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 64‑year-old 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 from its starting point in East Prussia (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 late-Septem­ber, not by a full-scale assault and urban battle; he had no inter­est in saving the lives of its trapped 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.” Anti­per­son­nel 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. Parti­san oper­a­tions harassed Army Group North with cease­less ferocity, too. But the night­marish 872‑day siege of Lenin­grad—the longest and most destruc­tive siege in modern history—was only lifted on Janu­ary 27, 1944, in part because Wehr­macht mis­for­tunes else­where along Germany’s eastern front had drained man­power and mate­riel from around Lenin­grad, gravely weakening the Nazis’ strangle­hold on the city. 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 inces­sant shelling and aerial bombing or were victims of star­va­tion, disease, and expo­sure to the brutal cold. Red Army losses in the Leningrad sector are estimated to be in excess of 3.4 million.

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

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

Left: Nurses help people wounded in the first bom­bard­ment of Lenin­grad, Russian Czar Peter the Great’s beau­ti­ful 18th‑century capital, 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: Uprooted refugees and citizens of Leningrad leave their shelters and homes destroyed by German bombing, Decem­ber 10, 1942. Between June and Septem­ber 1942, Germans sta­tioned newer and heavier artil­lery, including 280mm (11‑inch) and 420mm (17‑inch) rail­way guns cap­able of firing shells from a distance of 6–16 miles into the city. They made spe­cial maps of the city for artil­lery bom­bard­ments that tar­geted city infra­struc­ture with clini­cal preci­sion, espe­cially util­ities (e.g., water supply and elec­trical and tele­com­mu­ni­ca­tions grids), arma­ment plants, busi­nesses, ware­houses, the trans­por­ta­tion net­work, schools, and hos­pi­tals. Addi­tionally, hun­dreds of Luft­waffe bombers dropped incen­di­ary and high-explo­sive bombs on the city that added to the grotesque land­scape of death, destruc­tion, and wretched­ness. During the merci­less 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. The top-secret “scorched earth” plans Soviet dicta­tor Joseph Stalin had for Lenin­grad, were the city to fall into enemy hands, would have pro­duced ruinous effects similar to those brought on by the bestial round-the-clock rain of German artillery shells and bombs.

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 encased historic sites in sand­bags, 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 sadly most (97 per­cent) died of hun­ger, bitter cold (there was no heat), and dis­ease, espe­cially typhus. Diarrhea often proved fatal. Strict rationing was enforced: 10 ounces (283 g) per day for workers, 5 ounces (142 g) for every­one else with the excep­tion of soldiers and civil­ian volun­teers. Food sales with­out ration coupons were halted, sentencing thou­sands to death. Resi­dents by the thou­sands who attempted to rest them­selves by sitting on the ground couldn’t stand up again due to weak­ness brought on by their starved con­di­tion or dis­ease, so they froze to death. Here three men are seen trans­porting victims of Lenin­grad’s siege to a mass grave, Octo­ber 1, 1942. Not a few corpses remained un­buried, piled up on streets and side­walks and in court­yards and cellars—even in victims’ unheated apart­ments—until the spring thaw permitted their interment.

Right: This photo from March 8, 1942, shows mobilized citizens clearing a Lenin­grad 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 once lovely city and the 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 1Siege 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 famished 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 cruel 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: Food and medicine being delivered to Leningrad by barge on Lake Ladoga, except for air the only life­line the city had with the out­side world during much of the siege, Septem­ber 1, 1942. The trip by water 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 distant parts of the coun­try and from the coun­try’s northern border with Nazi-aligned Fin­land 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)