7 of the Deadliest Sieges of World War 2

7 of the Deadliest Sieges of World War 2

Patrick Lynch - September 8, 2016

Sieges are historically associated with ancient and medieval warfare. Tales of castles and cities being placed under siege have been told throughout the centuries. We have read about heroic defenders keeping the enemy at bay for months and even years as they fought hunger and disease as much as the enemy. Given the advances in technology, you wouldn’t necessarily expect to read about many sieges in 20th-century warfare. However, there is a surprising amount.

World War 2 is generally known for Blitzkrieg tactics where the Nazis blazed a trail of destruction across Europe at lightning speed. However, there were many occasions when defending troops were encircled and had to fight for their lives. As is usually the case, the long, drawn-out nature of sieges in WWII led to horrific casualties. Below, we outline 7 of the deadliest sieges during World War 2.

Please note that ascertaining the correct number of fatalities is difficult so the figures mentioned below are estimates offered by historians.

7 of the Deadliest Sieges of World War 2

7 – Siege of Tobruk (10 April – 27 November 1941)

Famed Nazi Field Marshal Erwin Rommel understood the importance of the Libyan port as its capture was crucial if he wanted to continue his North African offensive and advance on Alexandria and Suez. British forces had been surprised by Operation Sonnenblume and were forced to retreat to the Egyptian border. A British garrison was left behind at Tobruk to prevent Axis forces from taking the strategically vital port.

Rommel realized that he had a golden opportunity to take Tobruk due to the relative disorganization of the Allied forces and he pushed forward in April 1941. Tobruk was defended by the 9th Australian Division; it was aided by British artillery and tanks and a group of Indian troops. This is just as well because they were bombarded by the Germans from 10-14 April. By 30 April, the 15th Panzer Division was brought into the attack but once again, the Australian forces held on.

The next few months were pure hell for the Allied defenders as they were forced to fight in stifling heat as the Axis attackers continued to bombard Tobruk with aerial and artillery assaults. With no method of bringing supplies into the camp, the Allies gradually began to run out of food and water. Remarkably, the troops managed to keep their morale high and even gave themselves the nickname ‘The Rats of Tobruk’. This was in response to jibes from infamous radio propagandist Lord Haw Haw who claimed they were caught like ‘rats in a trap’

They continued to hang on until August when half of the Australian force was relieved by the Polish Carpathian Brigade and the British 70th Division. More soldiers were relieved in September & October but 2/13 Battalion were stuck in Tobruk until the siege was finally lifted on 27 November when Eighth Division arrived as part of Operation Crusader. An estimated 749 members of 9th Division were killed with total casualties on both sides believed to be over 18,000.

7 of the Deadliest Sieges of World War 2

6 – Siege of Odessa (8 August – 16 October 1941)

This siege involved the Romanian 4th Army and part of the German 11th Army as they looked to seize control of the Ukrainian port city of Odessa. The city had already been heavily bombarded by German aircraft since June 1941. On 8 August, the Romanian General Staff issued Directive No.31 which involved capturing Odessa. As the city was surrounded on three sides, the Axis forces believed an early victory was inevitable. However, they did not count on the bravery of the Soviet 9th Independent Army.

The initial Axis force of 160,000 (a total of 340,000 men had been involved by the end) faced off against approximately 34,500 Soviets initially (although their numbers increased to 120,000 at the end). Hopes of a quick win were dashed because the Soviet Black Sea Fleet managed to transport supplies and reinforcements into Odessa.

After initial success, General Ion Antonescu decided to temporarily halt the Romanian 4th Army on 13 August in order to strengthen the Hadjibey Bank. The second offensive began 3 days later and once again, the Romanians had some early success. However, their advance slowed to a crawl by 24 August as the stubborn Soviet forces refused to yield. By now, over 5,300 Romanian soldiers had been killed from a total of over 27,000 casualties. Yet another offensive was launched by the 4th Army on 28 August but once again, no breakthrough could be made.

By early September, the 4th Army was in bad shape and the defenders received a boost as 15,000 men arrived. Yet another Romanian offensive took place on 12 September but it was halted within 2 days. The fighting continued into October until the Soviets decided to evacuate the defenders of Odessa as they needed the troops to help fight the Nazi invasion. An estimated 350,000 soldiers and civilians were evacuated by October 15. Unfortunately, many of the soldiers saved from Odessa ended up dying in the siege of Sevastopol. An estimated 34,000 men died in total with another 80,000 wounded and over 11,000 missing. Other historians claim the Soviets alone lost over 60,000 men.

7 of the Deadliest Sieges of World War 2

5 – Siege of Sevastopol (30 October 1941 – 4 July 1942)

Operation Barbarossa saw the Axis powers invade the Soviet Union and it took place on 22 June 1941. The Axis forces quickly reached the Crimea and overran the majority of the area. However, they were unable to take the important port of Sevastopol despite numerous attempts and it soon developed into a bloody siege.

