Operation Nordlicht (ii)

northern lights

'Nordlicht' (ii) was a German unrealised and, as it emerged, final attempt to destroy Leningrad by the end of September 1942 (23 August/16 October 1942).

While the primary German offensives of the summer of 1942 were the three 'Blau' undertakings of Generalfeldmarschall Fedor von Bock’s Heeresgruppe 'Süd' (divided in mid-July into Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm List’s Heeresgruppe 'A' and Generalfeldmarschall Maximilian Reichsfreiherr von Weichs’s Heeresgruppe 'B'), Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' and Generalfeldmarschall Georg von Küchler’s Heeresgruppe 'Nord' were allocated secondary roles, though the latter’s secondary role had the possibility of development into a primary strategic tasking: in the Führerweisung Nr 41 of 5 April 1942), Heeresgruppe 'Nord' was instructed to complete the destruction of Leningrad, establish overland contact with the Finnish forces on the Karelian isthmus, and take Ingermanland (the area of the Oranienbaum lodgement) still held by the Soviets in the area to the south-west of Leningrad, 'as soon as the [Soviet] situation in the enveloped areas or the availability of otherwise sufficient forces permits'. Although the implementation of the plan was then deferred, in Hitler’s strategic thinking the task was considerably more than one of opportunity. Hitler’s concern extended from a time as early as the autumn of 1941, and especially to the failure during December 1941 to establish a firm contact with the Finns on the Svir river: after this Sotamarsalkka Carl Gustav Emil Mannerheim, the Finnish commander-in-chief, had told the Germans that the Finnish forces would not take the offensive anywhere until they had been relieved, at the very minimum, of the need to holding the front to the north-west of Leningrad.

In the early winter, on Hitler' instruction, Heeresgruppe 'Nord' had developed the 'Nordlicht' (ii) plan to take Leningrad but, overtaken by the difficulty of subsequent events, had not been in a position to finalise any details of the basic scheme or to start grouping the forces which would be needed for its implementation. The basic plan was still very much in Hitler’s mind, though, as proved by the Führerweisung Nr 41. Even so, a factor which could not be ignored what that unless the Soviets suffered a catastrophic collapse, the capture and/or destruction of Leningrad would cost the Germans very dear in terms of men and matériel. In the summer of 1942, therefore, 'Nordlicht' (ii) would be a massive undertaking and would require considerably greater resources than those currently or foreseeably available to Heeresgruppe 'Nord'.

On 30 June, at Hitler’s 'Wolfsschanze' headquarters in East Prussia, von Küchler briefed the German leader on the spectrum of operations, other than 'Nordlicht' (ii), which his army group might undertake after it had rested its units and received its scheduled troop and equipment replacements. von Küchler listed four main possibilities: a joint attack with Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' to take to Ostashkov in 'Ravensbruck'; the enlargement of the logistic corridor linking the Demyansk pocket with the rest of Heeresgruppe 'Nord'; the elimination of the Volkhov bridgehead and/or the Pogostye salient; and the capture of Ingermanland. von Küchler added that three of these (the Ostashkov operation, the Demyansk corridor and the Pogostye pocket) were matters in need of urgent attention.

von Küchler returned to his army group’s headquarters on 1 July and set his staff to work on two operations, 'Schlingpflanze' and 'Moorbrand'. 'Schlingpflanze' was intended to widen the corridor to the Demyansk pocket on its northern side, and was to be undertaken first because General Walter Graf von Brockdorff-Ahlefeldt’s II Corps in the pocket could not survive without air supply: as well as being exposed to Soviet fire from two sides, the two lanes the Germans had hacked through the corridor into the pocket were under water whenever it rained, and muddy all of the time, making the passage of motor vehicles very difficult. 'Moorbrand' was intended to pinch off the Soviet salient to the south-east of Pogostye and, von Küchler believed, limit the Soviet options for deployment between the Volkhov river and Lake Ladoga: Hitler had liked the idea as, though the terrain was in general unsuitable for motor transport, German armour might be able to move of the raised railway embankment which extended across the base of the salient.

On 2 July, the Oberkommando des Heeres informed Heeresgruppe 'Nord' that a specialised artillery reconnaissance group was being despatched to examine the ground between the Leningrad front and the Oranienbaum lodgement for its possible suitability for the emplacement of very heavy artillery. Hitler was planned to have the the 800-mm (31.5-in) 'Dora' railway gun, no longer needed at the southern end of the Eastern Front for service against Sevastopol, moved to the north for use against Kronshtadt, the Soviet naval fortress on Kotlin island in the Gulf of Finland. With a ring of forts on surrounding small islands and separated from the mainland by 3 miles (4.8 km) of water, this presented the Germans with attack problems not dissimilar to those of the fortress of Sevastopol. Over the following fortnight, Hitler added to the northern artillery grouping the 600-mm (23.62-mm) 'Karl-Gerät' and 420-mm (16.54-in) 'Gamma Mörser' self-propelled siege mortar batteries from Sevastopol, as well as four batteries of weapons ranging in calibre from 400 to 240 mm (15.75 to 9.45 in) which had not been used at Sevastopol. All if these, including 'Dora', for which a 5-mile (8-km) railway was to be built, were to be emplaced by the last week in August. As the use of so much heavy artillery would be tactically unprofitable, given the cost of its ammunition, by bombarding Kronshtadt alone, most of it was to be sited at locations from which it could also engage targets in the Oranienbaum. Generaloberst Georg Lindemann’s 18th Army then began to plan 'Bettelstab' as an infantry operation against the pocket.

