How the Red Army Saved Leningrad in 1941

How the Red Army Saved Leningrad in 1941

The Soviet Red Army blunted a German drive to capture the town of Tikhvin and seal the fate of Leningrad during Operation Barbarossa.

Here's What You Need to Know: German forces in the north would never again be so close to totally cutting off the city.

The men of Field Marshal Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb’s Heeresgruppe Nord (Army Group North) had little sleep during the night of June 21, 1941. Long before midnight, assault infantry and engineers had begun moving toward the border with the Soviet Union, the silence broken only by an occasional cough and the croaking of the frogs that called the deep grass and marshy areas of East Prussia home.

At 3 am on June 22, the darkness was broken by the flashes of German artillery firing on predesignated targets in the Soviet-occupied Lithuanian countryside. Following the combat engineers who were clearing paths through the barbed wire and minefields along the border, the assault regiments stormed forward. Operation Barbarossa—the life and death struggle between Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Communist Russia—had begun.

The Advance into the Baltic States

Von Leeb had 21 infantry, three panzer, and two motorized divisions at his disposal. They were divided into Col. Gen. Ernst Busch’s 16th Army, Col. Gen. Georg von Küchler’s 18th Army, and Col. Gen. Erich Hoepner’s Panzergruppe 4. With a total panzer strength of 570 vehicles, von Leeb commanded the least number of tanks among the three German Army groups arrayed along the Soviet border on a front stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea.

Operational orders for von Leeb called for him to advance through the formerly independent countries of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, all of which had been annexed by the Soviet Union in June 1940 under a secret protocol in the 1939 Russo-German nonaggression pact. After clearing Soviet forces in the Baltic area, the army group planned to enter Russia proper and take Leningrad.

The spearhead of Heeresgruppe Nord was Hoepner’s Panzergruppe 4. Its ranks included the LVI Army Corps (motorized), commanded by General Erich von Manstein, the architect of the victory in France and arguably the best strategist in the Wehrmacht.

Von Manstein’s first task was to capture the bridges over the Dvina River at Daugapvils, about 225 kilometers east of the border. Slicing through Soviet border defenses of the Northwestern Front, von Manstein’s divisions overran the forward elements of General Petr Petrovich Sobennikov’s 8th Army and secured a crossing on the Dubissa River.

Taken totally by surprise, General Fedor Isidorovich Kuznetsov, commander of the Northwest Front, tried to rally his forward divisions. His efforts failed owing to the pounding the border troops were taking from the aircraft of Colonel General Alfred Keller’s Luftflotte 1 (1st Air Fleet).

The 16th and 18th Armies followed the initial penetration, mopping up the Soviet infantry and spreading their divisions throughout the countryside. Several Red Army units fought bravely, slowing the advance, but many others just melted away under the fierce German assault.

“Heeresgruppe Nord. Nothing New”

Disregarding his flanks, von Manstein pushed his corps forward. Knowing that the element of surprise was on his side, he rushed his panzers toward the Dvina. He planned to use that surprise to suddenly appear deep in the Soviet rear and take the precious bridges that would allow the advance on Leningrad to continue.

By June 24, von Manstein’s 8th Panzer Division, commanded by General Erich Brandenberger, was only 130 kilometers from Daugapvils. Two days later the division took two key bridges in the city and crossed the Dvina. Von Manstein wanted to keep his panzers moving toward Leningrad, but Hoepner overruled him, ordering him to consolidate his bridgehead.

It would be a week before von Manstein was given the order to continue the advance. That precious week allowed the Soviets to reinforce their main line of defense—the Stalin Line— which was located about 125 kilometers to the east. While von Manstein waited and fumed at Daugapvils, he lost his chance to take Leningrad by surprise.

Another chance for a quick drive to Leningrad was lost at the Stalin Line. Von Manstein wanted to join with the XLI Army Corps (motorized) to crack the Russian defenses and speed toward the Soviet city, but Hoepner split the two corps, sending them in different directions along the line. Instead of a quick breakthrough, Panzergruppe 4 was forced to hit the Stalin Line along a wide front, while fighting off Soviet counterattacks on its flanks, until the infantry arrived.

The fighting for control of the Stalin Line took up more time that could not be spared. It was only in mid-July that German forces fought their way through the Red Army defenses to the next Soviet barrier, the Luga River Line.

