04/08 – The Siege of Leningrad

Russian schoolgirls keep an eye out for German bomber aircraft during the Siege of Leningrad. Over the course of the encirclement, the line between civilian and soldier became increasingly blurred. (Wikimedia Commons)

On this day in 1942, a rail line was opened by the Soviet Red Army into the besieged Russian city of Leningrad, enabling small amounts of supplies to be brought in to the starving defenders. Surrounded by the German Army Group North, the city – an important Baltic sea port historically known as St Petersburg – had a population of roughly 3 million people and was a key point in the German plan to capture the Soviet Union. Beginning in September of 1941, Leningrad had been cut off from the outside world; as the main body of Operation Barbarossa steamrolled over Red Army defenders and pushed deep into Soviet Russia, Leningrad’s civil and military population dug in and began to starve.

A Russian-language map of the Siege. To the north of the city, the Finnish army held their lines in Karelia and, although they refused to take part in the bombardment of the city, prevented supplies from reaching the Russian defenders. (Reddit)

Starvation was a deliberate part of the German military doctrine in the East. Rather than attacking enemy cities and engaging in the lengthy (and difficult) process of street-fighting, the German Wehrmacht opted to surround these urban centres, starving their populations while the rest of the force pressed onwards at a lightning speed. Known as Kesselschlacht (cauldron battles), these engagements were horrifically costly in terms of human life: at Leningrad alone, roughly 2.4 million Russians starved, froze or were killed in combat. This number includes soldiers and civilians, for every man, woman and child was mobilized to construct defences and take part in the war effort. The city was finally liberated by the Red Army’s counter-offensive at the beginning of 1944 after over two years of encirclement. The siege stands as one the most violent in human history, what some historians classify as a genocide.

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