Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Ice Road Air War

The Road of Life (Доро́га жи́зни, doroga zhizni) was the ice road winter transport route across the frozen Lake Ladoga, which provided the only access to the besieged city of Leningrad while the perimeter in the siege was maintained by the German Army Group North and the Finnish Defence Forces. The siege lasted for 29 months from 8 September 1941, to 27 January 1944. Over one million citizens of Leningrad died from starvation, stress, exposure and bombardments.[1] Each winter, the Lake Ladoga ice route was reconstructed by hand, and built according to precise arithmetic calculations depending on traffic volume.[2] In addition to transporting thousands of tons of munitions and food supplies each year, the Road of Life also served as the primary evacuation route for the millions of Soviets trapped within the starving city.[3] The road today forms part of the World Heritage Site.[4]
Our mission is to try to repel the Nazi bf 109's and do our bit to protect the Ice Road and the flow of food and supplies to the starving people of Leningrad.

A view of the ice road during April 1942 when the journey became was even more hazardous as the ice began to melt.

The siege of Leningrad was a deliberate attempt by the German army to eradicate the city’s population by starving the people to death. In early September 1941, German forces cut the last roads leading into the city. For the next 872 days (8th September to 27th January 1944) the people of Leningrad were subjected to a blockade designed to slowly strangle the city. With a pre-war population of 2.5 million to feed, mass starvation became a very real possibility during the siege. For five weeks during the winter of 1941, many Leningrader’s daily ration of bread had been reduced to a mere 125 grams. Even this was adulterated with cottonseed, flax cake and mouldy grain. For those fighting on the front line and involved in vital war work, rations were slightly higher, but never beyond the most bare subsistence. Despite appalling conditions, the city survived the winter of 1941 and continued to resist for the next three years before the Germans were finally pushed back. This would not have been possible without the determined efforts of the Russians to keep Leningrad supplied with basic food and fuel necessities needed to keep the city alive. The supply route that was hacked out over the snow and ice became a symbol for Russia’s determination to survive. The two supply roads became known as route 101 and route 102. Since Leningrad had been cut off from land supply routes, the Russians were forced to construct a route over the ice. The plan for the ice road had begun to take shape in October of 1941. On the 29th October, Soviet ships had laid an underwater signals cable at the bottom of the Lake Ladoga to link with the encircled area. From the 8th November, Soviet reconnaissance aircraft began to fly over the lake looking for signs of ice formation. The northern part of the lake had frozen over nicely, but the middle was still unsafe. However, on the 15th November a north wind started the big freeze and the ice rapidly reached the thickness required to carry vehicles. By early December some sixty ice roads were formed across the frozen lake. Constructing the ice road was a large and dangerous undertaking. It was built under terrible conditions, over cracks and fissures on the lake’s surface and through frequent snow storms. Workers were under constant German artillery fire and air attack from the Luftwaffe. Once completed, the road ran from the rail and loading depots on the Soviet shore of the lake, across a twenty-mile stretch of ice which ran parallel to the German siege positions. The ice road led to the small port of Osinovets on the western shore of Lake Ladoga. Here the cargo was unloaded and transported by rail and truck into the city. The road became Leningrad’s only link to the rest of mainland Russia. It therefore held a powerful symbolic importance to the Russian defenders and was later given the name, the ‘Road of Life’. Lorries transporting food and supplies across the ice. Indeed it was the ‘Road of Life’. Leningrad needed an absolute minimum of 100 tonnes a day to keep the city alive. The first large-scale scheduled convoy of sixty trucks set off on the 22nd November carrying 33 tonnes of flour. Driving all night through a snowstorm, the convoy reached the city on the 23rd November. Despite this success, the ice road was extremely dangerous. One-hundred and fifty-seven trucks were lost during the first crossing. Many divers kept their doors open to enable them to jump to safety, should a crack in the ice suddenly appear in front of their vehicle. Throughout the winter of 1941, the enemy put the supply route under heavy air and artillery attack, but were unable to halt the flow of traffic. Soviet fighter pilots flew overhead to protect the convoys from German air attack. By December 1941 over 4000 trucks and transport vehicles were bringing more than 700 tons of supplies into Leningrad on a daily basis. As the road network developed, a support infrastructure had to be rapidly constituted. Tents were set up on the ice where people could warm up. In order to maintain traffic, twenty control points were also set up between 300 and 400 metres apart. By January 1942, there were seventy-five such points. In response to the massive Soviet effort, the Germans dispatched ski patrols to try and ambush the Soviet supply columns. The Russians soon developed an effective remedy in the form of pillboxes made from ice, which they turned rock-hard by pouring water on them. With no protective cover, the ski patrols were shot down without difficulty. In addition to these defences, the Russians established 350 anti-aircraft guns and machine guns, supported by 200 searchlights to deter the Luftwaffe from strafing convoys. The crews were accommodated in igloos also on the ice. Despite these supply routes, thousands of people in Leningrad starved over the winter. In December 1941, the city’s population was estimated at 2,280,000. By April 1942, it had fallen to 1,100,000. Whilst 440,000 of these people can be accounted for as having been evacuated, this still meant that over half a million people had starved by spring. Yet the city continued to withstand the siege. The lessons learnt in the winter of 1941 enabled the Russians to construct even better ice-roads in the winter of 1942. Without these ice roads, it is likely that the entire city would have starved to death. Their construction and maintenance was a powerful reminder of the Russian ability to innovate and use the hostile climate to their advantage over the German invader. If you are interested in finding out more about the siege of Leningrad, have at look at these books; Michael Jones, ‘Leningrad: State of Siege’ (London, 2008) Chris Bellamy, Absolute War: Soviet Russia in the Second World War (London, 2007) Michael Burleigh, The Third Reich: a new history (London, 2001) Martin Gilbert, The Second World War (Phoenix, 2000)

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