The '1st Sinyavino Offensive Operation' was the Soviet initial attempt to lift German pressure on the eastern side of Leningrad by retaking the Sinyavino heights and thereby reopening the line of communication along the southern shore of Lake Ladoga (10/26 September 1941).
The first Soviet attempt to restore land communication between Leningrad and the rest of the USSR, the offensive was executed by Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Grigori I. Kulik’s 54th Separate Army, which had been created on 5 September 1941 with the task of securing the shores of Lake Ladoga to prevent the Germans from encircling Leningrad, and later supplemented by General Leytenant Piotr S. Pshennikov’s Neva Operational Group of Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Kliment Ye. Voroshilov’s Leningrad Front.
Leningrad had become isolated from the rest of the USSR on 8 September when German forces of Generaloberst Ernst Busch’s 16th Army, within Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb’s Heeresgruppe 'Nord', captured Schlüsselburg (Petrokrepost in Russian) at the point where the Neva river debouches into the south-western corner of Lake Ladoga. On the following day General Georgi K. Zhukov assumed command from Voroshilov of the task of co-ordinating the defence of the Leningrad. The 54th Separate Army was under the direct command of the Stavka, and on Zhukov’s recommendations ordered into the attack on 10 September.
In middle of July, the Soviet forces on the so-called 'Luga Line' had managed to halt the advance of Heeresgruppe 'Nord' toward Leningrad, and it was only in the early days of August, after regrouping and receiving reinforcements, that the German forces were able to resume their offensive. On the southern flank of Heeresgruppe 'Nord', the advance was led by two corps of the 16th Army, reinforced by SS-Obergruppenführer Georg Keppler’s (from 19 September SS-Obergruppenführer Theodor Eicke’s) SS Division 'Totenkopf' and powerful air support. After three days of fierce fighting, on 12 August the Germans broke through the defences of General Leytenant Stepan D. Akimov’s (from 1 September General Leytenant Maksim A. Antoniuk’s) 48th Army on the Mshaga river and poured through toward Novgorod, which they took on 16 August. Four days later, German troops took Chudovo and cut the 'Oktyabrsky' railway linking Moscow and Murmansk via Leningrad.
After concentrating General Kuno von Both’s I Corps, General Mauritz von Wiktorin 's XXVIII Corps and General Rudolf Schmidt’s XXXIX Corps (mot.) in the area of Chudovo and Novgorod, on 25 August the 16th Army continued its offensive, striking along the railway and the road linking Leningrad and Moscow. In the area of Lyuban, the German strike group was divided: one part continued the offensive against Leningrad to the north-west, and the other began to advance to the north in the direction of Mga and Kirishi.
The first part of the German grouping, comprising the three infantry divisions of XXVIII Corps and Generalleutnant Josef Harpe’s 12th Panzerdivision, attacked the defences of General Major Ivan G. Lazarev’s 55th Army in the area to the west of Tosno and south-east of Krasnogvardeysk. In the area of the village of Vyritsa, German troops of the 16th Army linked elements of Generaloberst Erich Hoepner’s 4th Panzergruppe, thereby encircling significant numbers of Soviet troops which had not manage to withdraw from the Luga area.
At the same time, Generalleutnant Hans Zorn’s 20th Division (mot.) captured Tosno and on 30 August reached the Neva river in the area of Ivanov, and parts of Generalmajor Friedrich Herrlein’s 18th Division (mot.) had taken Kirishi one day earlier. Cut off from the main Soviet forces, the remnants of the 48th Army were forced to retreat to the Tosna river and the Mga station. Fierce fighting continued for several days, during which the station changed hands several times. On 31 August, elements of the 20th Division (mot.) were able to complete the capture of the Moscow State University and thereby cut the Kirov railway, which to this time had been the last overland route connecting Leningrad with the rest of the USSR. Moreover, on 7 September the 20th Division (mot.), supported by part of the 12th Panzerdivision, captured Sinyavino and on 8 September Schlüsselburg. Thus 7 September has come to be seen as the day on which the siege of Leningrad began.
