Baltic Strategic Defensive Operation

This was the Soviet strategic defensive operation, otherwise known as the ‘Lithuanian and Latvian Strategic Defensive Operation’, undertaken in response to ‘Barbarossa’ in the Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian Soviet Republics (22 June/9 July 1941).

The operation consisted of three smaller but distinct operations, namely the ‘Border Defensive Battles Operation’ (22/24 June 1941) including the ‘Kaunas Counterattack Operation’ known to the Germans as the Battle of Raseiniai, the ‘Šiauliai Counter-Offensive Operation’ (24/27 June 1941) and, on the northern side of the Gulf of Finland, the ‘Defence of the Hanko Naval Base’ (22 June/2 December 1941).

The main Soviet formations involved were General Polkovnik Fyedor I. Kuznetsov’s North-West Front and Vitse Admiral Vladimir F. Tributs’s Baltic Fleet, with the major ground forces (28 infantry, four tank, and two motorised divisions) consisting of General Major Piotr P. Sobennikov’s 8th Army, General Leytenant Vasili I. Morozov’s 11th Army forward and General Leytenant Nikolai Ye. Berzarin’s 27th Army in reserve. The operation was conducted after the forces of the Baltic Special Military District had been alerted on the morning of the 22 June as the Germans launched the northerly of the three main axes of their ‘Barbarossa’ offensive through the Baltic states and toward Leningrad, using Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb’s Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’, whose primary formations were, from north to south, Generaloberst Georg von Küchler’s 18th Army, Generaloberst Erich Hoepner’s 4th Panzergruppe and Generaloberst Ernst Busch’s 16th Army, together with elements of Generaloberst Hermann Hoth’s 3rd Panzergruppe, supported by Generaloberst Alfred Keller’s Luftflotte I. The Germans had 20 infantry, three Panzer and three motorised divisions.

The Soviet forces totalled 348,000 men, 5,575 guns and mortars, 1,395 armoured fighting vehicles, and 1,210 aircraft, while the German forces deployed 655,000 men, 7,675 guns and mortars, 1,390 tanks and 1,070 aircraft.

On 22 June the 8th Army was positioned in northern Lithuania opposed by the 18th Army, and the 11th Army defended the rest of the Lithuanian border with East Prussia and sought to contain the attacks of the 16th Army and 4th Panzergruppe. While the 8th Army retreated along the line from Jelgava to Pskov via Riga, Tartu and Narva, the 11th Army sought to initially hold the sector between Kaunas and Vilnyus, but was forced to retreat along the line from Daugavpils to Novgorod via Pskov. Costly in losses of personnel and matériel, these retreats avoided major encirclements of the type suffered by other fronts farther to the south, and succeeded in delaying Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ for a time long enough to allow the start of preparations for the defence of Leningrad.

One of the key elements of the defensive operation was that known to the Germans as the Battle of Raseiniai (23/27 June), which was an armoured battle between the elements of Hoepner’s 4th Panzergruppe on the one side with 245 tanks of which only a few were lost, and General Major Aleksandr V. Kurkin’s III Mechanised Corps and General Major Nikolai M. Shestapolov’s XII Mechanised Corps on the other with 740 tanks of which 704 were lost. The battle was fought in Lithuania, some 46.5 miles (75 km) to the north-west of Kaunas as Kuznetsov, the commander of the North-West Front, attempted to contain and destroy the German troops which had crossed the Nieman (Nemunas) river. The result of the battle was the almost total destruction of the North-West Front’s armoured strength, thereby opening the way for the continued German offensive towards the crossings of the Daugava (Zapadnyi Dvina) river.

The 4th Panzergruppe advanced in two spearheads, led by General Georg-Hans Reinhardt’s XLI Corps (mot.) (from 10 July 1942 the XLI Panzerkorps) and General Erich von Manstein’s LVI Corps (mot.) (from 1 March 1942 the LVI Panzerkorps). The task of the two armoured corps was to establish bridgeheads across the Nieman and Daugava rivers, which were the most difficult natural obstacles facing Heeresgruppe 'Nord' in its drive toward Leningrad.

