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Posts Tagged ‘Siege of Leningrad’

I’ve been away from the keyboard for a couple of days…not lost in the Bermuda Triangle or anything, but just busy with “life” kind of things.  I feel like the last couple months have been rather scatter-shot around here, but the good news is the calendar has lots of stuff coming up.  In fact, between now and the end of the year, only 3 days are blank in the spreadsheet.  We’ll see how I do…in the meantime…

As the bitter cold of 1941’s December descended, the picture was pretty bleak for Russian citizens.  Leningrad was basically surrounded while the German armies pounded the city and waited for its inhabitants to starve.  The spires of Moscow were in the sights of the Wehrmacht, and the encirclement of the capital was halted only by exhaustion, the need for fresh troops and supplies, and the afore-mentioned bitter cold.

And on the 5th, the Soviets struck hard, launching a massive counterattack aimed at relieving pressure on Moscow.  Simultaneously, Red Army forces struck around Leningrad, hoping the stop the strangulation of that city as well.  It was there that the Germans were trying to finish cutting off the eastern approaches to the city.  If that could be done, then even a frozen Lake Ladoga would be of no use to the Russians.

Russian troops made for Tikhvin, which was located little more than one hundred miles southeast of Leningrad and had been taken by the Germans in mid-November.  Two days later, Tikhvin was largely surrounded.  Hitler had promised to deliver 100 tanks and more than 20,000 troops, but what the Russians actually encountered were a half-dozen tanks and exhausted men that were freezing.  In the face of impossible odds and with 7,000 casualties already lost, German Field Marshal Ritter von Leeb was left with little choice but to abandon Tikhvin to the home country.  On December 9, 1941, Red Army forces recaptured the town.

If light of how precarious the overall situation was for Russia, it seems a rather insignificant victory…it’s one town.  But it also reopened a major railhead and reduced the road route to Lake Ladoga from nearly 200 miles to just 60.  Trucking supplies over the frozen lake had now moved from the realm of “near suicidal” to “feasible”.

For the time being, the victory saved Leningrad.  Dmitry Pavlov, Leningrad’s food chief, later wrote, “Without exaggeration, the defeat of the German Fascist forces at Tikhvin and the recapture of the northern railway line up to Mga station saved thousands of people from starvation.”

In his book Absolute War, Chris Bellamy writes, “More than that, the counteroffensive which retook the vital junction at Tikhvin on 9 December 1941 was the first major successful counteroffensive against the Wehrmacht by any combatant in the Second World War.”

The fight for Tikhvin displayed the first chink in the armor of German superiority, and that made the battle a big deal.

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Our trip to Phoenix was good, though it ended quickly.  While I don’t much like to fly (and I’ve made no secret of that), the flights were quite smooth.  Our son is doing well…we got to see his apartment for the first time, and it’s pretty nice.  I really like the stark beauty of the Arizona desert, but the city is so large and busy that it’s hard to really do anything on our own (much less really enjoy the area) until we’ve spent a little more time there.  We’ll go back again, but for now, it was good to see him.

Let’s touch on a bit of history to get back into the swing of things.

As August of 1941 prepared to roll into September, it was hard to characterize Operation Barbarossa as anything other than a smashing success for the Germans.  One by one, the cities of western Russia fell to the forces of the Wehrmacht.  We’ve dedicated time to the capture of VitebskMinsk, and Smolensk in the course of all our discussions, and made mention of a couple others, like Kiev and Kharkov.  So those of you that are regular readers are well aware that the early months of this massive German “gamble in the east” were heady ones for the invaders.

In the north, Army Group North was bearing down on Leningrad.  Situated on the Gulf of Finland, this city of 4 million people was much more than a large Russian seaport.  As the place where the Revolution of 1905 began, it was also considered the cradle of the Communist movement.  And those two things made it a doubly important target for Adolf Hitler’s legions.

And even as the German Panzers approached the outskirts of the city, there was some doubt as to the next steps.  In his book The Siege of Leningrad (now approaching 40 years since publication), Leon Goure writes, “The stage was thus set for the final assault on the city.  But at that time it was by no means certain that such an assault would be made, because Hitler was unable to decide what to do with Leningrad once it was captured.”

