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.
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.
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.