Moonzund Offensive Operation

This was a Soviet amphibious operation within the 'Baltic Strategic Offensive Operation' and designed to clear the forces of Generalfeldmarschall Ferdinand Schörner’s Heeresgruppe 'Nord' from the islands of the Moonzund archipelago in the Gulf of Riga (29 September/24 November 1944).

Formally known as the 'Moonzund Landing Operation' and partnered by the 'Riga Offensive Operation' (14 September/24 October), 'Tallinn Offensive Operation' (17/26 September) and 'Memel Offensive Operation' (27 September/24 November), the attack was entrusted to General Leytenant Filipp N. Starikov’s 8th Army of Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Leonid A. Govorov’s Leningrad Front. Occupying a key location in the mouth of the Gulf of Riga, these Estonian islands were defended largely by units of Generalleutnant Hans Schirmer’s 23rd Division, which had been split across the three islands and reinforced with a variety of artillery, coastal artillery, and assault engineer detachments.

The Estonian islands across the entrance to the Bay of Riga were held largely by units of Generalleutnant Hans Schirmer’s 23rd Division, which had been split across the three islands (Ösel [Saaremaa in Estonian] flanked to the north and north-east by the slightly smaller Dagö [Hiiumaa in Estonian] and considerably smaller Moon [Muhu in Estonian] islands) reinforced with a variety of artillery, coastal artillery and assault engineer detachments.

The islands dominate the sea lanes to Helsinki, St Petersburg (Leningrad), Tallinn (Reval) as well as the Bay of Riga, and almost completely flat. Most of the islands comprise woods, marshes and fields, and much of the surrounding area of the Baltic Sea is shallow, making it unsuitable for major vessels.

The USSR established garrisons on the islands after the Soviet occupation of Estonia in 1940, but in September and October 1941, after their 'Barbarossa' invasion of the USSR, the Germans captured the islands with landings launched from the Estonian west coast in 'Beowulf'.

The Soviet forces assigned to the 'Moonzund Landing Operation' were General Leytenant Lembit Pärn’s VIII Estonian Corps and General Major Nikolai A. Trushkin’s CVIII Corps, which were given the order to advance on 29 September . The troops were transported to the first beachhead at Kuivastu on Moon using Lend-Lease landing craft, including DUKW amphibious trucks.

Many of the attacking troops were Estonians, most of them conscripted into the ranks of the advancing Soviet army in line with the general practice as the Soviets recaptured territories. While boosting the units' strength on paper, these untrained conscripts often had severely limited combat capability. The Finnish 'Arho' Detachment was also involved in the operation, especially on 4/5 October, to provide logistic support to the Soviet infantry. The controlling committee for Moscow’s intermediate peace treaty between the USSR and Finland had asked for 100 galeas small sailing vessels and 100 motor boats with Finnish crews, but Finland had been able to renegotiate the number of vessels to half of what had been demanded.

As the Soviet forces landed, the Germans withdraw their garrisons on Moon and Dagö islands, and also destroyed the causeway between Moon and Ösel. The landing of Generalleutnant Viktor Lang’s 218th Division and Generalmajor Gottfried Weber’s 12th Luftwaffe Felddivision further reinforce the German position.

The Soviet plan had originally envisaged clearing the archipelago not later than 5 October but bad weather and German resistance interfered with their advance. However, after securing Dagö, Soviet forces eventually landed between Jaani and Keskvere on Ösel’s northern coast on 5 October.

The German forces retreated across Ösel with occasional rearguard actions, for they planned to make their stand at the narrow and therefore more easily defensible Sőrve peninsula on the south-western side of Ösel. Several sharp engagements took place, most notably the Battle of Tehumardi, but by 8 October all remaining German forces had been forced back to the peninsula. The rest of the island, including the town of Arensburg (Kuressaare in Estonian), was now in the hands of the Soviets, who reinforced their forces with General Leytenant Nikolai P. Simoniak�s (from 9 October General Major Afanasi F. Shcheglov�s XXX Guards Corps.

The Battle of Tehumardi was one of the most brutal engagements during the fighting on Ösel. In this engagement, two infantry battalions of the 67th Potsdam Grenadierregiment from the 23rd Division had occupied a defensive position on the Nasva river, just to the west of Arensburg. The two battalions were part of the Kampfgruppe 'Eulenburg', most of which already had taken up positions on the Sőrve peninsula. Commanded by Hauptmann H. Ulrichs and Hauptmann Klaus Ritter respectively, the two much reduced battalions together totalled about 700 to 750 men. As they were unable to communicate with their parent unit and they felt increasingly isolated, toward 00.00 on 8 October the two commanding officers decided to retreat to Sőrve.

