Sunday 6 December 2015

World of Tanks History Section: The Road of Life

An IV drip for a heavily wounded soldier cannot instantly heal him or protect him from bullets and shells, all it can do is keep him from dying. This is the role that the "road of life" played for Leningrad during the siege. During the difficult winter of 1941-1942, this road over the ice of Lake Ladoga saved the city from inevitable demise. There was no alternative for Leningrad.

The Germans had no intention of feeding the starving citizens of the city, and the loss of Leningrad would mean an almost guaranteed defeat for the USSR.

Ladoga: Threat and Hope

Everything began in August of 1941 when the Germans cut off the last railroad that connected Leningrad with the rest of the country. Soviet command decided to evacuate civilians through the lake, known for its powerful storms. In order to travel safely, ships carrying people had to take the Old Ladoga and New Ladoga channels. However, on September 8th, 1941, the Germans captured Shlisselburg. The land blockade was complete, and it was no longer possible to use water channels that entered the Neva near Shlisselburg.

As a result, the ships of the Ladoga navy were forced to travel directly through the lake. The trip between New Ladoga in the east and Osinovets on the west was short, only 60 kilometers, but very dangerous due to storms, rivalling the sea in their ferocity. To make things worse, there was no time to build lighthouses or mark the fairway.

Nevertheless, the first barges arrived at Osinovets on September 12th, 1941. September 17th, 1941, saw one of the biggest catastrophes in the history of lake and river travel. Towed barge #725 and the tugboat Orel was caught in a storm. Various sources estimated it to be carrying 1200-1500 people. Of those, the tugboat could save just over 200.

There was no alternative to the lake. In September 1941, the situation with supplies for Leningrad steadily worsened. The city needed 1100 tons of flour alone every day. The lake managed to supply half of that during the first blockade fall. Aircraft could only deliver 100 tons per day.

Ships and planes that delivered the necessities to the city didn't return with only civilians, but also soldiers to transfer east. About 20,000 men transferred during the German offensive on Tikhvin and Volkhovstroy in October helped prevent the enemy from taking those cities.

However, Tikhvin fell on November 9th, 1941, and supplies that were shipped there for Leningrad by rail stopped. This put the city's supply situation in danger, and it appeared to be on the brink of death.

Laying the Road of Life

By this time, the Soviets were already working on a project of a supply route over the ice of the lake. There was some experience in making such roads, and the most notable experience was only a year ago, during the war with Finland, a Red Army march over the ice of Vyborg bay. By the time Tikhvin fell, the first plans for the road already existed and work was underway.

The shallower north portion of Lake Ladoga froze faster. The Red Army needed to wait for this moment and perform reconnaissance. This happened on November 15-18th. A small column of 7 cars tried to make it across from the east shore, but unsuccessfully. The same thing happened to the second column. On November 18th, a recon group from the 88th Bridgebuilding Battalion, after spending 24 hours on the ice, managed to discover a route from Osinovets on the Leningrad side of the lake to Kobon village on the west side. The ice road went from an idea to a fact. Over the first few days, it could only support horse drawn sleds, later, cars.

On November 21st, 350 horsedrawn sleds arrives in Osinovets with the first 63 tons of flour for Leningrad. A thin strand stretched from Leningrad to the outside world, without which it would not survive the blockade. Officially, it was called "Military Automotive Road #102" (VAD-102), under the jurisdiction of Major-General of the Intendant Service, Afanasiy Mitrofanovich Shilov.

VAD-102 in Work and in Battle

Each kilogram of goods delivered over the road came at a cost of effort and life. Cars broke through the ice and sank, they were destroyed by German aircraft, the road itself had to be moved because the ice buckled under the pressure. A special schedule had to be established in order for the ice to not be overloaded. All possible efforts ensured that by January 1942, the Road of Life could deliver the minimum daily requirement of flour.

The return trips continued evacuating civilians and moving soldiers, and not just infantry. In February of 1942, the 124th Tank Brigade crossed the ice of the lake, dozens of heavy KV tanks. In order to ensure their safety, their turrets were taken off and towed separately on sleds.

The Germans were dissatisfied with the presence of this road right under their noses. The Luftwaffe started bombing it the moment it was built, and fighters hunted Soviet transport planes. When trucks started moving over the ice, they were fired on by artillery. The Germans were even preparing the 8th Tank Division to drive over the ice in order to break the supply line, but this plan was foiled due to a general offensive by the Leningrad and Volkov Fronts in January of 1942.

Soviet forces protected the Road of Life from the air and the ground. Here, a pilot from the 4th Guards Fighter Regiment, Leonid Georgievich Belousov repeated Aleksey Maresyev's heroic act. Both of his legs were frosbitten, gangrene set in, and they had to be amputated. Nevertheless, the pilot returned to battle in 1944. He received the title of Hero of the Soviet Union 13 years later.

In the summer and fall of 1942, the enemy transferred Italian torpedo boats and armed Siebel ferries. In October, the Germans attempted an offensive operation on the Suho island. The Soviet garrison fought off the attack with the help of the Lagoda navy.

Leningrad was ready for a second blockade winter. Supply lines over the lake worked flawlessly, and this work allowed for several major offensives by the Leningrad Front. Several other projects for moving supplies over ice materialized by the winter of 1942-43. There was even one as risky as building a trolleybus line over the lake, but it was declined. Instead, a railroad would be built, but the idea was not implemented in time.

On January 18th, 1943, Soviet forces penetrated the blockade. Even though the Road of Life continued its work until March, there was a new main supply artery, the Road of Victory, a railroad built in a record setting 17 days.

Original article available here.

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