This was a Soviet sub-operation within the ‘Leningrad-Novgorod Strategic Offensive Operation’ to drive the Germans from the approaches of Leningrad and then to expel them from the north-western USSR along the coast of the Baltic Sea (2 February/26 July 1944).
The operation thus took place on the northern sector of the Eastern Front between Generalfeldmarschall Water Model’s (from 31 March Generaloberst Georg Lindemann’s, from 4 July Generaloberst Johannes Friessner’s and from 25 July Generalfeldmarschall Ferdinand Schörner’s) Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ and General Kirill A. Meretskov’s Volkhov Front and Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Leonid A. Govorov’s Leningrad Front. The German forces, it is worth noting, included a major component of Estonian conscript and volunteer formations of the Waffen-SS defending their country against the possibility of Soviet reoccupation.
Terrain played a more than normally significant role in the operation, especially round Narva on the Narva river connecting Lake Peipus with the Gulf of Finland in the area to the south-west of Leningrad. The land near Narva rarely rises to a height of anything more than 330 ft (100 m) above sea level, and is cut by numerous waterways including the Luga, Narva and Plyussa rivers. Most of the region is forested, and large swamps soak the lower areas. The effect of the terrain on operations in 1944 was to channel the fighting into the less low-lying areas, and as a result of the numerous swamps only certain areas were suitable for large-scale troop movements.
The area between the northern end of Lake Peipus and the Gulf of Finland constitutes a natural chokepoint: this 28-mile (45-km) strip of land is bisected into eastern and western halves by the Narva river, and in 1944 was also characterised by large areas of wilderness. The primary transportation routes, a road and a railway, ran east/west near to and parallel with the coast, and there were no other east/west transport routes capable of sustaining major troop movements.
On 14 January 1944, the Leningrad Front and Volkhov Front launched the 'Leningrad-Novgorod Strategic Offensive Operation', and within this the ‘Krasnoye Selo-Ropša Offensive Operation’ (otherwise 'Neva-2' and 'Yanvar' Grom') designed specifically to force Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ from its positions near Oranienbaum and then, in the main offensive part of the strategic plan, out of the area of the USSR lying to the south and south-west of Leningrad, and thence back into Estonia. In the process, the attack was expected to encircle Lindemann’s 18th Army.
General Leytenant Ivan I. Fedyuninsky’s 2nd Shock Army (Major General Pavel A. Artyushenko’s XIV Corps, General Leytenant Nikolai P. Simoniak’s XXX Guards Corps, General Major Anatoli I. Andreyev’s XLIII Corps and General Major Ivan P. Alferov’s CIX Corps) fell on the 18th Army from the Oranienbaum lodgement on the south shore of the Gulf of Finland in the area to the west of Leningrad, and other advances were made by General Leytenant Ivan I. Maslennikov’s 42nd Army from the area to the east and south of Leningrad, supported on its left by General Leytenant Sergei V. Roginsky’s 57th Army of the Leningrad Front and farther to the south by General Leytenant Filipp N. Starikov’s 8th Army, General Leytenant Sergei V. Roginsky’s 54th Army and General Leytenant Ivan T. Korovnikov’s 59th Army of the Volkhov Front.
The hardest-hit sector, which was attacked by the 2nd Shock Army and 42nd Army, was that of SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Felix Steiner’s III SS Panzerkorps (germanisch), within which the formations which bore the brunt of the Soviet offensive were Generalmajor Ernst Michael’s (from 22 January Generalmajor Heinrich Geerkens’s) 9th Felddivision (L) and Generalleutnant Hermann von Wedel’s 10th Felddivision (L). By the third day of the offensive, the 2nd Shock Army had broken through the German line in a penetration some 14.25 miles (23 km) wide. Not composed of first-rate ground troops, the two ex-Luftwaffe formations broke rapidly, and Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ was soon compelled to fall back toward new positions around the Narva river in Estonia. In a decisive Soviet assault on 19 January, two regiments of the XXX Guards Corps’ 63rd Guards Division seized German positions to the front of Krasnoye Selo. On the same day, the 2nd Shock Army took Ropša and the 42nd Army liberated Krasnoye Selo to complete the ‘Krasnoye Selo-Ropša Offensive Operation’. By 30 January the offensive by the 2nd Shock and 42nd Armies had inflicted some 21,000 casualties on the Germans, captured 85 pieces of heavy artillery, and pushed the Germans back between 37 and 62 miles (60 and 100 km).
The Soviets had thus reached a line extending from a point just to the south of Chudovo as far as the Luga river in the area to the south-east of Kingisepp, so freeing two railway lines vital to the resupply of Leningrad (from the east and south-east). The way to the opening of a third railway line, from Novgorod on the northern end of Lake Ilmen to the south-south-east of Leningrad, had been eased by the advance of the 59th Army which had, by 30 January, taken Novgorod and the north-western shore of Lake Ilmen as far to the west as Shimsk, and additionally driven a salient as far to the west as a point between the towns of Luga and Utorgosh.
To the south of the Volkhov Front, General Polkovnik Markian M. Popov’s 2nd Baltic Front had made a small advance from Velikiye Luka, in the area of General Christian Hansen’s 16th Army of Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’, to take the area round Narva. By 15 February, the day after the Volkhov Front had ceased to exist in preparation for the establishment of General Polkovnik Ivan I. Maslennikov’s 3rd Baltic Front, the Soviet offensive had continued farther to the west, the northern forces taking all of the north-western part of the USSR as far as the Narva river and the eastern shore of Lake Peipus in the west and to a line between Lake Ilmen and the narrows separating Lakes Peipus and Lake Pskovskoye in the south. The 2nd Baltic Front had also made another small advance in the extreme south of the offensive before, between 15 February and the end of the same month driving back the 16th Army to a line between Pskov in the north and Pustoshya in the south via Ostrov and Novorhez.
In overall terms, therefore, the operations of the Leningrad and Volkhov Fronts had finally broken the siege of Leningrad, concluding an almost 900-day struggle.
On 1 February the 2nd Shock Army’s CIX Corps captured Kingisepp on the Luga river. The III SS Panzerkorps constituted the German rearguard, fighting many bloody checking actions until it reached positions on the eastern bank of the Narva river. Pushing forward to the west, the 2nd Shock Army’s XLIII Corps established a shallow bridgehead across the Narva to the north of the city of Narva on 2 February, and on the next day the CXXII Corps of the 2nd Shock Army crossed the Narva river to the south of the town, establishing two more bridgeheads.
On the Narva front the Soviet forces were deployed with the 2nd Shock Army in the sector facing the German bridgehead and north to the Gulf of Finland, the 59th Army to the south of the city of Narva, and the 8th Army from a point south of the 59th Army to Lake Peipus.
The Oberkommando des Heeres believed it was crucial to stabilise the German front on the Narva river as a Soviet breakthrough in this small sector of the Eastern Front would mean the loss of the north coast of Estonia, and with it control of the Gulf of Finland, so providing Vitse Admiral Vladimir F. Tributs’s Soviet Baltic Fleet, currently bottled up at Leningrad and Kronshtadt, with simple access to the main part of the Baltic Sea. This liberation of the Baltic Fleet would in turn threaten the German shipping carrying iron ore from Sweden, jeopardise the continued German control of the entire Baltic Sea coast, and in all probability force Finland to leave the war as a German co-belligerent. The loss of Narva would also deprive Germany of fuel derived from the nearby Kohtla-Järve oil shale deposits, some 20 miles (32 km) to the west of Narva on the coast.
Otherwise known as the Battle of Narva, the ‘Narva Offensive Operation’ pitted the Leningrad Front against General Otto Sponheimer’s Gruppe 'Sponheimer' (from 23 February the Armeegruppe 'Narwa' and from May 1944 the Armeeabteilung ‘Narwa’) as the Soviets and Germans fought for possession of the strategically important Narva isthmus between 2 February and 10 August 1944. A campaign rather than a battle, these events occurred in the northern part of the Eastern Front, and comprised two major phases in the form of the Battle for the Narva Bridgehead (2 February/26 July) and the Battle of the Tannenberg-Stellung (26 July/10 August). The two battles fell within the overall scope of the Soviet ‘Leningrad-Novgorod Strategic Offensive Operation’ (14 January/1 March) and four-phase ‘Narva Offensive Operation’ (15/28 February, 1/4 March, 18/24 March and 24/30 July), and as such were parts of the Soviet winter and spring campaign of 1944.
