Here's What You Need to Remember: It took another year—until January 27, 1944—before the Leningrad-Novgorod Strategic Offensive finally ended the Germans’ iron grip on the city. Some estimates say that as many as 1,500,000 citizens of Leningrad died of starvation, disease, and German bombardment during the 872 days of siege.
Leningrad was the sacred city of Soviet Communism. The port city on the Neva River, 400 miles northwest of Moscow, began life in 1703 as Petrograd, or St. Petersburg, after its founder, Czar Peter the Great. For two centuries (1712-1918) it was the capital of the Russian Empire—a place of stunning architectural beauty and historical significance, a city of czars and czarinas, of gold-domed cathedrals, breathtaking Baroque palaces, and rich political intrigue.
Petrograd was also the scene of a major history-changing event: the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution that overthrew the old order and ushered in a radical new style of government and economy ruled by a group of some of the most evil, power-hungry cutthroats who ever wrapped themselves in the blood-red banner of Communism.
The chief architect of the revolution was the leader of the Bolshevik Party, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, who changed his name to Vladimir Lenin. With his followers murdering their way to power, Lenin surrounded himself with brutal henchmen, such as Josef Stalin, Leon Trotsky, Grigory Zinoviev, and others.
Five days after Lenin’s death on January 26, 1924, Petrograd’s name was changed to “Leningrad” to honor the late Marxist leader.
Because of his fear and hatred of Communism, Nazi Germany’s leader (Führer) Adolf Hitler decided that, when he invaded the Soviet Union, one of his first orders of business would be to wipe Leningrad off the face of the Earth. And Hitler was confident he would do just that.
After all, the Soviet Red Army had suffered a humiliating defeat (not to mention a million casualties) when it invaded its northwestern neighbor Finland in December 1939. This defeat, along with the fact that Stalin had gutted his officer corps in the 1930s, led Hitler to believe that the Soviets would be unable to stand up to his own invasion force of three million men.
In addition to the symbolism of the city’s name, by 1939 Leningrad was also an important Soviet industrial center, responsible for 11 percent of the USSR’s industrial production. Thus, Leningrad became German Army Group North’s major objective from the start of the massive surprise Nazi sneak attack on June 22, 1941. In fact, Leningrad’s fall was the key to all of Nazidom’s vast, projected Northern Theater of Operations’ goals during August 1941-January 1944.
Poised to attack was Germany’s Army Group North. On June 22, the German onslaught—codenamed Operation Barbarossa (after the red-bearded Frederick I, the king of Germany and emperor of the Holy Roman Empire)—would begin. Leningrad was AG North’s assigned objective.
The man Hitler had handpicked to take the former czarist capital was one of his most illustrious warlords, the 65-year-old, slim, bald, ascetic-looking Bavarian Army Field Marshal Wilhelm Josef Franz Ritter (Knight) von Leeb.
Leeb joined the Imperial Army in 1895. During World War I, he was awarded the Austrian Order of Max Josef that brought with it the automatic ennobling title of “von,” making him Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb. He rose quickly through the ranks, even during the interwar period.
In 1940, during Hitler’s invasion of France, it had been Leeb’s men who had pierced the vaunted Maginot Line. For this, Hitler personally handed him a jewel-encrusted Army field marshal’s baton on July 19, 1940, plus the prized Ritterkreuz (Knight’s Cross) of the Iron Cross.
Under Leeb’s command this June day were two armies (the 16th, with eight divisions, and the 18th, with seven) and one panzer group (the 4th, with eight divisions). Additional divisions were held in reserve. Leeb’s orders were to advance from East Prussia through Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, destroy Soviet forces in the Baltic area as it went, and capture Leningrad from the south.
The city’s leaders felt that Leningrad was about as prepared as it could be. Encompassed in the overall defensive area was the mega-command of the Leningrad Fortified Region, the municipal garrison, the Baltic Fleet, the Koporye, Southern, and Slutsk-Kolpino Groups, and the Mga Position as well.
In addition, the 23rd Red Army was stationed in the north between the Gulf of Finland and Lake Ladoga, the 48th Red Army was deployed in the west, the 67th Army in the eastern sector, and the 55th in the southern sector, the Volkhov “Front” being commanded by Lt. Gen. Kyril Meretskov, recently released from an NKVD (secret police) prison. (A “Front” is the Russian equivalent of a U.S. Army Group.)
