Kurland Offensive Operation

The 'Kurland Offensive Operation' was the Soviet isolation and blockade of the German forces in the Kurland peninsula during the closing months of World War II (9 October 1944/10 May 1945).

The Soviet forces created the Kurland pocket during their 'Baltic Strategic Offensive Operation', when the armies of General Hovhannes Kh. Bagramyan’s 1st Baltic Front reached the Baltic Sea near Memel during the subsidiary 'Memel Offensive Operation', and thereby isolated Generaloberst Ferdinand Schörner’s Heeresgruppe 'Nord' from the rest of the German forces between Tukums and Liepāja in Latvia. Renamed Heeresgruppe 'Kurland' on 25 January, and commanded by Generaloberst Dr Lothar Rendulic, from 27 January Generaloberst Heinrich-Gottfried von Vietinghoff-Scheel, from 19 March Rendulic once again, and from 6 April by Generaloberst Carl Hilpert, this army group survived in isolation until it surrendered at the end of the war. When it was ordered to lay down its arms on 8 May, the army group was in a state of black-out and did not receive the official order until 10 May, two days after the capitulation of Germany, and was therefore one of the last German formations to surrender.

Together with rest of the east coast of the Baltic Sea and its offshore islands, Kurland had been overrun by Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb’s Heeresgruppe 'Nord' during the summer of 1941. This army group had then spent most of the following two years in unsuccessful attempts first to take Leningrad and then to starve this city into submission before, in January 1944, the Soviet 'Iskra' offensive had finally lifted the siege of Leningrad.

On 22 June 1944, the Soviets had launched the 'Belorussian Strategic Offensive Operation', otherwise 'Bagration', with the object of liberating Belorussia from German occupation. 'Bagration' was hugely successful, resulting in the almost complete destruction of Generalfeldmarschall Ernst Busch’s (from 27 June Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model’s) Heeresgruppe 'Mitte', and ended on 29 August. In its final stages (the 'Kaunas Offensive Operation' and 'Siauliai Offensive Operation'), 'Bagration' was characterised by deep Soviet thrusts toward the east coast of the Baltic Sea, and these cut the overland lines of communication between Heeresgruppe 'Nord' and the remnants of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte'.

After the end of 'Bagration', the Soviet forces pressed forward with the clearance of the Baltic Sea coast despite German attempts to restore the front, especially in 'Doppelkopf'. The Soviets undertook the 'Memel Offensive Operation' with the goal of isolating Heeresgruppe 'Nord' by capturing Memel (Klaipėda in Lithuanian). On 9 October, the Soviets reached the Baltic Sea near Memel after overrunning the headquarters of Generaloberst Erhard Raus’s 3rd Panzerarmee and, as a direct result, Heeresgruppe 'Nord' was cut off from any overland connection with East Prussia. Adolf Hitler’s military advisers, notably Generaloberst Heinz Guderian, the chief of the Oberkommando des Heeres’s general staff, urged the evacuation of Kurland so that the forces in it could be employed to held the stabilisation of the front in central Europe. Hitler refused to entertain the idea, however, and ordered the German forces in Kurland and the Estonian coastal islands of Hiiumaa, Saaremaa and Muhu (Dagö, Ösel and Moon in German) to hold out, believing them necessary to the defence of the U-boat bases and training areas farther to the south-west and west along the Baltic coast. This was particularly important as Hitler still believed the war could be won, and hoped that the new 'Type XXI' and other advanced U-boat classes could bring victory to Germany in the Battle of the Atlantic, forcing the Allies out of Western Europe. This would allow German forces to focus their efforts on the Eastern Front, using the Kurland pocket as a springboard for a new strategic offensive.

Hitler’s refusal to permit the evacuation of Heeresgruppe 'Nord' (later redesignated Heeresgruppe 'Kurland') meant that more than 200,000 German troops, largely of Hilpert’s (from 15 March 1945 General Ernst-Anton von Krosigk’s and from 16 March, after von Krosigk’s death in action General Friedrich-Jobst Volckamer von Kirchensittenbach’s) 16th Army and General Herbert Loch’s (from 2 September 1944 General Ehrenfried Böge’s) 18th Army in what was later became known to the Germans as the 'Kurland bridgehead'. The 33 divisions of Heeresgruppe 'Nord' were cut off from East Prussia and deployed along a front reaching from Riga on the south coast of the Gulf of Riga in the east to Windau (Liepāja in Latvian) on the east coast of the Baltic Sea to the west before falling back to the north into the more defensible Kurland position after abandoning Riga and holding Tukums farther to the west of the Gulf of Riga as its eastern bastion.

The Soviet forces launched six major offensive efforts against the German and supporting Latvian forces in the Kurland pocket between 15 October 1944 and 4 April 1945.

