In March the first cases of scurvy and night blindness appeared, unmistakable signs of malnutrition. In the middle of the month, when these cases were growing at an alarming rate, the decision was made to employ a remedy used in gulag camps and in besieged Leningrad. This involved drinking a concoction of fir tree needles steeped in hot water. It was an effective, yet repulsive and bitter, liquid.
By the end of March, it became clear that the Soviet troops had lost their race against time. Rations were reduced to a nonsustainable level, a few ounces of crumbs daily, occasionally accompanied by flour or oats. Men were reduced to scavenging. The horses, which had fallen during winter, their bodies now exposed by the melting snow, were consumed. The worst was yet to come.
In desperation, the Soviet command turned to resupplying the troops by air. For this purpose they used the old workhorse of the air force, the light bomber and transport U-2 (since 1944 known as PO-2), which it was said could land on a five kopeck coin. It was a two-seat, single-bay light biplane used mostly for night missions, taking full advantage of the long winter nights in these latitudes. Because of its low speed, only 105 miles per hour, it was completely defenseless against German fighters. The number of available planes was very limited, a few dozen at best, with a maximum load capacity of only 550 pounds, or roughly five to six sacks of flour, 12 to 15 with dry bread, or 10 to 12 boxes of canned goods. They were flown by young lieutenants, who, to avoid attacks by marauding German fighters, were flying at tree- top level over the forest and even below that along the river valleys and marshes. In turn, it made them very vulnerable to ground fire, but it was the price of their deadly game. At the end of April, the Northern Lights took away their advantage of nocturnal cover.
It was impossible to feed an army of 80,000 men with occasional deliveries of a few dozen sacks of flour, but those brave pilots continued their suicidal, hopeless work. Those young lieutenants often died before accomplishing their fifth mission.
One day an American-built Douglas transport arrived. The pilot steeply banked his plane to the left, locked it into a circling pattern, and started passing over a clearing in the woods, dumping sacks of dried bread. A German fighter came out of nowhere, and its machine-guns set the transport’s right engine ablaze. “Jump, jump!” yelled the people on the ground, as though the crew could hear them. But they did not want to jump. They continued their doomed flight, trailing black smoke, dumping and dumping the sacks. The German fighter repeated its attack. The Douglas shuddered, wrapped itself in a black cloud of smoke, and went down.
Each pound of food in those planes was worth its weight in gold, and every hour of flight was a hide-and-seek game with death. Yet, the political leadership saw fit to displace a portion of the food cargo with propaganda leaflets exhorting the starved soldiers to fight heroically for the Bolshevist cause and for Stalin. These pieces of paper could not even be used to roll a cigarette. There was no tobacco anyway.
On January 18, Field Marshal Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb, commander of German Army Group North, was dismissed from his position because of poor health and replaced by Colonel General Georg von Kuechler, the 18th Army commander. The health issue was, of course, a convenient excuse. In fact, the field marshal had persisted in his demand to withdraw the army group westward to a more defensible position. Leeb’s dismissal was the last in a chain of a major reshufflings at the top of the German High Command due to setbacks, which began with the fall of Rostov in November 1941.
The 2nd Shock Army was Doomed. The Only Issue now was the Extent of the Catastrophe.
Now, in April, it was Stalin’s turn to rearrange his commanders. On April 16, the 2nd Shock Army commander, Lt. Gen. Nikolai Klykov, who had fallen seriously ill, was flown out of the cauldron to a hospital. He was replaced by the recently appointed deputy commander of the Volkhov Front, Lt. Gen. Andrey Vlasov, a hero of the defensive battles in the Ukraine in the summer of 1941 and a victorious commander of the 20th Army during the fighting around Moscow.
On April 20, the new commander of the 2nd Shock Army arrived in the pocket. On April 23, a dumbfounded General Kirill Meretskov read a new directive from Stavka saying that the Volkhov Front had been abolished and its armies incorporated into the Leningrad Front under Lt. Gen. M.S. Khozin. Meretskov was ordered to depart for the western front line and to take the 33rd Army under his command. This untimely reorganization was the result of Khozin’s many tireless appeals to Stalin with promises of long-awaited success. Stalin finally relented despite the objections of the Chief of General Staff, Marshall Boris Shaposhnikov.
The presence of Meretskov in Malaya Vishera at the headquarters of the Volkhov Front in April and May would not have changed the strategic outcome of Luban operation; the campaign was lost, and the 2nd Shock Army was doomed. The only issue now was the extent of the catastrophe.
On April 30, the 2nd Shock Army was ordered to stop all offensive operations, switch to strategic defense, and begin the gradual withdrawal of a few selected units toward Miasnoy Bor. The process of withdrawal started immediately and was conducted in an orderly manner under very challenging circumstances. The brave cavalrymen of the 13th Cavalry Corps, who in the middle of March were so close to Luban, were withdrawn, together with a few depleted infantry divisions and one armored brigade.
Stavka issued a new order two weeks later under the signatures of Stalin and Alexander Vasilevsky, deputy chief of the general staff, who replaced the sick Shaposhnikov. The order authorized the 2nd Shock Army to break out of semi-encirclement. The line of the new defensive position for the 2nd Shock Army was designated along the western bank of the Volkhov River in the area of Miasnoy Bor-Spasskaya Polist’. It meant, for all practical purposes, that the 2nd Shock Army must return to the same position it had occupied at the beginning of the operation four months earlier. It was a final admission of the fact that the operation had failed. By May 20, the strength of the 2nd Shock Army had decreased by half.
On May 31, the Germans again closed the corridor—this time permanently. The last act of the 2nd Shock Army tragedy had begun. The army, thoroughly exhausted from incessant combat, lack of food, and exposure to the elements, was in its death throes. The already meager rations were reduced again, this time to 1.5 ounces of bread crumbs per day. In the cauldron, young trees, at first aspens and lindens, then all others, were stripped of their bark. Buds and later fresh leaves disappeared, worms, frogs, and tadpoles became rare delicacies. The army staff reported to the Front headquarters in one of its last radio communications, “Massive mortality from hunger is taking place.”
Incidences of suicide increased among officers and enlisted men. The corpses of dead soldiers were found with pieces of flesh cut from their bodies. Occasional deliveries from death- defying U-2s were not even drops in the bucket. Prevented from landing, they had to resort to dropping canned goods or sacks with dried bread. Those cans that managed to land on solid ground were were sometimes the cause of fights among the soldiers. Those who succumbed to temptation and hid or ate food instead of surrendering it to their commanders were all shot.
Besides the absence of food, ammunition, and medicine, there was a lack of water. It was everywhere, in trenches, shell craters, inside the tents, in men’s boots, but there was none to drink, nothing with which to wash already used bandages, nothing to sterilize surgeons’ instruments. Even snow, the seasonal water provider, melted and turned into undrinkable water. In desperation, a method was developed to obtain drinking water that would horrify any reasonable man. Large wooden boxes without bottoms were built. They were wrapped in layers of medical gauze and lowered into holes dug in water-logged soil. In several hours, these improvised wells were full of dark brown water. It was picked up by buckets, filtered through multilayered gauze again, and distributed to medical stations, the wounded, and units in the field. The ration was one cup per day per man.
On June 8, the Volkhov Front was reestablished. After Khozin was removed and sent to a command in the western area, he never managed to rise again to the position of Front commander. In March 1944, he was sent from the fighting army to command a secondary military district in the rear. In his place, Lt. Gen. Leonid Govorov, the valiant commander of the 5th Army during the fighting around Moscow, was appointed as commander of the Leningrad Front.