The World War II Multimedia Database

For the 72 Million

The Siege of Leningrad, 1941-1944

For centuries the cultural heart of Russia and the second largest city in the Soviet Union, Leningrad was a prime target of the advancing German Army Group North in June 1941.

One of the stated reasons for the Soviet-Finnish War of 1939-1940 was to protect the former Czarist capital, St. Petersburg, at the time named Leningrad, from Finnish attack. When the Germans invaded, they called on the Finns to attack Leningrad from the north.

On the shore of Lake Ladoga, Leningrad had political significance as the city named for the founder of the Russian Revolution, but it also had military significance as it prevented the Germans from sweeping around the north of Russia and attacking Moscow from behind.

The population of Leningrad turned out shortly after the invasion and dug antitank ditches around the city. Two hundred thousand Red Army defenders protected 3,000,000 inhabitants.

Within weeks of crossing the border, the Germans cut the Leningrad-Moscow railway and the Germans advanced on the city. The attack failed and the Nazi Generals appealed to Hitler to start a siege, so panzer units badly needed elsewhere could be released.

Hitler readily agreed on September 29, 1941. Furthermore, he ordered that the city be reduced so that the Germans would not have to feed its population. Relentless shelling and air raids began and lasted for the next 872 days.

Soviet naval units tried to evacuate the sick and wounded, but Leningrad came to symbolize the horrors of the Eastern Front. Starvation claimed thousands of lives, and it was not uncommon to find corpses left in the street. 650,000 died in 1942 alone. The brutal winter of 1941-42, that stopped the Germans in the south, only added to Leningrad’s agony.

Supplies came in sporadically by barge across Lake Ladoga during the summer of 1942 and during the winters trucks would drive over the frozen ice. Truck convoys would sink in bomb craters left by Stuka attacks and would disappear in the rapidly melting ice as the temperature increased in the spring. Some 500,000 residents were taken out, but most stayed and many died. The summer thaws would reveal more corpses in the streets, forgotten and buried by snow.

Starvation was eased in 1943 by vegetable gardens that were planted on any open ground. Incredibly, war production continued in factories frozen by winter air coming through shell holes and bomb holes through the ceiling.

In January 1943, the siege was broken by a Soviet offensive, but not completely lifted. The rail line with Moscow was reestablished. The Soviet offensive of January 1944 lifted the siege, and for the first time in almost 900 days the populace could walk openly in the streets without fear of air attack.

The siege of Leningrad was dramatized for the entire world. Dimitri Shostakovitch wrote his Seventh Symphony, the Leningrad Symphony, during the siege. Leningrad came to symbolize the Soviet-Nazi conflict, and Americans especially identified with the Leningrad inhabitants.

Stalin bestowed the Order of Lenin on the city in 1945, and the title Hero City of the Soviet Union was awarded in 1965. Leningrad still remains a symbol of Nazi brutality and aggression on the Eastern Front.

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