Hitler posing with his field marshals at the ceremony. Leeb is fifth from the right. Second from left; Von Rundstedt’s expression at the stand-apart Keitel, far left, is priceless.
It had been decided at O.K.H. that the main attack on Leningrad should be developed from the right flank, that is from the south-east. Meanwhile resistance at Luga, which lay astride the main road to Leningrad, was very fierce. Had Höpner been allowed to switch all his armour to the north-west, parallel to the Narva-Kingisepp railway, and attack Leningrad from the west, the chances are that he would have succeeded before Bock’s autumn push on Moscow. This would have meant switching Manstein’s LVI Panzer Corps from the Novgorod-Luga-Soltsy to join Reinhardt’s XLI Panzer Corps between Luga and Kingisepp, on the lower Luga stretches. But when Höpner had established a springboard for the final seventy-mile advance to Leningrad east of Lake Peipus, the High Command held back his tanks for three fatal weeks. They wanted him to wait and join up with the bulk of 16th Army, coming up on the right, to envelop the Russians in retreat from the Baltic countries. Unfortunately this plan and the allocation of the weight of the attack on Leningrad from the south-east did not take into account the fact that on the right, where the ground was wooded and marshy, tanks could not operate nearly so freely as on the left, which was why Höpner had switched Reinhardt’s Corps. All that Höpner needed for a successful attack were more infantry divisions to cover a long panzer thrust to Leningrad. At worst he could make do with Manstein’s Panzer Corps. But Leeb was unable to persuade Rastenburg of the soundness of his theory, it being held that Reinhardt was not strong enough to attack Leningrad by himself. When reinforcements did arrive they were sent to the Lake Ilmen area on the right, not to the left.
Colonel-General Georg-Hans Reinhardt, as he became, later asked why Manstein’s Corps was not switched to his wing. Leeb did try to have the decision to emphasize the right wing rescinded, but failed after weeks of argument during which the Russians were working night and day to strengthen their line. So a great opportunity was missed, the more so because Höpner and Reinhardt were two of the most experienced commanders of armour in the German Army, and von Manstein had already proved his worth in this role, though an infantryman. On 30 July Reinhardt wrote in his diary: ‘More delays. It’s terrible. The chance that we opened up has been missed for good, and things are getting more difficult all the time.’
He admitted that it was necessary to improve the road system before the attack (how often were the Russians to be saved by their bad roads!) but this was a matter of days, not weeks: ‘Time and again our Corps urged a speedy resumption of the attack’, Reinhardt told Paul Carell, ‘and asked that some units at least of Manstein’s Corps should be switched over to us, especially as they were bogged down where they stood. But all was in vain.’
Eventually on 15 August, after a heated discussion between Höpner and Leeb, the latter agreed to give Reinhardt one of Manstein’s motorized divisions. But this was hardly enough.
Between 15 and 23 August, Manstein’s forces were heavily engaged in the south-east corner of Leeb’s front, in the Lake Ilmen area and at Staraya Russa. Because of this crisis at Staraya Russa, Höpner had to hold his attack on Leningrad. Höpner had been advocating to Leeb since 15 August a switch of von Küchler’s 18th Army from Estonia to the Luga front, so that Küchler could secure Höpner’s northern flank.
Leeb, however, now gave Küchler two jobs: to destroy the Soviet 8th Army on the Baltic coast, then to capture the Russian fortifications along the southern coast of the Gulf of Finland. This double-headed order was a mistake, for it meant tying down forces on a secondary front when Höpner needed every division he could get for Leningrad. Now every day was important to the Russians digging defences, and it took eleven days for 18th Army to move from Narva to Opolye, only twenty-five miles in a direct line! Carell believes that Leeb was motivated by a wish to let Küchler, an old friend, share in the coming victory at Leningrad. But whereas Höpner and his 4th Panzer Group might well have taken the city in mid-August, when the morale of the population was very low in the face of German successes, it was a different matter by 8 September when the German attack finally began.
The Russian resistance was ferocious. The key to the capture of Leningrad was the fortress of Schlüsselburg, and this was taken by German infantry in a surprise attack, thus sealing off the city to the east Despite severe Russian counter-attacks the Germans held on, and when the Duderhof Hills had been taken, and then Uritsk, it seemed that the end was near. But now came starting interference and a change of plan from Hitler. Reinhardt recalled to Carell: ‘In the middle of the troops’ justified victory celebrations, like a cold shower came the news from Panzer Group on 12 September that Leningrad was not to be taken, but merely sealed off. The offensive was to be continued only as far as the Pushkin-Peterhof road. The XLI Panzer Corps was to be detached during the next few days for employment elsewhere. We just could not understand it. At the last moment the troops, who had been giving of their best, were robbed of the crown of victory.’
On 17 September Höpner’s Panzer Group was withdrawn from the Leningrad front, and so were all bomber formations. This at a time when one final push would have secured the city, invaluable as a port and supply base, as a factory area producing tanks, guns and ammunition, and as a point of juncture with the Finns. Its capture would have freed 18th Army for other operations; as it was, this army was contained round Leningrad until 1944.
One reason for Hitler’s directive was the attitude of the Finns. Marshal Mannerheim did not wish to involve his troops in the capture of the city, or cross the old Russo-Finnish frontier in the Karelian Isthmus. But Hitler was to pay hard for his change of mind. Previously he had always insisted that Leningrad should be taken before the attack on Moscow. Now, despite the Kiev success in the south, he was to have neither Leningrad nor Moscow, and from the end of 1941 onwards the front between Leningrad and the Volkhov was to be a continuing threat and an expensive drain on the Germans. Indeed it may be said that never again did Army Group North gain any great success.
It is easy to see why and how von Leeb was so dissatisfied with the conduct of the Russian campaign. But a more forceful man would not have been put off or been so compliant as was Leeb. He does not emerge in any sense as a great commander. The fact was that the war in Russia was not for elderly gentlemen, it was for younger toughs like Model and Schörner. In their sixties men like Rundstedt, Bock and Leeb were too old and too set in their ways to stand up to Russian winters and hardships, and to an exasperating Commander-in-Chief playing the part of a sometimes hysterical back-seat driver.
It is also clear that Leeb’s heart was not in the war. On 12 January a crisis arose when a large part of Busch’s 16th Army looked like being cut off in the Demyansk pocket. Leeb therefore asked permission to withdraw II Corps, but Hitler refused. Leeb had the chance he had been looking for, and requested that he be relieved of his command. Hitler complied, and von Küchler succeeded to the command of Army Group North on 18 January.
In October 1948, when he was 72, Field-Marshal von Leeb was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment as a minor war criminal. The court found that there was much to be said in mitigation for him. Today the verdict seems hard, and perhaps the best epitaph for this intelligent, conscientious Bavarian general remains, as the judges put it, ‘He was not a friend or follower of the Nazi Party’.