The Leningrad-Novgorod Offensive was a strategic offensive during World War II. It was launched by the Red Army’s Volkhov, Leningrad and 2nd Baltic Fronts against the Wehrmacht’s Army Group North. The offensive led to the lifting of the almost 900-day siege of Leningrad. After the siege, the offensive ended with the Leningrad Front’s push across the Narva river, which the Germans managed to stop.
When General Georg von Kuchler withdrew Army Group North from its forward positions, Hitler replaced him with Walter Model. Model managed to persuade the Führer that a ‘Schild und Schwert’ (shield and sword) strategy should allow minor withdrawals as part of a larger, planned counter-offensive. The Germans constructed a series of fortifications in the region called the Panther line. In the meantime, the Red Army had reached a line from Narva to Pskov to Polotsk.
In response to directions from the OKH and Hitler, Army Group North began construction of a defensive line, called the Panther position. But unlike Manstein’s desperate efforts in the south, Army Group North was under no pressure and hence could undertake major engineering work on the line. German engineers, helped by thousands of slave laborers, built 800 concrete bunkers and over 5,000 field bunkers. They laid 200 km of barbed wire, and dug vast trench systems and anti-tank ditches.
According to their operational plan, the forces of the Volkhov Front were to carry out two major offensives. The forces to the south were to liberate Novgorod. One group was to approach Novgorod from the north and another was to approach the city by crossing the northern point of Lake Ilmen south of Novgorod. The two groups were to converge west of Novgorod and capture the encircled enemy forces. General Leonid Govorov’s Leningrad Front was to conduct two concentric assaults, one from Leningrad and the other from the Oranienbaum bridgehead, and to encircle the enemy forces. Subsequently, they were to advance toward Narva and Pskov.
Leningrad had a new front commander, a tall, reserved man who was not well known to the subordinate Leningrad commanders. He was Lieutenant General Leonid Aleksandrovich Govorov, an artillery officer. In preparation for the offensive, many new generals were appointed in the area. The late winter and early spring had turned the Leningrad Command into a comfortable, cosy group.
The Red Army launched a major attack from the Oranienbaum pocket, south from Leningrad itself, followed soon after by an attack near Novgorod. This was a far more ambitious project than the prior relief attempts. Neither replacing Army Group Commander Kuechler temporarily with Model, nor subsequently having Georg Lindemann take over when Model was sent south, made much difference. The Germans fought skillfully and fiercely, while the Soviet leadership was not as sure as in the south, but the German army was forced to retreat to the Panther line position.
While Ivan Fediuninskiy was clawing his way through the 3rd SS-Panzerkorps' lines, the 42nd Army used its 18th and 23rd breakthrough artillery divisions to reduce the German defences with a fierce artillery bombardment. These two formations fired a concentrated barrage on a 15 km-wide sector. After the German front-line positions were thoroughly pulverized, the 42nd Army attacked with nine rifle divisions from the 30th Guard, 109th and 110th Rifle Corps. Ivan Maslennikov's objective was to capture Krasnoye Selo, then Ropsha.
In the Novgorod region, Kiril Meretskov’s forces initiated a two-pronged attack toward Novgorod. A Soviet mobile group daringly crossed the ice of Lake Ilmen and established a bridgehead south of Novgorod, which greatly unnerved Kurt Herzog. The 38th Corps was the weakest formation of the 18th Army, consisting of only the depleted 28th Jager-Division, the inexperienced 1st Luftwaffe Field Division and the 2nd Lettische SS Freiwilligen Brigade. The Soviet attack smashed the German lines and liberated Novgorod.
In the north, Soviet spearheads reached the Tsar’s former summer residence at Krasnoye Selo and cut off two German divisions. Georg von Kuechler desperately pleaded for permission to retreat to the Panther Line, even though the considerable losses he had already suffered would leave him barely enough men to hold the line. Hitler again refused to authorize a retreat, this time claiming that a retreat would open up a straight road to the Panther Line for the Soviets and all their forces. The German troops were to fight where they stood in order to inflict heavy casualties on Soviet forces. The Russians attacked in force, and after almost 900 days Leningrad was freed.
The German position in the north remained tenuous. General Walter Model suggested risky offensive operations to restore the 18th Army’s situation along the Luga. Hitler, however, turned uncharacteristically cautious and favored a complete withdrawal to the Panther Line. His motivation was undoubtedly the worsening situation in the Ukraine. He was more disposed than usual to free up troops and divisions that might take the pressure off Army Group South.