Some of Hitler’s generals agreed, desiring that Moscow be the primary target and that Leningrad be left to wither in an encirclement.  Goure goes on to write that Hitler really wanted to avoid a direct attack on the city for a couple of reasons.  First, he believed the Soviet propoganda promising a bloody house-to-house defense.  He had already seen a teaser of that kind of warfare in places like Kiev, Smolensk, and Tallin, and it was costly in both men and equipment.  But second, the German dictator wasn’t really sure what to do with the city’s 4 million people.  He suggested forcing them from the city and allowing them to travel further east, but the Generals knew that was impractical.

As the Generals debated, the Army successes continued.  On August 30, 1941, the Germans cut the Leningrad-Ovinichi rail line and had advanced as far as the Neva River at Ivanovskoe.  The railroad was the last one out of Leningrad.  If people were going to get out of the city, it would likely be on foot.

For all intents and purposes, Leningrad was now surrounded.  The only open area was directly east of the city, towards Lake Ladoga, and the Germans were trying (thus far unsuccessfully) to get Mannerheim and his Finnish troops to take that area.  The Siege of Leningrad was about to begin.

Recommended Reading: The Siege of Leningrad – There are numerous worthy books on the Siege.  This happens to be the “grandfather” in my collection, so it gets the nod today.

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More than a year ago, we talked about Nikolai Baibakov and his work in keeping Russia’s vast oil supplies from falling into the hands of the Germans during the Second World War.  His incentive, according to his boss Joseph Stalin, was simple.  Save the oil, save your life.  Lose the oil…well, you can probably figure it out.

By early 1942, Leningrad (in the far north) had already been under seige for months and getting supplies into that desperate city, particularly fuel, was difficult.  But in April, the Russian Defense Committee came up with the idea of an oil pipeline under Lake Ladoga, situated to the west and north of the city.

And with a stern directive from Stalin coupled with the knowledge of the “award” for failure, work began at a feverish pace.  In less than 2 months, on June 18, 1942, a tremendous technological achievement was completed and the pipeline became operational.  Nearly 300 tons of fuel per day were pumped through the underwater lifeline…not nearly enough for every need, but enough to keep Leningrad alive.

The idea caught on and, by September, the Volkhov power station was using an underwater cable to send electricity to the city.  And in August 1944, after the Allies invaded Normandy, Operation PLUTO (PipeLine Under The Ocean) was launched.  A pipeline was laid under the English Channel, pumping (as you might guess) about 300 tons of fuel per day.  Of course, more capacity would be added, increasing daily flows ten-fold.  But that was a couple of years down the road and, right now, the fuel to power essential services and the defenses of Leningrad was mighty welcome.

Recommended Reading: Absolute War – Soviet Russia in the Second World War

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Today’s History Lesson won’t take too long, because it’s late…and I’m tired.  Plus some of the background information we covered just last week.  The massive German offensive in southern Russia was being prepared when plans for “Fall Blau” (Case Blue) fell into Russian hands.  Stalin received the plans and then believed them to be part of an elaborate ruse.  And so he ignored them.

And to be honest, it’s not hard to come to his defense just a bit for his decision.  When the Russians had been invaded the year before, the strongest actions had been to the north.  Disaster had narrowly been averted with the help of an uncharacteristically harsh fall and early winter.  Conditions gave the defenders time to prepare an couterattacking army that saved Moscow in the nick of time.  Further north, Leningrad was still almost completely surrounded.

So we shouldn’t be so terribly surprised that Stalin, knowing how close the shave had been the previous December, would assume that the German armies would come calling (in bigger and badder numbers) to the same addresses.  And the Soviet generals had followed that thinking as well.  More than half their total armed forces were deployed in defense of the north.

In the south, where the Germans launched Fall Blau on June 28, 1942, it met with fewer than 10% of Russia’s total military might.  The Soviets could do nothing but fall back, and that’s precisely what they did.  We’ll probably visit this topic again, but two things should be noted right away.

First, unlike 1941, Soviet retreats were handled very well…”orderly” is a good word.  A year before, the Wehrmacht had feasted on the encirclement…surrounding large masses of Soviet soldiers and then reducing the pockets.  This year, the Germans would struggle to flank.  When they tried to surround, the Soviets just fell back.  The Soviets were learning.

Second, in an advance of this nature, Germany’s supply lines would grow incredibly long in a hurry, and keeping troops and trucks and tanks fed would become a huge problem.

But on this day, it was Germany seeing all red and Russia with the blau’s.

Recommended Reading: Absolute War – Soviet Russia in the Second World War

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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.

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