Planned and undertaken within the ‘broad front’ strategy demanded by Iosif Stalin, the Soviet leader, the two battles overlapped the ‘Dniepr-Carpathian Strategic Offensive Operation’ (24 December 1943/17 April 1944) at their beginning, the ‘Belorussian Strategic Offensive Operation’ (23 June/29 August 1944) in their middle and the ‘Lwów-Sandomierz Strategic Offensive Operation’ (13 July/29 August 1944) at their end.
A considerable number of foreign volunteers and, as noted above, Estonian conscripts and volunteers were involved in the fighting as part of the German-led forces: by giving its support to the German call for volunteers and indeed conscripts, the Estonian resistance movement hoped to create the beginnings of a national army and also to restore an independent Estonian nation.
As a continuation of the ‘Leningrad-Novgorod Strategic Offensive Operation’, the Soviet thrust into Estonia drove the northern part of the Eastern Front westward to the line of the Narva river as it sought to destroy the Armeegruppe 'Narwa' and drive deep into Estonia with the longer-term object of reaching the east coast of the Baltic Sea. Soviet formations and units had established a number of bridgeheads on the western bank of the Narva river during February, while the Germans maintained their own bridgehead on the same river’s eastern bank, though subsequent attempts failed to enlarge their toehold. German counterattacks destroyed the Soviet bridgeheads to the north of the city of Narva, and reduced the bridgehead to the city’s south, thereby stabilising the front until July 1944. Then the fourth phase of the ‘Narva Offensive Operation’ in the last week of July 1944 led to the Soviet capture of the city, which compelled the Germans to fall back to the prepared positions of their ‘Tannenberg-Stellung’ defences in the Sinimäed hills some 10 miles (16 km) to the west of Narva. In the Battle of the ‘Tannenberg-Stellung’ which followed, the Germans held their ground, and Stalin failed to achieve his primary strategic goal of a swift recovery of Estonia as a base for air and seaborne attacks against Finland and an invasion of East Prussia. The sturdy defence of the German forces thus hampered the Soviet war effort in the Baltic Sea region for a period of just less than eight months.
As noted above, on 14 January 1944 the Leningrad Front had launched its ‘Krasnoye Selo-Ropša Offensive Operation’ as the first element of the ‘Leningrad-Novgorod Strategic Offensive Operation’ with the object of driving the German 18th Army back from its positions surrounding the Soviet lodgement round Oranienbaum. On the third day of their offensive, the Soviet forces had broken through the German line and driven to the south-west in the direction of Narva, whose civilian population was evacuated on the orders of Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’.
By 1944 it had become standard Soviet practice for the Stavka to assign its secondary fronts ambitious tasks even as the primary fronts were undertaking major offensive operations of strategic value: the rationale was that the relentless pressure exercised right along the length of the Eastern Front might trigger a major German collapse, on at least one part of the front, which the Soviet forces could then exploit. For the 1943/44 winter and spring campaign, Stalin had therefore ordered the Soviet forces to undertake major offensives along the whole of the Eastern Front as a logical continuation of the ‘broad front’ he had sought to pursue since the start of what the Soviets knew as the ‘Great Patriotic War’ against the Germans. The Soviet winter campaign included major assaults across the entire front in Ukraine, Belorussia and against the German defensive positions of the northern part of the ‘Panther-Stellung’ in the region of the Baltic Sea.
An advance through the Narva ‘isthmus’ between the Gulf of Finland and Lake Peipus was of major strategic importance to the Soviets as the success of this Estonian operation would have provided an unobstructed axis of advance along the north coast of Estonia coast to Tallinn, forcing Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ to retreat to the south from Estonia lest it be trapped. For Tributs’s Baltic Fleet, trapped since the autumn of 1941 at the eastern end of the Gulf of Finland just outside Leningrad, Tallinn was of significance as it covered the southern side of the sole exit from the Gulf of Finland into the Baltic Sea; the ejection of the Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ from Estonia would make Finland vulnerable to air and amphibious attacks launched from Estonian bases; and the prospect of an invasion of East Prussia from Estonia appealed strongly to the Stavka as it offered the chance for an early debouchment into Germany proper. With the involvement of Tributs and Govorov, the Stavka therefore developed a plan to encircle Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’, and Stalin ordered the capture of the city of Narva at all costs by a date no later than 17 February.
Thus on 14 January 1944 the Volkhov Front and Leningrad Front had launched operations designed to drive the forces of Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ from their positions round the Soviet Oranienbaum lodgement. On 17 January, the Soviets had broken through the German line and pushed to the south-west. The CIX Corps had captured Kingisepp by 1 February, and Steiner’s III SS Panzerkorps fought a series of rearguard actions until it reached the eastern bank of the Narva river. The Gruppe ‘Sponheimer’ made generous use of explosives to shatter the ice on the southern 30-mile (50-km) section of the Narva river between Lake Peipus and the Krivasoo swamp, making it impassable to the Soviets. To the north of the town, the Soviet 4th Regiment reached the Narva river, establishing a small bridgehead across it on 2 February, and by this time the fighting to the east of Narva had left a large number of German troops stranded on the wrong side of the front. Simultaneously, the CXXII Corps crossed the Narva river to the south in the area of the Vääska settlement and established a bridgehead in the Krivasoo swamp some 6.2 miles (10 km) to the south of the city of Narva.
The main brunt of the Soviet attack fell on the point at which the Germans had least expected it, namely the location of the III SS Panzerkorps, positioned to the east of the city of Narva and holding the German bridgehead on the Narva river’s eastern bank. As suggested by its designation, this corps for the most part comprised SS volunteer formations and units from several countries, and now the Dutchmen of SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Jürgen Wagner’s 4th SS Freiwilligen Panzergrenadierbrigade ‘Nederland’ and the various nationalities represented in SS-Gruppenführer und Generalleutnant der Waffen-SS Fritz Scholz’s 11th SS Freiwilligen Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Nordland’ began to entrench themselves along what had become known as the ‘Narwa-Linie’. This extended 6.8 miles (11 km) from the Lilienbach estate, some 1.25 miles (2 km) to the north-east of the road bridge over Narva river, to the settlement of Dolgaya Niva about 1.85 miles (3 km) to the south, and bulging to the east of the river. The 4th SS Freiwilligen Panzergrenadierbrigade held the northern half of the bridgehead, and the 11th SS Freiwilligen Panzergrenadierdivision held the southern half and flank. Attacking them along the road and railway were the four divisions of the XLIII Corps and CIX Corps. The 4th SS Freiwilligen Panzergrenadierbrigade, 1/24th SS Freiwilligen Panzergrenadierregiment ‘Danmark’ and German artillery inflicted very substantial losses on the Soviet formations, which thus failed to destroy the bridgehead. The German defence was supported by artillery manoeuvred back and forth between the banks, a tactic made possible by the use of smokescreens to conceal the bridge over the Narva river from the numerous Soviet air attacks.
In the Krivasoo swamp, 6.2 miles (10 km) to the south of the city of Narva, the 1078th Regiment and the ski battalion of the 314th Division managed in just four hours to cross the river despite heavy German air and artillery attack and, in the face of resistance by the Estonian 219th Police Battalion, the 314th Division closed on Auvere railway station, some 6.2 miles (10 km) to the west of the city of Narva, threatening to cut the rail line behind the III SS Panzerkorps and two division-sized units of the Armeegruppe ‘Narwa’. The battle for Auvere station was ferocious, and the 314th Division suffered losses so heavy that two regiments of the 125th Division were despatched to aid it. The reinforced Soviet units captured the railway crossing near Auvere station on 6 February, but lost it on the same day under the fire of German coastal artillery. The Soviet forces then remained passive in the direction of Auvere, giving the Armeegruppe ‘Narwa’ the time it needed to rebuild some of its strength. The Soviets impressed civilian women from Auvere, Kriivasoo, Sirgala and the other settlements in the bridgehead to carry ammunition and supplies to the front.
