Leningrad Strategic Defensive Operation

The 'Leningrad Strategic Defensive Operation' was the Soviet strategic defensive undertaking against that part of 'Barbarossa' directed against Leningrad, at the western end of the Gulf of Finland, in the area to the south of Leningrad (10 July/30 September 1941).

Considered to be part of the 'Leningrad Strategic Defensive Operation' are the 'Tallinn Defensive Operation' and associated 'Evacuation of Tallinn Operation' (10 July/10 August), the 'Kingisepp-Luga Defensive Operation' (10 July/23 September), the 'Soltsy-Dno Offensive Operation' (14/22 July), the 'Tallinn Defensive Operation' (5/28 August), the 'Staraya-Russa Offensive Operation' (8/23 August), the 'Demyansk Defensive Operation' (6/26 September), the '1st Sinyavino Offensive Operation' (10/26 September) and the '2nd Sinyavino Offensive Operation' (20/28 October).

After the start of 'Barbarossa' on 22 June, Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb’s Heeresgruppe 'Nord', comprising Generaloberst Georg von Küchler’s 18th Army, Generaloberst Erich Hoepner’s 4th Panzergruppe and Generaloberst Ernst Busch’s 16th Army, had made a vast and rapid advance through the Baltic states. In just two and one half weeks, Lithuania and Latvia had been overrun, and on 9 July the 4th Panzergruppe had reached Pskov and the southern shore of Lake Peipus in the USSR, with a bulge to the north-east in the direction of Slavkovich. On the left flank of the bulge, was General Georg-Hans Reinhardt’s XLI Corps (mot.) and on the right General Erich von Manstein’s LVI Corps (mot.).

The 18th Army had advanced along the coast after driving the Soviet 8th Army from its original position on the border. The Soviet army was able to break contact and establish a new defence line farther to the rear of the pre-war border. On 10 July the 18th Army, aided by the local Forest Brothers (Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian guerrillas who had been fighting the Soviets since the latters' seizure of the Baltic states in 1940), had entered southern Estonia and was positioned with its left flank occupying positions to the north of Pärnu, along the Pärnu river through the Võhma district and then to the south-east toward Tartu and Lake Peipus. The 16th Army was at the same time on the southern flank of Heeresgruppe 'Nord' around the Velikaya river and to the west of Novorzhev. The 16th Army's infantry was lagging behind the 4th Panzergruppe because of the difference in speed between the two formations, but also because it was asked to support Generalfeldmarschall Fedor von Bock’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' on its right flank.

The campaign was fought in the area to the north-west of the Kalinin oblast (region) to the Baltic Sea. In the north the fighting was constrained by the geographical limit imposed by the coast of the Gulf of Finland: to the north of this gulf Soviet troops were engaged in the 'Arctic-Karelia Strategic Defensive Operation' and the 'Defence of the Hanko Peninsula Operation'. In the east the Germans reached the southern shore of Lake Ladoga, south along the Kirisha river to Kirishi, then south again along the Volkhov river to Veliki Novgorod, including this city, along the western side of Lake Ilmen to Staraya Russa, thence to the northern end of Lake Vella and from the western boundary of the lake to the north shore of Lake Seliger to the region lying to the west of Peno. The region to the south of the border was the zone of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte'. The width of the front was about 280 miles (450 km), and advanced a total of between 170 and 185 miles (270 and 300 km) as the Soviet forces withdrew.

On 10 July, the German high command decided that the 4th Panzergruppe was to launch a two-pronged attack, without waiting for the slower-moving infantry to arrive. Reinhardt’s XLI Corps (mot.) was to attack toward the city of Luga while von Manstein’s LVI Corps (mot.) advanced toward Lake Ilmen in a flanking movement.

On 4 July, General Georgi K. Zhukov, chief of the Soviet general staff, had given the military council of the North Front instructions for the defence of Leningrad. Zhukov ordered the construction of a defensive line linking Narva, Luga and Staraya Russa and extending to a depth of 6.1 to 9.25 miles (10 to 15 km). From the end of June, three divisions of the so-called national people’s militia were recruited in Leningrad and used to occupy the Luga line. On 6 July, General Leytenant Konstantin P. Piadyshev was appointed commander of the new defence line along the Luga river, and the Northern Front’s military council decided to strengthen the Luga section by transferring the 237th Division from Petrozavodsk and the 21st and 24th Tank Divisions of General Major Ivan G. Lazarev’s X Mechanised Corps from Karelia. The Stavka’s Guideline No. 260 of 7 July ordered that the commander of the North Front immediately transfer the 70th and 177th Divisions to the North-West Front.