Before Heeresgruppe 'Nord' and the 18th Army had completed their first concept for 'Bettelstab', however, Hitler’s attention was turning in the direction of Leningrad, and in a message to the operations branch of the Oberkommando des Heeres on 18 July, he revealed that 'Blücher' (ii), the planned assault across the Strait of Kerch from the eastern end of Crimea into the Taman peninsula, was to be cancelled as soon as the Don river had been crossed in 'Fischreiher' and the advance into the Caucasus region from the north in 'Edelweiss' had been assured. The German divisions thereby released would be then transferred from Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein’s 11th Army for movement to the north in order to take Leningrad. Hitler made the decision final in his Führerweisung Nr 45 on 23 July. Heeresgruppe 'Nord' was to receive five of the 11th Army's divisions in addition to the heavy artillery already on its way to the north, and was to be ready by early September to take Leningrad. Two days earlier, in his Führerweisung Nr 44, Hitler had ordered Generaloberst Eduard Dietl’s 20th Gebirgsarmee to ready itself for a thrust, in collaboration with Finnish forces, to the railway line linking Murmansk with the rest of the USSR along the west coast of the White Sea on the assumptions that Leningrad would have been taken in September at the latest and that Finnish forces would be released from the Karelian isthmus front. Initially allocated the codename 'Feuerzauber', the assault on Leningrad was changed to 'Nordlicht' (ii) on 31 July for all communications above the level of the 18th Army and 'Georg' for all communications within that army. 'Nordlicht' (ii) was to be implemented on 14 September.

But as von Manstein’s forces began to arrive on 27 August the Soviets had already launched their 'Sinyavino Offensive Operation' in the area to the south of Lake Ladoga by the 2nd Shock Army of General Kirill A. Meretskov’s Volkhov Front with the aim of advancing from outside the Leningrad perimeter to link with the Neva Operational Group of General Leonid A. Govorov’s Leningrad Front advancing from inside the perimeter. At this time von Küchler was out of favour with Hitler, and on 4 September the German leader put von Manstein in command of the 18th Army charged with the defeat of the 'Sinyavino Offensive Operation', achieved by the end of September when the bulge effected by Meretskov’s forces was tied off by von Manstein’s forces.

Hitler next instructed von Küchler to complete his planned local operations ('Schlingpflanze', 'Moorbrand' and 'Bettelstab') quickly and thus have them out of the way by the beginning of September. The army group appreciated from the start, as too did Hitler in all probability, that this was impossible in the time allotted as troops, armour, artillery, ammunition, and especially air support could not be grouped in adequate strength for more than one operation at a time. As it turned out, 'Nordlicht' (ii) partially afforded and partially drove the solution. Right from its inception, the 'Bettelstab' plan had raised no real enthusiasm in Heeresgruppe 'Nord' and, as it could probably be done more easily after 'Nordlicht' (ii) than before it, the scheme was postponed. On the other hand, Heeresgruppe 'Nord' saw 'Schlingpflanze' and 'Moorbrand' as essentially more vital than 'Nordlicht' (ii) to the army group’s survival in the approaching winter. 'Nordlicht' (ii) was more important to Hitler and, presumably, to German grand strategy, however. When early consideration revealed that the 18th Army clearly lacked the strength to undertake both 'Moorbrand' and 'Nordlicht' (ii), even in sequence, von Küchler cancelled 'Moorbrand'. This left only 'Schlingpflanze'.

As well as being the only survivor of the so-called local operations, 'Schlingpflanze' was also the only one of the three planned operations which was anywhere near ready for execution. Generaloberst Ernst Busch’s 16th Army, the other army controlled by Heeresgruppe 'Nord', had the formations to be used in it ready by the middle of July, and all was ready for the start of the operation on 19 July when adverse flying weather and Soviet attacks on the Demyansk pocket made it necessary to adopt a succession of postponements. Later, a long period of heavy rain flooded the entire area between the pocket and the main front.

As August started, von Küchler and Busch were waiting for three or four days without rain, but were nonetheless on the verge of starting 'Schlingpflanze' despite the weather because the situation of the II Corps was as bad as it had been in the middle of the winter. The land-supply corridor was under water, and the airlift was managing to deliver only between 30% and 40% of the corps' daily supply requirements. On 4 August, however, 'Schlingpflanze' suffered another setback when all of the ground support and fighter warplanes assigned for it were flown out to help Generaloberst Walter Model’s 9th Army, under the temporary command of General Albrecht Schubert and, from 1 September, Generaloberst Heinrich-Gottfried von Vietinghoff-Scheel, at Rzhev.

