Soviet efforts to save Leningrad were Herculean. Apart from heroism and drama inside the city, vast resources and incredible effort was made by the rest of the country. Efforts were twofold, concerning attempts to supply the city and to break the siege.
Road of life was a paramount feats considering efforts to save the city from the fate Germans intended for it. It was a real road built and maintained on the ice of Lake Ladoga during winter months (November to April). It was fully equipped with mechanical repair stations, gas stations and other infrastructure. It was defended by units entrenched in the ice and anti aircraft units for protection against German attacks which bombarded and shelled the road but refrained from ground attacks across the ice (maybe reminiscent of the battle on frozen lake Peipus against Alexander Nevsky in 13th century
Road was extremely dangerous in the period when ice was forming or melting, only in the first week of road operations more than 40 trucks and brave souls driving them sunk through ice into frozen darkness. Drivers were often driving with doors open and standing half inside and half out to increase chances of survival by jumping out in time. Railways over significant distances in inhospitable wasteland were built within weeks to connect Leningrad to western shore of the lake at Osinovec and from eastern end of the road to main railway network at Voibokalo. Efforts paid off and over half of million civilians and 35 000 wounded were evacuated in the first winter and some 1.5 million altogether, food was brought in, without which city would've perished. Also during first winter industrial equipment from 86 factories was evacuated as well as some cultural treasures. Leningrad Ice Road is enlisted in World Heritage List.
In 1942 pipelines was built under the lake into besieged city, alleviating the fuel and heating situation, and when lake froze, even 30 km railway was built on ice along the road which was rebuilt.
During non ice months ship convoys were used that utilized longer but safer route, further away from German lines. Still these convoys were regularly bombed by the Luftwaffe and even naval interdiction was attempted. Four Italian torpedo boats and four German small minelayers as well as thirty Siebel ferries armed with flak and artillery were shipped by rail to Finnish side of the lake. After a battle in October 1942 (Operation Brazil) when Germans lost four ferries and 80 men, they attempted no further naval operations.
Efforts of the Red Army to break the siege were equally important as they kept Germans constantly off balance, prevented them from organizing actions against the city and eventually reopened land route to the city.
First attempt by the Red Army to unblock the city was as early as September 1941- first Sinavino offensive but was easily repulsed by the Germans.
In November Germans captured Tikhvin seeking to completely cut off lake Ladoga from supply routes toward east and south. Tihkvin was critical in this sense as railroad junction. In December, in one of first successful counter strokes of the war Red Army 52nd and 54th armies under Meretskov retook Tikhvin and inflicted Germans over 20 000 casualties in Tikhvin campaign, while 8th and 12th Panzer divisions were burnt out. Now way was open to build railroad to Ladoga, which was accomplished in few weeks.
Already on 4th January another Soviet offensive hit German lines. Volkhov Front launched its Lyuban offensive that aimed at cutting off German held Kirishi salient. German front on Volkhov nearly collapsed with Soviet Second Shock Army exploiting into German rear. Crisis was such that Leeb recommended withdrawal from Volkhov, which would mean end of the siege. Hitler dismissed him at once and put Kuchler in his place who managed to bring in reserves from more stable sectors and checked 2nd Shock Army advance.
In March 54th Army continued the offensive on the northern face of salient but was checked after gaining considerable ground.
Salient created by 2nd Shock Army jutted far through German lines but was itself very vulnerable because its base was very narrow and inviting encirclement. This was because Stalin insisted on capturing more ground in enemy rear in favour of systematic elimination of enemy strongholds on salient base. Germans in their expected manner cut of the salient at its base and slowly(March- June) strangled Second Shock taking 32 000 prisoners including capable general Vlasov who was flown in the pocket to save the Army. Vlasov escaped encirclement two times in 1941, but his luck run out. Later he became a traitor and leader of collaborationist ‘Russian Liberation Army’.
In August Red Army tried again, this time again at narrowest point of blockade, north of Mga railway junction - Second Siniavino offensive. This time from the west with Neva Operational Group and from the east with 8th Army. Western arm was quickly defeated, while in the east sluggish but fierce battles raged as Soviets slowly bent heavily fortified German lines on ideal terrain, only to be swept back by Manstein’s counter stroke in September. Still Second Siniavino offensive disrupted Manstein’s plans for operation Nordlicht aimed at strangulation Leningrad as he spent reserves and ammo stocked for the offensive in effort to check Soviet push.
