Eight Horrific Facts About the Siege of Leningrad 1941-1944

Eight Horrific Facts About the Siege of Leningrad 1941-1944

Stephanie Schoppert - December 1, 2016

When Germans encircled Leningrad (St. Petersburg) on September 8th, 1941 they planned to quickly freeze and starve the city. They had no idea the devastation and horror that the people of Leningrad would be willing to endure without ever giving in. The siege is one of the longest in history and one of the deadliest as well. Here are just a few things you might not know about the siege that devastated Soviet Union.

Leningrad Death Toll Over 1,000,000

Eight Horrific Facts About the Siege of Leningrad 1941-1944

The death toll from the siege of Leningrad varies anywhere from 600,000 to 2,000,000 but most put it closer to 1,500,000. That makes the siege ten times deadlier than either of the death tolls (on the first day) from the atomic bombs dropped on Japan. Many of the deaths occurred from starvation and freezing as many tried to survive in the surrounded city. But that was not the only thing that citizen of Leningrad had to fear. Many were also killed by the bombs that the Germans were frequently dropping on the besieged city.

There were attempts to evacuate Leningrad with as many as 1.4 million people being evacuated during three phases. The first wave was evacuated from June to August of 1941. Another evacuation was attempted of more than 650,000 civilians from September 1941 to April 1942 over lake Ladoga, on foot when frozen, on water craft when it wasn’t. A third was went from May to October of 1942 and was also utilizing lake Ladoga. The evacuations consisted of mostly women and children, but also included anyone that was considered to be essential to the war effort. However, the evacuations were not a guarantee of survival as many of those evacuated still lost their lives either due to bombings from the Germans or from succumbing to illness or starvation by the time they made it out of the city.

By the time the siege had ended only 700,000 of the 3 million citizens of Leningrad remained alive and in the city. All others had died or been evacuated. For the credit of the people of Leningrad, they never gave up and even as they were starving they did everything they could to help the army defeat the Germans.



Eight Horrific Facts About the Siege of Leningrad 1941-1944

Mass Starvation Led to Cannibalism

Many of the deaths that occurred during the siege were due to starvation. The city had not been prepared for a lengthy siege or even any siege at all. The city only had supplies for 1 to 2 months and therefore rationing of food started even before the siege did. The siege officially began on September 8th, but the city had been under heavy bombing since August with the Red Army fighting to save the city and evacuate civilians.

During the bombs that fell from August to October 1941 all food storage facilities were destroyed. The food literally burned in front of the eyes of starving people. After one bomb sugar melted into the ground and desperate citizens dug up the earth and tried to separate the sugar and earth to be able to eat the sugar. Others just mixed the sweetened dirt with flour and cooked with it. Food rations continued to drop through 1941 and by November 1941, the rations were for 250 grams daily for manual workers and 150 grams for all other civilians. The bread that was given was made with what little food could be found and then mixed with sawdust or other fillers to make the bread seem filling, even if it was not nutritious. All animals in the city were killed for meat and people went as far as to eat dirt or wallpaper paste. By 1942 the citizens were so desperate for food that they turned to the unthinkable and were willing to do anything to get food to survive. The 125 grams was not enough to survive the freezing temperatures, especially when there was so little heat to be found. There were numerous reports of people eating the bodies of those who had starved to death or worse, killing people to eat them.

Eight Horrific Facts About the Siege of Leningrad 1941-1944

The Penalty for Stealing Food was Death

When the food started to run low and starvation became rampant, stealing food was common. Bands of thieves would wander the streets to steal ration cards or food. Police struggled to keep up with the thefts and those who were caught faced stiff penalties. There were accounts of murder in order to get ration cards and even people who would pretend family members who had died of starvation still lived so that they could continue to collect their rations.