Four days later, Hitler summoned von Küchler to his 'Werwolf' headquarters at Vinnitsa in Ukraine to review 'Schlingpflanze' and 'Nordlicht' (ii). Hitler began as he liked to do in order to unsettle his senior commanders and emphasise his own superiority, with a surprise twist: he informed von Küchler that Heeresgruppe 'Nord' was to receive the first of the new PzKpfw VI Tiger I heavy tanks, and proposed that some of them be put into the Kirishi bridgehead on the eastern bank of the Volkhov river as, by implication, a small number of the new tanks would be able to hold the bridgehead practically by itself. von Küchler pointed out that the army group had no means of getting vehicles each massing some 53 tons across the Volkhov river, Hitler suggested using them instead for 'Schlingpflanze', which von Küchler noncommittally agreed would present fewer difficulties than their transport into the Kirishi bridgehead. In a later and private conversation, Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel, the chief of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, told von Küchler that no Tiger tanks had yet emerged from the assembly line, and that he should not count on having any such vehicles in time for 'Schlingpflanze'.

Turning to the agenda, Hitler told von Küchler that the warplanes recently transferred out of his area would remain in support of the 9th Army until the Rzhev crisis had passed, and would then be used to support 'Wirbelwind' by Generaloberst Rudolf Schmidt’s 2nd Panzerarmee, which meant that 'Schlingpflanze' could not start before 20 August. When asked by Hitler how long he would need for 'Schlingpflanze', von Küchler said 14 days. Hitler then asked when 'Nordlicht' (ii), which was to follow 'Schlingpflanze', would be completed, and von Küchler responded that it would be at the end of October. Hitler replied that this was too late as 'Nordlicht' (ii) was not in itself a final operation but a precursor to the undertaking against the Murmansk railway, which had to be undertaken before the full onset of winter. Hitler also asked why Heeresgruppe 'Nord' insisted on directing 'Schlingpflanze' into the area to the north of the Demyansk corridor when the Soviets were weaker on the southern side. Hitler added that there had been a supply road on the southern side during the winter, and while he conceded that such a road had indeed existed, von Küchler told Hitler that it had been made of logs, sawdust and ice, and had therefore long disintegrated. The only real road on either side of the corridor to the Demyansk pocket was that linking Staraya Russa and Demyansk on the north and von Küchler pointed out that its seizure was also vital to the defence of Staraya Russa.

After remarking that he would be happier about 'Schlingpflanze' was the use of Tiger tanks to be incorporated into the plan, Hitler turned to 'Nordlicht' (ii). The German task, according to Hitler, was the total destruction of Leningrad. General Alfred Jodl, the chief of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht’s operations Staff added that this was necessary because the Finns regarded the continued existence of the city as a great burden on their future. The task, according to Hitler, was comparable with the recently completed 'Störfang' at Sevastopol, but would not be as difficult: the area to be destroyed was smaller and at Sevastopol the terrain was rugged and the fortifications very strong, while Leningrad lay on flat land and was not well fortified. The task was, according to Hitler, merely one of applying the right weight of matériel. Jodl asked whether or not it might not be better to place von Manstein, victor at Sevastopol, in command of the operation, but Hitler would not be drawn.

When von Küchler told Hitler that ultimately 'Nordlicht' (ii) would have to have adequate infantry strength, the conference finally reached what both von Küchler and Hitler had each known was the critical factor. Heeresgruppe 'Nord' had requested four more divisions (three infantry and one Panzer) before the start of 'Nordlicht' (ii), and additionally either a constant flow of replacements or the later delivery of two or three more divisions, but Hitler maintained steadily that the army group’s estimates were too high. Moreover, Hitler added, he could not give what he did not have, and he had no more divisions. That was why he had provided the huge mass of artillery: 1,000 pieces to the Soviets' total of fewer than 500 pieces. Hitler also said that Leningrad should also be attacked with hundreds of thousands of incendiary bombs to burn out the defenders.

Returning to his headquarters, von Küchler looked afresh at 'Nordlicht' (ii). He learned from Lindemann, commander of the 18th Army, he learned that to get even two divisions out of its existing resources the army would have to give up the Kirishi and Gruzino bridgeheads, which would weaken its hold on both the Volkhov line and the Pogostye salient. Lindemann also told von Küchler that the number of artillery pieces was actually to be 598 rather than the 1,000 claimed by Hitler. On 14 August, and apparently for the first time, von Küchler went to look at Leningrad. From a tower on the northern outskirts of Pushkin, which was the highest point on the front, he saw masses of concrete and stone factories and apartment buildings, and decided that these would be scarcely vulnerable to incendiary attacks.

