Operation Bettelstab

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This was a German unrealised offensive by General Albert Wodrig’s XXVI Corps of General Georg Lindemann’s 18th Army against the Soviet formations of General Polkovnik Vladimir Z. Romanovsky’s Coastal Command occupying the beach-head around Oranienbaum on the southern side of the Gulf of Finland to the west of Leningrad and covering the major naval base on the island of Kronshtadt (February/July 1942).

On 2 July 1942 the Oberkommando des Heeres informed Generalfeldmarschall Georg von Küchler’s Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ that a special artillery reconnaissance group was being despatched to assess the terrain between the Leningrad front and the Oranienbaum pocket for locations suitable for the emplacement of very heavy artillery. Adolf Hitler was going to have ‘Dora’, the second of the two 800-mm (31.5-in) schwerer Gustav super-heavy railway guns, which had finished its work in the ‘Störfang’ reduction of Sevastopol, transferred to the north for use against Kronshtadt, the Soviet naval fortress on Kotlin island at the eastern end of the Gulf of Finland. With a ring of forts on surrounding small islands and 3 miles (4.8 km) of water separating it from the mainland, Kronshtadt was tactically and operationally akin to Sevastopol. In the next two weeks Hitler added more very heavy artillery, in the form of the Gamma and Karl batteries of 600-mm (23.62-in) tracked siege mortars that had also been used against Sevastopol and four batteries ranging in calibres from 240 to 400 mm (9.45 to 23.62 in) that had not been at Sevastopol. All, including 'Dora', for which a 5-mile (8-km) railway spur would have to be laid, were to be emplaced by the last week in August. Because so much artillery would not achieve tactical profit worth the cost of the ammunition by shelling only Kronshtadt, most of it was to be sited in positions from which it could also fire on targets in the Oranienbaum pocket. At this point the 18th Army also began to plan an infantry offensive against the pocket as ‘Bettelstab’.

Before Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ and the 18th Army completed their first estimates for ‘Bettelstab’, Hitler’s attention was veering toward Leningrad, and on 18 July he informed the operations branch of the Oberkommando des Heeres that ‘Blücher’ (ii), the planned assault from Crimea across the Strait of Kerch, was to be cancelled as soon as the Don river had been crossed and the full advance into the Caucasus region from the north had become certain. The German divisions thus released, Hitler added, were then to be released from Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein’s 11th Army and redeployed to the north in order to take Leningrad. Hitler made this decision final in his Führerweisung Nr 45 of 23 July. Heeresgruppe ‘Nord was to receive five of the divisions released from the 11th Army as well as the heavy artillery already on the way, and was to be ready by a time early in September to take Leningrad. Two days earlier, in Führerweisung Nr 44, he had ordered Generaloberst Eduard Dietl’s 20th Gebirgsarmee to ready itself for an offensive, with Finnish support, to the railway along the western side of the White Sea, which linked Murmansk to the rest of the USSR, on the assumption that Leningrad would be taken during September at the latest, and that Finnish forces would advance from the front on the Karelian isthmus. First allocated the code name ‘Feuerzauber’, the operation against Leningrad was redesignated after only one week as ‘Nordlicht’ (ii) for communications above the level of the 18th Army and ‘Georg’ within that army.

Hitler next instructed von Küchler to complete local operations, ‘Schlingpflanze’, ‘Moorbrand’ and ‘Bettelstab’ as rapidly as possible so that they were out of the way by the beginning of September. Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ knew from the start, as Hitler himself probably also appreciated, that the completion of so many tasks was impossible within the allotted time because troops, tanks, artillery, ammunition, and especially air support could not be mustered for more than one operation at a time. As events showed, ‘Nordlicht’ (ii) in part afforded and in part compelled the solution. Right from the time of its inception, ‘Bettelstab’ had not raised any real commitment within the army group, and since it could probably be carried out more easily after ‘Nordlicht’ (ii) than before, it was postponed. On the other hand, the army group regarded ‘Schlingpflanze’ and ‘Moorbrand’ as more vital than ‘Nordlicht’ (ii) to its survival in the approaching winter. However, ‘Nordlicht’ (ii) was more important to Hitler and, presumably, to German grand strategy. When the early estimates revealed that the 18th Army could not assemble the strength to complete ‘Moorbrand’ and ‘Nordlicht’ (ii), even in succession rather than simultaneously, von Küchler cancelled ‘Moorbrand’. This left ‘Schlingpflanze’ which, as well as being the sole survivor of the so-called local operations, was also the only one of the three that was anywhere near ready for implementation. Generaloberst Ernst Busch’s 16th Army had deployed the troops for the operation in the middle of July and had been set to begin the offensive on 19 July when adverse flying conditions and Soviet attacks on the Demyansk perimeter of General Walter Graf von Brockdorff-Ahlefeldt’s II Corps combined to force the first of a succession of postponements. Later, a lingering spell of heavy rain flooded the entire area between the pocket and the main front.

At the turn of the month, von Küchler and Busch were waiting for the prospect of three or four dry days, but were almost on the verge of committing ‘Schlingpflanze’ despite the weather because the II Corps was in a situation as dire as it had been at the height of the winter. The corridor to the Demyansk pocket was under water, and the airlift was delivering only 30% to 40% of the daily supply requirements. On 4 August, however, ‘Schlingpflanze’ suffered another setback when all of the ground support and fighter aircraft assigned for it were flown out to help the 9th Army at Rzhev.