The Red Army did what they could to supply the city by sending trucks of food across the frozen lake Ladoga. These trucks faced air bombings by the Germans and many were blown to pieces before they could make it across the lake or delivered into the city. Soldiers would then quickly try and gather the food for placement on another truck or to bring to the city center. Sometimes people of the city would steal the food that was blown across the ground knowing that if caught they would face a firing squad. But it was the truck drivers that were the most common culprits of food theft. Once the city had run out of food the truck drivers were their only salvation. This meant that a truck driver who took food and sold it in the city could make a substantial sum. One truck driver who was caught stealing was told to kneel in the snow and then ten executioners fired upon him. By contrast a truck driver who was caught accepting a bribe for driving someone out of the city faced only 10 days in solitary confinement.

There were also punishments for those who engaged in cannibalism. During the siege a special police force was created to combat cannibalism but they still struggled to maintain order and prevent the people from eating the dead or killing the living for their flesh. However, after the siege was lifted all those who were believed to have engaged in cannibalism faced criminal charges and some were sentenced to death.

Eight Horrific Facts About the Siege of Leningrad 1941-1944

Valuable Books and Art Were Burned For Warmth

There was no heat and very little electricity in the city during the siege and the winter of 1941 was the hardest winter of the siege. Temperatures dropped below -40 degrees Fahrenheit. There was no way to keep warm except by burning things in the stove. People would burn everything in their home from the shelves to the furniture. They would burn whatever clothes they were not wearing to keep warm. Then the people turned to the books in their libraries and the art on their walls. Some of the wealthy citizens of Leningrad recalled burning first editions or rare copies of books as a last resort to keep warm against the bitter cold.

Paintings on the wall were also burned, along with the floorboards. The shelling destroyed museums and set them on fire. Nazis looted and vandalized what they could even as museum workers tried to hide the precious art. Some of the art was hidden in the basement of the Hermitage in order to protect it from looters, whoever they might be. It is unknown just what was destroyed in order to keep the people of Leningrad warm. The Nazis were also known to loot the city so books and artworks might have been taken and not actually burned. The worst of the siege was the height of the winter in 1941/42 when temperatures dropped to their lowest and food stores were the scarcest they would be throughout the entire siege.

Eight Horrific Facts About the Siege of Leningrad 1941-1944

Hitler Wanted The Entire City to Starve

Hitler had a plan for Leningrad and one that he even had experts analyze. He believed that Leningrad would be too difficult to take in a normal battle. He did not want to start a fight with the large city because he did not want to divert the manpower and artillery needed to take the city by force. So he came up with the plan to encircle the city and starve it to death. Food stores were targeted by the bombings and any attempt to get food into the city was also targeted by the bombings. Hitler’s experts calculated how long the food in the city would last and assured Hitler that Leningrad would be eating itself in a matter of weeks.

This seemed like a much better option for Hitler than trying to take over the city. It was also better for Hitler’s ultimate plan for Leningrad. He was more concerned with trying to feed his army than trying to feed millions of urban citizens in Leningrad. He wanted to use the USSR to feed his army and not bother with feeding Russian citizens, so even if the city were to surrender, he would only use it as a chance to destroy the city. Diaries from his generals and others reveal that the plan was to let the population starve and to raze the historic city afterward.

Hitler and his experts were correct in that the city would start eating itself within weeks. The first winter of the siege was the worst for freezing and starvation as rations dropped to nearly nothing and supply trucks failed to get through. But ultimately it was the resolve of the people of Leningrad and perhaps the belief that they would fare no better if they surrendered that led to the Red Army eventually defeating the German blockade and freeing the city.

Eight Horrific Facts About the Siege of Leningrad 1941-1944
Nikolai Voznesensky one of those executed for being involved with the Leningrad Party

City Leaders Were Arrested and Executed After the Siege

City leaders struggled throughout the siege to not only keep people alive but to keep the munitions factories going and to maintain some semblance of law and order. That was not enough to satisfy the KGB and the Red Army. They made excuses that some leaders did not contact Moscow often enough or that they betrayed the people of Leningrad. Some of these arrests and executions were hidden from the public, others occurred years later during the Leningrad affair.

