The Heroic Story of How the Soviets Broke the Siege of Leningrad

July 19, 2020 Topic: History Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: LeningradSiegeNazi GermanyWWIISoviet Army

The Heroic Story of How the Soviets Broke the Siege of Leningrad

With the German Sixth Army in its death throes at Stalingrad in January 1943, Stavka, the Soviet High Command, sought to capitalize on the disaster by unleashing massive offensives along the entire German-Soviet front.

Here's What You Need to Remember: German artillery shells continued to rain onto Leningrad and only the “Road of Life,” the supply line across frozen Lake Ladoga, enabled supplies and reinforcements to reach the city. However, the Germans remained too weak to capture the city by direct assault.

With the German Sixth Army in its death throes at Stalingrad in January 1943, Stavka, the Soviet High Command, sought to capitalize on the disaster by unleashing massive offensives along the entire German-Soviet front. Although eclipsed by the gargantuan operations that followed against the German Army Groups Center and South, the fighting was no less fierce in the north.
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Since September 8, 1941, Leningrad lay besieged by Field Marshal Georg von Küchler’s Army Group North and by Germany’s Finnish allies. Of Leningrad’s prewar population of nearly three million, 637,000 remained in the bombed city; the rest had been evacuated or had succumbed to the siege. At least the worst days of starvation had passed, alleviated by summer gardens of cabbages and potatoes. Nevertheless, the city remained in deadly danger.

Five previous attempts to break the blockade in 1941 and 1942 had resulted in costly Soviet defeats. German artillery shells continued to rain onto Leningrad and only the “Road of Life,” the supply line across frozen Lake Ladoga, enabled supplies and reinforcements to reach the city. However, the Germans remained too weak to capture the city by direct assault.

A Leningrad Breakout

Lieutenant General Leonid A. Govorov’s Leningrad Front staunchly continued to defend Leningrad and hold onto a bridgehead at Oranienbaum, bordering the Gulf of Finland to the west. To the east, Hero of the Soviet Union General Kirill A. Meretskov stood ready to lead his Volkhov Front in a renewed breakthrough attempt to Leningrad and to Govorov’s front. On Meretskov’s left flank, General Filipp N. Starikov’s Eighth Army stood by for additional support. Now, like never before, there was a real chance that the ring around Leningrad could finally be burst open. It was Govorov who figured out just how it could be done.

Govorov’s Operation Iskra, or Spark, sought to secure a land bridge to Leningrad from the east. To do this Govorov had to overcome the German divisions in the Shlisselburg-Siniavino corridor. Shlisselburg literally meant “key fortress,” as named by Peter the Great, who realized that the fortress town was the key to the Ingra, the name of the region to the south of Lake Ladoga. Now, over 200 years later, Shlisselburg and the land to its east and south were keys to the relief of Leningrad. The Shlisselburg corridor blocked the linkup between the Leningrad and the Volkhov Fronts and was a base for future German attacks against Leningrad and against the Road of Life. The corridor stretched south from the shores of Lake Ladoga between Shlisselburg to the west and Lipka to the east. Roughly eight miles wide at the north, the corridor began to widen, like a bottleneck, in a southward direction for six miles. At that point the commanding heights of Siniavino rose from the forested bog.

Govorov planned the attack in detail. The Leningrad Front’s Sixty-seventh Army would attack the Shlisselburg-Siniavino corridor from the west while the Volkhov Front’s Second Shock Army and the Eighth Army would attack from the east. Govorov received an additional rifle division, five rifle brigades, and an antiaircraft artillery division, while Meretskov’s front was strengthened by five rifle divisions. Both fronts also received numerous additional mortar, tank, and artillery regiments and battalions. To make sure that the attack would succeed, Govorov amassed three times as many artillery pieces than had been used in the failed attacks of 1941-1942.

Lindemann’s Defenses

Govorov’s Sixty-seventh Army was commanded by General Mikhail P. Dukhanov, one of the Soviet Union’s best commanders. Meretskov’s Second Shock Army was led by Lt. Gen. Vladimir Z. Romanovskii. In addition to the regular troops, 10 partisan detachments were supplied with 2,000 rifles, hundreds of machine guns, and thousands of pounds of explosives to create havoc in the German rear. Senior Soviet commander Marshal Georgi Zhukov flew in at the last minute to coordinate Spark.

In contrast to the Soviet fronts, Küchler’s Army Group North was weakened by having to give up divisions that were even more desperately needed in the southern and central Russian sectors. Küchler lost the Eleventh Army and a further nine divisions from the Eighteenth Army. Despite this, Küchler expected the Eighteenth Army to continue to besiege Leningrad from the southwest, south, and southeast. At the same time, the Eighteenth Army had to prevent a breakout from the Oranienbaum bridgehead and block any relief by the Volkhov Front.

