WhenSeptember 8, 1941 to January 27, 1944 (872 days)

WhereLeningrad (today’s St. Petersburg), Russia

Leningrad Siege 1941

WhoGerman Army Group North (on map, Herresgruppe Nord) initially under Field Marshal Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb (1876–1956) with token support to the north and east of Leningrad from German-allied Finnish units under Marshal Carl Gustaf Mannerheim (1867–1951). In January 1942 von Leeb was relieved of his command and replaced by Col-Gen. Georg von Kuechler (1881–1968), who that August was replaced by Field Marshal Erich von Manstein (1887–1973). Arrayed against Army Group North were the Soviet Leningrad Front under various commanders, among them Gen. Georgy Zhukov (1896–1974) and from June 1942 Marshal Leonid Govorov (1897–1955), and the Volkhov Front under Gen. Kirill Meretskov (1897–1968). The Volkhov Front was dis­banded and incorporated into the Leningrad Front in April 1942. Total military strength with reserves and volunteers reached two million men on all sides when the siege began.

WhyLeningrad was an early target of Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa, lying across the path of the German advance into the north of Russia and around to the east of Moscow, the capital of the Soviet Union. If German forces could unite with the small, but tough, motivated, and skilled Finnish forces, their combined armies could quite possibly drive through Northern Russia, capture Moscow, and win the war for Germany.

WhatAt the outbreak of World War II, Leningrad was a city of three million people lying in the far north of Russia. (Lenin­grad is roughly at the same latit­ude as Anchorage, Alaska.) It was the second largest city in Soviet Russia and represented 11 percent of the national economy. Situated on the Gulf of Finland, Leningrad was a nexus of road, rail, and shipping links between the Baltic Sea and the Soviet interior. On June 22, 1941, Army Group North surged across the Soviet border, ripped through the Baltic States (Lithu­ania, Latvia, and Estonia) and by Septem­ber 1 was lobbing artillery rounds into the city.

OutcomeWhen Hitler switched Operation Barbarossa’s priorities to targets in the Ukraine and the Cauca­sus oil­fields on Septem­ber 6, 1941, drawing down von Leeb’s panzer strength, the assault on Lenin­grad was con­verted into a siege (the Soviets called it a “blokada”) with con­stant long-range artil­lery and aerial bombard­ment, which in turn was crippled on the German side by a rota­tion of increasingly frustrated army com­manders. Germans looted art­works and destroyed his­toric land­marks outside the defen­sive peri­meter (e.g., the sum­mer resi­dence of the Russian tsars at Push­kin and the Gatchina Palace), while inside the Russian lines food depots, apart­ment blocks, fac­tories, schools, hos­pitals, trans­port facil­i­ties, and other civil infra­structure were laid to waste. A narrow and danger­ous corri­dor of water or ice on the east side of the city (vari­ously known as the “Road of Life” [Doroga Zhinzni] and the “Road of Death”) struggled to supply a star­ving popu­la­tion with food and fuel. One million people used the road to escape. On city streets the dead piled up, covered by snow until spring. On one day alone, 13,500 deaths occurred. People close to star­va­tion used canes to walk. One who had sur­vived the blokada recalled: “To take some­one who has died to the ceme­tery is an affair of so much labor that it exhausts the last strength in the sur­viv­ors. The living, having ful­filled their duty to the dead, are them­selves brought to the brink of death.” Still, the city tried to act like a city, not a cemetery. A few dozen schools stayed open as did 20 movie and playhouses, the Grand Philharmonic played for at least a year, and radio broadcasts continued.

By the end of 1943 the German opera­tions around the besieged city had little strategic signifi­cance apart from main­taining the overall German frontline. The cruel siege remains one of history’s greatest examples of defiance, but at a ghastly cost: One to 1.5 million Lenin­graders died from mal­nutrition, expo­sure, disease, bombing, and shelling and over one million members of the Soviet armed forces were killed, captured, or declared missing. German casual­ties are unknown. The January 1944 collapse of the German siege of Leningrad was a key ingredient in the Wehrmacht’s defeat on the Eastern Front.

Battlefield: The Siege of Leningrad, 1941–1944 (Skip first 40 seconds)