When the German breakthrough began to develop in the area to the south of Lake Peipus, the troops holding the new defence line were combined on 6 July to form Pladyshev’s Luga Operational Group. Some 2,000 men of the Leningrad Infantry School, the Kingisepp militia and 1,900 men of the Leningrad Gun and Machine Gun Infantry School were soon concentrated in the area to the east of Narva. A separate mountain brigade of 5,800 men, which was recruited in Leningrad, was grouped to hold the Luga line. As initially ordained, the defence line extended almost 150 miles (250 km) in length from the Gulf of Finland along the Luga, Mshaga and Luga Shelon rivers to Lake Ilmen.

The Luga Operational Group consisted of the 70th, 111th, 177th and 191st Division as well as the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Divisions of the national militia and the XLI Corps with its 90th, 235th and 118th Divisions.

Th ground formations of Heeresgruppe 'Nord' were supported by Generaloberst Alfred Keller’s Luftflotte I, which was reinforced by Generaloberst Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen’s VIII Fliegerkorps as the German offensive progressed.

On 10 July, the leading elements of Heeresgruppe 'Nord', after breaking the line of the Velikaya river, continued their attack toward Leningrad. The XLI Corps (mot.) of two Panzer, one motorised division and one infantry division and supported by tactical air units, drove the 118th Division back to Gdov, and the 90th and 111th Divisions to Luga. On 12 July German troops clashed with forward detachments of the Luga defence line in the Plyussa river area and were brought to a halt in stubborn fighting. Unable to outflank the defence because of the swampy nature of the terrain, Reinhardt left Generalleutnant Ernst von Leyser’s 269th Division at Luga and diverted the main strength of the XLI Corps (mot.)toward the north-west, and by 14 July the corps had created two bridgeheads on the right bank on the Luga river near the villages of Ivanovskoye and Bol’shoi Sabsk in the area of Kingisepp. The German troops were brought to a halt at these positions by the forces of the Luga Operational Group, and were able to continue the offensive only on month later. Meanwhile, a large gap had now emerged between the 4th Panzergruppe's two corps, which were now heading in different directions. Furthermore, the swampy and wooded area of the Leningrad region seriously impeded the independent actions of the tank units.

On 10 July, Generalleutnant Curt Jahn’s 3rd Division (mot.) of the LVI Corps (mot.) occupied Porkhov and continued the offensive in the direction of Dno. The 182nd Division fought the German advance, successfully repulsed two attacks, and killed about 300 men of the 3rd Division (mot.); moreover the Soviet artillery destroyed or damaged 20 German tanks. Despite this, by the fall of night the Germans were able to advance another 1.85 miles (3 km) to the east of Porkhov.

On 12 July, SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Georg Keppler’s SS Division 'Totenkopf' was left behind in the Porkhov area, and the 3rd Division (mot.) was directed along a side road to the north. Generalleutnant Erich Brandenburger’s 8th Panzerdivision launched an attack on Shimsk, moving along the main road on the left bank of the Shelon river toward Novgorod. The remnants of the 3rd Tank Division of General Major Mikhail Chernyavsky’s I Mechanised Corps attempted to check the German offensive, retreating from line to line. On 14 July, German units occupied Soltsi and reached the line of the Mshaga river. Despite the fact that German air reconnaissance reported a great concentration of Soviet troops and approach of new forces from the north, the immediate task of the 8th Panzerdivision was to take the bridge over Mshaga river before the Soviets could destroy it.

By 14 July, the right flank of the LVI Corps (mot.), which was not covered, was 43.5 miles (70 km) long with an uncovered left flank some 25 miles (40 km) long. The corps' commander believed that its safety was ensured by his formation’s speed.