The first of these battles, between 15 and 22 October, was the 'Riga Offensive Operation', which started at 10.00 on 15 October after a heavy artillery barrage. Hitler authorised Schörner to start a withdrawal from Riga on 11 October, and the city was taken by the 3rd Baltic Front on 13 October. The front stabilised on 22 October with the main remnant of Heeresgruppe 'Nord' 1 cut off in the Kurland peninsula.

Between 27 October and 25 November the Soviets undertook their second offensive, in this instance trying to break through the German front toward Skrunda and Saldus. The offensive included, at one point, a simultaneous attack by 52 divisions. The Soviets also attacked to the south-east of Windau in an attempt to capture that port city, 80 divisions assaulting the German defences from 1 to 15 November on a front 7.5 miles (12 km) wide. Despite their possession of a 10/1 advantage in manpower, the Soviets managed to seize a strip of land measuring only 2.5 by 7.5 miles (4 by 12 km).

The Soviet forces' third battle started on 21 December with an attack on German positions near Saldus (Kurzeme in Latvian). Using General Andrei I. Eremenko’s 2nd Baltic Front in its northern sector and Bagramyan’s 1st Baltic Front in its southern sector, this offensive presaged the start of a full siege of the Kurland peninsula and demanded the German defence of the whole of the Kurland pocket’s southern perimeter during the Soviet attempts to reduce it. In this battle General Major Retlev K. Brantkaln’s Latvian CXXX Corps of the 2nd Baltic Front fought the Latvian troops of SS-Gruppenführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Bruno Steckenbach’s 109th Waffen Grenadierdivision der SS (lettische Nr 2). The battle ended inconclusively on 31 December as the front stabilised. The Soviets had gained a little more area at the expense of very heavy losses of men, armour and warplanes.

From mid-December the Soviet formation primarily responsible for the Kurland operations was the 2nd Baltic Front under Eremenko, who was followed on 9 February 1945 by Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Leonid A. Govorov.

On 15 January 1945, Heeresgruppe 'Nord' was redesignated as Heeresgruppe 'Kurland' under Rendulic’s command. In the middle of January Guderian secured Hitler’s permission to withdraw seven divisions from Kurland, but despite thus concession the German leader was still adamant that the peninsula be held. On 23 January The Soviet forces launched their fourth offensive as they attempted to break through the front toward Windau and Saldus. The Soviets managed to seize bridgeheads over the Bārta and Vārtāja rivers, but were quickly driven back by the Germans.

The fifth battle started on 12 February with a Soviet offensive toward Dzūkste, though other attacks took place to the south of Windau, where the Soviets massed 21 divisions, and to the south of Tukums, where 11 divisions were used in an attempt to break through the German front and take the town, four of these 11 divisions being surrounded and destroyed. On 16 February the Soviets made another effort, in this case against just the 19th Waffen Grenadierdivision der SS (lettische Nr 2), and there was savage fighting for the what was in effect little more than a few farmhouses before the battle ended on 12 March. The Soviets lost 70,000 men dead and wounded, 608 tanks and 178 warplanes, but gained only a small strip of land including Dzūkste and Priekule.

The sixth and last battle in Kurland began on 16 March during the spring thaw and lasted until 30 March. The Soviets suffered 74,000 casualties and had 263 of their tanks destroyed. The Germans in the Saldus area were pushed back a few miles, and the 19th Waffen Grenadierdivision der SS (lettische Nr 2) was replaced by a few German units and then used to counterattack the Soviet breakthrough. This halted the Soviet advance and regained some of the positions lost by the Germans.

On 8 May, Germany’s new head of state following Hitler’s suicide, Grossadmiral Karl Dönitz, ordered Hilpert to surrender, and Hilpert, his personal staff, and the staffs of the army group and two armies surrendered. At this time, Heeresgruppe 'Nord' still comprised the remnants of 27 divisions and one brigade. One the same day Generalmajor Rauser, the army group’s chief of logistics, succeeded in obtaining better surrender terms from the Soviet command. On the following day, the Soviet commission in Peilei started to interrogate the surrendered staff of Heeresgruppe 'Nord', and general collection of prisoners started. By 12 May, some 135,000 German troops had surrendered in the Kurland pocket, and on 23 May the Soviets ended their effort to round up the German troops in the Kurland pocket as this was deemed complete. A total of about 180,000 German troops were taken into captivity from the Baltic area, most of these prisoners being initially held in camps in the Valdai hills in the USSR.

