Operation Moorbrand

peat fire

This was a German unrealised operation for Generaloberst Georg Lindemann’s 18th Army of Generalfeldmarschall Georg von Küchler’s Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ to halt Soviet relief attempts for Leningrad, principally the ‘Sinyavino’ offensive of General Kirill A. Meretskov’s Volkhov Front, and to eliminate the Soviet bridgehead near Volkhov (July/September 1942).

This was one of three sub-operations associated with ‘Nordlicht’ (ii), the planned final destruction of Leningrad, the other two being undertaken as ‘Schlingpflanze’ to widen the corridor to the German pocket round Demyansk to the south of Leningrad, and ‘Bettelstab’ to destroy the Soviet coastal pocket round Oranienbaum to the west of Leningrad.

Like Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge’s Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, von Küchler’s Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ was assigned a secondary role for the summer of 1942, but with a difference inasmuch as it still had a mission with prospective strategic implications as, under the Führerweisung Nr 41 of 5 April 1942, it was to destroy Leningrad, establish overland contact with the Finnish forces on the Karelian isthmus, and occupy Ingermanland (the area of the Soviet forces’ Oranienbaum pocket) ‘as soon as the [Soviet] situation in the enveloped areas or the availability of otherwise sufficient forces permits’.

Although its execution was deferred, the mission was, in Adolf Hitler’s thinking, considerably more than one of opportunity. His concern went back to the autumn of 1941 and especially to the failure in December to establish contact with the Finns on the Svir river after which Sotamarsalkka Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim, the Finnish army’s commander in chief, had made it clear that the Finnish forces would not take the offensive anywhere until they had been relieved, at the very least, of the need to hold a front to the north-west of Leningrad. In the early winter, on Hitler’s instruction, Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ had drafted its ‘Nordlicht’ (ii) plan to take Leningrad. However, then overtaken by its subsequent problems as it was stripped of some of its strength and hit by Soviet offensives, the army group had not taken the plan beyond the concept stage but, for Hitler at least as indicated by the Führerweisung Nr 41, the plan had continued to occupy a high-priority position. Hitler appreciated full well that, barring anything but a catastrophic Soviet collapse, the destruction of Leningrad, which during the winter had achieved heroic stature right round the world for its sufferings and defence, could not be secured except at great cost.

Planned for implementation in the summer of 1942, ‘Nordlicht’ (ii) would thus have to be a major undertaking which would need very much larger resources than Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ currently possessed or was likely to receive in the neat future.

On 30 June, at Hitler’s ‘Wolfsschanze’ headquarters in East Prussia, von Küchler was promoted from Generaloberst to Generalfeldmarschall, and briefed Hitler on all the operations, except ‘Nordlicht’ (ii), which his army group might undertake after it had rested and rehabilitated its formations and received its scheduled troop and equipment replacements. von Küchler listed five possibilities: ‘Brückenschlag’ as a joint undertaking with Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ to take Ostashkov; a widening of the corridor to the Demyansk pocket; the elimination of the Soviet bridgehead at Volkhov and/or the Pogostye salient; and occupation of Ingermanland. Of these, von Küchler listed the Demyansk corridor, the Pogostye pocket and the Ostashkov operation as urgent.

von Küchler returned to his own headquarters on 1 July and put his staff to work on two operations, ‘Schlingpflanze’ and ‘Moorbrand’. ‘Schlingpflanze’ was designed to widen the corridor to the Demyansk pocket on its northern side, and was to be implemented first because General Walter Graf von Brockdorff-Ahlefeldt’s II Corps in the Demyansk pocket could not survive without air supply as, beside from being exposed to Soviet fire from each of its sides, the lines of communication which the Germans had been able to hack along the corridor were always muddy and, when it rained, underwater.

‘Moorbrand’ was designed to pinch out the Pogostye salient and so, von Küchler believed, limit the Soviet options for deployment between the Volkhov river and Lake Ladoga. Hitler had liked the idea because, while the terrain was generally unsuitable for motor vehicles of any description, the German armour might be able to operate on the railway embankment which crossed the base of the salient.

