Madona Offensive Operation

The 'Madona Offensive Operation' was a Soviet undertaking in Latvia by General Andrei I. Eremenko’s 2nd Baltic Front against elements of Generaloberst Ferdinand Schörner’s Heeresgruppe 'Nord' (1/28 August 1944).

In a directive of 4 July, after the liberation of Rezekne and Daugavpils, the Soviet high command instructed the 2nd Baltic Front to advance toward Riga, Latvia’s main city and a port on the Gulf of Riga, itself on the eastern side of the Baltic Sea. In response to this order, the front’s staff planned the 'Madona Offensive Operation', whose first stage recognised the need to cross the eastern Latvian lowland in the area of Lubans lake and then reach the line between Madona and Plavinas.

The lowland of eastern Latvia extends on a north/south axis for some miles from a northern limit near the towns of Gulbene and Balva and stretching to the south to the Daugava (Zapadnaya Dvina in Russian) river. The lowland’s width is more than 30 miles (50 km), and in almost its very centre is Lubans lake. The lowland is almost entirely wetland, although there are a few small hills, and there area almost no roads.

The area was the junction of General Carl Hilpert’s 16th Army and General Ehrenfried Boege’s 18th Army, the two primary formations of Schörner’s Heeresgruppe 'Nord'. The Germans considered the lowland to be militarily impassable, and to prevent it from being bypassed they created significant defensive positions on its north and southern flanks, where the plain, though still swampy, was more or less passable. In the sector facing the 2nd Baltic Front, the Germans deployed 10 divisions and five separate regiments, as well as a reserve in the Madona area comprising, among others, SS-Obergruppenführer Walther Krüger’s VI SS Korps (lettische). The defensive line to the east of Madona and Plavinas was held by German rather than Latvian volunteer forces.

Eremenko was forced to direct his front’s main efforts to bypass the lowland area, but at the same time he decided to create a moderately large force to attack directly through the swampy terrain and thus bypass the Germans' fortified positions. The 'Madona Offensive Operation' was to begin immediately after the 'Rezhitska-Dvinsk Offensive Operation' and, by a new Soviet high command directive of 28 July, was to capture the line linking Golgauska, Madona and Krustpils no later than 2 August before reaching and taking Riga and the coast of the Gulf of Riga no later than 10 August. For its task, the 2nd Baltic Front had 390,000 men.

Preparing for the 'Madona Offensive Operation' even as the 'Rezhitska-Dvinsk Offensive Operation' was being fought, Eremenko ordered each of his front’s armies to withdraw one infantry corps into the front’s reserve and bring them up to strength in men and weapons so that they could be committed immediately after the seizure of the Rezekne border area and Daugavpils into a rapid advance into the eastern Latvian lowland. Immediately after the liberation of Rezekne and Daugavpils, between 28 and 31 July these reserved formations advanced some 15.5 and 18.67 miles (25 and 30 km) into the eastern Latvian lowland. In response, the Germans committed SS-Gruppenführer Bruno Streckenbach’s 19th Waffen-Grenadierdivision der SS (lettische Nr 2).

Eremenko ordered the operation on 29 July and on the following day the Soviet forces allocated to the undertaking started preliminary operations pending the formal start of the offensive on 1 August. The plan for the 'Madona Offensive Operation' involved General Leytenant Mikhail I. Kazakov’s 10th Guards Army, General Leytenant Vasili A. Yushkevich’s (from 16 August General Leytenant Mikhail N. Gerasimov’s) 3rd Shock Army and General Leytenant Piotr F. Malyshev’s 4th Shock Army, which swept into the eastern Latvian lowland with a pause, overcame the 'impassable' wooded and swampy terrain, and defeated all attempted counterattacks. By the end of 31 July, the Soviet forces had advanced between 1.85 and 3.75 miles (3 and 6 km) and captured the city of Lebanon. General Leytenant Gennadi P. Korotkov’s 22nd Army advanced along the valley of the Daugava river.

In the offensive’s first stage, it was the 10th Guards Army which achieved the greatest success: by 31 July it reached the line of the Padeze river and forced it on the night of 1 August; cut the road linking Lubana and Balva; advanced 6.2 miles (10 km) and on 2 August took Varakljani and one day later Barkava. On 5 and 6 August, the army was involved in fierce fighting as it deepened its penetration to 10 miles (16 km) and reached the eastern bank of the Gauja river, where it seized a serviceable railway bridge and a bridgehead on its western bank in the region to the north-west of Taralki.

The 3rd Shock Army supported the offensive in the north-western part of the eastern Latvian lowland along the railway line linking Krustpils and Varaklany, where it fought it way forward over large swamps. On 6 August, the 3rd Shock Army overran a major centre of resistance at Ojiena and crossed the Aiviekste river.