On 2 February, two platoons of the 147th Regiment had volunteered to cross the Narva river to the settlements of Omuti, Permisküla and Gorodenka, some 25 miles (40 km) to the south of Narva, in an area held by the Estonian 30th Police Battalion. The defences had been built as a complex of small bridgeheads on the eastern bank, and these seemed to the Soviets to comprise a carefully prepared defence system in front of a main defence line. When the first assault was repulsed, the Soviet headquarters took some hours to prepare a more carefully conceived attack by the 219th and 320th Regiments. The Estonians pulled back to the western bank during the Soviet attacks, and halted the Soviet effort with heavy losses. Despite the best efforts of the Soviet forces, only one platoon managed to reach the western bank and establish a tiny bridgehead.
The entirety of the Soviet operations was hampered by major problems in supply as the primary transport connections had been largely destroyed by the Germans as they retreated, and the remaining poor roads were on the verge of disintegration as the rasputitsa thaw started to become evident. Another failure was in intelligence, as all the Soviet partisan forces which had been sent to Estonia had been destroyed. In its report of 8 February, the military council of the Leningrad Front saw the preparations for the assault crossings of the Narva river as unsatisfactory, indicating that army reconnaissance was disorganised; in corps and divisions there was a lack of a concrete decision on the order of battle and the deployment of artillery batteries; the manner in which the armour was was to cross the river and fight on the western bank was entirely unresolved; no schemes had been prepared for the engineering support of the armour; and the army lacked any anti-air defence plan.
The 98th and the 131st Tank Divisions succeeded in establishing a bridgehead on the western bank of the river near the settlement of Siivertsi to the north of Narva on 12 February, and this bridgehead soon became the most critical position of the entire Narva front. If the Soviets succeeded in holding and enlarging their bridgehead, the city of Narva would fall quickly and the German bridgehead on the river’s eastern bank would be cut off. All available German formations and units were therefore committed against the Soviets’ Siivertsi bridgehead.
The Soviet artillery opened fire on the 16th Kompanie of the 23rd SS Freiwilligen Panzergrenadierregiment ‘Norge’ in the cemetery of Siivertsi on 13 February, and Soviet troops simultaneously attacked across the ice of the frozen river. Under the local command of SS-Hauptsturmführer Günther Wanhöfer, the Germans were able to defeat this attack, and this made it possible for the 336th Grenadierregiment, supported by the Tiger I heavy tanks of Leutnant Otto Carius, an officer of the 2nd Kompanie of the 502nd schwere Panzerabteilung, to reduce the size of the Soviet bridgehead, but this was all the Germans could manage. The trenches taken by Oberst Maximilian Wengler’s 336th Grenadierregiment during the day were retaken during the night by the constantly reinforced 2nd Shock Army.
Until the second week of February, the two armies of the Leningrad Front had deployed only vanguard elements. Govorov now ordered the 2nd Shock Army to break through the German defensive lines to the north and south of the city of Narva, drive the front line some 30 miles (50 km) to the west and develop the offensive toward the town of Rakvere. The 2nd Shock Army’s artillery opened fire on all the German positions on 11 February, and the XXX Guards Corps, an elite unit usually reserved for use in the breaching of major defence lines, joined the Soviet formations and units attempting to seize Auvere station. The infantry of the guards corps widened the Soviet bridgehead to 6.2 miles (10 km), and the remnants of Generalleutnant Wilhelm Berlin’s 227th Division and Generalleutnant Walther Krause’s (from 15 February Generalmajor Franz Griesbach’s) 170th Division retreated. General Major Ivan D. Romantsov ordered an attack on the Auvere settlement by the air force and artillery on 13 February, with his 64th Guards Division seizing the village in a surprise attack immediately after this.
Some 545 yards (500 m) to the west of Auvere station, the 191st Guards Regiment crossed the railway 1.25 miles (2 km) from the road to Tallinn, which was the last avenue for the Armeegruppe ‘Narwa’ to retreat, but the Soviet regiment was repelled by the infantry of the 170th Division and the heavy tanks of the 502nd schwere Panzerabteilung.
By the middle of February, the Germans were facing a disaster on the Narva river front. The Leningrad Front had established single bridgeheads to the north and south of road to Tallinn, the closer of the two only a few hundred yards from the road. The Armeegruppe ‘Narwa’ was now in imminent danger of being cut off, and the defence of the road was vested only in a number of small infantry units from Luftwaffe field divisions, supported by Panther battle tanks every few hundred yards along the road. The Germans attempted to obscure direct observation of the highway by placing spruce branches along it, but this did not prevent the Soviet artillery from keeping the road under constant fire. As a result, the confidence of the formations and units of the Armeegruppe ‘Narwa’ that they could maintain their defence started to wane.
On learning of the situation on the Narva river front, Adolf Hitler ordered SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Franz Augsberger’s 20th SS Waffen Grenadierdivision ‘estnisch Nr 1’ to be moved from the Nevel front to the Narva river front. The arrival of the Estonian division coincided with a landing operation by the left flank of the Leningrad Front on the western shore of Lake Peipus, some 75 miles (120 km) to the south of Narva. The 90th Division seized Piirissaar island in the river narrows separating Lake Peipus in the north from Lake Pskovskoye in the south on 12 February, with a major Estonian city of Tartu, to the west of Lake Peipus, as the Soviets' immediate objective. As it arrived, the 20th SS Waffen Grenadierdivision was deployed into the Yershovo bridgehead on the eastern shore of Lake Peipus. The 374th Regiment crossed Lake Peipus on 14 February, seized the coastal village of Meerapalu in a surprise attack, and established a bridgehead. Other Soviet units attacking across the lake were destroyed by a force of 21 Junkers Ju 87 dive-bombers. On the following day, the Soviet units were expelled from their hold on the western shore by the 1/45th Waffen Grenadierregiment ‘Estland’ and an East Prussian battalion of the 44th Grenadierregiment in very heavy fighting, and one battalion of the 44th Grenadierregiment then retook Piirissaar island on 17 February.
In an effort to break the last German resistance, simultaneously with preparing the Meerapalu landing operation, Govorov ordered the 260th Independent Naval Brigade, an elite unit specially trained and equipped for the amphibious assault role, to prepare an amphibious assault on the German rear in Narva. The brigade was transported to the Narva front by a naval flotilla of 26 vessels, and it was planned that the naval brigade would deliver its assault from the Gulf of Finland, landing several miles behind the German line near the coastal settlement of Meriküla. The first company was to destroy the railway and Auvere station, the second to occupy the railway extending to the east from Auvere, and the third to cover the Soviet left flank and blow the railway bridge to the east of Auvere. It was planned that a second amphibious unit was to land after the first. Estonian counter-intelligence had acquired information about an amphibious operation which the Soviets had prepared in 1939 for a landing at Meriküla, however, as part of an undertaking first to secure basing right and then to annex the country. In creating the ‘Panther-Stellung’ during 1944, therefore, the Germans placed artillery on the site of coastal battery built by the Estonia military specifically to guard against such a landing. The 517 Soviet troops began their operation on 14 February, landing directly in front of the German coastal artillery, and met a crushing response from the 23rd SS Panzergrenadierregiment, the local coast-defence force and artillery supported by three Tiger I heavy tanks. The artillery of the 2nd Shock Army near Auvere failed to begin its supporting fire at the agreed time, and in seven and a half hours of fierce fighting the Soviet beach-head was destroyed.
On 9 February, as already noted, Govorov ordered Fedyuninsky’s 2nd Shock Army to break through the German defence line to the north and south of the city of Narva by 17 February, advance the Soviet from some 30 miles (50 km) to the west and then press forward in the direction of the the town of Rakvere. The undertaking involved a number of formations and units with experience in the fighting for Leningrad, and these included a significant number of women in their ranks. Retreat was forbidden under the penalty of death. After his initial failure to fulfil Govorov’s order, Fedyuninsky delivered the 13th Division from his reserve across the Narva river into the Krivasoo bridgehead to support the XXX Guards Corps in its offensive toward Auvere station. As another reserve, Fedyuninsky brought in the CXXIV Corps on 20 February, reinforcing it with the artillery of divisions which had been destroyed.