Meanwhile, 'Schlingpflanze' was still awaiting its required air support, and on 16 August Generalmajor Adolf Heusinger, the chief of the operations department of the Oberkommando des Heeres, told Generalleutnant Wilhelm Hasse, chief-of-staff of Heeresgruppe 'Nord', not to expect the warplanes in anything less than another eight to 10 days, and perhaps even longer, to remember that Hitler was still determined to implement 'Nordlicht' (ii), and that some fine calculation was now needed. Heusinger added that in the next few days Generaloberst Franz Halder, the chief of the Oberkommando des Heeres’s general staff, was to propose the evacuation of the Demyansk pocket. If that proposal failed to sway Hitler, as it most probably would, Heeresgruppe 'Nord' would have to do whatever it could in the short time of adequate weather left before the full advent of autumn to prevent finding itself in an untenable situation when the weather broke. A day later, von Küchler cancelled 'Schlingpflanze' in favour of 'Winkelried', an operation designed to widen the Demyansk corridor on its southern side. On 21 August Halder telephoned, on behalf of Hitler, to request von Küchler’s attendance at Hitler’s headquarters two days later to report on 'Winkelried' and 'Nordlicht' (ii) . Halder added that he had just learned than command of 'Nordlicht' (ii) was to be vested in von Manstein.

At the 'Werwolf' headquarters, Hitler began by telling von Küchler that a 'stone' had fallen from his heart when he heard that the army group was abandoning 'Schlingpflanze', that he had always seen this as a very difficult proposition, and that von Küchler should be careful not to try to push too far to the south in 'Winkelried'. Hitler added that time was important. Kenraali Erik Heinrichs, the Finnish army’s chief-of-staff, and his operations chief were to visit him on the following day, and he wished to give them a firm commitment about the implementation of 'Nordlicht' (ii), which Hitler yet again characterised as an easy repeat of 'Störfang'. When von Küchler presented air reconnaissance photographs revealing that very large numbers of concrete-built constructions were still standing in Leningrad, Hitler admitted that he was somewhat shaken, but that he had the solution to the matter: he was sending Generaloberst Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen, commander of Luftflotte IV, who was known as Germany’s best tactical air commander, to supervise the air support. For this reason, Hitler said, he was giving von Manstein command of 'Nordlicht' (ii) as von Manstein and von Richthofen had developed into an excellent team in 'Störfang'.

One day later Hitler gave von Manstein his mission, which he was to execute in any way he saw fit with the proviso that he succeeded in two things: making overland contact with the Finns and flattening Leningrad to the ground. As the commander for 'Nordlicht' (ii), von Manstein was to be independent of Heeresgruppe 'Nord' and report directly to the Oberkommando des Heeres. Hitler also informed von Manstein that he could expect some help from the Finns, and on the following day Hitler secured a promise from Heinrichs that the forces of Kenraaliluutnantti Karl Lennart Oesch’s Aunuksen Ryhmä (Olonets Group) on the Karelian isthmus with an artillery bombardment and a feint offensive. Ideally, of course, von Manstein would have liked considerably greater Finnish support, but Hitler had actually extracted from the Finns all that he could reasonably have hoped to receive. Long experience had taught Hitler that Mannerheim was strongly against the commitment of Finnish troops in any direct assault on Leningrad: Mannerheim maintained that he had accepted command of the Finnish army in 1941 on condition that he never be required to lead an offensive against Leningrad because he did not want to lend credence to a long-standing Soviet claim that an independent Finland was a manifest threat to the USSR’s second city.

It seemed that the Soviets were not minded to give Heeresgruppe 'Nord' the time it needed to translate 'Nordlicht' (ii) from a map table plan into an offensive on the ground. General Polkovnik Pavel A. Kurochkin’s North-West Front and General Kirill A. Meretskov’s Volkhov Front had been committed right through the summer months in piecemeal attacks on the Demyansk pocket and the Volkhov line, and the 16th Army and 18th Army had been sustaining larger losses and suffering heavier drains on their equipment and ammunition stocks than they could afford, but no large-scale Soviet endeavour seemed to be in the offing.

This appearance was deceptive for, in great secrecy, the Volkhov Front had since a time early in July been working on an offensive to break the Leningrad blockade at the bottleneck and hit the Germans with a pre-emptive blow in the Leningrad sector. Meretskov’s Volkhov Front had available on the eastern side of the German corridor past Mga to the southern shore of Lake Ladoga General Major Filipp N. Starikov’s 8th Army, General Major Nikolai A. Gagen’s IV Guards Corps, and General Leytenant Andrei A. Vlasov’s 2nd Shock Army, of which the last was in the process of being reconstituted. On the other side of the German corridor General Leytenant Leonid A. Govorov’s Leningrad Front had established a force of several divisions with artillery to join the battle as the Neva Operational Group. By the last week in August, Meretskov had a 3/1 superiority in troops, 4/1 in tanks and 2/1 in artillery and mortars, but seems not to have known of the German build-up for 'Nordlicht' (ii).

