To besiege a city: Leningrad 1941-42


Leningrad – today known as St Petersburg – was a key military and industrial target in the early years of the Second World War. But the city also held a psychological attraction for the invading armies of the Third Reich in the summer of 1941. Leningrad had been the ‘cradle’ of the Russian Revolution in 1917; the birthplace of Bolshevism itself. Its capture, so Hitler believed, would therefore crush the morale of the Soviet people.

Stalin himself never much cared for the northern port city on the banks of the river Neva, built by Peter the Great at a time when the Russian empire was looking to expand its influence in Western Europe. He considered it too isolated. But as Prit Buttar points out in this book – the first of two on the 1941-1944 siege of the city – it was this very isolation that saved it from total destruction.

By the time Army Group North had arrived in the southern outskirts of the city in September 1941, they had already been worn down by an unexpectedly taxing journey across Lithuania and Latvia, having vastly underestimated the numbers of Soviet divisions they would encounter on the way. Huge lakes and dense, impassable forests throughout the region had proved challenging, too, while every day the increasingly harsh weather killed more of the draft horses on which they were so reliant. Upon reaching Leningrad, the expectation was that the Soviet Union would have already been defeated. As this was not the case, there was no real plan about what to do with the city.

As Buttar says, the siege that followed was not a blockade in the traditional sense. The Wehrmacht had no desire for the city to surrender, as that would have made them responsible for Leningrad’s two million or more inhabitants. Instead, the plan evolved into something blatantly murderous: to cut off the city entirely, bombard it with artillery, and let its inhabitants slowly starve. They even considered poisoning Leningraders with nerve gas.

Throughout the subsequent siege, conditions within the city became truly appalling. The stories of cannibalism are well known, and if the residents weren’t killed by neighbours who wanted to eat them, the bitter cold and widespread disease did the job instead. All that kept the city going in that period was the ‘Road of Life’, built by the Soviets across the frozen Lake Ladoga to the east. The Nazis attempted to attack this road, but the harsh conditions worked in Russia’s favour. Nonetheless, the city still struggled greatly to feed its citizens.

Buttar suggests that the Soviet leadership in Moscow (which had replaced Leningrad as the capital in 1918) didn’t consider the city’s defence a top priority. The attempts to relieve it certainly seem half-hearted: after one led by General Andrey Vlasov early in 1942 failed to make any progress, Vlasov, who had been captured, switched sides to the Germans out of a feeling he’d been let down by the Red Army leadership. Remarkably, Vlasov was to change sides again later in the war.

What turned the tide of the siege in the long run were actually events elsewhere, primarily in Stalingrad – another industrial city fought over partly for symbolic reasons. Buttar ends this volume in the summer of 1942, when Army Group South’s attack there began. The refocusing of Nazi priorities on the much-needed oil fields in the Caucasus allowed the situation in Leningrad literally to freeze into stalemate. The only movement was on the Road of Life, which shipped supplies in and transferred all but the most essential inhabitants out.

This is Prit Buttar’s 12th book on the Eastern Front, a theatre he is clearly fascinated with. Once again, he explains with impressive clarity the dynamics of the military situation and the dreadful suffering that was endured, mostly by civilians, before circumstances could be turned around. His second volume is due to pick up where this book ends, charting the eventual relief of the city, which came, after some 900 days of siege, in January 1944. It promises to be every bit as good.

To besiege a city: Leningrad 1941-42, Prit Buttar, Osprey Publishing, hbk (£30), ISBN 978-1472856555