Baltic Strategic Defensive Operation

Th 'Baltic Strategic Defensive Operation' 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 'Siauliai 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 Vilnius, 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.

On the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea, one of the Germans' primary objectives was the city of Liepāja (Libau in German) as this was an ice-free port on the south-western coast of Latvia and therefore one of the Soviet Baltic Fleet’s most important bases. The Germans expected to take the city no later than 24 June, but it held out until 29 June in fighting which cost the Germans very serious losses.

On 22 June, Generalmajor Kurt Herzog’s 291st Division, an element of Generalfeldmarschall Georg von Küchler’s 18th Army's XXVI Corps commanded by General Albert Wodrig’s moved forward across the East Prussian border across Lithuania’s narrow western coastal region toward Liepāja in Latvia. The German division comprised the 504th Infanterieregiment, 505th Infanterieregiment and 506th Infanterieregiment. The division was also assigned two battalions of marines, additional artillery, air support. and one armoured train, for a total in the region of 20,000 men. There were several weaknesses in the German force, however, such as the fact that its motorcycle and bicycle units lacked automatic weapons and could therefore operate only with the support of armored personnel carriers and mortars; the marines lacked heavy weapons, whose delivery was so slow that they had to use captured Soviet weapons; air support was provided at first by only eight or possibly slightly more Junkers Ju 88 twin-engined medium bombers; and in the campaign’s first days, this sector of the front was not allocated fighters and attack aircraft except on sporadic occasions in which they lacked co-ordination.

By the beginning of 'Barbarossa', the Soviet naval base at Liepāja was held by about 4,000 men under the command of Kapiotan 1-ro ranga M. S. Klevensky, whose strength included one separate detachment of motor torpedo boats (TKA-17, TKA-27, TKA-37, TKA-47 and TKA-67); one detachment of security boats (four boats); the 4th Division of Border Vessels (nine boats); the 23rd Coastal Artillery Battery (130-mm/5.12-in guns); the 27th Coastal Artillery Battery (130-mm/5.12-in guns); the 18th Separate Railway Artillery Battery (four 180-mm/7.09-in guns); the 43rd Separate Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion; the 84th Separate Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion; the 32nd Separate Militia Battalion; a number of small air-defence and communications units; and one naval hospital. Also at Liepāja were the 43rd Separate Aviation Squadron of the Baltic Fleet Air Force; the destroyer Lenin; and the 1st Submarine Brigade (as many as 15 boats undergoing major repairs).

General Major Nikolai A. Dedayev’s 67th Division was also based in this and neighbouring towns. The division comprised the 56th Regiment, 114th Regiment and 81st Regiment, the 94th Artillery Regiment and 242nd Howitzer Regiment , separate anti-tank and anti-aircraft artillery battalions, and single reconnaissance, engineer and automobile battalions. However, the division lacked technical equipment and human resources. Moreover, the division was dispersed: the 114th Regiment and one artillery battalion were stationed in Ventspils, and the anti-aircraft battalion had left for training near Riga. On 22 June, the division had 5,300 men.

The 148th Fighter Aviation Regiment of the Air Force of the Baltic Special Military District also operated from bases in this area, and by 22 June this regiment had 69 Polikarpov I-153 single-engined biplane fighters, of which 14 that were unserviceable, and one separate naval short-range reconnaissance squadron with 13 Beriev MBR-2 single-engined patrol flying boats. Liepāja also hosted a naval air-defence school commanded by General Major Ivan A. Blagoveshchensky. Thus the defending forces numbered between 10.000 and 11,000 men.

At 03.55 on 22 June, the first German air attack on Liepāja took place: bombs were dropped on the naval base, docks and the airfield. The Soviet naval targets were covered by anti-aircraft guns and suffered modest damage, and on the airfield eight of the 148th Fighter Regiment’s fighters were destroyed. In total, on this first day of the 'Great Patriotic War', German aircraft carried out 15 air raids on Liepāja, the naval base and the airfield: 135 aircraft were involved, and of these three were shot down.

At 04.00 German artillery fired on Liepāja from positions to the south of the city, and after this German troops crossed the border.