Although at this stage Leningrad was blockaded only by land, Adolf Hitler considered that his cherished goal of eliminating Leningrad had been achieved and from that moment treated the city as a secondary theatre to be contained rather than taken by assault and destroyed. Heeresgruppe 'Nord' was thus ordered to link with the Finns advancing to the south-east on the Karelian isthmus and thus complete the land blockade the city and, no later than 15 September, transfer motorised formations and a significant part of its air support component to Generalfeldmarschall Fedor von Bock’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' for the implementation of the 'Taifun' (i) assault on Moscow. Despite this, von Leeb on 9 September nevertheless began the assault on Leningrad, hoping to take the city within a few days.
On 2 September, the Soviet supreme command ordered the urgent creation of the 54th Separate Army under the command of Kulik, and its deployment on 21.75-mile (35-km) sector of the front between the shore of Lake Ladoga and the area to the north of Kirishi. The task of the army was to stop the farther German offensive and to regain control over the Kirov railway. The army included the 285th Division, 286th Division, 310th Division and 314th Division from the 52nd Army, and also the 27th Cavalry Division, 122nd Tank Brigade, 119th Tank Battalion and artillery, engineering and air units. The 54th Separate Army was ordered to complete its assembly by 5 September and on the following day begin an offensive along the railway linking Volkhov and Mga to retake Turyshkino, Pogostye and Soltsy. On 12 September, desiring to unite all the Soviet forces operating in the area, the Soviet supreme command transferred the remnants of the 48th Army to the 54th Army. At this time, the 128th Division, 311th Division, 21st Tank Division and 1st Mountain Brigade, which joined the 54th Army, were significantly understrength. On 1 September, the army comprised only 5,838 men with seven pieces of artillery and 17 mortars.
Since not all of its formations and units arrived at their designated concentration areas on time, the concentration of the army could not be completed on time and the start of the '1st Sinyavino Offensive Operation' was delayed. By this time, German troops had captured Schlüsselburg, which came as a complete surprise to Kulik.
Despite the dramatically changed operational and tactical situation, the 54th Separate Army’s primary objective was still to restore overland communication between Leningrad and the rest of the USSR, a task which was further complicated by the fact that the offensive of the 54th Separate Army, subordinated directly to the Stavka, was not properly co-ordinated with the operations of the Leningrad Front. On 11 September, therefore, the Leningrad Front reported that '[We] still do not know anything about the assistance of Comrade Kulik’s divisions to the Leningrad Front. Comrade Kulik never told us about his actions with a single word. We did not receive an answer to our inquiries to the General Staff about the tasks of Comrade Kulik’s divisions. We ask you to order Comrade Kulik to inform us about the actions of his army and to keep in constant contact with us.'
Only after receiving some information about the battles in the Sinyavino area on 14 September did Marshal Boris M. Shaposhnikov, the chief of the general staff, ask Zhukov, in his capacity as the newly appointed commander of the Leningrad Front, to allocate troops for a concerted drive from Leningrad to link with the 54th Separate Army. As almost all of his front’s forces were committed in other sectors, Zhukov did not have significant forces to implement this demand and therefore asked the Soviet supreme command 'to reinforce Comrade Kulik with two or three divisions so that he could deliver a powerful blow', believing that this would be the best assistance to the front in the current situation.
The 54th Army went onto the offensive on 9/10 September. Along the southern shore of Lake Ladoga, the 128th Division struck at Sinyavino, the 310th Division launched an offensive slightly to the south of the Chernaya river, and the 286th Division operated to the south-east of Mga. In several days of fierce fighting, however, the 54th Separate Army was able to advance only some 1.25 to 1.85 miles (2 to 3 km). The 128th Division achieved the greatest success and by the end of 11 September had taken the village of Lipka and Workers' Settlements Nos 4 and 8, and its forward units had reached the Workers' Settlements Nos 1 and 5. However, all attempts to break through to Mga and Sinyavino failed. The 20th Division (mot.) in the area of Sinyavino, the 12th Panzerdivision in the Mga area and the 21st Division to the south of Mga each managed to respond with great speed and efficiency in the organisation of a solid defence.