Meanwhile, bypassing the German position on the Nasva river, Soviet units moved south to occupy positions astride the main road leading to the peninsula. These Soviet units were elements of the 307th Anti-Tank Battalion of the 249th Estonian Division, about 370 men under the command of Mayór V. Miller, and later in the same night were joined by by about 300 men of the 1/917th Regiment under the command of Mayór G. Karaulnov, who were advancing down a secondary road leading to the small village of Tehumardi. This little settlement lay just before the bottleneck by which the peninsula joined the main island. For lack of reconnaissance, Soviets were unaware of the withdrawing German units, and the stage was set for a confused night battle when the forces met head-on.

The Germans feared being left behind as stragglers, and the reality of this fear soon proved to be true as the only road had already been deliberately cratered by other German units as they pulled back into the peninsula. Bypassing this obstacle took some time as the two battalions' vehicles were slowly pulled across with the help of a recently captured M3 Stuart light tank which had been delivered to the USSR as US Lend-Lease equipment.

Suspecting a Soviet presence in the vicinity, the German soldiers were ordered to keep as silent as possible, and then broke through the Soviet positions with a sudden attack. The two battalions divided, the 1/67th Grenadierregiment moving along the waterline and the 2/67th Grenadierregiment moving along the main road in parallel at a distance of about 220 yards(200 m).

The [2/67th Grenadierregiment soon found itself marching alongside a Soviet unit, which took the German unit to be another Soviet unit and gave way. Flares revealed the real situation, and this started the engagement.

The 1/267th Grenadierregiment was quickly overwhelmed, but the Germans then ran into the anti-tank positions of the 370th Anti-Tank Battalion. Fought in the dark hours, the engagement disintegrated into chaotic hand-to-hand combat characterised by heavy losses on both sides, but the Germans managed to break through toward the peninsula. The German actions kept the Soviets occupied, however, and the 1/67th Grenadierregiment, moving along the edge of the water, took no part in the fighting and suffered no losses.

Most of the Germans were able to break through to join the defence of the Sőrve peninsula, but almost 200 men had been lost. Captured German soldiers were shot, as happened consistently during the fighting on the island. Most of the German vehicles, including the light tank and a self-propelled FlaK gun, were left behind. The Soviets lost about 200 men killed, including Miller, and an unknown number of wounded. At least one tank and several guns were also knocked out.

The action delayed the Soviet attack on the peninsula, giving the Germans more time to improve their defences. But the hard-pressed German forces could ill afford losses in equipment and manpower at this stage of the war. After several weeks more of bitter fighting, the Sőrve peninsula, and thereby the entire island of Saaremaa, was evacuated by the Germans on the 23/24 November.

The Soviet attacks failed to make significant early progress, for the Germans had constructed solid defensive positions based on the remnants of the Soviet positions of 1941. To provide an observation platform in the flat terrain, the Soviets used two tethered observation balloons, from which they were able to direct artillery fire against German positions and supply columns.

The Soviets tried launching more amphibious attacks behind the German lines, but these were repulsed with severe losses. A few days before the end of the battle, the Germans received effective naval gunfire support from naval vessels including the pocket battleship Admiral Scheer and heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen. The warships' guns were accurate and hard-hitting, but it was now a matter of support which was too little and too late. The Soviets also had naval support, and there were several minor clashes between German and Soviet warships. After several weeks of fighting, the most powerful German formation, the 12th Luftwaffe Felddivision was pulled back to the Kurland peninsula in Latvia on 12 November, and this made inevitable the German retirement back to successive defensive lines. After the end of the operation, the Soviets reported that they had killed as many as 7,000 Germans and taken prisoner some 700.

As the tide of the war on the Eastern Front started to turn against the Germans, Adolf Hitler increasingly forbade any thought of German retreat, even from areas of dubious military value. Thus the Germans clung to the island of Ösel long after the main front had passed, removing its strategic and tactical value. And with the winter of 1944/45 approaching, the shallow water round the archipelago would have frozen, making it impossible for the weak German forces to continue their hold on the island.

By 23 November, the German defences had become untenable, and Schörner gave the order to evacuate the island even though this went entirely contrary to Hitler’s 'no retreat' order. Although Schörner got away with this: most other commanders would probably have been removed from their posts, but whether this resulted from Schörner’s openly Nazi sympathies or Hitler’s secret realisation that he had acted in militarily the right thing is unknown.

By the early hours of 24 November, all of the surviving German troops had been moved be sea to Windau (Ventspils in Latvian) on the embattled Kurland peninsula by a naval force under the command of Generalmajor Karl Henke. About 4,500 men, including 700 wounded, had been evacuated, and this represented around one-quarter of the original German strength. Previous casualties had been evacuated earlier in this little campaign, along with Soviet prisoners and a large number of Estonian civilians seeking to avoid the return of Soviet rule. All remaining guns and vehicles were destroyed and left, and 1,400 horses were shot, to prevent their use by the Soviets.