Motovka Bay Landing Operation

The 'Motovka Bay Landing Operation' was a Soviet amphibious assault by elements of the Northern Fleet on a German stronghold on the south coast of Motovka Bay on the Arctic Ocean coast at the extreme northern end of the Eastern Front (17/18 September 1942).

On the basis of the success of the Soviet marine force in the 'Cape Pikshuyev Landing Operation' on 5 September, the commander of the Northern Fleet, Vitse Admiral Andrei G. Golovko, ordered the commander of the Northern Defence Region, General Major Sergei I. Kabanov, to plan and execute a larger amphibious operation to destroy the three of the German strongpoints created and manned by elements of Generaloberst Eduard Dietl’s 20th Gebirgsarmee on the southern coast of Motovka Bay. The Soviet rationale was that, if successful, such an undertaking would possibly remove the threat to Soviet shipping in the bay, reduce the vulnerability of the Allied convoys in the Barents Sea, and and facilitate the passage of supply vessels plying to and from parts of the Northern Defence Region cut off from the Soviet mainland on the Sredny and Rybachy peninsulas.

As events were to prove, Golovko overestimated the chances of this undertaking’s success. The smaller marine forces committed in the 'Cape Pikshuyev Landing Operation' had been submitted to a comparatively long programme of intensive training, but for this larger effort the marine forces were allocated a period of less than two days.

The landing was based on units of the Northern Fleet’s marine component, and involved three detachments: under the command of Captain V. S. Buryanov, the 400-man first detachment was a consolidated force of the 63rd Marine Brigade, engineers of the Northern Defence Region’s 338th Engineer Battalion, and the reconnaissance element of the Northern Fleet headquarters; under the command of Major A. P. Borovikov, the 300-man second detachment was provided by the 12th Marine Brigade; and the 200-man third detachment comprised one reinforced reconnaissance company of the 82nd Separate Naval Brigade of the main fleet base to be landed on the western coast of the Bolshaya Zapadnaya Litsa Bay.

The Soviet assault forces comprised some 900 men, and while overall control of the undertaking was the responsibility of Kabanov, local command was exercised by the commander of the 12th Separate Marine Brigade, Polkovnik V. V. Rassokhin. To transport and land this force, the Northern Fleet provided a number of motor boats, five patrol boats and six submarine chasers, and fire support was provided by five coastal artillery batteries on the southern shore of the Rybachy peninsula on the other side of Motovka Bay.

The first detachment had the task of destroying the German position at Mogilny. As this neared the point where it was to land, the detachment was detected by the Germans and thus came ashore under fire. The Germans had created effective defences, and machine gun fire repelled the Soviet attack, whose commander ordered a retreat to the landing site. As a result of an error by the commander of the boats, some of the assault force had been landed some distance from the intended point and played no part in the engagement, and the local commander became confused about the tactical situation and therefore could not properly organise the evacuation of his small force, which remained ashore for too long and ended in daylight under a hurricane of German artillery fire. Moreover, during a hasty withdrawal, part of the assault force (especially the men of the reconnaissance detachment of the fleet headquarters, who were farthest from the re-embarkation point) became separated and was surrounded by the Germans. Only combat experience and good training made it possible for this part of the assault force to escape: one group fought its way to the evacuation site just as the last boat was about to leave, and the other group escaped into the hills behind the German position. On the following night, these 18 men managed to reach the coast and were evacuated by a boat sent specially for their removal.

The detachment led by Borovikov, who had commanded the 'Cape Pikshuyev Landing Operation' earlier in the same month, as a result of its earlier and longer training was the only detachment able to complete its task of destroying the German position, that at Oberhof. Although the patrol boat SKA-216 ran aground some 220 yards (200 m) from the shore, the men it was carrying were able to swim ashore under German fire. The Germans did not spot and engage the other boats, and were therefore taken by surprise as the other part of this detachment landed. The assault units moved up the steep slopes of the area, reached the German strongpoint and threw grenades at it before the whole detachment burst into it. In this part of the undertaking, about 100 Germans were killed, and explosives were used by the Soviets to destroy 10 bunkers, dug-outs, some other structures and the stronghold’s ammunition dump. The detachment then withdrew in an organised manner back to the shore and re-embarked, its rearguard having ensured a reliable retreat by destroying one truck carrying German soldiers.

The boat which had run aground could not be removed during the night, and was therefore abandoned by its crew and destroyed by the fire of the other boats.

The third detachment had the task of destroying the Fischerstein strongpoint on the western shore of Bolshaya Zapadnaya Litsa Bay, and was thus operating in complete isolation from the first two detachments. The detachment could not complete its task and was evacuated.

According to the Soviets, the Germans suffered the loss of about 150 men, of whom about 100 fell to Borovikov’s detachment. One strongpoint was captured, but was then only partially destroyed for lack of adequate quantities of explosive, and the Soviet seized quantities od equipment and three prisoners.

The Soviet losses were also significant: about 100 men were killed, 20 men were missing, and there was also a moderately large number of wounded. During the 'Motovka Bay Landing Operation', the Soviets also lost one boat, and three more boats received significant damage and had to be taken in tow for repair.

The 'Motovka Bay Landing Operation' failed for four primary reasons. Firstly, the Germans had learned of the operation’s imminence by the grouping of the boats for the assault force on the Rybachy peninsula and for the movement of the Soviet force from Polyarny to Rybachy. Secondly, the unnecessary haste with which the operation had been readied and implemented resulted in a a number of errors: the commanders of the various boats did not properly study the difficulties of the coast in the landing zone; in the first detachment, the commanders lacked experience in both assault landings and the conduct of combat operations at night behind enemy lines; Buyanov did not attempt to locate and reintegrate the lost group and therefore started the attack on a well-prepared defensive position with a forces that was smaller than had been planned; and the commander of the group which had been landed at the wrong place could play no part in the undertaking. Thirdly, the commanders of the boats carrying the assault force opened return fire on the Germans too early in their approach to the shore, thereby revealing their location and losing all chance of securing tactical surprise. And fourthly, the commander of the Northern Fleet entrusted the conduct of a comparatively large and complex amphibious assault to the commander of the Northern Defence Region, who lacked the skills to supervise such an operation.