Leningrad was main objective of AGN and one of major objectives of Case Barbarossa. German surprise attack by 16th, 18th Armies and Pz Group 4 made spectacular progress, within days Soviet 8th and 11 th armies were cut off and their 3rd and 12th Mechanized corps crushed. Manstein’s LVI Panzer Corps captured bridges over Dvina at Daugavpils more than 400 km away in just four days! This not only shattered first Soviet strategic defensive echelon, but Manstein already in four days took the predicted location of second that didn’t even start with formation yet. Thus, entire pre war planning on Leningrad defences was nullified in several days as plans predicted that city’s security rested on defence of far approaches in Baltic Republics. On 9th July Pskov fell only 250 km from Leningrad, and already in Russia proper. Leningrad Military District now with sense of urgency employed 30 000 civilians to erect Luga defensive line, in addition 160 000 volunteers joined ranks of People’s Militia divisions in July. It was mostly these troops that stopped German advance on Luga line for around a month and bought time to prepare defences on approaches to Leningrad which were virtually inexistent. On 16th August Germans finally breached Luga line, than turned east to avoid strongest defence on south western approaches to the city, cutting main railway line with Moscow at Chudovo on 18 th. Then XXXIX motorized corps was sent to encircle the city from the east, while rest of the forces were prepared to attack the city itself. On 30th August railway junction of Mga fell and last railway connection to Leningrad was lost, while fall of Schlissel’burg on 8th September marks the loss of last land connection to the city.
Ensuing 900 days siege of Leningrad tied entire German field army (18th) directly and indirectly another German field army (16th) to the area. This was major setback for entire German war effort on Eastern Front. After the war defeated German generals created the narrative that this disadvantageous situation was direct consequence of Hitler’s late August decision not to storm Leningrad itself, but to starve it into submission in siege. They claimed that if not for Hitler’s decision, city was ripe for taking which could have had wide ramifications. Was this really so, and what were reasons for Hitler’s reasoning?
There are two aspects here. First Hitler was IMO correct to be cautious considering prospects of quick and meaningful victories when fighting in large urban centres as experience in Warsaw showed or more recently with pretty much Pyrrhic victories at Odessa and Dnepropetrovsk. Leningrad dwarfed these cities as it was fourth city in Europe by population behind Berlin, Moscow and London, known for ideological zeal and considered ready to resist ferociously. All these assessments were IMO right and direct assault would probably result in crippling of the offensive potential of entire field army.
Second aspect is that Hitler actually only forbade investing the city proper, but certainly left options open for closest possible encirclement of the city and making connection with the Finns coming from the north through Karelian isthmus. These goals were indeed pursued by German field commanders but couldn’t be attained. Therefore blaming failure for efforts to capture the city on order not to fight street battles is moot point.
Germans lacked the strength to take the city as forces of AGN were continuously fighting for three months and were exhausted and crucially Soviet resistance moved German hand and forced them to change prepared plans. By mid September typical German companies that usually numbered some 180 men were down to about 1/3 of their strength. Kuchler, CinC of 18th Army informed Leeb that his infantry was ‘already very worn out’, while commander of XXVIII Army Corps bluntly informed that ‘offensive was not possible anymore’.
On the other side, Leningrad was shielded by 640 km of anti-tank ditches, 600 km of barbed wire, 1000 km of earth works and 5 000 pillboxes that half a million of civilians built in preceding weeks. After fall of Mga and Schlissel’burg Stalin sacked inept Voroshilov who was already preparing for the fall of the city and gave orders for factories to be destroyed and fleet scuttled and replaced him with his best man, especially for fearsome crisis situations like the one at Leningrad, General Zhukov. Zhukov immediately invigorated the fighting spirit by his mere presence, countermanding Voroshilov’s demolition orders and energetic conduct of defence. In the centre Zhukov checked advance of XXXXI motorised corps by energetic defences of Pulkovo heights, where few precious KV-1 tanks were employed as well as all remaining heavy artillery and mighty guns of Baltic fleet. With Pulkovo in Soviet hands, Germans were denied the best high ground overlooking the city for the reminder of the siege. Zhukov sent 21st NKVD Rifle division and 6th Naval Infantry Brigade (made from sailors of Baltic fleet) to reinforce Uritsk on the coastal approaches to the city. Germans took Uritsk, but could advance no further. 168 division was sent to reinforce militia units holding Kolpino to the east where they put up gallant stand and in fanatical fight fought 121st and 122nd German infantry divisions to a standstill.
German window of opportunity had thus passed owing to self-sacrificing efforts of Leningrad militia units, civilians and Red Army units. Key terrain to the south of city was still in Soviet hands, Leningrad was still in contact with the rest of the country across Lake Ladoga, and German and Finnish armies were still separated. Elite Fliegkorps VIII and Pz Group 4(on 18th September) were by late September being redeployed south for operation Typhoon and siege was now in reality only option.
by Luka Bilić