On June 27, 1941, just days after Barbarossa began, first-response civilian groups were established within Leningrad, with over one million people building fortifications on the city’s northern and southern perimeters that they fervently hoped would halt the Germans.
Red Army Col. Gen. Georgi K. Zhukov recalled 30 years after the war, “Leningrad is a large industrial center and seaport…. Before the war, Leningrad had a population of 3,103,000—3,385,000 counting the suburbs…. Had Leningrad fallen, the Red Army would have had to establish a new Northern Front to protect Moscow, and it would have meant the loss of our strong Baltic Fleet. Ten volunteer divisions were formed in Leningrad during June-August 1941, as well as 16 separate artillery and volunteer machine-gun battalions.”
The Southern Luga River Line of June 1941 connected that waterway with the Chudovo-Gatchina-Uritsk-Pulkovo posts, extending to the Neva River. Another linked the Peterhof-Gatchina-Koltuszk positions. The Northern Defense Line existed pre-1941 against the Finns in the Karelian Fortified Region.
Statistically, 190 miles of wooden barricades made from sawn timber joined 395 miles of barbed wire, 430 miles of antitank ditches, more than 5,000 mud and timber emplacements, weapons bunkers built of reinforced concrete, and 25,000 miles of entrenchments, all either built or dug by civilians. But could it hold against the mighty, seemingly unstoppable Germans?
Assisting Army Group North in this endeavor were the Finns. After the Winter War of 1939-1940 between Finland and the USSR (in which the Red Army was thoroughly embarassed by itsr small neighbor) ended with an armistice, Hitler made a pact with Finland; if the small, Nordic nation would join with the German Army in his invasion of the Soviet Union, he would provide the Finnish Army with modern weapons to defend against any future Soviet attacks. Finland, caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place, made a bargain with the devil.
Another figure the Führer expected to be present in fallen Leningrad was the legendary commander in chief of the hardy Finnish Army, Field Marshal Carl Baron Gustav Emil Mannerheim, whom he venerated.
On June 22—under the austere baron’s patriotic leadership—Finland joined the march on Leningrad. From June to September 1941, the Finnish Army actually outnumbered the Germans in the Northern Theater by 530,000 to 220,000, fielding 475,000 combat-effective troops—more than it had during the Winter War. The Finnish force included a strong artillery segment but only a sole tank battalion and little motorization for its infantry in contrast to the highly armored and motorized German forces.
Leeb’s next martial goal was to link up with the combat forces of the Finnish Army on the Svir River east of Leningrad. The German high command’s earnest expectation was that their Finnish allies would march around Lake Ladoga to effect juncture with the Nazis, but that was never to be.
There lurked a hidden trait in Mannerheim’s character—one that would prove fatal to the grim desires of Hitler and Leeb. Mannerheim, who had fought in the Russian Army during the 1905 war against Japan, remained to the end loyal to the Russian people and their culture, no matter how much and how often he might war against their Red leaders and politics.
Hitler’s campaign Directive #21 sought to delineate Finland’s projected role in Operation Barbarossa thus: “The mass of the Finnish Army will have the task—in accordance with the advance made by the Northern wing of the German armies—of tying up maximum Russian strength by attacking to the West, or, on both sides of Lake Ladoga.”
But Mannerheim would have nothing to do with razing Mother Russia’s holy city, much less with exterminating its population via Nazi starvation plans. Finnish President Risto Ryti agreed with the baron that Finland would not attack the city directly, no matter what the Germans demanded or offered.
From the very outset of their tenuous alliance, Mannerheim refused Hitler’s offer of command of an 80,000-man German corps. He also would not cooperate fully in the encirclement of the city. Thus, he stopped Hitler cold in his tracks, a hindrance that Leeb could never get around.
Early on June 22, the signal to begin Barbarossa was given. Leeb had designated as his spearhead the 4th Panzer Corps, led by 55-year-old Col. Gen. Erich Hoepner, a veteran of the Great War. In a message to his troops at the start of the operation, Hoepner said, “The war with Russia is a vital part of the German people’s fight for existence. It is the old fight of German against Slav, the defense of German culture against the Muscovite-Asiatic flood, and the repulse of Jewish Bolshevism. This war must have as its goal the destruction of today’s Russia—and for this reason it must be conducted with unheard-of harshness…. There is to be no mercy….”