Problematical right from the start, the Soviet task was made very much more difficult by the fact that German bombers destroyed many of the Soviet signals and communications centres, naval bases and air bases in the area between Riga to Kronstadt, but most especially on Šiauliai, Vilnius and Kaunas.

At 09.30 on 22 June Kuznetsov ordered the III and XII Mechanised Corps to move into preplanned counterattack positions with the object of delivering flanking counterattacks on the 4th Panzergruppe, which had already broken through the Soviet forward positions to reach the line of the Dubysa (Dubissa) river. By 12.00 the Soviet divisions began to fall back, and the German columns then began to swing towards Raseiniai, where Kuznetsov was concentrating his own armour for a major counterattack planned for 23 June. By the evening of 22 June the Soviet formations had fallen back to the Dubysa.

To the north-west of Kaunas, forward elements of von Manstein’s LVI Corps (mot.) reached the Dubysa and seized the vital Ariogala road viaduct across it. Without this crossing the German armour could have become trapped in what was in effect a large but wholly natural anti-tank ditch, and a high-speed drive to Dvinsk would have been impossible. Meanwhile, to the south-west of Vilnius, more armour of the 3rd Panzergruppe, which had torn through the Soviet 11th Army with little loss of momentum, crossed the Niemen river over bridges which the Soviets had not had the time to prepare for demolition.

By the end of 22 June the German armoured spearheads had crossed the Niemen and penetrated some 50 miles (80 km) into Soviet territory.

On the following day Kuznetsov committed his armour to battle. Near Raseiniai the XLI Corps was counterattacked by the tanks of the III and XII Mechanised Corps. But the concentration of Soviet armour had already been seen by the Luftwaffe, which immediately threw heavy attacks against the tank columns of the XII Mechanised Corps to the south-west of Šiauliai. The German air attacks were unopposed by the Soviet air forces, which had already lost most of their fighters to the German attacks on their parked aircraft on the preceding day, and devastated the Soviet armour, whose 23rd Tank Division suffered very severe losses. The division was savaged by Junkers Ju 88 medium bombers, which attacked at low level and set ablaze 40 vehicles, including tanks and lorries, in the first day of a battle that was to last for four days.

It was here that the Germans first encountered a Soviet unit equipped with KV heavy tanks. General Major Egor N. Soliankin’s 2nd Tank Division of the III Mechanised Corps attacked and overran elements of Generalmajor Franz Landgraf’s 6th Panzerdivision near Skaudvilė on 23 June after the German formation’s PzKpfw 35(t) tanks and its anti-tank weapons had revealed themselves to be all but totally ineffective against the Soviet heavy tanks, some of which ran out of ammunition but ran over and destroyed German anti-tank guns.

The German efforts to destroy the massive Soviet heavy tanks were centred first on halting them with fire directed at their tracks and then tackling them with field artillery, dual-purpose 88-mm (3.465-in) guns, or 'sticky bomb' HE charges.

On the following day, a single KV-2 heavy tank held a crossroads in front of Raseiniai and cut off elements of the 6th Panzerdivision which had established bridgeheads over the Dubysa, thereby stalling the division’s advance for a full day while being attacked by several types of anti-tank weapons. The KV-2 succumbed only after it ran out of ammunition for its 152-mm (6-in) main gun.

In the south, by 23 June Morozov, the commander of the 11th Army, had been compelled to order units already falling back to the fortress town of Kaunas on the Niemen river to retire still farther to Jonava, some 32 miles (50 km) to the north-east of Kaunas. By the evening of 25 June the 8th Army was falling back toward Riga and the 11th Army through Vilnius to the Desna river, and the gap between the two Soviet armies gaped open between Ukmergė and Daugavpils.