The 20th SS Waffen Grenadierdivision was now moved into the front during the period from 13 to 19 February. Reinforced with newly conscripted Estonians, the division was attached to the III SS Panzerkorps with the task of defending the sector of the front which was to be attacked by the 378th Division, 340th Machine Gun Battalion and 803th Artillery Regiment at the Riigiküla bridgehead 4.35 miles (7 km) to the north of the city of Narva. As this was the Soviet primary offensive sector at the time, the Estonians worked hard to strengthen the line with minefields and barbed wire entanglements, covered by a large number of pieces of artillery, across the river to the north of the bridgehead. The Estonians had an advantage in this area as it was well known to many of them as there had been a rifle range and other facilities on the spot before the war.
The stage was now set for the first phase of the ‘Narva Offensive Operation’ proper, for which the Soviets deployed General Leytenant Nikolai P. Simoniak’s XXX Guards Corps, General Major Anatoli I. Andreyev’s LXIII Corps, General Major Ivan P. Alferov’s CIX Corps, General Major Voldemar F. Damberg’s CXXIV Corps, the 46th, 260th and 261st Separate Guards Heavy Tank Regiments, the 1902nd Separate Self-Propelled Artillery Regiment, General Major Nikolai N. Zhdanov’s III Breakthrough Artillery Corps, and General Major Ivan A. Vovchenko’s III Guards Tank Corps.
On the other side of the front, by 22 February, just one day before it gained a new designation and a fresh commander in the form of General Johannes Friessner, the Gruppe ‘Sponheimer’ was ordered by Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ to deploy with Steiner’s III SS Panzerkorps to the north of Narva and the bridgehead on the eastern bank of the river, General Karl von Oven’s XLIII Corps against the Krivasoo bridgehead to the south of the city of Narva, and General Anton Grasser’s XXVI Corps in the sector between the Krivasoo bridgehead and Lake Peipus.
In the area to the south of the city of Narva, a Soviet heavy artillery bombardment on 15 February had been followed by the advance of the 45th Guards Division. This broke through to the railway line at a point some 550 yards (500 m) to the west of Auvere station, but an attack by Ju 87 dive-bombers then pinned down the Soviet force. Nevertheless, the railway line linking Narva and Tallinn, which was essential for the supply of the III SS Panzerkorps’ positions round the city, was cut in two places and threatened an envelopment of the German forces in the area. The fighting which followed was very hard, and the XXX Guards Corps lost 7,773 troops and effectively ceased to exist as a combat-capable formation after elements of the Armeegruppe ‘Narwa’ had counterattacked and halted the Soviet advance. Even so, and despite strong resistance of Generalleutnant Günther Krappe’s 61st Division, the XXX Guards Corps launched a powerful attack into the area behind the railway line. Friessner hurried reinforcements to the south against the advance of the CXXIV Corps. The 61st Division and Generalleutnant Otto Kohlermann’s Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Feldherrnhalle’, supported by the 502nd schwere Panzerabteilung, drove the CXXIV Corps back to the swamp in a close-quarter battle. One battalion of the 23rd SS Panzergrenadierregiment was deployed to help hold the line. After the end of this little offensive, the shattered XXX Guards Corps was replaced by the CIX Corps. Generalleutnant Max Horn’s 214th Division managed to isolate one Soviet division off from the rest of the Soviet forces on 28 February, but the XLIII Corps then restored the situation.
In the area to the north of the city of Narva, the first elements of the 20th SS Waffen Grenadierdivision to arrive were the 45th SS Freiwilligen Grenadierregiment (estnisch Nr 1) and the 46th SS Freiwilligen Grenadierregiment (estnisch Nr 2) for the task of separating the Riigiküla and Siivertsi bridgeheads. The failure of the two regiments’ initial attacks on 20 February made it clear that direct assaults were impossible because of the intervention of the Soviet artillery batteries across the river, and instead the Estonians reverted to the use of the pre-war Estonian ‘rolling’ tactic whereby small shock groups were employed to enter the Soviet positions, making its impossible for the Soviet artillery to differentiate between the Estonian attackers and Soviet defenders, and then rolled the Soviets in the trench line. The Estonians considered it a matter of national honour to destroy the Soviet bridgeheads by 24 February, which was Estonian independence day.
The Soviets reinforced the bridgeheads with the 1078th Regiment, increasing the defence’s strength to 776 men with 14 pieces of artillery, and tried to use carefully directed artillery fire to strike back at every Estonian attack, but SS-Hauptsturmführer Rudolf Bruus’s 2/46th SS Freiwilligen Grenadierregiment deceived the Soviets into the belief that a direct assault was being made as a platoon of the 6th Kompanie under the command of Rein Oskar Männik inserted itself into the Soviet positions. The Soviets initially managed to resist the Estonian assault but, after running out of hand grenades, were forced to retreat back to the east across the frozen river.
This effectively ended the first phase of the ‘Narva Offensive Operation’, with the Soviet forces unable to break through in the north near the city of Narva and in the south around Lake Peipus.
These small but nonetheless significant setbacks on Narva front came as an unpleasant surprise for the leadership of the Leningrad Front, which attributed the reverse to the arrival of the Estonian division. Since the beginning of January, the Leningrad Front had lost 227,440 troops killed, wounded or missing in action, which constituted more than half of the troops who participated in the ‘Leningrad-Novgorod Strategic Offensive Operation’. Each side now began to pour in reinforcements, the Soviets moving the 59th Army to the Narva front and subordinating the Estonian VIII Corps to the Leningrad Front. The newly arrived army attacked to the west from the Krivasoo bridgehead to the south of Narva and encircled the strongpoints of the 214th Division and two Estonian battalions, but the resistance of the encircled units gave the German command the time it needed to move up additional forces and halt the advance of the 59th Army.
Once it had become clear that the Leningrad Front would be unable to take Narva by the specified date, Stalin issued a new order on 22 February: the Soviet forces were to break through the defences of the Gruppe ‘Sponheimer’, strike directly to Pärnu on the north-eastern corner of the Gulf of Riga, trap and destroy the German forces in Estonia, direct two armies into south-eastern Estonia, keep the advance moving to the south through Latvia and into Lithuania, and open the way to East Prussia and thence central Europe.
On the same day, the USSR presented Finland with peace conditions for an end to the ‘Jatkosota’ or Continuation War. Finland regarded the Soviet terms as unacceptable but, given the fact that the war raging around it seemed dangerous, decided to keep negotiating. To influence Finland strongly toward an acceptance of his terms, Stalin needed to take Estonia. This was the spur to his order to the commanders of the Leningrad Front, and after being reinforced the Narva front was characterised in March 1944 by the densest concentration of Soviet forces at any point on the Eastern Front.
Three armies of the Leningrad Front 2 were deployed at the maximum concentration of Soviet forces on 1 March 1944. Fedyuninsky’s 2nd Shock Army was deployed to the north of Narva, Korovnikov’s 59th Army to the south of Narva, and Starikov’s 8th Army to the south of the 59th Army along the 30-mile (50-km) length of Narva river from Lake Peipus to the coast of the Gulf of Finland. At the start of the third phase of the ‘Narva Offensive Operation’ in July 1944, the Leningrad Front deployed 136,830 men, 150 tanks, 2,500 assault guns pieces of artillery, and more than 800 aircraft.
As Finland was already in negotiation with the USSR about a possible end to the war between those two countries, the Oberkommando des Heeres paid especially close attention to the Narva front, and also used every means at its disposal in an effort to convince the Finns that the German defence of the Narva front would hold. The German command provided detailed information to its Finnish counterpart about the progress of events on the Narva front, and a Finnish delegation visited Narva in the spring of 1944. As well as being a narrow corridor well suited for defence, the terrain in the area of Narva was dominated by forest and swamp, and directly behind the Narva river lay the city itself, a bastion from which the defending forces could control the fighting to both the north and south in the Narva river valley.
This position lay at the northern end of the ‘Panther-Stellung’, and it was the location in which Generalfeldmarschall Georg von Küchler had wished to anchor the defence of his Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’, but Hitler had initially refused and on 9 January replaced von Küchler with Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model. The new commander agreed with his predecessor, however, but as one of Hitler’s favourites was permitted greater operational latitude. Using this to his advantage, Model had arranged the required withdrawal and arranged to the start of work on defensive positions along the line of the Narva river with a strong bridgehead on the eastern bank at Ivangorod. This had appeased Hitler’s earlier objections and was in complete accord with the German standard operating procedure for the defence of a river line. On 1 February Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ had allocated to the Gruppe ‘Sponheimer’, itself formed from the LIV Corps on 27 January and on 23 February redesignated as the Armeegruppe 'Narwa', the task of holding the segment of the ‘Panther-Stellung’ at the Narva ‘isthmus’ between the Gulf of Finland and Lake Peipus regardless of cost.