The Red Army managed to lift the siege with heavy casualties. Despite the almost 900 day-long siege, the Germans did not manage to break the back of the Soviet defenders of the city. The Soviets managed to supply the city across Lake Ladoga during the siege, thus helping the trapped defenders. In spite of their operational mistakes which cost them victory at Leningrad, the German tactical performance on the defence was impressive - perhaps one of the best of the war by any army. The Soviets efforts during the siege were hindered by constant political interference from Stalin.
At the northern as on the southern ends of the great front in the East, the Red Army had driven back the Germans, inflicting heavy losses in men and materiel. At both ends of the main front, the Russians were now essentially back at their pre-war borders. The Soviets were now in a position to strike at Finland and the Baltic states. After the offensives in Finland and the Baltics, the Red Army drove the Germans from those territories and forced Finland to surrender.
After the siege was over, in the spring, in one of the few buildings that still stood in the old ‘Salt Port’ where nearly every house had been turned to a skeleton by German shells and bombs, an exhibition was opened, dedicated to the heroic defense of Leningrad. Most of the artists in Leningrad worked on the dioramas and panoramas. Outside the building on Market Street stood enormous German cannon, 406-mm siege guns, Tiger tanks, Panthers, Ferdinand self-propelled guns—the weapons the Germans had brought to bear on the city. The Soviet leaders had romanticised the siege for propaganda purposes.
The Renaissance of Leningrad was about to be undertaken. Its general outline had been presented by Party Secretary Andrei Zhdanov in a two-hour speech, at the first plenary session of the Leningrad City and Regional Party which had been held since the start of the war. ‘Our task,’ said Zhdanov, ‘is not just reconstruction but the restoration of the city—not to restore it as it was, or simply to change its facade, but to create a city even more comfortable than it was.’ But the harsh reality was that the reconstruction of the city would take years and would cost billions of roubles.
Leningrad began to scale down its vision and cut the corners off its dreams. Party Secretary Kuznetsov and Mayor Popkov presented to Moscow a new and revised plan for the development of the city. Kuznetsov and Popkov proposed that the Renaissance be carried out over a ten-year period, presumably during the fourth and fifth Five-Year Plans. More than fifteen years passed before another word was publicly expressed concerning the Leningrad Renaissance. This was no accident. Leningrad was the last great city to be restored.
The Leningrad Affair was a complex mechanism devised by Georgy Malenkov and Lavrenti Beria, with the close collaboration of Stalin himself and his chief of cabinet, General Poskrebyshev. The cultural goal was to suppress any writings that portrayed the siege of Leningrad in a dark manner or in a manner that contradicted Stalin’s official line. Nonpolitical people went down by the hundreds. As always in Russia, the writers and artists were the first victims of the savage political warfare.
The political goal was to destroy the Leningrad Party organization and all officials of consequence who had been associated with Andrei Zhdanov. Zhadanov was the political leader in Leningrad during the siege. The affair took the same general form as the great purges before the Second World War. Thus, it associated a large number of prominent Party figures and cultural personalities and accused them of a bizarre series of charges involving conspiracy and treason. The career of Aleksei Kosygin, later to become Premier of the Soviet Union, hung in the balance. For several years no one, including himself, could say whether he would survive.
The charges may be deduced from the nature of the suppressions. The charges turned the heroism of Leningrad inside out, presenting the Council for the Defense of Leningrad as part of a plot to deliver the city to the Germans. The Leningrad leadership was charged with planning to blow up the city and scuttle the Baltic Fleet. Treachery was alleged at many levels. The fact that there was not one word of truth in the bizarre allegations made no difference. The charges were used to exterminate all of Zhdanov’s lieutenants and thousands of minor officials. They were shot or sent to prison camps.
During the Brezhnev era a volume depicting the struggles of Leningrad finally appeared for the general public. But this work too was heavily censored. After Stalin’s death one symbolic aspect of the siege was restored though. During the siege the main street in Leningrad, Nevsky Prospekt, contained signs warning pedestrians which part of the road was more dangerous in case of shelling. After the war the signs became a symbol of the siege, but they were destroyed by Stalin’s regime during the Leningrad Affair. During Nikita Khrushchev's era these signs were restored.