When Germany’s war machine was turned loose in the Soviet Union, one of its primary targets was Leningrad. Its status as a port city on the Baltic Sea (specifically the Gulf of Finland) made it important militarily. But more than that, Leningrad was the former capital of Russia and was home to the Russian Revolution that brought Lenin, Joseph Stalin, and Communism to power. That made it an especially attractive target for Adolf Hitler.
Germany’s invasion, begun in late June, overwhelmed the Soviet defenses. Less than three months later, German forces were camped just a few miles outside the former capital, and the Siege of Leningrad (which would last more than 2 years) had begun. Early experience in Operation Barbarossa had taught the invaders that infiltrating cities was costly in lives and equipment, so the decision was made to simply surround the city and starve it out. The plan was for the Germans to surround from the west and south, while the Finnish armies (eager to fight for obvious reasons) would come in from the north and east.
Unfortunately, the Finns didn’t feel quite the same way about Leningrad, as their goal was more about reclaiming territory lost in 1940 than destroying Leningrad. So while they approached the city to within 25 miles on the north, they never moved in from the east, leaving the land between Leningrad and Lake Ladoga in Soviet hands. And with an especially harsh winter in 1941, Lake Ladoga began freezing earlier than usual…which gave the defenders an inspiration. Why not use the lake to ferry supplies?
And that’s what they did. On November 19, 1941, the Ice Road was completed. At this point, the ice still wasn’t thick enough to support motorized vehicles, so nearly all the prep work had been done by hand and horse. Still, it was a start. Initially, supplies came in very small quantities on horse-drawn sleds. And it immediately became a target for German artillery and air strikes, so much so that people called it “The Road of Death”. But in 1941, the most important purpose the road served was allowing citizens of Leningrad to leave the city, thereby avoiding almost certain death from starvation…more than a million would do so.
The Siege of Leningrad was one of the worst sieges in history, but it was the Ice Road over Lake Ladoga that helped evacuate much of the civilian population. And though it only functioned a few months out of the year, “The Road of Life” (its more appropriate name) brought in just enough supplies and ammunition to keep the defenders alive and fighting.