On 2 July, the Oberkommando des Heeres informed the Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ that a special artillery reconnaissance group was being sent to check the ground between the Leningrad front and the Oranienbaum pocket for the emplacement of very heavy artillery: Hitler was going to order the transfer of the 800-mm (31.5-in) ‘Dora’, which was the second of two huge pieces of railway artillery and had just completed its work in the ‘Storfang’ reduction of the Sevastopol fortress in Crimea, to the north for use against Kronshtadt, the Soviet naval fortress on Kotlin island in the Gulf of Finland. With its ring of forts on surrounding small islands and 3 miles (4.8 km) of water separating it from the mainland, Kronshtadt was a worthy companion to Sevastopol at completely the other end of the German front in the USSR. In the next two weeks, Hitler added to ‘Dora’ the 420-mm (16.54-in) ‘Gamma’ mortar and 600-mm (23.62-in) ‘Karl’ gun batteries, the other siege artillery from Sevastopol, as well as four batteries of super-heavy artillery ranging in calibre from 240 to 400 mm (9.45 to 15.75 in) which had not been at Sevastopol. All, including ‘Dora’, for which a 5-mile (8-km) railway spur would have to be built, were to be emplaced by the last week in August. As so much artillery would not be tactically profitable, given the cost of its movement and of its ammunition, in the bombardment of Kronshtadt alone, most of it was to be sited in locations from which it could also engage targets in the Oranienbaum lodgement. Lindemann’s 18th Army then also began to develop an infantry operation against the lodgement under the codename ‘Bettelstab’.

Before the 18th Army and Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ completed their first estimates for ‘Bettelstab’, Hitler’s attention was turning once more toward Leningrad. In a message of 18 July to the operations branch of the Oberkommando des Heeres, Hitler announced that ‘Blucher’ (ii), the amphibious assault across the Kerch Strait from eastern Crimea into the Taman peninsula, would be cancelled as soon as the Don river had been crossed in ‘Blau III’ (otherwise ‘Dampfhammer’) and the ‘Edelweiss’ break of Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm List’s Heeresgruppe ‘A’ into the Caucasus region from the north was assured. The German divisions thereby released would be transferred out of Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein’s 11th Army and sent to the north for the capture of Leningrad. Hitler made this decision final in his Führerweisung Nr 45 of 23 July. Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ was to receive five divisions from the 11th Army in addition to the heavy artillery already on the way, and was to be ready by a time early in September to take Leningrad.

Two days early, in Führerweisung Nr 44, Hitler had ordered Generaloberst Eduard Dietl to ready his 20th Gebirgsarmee for a combined German and Finnish offensive to the line of the railway along the western side of the White Sea linking Murmansk with the rest of the USSR, on the assumption that Leningrad would be taken by September at the latest and that Finnish forces would be released from the Karelian isthmus front. Initially given the codename ‘Feuerzauber’, the operation against Leningrad had its designation changed after a week to ‘Nordlicht’ (ii) for correspondence above 18th Army level and ‘Georg’ within this army.

Hitler next instructed von Küchler to complete the planning and execution of the ‘Schlingpflanze’, ‘Moorbrand’ and ‘Bettelstab’ operations by the beginning of September. The army group knew from the start, as in all probability did Hitler, that anything of the sort was impossible within the allotted time because armour, troops, artillery, ammunition and, most particularly, air support could not be gathered for more than one operation at a time. As it turned out, ‘Nordlicht’ (ii) in part afforded and in part compelled the solution. From the start, ‘Bettelstab’ had not raised any real enthusiasm in the army group, and as it could probably be implemented more easily after rather than before ‘Nordlicht’ (ii), it was postponed. On the other hand, the army group saw ‘Schlingpflanze’ and ‘Moorbrand’ as more vital than ‘Nordlicht’ (ii) to its continuing survival in the approaching winter. But ‘Nordlicht’ (ii) was more important to Hitler and, presumably, to German grand strategy. When the early estimates revealed that the 18th Army could not gather sufficient strength to implement both ‘Moorbrand’ and ‘Nordlicht’ (ii), even in succession, von Küchler cancelled ‘Moorbrand’, which left only ‘Schlingpflanze’.

This last, as well as being the only survivor of the three so-called ‘local operations’, was also the only one which was anywhere near ready for execution. Generaloberst Ernst Busch’s 16th Army had positioned the formations for the operation in the middle of July and had been set to begin the undertaking on 19 July before bad flying weather and Soviet attacks on the perimeter of the II Corps forced successive postponements. Later, a lingering spell of heavy rain flooded the entire area between the pocket and the main front.

At the turn of the month, von Küchler and Busch were waiting for three or four dry days but were almost at the point of starting ‘Schlingpflanze’ regardless of the weather because the II Corps was as straitened as it had been in the height of the previous winter: the corridor was underwater, and the airlift was managing to deliver only between 30% and 40% of its daily supply requirements. On 4 August, however, ‘Schlingpflanze’ suffered another setback when all of the ground support and fighter aircraft assigned for it were flown out to help Generaloberst Heinrich-Gottfried von Vietinghoff-Scheel’s 9th Army at Rzhev.