Then on 11 September, the shock group of the 12th Panzerdivision and part of the 21st Division launched a powerful counterattack from the area of Turyshkino and Muya on the left flank of the 54th Separate Army and reached Voronov. After suffering significant losses, parts of the 286th Division were compelled to retreat. Developing their own offensive, the Germans captured the village of Khandrovo on 12 September and broke the 54th Separate Army’s front. Furthermore, the Germans now planned to strike from the south to the north in the direction of Gaitolovo in order to encircle and destroy the 54th Separate Army’s main forces. In the current situation, the 54th Separate Army decided to weaken its offensive in the direction of Mga so that it could immediately organise a counterattack to restore the situation.
On 12 September, elements of the 54th Separate Army launched a counter-offensive. The 310th Division attacked the Germans from the north, and the 1st Mountain Brigade from the south and south-west. The infantry was supported by the mortars carried by the NKVD internal security service’s No. 82 armoured train, as well as three KV-1 heavy and eight T-34 medium tanks of the 122nd Tank Brigade. In severe fighting, the 12th Panzerdivision suffered comparatively heavy losses and was forced into a hasty retreat to Voronovo, leaving 22 burned-out tanks left on the field. For the lack of reserves, however, the Soviets forces could not develop the offensive and recapture Voronovo. Concerned by the current situation, the Germans transferred units of Generalleutnant Erich Brandenberger’s 8th Panzerdivision and Generalleutnant Wolf Schede’s 96th Division to the Sinyavino area.
On 13 September, worried by the slow pace of the 54th Separate Army’s offensive, Zhukov proposed to Kulik that the latter should deliver his main blow along the shore of Lake Ladoga and capture Schlüsselburg, and only then advance on Mga from the north.
On the following day, however, the 54th Separate Army was unable to resume the offensive as German forces were continuing their active counterattack not only on the army’s left flank in the Voronov area, but also on the right flank in the area of Lipka, Gontovaya Lipka and Tortolovo. In fierce battles between 13 and 15 September, units of the 128th Division repulsed the counterattacks of the 20th Division (mot.) and held their positions, but could not move forward. At the same time, in the battle in the Lipka area, the Germans lost about 15 tanks. At the same time, units of the 12th Panzerdivision attacked the positions of the 310th Division, trying to push it back across the Chernaya river. Under intense German pressure, the 310th Division had to abandon the station at Apraksin, as well as Tortolovo and Mishkino.
During the night of 15 September, Zhukov again turned to Kulik with a peremptory request to start an offensive on the Moscow State University in the morning. Kulik responded to the effect that the 54th Separate Army would resume the offensive, but no earlier than 16 or 17 September as the 'the artillery was not brought up, co-operation was not worked out on the spot and not all units reached their starting positions'. According to Zhukov, Kulik clearly did not imagine or possibly did not wish to understand the extreme difficulty of the situation near Leningrad 'and was unduly afraid of the German general offensive', which was in fact a reconnaissance in force.
On 16 September, in a telephone discussion with Iosif Stalin and Shaposhnikov, Kulik was ordered to abandon the plan to deliver the main blow to Schlüsselburg, and only then advance on Sinyavino. The Soviet supreme command deemed it more expedient to deliver the main attack in the direction of the Mga station on the morning of 17 September. According to Shaposhnikov, the 54th Separate Army had sufficient strength and means to do so. At the same time, Kulik was promised that in the near future the 54th Separate Army would be reinforced by two more divisions that were currently completing their concentrations and, in the event of a breakthrough or outflanking of the defence of Mga, two more divisions and possibly a new tank brigade.