It is worth noting that the German and Soviet histories differ greatly from each other with respect to the character of the fighting in Kurland and also to the Soviet strategic objectives. The first battle, the Soviets admitted, was intended to destroy the German forces, but after that failure the official accounts ignore the Kurland campaign, stating merely that the Soviet goal was only to prevent the Germans from escaping. Thus, according to the Soviets, their operations in Kurland were defensive blockade undertakings, and the fighting consisted of the containment of German break-out attempts: thus, according to the Soviets, their forces thus made no concerted effort to capture the Kurland pocket as this was of little strategic significance after the isolation of Heeresgruppe 'Nord, whereas the main Soviet offensive effort was required for the 'Vistula-Oder Strategic Offensive Operation' and 'Berlin Strategic Offensive Operation'.

Therefore, according to Soviet accounts, the Soviet forces suffered only modest casualties: one source mentions 160,948 casualties (30,501 'irrecoverable' and 130,447 'medical'), but these cover only the fifth and sixth battles between 16 February and 8 May. Another history states that the Kurland area was only peripheral to both the Soviets and the Germans, the former being concerned only with preventing the evacuation of the German troops by sea to reinforce the defence of Berlin. According to this history, therefore, Soviet operations were intended to strengthen the isolation of the Germans, and the strength of the Soviet forces was too low to allow significant progress to be made in the difficult terrain.

According to German sources, Iosif Stalin had been intent on the total destruction of the German forces in Kurland, as indicated by the fact that in September 1944 he stated that the Soviet forces were 'mopping up' in the Baltic areas, and in November that the Germans were 'now being hammered to a finish'. As late as March 1945, Stalin was still making guarantees that German forces in Kurland would soon be defeated. This victory was necessary, in Stalin’s eyes, for the effective re-establishment of Soviet control over its 1941 frontiers following the annexation of the Baltic states. Moreover, according to the Latvian Encyclopedia, the Soviets attached great importance to the capture of Kurland as this held special significance for the Latvians as it was the beach-head from which they had retaken their territory from the Bolsheviks after World War I.

The Soviets had launched six offensives in their efforts to defeat Heeresgruppe 'Kurland, yet throughout these undertakings the Soviet forces nowhere advanced more than 25 miles (40 km) in seven months of combat. Moreover, the German army group reported inflicting heavy losses on the Soviets: according to a communiqué from Kurland on 16 March 1945, the Soviet army had suffered 320,000 losses (killed, wounded and taken prisoner), and lost 2,388 tanks, 900 pieces of artillery, 1,440 machine guns and 659 warplanes in the course of the first five battles. The Soviets are estimated to have lost an additional 74,000 men in the sixth and last battle. The total German casualties in Kurland are estimated at more than 150,000 men.

The withdrawal of Soviet formations and units from December 1944 suggests strongly that the Soviet command did not consider Kurland to be as important as other sectors of the Eastern Front, and therefore that the destruction of the German forces there was not worth the effort and the goal was to become the prevention of any break-out. The next three offensives were probably intended to prevent the evacuation of German troops by sea, and by the beginning of April 1945 the Soviet view was that the German forces in Kurland were little more than self-supporting prisoners.

On 9 May, Govorov accepted the surrender of the German forces at Ezere Manor in south-western Latvia. According to Soviet records, 146,000 German and Latvian troops were taken prisoner, this total including 28 generals (one army group commander, two army commanders, five corps commanders, 15 divisional commander and five other generals) and 5,083 high-ranking officers. Modern scholarship puts the count of those surrendering at more than 200,000: 189,112 Germans including 42 generals, and about 14,000 Latvians. The Soviets also detained all males between the ages of 16 and 60, and undertook a major programme of deforestation, burning vast tracts of woods, to flush out elements of the anti-Soviet resistance.

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As of 5 November, the 16th Army comprised Generalleutnant Horst von Mellenthin’s (from 20 November General Philipp Kleffel’s, from December General Ernst-Anton von Krosigk’s and from March 1945 Generalleutnant Gottfried Weber’s XVI Corps, General Kurt Versock’s (from 20 April General Arthur Kullmer’s) XLIII Corps and SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Walther Krüger’s VI SS Corps; and the 18th Army comprised General Theodor Busse’s (from 20 January 1945 General Friedrich Fangohr’s and from 20 April Generalleutnant Christian Usinger’s) I Corps, General Wilhelm Hasse’s (from 15 January 1945 General Dr Johannes Mayer’s and from 1 April Generalleutnant Alfred Gause’s) II Corps, General Hermann Foertsch’s (from 21 December Generalleutnant Dr Ing Johannes Mayer’s and from 27 December General Siegfried Thomaschki’s) X Corps, and SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Felix Steiner’s (from 9 November SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Georg Keppler’s and from 4 February 1945 SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Matthias Kleinheisterkamp’s) III SS Panzerkorps (germanische). The 16th Army had no reserve, while the 18th Army's reserves were the 52nd Division, 300th Division and 563rd Division. The three armoured divisions which served in the Kurland pocket were the 4th Panzerdivision, the 12th Panzerdivision and the 14th Panzerdivision, of which the last was evacuated in January 1945.