Stalin had presented Finland with his peace terms on 8 February after the initial Soviet success in surging out of the Oranienburg lodgement, but after the tactical victories achieved by the Gruppe ‘Sponheimer’ (later the Armeegruppe ‘Narwa’) between the middle of February and April, Finland had terminated the negotiations on 18 April.
During the German occupation of Estonia from June 1941, Estonian expectations of a regained independence began gradually but steadily to diminish. In accord with the Estonian constitution, which was nominally still valid, Estonian politicians formed an underground national committee, which convened on 14 February 1944. As President Konstantin Päts was currently held by the Soviets, the constitutionally mandated acting head of state was the former prime minister, Jüri Uluots. The German-appointed Estonian Self-Administration had made several unsuccessful attempts to order a general mobilisation, which were deemed to be illegal and were also opposed by Uluots. When in February 1944 the Leningrad Front approached Narva and a Soviet return to Estonia became a real threat, however, Uluots changed his mind about the German draft, and in a radio broadcast on 7 February, reasoned that a revived Estonian military could be of service against both the Germans and the Soviets. Together with other Estonian politicians, Uluots saw resistance against the Soviet armed forces as a means of preventing the restoration of Soviet power and the re-establishment of Estonian independence after the war had ended. The notion of conscription was now well received, and the mobilisation saw the recruitment of some 38,000 men, who were formed into seven border guard regiments and the 20th SS Waffen Grenadierdivision. Combined with the 200th Regiment, which comprised Estonian volunteers in the Finnish army, and the conscripts and volunteers in the Waffen SS, there was a total of 70,000 Estonians under arms in German service during 1944.
In February 1944, General Wilhelm Wegener’s L Corps and Sponheimer’s LIV Corps, together with Steiner’s III SS Panzerkorps were deployed as the left-flank formations of Lindemann’s 18th Army during the retreat to the Narva line. On 27 January Sponheimer took command of the new Gruppe ‘Sponheimer’ based on the headquarters of his LIV Corps and eventually comprising the III SS Panzerkorps, Generalmajor Joachim Albrecht von Blücher’s (from 1 February Krappe’s) 61st Division, Generalleutnant Walther Krause’s (from 15 February Generalmajor Franz Griesbach’s and from 16 February Generalleutnant Siegfried Hass’s) 170th Division, Generalleutnant Ernst Risse’s 225th Division, Berlin’s 227th Division and Kohlermann’s Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Feldherrnhalle’. On 4 February the Gruppe ‘Sponheimer’ was detached from the 18th Army and subordinated directly to Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’.
To bolster the forces already in place, Hitler ordered the delivery of reinforcements. The Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Feldherrnhalle’, with more than 10,000 men and their equipment, was airlifted from Belorussia into Estonia via the airfield at Tartu on 1 February; one week later, a single battalion of Generalleutnant Hasso von Manteuffel’s Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Grossdeutschland’ arrived at the front; the Grenadierregiment ‘Gnesen’, which was an extemporised regiment created from replacement army units in Poland, arrived on 11 February; three days later, Horn’s 214th Division was transferred from Norway; and in the course of the following fortnight various other formations and units added to the group included the 11th SS Freiwilligen Panzergrenadierdivision, several German army divisions, the Estonian division, and several local Estonian border guard and auxiliary police battalions.
On 22 February Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ ordered the deployment of the Gruppe ‘Sponheimer’ (from the following day the Armeegruppe ‘Narwa’) in the following manner, with its subordinate formations as of 1 March: Steiner’s III SS Panzerkorps (11th SS Panzergrenadierdivision, 20th SS Waffen Grenadierdivision and 4th SS Freiwilligen Panzergrenadierbrigade) to Narva, the Ivangorod bridgehead on the eastern bank of the Narva river and to the north of Narva; General Karl von Oven’s XLIII Corps (11th Division, 58th Division, 214th Division, 225th Division and, from 15 April, 3rd Estonian Border Guard Regiment) against the Krivasoo bridgehead to the south of the city; and General Anton Grasser’s XXVI Corps (61st Division, 170th Division, 227th Division, Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Feldherrnhalle’, and Grenadierregiment ‘Gnesen) to the sector between the Krivasoo bridgehead and Lake Peipus.
Separate formations and units, in the eastern sector for coast defence and under the command of Generalleutnant Alfons Luczny’s 2nd Flakdivision, were the Estonian Regiment ‘Reval’, three Estonian police battalions and two Estonian eastern battalions, Generalmajor Werner Heucke’s 113rd Artillerie-Kommandeur, the 32nd höherer Pionierführer, the 502nd schwere Panzerabteilung and the 752nd schwere Panzerjägerabteilung. (In the summer of 1944, the Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Feldherrnhalle’ and seven infantry divisions were removed, leaving 22,250 men on the Narva front.)
The objectives of the second phase of the ‘Narva Offensive Operation’ between 1 and 4 March remained the same as those of the first phase, namely to break through to the road linking Vasknarva and Jõhvi and that linking Narva and Tallinn, and to capture the village of Jõhvi and the town of Rakvere.
On the southern sector of the front, on 1 March elements of the newly arrived 59th Army, supported by the fire of 2,500 pieces of artillery and assault guns as well as more than 100 tanks, attacked the 214th Division from the Krivasoo bridgehead with the object of taking the nearest connecting road in the village of Kuremäe. After three days of heavy fighting, the Soviet army broke through the defence and advanced towards the road linking Vasknarva and Jõhvi. The Soviet forces encircled the strongpoints of the 214th Division and the Estonian 658th Eastern Battalion and 659th Eastern Battalion, which nonetheless maintained their resistance. Commanding the 59th Army, Korovnikov now delayed the advance, citing a lack of artillery support and scarcity of manpower, and this provided Friessner with time sufficient for the movement of all available forces into the area and halt the Soviet advance. Units of the 59th Army attacked to the north-west from the Krivasoo bridgehead on 4 March, but were checked by the ‘Reval’ Regiment. A platoon of the 23rd SS Panzergrenadierregiment extemporised a counterattack, which was entirely unexpected by the Soviets, and restored the main defence line.
A regiment of the 2nd Division attempted a surprise assault over the north-eastern tip of the frozen Lake Peipus to seize the road along the lake’s northern shore on 2 March, but as many as 500 of the Soviet troops were killed by the 225th Division, which also captured many weapons, including seven assault guns.
On the northern sector of the front, the Estonians’ next task was the destruction of Siivertsi-Vepsküla bridgehead 2.5 miles (4 km) to the north of the city of Narva, a position held by 1,100 men of the 378th Division with 20 assault guns. Under the command of SS-Standartenführer Paul Vent, the 45th SS Freiwilligen Grenadierregiment delivered a direct assault on the Soviet bridgehead from 29 February. Simultaneously, the 46th SS Freiwilligen Grenadierregiment attempted an attack from the left flank but ran straight into the Soviet defences and a minefield. After the 1/46th SS Freiwilligen Grenadierregiment had lost almost all of its officers, SS-Unterscharführer Harald Nugiseks assumed tactical command and immediately changed the Estonian tactics, using sledges to carry loads of hand grenades so that the attackers would not have to crawl back across the minefield for fresh supplies. With a plentiful supply of grenades thus made available, the Estonians squeezed in the Soviet position from the north by the use of the ‘rolling’ tactic. At much the same time the 24th SS Panzergrenadierregiment took the cemetery at Siivertsi after pushing forward from the northern suburbs of Narva, but could not destroy a Soviet machine gun strongpoint inside a massive granite monument, erected in honour of the dead of the White Russian forces’ North-Western Army in the 1919 Battle of Narva, until a flamethrower was used to kill the Soviet troops in the strongpoint. There was another Soviet machine gun strongpoint in the wreckage of a Tiger I heavy tank, and this was destroyed by a small Estonian anti-tank detachment using a captured Soviet 45-mm gun.
