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During the most lethal siege in history, the fate of millions hinged on one treacherous supply route.

The pair of Messerschmitts banked low in the sky as they made another run against the long string of trucks silhouetted by the moon against the white ice. For some reason these Germans had picked out Maxim Tverdokhleb’s truck as their prey. They came in “screaming overhead, targeting the back of the truck and the cabin,” he said. “I accelerated, slowed down, steered right, steered left.” Still, the planes riddled his cab with bullets, smashing the windshield into tiny shards. Steam poured from his radiator, blocking his view forward. Then a bullet smashed into his arm. “I could have jumped out and escaped but what would have become of the tangerines for the children? So I thought, ‘No, I will make it there.’”

“There” was the besieged city of Leningrad. Tverdokhleb was speeding across the frozen wastes of Lake Ladoga in a convoy with dozens of other trucks on a nightly mission of mercy—keeping the huge city supplied with food and fuel. That night in late December 1941 he was carrying boxes of bright orange tangerines; New Year’s presents for the “Children of Heroic Leningrad” from the Republic of Georgia. It was only 20 miles across the lake, but as Tverdokhleb well knew, one trip could last a lifetime.

This icy route was the Doroga Zhizni—the “Road of Life.” And men like Tverdokhleb—thousands of men like Tverdokhleb—became prototype “ice road truckers,” conveying desperately needed provisions to the city during what was one of the coldest winters of the century. The ice road was Leningrad’s lifeline. Keeping it open, keeping the trucks crossing, keeping the food on its way, meant nothing less than the survival of millions of people.

On June 22, 1941, the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa. The Germans and their allies committed 4.5 million troops to the campaign. Things went well for the Axis in the first two months. In a series of victories against stunned and overwhelmed Soviet troops, they gained control of territory extending nearly 2,000 miles from the Black Sea to the Baltic. The Germans then turned their attention to the east and Moscow, and to the north: Leningrad.

Founded in 1703 by Peter the Great as St. Petersburg, it became the capital of Imperial Russia. Long the center of Russian culture and the home of the revolution, the city—renamed Leningrad by the communists—had also become a major center of manufacturing, especially of armaments. When the Nazis commenced their assault it boasted a population of three million. Within a week of the invasion the communist government was evacuating women and children from Leningrad.

Still, by mid-July, food rationing became necessary as the Germans tightened the noose around the metropolis. On September 8, 1941, the capture of Shlisselburg Fortress at the mouth of the Neva River marked the complete encirclement of Leningrad by Army Group North, abetted by Finnish troops. If the enemies’ original objective was to take the city intact, that soon changed. On the 29th the Naval War Staff in Berlin sent a message to the army. Identified as serial Ia 1601/41, the subject was the “Future of St. Petersburg.” It was a chilling missive:

“II. The Führer has decided to have St. Petersburg wiped off the face of the earth. The further existence of this large town is of no interest once Soviet Russia is overthrown.

IV. The intention is to close in on the city and raze it to the ground by bombardments of artillery of all calibers and by continuous air attack.

The problem of the survival of the population and supplying it with food is one which cannot and should not be solved by us. We have no interest in keeping even part of this great city’s population.”

Once the Axis encirclement was complete and all road and rail links with the outside world severed, there was only one route in and out of the city: across Lake Ladoga. Thirty miles to the northeast of Leningrad there lay the little port of Osinovets, from which a flotilla of boats and barges carried people across Petrokrepost Bay to another small town, Kobona, where they were transported into the interior of Soviet-held Russia. The empty vessels were then loaded with cargo for the return voyage to the besieged city.

Winter was not far off. And winter in Northern Russia can be brutal and unforgiving. Though Leningrad’s average low temperature in January hovers in the teens, minus 10 to minus 20 degrees was not uncommon. Nor was it uncommon for Ladoga and the Neva to ice over by mid-November, and stay frozen until April.

The governing body of the region, the Leningrad Military Council, was well aware that its citizens were already on the verge of starvation, and with the coming of winter, tens of thousands might die from hunger. In October 1941 the commissars conceived a plan for an ice road across Ladoga. No one had tried it before, but it seemed the only solution to transport the massive amount of supplies that would be needed to sustain Leningrad. Once the plan was set, it then became a matter of waiting for the lake to freeze. Air reconnaissance on November 8 revealed that ice was already beginning to form at the southern end of the lake. Within a week it looked as if there might be enough to begin operations. The Soviets needed at least eight inches to sustain a truck carrying a ton of supplies. On November 17, two patrols under the command of navy hydrographers set off on foot across the frozen sheet to check conditions and lay out a preliminary route. They found the ice just four inches thick, and also found a huge swath of open water about half way across. The next day the teams reached Kobona and made their report to the Military Council.