Meretskov’s plan was to shatter the entire bottleneck, some 7 miles (11.25 km) deep, to the north of the railway linking Mga and Volkhov railroad, take the Sinyavino heights, and finish at the bend of the Neva river to the west of Mga near the village of Otradnoye. The proposed advance was not great in terms of its distance: 4 miles (6.4 km) to the Sinyavino heights; another 6 miles (9.6 km) from there westward to the eastern bank of the Neva river; and at the base of the bottleneck 15 miles (24 km) from the front to Otradnoye. However, the terrain Meretskov proposed to cross was difficult in the extreme, for the whole area was a mix of woods, swamps and peat bogs; significant areas were under water, and the water table was so close to the surface nearly everywhere that fortifications had to be built above ground, which complicated the defence but at the same time made it impossible for ant attacker to dig foxholes or trenches. The only dry ground was on the Sinyavino heights, which rise to a maximum of 150 ft (45 m) and in 1942 afforded unimpeded fields of vision for several miles in all directions.

Given these conditions, Meretskov expected his advantage to lie in his numerical and matériel superiority, surprise and speed: Meretskov hoped to meet elements of the Leningrad Front on the Neva river in a mere two or three days, before the Germans could react effectively and move reinforcements into the area. For an operation which depended so significantly on speed, though, the Soviet plan was cumbersome. The Volkhov Front’s force was divided into three echelons for separate commitment to the operation; and the Stavka, remembering the problems with co-ordinated operations by the two fronts in the preceding winter, ordered the Neva Group not to make its effort to cross the Neva river and advance to the east until after Volkhov Front had secured a clear breakthrough.

Total surprise would be difficult if not to attain at the operational ands tactical levels, and this was certainly the Volkhov Front’s most intractable problem. The Germans had worked on their defences in the Mga bottleneck for almost a year, and fully appreciated fully what the consequences of a lapse could be. During the summer, Hitler had constantly kept an eye on the bottleneck as an area in which the Soviets would probably attempt to win a clear-cut victory which would help to offset the diminution of the USSR’s military prestige resulting from the summer’s defeats farther to the south. Hitler told von Küchler in the conference of 23 August that the Soviets would launch 'rabid' attacks, especially against the Mga bottleneck, as soon as they suspected the imminence of 'Nordlicht' (ii), and advised von Küchler to locate his new Tiger heavy tanks behind the front as, Hitler believed, they were undefeatable and would destroy any Soviet assault.

His problems notwithstanding, Meretskov did achieve some surprise. From the second week of August, the Oberkommando des Heeres and Heeresgruppe 'Nord' became ever more certain that an attack would take place at the Mga bottleneck but, despite the fact that they exchanged information on an almost daily basis, they could arrive at a consensus about when the Soviet offensive would come or how strong it would be. The pattern of the Soviet build-up was more diffuse than the Germans were accustomed to seeing, and the Kirishi bridgehead and Pogostye seemed to many senior officers to be more likely places for a major Soviet assault. On 23 August, General Ernst von Leyser’s XXVI Corps, which was holding the bottleneck with Generalleutnant Friedrich von Scotti’s 227th Division in the area to the north of the railway linking Mga and Volkhov and Generalleutnant Rudolf Lüters’s 223rd Division in the area to the south of the railway, with Generalleutnant Walter Wessel’s 12th Panzerdivision in reserve at Mga, requested another infantry division to put into the bottleneck. Four days later, early on the morning of 27 August, the Oberkommando des Heeres warned von Küchler that there were increasing indications of an attack at the bottleneck, and told him to move Generalleutnant Erwin Sander’s 170th Division, one of the divisions moved into this sector of the front from Crimea for 'Nordlicht' (ii). von Küchler confirmed that he would do so and added that he would also station the Tiger tanks, several of which were reported to be on board a train near Pskov, in the area.

While von Küchler and the Oberkommando des Heeres were thus engaged, Meretskov’s first echelon, the 8th Army, was opening the 'Sinyavino Offensive Operation'. Shortly before 12.00 on 27 August, Lindemann reported Soviet attacks along the whole eastern front of the bottleneck in the area to the north of the railway. At one location 20 tanks had broken through the German line, but according to Lindemann no main effort could yet be detected. The situation had not changed significantly by the fall of night, and the XXVI Corps had not detected formations and units other than those it had already identified and had been ready to check. von Küchler’s primary concern was for the timetable for 'Nordlicht' (ii), and he informed Generalmajor Rudolf Schmundt, Hitler’s military adjutant, that the Soviets had a tendency to maintain their efforts for several weeks, and that this might tie significant numbers of infantry and major quantities of ammunition in an area which had not been budgeted in the army group’s programme.

At 09.00 on the following day, von Küchler and von Manstein had their first planning meeting, and the former was happy to learn that the latter believed the the taking of Leningrad would be just a difficult as Heeresgruppe 'Nord' had long claimed. von Manstein told von Küchler that his previous experience indicated that the Soviets were not susceptible to being terrorised by bombing and shelling, and thought that it would be simpler just to seal off the city so that its defenders and citizens starved.

