 kg (1,764 lb) shells 6–16 miles from the city. They made spe­cial maps of the city for artil­lery bom­bard­ments, tar­geting city infra­struc­ture, busi­nesses, trans­por­ta­tion, schools, and hos­pi­tals. Addi­tionally, hun­dreds of Luft­waffe bombers dropped incen­di­ary and high-explo­sive bombs on the city. During the horrific siege 3,200 resi­den­tial buildings, 9,000 wooden houses, and 840 fac­to­ries and plants were destroyed in Lenin­grad and sub­urbs, leaving the city a “ghost city” of thou­sands of ruined and abandoned buildings.

Siege of Leningrad: Burying Leningrad siege victimsSiege of Leningrad: Clearing a Leningrad street, 1942

Left: Leningraders struggled to stay alive and defend their city in the most appalling con­di­tions. They were bombed, shelled, starved, and frozen. They dug tank traps and trenches, built shel­ters and forti­fi­cations, fought fires, cleared rubble, tended the wounded, and, for as long as they had strength to do so, buried their dead. Many (3 per­cent) were killed by bombs or shells, but most (97 per­cent) died of hun­ger and cold. Here three men are seen burying victims of Leningrad’s siege, October 1, 1942.

Right: This photo shows citizens of Lenin­grad clearing a street after the first win­ter in the besieged city, March 8, 1942. For the defense of the city and tena­city of the civil­ian sur­vi­vors of the siege, Lenin­grad was the first city in the former Soviet Union to be awarded the title of a Hero City in 1945.

Siege of Leningrad: Lake Ladoga barge delivers foodstuffs to Leningrad 1Siege of Leningrad: Lake Ladoga barge delivers foodstuffs 2

Left: On September 22, 1941, Hitler issued Directive No. 1601, ordering the star­va­tion of Lenin­grad’s defenders. In May 1942 the Soviets began using boats on near­by Lake Ladoga to make food deli­veries to the star­ving sur­vi­vors. In Ger­many not much is said about the fate of war­time Lenin­grad. In the minds of most peo­ple, Stalin­grad, Dres­den, and Hiro­shima are con­sidered the largest city dis­asters of the Second World War. How­ever, the siege of Lenin­grad caused the death of about twice as many civil­ians as died in Ger­many from Allied air attacks during the entire war.

Right: Foodstuffs delivered to besieged Lenin­grad on a barge on Lake Ladoga, Septem­ber 1, 1942. Total civil­ian death toll in the second year of the siege was about 500,000 citi­zens. Janu­ary and Febru­ary 1942 were the dead­liest months of the siege; every month 130,000 civil­ians were found dead in Lenin­grad and its sub­urbs. Part of the civil­ian popu­la­tion was evac­u­ated from Lenin­grad, although many died in the pro­cess. Some were evac­u­ated to Siberia, where they died. Only 700,000 peo­ple were left alive out of a 3.5 mil­lion pre­war popu­la­tion. Among them were sol­diers, workers, sur­viving chil­dren, and women. Some 300,000 of the 700,000 survivors were sol­diers who came from other parts of the coun­try to help defend the besieged city. Land mines left by the Ger­mans caused thousands of deaths among returning citizens.

Siege of Leningrad, 1941–1944 (Skip first 30 seconds)