Colonel General Franz Halder, chief of the German General Staff, voiced frustration at the seeming lack of planning between armored and infantry forces when he wrote on July 24 that “(Heeresgruppe) Nord is regrouping for new advances. So far it is still impossible to make out at which point the main weight is going to be concentrated.” A July 26 diary excerpt states, “Heeresgruppe Nord. Nothing new.”

Hitler Versus German High Command

With the infantry still lagging behind, the mechanized units of Panzergruppe 4 became enmeshed in another grueling battle with the Soviet forces occupying the eastern side of the river. While the Panzergruppe was stalled on the Luga, the Soviets were building yet another defensive line close to Leningrad. Antitank ditches were constructed by thousands of civilians under the watchful eyes of Red Army engineers. Minefields, bunkers, fortifications, and antitank strongpoints seemed to spring up overnight as more and more civilians were pressed into service.

A frustrated Halder penned an August 15 entry in his diary that once again concerned Heeresgruppe Nord. “Here we are paying for our lack of courage to take risks,” he wrote.

In mid-September von Manstein received orders that would take his corps (minus the 8th Panzer Division) away from Leningrad forever. Hitler and the Army command in Berlin were at odds as to which objectives would mean collapse for the Soviet Union. The Army pressed time and again for capturing Moscow, while Hitler wanted Leningrad as well as the capital. Indecision and shuffling forces back and forth had already cost the Germans almost a month of good weather as the objectives shifted. Now one of the finest corps in the German Army was being sent to Heeresgruppe Mitte (Army Group Center) to clear out the area around Demyansk in preparation for a massive drive on Moscow.

“In the end, what we felt in those weeks was the divergence between the goals of Hitler and those of the OKH (German High Command),” von Manstein later wrote. “Even as a commanding general, I was unable to make any sense of all this chopping and changing, though I did form the impression that it was all ultimately due to the tug-of-war evidently going on between Hitler and the OKH over whether the strategic aim should be Moscow or Leningrad.”

Part of that chopping and changing included the transfer of General Rudolf Schmidt’s XXXIX Army Corps (motorized) from Heeresgruppe Mitte to Heeresgruppe Nord in mid-August. Born in Berlin in 1896, Schmidt had fought in World War I and had stayed in the Army at the end of the war. In October 1937, he became commander of the 1st Panzer Division, a position he held until February 1940, when he was chosen to lead the XXXIX.

Schmidt’s motorized corps included the 12th Panzer Division and the 20th Motorized Division. Since the beginning of Barbarossa it had been attached to Panzergruppe 3, and it had taken part in the huge battles of encirclement at Minsk and Smolensk. The 12th Panzer Division was commanded by ex-cavalryman General Josef Harpe, while the 20th Motorized Division was commanded by General Hans Zorn.

The Push on Leningrad

As Schmidt’s units were being transported to Heeresgruppe Nord, a concentrated effort was finally under way to take Leningrad. Enough infantry divisions were now in position to support Panzergruppe 4’s flanks, but the objective had once again been changed. The differences between Hitler and the OKH were somewhat resolved in the new plan. Instead of assaulting Leningrad directly, the city was to be cut off, with the help of the Finns on the Karelian Isthmus, and the population would be left to starve to death or surrender.

Before von Manstein left for the south, his LVI Motorized Corps went into battle near Staraya Russa. The Soviet 34th Army bore the brunt of the attack and lost 12,000 men captured, along with 140 tanks and 240 artillery pieces captured or destroyed.

On August 24, General Georg-Hans Reinhardt’s XLI (motorized) Corps made it to Krasnogvardiesk, about 32 kilometers from Leningrad, before being stopped in fierce fighting with the Red Army’s 41st Rifle Corps. The same day, Schmidt’s XXXIX (motorized) Corps, now also controlling the 18th Motorized Division, prepared to move out and envelop Leningrad from the southeast.

The men of Heeresgruppe Nord had advanced hundreds of kilometers since the beginning of Barbarossa, destroying several Soviet armies along the way. It was not all one sided however. The army group had sustained 80,000 casualties since the invasion began and its armored formations had an average of 50-75 percent of their authorized strength. Although the Russo-German casualty rate was definitely in favor of the Germans, it seemed to many men at the front that the end was still nowhere in sight.