Though there was still not enough ice to support trucks, the need for food in Leningrad was so critical the commissars decided to open the road anyway, using horse-drawn sledges. On November 19, 350 teams set out from Osinovets. They reached the eastern shore safely, there loading flour and other food stuffs. Before dawn the caravan, stretching nearly five miles across Lake Ladoga, began arriving on the Leningrad side, where the 40 tons of precious cargo was transferred to waiting rail cars, which transported the supplies into the city proper. It wasn’t much, but it was a start.

A few days later the first trucks began to rumble across the still-slushy ice road. Drivers stood on the footboards and steered through an open door, fearful that if they stayed in the cab they might be trapped if the truck broke through the thin ice. Their fears were justified. In the first week 40 trucks plunged into the lake. Within another week that number had tripled. The first night’s load was just 33 tons of flour. Within days convoys were delivering 200 tons, but it was still not nearly enough for the starving city, which required a minimum of some 500 tons daily.

Once the road was operational, the government concentrated on building traffic across the lake; and then on strengthening the infrastructure necessary to get food and fuel into the city from the western ports across the lake; and then, and just as important, evacuating Leningraders back across Ladoga to the safety of mainland Russia.

It was a huge undertaking and the stakes were enormous. At one time 30,000 Russian civilians and 4,000 vehicles were assigned to Doroga Zhizni–related tasks. There were loaders and unloaders at the depots, guides to direct the trucks and buses across the ice, doctors and nurses, auto mechanics, snow plowers, facility builders (and rebuilders), to say nothing of platoons of drivers. Rest houses, first aid stations, repair shops, 350 antiaircraft batteries, and hundreds of ice pillboxes were installed along the route. An elaborate system of control was devised. Guides—mainly women—were placed every 500 yards, to ensure the smooth flow of traffic. They were a familiar sight to the ice road truckers, in their long white parkas, waving yellow and red flags to point out hummocks and holes. One guide, Vera Rogova, recalls that “there were six lines of traffic—long, continuous columns, one following after another. It was bitterly cold, and difficult and dangerous. There was nowhere to take cover from German attack.”

And attack they did. Air raids were common; there were frequently seven or eight a day. On top of that was the barrage. German 150mm guns, firing near the limits of their range, laid down daily fusillades, in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to halt or slow traffic on the Doroga Zhizni. “We just kept on working through them—moving the cargo, regardless of the explosions around us,” loader Ivan Krylov said. “There simply wasn’t time to halt and take shelter.”

Civilian workers were not alone on Ladoga. There were soldiers aplenty to provide security. Troops were detailed to man the antiaircraft batteries, and to patrol the fringes of the ice road in propeller-driven sledges, somewhat like the airboats used in the Florida Everglades. Overhead, Soviet pilots in Yak fighters patrolled the skies, eager to engage German Messerschmitts.

Dozens of routes were created across the frozen lake. The continuous stream of vehicles weakened the ice and road workers did their best to fill cracks with water. But when the fissures grew too large and numerous, a new path was opened by tractors pulling huge ice rakes to smooth the way.

With the full onslaught of winter—the coldest in memory—the situation in the great city had become perilous. The unceasing Nazi bombardment had destroyed the water mains, so residents hacked holes in the frozen river Neva and carried water home. Once back in their flats, they had no means to heat it; there was no electricity. The shortage of fuel was so acute, people began hacking up their furnishings to have something to burn. Long lines formed each morning at the bakeries, as people waited to receive their meager 125 gram ration of bread (about three slices worth)—if a mixture of flour, sawdust, and cellulose could be called that.

To stave off starvation, people ate most anything—leather belts, glue, pets. There were persistent rumors of cannibalism. Zinaida Repkina, whose family lived at the city morgue where her mother worked, recalls seeing bodies with chunks of flesh cut off. That’s how desperate life had become in Leningrad that first winter of the siege. For acts of cannibalism, over 300 people were executed, and 1,400 imprisoned.

The vigor of the city ebbed daily. And the effects of starvation were palpable. Gaunt figures with hollow cheeks and vacant eyes passed frozen bodies piled up in courtyards or littering the streets, barely giving them a glance. Some Leningraders had just given up. Others clung to life tenaciously. Maria Berggolts remembers that her sister Olga, a poet and familiar voice on Radio Leningrad, “forbade us from getting lice, telling us to wash our hair even when there was no warm water and it was 40 degrees below zero outside.” The rationale? “As long as you were strong enough to wash your hair, even if you were starving, you would survive.”

