Baltic Strategic Offensive Operation

This was the Soviet strategic campaign against the German forces in the region of the Baltic states during late summer and autumn of 1944 (14 September/24 November 1944).

The 'Baltic Strategic Offensive Operation' was thus a very large-scale undertaking which incorporated four major sub-components in the form of the 'Riga Offensive Operation' of 14 September/24 October carried out by the 3rd and 2nd Baltic Fronts to clear the coast of the Gulf of Riga, the 'Tallinn Offensive Operation' of 17/27 September carried out by the Leningrad Front to drive the German forces from mainland Estonia, the 'Moonzund Amphibious Operation' of 17/26 September to take the Estonian islands of Hiiumaa, Saaremaa and Muhu (Dagö, Ösel and Moon in German) controlling access to the Gulf of Riga, and the 'Memel Offensive Operation' of 27 September/24 November carried out by the 1st Baltic Front to sever the connection between Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' and Heeresgruppe 'Nord'.

From the German defensive perspective, the period included 'Cäsar' aimed at the restoration of contact between Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' and Heeresgruppe 'Nord' on 16/21 September 1944, 'Aster' aimed at the evacuation of Heeresgruppe 'Nord' from the mainland of Estonia on 17/26 September, the siege of Memel on 5/27 October, and the establishment of the Kurland pocket on 15/22 October.

In this major Soviet campaign General Hovhannes Kh. Bagramyan’s 1st Baltic Front, General Andrei I. Eremenko’s 2nd Baltic Front and General Polkovnik Ivan I. Maslennikov’s 3rd Baltic Front, together with parts of General Ivan D. Chernyakhovsky’s 3rd Belorussian Front and Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Leonid A. Govorov’s Leningrad Front, engaged Generaloberst Georg-Hans Reinhardt’s Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ and Generaloberst Ferdinand Schörner’s Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’. The result was the permanent loss of contact between the two German army groups, the creation of the Kurland pocket in the large Latvian peninsula constituting the southern side of the Gulf of Riga, and the German loss of 26 divisions including three which were totally destroyed.

During 1944 the German forces had been driven back along the full length of the Eastern Front. In February 1944 Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ had retreated from the approaches to Leningrad to the prepared section of the ‘Panther-Wotan-Linie’ along the border of Estonia, and in June and July Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ had been driven back from Belorussia into eastern Poland by ‘Bagration’. This created the opportunity for a major portion of the Soviet northern group of forces to attack toward the Baltic Sea, thereby splitting the land connection between the two German army groups. By 5 July 1944 the 'Šiauliai Offensive Operation' had started as a follow-on from ‘Bagration’, the III Guards Mechanised Corps spearheading the offensive toward Riga on the Baltic coast by General Leytenant Afanasi P. Beloborodov’s 43rd Army, General Leytenant Yakov G. Kreizer’s 51st Army and General Leytenant Porfiri G. Chanchibadze’s 2nd Guards Armies. By 31 July the Soviet forces had reached the coast on the Gulf of Riga, the 6th Guards Army covering Riga and the extended flank of the penetration toward the north.

The German reaction was rapid, and initially successful when ‘Doppelkopf’ was launched, on 16 August, by General Otto von Knobelsdorff’s XL Panzerkorps and General Dietrich von Saucken’s XXXIX Panzerkorps of General Erhard Raus’s 3rd Panzerarmee within Reinhardt’s Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’. Acting in co-ordination with armoured formations of Schörner’s Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’, they initially isolated the Soviet troops on the coast and re-established a tenuous land corridor, 18 miles (29 km) wide, to connect Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ and Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’. The main objective of the attack was to retake the key road junction of Šiauliai (Schaulen in German), but the German tanks ran straight into deep defensive position established by the 1st Baltic Front, and by 20 August the German advance had stalled with heavy losses.

A month later, the ‘Cäsar’ follow-on attack failed in the same manner.

After a brief period of respite, the Stavka issued orders for the ‘Baltic Strategic Offensive Operation’, which lasted from 14 September to 24 November 1944. Like other Soviet strategic offensives, the ‘Baltic Strategic Offensive Operation’ combined a number of operational-level operations by individual fronts which were each given a more limited offensive objective. From the German point of view, the period included the later phases of the Battle of the Tannenberg-Stellung (25 June/19 September 1944) on the southern side of the Gulf of Finland, as well as ‘Cäsar’ in mid-September, the early stages of the siege of Memel, and the early part of the siege of the Kurland pocket.

