Leningrad the Unconquered

By early September of 1941 advancing German troops had cut off the rail lines leading to Leningrad.  By Sept. 8 the city had been completely surrounded and a blockade began that was unprecedented in modern history in both its length and its disastrous effects.

Leningrad’s situation was extraordinarily difficult right from the start.  After the Nazis burned the food storages at the Badayevsky warehouse, provisions were extremely limited.  By Sept. 12, Leningrad had only enough grain and flour to feed its inhabitants for 35 days, sufficient cereals and noodles for 30 days, meat for 33 days, oil for 45 days, and sugar for 60 days.  For this reason the amount of food distributed via ration cards began to decline from the very first days of the siege.  In addition, various types of foreign substances were soon added to the bread that was baked.  Even the grain that had been sunk when the barges carrying it were bombed by the Germans was pressed into service.  Divers were able to raise the cargo from those barges from the bottom of Lake Ladoga, and that sodden grain was added to the bread.  As of Oct. 20, the available bread consisted of 63% rye flour, 4% linseed cake, 4% bran, 8% oat flour, 4% soy flour, 12% malt flour, and 5% moldy flour.  Within a few more days, when the supply of malt flour began to dwindle, they began to use other alternatives, such as appropriately treated cellulose and cottonseed cake.

The first reduction in the food rations in Leningrad was made on Sept.2, the second on Sept.10, the third – Oct. 1, the fourth – Nov. 13, and the fifth – Nov.20.  The daily allotment of what was still called “bread” ranged from 125 to 250 grams.  British journalist Alexander Werth noted, “Already after the fourth cut, people began to die of hunger.”

According to the information cited by Mr. Werth, in November of 1941, 11,000 people perished in the city, in December – 52,000, and by January of 1942 between 3,500 and 4,000 people were dying every day.  Between December 1941 and January 1942, 200,000 people died.

Daily ration in blockaded Leningrad.
Daily ration in blockaded Leningrad.

Even when the food shortages were over, many continued to succumb because of illnesses brought on by their extended period of starvation.  According to various estimates, between one to one and a half million residents of Leningrad died during the blockade.

Werth noted, “Both local patriotism and an iron discipline, partly enforced by the authorities, account for the virtual absence of any disorders or hunger riots.  …  There were, inevitably, a few racketeers here and there; but, on the whole, the discipline was good.  …  Morale, even in the appalling conditions of the famine at its height, was kept up in all kinds of ways: there are many accounts of the theatrical shows that continued throughout the winter, given by actors almost fainting with hunger, and wearing (like the audience) whatever they could to keep themselves warm.”

The composition by Dmitri Shostakovich of his famous Seventh Symphony in the besieged city was evidence of Leningrad’s indefatigable spirit.  Shostakovich said, “I dedicate my Seventh Symphony to our struggle against fascism, to our coming victory over the enemy, to my native city, Leningrad.”

Despite the exceptionally difficult conditions, the residents of Leningrad continued to live and to work to defend the city.  In the spring of 1942, 57 defense-related businesses were operating in Leningrad.  During this time they produced 99 cannons, 790 machine guns, 214,000 shells, and 200,000 mines.  And workers in the shipbuilding industry were busy repairing warships.

Even the leaders of the Reich were impressed by the heroic protection of Leningrad.  In his diary, Goebbels admitted that the city’s defenders accomplished something without parallel in modern history.

Attempts were made from the first days of the siege to supply the city via a water route across Lake Ladoga.  But the barges and other vessels traveling to and from Leningradwere under constant bombardment by the Germans.  Many women and children on these boats died as they were being evacuated from the city by water.  During its first month of operation, the route across the lake to Leningrad managed to bring in only 9,800 tons of provisions – enough for the city’s residents to survive for eight days.  Then the food supplies began to increase.  Between Sept.12 and Nov.15, 25,000 tons of stores arrived in Leningrad, allowing the residents to hold out for another 20 days.  But on Nov. 15, 1941, the food shipments came to a halt because Lake Ladoga was beginning to freeze.  The many millions still living in the city could now only be supplied by air.

Beginning in late November 1941, attempts were made to deliver food over the ice covering Lake Ladoga.  Trying to get supplies to the city using this“Road of Life” as it was called in Leningrad was extremely dangerous.  The Germans bombed it unceasingly and automobiles fell under the ice along with their passengers and cargo.  One driver, who was ferrying supplies across the Ladoga Road of Life during the years of the siege, said that he left his door open as he drove and at times even stood on the running board so that he might have a chance to jump from the car before it slid under the icy water.

And yet, the food shipments that came in across the Road of Life made it possible to increase the rations in Leningrad beginning in late January 1942, from 200 to 350 grams of “bread.”The end of January 1942 also saw the beginning of the organized evacuation of women, children, the elderly, and the sick out of Leningrad across the Ladoga Road of Life and also via air.  A million people were taken out of Leningrad in 1942.  By November of 1942 only 550,000 civilians remained in the city.

Now a few are posing the question, “Would it not have been possible to surrender Leningrad and thus prevent its citizens from starving to death?”

Hitler had condemned Leningrad and its residents to total annihilation.  The stenographer’s notes from a Sept. 25, 1941 meeting of the Supreme Military Command near Rustenburg show Hitler’s order to Field Marshal Erich von Manstein “to wipe Leningrad from the face of the earth.”Clearly even the German military leaders were taken aback by this directive, and thus Hitler commented that very day after dinner, “Probably many people have clutched their heads, trying to answer the question, ‘How can the Fuhrer destroy a city like St. Petersburg?’  But when I sense that our race is in danger, my feelings give way to very cold calculations.”

Salute LeningradNow German documents have come to light that imply that the military units encircling the city had orders to shoot any starving resident that tried to escape the city.

In January of 1943, the blockade of Leningrad was partially broken, and the siege fully ended on Jan. 27, 1944, the day when delighted blockade survivors were celebrating their outstanding victory under the cannonade of 24 salute volleys.

Source in Russian: Stoletie

Translated by ORIENTAL REVIEW with abridgments.

Photos of besieged Leningrad 1941-1944 (in memoriam)

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