Eleven-year-old Tanya Savicheva kept a diary of that terrible winter. Just seven pages long, it chronicled the toll the blockade took on her own family. The first entry was about her older sister. “December 28, 1941. Zhenya died at 12:30am.” There followed terse notations on the deaths of her grandmother, her brother, two uncles, and finally, on May 13, 1942, “Mama died at 7:30 in the morning.” Tanya closed her diary that day with “The Savichevs died. All died. Only Tanya is left.” She did not survive the war.

As the winter progressed, the Military Council succeeded in finally reaching its goals for getting food into the city. Drivers were urged to make at least two roundtrips a day. Some did more than that. So by January 1942 over 1,500 tons were reaching the city every day—nearly 40 times the amount of the first shipment just two months earlier. It was enough to fulfill the government’s promise to raise the ration to 250 grams. But for many Leningraders it was too late.

The lingering effects of starvation had so weakened the people that tens of thousands continued to die every month well into the spring. Even today the statistics are numbing. In November 1941, the siege’s first month with hunger-related deaths, an estimated 11,000 died. In December the death toll jumped to more than 50,000. It jumped again to 100,000 in both January and February. By April 1942 the great city’s population had dropped from 2.3 million to 1.1 million. Around half of that drop was due to evacuations. But the larger half, over 600,000, died from starvation and bitter cold.

The ice road truckers carried the season’s last shipment of supplies across Lake Ladoga on April 24. With the route impassable the transport of goods reverted to the flotilla of surviving boats and barges. Somehow the residents of the city found the energy to turn themselves out onto the streets to begin a massive clean-up campaign. Bodies—thousands and thousands of bodies—were found and buried; many in mass graves at Piskariovskoye Cemetery on the northern outskirts of the city. Streets were cleared of debris, buildings were repaired, vegetable gardens were planted, and red propaganda posters and banners added a splash of color to the otherwise cheerless city. Artist Elena Martilla wrote, “As they worked, people passed on their strength to each other. And through this strength came an affirmation of our common cause. We were proud to be called Leningraders.”

When the next winter began, the situation in the city was much the same as it had been the previous year: the blockade continued in full force. But when the Doroga Zhizni reopened for traffic it was, from the beginning, a much better organized operation. Supplies flowed into the city in sufficient quantities to maintain the 250 gram bread ration, largely avoiding a second holocaust. And then an extraordinary thing happened.

On January 12, 1943, the Russian army commenced Operation Spark. Their objective was to open a land corridor from Soviet-controlled territory south of Lake Ladoga into Leningrad. After six days of bitter fighting, the Soviet 67th Army and the 2nd Shock Army managed to push the Nazis out of a five-mile-wide strip of land. The victors quickly built a new highway and a railway, so that by February 6, food and fuel began flowing into the beleaguered city. The Germans did their best to wrestle back the lost territory. But the Russians did better, and hung on.

The siege was by no means over, but at least now there was an overland route into, and out of, Leningrad. Traffic across Ladoga fell sharply, but the Road of Life had served its purpose well. During its brief existence more than 350,000 tons of supplies were carried over the frozen wastes to the starving city. Four-hundred-forty thousand people were evacuated. These efforts were not made without sacrifice. While Maxim Tverdokhleb was lucky to deliver the tangerines and survive the war, over 1,000 trucks were lost, many with their drivers.

It wasn’t until the following winter, in January 1944, that the siege was finally and fully broken. It had lasted 872 days. The Germans dropped over 100,000 bombs, and pumped more than 140,000 shells into the city. The blockade took the lives of more than a million Leningraders—most due to starvation that first winter—and more than half a million soldiers. The few hundred thousand remaining residents immediately began to restore their city. It would be another year and a half before the Red Army totally ousted the Nazis from the Motherland.

Today, the city renamed St. Petersburg thrives once again; its five million citizens are more prosperous than ever. The arts flourish. The great museums sparkle. Fashionable shops line the famed Nevsky Prospekt. Except for monuments commemorating The Great Patriotic War, there is little to outwardly remind people of the siege. But the nearly 200,000 remaining survivors—the blokadniki—keep the memory alive. Intensely proud of their roles in saving their city, they adopted the saying, “Troy fell. Rome fell. Leningrad did not fall.”


Originally published in the December 2010 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here