While the two commanders were having their discussion, the XXVI Corps reported that the Soviets had broken in, to a depth of some 1,100 yards (1000 m), on the bottleneck between the Sinyavino heights and the railway. A battalion commander had lost his nerve and ordered a retreat. In the rest of the day there emerged evidence of several previously unidentified Soviet divisions in and around the area of the break-in, and von Küchler ordered Generalleutnant Dr Julius Ringel’s 5th Gebirgsdivision and Generalleutnant Johann Sinnhuber’s 28th Jägerdivision to move from the 'Nordlicht' (ii) staging area to Mga. At the end of the day Hitler, who was very concerned by the situation of the XXVI Corps, diverted Generalleutnant Hans Kreysing’s 3rd Gebirgsdivision, which was at sea in the Baltic on the way from Norway to Finland, to divert to Riga for subordination to the 18th Army.

The 8th Army deepened its penetration to 3 miles (4.8 km) on the third day of the 'Sinyavino Offensive Operation', almost to the Sinyavino heights, and on the following day von Küchler committed the Tiger tanks, of which he had four, but two of these broke down on the roads. von Küchler also visited the front to assess the situation of the XXVI Corps for himself, and then reported to the Oberkommando des Heeres that he was not overly concerned by the situation but believed that the fighting would last for some time. On 31 August, Lindemann indicated that the crisis had passed and the Soviet break-in had been contained.

At the same time, but on the other side of the front, Meretskov ordered his second-echelon force, the IV Guards Corps, to be committed. Over the next few days the XXVI Corps came to know the presence of IV Guards Corps not in the form of a major assault but rather as a steady and determined infiltration through the woods and swamps to the south and west of the Sinyavino heights.

On 3 September, the Neva Group joined the battle briefly from the west with limited attempts to cross the Neva river in several places. These efforts were defeated so comprehensively by artillery and warplanes that the Neva Group lost most of its crossing equipment.

By the end of 4 September, the IV Guards Corps, in the woods to the south-west of the Sinyavino heights, had deepened the Soviet penetration to almost 5 miles (8 km) and was therefore about two-thirds of the way across the bottleneck. Despite the fact that it was troubled mostly by the terrain and thick forest growth that limited visibility to 50 ft (15 m) or less, the XXVI Corps believed that it had contained the Soviet assault. Hitler was most unhappy, however, and said that despite the fact that Heeresgruppe 'Nord' had four of the divisions earmarked for 'Nordlicht' (ii) committed in the Mga bottleneck it was still not able to halt the Soviets, which revealed deficient leadership. Hitler told von Manstein by telephone to take command in the bottleneck, in which Hitler said there had been 'atrocious developments', and restore the situation with offensive action. The headquarters of von Manstein’s 11th Army was to come directly under the Oberkommando des Heeres, and von Manstein was deliver immediate reports about any failures by commanders.

The XXVI Corps had been right, and the Soviet advance was stopped on 4 September. Try as he might, Meretskov could not get it under way once more even though he committed in his third-echelon force, the 2nd Shock Army, on 5 September. On 9 and 10 September the XXVI Corps beat back the attacks of the Neva Group in the the west and the 2nd Shock Army in the east without difficulty.

Even so, the Soviet offensive was achieving one very notable success inasmuch as it was completely disordering the schedules for 'Nordlicht' (ii) and 'Winkelried'. 'Nordlicht' (ii) could not begin until the bottleneck was secure, and 'Winkelried' had to await the relocation of air support from the area of the Mga bottleneck. Hitler had already delayed the operation against the Murmansk railway to the winter. This last removed one source of the time pressure on 'Nordlicht' (ii) and 'Winkelried' but not another, namely the approach of autumn rains.

The last Soviet attempt to restart the offensive offered von Manstein what he believed might be an opportunity to surprise the Soviets, and on 10 September he committed Generalleutnant Hans von Tettau’s 24th Division, the 170th Division and the 12th Panzerdivision in a thrust to the north from the south-eastern corner of the breakthrough to close the gap behind the Soviets. The German infantry moved off at 08.00 but was halted almost immediately by a deluge of Soviet artillery and mortar fire. In the afternoon, another attempt, with the 12th Panzerdivision now also committed, was terminated just as quickly as the morning’s attempt when the infantry was once more pinned down by Soviet artillery and mortar fore, and the armour ran into minefields. On the following day, while the infantry was fighting off Soviet counterattacks, von Manstein cancelled the attack and ordered reconnaissance to locate the Soviet strongpoints for individual destruction. von Manstein informed Keitel that he would have first to destroy the Soviet artillery and only after this make set-piece attacks from the north and the south.

von Manstein was ready to make another attempt on 18 September, but then had to await the clearance of fog and rain and fog. The rain did not seriously affect the infantry as the ground was permanently sodden, but the all-important air support needed good visibility. In the meantime, artillery and dive-bombers had made heavy attacks on the Soviet artillery emplacements. von Manstein had four divisions ready: in the north, under the command of the XXVI Corps, was Generalleutnant Martin Wandel’s 121st Division, and in the south, under the command of General Hans von Salmuth’s XXX Corps, were the 24th Division, Generalleutnant Fritz Lindemann’s 132nd Division and the 170th Division. The two thrusts were to converge on the village of Gaitolovo, which lay about mid-way in the mouth of the bulge astride the only Soviet supply road. The start of this attack was good as the artillery and dive-bombers had done their work well. By the fall of night on 22 September, one regiment of the 132nd Division was just 1,200 yards (1100 m) from Gaitolovo from the south. Remembering the defeat inflicted on the 2nd Shock Army in the spring, the Soviets fought with great determination to hold Gaitolovo, but the 121st Division was at the northern edge of the village on 24 September, the two groups linked on the following day, and the Soviet bulge into the Mga bottleneck had become a pocket.

