Kingisepp-Gdov Offensive Operation

This was a Soviet campaign within the 'Leningrad-Novgorod Strategic Offensive Operation' (14 January/1 March 1944) fought between the Soviet forces of General Leonid A. Govorov’s Leningrad Front and the German forces of General Georg Lindemann’s 18th Army for the eastern shore of Lake Peipus and the western bank of the Narva river in the north-western USSR and north-eastern Estonia (1 February/1 March 1944).

In overall terms, General Major Ivan P. Alferov’s CIX Corps captured the town of Kingisepp, forcing the 18th Army to fall back into new positions on the eastern bank of the Narva river. Forward units of General Leytenant Ivan I. Fedyuninsky’s 2nd Shock Army crossed the river and established several bridgeheads on the western bank, to the north and south of the town of Narva, on 2 February. General Leytenant Filipp N. Starikov’s 8th Army expanded the bridgehead in the Krivasoo swamp to the south of the town five days later, cutting the railway behind General Otto Sponheimer’s Gruppe 'Sponheimer' (from 23 February General Johannes Friessner’s Armeegruppe 'Narwa'. Govorov was unable to take advantage of the opportunity so offered to encircle the smaller German detachment, which called in reinforcements, most of them newly mobilised Estonians strongly motivated to resist the the imminent Soviet reoccupation of their country.

At the same time, General Major (from 22 February General Leytenant) Mikhail F. Tikhonov’s CVIII Corps launched several units across Lake Peipus to take Piirissaar island 75 miles (120 km) to the south of Narva and establish a bridgehead in Meerapalu. By chance the 1/45th Waffen-Grenadierregiment der SS (1st estnische), which was moving toward Narva, arrived in the same area and, in co-operation with one East Prussian battalion of the 44th Infanterieregiment and one Staffel of warplanes destroyed the Soviet bridgehead on 15/16 February.

Simultaneously, the Soviet undertook an amphibious assault as 517 men of the 260th Independent Naval Infantry Brigade landed on the coast at Mereküla behind the positions of the Gruppe 'Sponheimer', but this unit was almost completely annihilated.

As the result of the campaign, the Soviet forces seized control of most of the eastern shore of Lake Peipus and established a number of bridgeheads on the western bank of the Narva river.

The CIX Corps captured Kingisepp on 1 February, the formations and units of the 18th Army then fighting a rearguard action to reach the eastern bank of the Narva. The Gruppe 'Sponheimer' blew up the ice on the southern 31-mile (50-km) length of the Narva river between its exit from Lake Peipus to the Krivasoo swamp to prevent a Soviet crossing. To the north of Kingisepp, the Soviet 4th Regiment reached the Narva river and managed to establish a small bridgehead on its western side during 2 February. The fighting to the east of Narva had left a large number of German troops stranded on the wrong side of the front. Simultaneously, General Major Pantelemon A. Zitsev’s CXXII Corps crossed the river to the south of the city in the area of the Vääska settlement, establishing a bridgehead in the Krivasoo swamp some 6.25 miles (10 km) to the south of Narva.

The main weight of the Soviet attack had fallen on the sector in which the Germans had least expected it, the sector held by SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Felix Steiner’s III SS germanische Panzerkorps, comprising Waffen-SS volunteer formations and units for the most part, to the east of Narva and holding the German bridgehead on the river’s eastern bank. SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Jürgen Wagner’s 4th SS Freiwilligen Panzergrenadierbrigade 'Nederland' and SS-Gruppenführer und Generalleutnant der Waffen-SS Fritz Scholz’s 11th SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Nordland' began to dig in along what had become known as the Narva line. This extended for 6.75 miles (11 km) between the estate of Lilienbach, some 1.25 miles (2 km) to the north-east of the road bridge over the Narva river, to the township of Dolgaya Niva 1.85 miles (3 km) and bulged to the east. The 4th SS Freiwilligen Panzergrenadierbrigade 'Nederland' defended the northern half of the bridgehead and the 11th SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Nordland' the southern half.

Attacking them along the lines of the main road and the railway were the four divisions of General Major Anatoli I. Andreyev’s XLIII Corps and Alferov’s CIX Corps. The 4th SS Freiwilligen Panzergrenadierbrigade 'Nederland', the 1/24th SS Freiwilligen Panzergrenadierregiment 'Danmark' and the German artillery inflicted heavy casualties on the Soviets, who failed to destroy the bridgehead. The German defence was supported by artillery switched to and fro between the river’s banks across the bridge across the Narva river, which was concealed from numerous Soviet air attacks by thick smoke screens.