The Soviet command now came to the conclusion that the time was ripe for its forces in the area to exploit the fact that the LVI Corps (mot.) was unprotected. The commander of the North-West Front, General Major Piotr P. Sobennikov, on 13 July 1941 issued Order No. 012 to General Leytenant Vasili L. Morozov’s 11th Army, reinforced by the 21st Tank Division and 70 and 237th Divisions of General Leytenant Markian M. Popov’s North Front, to counterattack and restore the situation in the Soltsi area. During the evening of 13 July, Morozov and General Major Nikolai Ye. Berzarin, the latter commanding the 27th Army, were sent directive No. 010 about the counterattack, which had been planned under the supervision of General Leytenant Nikolai F. Vatutin, the North-West Front’s chief-of-staff, and based on the information included on a map which had fallen into Soviet hands. This plan marked the position of all six of the divisions in Hoepner’s 4th Panzergruppe.

As ordered by the headquarters of the North-West Front, Morozov’s 11th Army created northern and southern groupings for the counterattack. These were to cut off the German group that had broken through to the Mshaga river. From the northern grouping, the 21st Tank Division and 237th Division were to advance from the Gorodishche and Utorgosh line to the south-west in the direction of Baranovo and Sitnya, and the 70th Division was to advance to the south in the direction of Soltsi. The 1st Separate Mountain Rifle Brigade was to attack Soltsi from the east. The southern group was based on the 183rd Division of Berzarin’s 27th Army, and was to advance to the north in the direction of Sitnya, where it was to link with the northern group.

On 14 July 1941, with the support of 235 aircraft, the 11th Army went onto the offensive. The sudden Soviet counterattack took the German command completely by surprise, and most of the 8th Panzerdivision was surrounded. At the same time, the 3rd Division (mot.) also found itself in a difficult position.

On 16 July, General Major Andrei Ye. Fedyunin’s 70th Division occupied Soltsi, and on the same day Sobennikov ordered the formations of his North-West Front to complete the defeat of the German forces in the Soltsi area. With the part of the line held firmly by the 27th Army’s centre and left flank, the rest of the forces went onto the offensive.

Tactically astute, as ever, von Manstein ordered the correct response: he pulled back his troops some 25 miles (40 km) and prepared them for defence. Most of the LVI Corps (mot.) managed to break out of the encirclement and, on 16 July, the SS Division 'Totenkopf' was transferred to this corps, which restored the situation on the Shelon river. The Soviets launched wave after wave of attacks on the German positions, but each time were driven back with heavy losses.

On 19 July, the Soviet counterattack nonetheless had the effect of persuading von Leeb that the whole of Heeresgruppe 'Nord' should suspend its offensive toward Leningrad. The 8th Panzerdivision, which had suffered serious losses, was withdrawn to the rear. On 16 July, the General Cuno-Hans von Both’s I Corps had been transferred to the 4th Panzergruppe and on 18 July it took Dno from General Major Mikhail P. Dukhanov’s XXII Corps. Soltsi was retaken on 22 July but the attack of Generalleutnant Otto Sponheimer’s 21st Division on Shimsk was beaten back.

Only on 27 July did the situation along the entire front between Narva and Lake Ilmen began to stabilise, and Heeresgruppe 'Nord' start to think once more about the resumption of the offensive against Leningrad. The German command had decided to await the arrival of the bulk of the 18th Army from northern Estonia and the 16th Army from eastern Latvia before launching the renewed offensive. On 8 August the LVI Corps (mot.) attacked in the area of Luga, but failed to advance against strong Soviet defensive positions. At the same time, the XLI Corps (mot.)attacked in the Kingisepp area, and this effort was more successful. The 8th Panzerdivision was moved to this corps and after defeating the 1st Tank Division at Moloskovitchi, the divisions of the XLI Corps (mot.) reached the road from Kingisepp to Gatchina on 16 August. On the following day, Generalmajor Dr Friedrich Altrichter’s 1st Division took Kingisepp, while Generalleutnant Kurt Herzog’s 291st Division occupied Narva from the west and Generalleutnant Iwan Heunert’s 58th Division from the south. Meanwhile, German tanks began to bypass the city of Luga on country and forest roads, and reached the Luga river in the area 12.5 to 15.5 miles (20 to 25 km) to the south-east of Kingisepp. Threatened by the possibility of being cut off from Leningrad, General Friedrich-Wilhelm von Chappuis’s XXXVIII Corps forced the 8th Army to withdraw onto the Koporskoye plateau on 18 August.