The first attempt to conquer Sevastopol took place in late October 1941 and further failures were suffered by the invaders in November. Heavy rains prevented more attempts until 17 December. Before the Axis forces made their first foray, a 32,000 force from the Independent Coastal Army had arrived in Sevastopol after escaping the siege of Odessa. In total, the city was defended by an estimated 118,000 men after the Soviets made use of the pause caused by the heavy rains and further reinforced the city.

The December offensive was repelled by stubborn resistance until an amphibious landing by the Soviets at Kerch from 26-30 December helped relieve the surrounded defenders. A bridgehead was sustained until May 1942 when Operation Trappenjagd, a German counter-offensive, destroyed this bridgehead and the trio of Soviet armies that were in support. The Axis powers managed to reduce the number of supplies getting into the city but a stalemate had occurred by that stage.

The German commander, Erich von Manstein, decided to launch another offensive in June. The first part of the plan ran smoothly as the German Luftwaffe successfully bombed Sevastopol and suffered minimal losses. German and Romanian ground troops were sent in on 7 June and once again, they encountered fierce resistance. Progress was slow but little by little, and with more Luftwaffe support, the Axis forces made inroads.

On 26 June, Soviet forces at Sapun Ridge were comprehensively beaten and important Soviet generals were flown out of the city. Another assault began on 30 June and by 3 July; the defenders were all but beaten. They managed token resistance until 9 July when the Axis invaders finally took the city. Estimates vary but at least 37,000 men were killed and 95,000 Soviet soldiers were taken prisoner.

7 of the Deadliest Sieges of World War 2

4 – Siege of Budapest (29 December 1944 – 13 February 1945)

At under 50 days, the Siege of Budapest doesn’t go down as one of the longest in history but it was certainly one of the bloodiest. Approximately 170,000 (from a force of 500,000) Soviet and Romanian forces surrounded German and Hungarian forces who were trapped in the city of Budapest. It was part of the Budapest Offensive and defeating the Axis powers was to represent a major strategic victory for Allied forces as they continued their march to Berlin.

By the beginning of 1944, Hungary no longer had an appetite for war but its ally Germany was not prepared to let them go. Instead, Germany invaded Hungary and prevented its reluctant partner from entering into peace talks with the Allies. Axis forces started getting pushed back from southern Ukraine in June 1944 and its longtime allies Romania switched sides in August. Budapest now assumed immense importance to the Nazis as it was the capital of its only remaining ally in Europe and a crucial obstacle on the road to Vienna and southern Bavaria.

The initial Soviet advance towards Hungary began on 29 October 1944 and the Red Army planned to keep the Hungarian capital isolated from Axis forces. By early November, the Allies were just 20 kilometers from Budapest but elected to pause and recover after previously grueling engagements. For Soviet leader Josef Stalin, Budapest was a major prize that would increase his bargaining power at the upcoming Yalta conference. He ordered Marshal Rodion Malinovsky to immediately attack Budapest and rebuffed the Marshal’s request for a brief break.

By Christmas Day, the Russians were virtually on the outskirts of Budapest and on 29 December, Malinovsky sent two officers into the city to offer surrender terms which were quickly rejected by the Germans. Both officers were accidentally killed on the way back but the Russians accused the Germans of killing their men on purpose. In January 1945, the Germans launched their three-part counter-offensive called Operation Konrad. Part I was launched on 1 January 1945 but was halted by 12 January. Part II was launched on 7 January but was also quickly stopped.

The Axis troops offered strong resistance but began to run out of food and water and soldiers even started eating their horses. By the middle of January, the important landmark Csepel Island was taken by the Soviets and on 17 January, the Germans withdrew troops from Pest to try and defend Buda. The following day, the Germans destroyed all five bridges over the Danube River. Operation Konrad III was launched on the same day and made some progress in the following 8 days.

Stalin the ordered his troops to maintain their position no matter the cost and the German offensive began to dwindle due to lack of resources and fatigue. Hitler rejected a request from the defenders to surrender and on 28 January, the Germans abandoned most of their territory in the city. After a final stand at Buda, the Soviets finally took control of the city on 11 February. Three waves of German and Hungarian troops tried one last desperate escape and while most of the first wave was successful, the majority of the remaining troops were killed or captured. The last defenders surrendered on 13 February. When the dust settled, over 130,000 people died (including 38,000 civilians) and over 60,000 Axis troops were captured.

7 of the Deadliest Sieges of World War 2

3 – Siege of Breslau (13 February – 6 May 1945)

On 24 August 1944, Hitler declared Breslau to be a ‘closed military fortress’ and outlined that it must be defended at all costs. It took several months but by the middle of January 1945, all civilians had been evacuated and Breslau finally because the fortress Hitler had ordered. However, most of the transport links had been destroyed by Soviet air bombing so evacuees had to leave on foot. Up to 100,000 people died during this botched operation.