Following the Soviet supreme command’s order, the 54th Separate Army on the morning of 17 September resumed the offensive toward Mga, leaving screens on its flanks. By 20 September, however, no significant results had been achieved. After replacing the 20th Division (mot.) and 21st Division with General Paul Laux’s 126th Division, Generalleutnant Sigfrid Macholz’s 122nd Division and one separate brigade, the Germans maintained their defence firmly and delivered a series of counterattacks. Away to the north-west, at this time Finnish troops reached the Svir river, which created a real threat to the rear of the 54th Separate Army.
On 20 September, Stalin once again demanded that Kulik accelerate the offensive, but despite this Kulik said that he had already given the order for a temporary halt to the offensive and consolidate on the existing positions as the 54th Separate Army had, in the last four days, lost about 10,000 men killed and wounded and 'without the introduction of new units, I cannot take the station'.
On 21 September, the Germans launched an offensive along the railway linking Mga and Volkhov in the direction of Putilovo. The main blow fell on the 8th Tank Division, which had only recently arrived in the combat area, and in just a few days drove the 310th Division across the Chernaya river and captured Gaitolovo. However, the Germans were unable to advance farther. At the same time, fierce fighting continued in the area of Tortolovo and Vorononov.
On 24 September, the Soviet supreme command once again demanded that Kulik’s forces occupy Sinyavino and link with elements of the Leningrad Front, and also made Kulik personally responsible for the operation’s success. At the same time, Zhukov was asked to include the 54th Separate Army in his Leningrad Front and remove Kulik from his post on the grounds that he 'cannot cope with the task assigned to him and does not fulfil orders for a decisive offensive'.
On this same day, when the 3rd Guards Division, 4th Guards Division and 16th Tank Brigade arrived in the combat area, the 54th Separate Army again intensified its operations. Thus, the 4th Guards Division, with the support of the 16th Tank Brigade, broke through the German defences at Gontova Lipka and reached Workers' Settlement No. 7, and the 310th Division, with the support of the 122nd Tank Brigade, retook Gaitolovo and pushed the Germans back to the Chernaya river. Despite this limited success, the Soviet offensive was developed no further.
On 26 September, the Soviet supreme command transferred what now became the 54th Army to the Leningrad Front, and replaced Kulik with General Leytenant Mikhail S. Khozin. Elements of the 54th Army continued active hostilities. Until the beginning of October, the 286th Division, 294th Division and 1st Mountain Brigade fought positional battles without significant success for Tortolovo, Voronovo, 1st Estonian Settlement and Apraksin station. At the end of September, units of the 8th Panzerdivision pushed the 4th Guards Division out of the area to the west of Gontova Lipka, and early in October, the 20th Division (mot.) recaptured Workers' Settlement Nos 4 and 8, as well as Lipku, from the 128th Division.
The command of the Leningrad Front, which was fighting the western side of the German salient to the shore of Lake Ladoga throughout this period in an attempt to link with the 54th Separate Army, felt constantly that 54th Separate Army was not acting with sufficient energy and repeatedly asked Kulik to accelerate the offensive. On 15 September, for instance, Zhukov a telephone conversation with Kulik, said that 'It is clear that you first of all care about the well-being of the 54th Army and, apparently, are not concerned enough about the current situation near Leningrad…I realise that I cannot count on an active manoeuvre on your part. I will solve the problem myself. I must say that I am amazed at the lack of co-operation between your group and [my] front.'
In this situation, therefore, Zhukov decided to intensify the Leningrad Front’s actions in the Sinyavino direction. It was planned, with the assistance of the vessels and craft of the Ladoga Military Flotilla, to effect a crossing of the Neva river in a number of places, to seize several bridgeheads and to recapture Schlüsselburg, thus beginning an offensive to meet elements of the 54th Army. To improve the command and control of the Leningrad Front’s forces in this area, the Neva Operational Group was created under Pshennikov’s command.
Initially, only one division and one brigade were allocated to the completion of the planned tasks, but other parts of the front were soon brought into the operation. Even so, the forces for the implementation of the plan were clearly not sufficient, and very little time was allocated for preparation.