Farther to the east, the 16th Army had launched its attack toward Novgorod on 10 August. Preceded by intense aerial attacks by the VIII Fliegerkorps, von Both’s I Corps attacked Novgorod directly with the Generalleutnant Herbert von Böckmann’s 11th Division and Sponheimer’s 21st Division, but these could not break through the Soviet defensive positions. On 14 August the 21st Division advanced along the road linking Novgorod and Luga, and the 11th Division approached the line from the same direction, thus threatening the rear lateral communication lines of the Soviet forces on the Luga line. The German attack on 15 August initially failed, but the Soviet resistance was broken by dive-bomber attacks, which set Novgorod on fire in many places. In the evening the 21st Division was able to penetrate into the city at the same time as the 424th Infanterieregiment of Generalleutnant Paul Laux’s 126th Division. On the morning of 16 August, Novgorod was in German hands, and the 21st Division[e/]'s other regiments launched an attack on Chudovo.

The 48th Army began a counterattack to retake Novgorod, and the battle for the eastern part of Novgorod lasted until 19 August. Strong air support ultimately ensured the Germans' success in the battles for Novgorod. During the Battle of Novgorod, the left wing of the I Corps pressed forward to Chudovo. The 11th Division now secured the corps' right flank on the Volkhov sector and the 21st Division took Chudovo on 20 August and thereby denied the Soviets any use of the railway line that passed through the town. On the next day, several Soviet counterattacks on elements of the I Corps were repelled. Thus the 16th Army had reached its objectives.

The attack by the 16th Army's XXVIII Corps finally unlocked the left flank of General Major Andrei N. Astanin’s Luga Operational Group. SS-Gruppenführer und Generalleutnant der Waffen-SS Arthur Mülverstadt’s (from 8 August SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Walter Krüger’s SS Polizei-Division had also been moved 46 miles (74 km) north to the eastern bank of the Luga river and stormed Luga from the south-east on 22 August. Two days earlier, Astanin had received the order to pull his formation back behind the line of the railway to Gatchina (Krasnogvardeysk in Russian), but it was too late. The 70th, 90th, 111th, 177th and 235th Divisions, the 1st and 3rd Militia Divisions and the 24th Tank Division were trapped in the 'Luga Pocket'. The encirclement was completed in the north by the XLI Corps (mot.), in the south by General Georg Lindemann’s L Corps and in the east by General Mauritz von Wiktorin’s XXVIII Corps. The struggle in the 'Luga Pocket' continued until the middle of September, and some Soviet units were able to break out to the east.

Meanwhile, on the southern wing the Soviets were planning their own offensive in what became known as the 'Staraya-Russa Offensive Operation'. The plan was for General Leytenant Stepan D. Akimov’s newly formed 48th Army to attack from the Novgorod region along the north-western side of Lake Ilmen, while General Major Kuzma M. Kachanov’s newly formed 34th Army, supported by Morozov’s 11th Army and Berzarin’s 27th Army, were to attack in the area to the south of Lake Ilmen. The Soviets deployed eight infantry divisions, one cavalry corps and one tank division for their offensive, whose objective was the recapture of Staraya-Russa and Dno, and the destruction of General Christian Hansens X Corps of the 16th Army. The offensive began on 12 August, and immediately posed the threat of overwhelming and trapping the X Corps against Lake Ilmen.

von Leeb was forced to transfer Kepler’s SS Division 'Totenkopf' to the area of the Soviet offensive, and to follow this with it was soon followed by Jahn’s 3rd Division (mot.) and von Manstein’s LVI Corps (mot.) despite the fact that this corps was already heavily engaged at Luga. von Richthofen’s VIII Fliegerkorps was also involved in repelling the Soviet counterattack. On 19 August, the LVI Corps (mot.)'s attack caught the 34th Army on its flank by total surprise, severely damaging the army and compelling it to attempt a withdrawal. By 22 August, the LVI Corps (mot.) had reached the Lovat river having captured 12,000 of the retreating 34th Army’s men.

As a result of the offensive’s failure, Sobennikov was removed from his position as the commander of the North-West Front: Sobennikov was sentenced to five years in prison, and was later demoted. Kachanov, the commander of the 34th Army, was arrested on 12 September, placed on trial for cowardice, sentenced and executed on 29 September. Sobennikov was succeeded in command of the North-West Front by General Leytenant Pavel A. Kurochkin.

On 28 August, Tallinn fell after a three-week siege and Vitse Admiral Vladimir F. Tributs’s Baltic Fleet evacuated the city. The Germans had completed their conquest of Estonia and a large strip of the western USSR up to south coast of the Gulf of Finland, although some Soviet defensive strongpoints continued to hold.

