I am currently on a brief break from SFF to reread Harrison E. Salisbury's classic book about the Siege of Leningrad (St. Petersburg), The Nine Hundred Days. Whilst a full review will follow (eventually; this book is 600 pages of tiny type) one episode mentioned in the book is almost completely unknown in the West and seemed worthy of its own article: the so-called 'Russian Dunkirk'. This event took place in August 1941, but the seeds of it were sown the previous year.
The USSR, flush from its (costly) victory over Finland in the Winter War, occupied the three Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in June 1940. Combined with the pushing back of the Finnish borders from the Karelian isthmus in the north, this gave Leningrad a protective 'shield' which would safeguard it from immediate attack should war break out. Formerly the city had only been 20 miles from the borders of nations sympathetic to Nazi Germany (and any resident of Seoul will tell you that living 20 miles from a hostile nation can be somewhat worrying).
The problem was that the 'shield' was never fortified properly. The Soviet Baltic Fleet established new bases in Tallinn and Riga (the capitals of Estonia and Lativa respectively), but the building of fortifications and defences at the ports and on their landward sides proceeded at a slow pace, due to Stalin's fear that Hitler would seize on any military build-up in the area as a provocation. When the Germans invaded on 22 June 1941, both the Soviet armies and the fortifications in the area were totally unprepared to face them. Field Marshal Von Leeb's Army Group Nord pushed aside the Soviet defences with near-contemptuous ease and advanced into the Baltic States. Simultaneously, Finnish and German naval forces succeeded in laying hundreds of thousands of mines along the coast of the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Finland, threatening to cut off the Baltic Fleet's forward elements in Riga.
The Baltic Fleet gave up Riga as being indefensible (the city fell nine days into the invasion) and pulled back to Tallinn. The natives of the Baltic States saw the Germans as liberators (they changed their minds when Hitler refused to allow the Baltic States to reconstitute themselves as independent states, even as ones allied to Germany) and many refused to support efforts by the Soviets to hold the territory or throw up defensive lines. As a result, it fell to the Fleet's own military police, sailors and marines, aided by the shattered remnants of Red Army groups in the area, to defend Tallinn. They managed to fortify Tallinn just enough to make it difficult for the Germans to take without a major offensive.
This act, combined with the stalwart defence of the River Luga to the south-west of Leningrad, probably saved Leningrad from being quickly overrun. Von Leeb had to split off significant forces to take Tallinn (otherwise he'd have been in danger of attack from 80,000 armed Soviets on his left flank; a proposal to do exactly this was rejected by the Soviet command) which made turning the Luga line even tougher. It took a month to dislodge the defenders from that line and to start penetrating Tallinn's suburbs in earnest.
Having held Tallinn against siege for three weeks, the Baltic Fleet pulled out on the night of 27-28 August. The Fleet had to navigate 200 miles and several large minefields, all within range of Finnish coastal batteries and Luftwaffe airbases, with both German U-boats and Finnish torpedo boats in the area. The Fleet not only had to evacuate its own personnel and Red Army troops (many of whom stayed behind to buy the Fleet more time, or were simply pinned down and unable to get to the ships) but also thousands of Soviet civilians, including journalists covering the conflict. All-told, 30,000 personnel escaped on 190 transport ships, protected only by a single Soviet cruiser of note, the Kirov, and a few smaller naval vessels.
The journey can only be described as nightmarish. The Kirov and several other naval ships acted as minesweepers and drew enemy fire (a German U-boat almost sank the Kirov, but an escort spotted the torpedo in the water and took the hit instead), but there were too many ships to protect, spread out over a huge area. The Luftwaffe had a field day, and between them and their naval and Finnish counterparts they sank over sixty of the transports and several of the naval warships. Of the 30,000 who embarked in Tallinn, only 18,000 made it off at Kronstadt (Leningrad's colossal naval bastion, located in the Gulf of Finland near the city) and Leningrad itself the following day.
It wasn't a totally unmitigated disaster - the Kirov's survival was an important bonus as the ship later took up station within Leningrad's river network as a mobile artillery platform and performed sterling work in the city's defence - but it was still a severe fiasco. The captain of at least one of the ships involved was shot for abandoning his post (in reality he'd been blasted into the sea by a shell that had destroyed the bridge and had to be picked up by another ship), whilst it was later revealed that the minefields had been concentrated along the coast; if the fleet had swung out wide into the deeper water, it wouldn't have suffered anywhere near as many casualties, though obviously this was not known at the time.
The near-total-ignorance in the West of not just this event but most of the Soviet-German conflict remains startling as the 70th anniversary of WWII continues to roll on. As we get to the 70th anniversary of Operation Barbarossa later this year, hopefully the sheer scale and significance of the Eastern Front will become better known and appreciated here. After all, if Hitler hadn't decided to abandon the offensive against Britain in favour of Barbarossa, Britain would have been (eventually) invaded and defeated quite easily.