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Soviet army crossed rarely transcended barriers in Leningrad to overpower Nazis

By Harsh Thakor 

St Petersburg -- previously Leningrad -- has been commemorating the 80th anniversary of its complete liberation from the Nazis and the conclusion of one of the most brutal sieges in history. 80 years ago, a spectacular turn of events in Leningrad played major role in shaping the destiny or determining the path of the Great Patriotic War.
The Nazi siege of Leningrad lasted nearly two-and-a-half years until it was finally overpowered by the Soviet Army on 27 January, 1944.Approximately one million Leningrad residents perished  of hunger and air and artillery bombardment in one of the most horrifying episodes of World War II.
Courage and endurance penetrated barriers heights rarely transcended in human history. .It was remarkable how the Soviet red army resurrected itself from the most dire straits to give the enemy a jolt.
Creative endeavour in military practice and formulating tactics was scaled to sublime proportions when procuring supplies to the people by penetrating enemy barriers as well as mobilising people in support of actions in resisting the enemy. It exhibited the sheer brilliance of the military of the Red Army in giving a striking blow to the enemy when facing adversity.
The Western media grossly undervalued the achievement of the Soviet Red Army evaluating that the USSR’s ‘totalitarian state’ apparatus maintained its repression in besieged Leningrad and used Leningrad’s musicians and artists as propaganda tools. They placed gross blame on Stalinist policy of trying to hide the extent of the crisis, because the USSR didn’t want to perturb the rest of its population or demotivate them during a fight for national survival 
Today in n Russia’s collective memory, there is a contrast between the militaristic tone  of President Vladimir Putin’s resurrection  of the Great Patriotic War cult, on the one hand, and a more balanced understanding of the siege amongst many Russians, which projected it’s  its traumatic qualities
Private commemorations of the victims and heroes of the Leningrad siege frequently occur  in the Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery, where 470,000 civilians and 50,000 combatants who died in the blockade lie buried.

Background

The Nazis began their siege of Leningrad on September 8, 1941 – trying to reduce the USSR's second-largest city into submission just a few months after launching their invasion of the country in Operation Barbarossa. For 872 days, the inhabitants of this industrial centre (now known by its original name, Saint Petersburg), underwent hunger, cold and bombardments which killed nearly a million people
The Wehrmacht surged through Soviet territory after the start of Operation Barbarossa – taking two and a half months to arrive at the gates of Leningrad, with their Finnish allies cutting the city off from the north (Finland backed Nazi Germany against the USSR after successfully repulsing Joseph Stalin’s invasion in the 1939-40 Winter War).
On August 31, the Germans seized the town of Mga, severing Leningrad’s last rail connection. A week later, they captured the town of Shlisselburg and cut off the last open roadway. By September 8, a water route via nearby Lake Ladoga stood as Leningrad’s only reliable connection to the outside world. The rest of the city had been almost completely encircled by the Germans and their Finnish allies to the north. 
The German advance continued until late September when Soviet forces finally obstructed the Army Group North in the suburbs of Leningrad. With his army now entrapped in trench warfare, Hitler revised strategy and ordered them to settle in for a siege. 
“The Führer has decided to erase the city of Petersburg from the face of the earth,” he wrote in a memo. “It is intended to encircle the city and level it to the ground by means of artillery bombardment using every caliber of shell, and continual bombing from the air.” 
Leningrad starved 
Hitler embarked on starving Leningrad to death. 
By the time of Hitler’s directive, the Germans had already established artillery and launched a campaign to completely paralyse Leningrad. The Luftwaffe, Germany’s air force, also conducted several bombing raids over the city. An incendiary attack on September 8 caused raging fires that destroyed vital supplies of oil and food. 
An even bigger raid followed on September 19, when the Luftwaffe unleashed 2,500 high-explosive and incendiary bombs. All told, an estimated 75,000 bombs were dropped on the city over the course of the blockade.
While enemy fire would eventually kill or wound some 50,000 civilians during the siege, Leningrad’s most serious problem was lack of food. Some 600,000 people had been evacuated before the Germans tightened their grip on the city, but some 2.5 million civilians still remained. Officials had been dangerously negligent in stockpiling food, so the Soviets had to bring in fresh supplies across Lake Ladoga, which offered the only open route into the city. 
Food and fuel was transported in barges during the autumn and later in trucks and sleds after the lake froze in the winter. The Ladoga route became known as the “Road of Life,” but Leningrad still was hardly replenished.. Children, the elderly and the unemployed got a scant 125 grams—the equivalent of three small slices.  
During the bitterly cold winter of 1941-1942, Leningrad was hit by a starvation epidemic that claimed as many as 100,000 lives per month. “Is this my body or did it get swapped for somebody else’s without me noticing?” one man wondered. “My legs and wrists are like a growing child’s, my stomach has caved in, my ribs stick out from top to bottom.” 
In sheer desperation, people ate everything from petroleum jelly and wallpaper glue to rats, pigeons and household pets. For warmth, they burned furniture, wardrobes and even books from their personal libraries. 
Theft and murder for ration cards was a routine risk, threat, and the authorities eventually arrested over 2,000 people for cannibalism. As the famine intensified, one 12-year-old Leningrader named Tanya Savicheva recorded the dates of the deaths of all her family members in a journal. “The Savichevs are dead,” she wrote after the passing of her mother. “Everyone is dead. Only Tanya is left.”
The German blockade and siege accounted   for 650,000 Leningrader lives in 1942 alone, mostly from starvation, exposure, disease, and shelling from distant German artillery. Sparse food and fuel supplies reached the city by barge in the summer and by truck and ice-borne sled in winter across Lake Ladoga. In 1942, while one million more of its children, sick, and elderly were in the process of being evacuated, Starvation-level food rationing was reduced by establishing new vegetable gardens that encompassed most open ground in the city by 1943.