Units of the 10th Division, located close to the border, were subjected to sustained artillery bombardment, which concentrated on the Kretinga area, where the 62nd Regiment’s units were located. Between Kretinga and Palanga, German mobile forces, advancing toward Rucava, broke through, and elements of the 10th Division were forced to break out of the encirclement that started to form round them, and began to retreat to Jelgava (Mitau in German). The way to Liepāja was open.

Operationally, the 67th Division was subordinate to General Major Nikolai Ye. Berzarin’s 27th Army of the North-West Front, and the Liepāja naval base was subordinate to Admiral Vladimir F. Tributs’s Baltic Fleet, but no single commander of the city’s defences was appointed. Dedayev therefore commanded all army units, border guards and workers' detachments, and Klevensky was entrusted with the defence of the naval base and the city against attack from the sea.

The commanders of the 67th Division and of the naval forces of the base began to deploy combat units as the city was hastily prepared for all-round defence. Dedayev ordered the creation of three combat areas, which should have been prepared with fortifications while the units of the 67th held back the German offensive, and coastal units as well as the crews of ships and boats currently under repair constituted the manpower for marine units: two detachments and several separate companies were created with a total strength of about 3,000 men.

the northern combat area was held by one naval infantry battalion. The eastern combat area was held by a cadet battalion of the naval school and units of the 56th Regiment supported by batteries of the 94th Light Artillery Regiment, the 27th Coastal Artillery Battery, and the 841st and 503rd Separate Anti-Aircraft Artillery Batteries. The southern combat area was occupied by detachments from the coastal submarine base and crews, which were supported by 180-mm (7.09-in) guns and the 502nd Separate Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battery.

To prevent attack from the sea, the submarine L-3, M-79, M-81 and M-83 were sent to patrol the approaches to the city under the command of Kapitan 2-ro ranga A. G. Averochkin. The submarines were followed to sea for reconnaissance by motor torpedo boats under the command of Kapitan Leytenant S. Osipov, and the minesweeper Fugas also left the harbour and on 22/23 June laid 206 moored mines some 6.2 miles (10 km) off the coast.

At 12.00 on 22 June, Tributs gave the order for the withdrawal from Liepāja to Ventspils (Windau in German) and Ust-Dvinsk of 'everything that was not connected with the defence of the base and possessed the ability to move'. In an attack by German torpedo boats, the submarine S-3 was destroyed: as a result of a technical problem, the boat could not submerge and was therefore caught on the surface. However, the tanker Zheleznodorozhnik, and submarines S-9, M-77, Lembit and Kalev reached the Gulf of Riga.

Shortly before the arrival of German forces, the Soviets managed to send from Liepāja a train carrying the families of servicemen and a 180-mm (7.09-in) battery of railway guns.

It was during the evening of 22 June that the first German units reached in Rucava area of Liepāja’s outer defences on the Barth river, some 10.6 m miles (17 km) to the south of the city, and there made contact with the 12th Border Detachment, the reconnaissance battalion of the 67th Division and the incomplete 281st Regiment. This marked the beginning of the battle of Liepāja.

On the first day of the war, the pilots of the 148th Fighter Regiment flew 162 sorties, but by the end of the day the German approach to Liepājae was reflected in the regiment’s instruction for a withdrawal and overnight relocation to Riga before returning to Liepāja airfield on the next day. The technical personnel of the 101st Airfield Service Battalion of the 119th Air Base were left at the airfield to ready the aircraft for departure, and by the evening, some 27 aircraft had flown to the airfield at Riga.

During the first day of the war on what was now the Eastern Front, the German bombing of Liepāja did not halt loading operations in the city’s port. As a result, in the early morning of 23 June, seven ships departed Liepāja for Ventspils carrying many of Liepāja’s civilians. At the end of the day, two more ships braved German shellfire and escaped to the north.

On the morning of 23 June, the Germans launched an attack on the city from the south along the Baltic Sea coast, but this attempt proved unsuccessful as the artillery of the 67th Division and long-range guns of the 27th Coastal Defence Battery opened an intense bombardment on the attackers and drove them back to their start line. After abandoning subsequent attempts to break through the defence line at Bernati near the mouth of the Barta river, the Germans made a new attempt to break through to the city from the south-east. The 504th Infanterieregiment and 505th Infanterieregiment began to move in the direction of Priekule, a small settlement located on the axis toward Grobina, was taken during the afternoon, and this completed the German encirclement of the city. The Germans now began a steady artillery bombardment supplemented by a spate of air attacks.