By 26 June Generalleutnant Friedrich Kirchner’s 1st Panzerdivision and Generalleutnant Otto Ottenbacher’s 36th Division (mot.) of the XLI Corps (mot.), together with following infantry divisions, had swept through the rear of the Soviet mechanised corps and linked. The III Mechanised Corps had run out of fuel for its vehicles, and Soliankin’s 2nd Tank Division was encircled and effectively destroyed. Kurkin’s 5th Tank Division and General Major Petr I. Fomenko’s 84th Motorised Division were also severely degraded as a result of their losses in men and vehicles. The XII Mechanised Corps was able to escape from encirclement, but all its elements were by now very short of fuel and ammunition.

The Soviet Baltic Fleet had been withdrawn from bases in Liepaja, Windau, and Riga by 26 June. Meanwhile, von Manstein’s LVI Corps (mot.) drove straight for the Dvina river and, and in a remarkable coup, managed to take the bridges near Dvinsk before the Soviets had been able to destroy them. After the seizure of the Dvina bridges and Dvinsk itself, the leading formations of the LVI Corps (mot.) enlarged the corps' bridgehead as rapidly as it could.

On 25 June Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Semyon K. Timoshenko, the minister of defence, ordered Kuznetsov to plan and implement a defence of the Zapadnyi Dvina with the 8th Army on the right bank of the river from Riga to Livani and the 11th Army between Livani and Kraslava. Kuznetsov also decided to use the 27th Army, whose commander, Berzarin, was instructed to pull his troops off the Hiiumaa and Saaremaa islands and out of Riga and re-concentrate his formation at Daugavpils. At the same time the Soviet high command (Stavka) released General Major Dmitri S. Lelyushenko’s XXI Mechanised Corps (98 tanks and 129 pieces of artillery) from the Moscow Military District to co-operate with the 27th Army.

At 05.00 on 28 June, Lelyushenko began his attack to destroy the German bridgehead near Daugavpils. von Manstein initially halted on the Dvina, but attacked on the following day with a move along the highway linking Daugavpils and Ostrov. At Riga on the afternoon of 29 June the Germans crossed the railway bridge over the Dvina. On 30 June Soviet troops withdrew on the right bank of the river, and by 1 July were in full retreat toward Estonia. This offered the Germans a great opportunity, for a an immediate lunge woulds render it all but impossible for the Soviets to mount any effective defence of Leningrad. This was not to be, however, for the tank formations were instead instructed to hold where they were an await the arrival of their companion infantry formations. This entailed a half of almost a week on the German offensive.

At this juncture Timoshenko replaced Kutznetsov as the front’s commander by General Major Piotr P. Sobennikov, up to this time the commander of the 8th Army, who took over on 4 July. On 29 June Timoshenko had issued a directive to the North-West Front laying down that in the event that they had to fall back from the line of the Daugava river, the front’s forces were to ensure that they retired no farther than the line of the Velikaya river, and there dug in for a protracted defence. It was a vain hope, and the Velikaya river line fell rapidly on 8 July as the Soviet forces were driven still farther back before being able to destroy either the road or rail bridges. The Germans took Pskov itself during the evening of 9 July, and Morozov was ordered to move his 11th Army to Dno.

The disintegration of the North-West Front on the Velikaya river line and the German descent on Luga were major reserves for the Soviets, and the 8th Army was being driven relentlessly back toward the Gulf of Finland. The German pause had, however, provided the Soviets with the time to rush more troops into Leningrad before the Germans could take this heart of the Soviet revolution under siege, and thus pave the way for the defence to hold out for years despite the grimmest of conditions.

In overall terms, therefore, the ‘Lithuanian and Latvian Strategic Defensive Operation’ was not a single and continuous retirement, but rather a German advance punctuated by Soviet limited counter-offensives and counterattacks. Even so, the Soviet forces were steadily defeated and forced to fall back with the loss of some 88,500 men. The next stage of the Soviet defence against the German drive toward the Gulf of Finland and Leningrad was the ‘Leningrad Strategic Defensive Operation’ of 10 July/30 September 1941, which was intended to create and hold a stable front along the line linking Narva and Novgorod.