In the Krivasoo swamp, some 6.25 miles (10 km) to the south of Narva, the Soviet 1078th Regiment and the ski battalion of the 314th Division crossed the river under a heavy German air and artillery attack in four hours. Despite the resistance of the Estonian 29th Police Battalion, the 314th Division neared Auvere railway station, 6.25 miles (10 km) to the west of Narva, threatening to cut the railway behind the III SS Panzerkorps and the two division-sized formations of the Gruppe 'Sponheimer'. The fighting for Auvere station was ferocious, the 314th Division suffering losses to severe that the 125th Division was sent to its assistance. The reinforced Soviet strength captured the railway crossing near Auvere station on 6 February, losing it on the same day under the fire of German coastal artillery. From this time onward, the Soviet forces remained passive in the direction of Auvere, giving the Gruppe 'Sponheimer' the opportunity to rebuilt is capability. The Soviets impressed the women from Auvere, Kriivasoo, Sirgala, and other settlements in the bridgehead to carry ammunition and supplies to the front.

Two platoons of the Soviet 147th Regiment volunteered to cross the Narva river to the townships of Omuti, Permisküla and Gorodenka, some 25 miles (40 km) to the south of Narva on 2 February. Here the river’s bank was held by the Estonian 30th Police Battalion, whose men defended a series of small bridgeheads on the eastern bank giving the appearance, to the Soviets, of a carefully prepared outer defence system in front of a main defence line. The first Soviet attack was beaten off, and the Soviet headquarters took some hours to prepare a second and larger attack by the 219th and 320th Regiments. The Estonians pulled back to the river bank during the Soviet attacks, but checked the Soviet advance and inflicted heavy losses. Despite the efforts of the Soviet commanders and their troops, only a small platoon commanded by Lieutenant Morozov, managed to reach the western bank and dig itself into an extemporised defensive position.

The Soviet operations were severely hindered by logistic problems, especially in food and ammunition, as the major transport connections had been largely destroyed by the Germans as they pulled back and the remaining roads were poor and also in danger of physical collapse as the spring thaw approached. The Soviets forces were also hampered by lack of adequate intelligence as the Soviet partisan forces despatched into Estonia had been destroyed.

In the area of Siivertsi township, the Soviet 98th Division and the 131st Tank Division managed to establish a bridgehead on the western bank of the Narva river to the north of the city of Narva on 12 February, and this bridgehead soon became the most critical sector of the entire Narva front for, should the Soviets succeed here, the city of Narva would fall quickly and the Narva bridgehead on the river’s eastern bank would be cut off. Thus the Germans committed all their available strength against the Soviet bridgehead.

On 13 February the Soviet artillery opened fire on the 16th Kompanie of the 23rd SS Freiwilligen Panzergrenadierregiment 'Norge' in the cemetery of Siivertsi at the same time as Soviet troops attacked across the ice of the frozen river. The attack was repelled, and this made it possible for the 336th Grenadierregiment, bolstered by a squadron of tanks, to compress the Soviet bridgehead, but this was all the German strength could accomplish. However, the trenches taken by the 336th Grenadierregiment during the day’s fighting were lost during the following night by men of the 2nd Shock Army, which was being constantly reinforced.

On 11 February Govorov had ordered the 2nd Shock Army to break through the German defence line in the areas to the north and south of the city of Narva, drive the front 31 miles (50 km) farther to the west and continue toward the town of Rakvere.

On this day the 2nd Shock Army’s artillery opened fire on all German positions, and General Major (from 22 February General Leytenant) Nikolai P. Simoniak’s XXX Guards Rifle Corps, an elite formation normally used for breaching defence lines, joined the Soviet units attempting to seize Auvere station. The guards infantry widened the Soviet bridgehead to 6.25 miles (10 km). The remnants of Generalleutnant Walther Krause’s (from 15 February Generalmajor Franz Griesbach’s) 170th Division and Generalleutnant Wilhelm Berlin’s 227th Division now retreated. General Major Ivan D. Romantsov ordered an air and artillery assault on the village of Auvere on 13 February, and his 64th Guards Division then seized the village in a surprise attack. Some 550 yards (500 m) to the west of Auvere station, the 191st Guards Regiment severed the railway line at a point some 1.25 miles (2 km) from the main road linking Narva and Tallinn, which was the last line of retreat left to the Gruppe 'Sponheimer', but the Soviet regiment was then driven back by the 170th Division and Major Willy Jähde’s 502nd schwere Panzerabteilung.

