On January 27, 1944, the siege of Leningrad was finally broken, roughly 900 days after it had begun. The combined forces of the Red Army pushing in from the outside and Soviet troops and resistance fighters pushing out from the inside broke the German siege line. Within days, the German forces surrounding the city were forced out of the Leningrad region entirely.
The liberation of Leningrad was a tremendous victory for the Soviets, both literally and symbolically. More than 600,000 Russians died from starvation, exposure, or disease during the siege, and the rest were kept alive only barely by the supplies delivered across Lake Ladoga. Throughout the siege, Soviet forces trapped within the city had stood firm and prevented German forces from ever entering.
With the Leningrad siege broken, all German forces on Soviet territory, except for the Crimea, were in active retreat during early 1944. With each passing month, more and more Soviet cities and towns were liberated, and the Germans lost more and more of the ground they had seized in 1941 and 1942. The retreat was nonetheless brutal as the Germans stepped up their murder campaigns to a frenzy. As the Nazi forces abandoned their positions, they executed any remaining Jewish slave laborers and Soviet prisoners, along with anyone even remotely suspected of partisan involvement. In Belorussia, entire towns were burned to the ground together with their residents.
Although the Red Army kept pushing, it was not until the summer of 1944 that a major Soviet offensive took place. Operation Bagration began three years to the day after Germany’s initial invasion of Russia, on June 22, 1944. The objective was to drive out completely the German forces centered in Belorussia and central Russia. The Soviets advanced with nearly 2 million troops and thousands of tanks and within days had broken the German front line in two. On July 3, Soviet forces took the Belorussian capital of Minsk, and less than two weeks later, the Red Army reached the Polish border.
The Discovery of Concentration Camps
As the Red Army advanced west into Europe via Poland, Slovakia, and Romania, they uncovered a growing body of evidence concerning German atrocities. On July 24, 1944, Soviet soldiers moving through Lublin, Poland, captured the Majdanek extermination camp before its German operators could destroy the evidence of what had taken place there. Upon arrival, they found hundreds of dead bodies, along with gas chambers, crematoria, and thousands of living prisoners in varying states of starvation. Although the West had received reports of such atrocities for some time, this Soviet discovery was the first absolute proof.
The Polish Insurgency
At the same time, an active Polish insurgency continued to fight against the Germans in Warsaw and throughout western Poland. The Allies had limited success in their efforts to airdrop supplies and other means of support to these insurgents. The Soviet government refused to assist in these airdrops and even actively discouraged them, claiming that they would have negligible effect on the war and were a waste of time. However, as the Red Army made its way deeper into Poland, Stalin’s intentions became clearer, as reports surfaced in the West that Soviets “liberating” Polish territory were actually arresting members of the Polish insurgency in large numbers.