The defenders of Breslau were a ragtag group of retreating regiments, police officers, Hitler Youth and even WWI veterans! Estimates on the number of defenders in the city vary widely from 50,000 to 150,000. The Soviets began to close in and had the city surrounded by 15 February although the siege had officially started two days earlier. The Luftwaffe desperately tried to keep the city supplied with food and water but Breslau continued to be bombarded by heavy Soviet artillery.

The Soviets attacked the city aggressively but lost up to 70 tanks in the first three days of the siege. The conflict descended into vicious street fighting and parts of Breslau were destroyed and the brick was used to create new defensive positions. The Nazis tried and failed to build an airstrip and an estimated 13,000 people died during this doomed project in March. Another Soviet offensive began on 1 April and most of Breslau was engulfed with flames.

The Nazis were forced to relocate to the University Library from their previous HQ which had been a bunker on Partisan Hill. The remaining citizens of Breslau launched an uprising which was brutally suppressed by the Nazis. They continued to fight even when it became apparent it was a hopeless cause. The city finally surrendered on 6 May. This was just two days before Germany’s unconditional surrender in World War II. Yet again, casualty estimates vary. Some figures suggest that up to 170,000 civilians died while up to 60,000 Russian soldiers perished. Approximately 70% of Breslau was destroyed during the siege.

7 of the Deadliest Sieges of World War 2

2 – Siege of Stalingrad (23 August 1942 – 2 February 1943)

This was arguably the single most important event in World War 2 and one of the most significant military events in history. It was a huge battle for control of the city of Stalingrad which was the Soviet center of communications in the south as well as being a major manufacturing location. As the Germans marched through Russia, Hitler ordered his 6th Army and 4th Panzer Army to take Stalingrad. What transpired was several brutal months of fighting in a siege that changed the course of the war.

The sheer scale of the conflict was something the world had seldom seen. The German commander, Freidrich Paulus, had over 1 million men at his disposal and began his offensive on 23 August 1942. The ground soldiers were supported by Luftwaffe air strikes which quickly turned Stalingrad into rubble. Although the Germans had some success and took a large proportion of the city, they could never gain control. At times, areas they took during the day were reclaimed by the Russians at night!

By 19 November, the Soviets were ready to launch a counter-offensive. Operation Uranus targeted the weak Hungarian and Romanian troops protecting the German flank. This was a decisive move as the Soviets successfully trapped the German forces in the city. The Soviet commander, Marshal Georgy Zhukov, split his 1 million man army into six forces and completely surrounded Stalingrad. Now, the 250,000-300,000 German soldiers had nowhere to go.

Hitler ordered Paulus to stand and fight to the last man and last round of ammunition. Had Hitler not issued this order, it is possible that Paulus and his army could have escaped because there was a small window of opportunity right at the beginning of the Soviet offensive. However, he was ordered to stay and the Germans had to face the Red Army and the biggest enemy of all, the Russian winter.

Slowly but surely, the starving and frozen German army were whittled down by the enemy, the weather and the lack of provisions. Eventually, Paulus had no option but to wave the white flag as his army’s supplies were virtually gone by the end of January 1943. Paulus surrendered his army in the north of the city on 31 January while General Schreck surrendered the army in the south on 2 February. There were an estimated 2 million casualties at Stalingrad; approximately 478,000 Soviets alone died during the siege.

7 of the Deadliest Sieges of World War 2

1 – Siege of Leningrad (8 September 1941 – 27 January 1944)

The siege of Leningrad is quite simply one of the deadliest sieges in history and lasted for over 2 years and 4 months. The first German shell landed on the city on 1 September and the siege began a week later when the last road to the city was cut off. The city was one of the prime targets of the huge German invasion of the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa). Hitler was supremely confident of success and believed Leningrad would “fall like a leaf”.

As it turned out, the citizens of Leningrad were in no mood to surrender and bravely fought to keep the invading forces at bay. They built antitank fortifications which helped create a stable defence of the city. However, a lack of access to other Soviet towns and cities began to take its toll. Throughout 1942 it s estimated that around 650,000 Leningrad citizens died from disease, starvation, and injuries from enemy fire.

Although the Soviets succeeded in creating a 200-mile pathway to Zaborie (the road of life) and still had rail access of sorts, they were unable to bring in anywhere near the level of supplies needed to feed the estimated 3 million residents of the city and its suburbs. The Soviets did manage to evacuate 1.7 million people between June 1941 and March 1943 but a strict rationing system had to be implemented to survive.

While the Germans continued to lay siege to the city, they could never gain a foothold. On 27 August 1942, the Soviets launched the Sinyavino Offensive but it was soon halted. However, it did cause the Germans to abandon their own planned offensive so the stalemate continued until 12 January 1943. On this day, the Soviets began Operation Iskra which opened a small corridor and provided some relief to the residents of Leningrad.

The siege was ultimately lifted on 27 January 1944 when yet another Soviet offensive finally pushed the Germans away from the city. The retreating Germans proceeded to loot and destroy a number of palaces including the Catherine Palace. At least 1.5 million people died during the siege of Leningrad, many of them were citizens who succumbed to starvation and the harsh Russian winters.