The situation on the Narva front was fast becoming a catastrophe for Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model’s Heeresgruppe 'Nord'. The Leningrad Front had established bridgeheads on the western side of the Narva river to both the north and south of the city of Narva, the closest of them a mere few hundred yards from the main road linking Narva and Tallinn. The Gruppe 'Sponheimer' was in direct danger of being cut off. The defence of the road rested with a few small infantry units of Generalmajor Heinrich Geerkens’s 9th Felddivision (L) and the remnants of GeneralHermann von Weddel’s 10th Felddivision (L) even as this latter was being absorbed into the 170th Division, supported by PzKpfw V Panther battle tanks positioned every few hundred yards along the road. The German defenders obscured direct observation of the road by placing spruce branches along it, but this did not prevent the Soviet artillery from keeping the road under constant bombardment. The belief of the Gruppe 'Sponheimer' that it could maintain the defence quickly began to disappear.

Seeing the situation on this part of the Eastern Front, Adolf Hitler ordered the redeployment of SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Franz Augsberger’s 20th SS Freiwilligen Division (estnische Nr 1) from the Nevel sector of the front farther to the south to the Narva sector of the front. The arrival of the 1/45th SS Freiwilligen Grenadierregiment (estische Nr 1) at Tartu coincided with the landing operation by the left flank of the Leningrad Front on the western shore of Lake Peipus, 75 miles (120 km) to the south of the city of Narva, as elements of the Soviet 90th Division seized Piirissaar island in the middle of the lake on 12 February before, two days later, crossing to the eastern shore of the lake and establishing a beach-head.

The men of the 1/45th SS Freiwilligen Grenadierregiment (estische Nr 1) were deployed into the Yershovo bridgehead on the eastern shore of Lake Peipus. The Soviet 374th Regiment crossed Lake Peipus on 14 February across the narrow strait separating the northern and southern portions of this body of water, seized the coastal village of Meerapalu in a surprise attack, and quickly established a beach-head in this 'Meerapalu Landing Operation'. Additional units of the 90th Division attacking across the lake were destroyed by the attacks of 21 Junkers Ju 87 dive-bombers. On the next morning, the 128th Division established another beach-head farther to the south at Jõepera. A battalion of the 44th Grenadierregiment, the 1/45th SS Freiwilligen Grenadierregiment (estische Nr 1), and the dive-bombers cleared all the Soviet enclaves from the western shore on the same day.

Estonian sources estimate the Soviet casualties to be in the thousands. The East Prussian battalion regained Piirissaar island on 17 February.

To break the last German resistance simultaneously with the 'Meerapalu Landing Operation', Govorov had ordered the 260th Independent Naval Infantry Brigade to prepare for an amphibious attack on the German rear in the area to the west of the Narva river’s mouth on the south coast of the Gulf of Finland. This naval unit was an elite force specially trained and equipped for the amphibious assault role. The unit was transported in a squadron of 26 vessels, and to land several miles behind the German line near the coastal township of Mereküla. The first company to land was then to destroy the railway and Auvere station, the second company to occupy the line of the railway to the east of Auvere, and the third to cover the assault’s eastern flank and blow up the railway bridge to the east of Auvere.

It was intended that another amphibious unit would land to land after the 260th Independent Naval Infantry Brigade. However, Estonian counter-intelligence had acquired data on an Soviet amphibious operation readied for use against Mereküla in 1939, and in constructing their 'Panther-Stellung' defences in 1944, the Germans located artillery on the coastal battery site built by the Estonians specifically to counter such a landing. The Soviet naval infantrymen began their operation on 14 February, landing directly in front of the German coastal artillery. The 23rd Panzergrenadierregiment 'Norge' of Scholz’s 11th SS-Panzergrenadierdivision 'Nordland' and the coastal guard force, supported by three PzKpfw Tiger I tanks, responded swiftly. The 8th Army’s artillery, located in the Auvere area, failed to begin its supporting fire at the agreed time, and in 7.5 hours of fierce combat the Soviet beach-head was annihilated.