Soviet efforts to relieve Leningrad were unrelenting and growing in strength, preparedness and coordination. In January 1943 operation Spark was launched overseen personally by Zhukov. Again Siniavino heights sector was targeted from both sides by Leningrad and Volkhov fronts, reinforced with new units, artillery and committing between them over 800 aircrafts. Attacks over the Neva by 67th Army were we can say standardly costly and disappointingly ineffective, but then outstanding Red Army commander distinguished himself. General Simoniak’s 136th Rifle Division managed to overrun positions of German Aufklärungs Abteilung 240 around Marino and get some light T 60 tanks over thin ice of Neva. By night two divisions were across and engineers built pontoons capable of taking T 34s across..The crack was happening. In following day bridgehead was expanded, Schlissel’burg enveloped from the south and advance east continued toward rebuilt Second Shock army that clawed its way west through German network of strongholds built around former workers settlements. When two arms met, they cut of German forces between them and Lake Ladoga including five Tiger tanks, one of the first deployed for combat testing in this very area. All of the Tigers were lost and Soviet rifleman even managed to chase away crew of one Tiger attempting to blow it up. The tank was captured intact, long before Germans wished to reveal this super tank to the enemy. Soviets developed tactics to counter Tiger tanks and made strategic decisions to upgrade their tank park in time, which led to development of IS series and T-34/85.
German defence of Siniavino heights was to strong though and remained in their hands. Still ring that strangled the city was finally broken and railroad was promptly built through land corridor, connecting Leningrad to the Motherland.
Accolades were in order and Zhukov was made Marshal, while Simoniak’s 136th division became 63rd Guards Rifle Division and General himself became barrer of the Gold Star, Hero of Soviet Union.
Already in February new offensive was ordered this time including Leningrad, Volkhov and North Western Fronts aimed at destruction of entire AGN, operation Polar Star. Subcomponents of the offensive were Forth Siniavino offensive and battle at Krasny Bor. At Krasny Bor Simoniak’s 63rd Guards Rifle division blasted through center of the line held by Spanish Blau Division and captured the town but other Soviet units were somewhat lethargic to exploit this success and major breakthrough wasn’t achieved. Similarly efforts around Siniavino and by NW Front were costly failures.
During the summer of 1943 Soviets repeatedly tried to dislodge the Germans from their invincible fortress on Siniavino heights. Offensives in July and August were defeated with heavy Soviet casualties. In September however general Simoniak, now in command of 30th Guard Rifle Corps used creeping barrage instead of standard two hour artillery preparation and sent his guardsmen closely behind the steel storm. Germans were caught by surprise and guardsmen soon fought their way on top of the fateful heights that commanded surrounding flat lands and kept railroad to Leningrad under fire.
In January 1944 Soviets planned final offensive to end the siege once and for all. Govorov’s Leningrad front would lead the effort and planned for operational surprise. Usually main effort came from Volkhov front, secondary from Leningrad front units on Neva, usually centered around Mga. This time main effort would come from forgotten Oranienbaum bridgehead where entire 2nd Shock army was transferred in secrecy. They were to link with 42nd Army which was to attack from Leningrad itself toward Krasnoye Selo. Only then after German reserves were drawn there would Volkhov front attack from the east.
On 14th January after powerful artillery preparation infantry of 2nd Shock Army punched a hole in German lines through which tanks pushed on during the night, next day breach was widened. From the Leningrad side Simoniak’s 30th Guards Rifle Corps again led the way and ruptured lines of 170th Infanterie Division on Pulkhovo Heights (Simoniak was later elevated to command 3rd Shock Army). And entire 42nd Army slowly advanced toward Krasnoye Selo crushing stubborn German resistance.
Soviet partisans managed to delay German reinforcements in Pskov at critical moment and on the 19th mobile group from 2nd Shock consisting of tanks, motorized infantry and self propelled guns under colonel Oskotsky achieved a clear breakthrough and linked with 42nd army at Ropsha. Cut off area to the north between the sea was now cleared of Germans including heavy artillery batteries that pounded Leningrad for two and a half years near Peterhof. (The Grand Palace of Peter the Great at Peterhof was interestingly entire time just several hundred meters from Soviet lines, looted and turned into fortress.)
On 15th January Meretskov’s Volkhov front went on offensive, quickly overcoming German defences, and Novgorod was liberated on 20th. In following pursuit German XXXVIII Army Corps suffered many casualties.
German reinforcements (s.Pz.Abt. 502 and 12 Panzer Division) that were delayed finally arrived to contest Krasnogvardeysk from advancing 42nd army together with embattled L Army Korps. Still, Red Army turned German flanks and enveloped these defences and Germans lost 11 Tigers on 21st of January alone. 18th Army was now withdrawing without orders and Kuchler was relieved for this, while fireman Model took charge. Yet even Model couldn’t do much and general withdrawal toward Estonia continued.
Defensive performance of AGN was impressive and probably best among all armies of the war. They defeated many Soviet offensives and inflicted 620 000 casualties (dead and captured) during entire campaign. Soviets contributed by allowing political decisions dictate military affairs. Thus, offensives were often(especially in 1941/42) rushed, not fully prepared and uncoordinated. But when time was allowed for preparations and adequate resources granted, days of German menace to the city were numbered.
by Luka Bilić