The Leningrad Affair was an attempt by Stalin to consolidate power. The people of Leningrad were hailed as heroes after their ordeal during the war. They held off against impossible odds and spent nearly three years completely cut off from Moscow. Leningrad officials and communist party members were believed to be moving away from absolute loyalty to Stalin and the Soviet Union. Those closest to Stalin perpetuated those fears and therefore any sign that the Leningrad officials or communist party leaders were not in line with Stalin was viewed as a threat.

In 1949 a number of these officials were arrested on trumped up charges (Soviet leaders would later admit outright the charges were false) and after secret trials were sentenced to death. Some 2,000 other Leningrad party members were jailed or exiled. The museum that had been built to commemorate the siege was closed in the fear that it would bring about a party uprising against Stalin. It would not reopen until 40 years later. Some of the people that Stalin had killed or imprisoned were among the last of the high-ranking figures to be killed during Stalin’s reign when the aging dictator still feared any threat to his power.

Eight Horrific Facts About the Siege of Leningrad 1941-1944

Four Train Cars of Cats Were Brought to Save the Food Supplies

It might seem like they were meant as food but when cats were shipped by train to be sent to Leningrad it was not as a means for food. The cats were meant to save the little food that the city had. The besieged city had one substantial problem (of many) in 1942 that was making survival hard and that was rats. With the number of dead bodies in the streets (the ground was frozen during the winter and they could not be buried or people were too weak to dig graves) rats were flourishing. There were several attempts to catch and kill the rats, but reports credit the roving gangs of rats as “organized, intelligent and brutal.” Nothing worked and the rats often found their way to the mill to eat the small bit of food that was found there.

By this time starvation through the winter meant that most citizens had eaten their cats (families would trade cats so as not to have to eat their own pet) so there were no cats to control the rats. Once the blockade was broken in 1944 the gangs of rats had to be dealt with before they ate all the food that was now being delivered to the starved city. Four train cars of cats were sent to Leningrad. Some of the cats were just released onto the streets, others were given to residents. The beloved creatures were in such high demand after the suffering of the siege that some were willing to pay 50 rubles for one or give up some of their precious bread for a kitten.

The cats were a success and quickly dispatched of the rodent problem. Today there are even statues in Saint Petersburg (formally Leningrad) that honor the cats that helped to bring the city back from the brink of death and destruction.

Eight Horrific Facts About the Siege of Leningrad 1941-1944

The Spark Ended the Siege

After more than 800 days under siege and two separate attempts to end it, the Red Army finally felt that they had a way to break through the German blockade and save the city. In 1944 the plan to end the blockade was called the “Spark.” It was carefully planned and it took what the Soviets had learned from their Lyubavinskaya and Sinyavinskaya operations and applied it to the latest operation. The operation planned two fronts at Volkhov and Leningrad and then a move forward to the Mga train station to try and restore communication with Leningrad. Intelligence operations had pieced together a very accurate idea of the Nazi army at Leningrad and the plan was to strike at a narrow stretch of land between Mga and Lake Ladoga.

This was the Nazi bottleneck and there were 5 Wehrmacht divisions of more than 10,000 men each, 50 tanks and over 700 guns. All this was supported from the air with 250 combat planes. When the Red Army marched on the bottleneck, they outnumbered the Nazis. They had 20 divisions, 5,000 guns, 540 tanks and more than 800 planes, this time they were determined to free Leningrad. On January 12th, the Red Army hit the Germans on all sides. Planes dropped bombs and protected the infantry from the air, tanks crossed the neck with a goal of pushing the Germans back 2 to 4 km a day. It was slow progress but the Leningrad and Volkhov fronts continued moving toward each other. Then on January 18th, the two fronts met and by the end of the day the south coast of Lake Ladoga was free of enemy troops. The Red Army continued to push back the Germans and even put down a 30 km long railroad in just 17 days. On February 7th, the first train filled with food arrived in Leningrad.