After the capture of Priekule and the emergence of the threat of a breakthrough to Liepāja from the direction of Grobina, the communist party committee in Liepāja ordered all of the city’s workers' detachments to participate in the defence, and an organisation was created to supervise the construction of trenches to shelter civilians during bombing raids, the organisation of food and weapons by road, the movement of the wounded and injured, and the training of factory workers and residents in matters such as medical aid and firefighting. For service in the most critical areas, the city’s defence headquarters created a Komsomol (youth movement) shock detachment. Worker battalions and militia units began to take up positions on the northern outskirts of the city.

During the evening of 23 June, German motorcycle units began to ready themselves for a breakthrough to Liepāja from the east. These units managed to break through to the city outskirts before being driven back, and fierce fighting broke out between Soviet and German infantry units in the city’s southern sector near the Barta river. On the night of 23/24 June, the 130-mm (5.12-in) guns of two coastal defence batteries destroyed German artillery in the Grobini area, on Bata airfield and in the Shkedi area. The constant changing of the made it difficult to keep track of German movements, so on several occasions the defenders faced an information vacuum or received inaccurate information about the course of the fighting and the movement of German groups.

During the early morning of 24 June, German aircraft again bombed the port and naval harbour. From the east, the German vanguard units approached the city, their advanced mobile units managing to capture the Liepāja railway workshops and encircle the Tosmare factory. As a result of shortage of time for the construction of defences, this sector was the weakest link in the city’s defences.

On June 24, the submarine M-83 returned to Liepāja and started to use its deck guns to fire on the German units which had broken through to the Tosmare factory, and continued the bombardment until it had exhausted its ammunition.

Near the end of 24 June, the defenders a counterattack which drove back German advance units to the Ilga forest, and this offered the defenders of the city a short respite. In this episode, Soviet artillery destroyed the German armoured train. The Germans now paused, and the Soviet forces occupied the old defensive fortifications which had been decommissioned before World War I, added quickly added earth ramparts to them. These forts provided a temporary base for the naval soldiers, units of the 56th Regiment and 281st Regiment, border guards units and the workers' defensive detachments formed on the previous day. The defenders were covered by the guns of the coastal defence batteries and anti-aircraft units, as well as guns of the 67th Division’s 94th Light Artillery Regiment and 242nd Howitzer Artillery Regiment.

In the afternoon of 24 June, Dedayev ordered a strong counterattack on Grobina. Soviet soldiers and sailors managed to reach and enter this settlement, but could advance no farther. Within Grobina, fierce street fighting lasted into the evening before the Soviets fell back to their start line.

On the same day, Soviet artillery undertook a bombardment of the Krustoyums railway siding, where the Germans had sited their armoured train.

On 26 June, the defenders were ordered to withdraw from the encirclement, and it was decided to break through the northern and eastern sectors of the German encirclement in two columns. In the northern sector, the breakthrough was to press along the coastal road toward Shkede, and at 10.00 on 27 June elements of the 56th Regiment, 32nd Militia Battalion, the men of the 84th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion and the 23rd Coastal Artillery Battery started to move. Within their column were vehicles carrying wounded men. The Soviet troops managed to break through the German positions, but then came under artillery and mortar fire as well as aerial bombing.

In the eastern sector, the units defending the eastern and southern combat zones, the headquarters of the 67th Division and elements of the naval base personnel constituted the breakthrough column.

The command staff of the naval base attempted to escape to Ventspils on two torpedo boats, but between Liepāja and the Uzhava lighthouse these were attacked by German vessels. Off ​​the Uzhava lighthouse, the Soviet ships met encountered six German torpedo boats, but as a result of clever manoeuvring TKA-47 managed for a time to evade most of the German boats but, after taking several direct hits, managed a temporary escape but then lost speed. The Soviet sailors extemporised a raft from their boat’s fuel tanks and reached the coast near Ventspils, where they were captured. TKA-17 reached the short-term safety of the Gulf of Riga.

Blowing the bridges after they had crossed, the border guards, some workers' detachments, and the men of the 27th Coastal Artillery Battery and the anti-tank battery retreated.