What now remained for von Manstein was to mop up the situation in the bottleneck, and this his forces achieved, although in all probability not quite as rapidly as von Manstein might have expected. For three days, beginning on 26 September, the Neva Group had made its strongest effort yet to cross the Neva river and had managed to establish three small bridgeheads opposite Dubrovka. The bridgeheads for a time raised a possibility of the rupture of the Germans' western front just when the eastern front had been closed, but after the Neva Group failed to expand its bridgeheads by 29 September, von Manstein began mopping up the Gaitolovo pocket. The battle ended on 2 October. It had cost the Volkhov and Leningrad Fronts more than 12,000 men taken prisoner and an estimated three times as many wounded or killed, but it had also not come cheaply for the Germans, who sustained more than 26,000 casualties. Several of the 'Nordlicht' (ii) divisions had become shattered as a result of their combat weariness and losses. von Manstein thought he could launch 'Nordlicht' (ii) in three weeks if he had to, but such an order was not likely to come.

By 14 October 'Nordlicht' (ii) was no longer a viable enterprise, for the state of the 11th Army after the fighting in the Mga bottleneck and the lateness of the season militated against it. Two days later Hitler shelved 'Nordlicht' (ii) and instead instructed von Manstein to use the artillery to crush the Soviet defences on the Leningrad perimeter and to inch his front forward.

So important to Hitler’s plans was the elimination of Leningrad that it is worth summarising the campaign for this great city. On 27 June 1941 the council of deputies of the working people of Leningrad had decided to mobilise thousands of people for the construction of fortifications, and several lines of defences were thus built. Two of these were directed against attack from the south: one extended from the mouth of the Luga river via Chudovo, Gatchina, Uritsk and Pulkovo to the Neva river, and the other passed from Peterhof via Gatchina, Pulkovo and Kolpino to Koltushy. Another line of defence was directed against attack from the north by the Finns, and was built in the northern suburbs of Leningrad. In all 120 miles (190 km) of timber barricades, 395 miles (635 km) of wire entanglements, 435 miles (700 km) of anti-tank ditches, 5,000 earth-and-timber emplacements and reinforced concrete weapon emplacements, and 15,535 miles (25000 km) of open trenches were built by civilian labour. Even the gun of the old cruiser Aurora, which had fired the first shot of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, was mounted on the Pulkovskiye heights to the south of Leningrad.

When the Soviet troops of General Polkovnik Fyedor I. Kuznetsov’s North-West Front at the end of June were defeated in the Baltic states, however, the German forces forced their way to Ostrov and Pskov. On July 10 both cities were captured and the Germans reached Kunda and Kingisepp, from which they advanced to Leningrad from Narva, the Luzhski region and from the south-east, and also north and south of Lake Ilmen in order to isolate Leningrad from the east and to join the Finns at the eastern bank of the Lake Ladoga. The shelling of Leningrad began on 4 September. Bombing on 8 September caused 178 fires. Early in October the Germans refused to assault the city directly and Hitler’s directive on 7 October, signed by Jodl in his capacity as the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht’s chief-of-staff, was a reminder not to accept a capitulation. The Finns had embarked on what they termed the 'Jatkosota', alongside the Germans, and on the southern sector of the Finnish front, the Finnish forces were grouped in Kenraaliluutnantti Taavetti Laatikainen’s II Armeijakunta (corps) 1 on the Karelian isthmus between the Gulf of Finland and Lake Ladoga facing General Leytenant M. Gerasimov’s 23rd Army, and Kenraaliluutnantti Erik Heinrichs’s Karjalan Armeija (Army of Karelia) 2 on the front between Lakes Ladoga and Onega facing General Leytenant Filipp D. Gorelenko’s 7th Army.

By August the Finns had retaken the Karelian isthmus lost in the 'Talvisota' winter war of 1939/40, and were thus in the position to threaten Leningrad from the west, and were advancing through Karelia in the area to the east of Lake Ladoga, threatening Leningrad from the north. The Finnish forces were stopped somehow at the 1939 border, however, as much by their own increasing reluctance to advance into the USSR as by the Soviet defence. The Finnish headquarters rejected German pleas for aerial attacks against Leningrad and did not advance farther to the south from the Svir river in occupied East Karelia.

German progress was rapid and by September the German forces were investing Leningrad. In the north, Finnish forces continued their advance until December, when they reached the Svir river, 100 miles (160 km) to the north-east of Leningrad. On 4 September, Jodl came to persuade the Finnish commander-in-chief, Mannerheim, to continue the Finnish offensive, and it is said that Mannerheim refused. Later it was asserted that there was no systematic shelling or bombing out of the Finnish territory.

