On 8 September 1941, Hitler’s Army Group North reached the southern shore of Lake Ladoga outside of Leningrad, the symbolic home of the Bolshevik Revolution, and one of the Germans’ three objectives for Operation Barbarossa. It effectively cut the city of 2.5 million off from the rest of the Soviet Union. Two days later, the German High Command requested that Finnish troops seize the city through the weakly defended northern approaches. However, Finland was at best a reluctant German ally and Marshal Mannerheim, the CinC of the Finnish Army, refused stating that Finland’s war aims only allowed for the recovery of territory lost in the Winter War with the Soviet Union in 1940. It proved to the last chance that Germany had to seize the city in the war.
Operation Typhoon, the campaign to seize Moscow, was scheduled to launch in October and the tired 4th Panzer Group, which fought its way to Leningrad, was needed. The Siege would be carried out by the foot sore remainder of Army Group North which had an extremely difficult time keeping up with the Panzers. Nevertheless, the Germans thought the city would starve in a matter of weeks.
The only route into and out of the city was over Lake Ladoga, which was under constant artillery bombardment and Luftwaffe attack. The journey over the Lake, in slow boats in the summer and over the ice road known as the Road of Life in the winter, was perilous. 500,000 non-essential personnel were evacuated in the coming months but not before rats, cats, and dogs were a feast, horse a delicacy and cannibalism appeared in the less affluent neighborhoods. Only draconian measures kept the city from surrendering.
On 16 September, Marshal Zhukov was given command of the garrison and he directed the Soviet commissars that workers and soldiers would receive 500 grams of daily bread ration, officer workers and non-laborers would receive 200, and children and old people would receive none pending evacuation. Failure to comply was punishable by death. One Soviet teenager said later, “I watched my father and mother die – I knew perfectly well they were starving. But I wanted their bread more than I wanted them to stay alive. And they knew that about me too. That’s what I remember about the blockade: that feeling that you wanted your parents to die because you wanted their bread.”
On 17 Sep, the 4th Panzer Group began loading tanks on rail cars for the journey south, effectively beginning the siege.
It would last for 900 more days and claim the lives of 1.5 million.