The 45th SS Freiwilligen Grenadierregiment and 46th SS Freiwilligen Grenadierregiment had compressed the Soviet bridgehead into a few hundred yards of river bank around the ruins of the Vepsküla settlement by 5 March, and in a surprise attack the 1/45th SS Freiwilligen Grenadierregiment then split the bridgehead into three parts and ‘rolled’ down them using hand grenades. A small Soviet bridgehead still left on the western bank was cleared by the 2/46th SS Freiwilligen Grenadierregiment on 6 March.
The losses of the German and allied forces in this first part of the second phase of the Soviet offensive numbered several thousands of men killed and wounded, and while there is no adequate account of the Soviet casualties, they were very substantial.
On 6 March the Soviets renewed the second phase of the ‘Narva Offensive Operation’ with an air raid on Narva and the 5.6-mile (9-km) eastern end of the road from Tallinn. The bombing was aimed at many parts of this historic city and caused great devastation, including the destruction of the bridge over Narva river were. Some 200 bombers dropped 3,600 bombs, which also levelled the old quarter of Narva, leaving no building standing. On the following night, another air raid struck the Ivangorod bridgehead on the opposite bank of the river. As the populations of the two towns had already been evacuated, there were almost no civilian casualties, but the German units still holding the towns were hit heavily, and a great deal of military equipment was lost.
During the morning of 8 March, the Soviet air force and the artillery of the 2nd Shock Army fired 100,000 shells onto the three weakened German regiments defending the town, and this prepared the way for the attack of the 30th Guards Division supported by a considerable quantity of armour, which concentrated their effort on the 4th SS Freiwilligen Panzergrenadierbrigade.
Govorov knew that the ‘Narwa-Linie’ could not be breached before the German bridgehead on the eastern side of the Narva river had been destroyed. On 11 March, a heavy attack was ordered at the ruins of the Lilienbach estate, 1.25 miles (2 km) to the north-east of the city of Narva, where the defence rested in the hands of SS-Obersturmbannführer Hans Collani’s 49th SS Freiwilligen Panzergrenadierregiment ‘De Ruyter’. After an artillery duel between the 4th SS Freiwilligen Panzergrenadierbrigade and the advancing Soviet units, the attack disintegrated into fierce hand-to-hand fighting between the Soviet infantry and the outnumbered Dutchmen of the 49th SS Freiwilligen Panzergrenadierregiment. After several hours, the XXX Guards Corps fell back after sustaining heavy losses, and Govorov then decided to shift the focus of the ‘Narva Offensive Operation’ into the area to the north of Narva.
On 8 March, therefore, three divisions of the XIV Corps, supported by the artillery of the VIII Estonian Corps, attacked the positions of the 20th SS Waffen Grenadierdivision in Siivertsi, 3.1 miles (5 km) to the north of Narva. This was the first occasion on which Estonians faced Estonians in combat across the Narva river: the Soviets positioned loudspeakers on their side of the river and called on the Estonians fighting with the Germans to change sides. On 17 March, after very heavy bombardment of the positions held by the 20th SS Waffen Grenadierdivision, the Soviets attacked and for the loss of 500 men of the 1256th Regiment, managed to establish a bridgehead on the river’s western bank some 5 miles (8 km) to the north of Narva. Assisted by the artillery of the III SS Panzerkorps, the machine gunners of the Estonian division, carefully sited along the river bank, had cleared the bridgehead by the following night. The XIV Corps’ three divisions were effectively destroyed, their remnants falling back to be re-formed in the rear.
In March, the 4th SS Freiwilligen Panzergrenadierbrigade came under almost constant artillery and air attack. After a heavy artillery barrage had landed on the 24th SS Panzergrenadierregiment, the Soviet infantry attacked the 48th SS Freiwilligen Panzergrenadierregiment ‘General Seyffardt’. The 11th SS Panzerabteilung ‘Hermann von Salza’ of the 11th SS Panzergrenadierdivision was committed to hold the line, forcing back the Soviet armour, but determined Soviet anti-tank fire then halted the German counterattack. By 12 March, the defence line had effectively ceased to exist, and the Dutchmen retreated steadily toward a new defence line. On 14 March, the Soviets relocated their artillery and infantry against the new positions of the 40th SS Panzergrenadierregiment, which was very hard hit and its 2/40th SS Panzergrenadierregiment escaping destruction by only a narrow margin with the aid of a counterattack by an SS infantry company.
During this period the Long-Range Aviation (Soviet bomber arm subordinated directly to the headquarters of Soviet armed forces) undertook the bombing of the key Estonian cities of Petseri, Tartu and Tallinn, the last of these being the Estonian capital. The campaign was designed to compel Estonia to abandon its adherence to the German cause, but had exactly the opposite effect as many Estonians, appalled at what they saw as Soviet atrocities, flocked to join the German and, by extension, the Estonian anti-Soviet cause. One of the main drivers of this sentiment was an event on 27 February, when a Soviet air raid hit children playing outside a school in Luunja, killing four of them: the date of their burial became a national memorial day
The heaviest of the air raids was directed against Tallinn on 9 March. Only one week earlier the city’s mayor had ordered the population to leave, but the evacuation had not yet been completed. The weight of the Soviet air attack was well beyond the worst fears of the local population and the headquarters of Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ as 300 Ilyushin Il-4 bombers dropped 3,068 bombs (1,300 of them incendiaries) and inflicted heavy damage to the city. The local fire brigade was short of water as Soviet saboteurs had blown up the city’s pumping station before the air raid, but while the direct military damage was relatively minor (only a few military installations and supply stores were destroyed), the most significant loss was the burning of 1 million litres (219,975 Imp gal) of fuel in the local depot. Of organisations possessing any military significance, the Luther plywood factory and the cable factory run by Urania-Werke were destroyed. However, most of the Soviet bombs fell on public buildings and housing. The former included the Estonia Theatre, St Nicholas Church, the city’s synagogue, four cinemas, and the Tallinn city archive with its superb collection of mediaeval documents; and the latter included a major part of the wood-built suburbs and the historic city centre. Some 757 people were killed: of these 586 were civilians, 50 military personnel and 121 prisoners of war. Some 213 persons suffered serious injuries, and 446 minor injuries; among the injured were 65 military personnel and 75 prisoners of war. More victims were found later, as the clearance of the damage proceeded, and the overall death total was estimated at 800. More than 20,000 people were left without shelter in the spring thaw. On the night of 25/26 March the Soviets bombed Tartu, and this destroyed houses and public buildings in the city centre, and killed 67 persons. Petseri was bombed on the night of 31 March/1 April, causing severe damage to the town and the Holy Dormition monastery.
On 17 March, the six divisions, armour and artillery of the CIX Corps and the newly arrived VI Corps continued the Soviet offensive, falling on the already weakened 61st Division defending the Auvere railway station area. The object of the Soviet offensive was the headquarters of von Oven’s XLIII Corps on the low Lastekodumägi hill near the road to Tallinn about 9.33 miles (15 km) to the west of Narva. The defence of the 162nd Grenadierregiment, which held a complex of positions between the three Sinimäed hills and the railway line, was strongly hit in the Soviets’ massive preparatory artillery and air attack. The 930th Regiment broke through the 61st Division’s thin line and reached the railway, then driving forward toward the German headquarters. Six T-34 medium tanks were destroyed by two Tiger I heavy tanks led by Carius, and this compelled the Soviet infantry to fall back. The Soviet operation continued through to 22 March, and the Germans claimed that in the 17/22 March period the 502nd schwere Panzerabteilung destroyed Soviet armour to the extent of 38 tanks and four self-propelled assault guns, as well as 17 pieces of artillery. On 22 March alone, the 61st Division was in constant action and beat back 10 Soviet assaults.
On the same day, in Ivangorod, Soviet troops destroyed the 49th SS Panzergrenadierregiment's 5th Panzerkompanie, and broke into the regiment’s rear. The headquarters of this Waffen-SS regiment then counterattacked the 150-man Soviet force, destroying it in heavy fighting and retaking the regiment’s forward positions.
By the end of the second phase of the ‘Narva Offensive Operation’ on 24 March, the losses of the 2nd Shock Army had been so heavy that the formation was deemed incapable of large-scale operations. According to an unverified Estonian estimate, the 2nd Shock Army had lost 150,000 men dead or wounded. On 24 March, Govorov felt himself compelled to request the Stavka to authorise a switch in the operations on the Narva front from the offensive to the defensive. Over this same period, the Armeegruppe ‘Narwa’ had suffered the loss of about 30,000 men.