The Eighteenth Army was commanded by Col. Gen. Georg Lindemann, a Prussian officer and battle-hardened veteran of World War I and a holder of the Knight’s Cross. Well aware of his army’s vital task, Lindemann prepared his troops with the words, “As the source of the Bolshevik Revolution, as the city of Lenin, it is the second capital of the Soviets…. For the Soviet regime the liberation of Leningrad would equal the defense of Moscow, the battle for Stalingrad.”

To prevent this liberation, Lindemann naturally made sure his strongest defenses were in the Shlisselburg-Siniavino corridor. Here, the XXVI Corps’s 1st, 227th, and 170th Infantry Divisions and the LIV Corps’s SS Police Division and parts of the 5th Mountain Division waited in their earthen dugouts and trenches in three defensive belts amid forested, frozen swamps and stone villages. Three regiments of the 96th Infantry Division stood by as reserve at Mga. Despite their strong positions, Lindemann’s forces were stretched so thinly that the average divisional frontage was over 10 miles long.

Preparing For Operation Spark

Govorov and Marshal Kliment Voroshilov, a member of the Defense Committee, walked behind a T-34 testing the ice of the River Neva. Suddenly the tank slid out of control, and the ice cracked in all directions. As the metal giant plunged into the river, Voroshilov nearly fell in as well. Govorov reacted instantaneously, quickly grabbing Voroshilov and yanking him back. The tank driver managed to swim out of the tank and save himself. The weakness of the ice convinced Govorov to postpone the attack from December 27 to January 12th. In the meantime, he ordered the Sixty-seventh Army to carry out full simulations to prepare the troops.

Meanwhile, Soviet engineer, sapper, and pontoon battalions readied the front for Spark. Trench lines were dug to protect the movement of troops to the jumping-off points, new observation posts were laid out, gun covers built and camouflaged. Bridges over streams and miles of roads were laid down. Engineer companies cleared whole minefields, and Soviet intelligence gathered photographs of enemy positions. The Soviets had a fairly clear picture of the German defense while Soviet security itself had remained tight. The Germans, although aware of Soviet objectives, could not foresee the exact day the attack would happen.

During the night of January 11, Soviet bombers dropped their loads on selected German positions within the corridor. A predawn bone-chilling wind blew across the frozen Neva. With the 170th Infantry Division just outside Gorodok hospital, a Lieutenant Winacker walked down a trench. The landscape was quieter than usual. From behind his MG-42, a gunner remarked, “I don’t like the look of it. Not a single Ivan in sight. Normally they scuttle about … dragging their soup and bread into their positions.” From the high bank of the riverside, Winacker swept the ice of the Neva with his binoculars. He cursed; there were footsteps in the snow below the bank. At night Soviet engineers had opened a path through the minefields! Suddenly, the ground shook and the sky trembled with a monstrous roar. Instinctively Winacker threw his body into the side of the trench. Above him, frozen earth and steel fragments hurtled through the air.

“They Aren’t Joking This Time”

At 9:30 am, on January 12, 1943, Govorov and Merestkov opened Operation Spark, the first phase of the Second Battle of Lake Ladoga, with the thunder of 4,500 artillery pieces. One gun was positioned for every 20 feet of front line. On top of the artillery, the heavy naval guns of the Red Fleet in Leningrad harbor joined in the bombardment.

Bridges, buildings, trenches, and trees exploded and collapsed in showers of steel, earth, and wood. Deep in his dugout, a German soldier grimly remarked, “They aren’t joking this time.”

Over two hours later the barrage ended with an earsplitting Katyusha rocket barrage. Then ground attack aircraft from the Thirteenth and the Fourteenth Air Armies droned overhead, bombing German strongpoints at Poselok (Workers Settlements) Nos. 4, 5, and 7 and at Siniavino. The Soviet first-echelon divisions advanced behind their artillery barrage. Four divisions attacked the Shlisselburg-Siniavino bottleneck from the west, and five attacked from the east.

As the artillery barrage moved farther inland, German soldiers shook off dirt, bandaged wounds, or dug themselves out of piles of dirt. On the southern flank of Dukhanov’s Sixty-seventh Army, the Soviet 45th Guards Rifle Division launched Spark through a bridgehead already on the German side of the River Neva. There the 46th Guards Rifle Division’s trench lines were so close to the German trenches that the two merged into each other. Machine guns blazed, grenades were hurled through the air, and entrenching tools and bayonets stabbed and hacked as the Germans repulsed the 45th Guards Rifle Division in close combat.