How a Soviet Attempt to End the Siege of Leningrad Ended in Disaster
Here’s What You Need to Know: The remains of some of the dead Red Army soldiers still turn up today.
On February 23, 1942, Red Army Day, the People’s Commissar of Defense, Josef Stalin, issued Order No. 55. It read in part as follows: “But the enemy’s efforts have been in vain. The initiative now is in our hands and the futile attempts of Hitler’s out of tune, rusted machine are unable to withstand the pressure of the Red Army. The day is not far when a powerful blow of the Red Army will hurl back the enemy beasts from Leningrad, clear from them the towns and villages of Byelorussia and Ukraine, Lithuania and Latvia, Estonia and Karelia, liberate the Soviet Crimea, and all over the Soviet land the red banners will again soar victoriously.”
At the end of 1941, six months after the Germans launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, the Soviet losses in territory and human lives were staggering, without precedent in modern military history. Some 570,000 square miles, an area equal to that of all occupied Europe, with a population of no less than 70 million and enormous industrial and agricultural output, was lost. For all practical purposes, the original Soviet air force and armor ceased to exist, and of those Red Army men who met the German onslaught in June, only 8 percent were still in the ranks.
Despite these tragic, crushing facts, the mood of the Soviet supreme commander, Premier Josef Stalin, was optimistic because of recent news from different corners of the front. A Soviet counteroffensive, launched on December 5, had driven the Germans from the gates of Moscow and liberated Tula and Moscow provinces. Rostov was retaken, and the railroad town of Tikhvin, the key to the survival of Leningrad, was recaptured after a desperate and furious offensive. Stalin was convinced that all strategic dispositions had changed in favor of the Red Army and that the Moscow offensive would continue unabated, in conjunction with massive strikes along all the length of the enormous front.
When the always cautious and prudent Chief of General Staff Marshal Boris Shaposhnikov timidly suggested consolidating the achieved gains and switching to strategic defense all along the front, Stalin brushed him aside, saying, “Hitler is already exhausted. With a unified blow along all fronts we will overrun his armies and throw them off our land. The Soviet people will not understand us, comrades, if we will call them to passive defense.”
On the last day of December a meeting took place in the Kremlin during which plans for the next year’s campaign were outlined. At the beginning of January, these plans were submitted for Stalin’s approval. The final product became known as the Soviet Supreme Command or Stavka’s directive letter. On January 5, Stalin personally dictated the final paragraph: “Our task is not to give the Germans breathing space but drive them westward without stopping, forcing them to spend their reserves before spring, when we will have new great reserves, and the Germans will have no reserves, thus providing the complete destruction of the Hitlerite forces in 1942.”
It was a rather cumbersome piece of literary work, but its military implications would prove outright deadly for the Soviets.
According to this plan, a few major strategic operations were to be conducted in which nine out of 10 Soviet Fronts, or army groups, including a newly created Crimean Front, were destined to take part. In the south an immediate campaign to liberate the Crimea and the besieged city of Sevastopol would begin. The Southwestern Front was to retake Kharkov and secure Donbass, with its rich coal deposits. In the west, the offensive toward Smolensk and Byelorussia was to continue.
In the north, the combined efforts of the Leningrad Front and the recently created Volkhov Front would break through the German 18th Army defense line. The armies of the Volkhov Front, advancing in a northwesterly direction, would meet the troops of the Leningrad Front driving south, thus shattering the German ring around Leningrad. The enemy units in the area of Chudovo-Luban would be isolated and destroyed.
The situation in Leningrad, the second largest city of the Soviet Union and one of its most important industrial centers, was catastrophic. The city had been under siege since September 8, 1941, when German troops captured the town of Shlisselburg, where the Neva River exits Lake Ladoga, and severed all land communications with the rest of the country. In the west, Finnish troops reached the pre-Winter War border on the Karelian Isthmus and took up a defensive position there. In the north, they stopped at the Svir River in the Ladoga-Onega gap. The Germans cut off the city from the south, effectively blockading it.