On the 2nd Baltic Front’s left flank, the 22nd Army operated under approximately the same conditions. Among the army’s forces as the CXXX Latvian Corps, which on 7 August cut off and surrounded the German forces in the area of Krustpils, and the following day was supported by the V Tank Corps in destroying this grouping and taking this city, where more than 500 Germans were taken prisoner. However, the Soviet troops also suffered significant losses, including three senior commanders including that of the Latvian corps.

The 4th Shock Army took the city of Lebanon on 1 August, but its subsequent advance was notable for its low rate.

By the evening of 7 August, the Soviet forces had largely crossed the eastern Latvian lowland, and on this day the 93rd Guards Regiment of the 10th Guards Army’s 29th Guards Division made a bold dash to the railway and road, which it cut 3.75 miles (6 km) to the north-east of Madona. The German responded in force, threw the Soviet regiment back in a fierce counterattack, and cut it off from the Soviet main forces. For almost a day, the regiment held out until the approach of the main forces.

On 7 August the Soviets took the stations of Lubana and Mairana, and the army’s slow progress continued over the following days in the face of stubborn German resistance.

On 9 August, Soviet units cut the railway linking Gulbene and Madona. On 12 August, Lazdona was taken and units of the 10th Guards Army reached the outskirts of Madona, which the German had turned into a major centre of resistance. During the night, divisions of the army almost completely surrounded the town, which fell to the Soviet forces during the afternoon of 13 August after an assault from three sides.

In the course of the fighting in the eastern Latvian lowland and on the approaches to Madona, the Soviet forces defeated Generalmajor Rudolf Sieckenius’s 263rd Division, Generalleutnant Hans Boekh-Behrens’s (from 13 August Generalmajor Georg Kossmala’s) newly deployed 32nd Division, Generalmajor Maximilian Wengler’s 227th Division and the remnants of Streckenbach’s 19th Waffen-Grenadierdivision der SS (lettische Nr 2), reinforced by nine special battalions. New formations and units, including Generalleutnant Kurt Versock’s 24th Division, nonetheless entered the battle. Even so, in just 10 days, the 2nd Baltic Front’s forces had crossed the eastern Latvian lowland, taken several German strongpoints and captured seven towns.

On 14 August, Eremenko decided to realign his forces' primary axis, and transferred the CXXX Latvian Corps to the area of Graudite and Vevere. On 17 August the corps went over to the offensive once again, and on this day broke through the German defences, forced three river lines off the march and took the major station in Kalsnava. By 24 August the corps had reached the area of Vietalva and there went over to the defensive.

In the front’s other sectors, after capturing Madona, Soviet troops managed only with great difficulty to advance, and then only over short distances. They failed to break through the defensive line linking Madona and Plavinas, and only on 17/18 August could they take Ergli, destroy a German force which lost as many as 2,500 men killed or taken prisoner, and advance 15.5 miles (25 km) in the only Soviet success of this sector. As was their wont, the Germans launched a stream of powerful counterattacks, sometimes as many as four to six, in any one area, and even pushed the Soviet forces at Ergli back as far as 1.85 miles (3 km) in some places. On 28 August, the 2nd Baltic Front went over to the defensive to prepare for the 'Riga Offensive Operation' of the 'Baltic Strategic Offensive Operation'.

In almost one month of combat, the 2nd Baltic Front had advanced as much as 55 miles (90 km), of which some 30 miles (50 km) had been through the eastern Latvian lowland. The Soviets reckoned that their forces had killed more than 20,000 Germans, and captured 1,782 men, 10 tanks, 184 pieces of artillery and 103 mortars. The Germans had been compelled to redeploy five infantry divisions from other sectors of the front.

The 2nd Baltic Front’s losses amounted to 14,669 men killed or missing, and 50.737 men wounded or taken ill.

The most notable aspect of the 'Madona Offensive Operation' had been the implementation of large-scale operations in swampy areas. Although the Germans had been unable to stop the Soviet offensive in the swamps, they had been able significantly to slow the pace of the Soviet offensive and eventually to exhaust the Soviet forces. The Germans had made extensive use of specially created defensive strongpoints on heights and at crossroads, fortified lines along the banks of numerous rivers, and the effective use of massive artillery and mortar concentrations from dominant heights. The Germans had also made use of strong rearguard elements to cover their withdrawals and to occupy the next line in the depth of their defence.

The Soviets made extensive use of switches in direction in swampy terrain and the transfer of the main blows to new axes. This allowed their passage over the lowland, but at a very low rate averaging just 1.25 to 2.5 miles (2 to 4 km) per day: only on the most successful days did the advance cover between 6.2 and 9.33 miles (10 and 15 km). Thus the 2nd Baltic Front only reached the start line for the offensive to Riga almost one month later than had initially been ordered.