On 2 September the ration level for the citizens of Leningrad was reduced: the workers had 21.2 ox (600 grams) of bread daily, employees 400, and children and other dependants 300. A huge quantity of grain, flour and sugar was lost on 8 September as a result of a lack of adequate air-defence measures. Over a period of several days after the siege had been set, however, it was possible to eat in some 'commercial' restaurants, which used up to 12% of all fats and up to 10% of all meat the city consumed. On 12 September 1942 it was calculated that the provisions both for the troops and civilians were grain and flour enough for 35 days, groats and macaroni for 30 days, meat (also livestock) for 33 days; fats for 45 days; and sugar and confectionery for 60 days. On the same day a new food reduction took place: the workers received 17.6 oz (500 grams) of bread, employees and children 300, and dependants 250. The issue of meat and groats was also reduced but the issue of sugar, confectionery and fats was increased.

The Soviet army and the Baltic Fleet had some emergency rations, but these were not sufficient. The flotilla on Lake Ladoga was badly equipped and had been bombed by German aircraft. Several barges with grain were sunk in September. A significant part was later lifted by divers, however, this wet grain being used in bread baking. When the stocks of malt flour were exhausted, substitutes such as finished cellulose and cotton cake were used. The oats for horses was also used while the horses were fed on wood leaves. When 2,000 tonnes of mutton guts were found in the port, a galantine was made of them. Later the meat was replaced by that galantine and by stinking calf skins. During the siege there were in total five food reductions: on 2 September, 10 September, 1 October, 13 November and 20 November. Starvation-level food rationing was eased by new vegetable gardens that covered most open ground in the city by 1943.

For lack of power, many factories were closed down and in November the tramway service was terminated. The use of power was forbidden anywhere except at the general staff, Smolny, district committees, air-defence bases and in some other institutions. By the end of September all oil and coal supplies had been used. The only option left was to fell the surviving trees. On 8 October the executive committee of Leningrad and the regional executive committee decided to start timber cutting in the Pargolovo district and also the Vsevolzhsky district in the north of the city. However there were neither instruments nor hostels for groups formed from girls and teenagers, and thus by 24 October only 1% of the timber cutting plan had been executed.

In the chaos of the first winter of the war, no evacuation plan was available or executed, and the city and its suburbs quite literally starved in complete isolation until 20 November 1941, when an ice road over Lake Ladoga, the so-called 'Road of Life', was established. Unable or unwilling to press home their advantage, and with a hasty but brilliant defence of the city organised by General Georgi K. Zhukov, the German armies laid siege to the city for 900 days. They largely surrounded the city, blocking off all supply routes to Leningrad and its suburbs except for a single 'Road of Life' corridor over Lake Ladoga. The carnage in the city from shelling. The siege continued until 'Iskra', a large-scale offensive undertaken by the Leningrad and Volkhov Fronts from the morning of 12 January 1943. After fierce battles, the Soviet formations overcame the powerful German fortifications south of Lake Ladoga, and on 18 January the Leningrad Front and Volkhov Front met, opening a land corridor to the besieged city.

In January 1944, a Soviet offensive drove off the besieging Germans from the southern outskirts of the city, ending the siege. Later, in the summer of 1944, the Finns were pushed back to the other side of the Bay of Vyborg and the Vuoksi river. The ultimate number of casualties during the siege is disputed.

After the war, the Soviet government reported about 670,000 deaths from 1941 to January 1944, mostly from starvation and exposure. Some independent estimates give a much higher death toll of anywhere from 700,000 to 1.5 million, with most estimates around 1.1 million.

back to text
This comprised Eversti Aarne Block’s 2nd Divisioona (division), Eversti Niilo Hersalo’s 15th Divisioona and Eversti Aaro Pajari’s 18th Divisioona) and Kenraaliluutnantti Karl Lennart Oesch’s IV Armeijakunta (Eversti Kaarlo Viljanen’s 4th Divisioona, Eversti Caes Winell’s 8th Divisioona, Eversti Jussi Sihvo’s 10th Divisioona and Eversti Einar Vihma’s 12th Divisioona.
back to text
This comprised Kenraaliluutnantti Paavo Talvela’s VI Armeijakunta with Eversti Eino Koskimies’s 5th Divisioona and Eversti Kaarlo Heiskanen’s 11th Divisioona, Kenraaliluutnantti Johan Woldemar Häggland’s VII Armeijakunta with Eversti Antero Svenson’s 7th Divisioona and the 9th Divisioona, and Kenraaliluutnantti Woldemar Oinonen’s Ryhmä 'Oinonen' (group) with Oinonen’s own Ratsuväkiprikaati) (cavalry brigade), Eversti Ruben Lagus’s 1st Jääkäriprikaati (Jäger brigade) and Eversti Viktor Sundman’s 2nd Jääkäriprikaati, later supplemented by Eversti Paavo Paalu’s 1st Divisioona and two regiments of Generalleutnant Erwin Engelbrecht’s German 163rd Division.