When Told of These Details, Stalin Simply Shrugged and Said, “This is War. People are Dying Everywhere.”
Since the end of November, the city had been supplied by auto road across the frozen surface of Lake Ladoga. The volume of delivered supplies was not even close to providing enough food for the fighting armies of the Leningrad Front and the remaining civilian population, which was still more than two million. People had begun dying from famine by the end of October. By the beginning of November, there were no dogs or cats left in the city. In December, the famine was exacerbated by the unusually low temperatures, pushing the death toll to 55,000. In January this climbed to 95,000. No less deadly, February was ready to follow.
Stalin was informed about the conditions in the city. It is difficult to surmise what his real feelings were when he learned details about life in the frozen and dying city, about massive death from starvation, frozen corpses on the streets, cases of cannibalism. Allegedly for the safety of this city, he had started the war with Finland only two years earlier. When told of these details, he simply shrugged and said, “This is war. People are dying everywhere.”
The strategic goals of the planned operation were very ambitious. The 4th Army of the Volkhov Front and the 54th Army of the Leningrad Front were ordered to break through the German defenses along the Volkhov River and advance in the direction of Tosno, a town on the Leningrad-Moscow railroad, capture it, and link with the advancing 55th Army of the Leningrad Front. This would isolate and eventually destroy the German forces in the Mga-Shlisselburg corridor.
The 59th Army and the 2nd Shock Army, representing the main striking force of the coming operation, received the mission to attack northwest toward the Siverskiy station on the Luga-Leningrad railroad, conducting a deep envelopment of Leningrad from the south. A combined effort with the 4th Army would cut off the German XXVIII Corps in the Chudovo-Luban area. The 52nd Army was ordered to strike south, capture Novgorod, and link up with the forces of the Northwestern Front.
The Soviet High Command expected that the result of this operation would be not only the end of the siege of Leningrad, but also the destruction of German Army Group North and the liberation of the Baltic republics. At the end of 1941, the Red Army was about to bite off more than it could chew.
Lieutenant General Mikhail Khozin was appointed to command the Leningrad Front. Commanding the newly created Volkhov Front was Army General Kirill Meretskov, former chief of the general staff of the Red Army. He had only recently been the object of torture and humiliation in the cellars of the notorious Lubianka Prison in Moscow. The new Front received four armies, the recently formed 52nd and 4th, already blooded in the stubborn battle for Tikhvin, and two fresh armies from the Reserves of Stavka, 2nd Shock and 59th Regular.
The influx of men and equipment gave the Volkhov Front and the left flank of the Leningrad Front numerical and technical superiority over their opponents in men, artillery, and aircraft. In the sector of the 2nd Shock Army, this advantage was an overwhelming five to one in men and three to one in tanks. However, a catastrophic shortage of ammunition, especially for artillery, seriously diminished these advantages.
The terrain where the attack was planned was extremely unsuitable for military operations. It was a thickly wooded, roadless area with impassable marshes and numerous though relatively small rivers and streams, with the sole exception of the 450-yard-wide Volkhov River. This forbidding terrain prohibited the use of armor; even infantry would be hard pressed to advance and keep its lines of supply and communications functioning.
What were the Soviet High Command considerations for embarking on a strategic offensive on such difficult terrain? First, in the middle of a severe winter most marshes and all rivers were frozen solid and could provide enough support for armor and supply columns to move. It imposed, of course, rigid time restrictions on the operational schedule. The goals had to be successfully achieved before the spring thaw set in.
The Soviet High Command, encouraged by recent success in fighting under winter conditions, believed that snow, cold temperatures, and difficult terrain would be allies of the Red Army. They based this assessment first on the fighting around Moscow, where the Germans proved to be completely unprepared for winter warfare. Second, the recapture of Tikhvin and a successful Moscow offensive reminded the political leadership of the old adage, “The summer was yours but the winter will be ours.” Stalin, euphoric with high expectations, could not see what field commanders and the leadership of the general staff already realized—that the Moscow offensive was quickly running out of steam.