For the final stage of the German attack on the city of Leningrad, General Rudolf Schmidt’s XXXIX Corps (mot.) was relocated from Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' to Heeresgruppe 'Nord', and ordered to isolate the city from the rest of the USSR by passing round its eastern side to effect a junction with the Finns. The I Corps was to advance to the north along the left bank of the Volkhov river toward Kirishi, thereby covering the XXXIX Corps (mot.)'s right flank.

In this time of deepening crisis, the Stavka assigned the newly mobilised 4th, 52nd and 54th Armies along and to the east of the Volkhov river. The Stavka also approved the formation of two new formations in the form of the 42nd and 55th Armies, which were earmarked for the defence of Leningrad itself.

The Germans' primary thrust on Leningrad was to be executed by the XLI Corps (mot.) in cooperation with the XLVIII Corps on its left flank. In the south, between Gatchina and Mga, the L Corps and XXVIII Corps were to attack the southern belt around Leningrad.

The two Panzer corps attacked on 25 and 26 August. The XXXIX Corps(mot/) captured Lyuban on the first day and advanced toward the Neva river. On 1 September, the XXXIX Corps (mot.) took Mga and cut the last railway link connecting Leningrad with the rest of the USSR. On 8 September, Generalleutnant Hans Zorn’s 20th Division (mot.) took Schlüsselburg (Petrokrepost in Russian) on the shore of Lake Ladoga, so closing the last land route out of Leningrad. In the meantime, theXLI Corps (mot.) supported by the infantry of von Chappuis’s XXXVIII Corps penetrated the Soviet defences, advanced almost 6.1 miles (10 km) and exerted more pressure on the shrinking line around Leningrad and the Oranienbaum region to the city’s west on the southern shore of the Gulf of Finland.

To the south of Leningrad, Soviet defensive positions also began to crumble: the Germans took Krasnoye Selo on 12 September and Gatchina on the following day. The remains of General Major Viktor I. Baranov’s 1st Tank Division continued to pull back, occupying new positions on the Pulkovo heights, which constituted the final line of defence on the south-western approach of Leningrad.

In the middle of September, there were two events which seriously impacted the course of events around Leningrad. On 14 September, Zhukov arrived in Leningrad to replace Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Kliment Ye. Voroshilov as commander of the Leningrad Front, and ordered immediate countermeasures to drive back the German forces. At about the same time, Adolf Hitler changed his mind about the importance of Leningrad, deciding that Heeresgruppe 'Nord' would not seek to take the entire city, but instead surround it and starve it into submission. Hitler also ordered the furious von Leeb to transfer all his armoured units and the 4th Panzergruppe, less von Chappuis’s {e]XXXIX Corps (mot.), to Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' to boost the latter for the forthcoming attack on Moscow.

Between 14 and 21 September the 18th Army continued to drive in the Soviet perimeter, finally isolating the 8th Army in the Oranienbaum pocket against the Gulf of Finland. On 17 September, German troops occupied Tsarskoye Selo in the town of Pushkin, During this period, the XLI Corps (mot/) and LVI Corps (mot.), together with the headquarters of the 4th Panzergruppe, were diverted to the south for commitment in the battle for Moscow, and the German advance came to a halt.

At great cost, the Soviet forces had held the Luga Line for the 45 days between 10 July and 24 August, when German troops had taken Luga. Until 10 July, the German forces' average daily advance had been in the order pf 16.1 miles (26 km) per day, a figure which declined to 3.1 miles (5 km) per day until August, when it decreased still further to 1.35 miles (2.2 km) per day. Occasionally stopping and frequently delaying the German advance had made it possible for the Soviet leadership to take important measures with regard for the defence of Leningrad, including the formation and training of new military formations and units. Furthermore, between 29 June and 27 August, 488,703 civilians had been evacuated from Leningrad. The retreating Soviet forces and remaining civilians were then isolated from the rest of the USSR in Leningrad, which was then subjected to a siege by the Germans in the south and east, by the Finnish force in the north-west, and by Lake Ladoga in the north. Despite many costly attempts, the Soviets did not raise the siege completely until January 1944.

Subsequent operations continued on the outskirts of Leningrad, including the '1st Sinyavino Offensive' (10/26 September)m '2nd Sinyavino Offensive Operation' (20/28 October) and 'Tikhvin Defensive Operation' (16 October/18 November).