By the end of 27 June, a significant part of the retreating forces, including several of the more senior officers, had been killed. Some of the retreating men opted to leave the road and continued to move toward the front line, now to the north of them, in small groups or singly. Another part of the forces retreating from Liepāja linked with units of the 114th Regiment retreating from Ventspils and made a breakthrough to the east, to the Tukums area, to regain the Soviet lines in the area of the 8th Army.

At this time there were more than 2,000 wounded in the Liepāja hospital and some of these, together with the families of the servicemen, were evacuated on the hospital ship Vieniba, which flew Red Cross flags. Depending on the source consulted, the ship was carrying between 800 and 2,000 persons. At dawn on 27 June, the ship left Liepāja accompanied by the torpedo boats TKA-27, TKA-37 and TKA-67. Vieniba came under attack, some 6.2 miles (10 km) off Liepaja, by two German warplanes, which ignored the Red Cross flags that were clearly visible. The ship was hit and soon sank, and many of those who jumped into the water in their efforts to escape the sinking vessel were strafed by the German aircraft. Several hundreds of the wounded, civilians (including women and children) and medical personnel were killed. The only survivors were between 13 and 25 people survived, eight reaching the coast and five be rescued by one of the escorting torpedo boats.

The next morning, German units launched an attack on the city’s defences. There was fierce street fighting, and the German artillery lobbed residential areas of the city, in the process filling the streets with rubble. The defenders still in the city held their positions near the Rainis park and in the areas of the newly-built north-eastern suburb that, and sailors held the area of the naval base.

Toward the evening of 28 June, the bulk of the fighting shifted to the area to the south of the so-called 'new Liepāja' to the canal near the commercial port, which separated the new area from the city’s old part. The bridges over the canal could not be destroyed as the defenders had used all their explosives, so the stronger of the surviving units defended the city’s old part as best they could, and held through the night and into the morning of 29 June.

At this time, the Germans made an attempt to persuade the defenders to surrender: an armored personnel carrier fitted with a loudspeaker arrived at the bank of the canal, and the Germans offered to accept a surrender and thereby avoid unnecessary casualties and destruction. The armoured personnel carrier was then seriously damaged by a grenade lobbed onto it, and the effort to induce a surrender failed. The city’s last defenders managed to break out in groups, under German fire, to the south. One group managed to reach the relative safely of the border with Lithuania during 28 June, and a number of other groups broke through between 27 and 29 in different directions, on their way managing to neutralise Lithuanian paramilitary forces and fragmented German units. One of the groups even managed the temporary recapture of the Lithuanian city of Skuodas.

By the evening of 29 June, Liepāja was in German hands. There are numerous eyewitness accounts detailing the massacres of the area’s population that followed. The massacres took the form of series of mass executions, many public or semi-public, in and near Liepāja. The main perpetrators were detachments of the Einsatzgruppen, the Sicherheitsdienst, the Ordnungspolizei and Latvian auxiliary police (Arajs Kommando) and militia forces. German soldiers and naval personnel were present at some of the shootings. In addition to Jews, the Germans and their Latvian collaborators also killed Roma, communists, the mentally ill and so-called 'hostages'. In contrast with most other massacres in Latvia, the killings at Liepāja took place in open areas. About 5,000 of the 5,700 Jews trapped in Liepāja were shot. The killings occurred in several places inside and outside of the city, including Rainis park in the city centre, and areas near the harbour, the stadium and the lighthouse. The largest massacre, of 2,731 Jews and 23 communists, occurred in the dunes surrounding the town of Sķēde, to the north of the city centre, on a disused Latvian army training ground, and was undertaken by German and collaborator forces from 15 to 17 December 1941.

Farther to the east of Liepāja, and in almost exactly the same period, the German advance into the Baltic States immediately encountered Soviet opposition, and this led to the Battle of Alytus, which was one of the first tank battles of what became known to the Soviets as the 'Great Patriotic War', and took place on 22/23 June in the Alytus area of Lithuania.

Here Generalmajor Hans Freiherr von Funck’s 7th Panzerdivision and Generalleutnant Horst Stumpff’s 20th Panzerdivision, both elements of Generaloberst Hermann Hoth’s 3rd Panzergruppe and operating a total of some 500 tanks, fought Polkovnik Fyedor F. Fedorov’s 5th Tank Division, which was an element of General Leytenant Vasili I. Morizov’s 11th Army within Kuznetsov’s North-West Front. This division was the best Soviet armoured formation at the end of 1940, and was equipped notionally with 268 tanks and 76 other armoured vehicles, though its actual fighting strength in June 1941 was somewhat lower as a result of serviceability problems.

