On Germany’s 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 left his East Prussian Fuehrer Head­quarters, known as the Wolf’s Lair (Wolfs­schanze) and which had been built specif­ically for the Russian cam­paign, to pay 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 his visitor. Hitler once pri­vately described the no-non­sense prac­ticing Catho­lic as an “incor­rigible anti-Nazi” (Leeb took part in the Bava­rian govern­ment’s sup­pres­sion of Hitler’s 1923 Munich beer hall putsch), and he placed Leeb under Gestapo (secret police) sur­veil­lance. Never­the­less, Hitler valued Leeb’s mar­tial skills (as an artil­lery offi­cer and defen­sive war­fare spe­cialist) suffi­ciently to recall the gene­ral from forced retire­ment for the 1939 inva­sion of Poland. The next year, 1940, he placed Leeb in com­mand of Army Group C, which pene­trated France’s vaunted Magi­not Line during Hitler’s inva­sion of France and the Low Coun­tries—an inva­sion Leeb actively argued against with senior army gen­erals but which won him his field marshal’s baton. Leeb’s army of 29 divi­sions and 712,000 men in 1941, now desig­nated Army Group North, was tasked with destroying Soviet forces in the Baltic States (it did that in the first two weeks of the offen­sive) and then driving on to Lenin­grad, an impor­tant indus­trial center and home port of the Red Banner Baltic Fleet. The city—the Soviet Union’s second largest and the fourth largest in Europe—was chiefly prized mili­tarily, lying as it did across the path of the Wehrmacht’s advance into the north of Russia.

During his July 1941 visit to Army Group North Hitler ordered the cautious Leeb to take the city by Decem­ber. Six weeks later Leeb’s army had Lenin­grad surrounded on three sides, com­manding unob­structed views of the city and the coast. A spear­head divi­sion advanced to within 6 miles of the city center. Within days, though, Hitler reversed him­self and ordered Leeb not to take the city, but to blast it to smith­ereens using his long-range artil­lery. Lenin­grad must be erased from the face of the earth by star­va­tion, Hitler told the troops in September, not by a full-scale assault and urban battle; 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.” Anti-personnel mines were laid on the city’s peri­meter to deter civil­ians from escaping the German siege, although thou­sands of Soviet soldiers managed to breach German lines to avoid starvation.

Between January 1942, the month Leeb was relieved of com­mand (at Leeb’s own request), 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 Germany’s eastern front drained man­power and mate­riel from around Lenin­grad. Over 2.5 mil­lion Lenin­graders and 300,000 Soviet troops endured the siege and a little less than half the civilians (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, 1941 Siege of Leningrad: Residents 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, espe­cially util­ities (e.g., water supply and elec­trical and tele­com­mu­ni­ca­tions grids); arma­ment plants; busi­nesses; the trans­por­ta­tion net­work; 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 victims Siege 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 despite water pipes being frozen, 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, cold, and dis­ease, espe­cially typhus. Here three men are seen burying victims of Leningrad’s siege, October 1, 1942.

Right: This photo from March 8, 1942, shows citizens of Lenin­grad clearing a street after the besieged city’s first winter, “Star­va­tion Winter” as it became known when more than 600,000 civilians and 12,000 soldiers perished from hunger. Oppo­site the German siege lines Lenin­grad’s defenders had built a nearly impen­e­trable system of mine­fields, bunkers, trenches, dragons teeth, and anti­tank gun positions. 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 Hero City in 1945.

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

Left: On September 22, 1941, Hitler issued Directive No. 1a 1601/41, ordering the star­va­tion of Lenin­grad’s defenders. In May 1942 the Soviets began using barges and a hand­ful of steamers on nearby Lake Ladoga to make food deli­veries to the star­ving sur­vi­vors. The popu­la­tion needed 30,000 tons of food per month but the boats could not carry more than 22,000 tons. Airlifts of food did not make up the difference. In Germany little 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. The trip took 16 hours each way. 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 are 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 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 (Narrated by Burt Lancaster)