From the Soviet perspective, and as noted above, the ‘Baltic Strategic Offensive Operation’ included four sub-operations in the form of the ‘Riga Offensive Operation’, ‘Tallinn Offensive Operation’, ‘Moonzund Amphibious Operation’ and ‘Memel Offensive Operation’.

The primary formations of the Bagramyan’s 1st Baltic Front were General Leytenant Vasili T. Volsky’s 5th Guards Tank Army, General Leytenant Ivan M. Chistyakov’s 6th Guards Army, General Leytenant Piotr F. Malyshev’s 4th Shock Army, Beloborodov’s 43rd Army, Kreizer’s 51st Army and General Leytenant Vyacheslav D. Tsvetayev’s 33rd Army, with air support by the 3rd Air Army. Those of Eremenko’s 2nd Baltic Front were General Leytenant Nikolai P. Simonyak’s 3rd Shock Army and General Major Vladimir I. Vostrukhov’s 22nd Army. Those of Chernyakhovsky’s 3rd Belorussian Front were Chanchibadze’s (later General Leytenant Ivan I. Fedyuninsky’s 2nd Shock Army, General Leytenant Viktor T. Obukhov’s III Guards Mechanised Corps, General Leytenant Pavel A. Belov’s 61st Army and General Leytenant Vladimir P. Sviridov’s 67th Army. That of Govorov’s Leningrad Front was General Leytenant Filipp N. Starikov’s 8th Army.

Schörner’s Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ comprised Generaloberst Herbert Loch’s 18th Army, Generaloberst Carl Hilpert’s 16th Army and General Anton Grasser’s Armeeabteilung 'Narwa', while Reinhardt’s Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ used Raus’s 3rd Panzerarmee (von Knobelsdorff’s XL Panzerkorps and von Saucken’s XXXIX Panzerkorps).

The ‘Baltic Strategic Offensive Operation’ was planned by the Soviet high command in the latter part of 1944 on the basis on broad-front advances in the East Prussia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Austria with the primary thrusts toward four main areas, namely the Baltic, Berlin, Prague and Vienna. Before these grand offensives could be undertaken in central Europe, however, the Soviet high command believed that clearance of German forces from the Baltic States was an essential preliminary to the resumption of the advance in Poland.

At the beginning of September Schörner’s Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ held a front of almost 500 miles (805 km) from the Gulf of Finland near the Narva river to the area of Dobele to the south-west of Riga, and this front was extended farther the south to the Niemen river when eventually Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ took the 3rd Panzerarmee under command. In the north of Estonia, the Armeeabteilung ‘Narwa’ held the line of the Narva and the northern shores of Lake Peipus, but was threatened in the south by the Soviet penetration in the province of Tartu (Dorpat) between Lakes Peipus and Vorts (Wirts-Järw). Boege’s 18th Army was to the east of the Gulf of Riga while Hilpert’s 16th Army was to the south. Like his predecessor Friessner, Schörner wished to evacuate Estonia, which he saw as only a strategic encumbrance, and without Hitler’s knowledge had made secret preparations to do so, ordering the construction of rings of earthworks in the area of the 16th Army to the east of Riga through which he planned to withdraw the 18th Army. After Finland had accepted of the Soviet peace terms, which ended the ‘Jatkosota’ and allowed the USSR to use Finnish waters and naval bases on the south-west coast of Finland, the Baltic Fleet was free to enter the middle Baltic, and as a precautionary measure Hitler had a German division put on the islands covering the Gulf of Riga.

As noted above, the Soviet offensive into the Baltic states was made by Bagramyan’s 1st Baltic Front, Eremenko’s 2nd Baltic Front and Maslennikov’s 3rd Baltic Front co-ordinated by Vasilevsky as the Stavka representative. Supporting operations were mounted on the flanks by Govorov’s Leningrad Front and Chernyakhovsky’s 3rd Belorussian Front. In the north the Leningrad Front was to engage the Armeeabteilung ‘Narwa’ across the isthmus to the north of Lake Peipus and clear the Estonian shore on the Gulf of Finland. The 3rd Baltic Front and 2nd Baltic Front were to penetrate the 18th Army from the east and, after reaching the Baltic, cut the route along which both the 18th Army and Armeeabteilung ‘Narwa’ might otherwise be able to retreat. The 1st Baltic Front was to attempt to reach the Baltic Sea near Riga and once again sever the narrow German corridor extending to the south of the city. The 3rd Belorussian Front was not given a task during this first-phase offensive. For the offensive, which was scheduled to start on 14 September, the Leningrad and the three Baltic fronts had 133 infantry divisions, six tank and one mechanised corps with a total strength of 1.546 million men, 3,080 tanks and self-propelled guns, 17,500 pieces of artillery and 2,640 aircraft. Armeegruppe ‘Nord’ comprised 32 divisions (including one Panzer and two Panzergrenadier formations) and three Waffen-SS brigades.