The 3rd Panzergruppe comprised two Panzer and two infantry corps with a total of four Panzer, three motorised and four infantry divisions, and was the spearhead of Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb’s Heeresgruppe 'Nord' aimed ultimately at Leningrad but as a first step toward Vilnius in Lithuania in order to reach and cross the Niemen river as quickly as possible and pass ongo to the rear of Marshalk Sovetskogo Soyuza Semyon K. Timoshenko’s West Front from the north.

General Adolf Kuntzen’s LVII Corps (mot.), with Generalleutnant Josef Harpe’s 12th Panzerdivision in the van, attacked in the direction of Merkinė; General Rudolf Schmidt’s XXXIX Corps (mot.), with the 7th Panzerdivision and 20th Panzerdivision, attacked in the direction of Alytus; General Richard Ruoff’s V Corps, with two infantry divisions, advanced between Merkinė and Alytus; and General Otto-Wilhelm Förster’s VI Corps, with two infantry divisions, advanced towards the Niemen river and Prienai in the area to the north of Alytus. The German formations pressing forward in the direction of Alytus were opposed by the 128th Division, battalions of the 126th Division and 23rd Division, border outposts and construction troops and workers of the Alytus fortified area.

The 5th Tank Division of the III Mechanised Corps was located in the Alytus area, and a little farther from the border in the region of Varena (Orana) were units of the XXIX Lithuanian Territorial Corps with the formation’s headquarters, one artillery regiment and the 184th Division.

Early in the morning of 22 June, after a German artillery bombardment, the Soviet forces in the Alytus area were taken under attack by two of the XXXIX Corps (mot.)'s Panzer divisions and the V Corps' two infantry divisions. The 128th Division was penetrated, savaged and defeated and its commander, General Major Aleksandr S. Zotov, was taken prisoner. The division’s remnants dissolved into scattered groups which retreated beyond the Niemen river and indeed farther to the Zapadny Dvina river.

The two German infantry divisions remained in the region ro complete the defeat of the Soviet formations on the western bank of the Niemen river, and on 23 June both of the German infantry corps were reassigned to Generaloberst Adolf Strauss’s 9th Army within Generalfeldmarschall Fedor von Bock’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte'. Meanwhile, both of the Panzer divisions of the XXXIX Corps (mot.) smashed forward to Alytus with the object of seizing both of the area’s two bridges before the Soviets could demolish them.

At about 12.00 on 22 June, the area of Alytus witnessed the start of a battle the vanguards of the two Panzer divisions and the vanguard of the 5th Tank Division. Suppressing the Soviet defence with artillery fire and the air power of General Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen’s VIII Fliegerkorps of Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring’s Luftflotte II, the Germans succeeded in seizing the target bridges intact and in breaking through to the eastern bank of the Niemen river: each of the bridges was held by 21 internal security troops of the NKVD’s 9th Division. On the eastern bank of the Niemen river, the main strength of the 5th Tank Division entered the battle and initially managed to drive the Germans back to Alytus in fighting which continued until the late evening of 22 June.

During the morning of 23 June, the main strength of the 5th Tank Division were surrounded on the eastern bank of the Niemen river by the XXXIX Corps (mot.)'s two Panzer divisions. Under intense pressure from superior German forces, between 08.00 and 09.00 the Soviet armour had expended almost all their ammunition and fuel, and had little option but to retreat toward Vilnius, seeking to check the Germans as best they could.

It had been a comparatively small-scale battle, but one that was fought with ferocity and determination on each side. Oberst Karl Rothenburg’s 25th Panzerregiment of the 7th Panzerdivision, for example, lost almost half of its strength, and the 5th Tank Division practically ceased to exist. Hoth reported the destruction of 70 Soviet tanks for the loss of 11 of his own tanks: as the battlefield remained in German hands, Hoth took into account only 'irrecoverable losses', that is those which could not be recovered and repaired.

One of the key elements of the Soviet 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 Niemen (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 (Zapadny 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 Niemen 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 Siauliai, 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 toward 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 ripped 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 Siauliai. 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 Ju 88 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 Zapadny Dvina river 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.