The Red Army Recruited Blind Citizens During the Siege of Leningrad

Photo Credit: Brandstaetter Images / Hulton Archive / Getty Images
Photo Credit: Brandstaetter Images / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

The Red Army turned to desperate measures following Operation Barbarossa, as they were outnumbered. In one instance, they deployed camels, instead of horses, during the Battle of Stalingrad. This wasn’t the first time they made unique choices. Months after the commencement of the invasion, the Soviets used blind citizens to defend Leningrad against the German siege.

Siege of Leningrad

Red Army soldiers crouching on the rocky ledge of a hill
Red Army soldiers launching a counterattack during the Siege of Leningrad, 1942. (Photo Credit: Hulton-Deutsch Collection / CORBIS Historical / Getty Images)

The Siege of Leningrad began on September 8, 1941 and lasted until January 27, 1944. During the 872-day engagement, the city was decimated by German forces, taking a toll on both civilians and military personnel.

When it began, the Luftwaffe launched an intense bombing campaign that was designed to disrupt Soviet food supply chains and cause widespread starvation. The bombings on September 8 alone started 178 fires. Just over a week later, the city experienced its heaviest air raid of the Second World War, with the Germans dispatching 276 bombers. They were spread out across six separate raids, killing 1,000 civilians and hitting five hospitals.

The bombings only intensified until the siege was finally lifted, leaving the Red Army with one logical way to defend the city.


Red Army soldiers manning an anti-aircraft gun at night
Red Army soldiers manning an anti-aircraft gun during the Siege of Leningrad, 1941. (Photo Credit: Boris Kudoyarov / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Defending against air raids, including the early detection of incoming German bombers, was of the utmost importance.

At the beginning of the war, sound detectors were heavily used, alongside radar, to do so. These strange-looking contraptions were made up of different metal tubes attached to a headset. They were worn by men called “eavesdroppers,” who stayed in the same position for hours on end, listening for the slightest hum of incoming aircraft.

When they heard incoming aircraft, these eavesdropper would warn the others, so they could turn on the searchlights and try to identify their location, increasing the chance of targeting the bombers with anti-aircraft guns. The only problem was these men weren’t very good, a difficult job only made harder by having to do it during loud air raids.

In 1941, the Red Army decided it needed to overhaul the system, employing those in the city with the best hearing: the blind.

Deploying blind citizens during the Siege of Leningrad

Three Red Army soldiers manning a sound detector
Red Army soldiers manning a sound detector near Moscow, 1941. (Photo Credit: RIA Novosti Archive, Image #38689 / Vladimir Granovskiy / Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Of the 300 blind citizens remaining in Leningrad during the siege, only 12 were selected to actually be “eavesdroppers,” due to the physical requirements of the job.

These incredible people were immediately more effective than those who came before them. Not only were they able to identify when the Luftwaffe were incoming, they could also often tell what model and how many aircraft there were.

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While they excelled at this work, it was far from easy. Having to sit in the same position for hours on end listening to loud sounds led to stiffness of the neck, terrible migraines and other bodily pain. They also weren’t exempt from the danger of these air raids; two of the 12 were killed during the siege.

Although they received many awards for their service, they all went back to civilian life, instead of carrying on with the military.

Rosemary Giles

Rosemary Giles is a history content writer with Hive Media. She received both her bachelor of arts degree in history, and her master of arts degree in history from Western University. Her research focused on military, environmental, and Canadian history with a specific focus on the Second World War. As a student, she worked in a variety of research positions, including as an archivist. She also worked as a teaching assistant in the History Department.

Since completing her degrees, she has decided to take a step back from academia to focus her career on writing and sharing history in a more accessible way. With a passion for historical learning and historical education, her writing interests include social history, and war history, especially researching obscure facts about the Second World War. In her spare time, Rosemary enjoys spending time with her partner, her cats, and her horse, or sitting down to read a good book.