Immediately to the south of Riga the upper reaches of the Memele (Nyemenek) and Lielupe (Ada) rivers had been dammed so that the water level of these two rivers fell rapidly below the obstruction, and tanks and infantry crossed the obstacle without problem. Bagramyan’s 1st Baltic Front made good initial progress, but by 16 September had been brought to a halt just a few miles to the south of Riga. On the next day, however, Fedyuninsky’s 2nd Shock Army of Maslennikov’s 3rd Baltic Front broke through Hasse’s II Corps near Tartu, a thrust which not only threatened the situation of the Armeeabteilung ‘Narwa’ but also jeopardised the survival of the entire Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ by the narrowing corridor to the south of Riga. After grudging agreement by Hitler, the Armeeabteilung ‘Narwa’ was ordered to fall back from northern Estonia to the ports of Tallinn and Parnu (Pernau), and the 18th Army began to fall back on Riga. Meanwhile Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ had ordered Raus’s 3rd Panzerarmee to thrust against the 1st Baltic Front’s left flank from the area of Šiauliai (Schaulen) in support of Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’, but this efforts gained only marginal success. It was after this that the 3rd Panzerarmee was reallocated from Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ to Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’, thus extending Schörner’s front down to Memel and the East Prussian frontier. In accordance with Hitler’s orders, Schörner shifted the weight of his Panzer formations from Šiauliai to the area of Jelgava (Mitau) just to the south of Riga, from where it was planned to launch a counter-offensive.

On 24 September, with most of Estonia now in their hands, the Soviets suddenly and inexplicably ended their offensive. On the same day a new Stavka directive completely changed the Soviet plan as, following the successful withdrawal of most of the German forces from Estonia to the area of Riga and Kurland, the Soviets had no further interest in closing the Riga gap. The new intention was to change the direction of the main offensive from the north to the west, attacking the 3rd Panzerarmee and reaching the Baltic coast near Memel and thereby cutting off the whole of Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ in Kurland. Bagramyan’s 1st Baltic Front was therefore instructed to transfer three armies, one tank army and a number of independent corps from its right to its left flank, a distance of 100 miles (160 km), in just six days. Two other armies were also affected by the movement, and in all 500,000 men and 1,300 tanks and self-propelled guns were moved. The transfer of troops was covered by deception measures including overt preparations for the resumption of the attack near Riga.

Meanwhile Chernyakhovsky’s 3rd Belorussian Front to the south of the 1st Baltic Front was to support the offensive by pinning the German reserves in an offensive into East Prussia on axes aimed at Tilsit, Gumbinnen and Suwalki. The 3rd and 2nd Baltic Fronts were to continue their attack into Latvia with the object of closing on and then taking Riga, and the Leningrad Front began to clear the islands off the Baltic coast.

Bagramyan’s ‘Memel Offensive Operation’ began on 5 October with a reconnaissance in force and an artillery preparation lasting only 20 minutes, and encountered only modest resistance as much of the armour of Raus’s 3rd Panzerarmee had been shifted northward into the area of Jelgava. Despite the fact that the terrain, of woods and marshes, rendered movement difficult, Chistyakov’s 6th Guards Army and Beloborodov’s 43rd Army had advanced more than 10 miles (16 km) by the end of the first day. Low cloud and bad weather had restricted air support and observation, and also made it impossible for the Soviets to commit their armour until the offensive’s second day, when Volsky’s 5th Guards Tank Army and two tank corps entered the fray. The Soviet forces soon ripped a great gap in the 3rd Panzerarmee’s defences, and Bagramyan’s forces began to move west toward the Lithuanian Baltic coast.