Soviet Offensive 

In early 1942, the Soviets evacuated some 500,000 civilians across the “Road of Life” on Lake Ladoga, reducing the starvation-ravaged population to a more manageable 1,000,000. 
Soviet offensives in early 1943 overpowered the German encirclement and paved way for more substantial supplies to reach Leningrad along the shores of Lake Ladoga. In January 1944 a successful Soviet offensive drove the Germans westward from the city’s outskirts, bringing the siege to a conclusion. The Soviet government awarded the Order of Lenin to Leningrad in 1945 and bestowed the title Hero City of the Soviet Union on it in 1965, thus paying tribute to the city’s successful role  in one of the most fierce and memorable sieges in history. A monument commemorating the victims and heroism of the siege was unveiled in 1975.
Following the springtime thaw, meanwhile, Leningrad’s survivors undertook a thorough cleanup campaign to eradicate bombed-out rubble and bury the dead lining their streets. Gardens were also planted across the city in courtyards and parks. Food scarce,, but the city resurrected  itself back from the brink of dire straits. 
In August 1942, Leningrad even hosted a performance of composer Dmitri Shostakovich’s seventh symphony, which had been written during the early days of the siege. 
. The Soviets had already made several unsuccessful attempts to penetrate the blockade—,but  in January 1943, the Red Army succeeded in capturing  a small land bridge from the Nazis. 
Engineers built a special railway link on the corridor, and by the end of the year, nearly 5 million tons of food and supplies had been shuttled into Leningrad. Despite escalating of shelling and bombing from the Germans, the once-starving city was revived.. Its factory workers—now comprising nearly 80 percent women—were soon producing machinery and ammunition. at an abundant level.
Preparations for embarking on a strike were, were underway. After the sensational  November success of Soviet troops at Stalingrad and the changed strategic situation on the Soviet-German front, the Supreme High Command Headquarters took the decision to launch a large-scale offensive codenamed ‘Operation Iskra’ (‘Spark’) to break the blockade. Aimed for January 1943, the offensive was planned to take place in the area of the Shlisselburg-Sinyavino salient - only 15 km separated the defenders of the city from the “mainland” there. 
The plan was for the troops of the Leningrad Front under General Leonid Govorov to break the encirclement from the inside, while the forces of the Volkhov Front under General Kirill Meretskov would break through from the outside to meet them. 
The strike groups numbered about 300,000 men, while the Germans had only 60,000 available in the salient. Also, the Soviet troops established a sixfold superiority over the enemy in artillery, tenfold in tanks and twofold in aircraft. 
It was a monumental task to cross these 15 km, however. In the years of the siege, the Wehrmacht had converted the territory into a highly fortified zone with many strongpoint’s, while the almost inaccessible marshy terrain between them was strewn with barbed wire entanglements and endless mine fields.
Soviet troops spent the whole of December preparing in full earnest for ‘Operation Iskra’. In training camps in the rear, members of assault units and subunits struck at specially-built German defensive positions.
Finally, on the morning of January 12, 1943,the Soviet artillery and aviation launched a all out offensive to cripple  enemy positions. “To this day, I can’t forget the impression left on me by the devastating fire of the Russian guns,”     stated German soldier Wilhelm Lahmeyer. “When I recall that entire infernal din, the detonations of shells and mortars, it makes my flesh creep again and again.”

Hitler's army surrenders

The long-anticipated turning point followed in early 1944 when the Red Army mobilized some 1.25 million men and 1,600 tanks in an offensive that traversed the German lines. Like the rest of Hitler’s forces in Russia, Army Group North was soon forced into a general retreat. 
On January 27, 1944, after nearly 900 days under blockade, Leningrad was liberated The victory was felicitated with a 24-salvo salute from the city’s guns, and .“People brought out vodka,” Leningrader Olga Grechina wrote. “We sang, cried, laughed; but it was sad all the same—the losses were just too large.” 
In total, the siege of Leningrad had claimed the lives of an estimated 800,000 civilians—, almost as many as all the World War II deaths of the United States and the United Kingdom combined.. 
“There is hardly a parallel in history for the endurance of so many people over so long a time,” the New York Times wrote in January 1944. “Leningrad stood alone against the might of Germany since the beginning of the invasion. It is a city saved by its own will, and its stand will live in the annals as a kind of heroic myth.”
---
Harsh Thakor is freelance journalist

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