The Oberkommando des Heeres, meanwhile, had been developing ideas for offensive operations on the Eastern Front, and now selected the Narva front as the most promising location for such an endeavour. Now believing that his command was in a favourable position, Friessner regrouped his Armeegruppe ‘Narwa’ for an attempt to destroy the Soviet bridgehead at Krivasoo. On 26 March, Generalmajor Hyazinth Strachwitz Graf von Gross-Zauche und Camminetz’s Kampfgruppe ‘Strachwitz’ (comprising elements of the 11th Division, 170th Division, 227th Division and armour from a miscellany of units and formations), supported by warplanes, fell on the flank of the CIX Corps in the area to the south of the Tallinn railway. Strachwitz rightly saw the Tiger I heavy tank as unsuitable for operations in swampy terrain, and had therefore decided to exploit the capabilities of the lighter (but still quite massive) Panther battle tank. The German armour was followed by infantry, and the German attack penetrated the fortified positions of the Soviet corps: by the end of the day, the LXXII Corps and parts of the CIX Corps had been encircled in the ‘west sack’ of the bridgehead.
As Strachwitz had predicted, the Soviets counterattacked on the following day, but were repulsed with heavy losses by the 23rd Grenadierregiment. Small armoured units in two groups broke through the Soviet lines in several places and split the bridgehead into two parts. Overhead there was fierce aerial combat in which the Germans lost no fewer than 41 dive-bombers and ground attack aircraft. The western half of the Soviet bridgehead had been eliminated by 31 March, the Germans claiming that 6,000 infantrymen had been killed.
The defenders of the ‘east sack’ of the Krivasoo bridgehead, which was held by elements of the the VI Corps and CXVII Corps, were first thrown into confusion on 6 April by a deception attack in which the Kampfgruppe ‘Strachwitz’ suggested that the German object was to make the main penetration on the western flank. The actual assault then hit the 59th Army from the direction of Auvere station after an initial heavy artillery bombardment. The forest in which the 59th Army had established its positions was attacked by dive-bombers and set on fire, and at the same time the 61st Division and some of Strachwitz’s armour penetrated deep into the 59th Army’s defensive positions, separating the two Soviet corps and compelling them to fall back into their entrenchments.
Govorov was incensed by news of the German undertaking and the rupture of the Krivasoo bridgehead, and despatched the freshly redeployed 8th Army. The Soviet attempt to sever the German armoured force’s line of supply was defeated by a small detachment led by Leutnant Günther Famula, a platoon commander in the 5th Panzerkompanie of the 5/Grenadierregiment ‘Grossdeutschland’, and the German supply route was thereby maintained.
On 7 April, Govorov ordered the forces on the Narva front from the offensive to the defensive, and the 59th Army, having lost another 5,700 men, was withdrawn from the bridgehead. Its success to this date had raised the hope in the Kampfgruppe ‘Strachwitz’ that it might be able to destroy the whole of the Soviet bridgehead. However, the developing spring thaw meant that it was now impossible to use the German armour, and Strachwitz instead attempted to exploit his artillery to prevent the Soviets from blowing up the roads. The 8th Army repelled the German attack, which lasted from 19 to 24 April. The Germans lost 2,235 men killed or taken prisoner in their offensive, while the total of German casualties in April was 13,274 men killed, wounded or taken prisoner. The Soviet casualties in the same period are unknown, but have been estimated at 30,000 men killed, wounded or taken prisoner.
These losses exhausted each side’s strength, and in May and June, the front remained quiescent apart from artillery duels, air combat, sniper activity and clashes between reconnaissance platoons.
On 12 May, however, there was an action near Auvere, the 112th Division subsequently counting the bodies of 272 Soviet soldiers. On 7 June, hundreds of Soviet guns opened fire along the 7-mile (11.25-km) Narva front. General Leytenant Stepan D. Rybalchenko’s 13th Air Army encountered minimal Luftwaffe opposition in the air, and paid particular attention to the positions of the 24th Panzergrenadierregiment. As the smoke from the artillery and air bombardments cleared, the Soviets attacked in human waves and the artillery of the 4th SS Freiwilligen Panzergrenadierbrigade responded, ripping gaps in the lines of the advancing Soviet troops. Pushing through the fire, the Soviet troops reached the lines of the 24th Panzergrenadierregiment, and a major close-quarter battle began. Over the next days, the Danes held their positions.
On 12 June, the 2nd Shock Army attacked in greater strength the German positions in the sector of the III SS Panzerkorps, XXVI Corps and XLIII Corps in and around Ivangorod. On this day, at the ‘Sonnenschein’ outpost to the south-east of the Narva bridgehead, a Danish non-commissioned officer saved the main front when he led a small assault troop in a counterattack among the German trenches which the Soviets had taken and retook them in hand-to-hand combat. The NCO and his men then defended the positions with enormous resolution, allowing the German line to be reconsolidated and held against attacks which cost the Soviets 800 dead.
Fighting continued for a period of more than two weeks, neither side being able to achieve anything in the way of a substantial advance. On 16 July, Soviet forces broke their way in the trenches of the 24th SS Panzergrenadierregiment, but had been driven back by the fall of night.
During the afternoon of 20 July, the Soviet air force carried out an attack on Mustvee harbour, wounding between 40 and 50 personnel of the German flotilla on the western coast of Lake Peipus.
While the Soviet attacks on the Narva front continued, the Stavka had begun to consider other sectors of the front inits search for the location where the Soviet forces might finally be able to break through the German line, and the result was the ‘Belorussian Strategic Offensive Operation’ (otherwise ‘Bagration’), which was launched on 22 June against Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’. The Soviet breakthrough in Belorussia and another farther to the south in Ukraine now persuaded the Oberkommando des Heeres to propose that the 18th Army and the Armeeabteilung ‘Narwa’ be withdrawn to a line between Riga and Daugavpils, some 250 miles (400 km) to the south of Narva, thereby shortening the front line and making it possible to extract forces from Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ for redeployment in Ukraine. On 12 July Friessner, who had succeeded Generaloberst Georg Lindemann in command of Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ and had himself been succeeded in command of the Armeeabteilung ‘Narwa’ on 3 July by Grasser, proposed the plan to Hitler, whose almost inevitable reaction was that the troops should stand or die on the ‘Narwa-Linie’ without thought of retirement. At the same time German intelligence learned that the Leningrad Front was preparing for the next phase of the ‘Narva Offensive Operation’.
Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ was now with any significant reserves and, disregarding Hitler’s ‘stand and die’ order, Friessner ordered the creation of a new defensive line as the ‘Tannenberg-Stellung’, whose the main defences were to be located on the three Sinimäed hills some 9.33 miles (15 km) to the west of Narva. On 21 July Friessner requested authorisation to withdraw to the newly prepared position. Hitler was very concerned that the Finnish will to continue in the war as a co-belligerent would suffer as a result of this, and informed the Finnish command about the plan. Then, after being told by the Finns that a withdrawal to the new line was not seen as a problem, Hitler gave the order to fall back. The III SS Panzerkorps was to retire along the road linking Narva and Tallinn. The 45th SS Freiwilligen Grenadierregiment (estnisch Nr 1) and 44th Grenadierregiment were to constitute the southern rear guard, while the 2/46th SS Freiwilligen Grenadierregiment (estnisch Nr 2) and 2/47th SS Freiwilligen Grenadierregiment (estnisch Nr 3) were to cover the road from the north.
For the resumption of the ‘Narva Offensive Operation’ on 24 July, most of the Soviet formations and artillery were concentrated in the Krivasoo bridgehead in the south. The two main Soviet formations to be used were the 8th Army and 2nd Shock Army, which were to envelop and destroy the III SS Panzerkorps, and the immediate objectives were the railway station at Auvere and the settlement of Sirgala to the north of the Soviet bridgehead. The first part of the offensive was entrusted to the 8th Army, which was to use its CXVII Corps and CXXII Corps initially, with its other two main formations (the CXII Corps and CXXIV Corps) available for commitment as and when necessary. This army was to break through the German defence of the railway station, while the 2nd Shock Army was to breach the defences of the III SS Panzerkorps in the area of the Narva river to the north of the city of Narva. The 2nd Shock Army included the CIX Corps, VIII Estonian Corps, 131st Division, 191st Division, two artillery brigades, the 328th Separate Heavy Artillery Division, four artillery rocket-launcher regiments, the 760th Anti-Tank Regiment, and 62 armoured vehicles. The assault gun density in the northern sector was 160 pieces per kilometre (256 pieces per mile). The Soviet strength in the Krivasoo bridgehead was 46,385 men with as many as 50 batteries of artillery and mortars, and the Germans at Auvere station totalled 17,100 men with only six batteries of artillery, and the comparative strengths in the area to the north of Narva were essentially similar. In overall terms the Soviets had eight times more artillery than the Germans, and in air strength the Soviets could call on 546 bombers while the Germans had only 49 dive-bomber and ground attack aircraft.