On 18 September, General Major Vasili F. Konkov’s 115th Division and General Major Boris P. Nenashev’s 4th Marine Brigade were ordered to force the Neva river in the area of Ivanovskoye, Otradnoye, the Torfyanik state farm, Mustolovo and Moskovskaya Dubrovka with the aim of seizing a bridgehead across the Neva river, and during the morning of 20 September begin an offensive in the direction of Mga.
The Soviet units had to carry out their assigned task without air or armoured support, and thus had only their divisional and regimental artillery. Taking this into account and in order to achieve the effect of surprise, the commander of the 115th Division decided not to conduct any artillery preparation.
During the night of 20 September, the forward battalion of the 115th Division made use of fishing boats and makeshift rafts to effect a surprise crossing of the Neva river from the area of Nevskaya Dubrovka and drive the Germans out of their forward positions. In a day of fierce fighting, the battalion managed to knock the Germans out of Moskovska Dubrovka and take a bridgehead more than 1.25 miles (2 km) wide and up to 0.93 miles (1.5 km) deep. On the morning of 21 September, additional forces were transferred into the bridgehead, from which an attack was immediately launched into the Arbuzovo area, and the bridgehead was also slightly enlarged. Simultaneously with the 115th Division’s assault, the battalion of the 4th Marine Brigade crossed the Neva river from the Teplobeton area, but achieved no no success. Units of the 4th Marine Brigade were later transferred to the bridgehead in the Moskovska Dubrovka area.
Realising that the Soviet offensive in this area could radically change the situation near Leningrad, German commanders immediately made active attempts to eliminate the bridgehead. The German group was reinforced with units of the 8th Panzerdivision, and the entire weight of Generaloberst Alfred Keller’s Luftflotte I was committed in support of the XXXIX Corps (mot.).
In the period between late September and early October, the Soviet group on Nevsky Pyatachka, reinforced by the 11th Rifle Brigade, continued the fight, but all of its attacks were beaten off by the German defenders. The emergence of the Soviet-held 'Neva patch' was the only success gained by the Leningrad Front during the operation to force the Neva river in September 1941, and other Soviet attempts to capture bridgeheads across the Neva river ended in failure.
At the end of September, Polkovnik V. N. Fedorov’s 10th Brigade deployed two battalions, supported by several light tanks, to seize a bridgehead in the Otradnoye area. The Germans responded rapidly with a major counterattack and, after three days of fierce fighting, almost all the bridgehead’s defenders had been killed after it had provided impossible to provide assistance as almost all the required vessels and craft had been destroyed by German artillery and aircraft.
Polkovnik Semyon I. Donskov’s 1st NKVD Division and the Ladoga Military Flotilla also failed in their allotted task of retaking Schlüsselburg on 16 September, to be followed by an offensive toward the south-east to link with units of the 54th Army in the 'Schlüsselburg Landing Operation'.
On 20 September, the 1st NKVD Division committed three infantry regiments in attempt to force the Neva river in the area of the 2nd Gorodok Settlement, in the Maryino area and in the south-western outskirts of Schlüsselburg After taking heavy losses during the crossing, only two or three dozen of the division’s men managed to reach the Neva river’s left bank, and most of these were soon killed. An attempt by one of the division’s infantry regiments to recapture Schlüsselburg itself on 26/27 September also ended in failure .
Trying to assist the ground forces in the capture of Shlisselburg, the Ladoga Military Flotilla undertook five landing operations between 19 September 19 and 2 October. None of these operations was successful as a result of the fact that they were planned and executed without adequate planning and at a pace that was too rapid, and without taking into account the possibility of extremely adverse weather conditions. The landing vessels and craft could not approach the shore in very stormy weather and the soldiers of the assault groups had to walk about 1.85 miles (3 km) through the shallow water, spending as much as 2.5 hours in the water.