On 6 October Schörner started to withdraw troops from the area to the north-east of Riga for commitment against the right flank of the 1st Baltic Front right flank, but this proved unsuccessful and on 10 October Kreizer’s 51st Army reached the Baltic coast just to the north of Palanga while Beloborodov’s 43 Army reached the outskirts of Memel but was unable to take it off the march. Except for the 3rd Panzerarmee, which had been forced to the south into East Prussia, the whole of Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ had now been cut off in Kurland and Riga, and East Prussia was open to an attack across the Niemen river. By 12 October, however, the 3rd Panzerarmee, with the aid of Generalleutnant Wilhelm Schmalz’s Fallschirmpanzerkorps ‘Hermann Göring’ rushed to the front from the centre of Germany, succeeded in stabilising the front on the line of the river. In Kurland, to the north, Schörner used the 18th Army to create an east/west defensive line to the south between Liepaja (Libau) on the Baltic coast and Tukums on the south-west corner of the Bay of Riga. The Germans also evacuated Riga and fell back to Tukums. In spite of the urgings of Guderian, Hitler refused to authorise the evacuation of Kurland, although this could in fact have been carried out from the sea, since he maintained that the lodgement had value in pinning several Soviet formations.

Although the Soviets took Memel in January 1945, the Kurland lodgement held by the 26 divisions of the 16th Army and 18th Army survived until just after the end of the war.

After the capture of Riga, Maslennikov’s 3rd Baltic Front was disbanded.

Farther to the south, Chernyakhovsky’s 3rd Belorussian Front, comprising 35 infantry divisions and two tank corps, attacked the 15 infantry divisions and two cavalry brigades of the 4th Panzerarmee within Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ in East Prussia, where the Germans believed that the Soviet offensive was aimed at Königsberg. With the aid of some reinforcements from the 3rd Panzerarmee and the Oberkommando des Heeres, Hossbach’s 4th Army counterattacked and dispersed or destroyed firstly, on 22 October, part of Galitsky’s 11th Guards Army at Gumbinnen and secondly, at the beginning of November, other elements near Goldap. This was the first time that Soviet troops had fought on German soil, and left in their wake a trail of murder, rape and devastation which augured badly for the population of Germany’s eastern territories.

Within the ambit of the Oberkommando der Wehmacht, Hitler and Generaloberst Alfred Jodl, the chief of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht’s operations staff, existed in a world almost wholly divorced from the realities of Germany’s military situation. Jodl had little interest in the war on the Eastern Front and expended considerable energy in thwarting the attempts of Guderian to persuade Hitler to transfer troops from the Western Front to the Eastern Front and in destroying any remaining independence of the Oberkommando des Heeres and the general staff. Lacking any real authority, Guderian was no less narrow-minded and blinkered than Jodl. He was convinced, not without reason, that it was preferable to lose German territory to the Western Allies rather than to the Red Army, but so limited was his understanding of the relative strength of Germany and its enemies that he could not realise that the shuffling of divisions from west to east or east to west could make no difference to the outcome of the war. By the end of 1944 Germany was caught in the closing jaws of an ever-stronger vice, and so weak that it could not defend itself from either of the groupings bent on its destruction. Taking his cue from Hitler, Guderian recalled the successful summer days of previous years and frequently and mistakenly bemoaned the fact, as he perceived it, that Germany no longer had commanders or troops of the quality which had made possible the strategic successes of 1940 and 1941.

The fact of the matter was indeed that the German army, which had been Hitler’s pride in 1941, was by 1944 a poorly equipped and obsolete branch of the German air forces with little air and artillery support, crippled for lack of vehicles and motor fuel, and fighting enemies who were altogether larger, better equipped, better nourished in every respect, and supported by very powerful air forces.

The Soviet fronts involved in the battle lost some 280,000 men to all causes (killed, missing, wounded and sick), and the 'Baltic Strategic Offensive Operation' resulted in the expulsion of the German forces from Estonia and Lithuania. The overland lines of communication of Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ with Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ were permanently severed, and thereafter Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ was relegated to the occupation of a Baltic coastal area in Latvia.

On 25 January 1945 Adolf Hitler renamed Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ as Heeresgruppe ‘Kurland’, implicitly recognising that there was no possibility of restoring a new land corridor between Kurland and East Prussia. The Soviet forces began the encirclement and reduction of the Kurland pocket, which retained a possibility of being a major threat, but were unable to focus on operations on their northern flank as the primary task was now the attack farther to the south into East Prussia. Soviet operations against the Kurland pocket continued until the surrender of Heeresgruppe ‘Kurland’ on 9 May 1945, when some 200,000 Germans were taken into captivity.

The German command had released thousands of local conscripts from military service to ease its logistical problems, but on the other side of the front the Soviet command had started to conscripting Baltic natives as areas were brought under Soviet control. While some served on both sides, many hid in the region’s wooded areas to avoid conscription.