The Soviets were unaware of the new defences of the ‘Tannenberg-Stellung’, however, which offered the Armeeabteilung ‘Narwa’ a significant new factor with which to surprise the Soviets.
The 8th Army began its assault on the German troops of the 11th Division and the Estonian troops of the 20th SS Freiwilligen Grenadierdivision on July 20 with a major and sustained artillery bombardment which inflicted many casualties despite the fact that the defenders had constructed a complex of trenches and foxholes. During the morning of 24 July the main Soviet assault began with an artillery barrage in which something between 30 and 50 batteries of artillery and mortars fired some 17,000 shells and bombs, totalling about 2,000 tons, which caused major losses in the 45th SS Freiwilligen Grenadierregiment in the Auvere station area and the 44th SS Freiwilligen Grenadierregiment in the Sirgala settlement. After enduring two hours of preparatory artillery fire, the two regiments were attacked by warplanes of the 13th Air Army, and in the associated aerial fighting three German and eight Soviet bombers were shot down. Under cover of the artillery fire, the infantry of the CXXII Corps and one tank brigade then penetrated into the German positions, while the CXVII Corps encircled the Estonian regiment: both the Germans and Estonians fell back into all-round defensive positions.
After being relieved by SS-Obersturmbannführer Paul Albert Kausch’s Kampfgruppe ‘Kausch’, comprising the 11th SS Panzerabteilung ‘Nordland’ and other elements including three artillery rocket launchers, the Estonians counterattacked, and the 44th Grenadierregiment was saved by the swift arrival of artillery behind it to clear the regiment’s previous positions of Soviet troops. The CXVII Corps reached the headquarters of the 1/45th SS Freiwilligen Grenadierregiment, which also adopted an all-round defence and held off the Soviets with heavy machine gun fire. The support of the anti-tank weapons of the 14th Kompanie of the 1/45th SS Freiwilligen Grenadierregiment and the Kampfgruppe ‘Kausch’ then helped the infantrymen in retaking their initial front line and stabilising the situation of the Armeeabteilung ‘Narwa’.
The attempts by the CXVII Corps and CXXII Corps to break through were repelled in a similar way with the loss of 3,000 Soviet troops killed or wounded, 29 armoured fighting vehicles and 17 aircraft for the German and Estonian loss of 200 men killed and 600 wounded. On the next day the 8th Army tried once more to take the German and Estonian positions, but were again driven back by machine gun fire.
The Soviet attack at Auvere and Sirgala forcefully persuaded the III SS Panzerkorps that the time was more than ripe for a rapid withdrawal from its positions in the Ivangorod bridgehead on the opposite bank of the Narva river as there was now the possibility that the 8th Army might reach the ‘Tannenberg-Stellung’ before the Germans could do so. In the evening of 24 July, unnoticed by the Soviets, the 4th SS Freiwilligen Panzergrenadierbrigade and the 24th SS Panzergrenadierregiment withdrew from their positions in the Ivangorod area so quietly that Soviet reconnaissance troops learned of the retirement only as the 11th SS Pionierbataillon of the 11th SS Freiwilligen Panzergrenadierdivision attempted to blow the bridge across the Narva river, though the poor positioning of the explosive charges meant that the bridge was not destroyed. The Soviet attempt to cross the river was then defeated by an extemporised unit, which took control of the Ivangorod side of the bridge once more, giving the pioneers an opportunity to lay more charges, and after the defenders had withdrawn, the bridge was successfully blown.
During the morning of 25 July, 1,360 pieces of Soviet artillery and mortars lobbed 280,000 shells and bombs across the Narva river onto the positions of the 2/46th SS Freiwilligen Grenadierregiment and 2/47th SS Freiwilligen Grenadierregiment. The weight of the bombardment caused trenches to collapse on each side of the front line. After the end of the artillery and mortar bombardment, Soviet bombers and artillery took responsibility for the destruction of the remaining Estonian strongpoints. The CXXXI Corps and CLXXXXI Corps were ordered to cross the river on boats and rafts, accompanied by the sound of a nationalist song and the Soviet anthem broadcast from loudspeakers in the river’s right bank. The Estonian units’ artillery and machine guns, complemented by dive-bombers, destroyed the 2nd Shock Army’s first crossing attempt, but then the Estonians ran out of ammunition. The Soviet attack was then focused on the 2/46th SS Freiwilligen Grenadierregiment, which lost cohesion and fell back the Peeterristi estate on the road some 5.6 miles (9 km) to the west of the city of Narva. The 131st Division advanced toward the road as the 191st Division turned south toward Narva in an effort to cut the III SS Panzerkorps’ line of retreat.
The Soviet advance to Narva was opposed by the 2/47th SS Freiwilligen Grenadierregiment, which was deployed beside the Narva river. SS-Obersturmbannführer Alfons Vilhelm Robert Rebane had saved the battalion from the Soviet bombardment by ordering its men to dig new trenches during the preceding night before, and the Soviets had concentrated their artillery fire on the positions which had been abandoned. The battalion now inflicted heavy losses on the 191st Division and prevented it from reaching Narva. As the 131st Division threatened to advance between the second battalions of the 46th SS Freiwilligen Grenadierregiment and 47th SS Freiwilligen Grenadierregiment some 3.1 miles (5 km) farther to the west, Rebane shifted his front more to the west and concentrated the defence of the road near the Olgina estate, where the Estonian battalion caused heavy losses in the 546th and 556th Regiments.
In the Peeterristi estate, Major Friedrich Kurg grouped 180 men of the 2/46th SS Freiwilligen Grenadierregiment to prevent the 131st Division from cutting the road, and then counterattacked. Some 137 aircraft of General Kurt Pflugbeil’s Luftflotte I were despatched to cover the retirement of the III SS Panzerkorps, but despite their best endeavours the German warplanes were overwhelmed by the 800 or more aircraft of the 13th Air Army. Although it was nearly destroyed in the effort, the 2/46th SS Freiwilligen Grenadierregiment worked with the 2/47th SS Freiwilligen Grenadierregiment some 2.5 miles (4 km) to the east to check the Soviet attack, thereby buying the time need for the III SS Panzerkorps to withdraw across the Narva bridge on its way to the ‘Tannenberg-Stellung'. As they pulled back the SS rearguard units were at pains to destroy the road behind them.
Any German units which did not retreat in accordance with the timetable faced immediate and heavy Soviet assault. The main German casualties of the retreat to the ‘Tannenberg-Stellung’ were the 48th SS Panzergrenadierregiment's 700 men, who were the last to depart Narva during the night of 25/26 July even as the Soviets were already gaining control of the road behind them and passing armoured vehicles across the Narva bridge. The 2/49th SS Panzergrenadierregiment, covering the retreat of the 49th SS Panzergrenadierregiment, was saved from encirclement by the intervention of the 1/49th SS Panzergrenadierregiment. Encircled in the swamps between the road and the railway, the 48th SS Panzergrenadierregiment was pinned by ground-attack aircraft of the 13th Air Army and annihilated by the 191st Division.
In general, the withdrawal was completed according to Steiner’s plan, and the 49th SS Panzergrenadierregiment started to dig in on the northern flank of the ‘Tannenberg-Stellung’, the 20th SS Waffen Grenadierdivision in its centre, and the 11th SS Freiwilligen Panzergrenadierdivision on its southern flank.
The Soviets meanwhile entered Narva, so ending the six-month struggle for the city but, even as the Soviets celebrated victory, their strategic goal of encircling the III SS Panzerkorps and destroying Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ remained unattained.