Zhukov was extremely irritated by the failures, and in particular the destruction of the 10th Brigade. Pshennikov was dismissed and succeeded in command of the Neva Operational Group by Konkov.
The result of the '1st Sinyavino Offensive Operation' was therefore a Soviet defeat, largely as a result of the fact that it had been too hastily organised and failed either to plan or to achieve any co-operation with the efforts of the Leningrad Front. In total, between 10 and 26 September, elements of the 54th Army were able to advance between 3.75 and 6.2 miles (6 and 10 km) in the Sinyavino area.
Neither did the elements of the Leningrad Front which were committed in an effort to support the 54th Army achieve significant results. The only success was the emergence of the 'Neva patch', from which Soviet forces made repeated attempts to launch an offensive until the end of the year.
At the same time, the actions of the 54th Army and formations and units of the Leningrad Front forced the Germans to abandon the continuation of their offensive along the southern shore of Lake Ladoga, as well as from attempts to force the Neva river. Thus, by forcing the Germans to go over to the defensive in the area of the Schlüsselburg and Sinyavino salient, the 54th Army and later the Neva Operational Group somewhat eased the situation of the Soviet troops defending the southern and south-eastern approaches to Leningrad.
Realising that the plan for the siege of Leningrad had been jeopardised, the Germans delayed for some time the planned transfer of General Georg-Hans Reinhardt’s XLI Corps (mot.) to Heeresgruppe 'Mitte'. Moreover, additional forces were urgently deployed into the area to the south of Lake Ladoga: these were the 7th Fliegerdivision, 227th Division and 212nd Division as well as the Spanish volunteers of the 250th Division (spanische).
The failure of the '1st Sinyavino Offensive Operation', at a time when the Germans had yet to consolidate their hold on the Schlüsselburg and Sinyavino salient and the Soviets appeared to have every chance of success, placed the inhabitants and defenders of Leningrad in the hardest of positions.
The main reasons for the failure were lack of strength and the 54th Separate Army’s complete lack of co-operation with the Leningrad. The blame is generally placed on Kulik, but there is another point of view. It is argued that Stalin, having appointed Zhukov to command of the Leningrad Front, set him the task of not only holding, but also of relieving, Leningrad, and of breaking through to meet the 54th Separate Army. Zhukov did not cope with the latter, largely as a result of the fact that he mistakenly expected the storming of the city and therefore allocated only insignificant forces for the offensive. At the same time, Zhukov constantly demanded that Kulik undertake an unprepared offensive, hoping that he would be able to complete the task on his own. When it became clear that the operation to cross the Neva river and the 54th Separate Army’s offensive were failing, Zhukov wished to absolve himself of responsibility and thus shifted all the blame onto Kulik.
Kulik came under heavy criticism from the Stavka and Zhukov for this dismal performance. When the Germans pushed back even some of these meagre gains, Kulik was replaced by Kozhin, court-martialled and reduced in rank to general major. Kozhin, a protégé of Zhukov, was promoted to command of the Leningrad Front in place of Zhukov on the latter’s switch to high command levels, and succeeded by General Major Ivan I. Fedyuninsky, another of Zhukov’s protégés.
There is no exact information about the losses of each side in the '1st Sinyavino Offensive Operation', and they can only be estimated.
According to a Russian statistical study, the losses of the Leningrad Front (54th Army and Neva Operational Group) in the '1st Sinyavino Offensive Operation' from 10 September to 28 October were 54,979 men, of whom 22,211 were killed, missing or taken prisoner. It should be borne in mind, however, that this total covers the '2nd Sinyavino Offensive Operation' (20/28 October) as well as the '1st Sinyavino Offensive Operation' and also the time between the two operations.
According to its own reports, between 1 September and 30 November the [q]16th Army lost 12,833 men killed. Some of these losses were incurred in the battles in the area of Sinyavino and Mga during September. According to other data, the losses of the XXXIX Corps (mot.) between 10 and 27 September amounted to about 800 men killed or missing, and more than 2,200 men wounded.