The 'Novgorod-Luga Offensive Operation' was a Soviet undertaking by the Volkhov Front against part of the 18th Army involved in siege of Leningrad and tasked with the defeat of the German forces in the area of Novgorod, the restoration to Soviet service of the 'Oktyabrsky' railway and the encirclement, in co-operation with the Leningrad Front, of the main strength of the 18th Army in the area of Luga (14 January/15 February 1944).
The undertaking was the second of the four sub-operations together constituting the 'Leningrad-Novgorod Strategic Offensive Operation', whose other constituents were the 'Krasnoye Selo-Ropsha Offensive Operation' (14/30 January), the 'Kingisepp-Gdov Offensive Operation' (1 February/1 March) and the 'Staraya Russa-Novorzhev Offensive Operation' (18 February/1 March).
The offensive was launched launched simultaneously with the Leningrad Front’s 'Krasnoye Selo-Ropsha Offensive Operation' as part of the 'Leningrad-Novgorod Strategic Offensive Operation', a four-art undertaking which finally freed Leningrad from the German blockade that had lasted from 1941. The strategic offensive’s other two sub-operations were the 'Kingisepp-Gdov Offensive Operation (1 February/1 March) and the 'Staraya Russa-Novozhev Offensive Operation' (18 February/1 March).
For the 'Novgorod-Luga Offensive Operation', General Kyrill A. Meretskov’s Volkhov Front comprised General Leytenant Sergei V. Roginsky’s 54th Army, General Leytenant Filipp N. Starikov’s 8th Army, General Leytenant Ivan T. Korovnikov’s 59th Army and General Leytenant Gennadi P. Korotokov’s 1st Shock Army (from 2 February), and air support was provided by General Leytenant Ivan P. Zuravlev’s 14th Air Army. General Leonid A. Govorov’s Leningrad Front comprised General Polkovnik Ivan I. Maslennikov’s 42nd Army and General Leytenant Vladimir P. Sviridov’s 67th Army, and air support was provided by General Polkovnik Leytenant Stepan D. Rybalchenko’s 13th Air Army.
The opposing Heeresgruppe 'Nord', commander by Generalfeldmarschall Georg von Küchler (from 1 February Generaloberst Walter Model), comprised Generaloberst Georg Lindemann’s 18th Army and General Christian Hansen’s 16th Army, and air support was provided by elements of General Kurt Pflugbeil’s Luftflotte I.
In September 1943, appreciating that it would be extremely difficult to defeat the inevitable next Soviet offensive, Heeresgruppe 'Nord' had started to develop a plan for a withdrawal from Leningrad to new defensive positions in the northern end of the 'Panther-Wotan-Stellung' along the Narva river, Lake Peipsi, Pskov, Ostrov and Idritsa. The German scheme quickly became evident to the Soviet high command, and by 2 September the Leningrad Front, Volkhov Front and North-West Front had already been instructed by the Stavka to strengthen their intelligence gathering and thereby accurately establish the German intentions and be ready to launch a pursuit at a moment’s notice. At the end of 1943, however, the Germans did not begin a retreat from Leningrad. Believing that the Soviet forces at that time lacked the capacity to undertake a major offensive in the north-western sector of the Eastern Front, Adolf Hitler ordered Heeresgruppe 'Nord' to maintain a firm hold on its current positions and retreat only if the next Soviet offensive made such a withdrawal imperative.
In September 1943, the military councils of the Leningrad Front and Volkhov Fronts presented to the Soviet high command their scheme for a major offensive, to be undertaken jointly by the two fronts, with the object of defeating the 18th Army and the lifting of the German blockade of Leningrad. The basic concept embodied in the proposed operation was first to defeat the German forces in the areas of Peterhof-Strelninsk in the 'Krasnoye Selo-Ropsha Offensive Operation' and those in the Novgorod area on the 18th Army's flanks with a simultaneous blow by the two fronts. It was planned that the Soviet forces would then advance on Kingisepp and Luga with the objective of surrounding and destroying the German main strength. Success in these initial stages would enable the Soviet forces to strike at Narva, Pskov and Idritsa, and thus complete the lifting of the siege of Leningrad and, moreover, create the operational conditions required for a further offensive into the Baltic states.
The Volkhov Front’s military council planned to undertake its part of the offensive in three stages: in the first, it would break through the German defences and liberate Novgorod; in the second, it would advance some 18.5 miles (30 km) and reach Luga; and in the third, it would develop the offensive toward Pskov and Ostrov. The military council further proposed that should the first three stages prove successful, the front would add a fourth stage to undertake local operations to ready the front for an advance into the Baltic states.
The Soviet high command quickly gave its approval to the proposed plan. As there remained the possibility that the German forces might retreat on their own initiative to defensive positions farther to the west, however, the Soviet high command developed two versions of the Volkhov Front’s offensive plan: the first option provided for the immediate transition of the Soviet forces to the pursuit should the Germans stage a retreat, and the second provided for the breakthrough of the echeloned defence should the Germans continue to hold their current positions.
By the beginning of 1944, the Volkhov Front occupied the line from Gontova Lipka to Lezno and farther up the Volkhov river to Lake Ilmen, and had a bridgehead on the left bank of the Volkhov river in the sector between Dymno and Zvanka. It had seized this bridgehead during the 'Lyuban Offensive Operation' fought between January and April 1942. It was from these starting positions that the Soviet forces were to take the offensive against the 18th Army, which comprised six infantry divisions, three Luftwaffe field divisions and two infantry brigades of General Kurt Herzog’s XXXVIII Corps, General Martin Grase’s XXVI Corps and General Herbert Loch’s XXVIII Corps.
The Volkhov Front was faced with the problem of how best to penetrate the well-prepared German defences, which were based on a series of powerful centres of resistance, of which the most important were those represented by Mga, Tosno, Lyuban, Chudovo and Novgorod. On the axis of the front’s primary attack, in the area to the north of Novgorod, the Germans' main defensive zone had been constructed along the road linking Novgorod and Chudovo, and their second along the Kerest river. Three defensive lines covered the immediate approaches to the city, and in many of the area’s settlements stone-built structures had been adapted as strongpoints.
The Soviet plan was for the main assault to be delivered by the 59th Army, which was to commit its main strength in an attack from the bridgehead on the left bank of the Volkhov river, 18.5 miles (30 km) to the north of Novgorod, and a secondary force in the region to the south of Novgorod in the area of Lake Ilmen. The Soviet plan was to outflank Novgorod to the north and south and advance in the general direction of Lyubolyady, thereby enveloping the German forces in the Novgorod area and facilitating the liberation of this city. After this, the 59th Army was to press forward to the north-west in the direction of Luga and to the south-west in the direction of Shimsk. The rapid liberation of Luga would allow the Soviets to cut off the German lines of retreat from the area of Mga, Tosno, Chudovo and Lyuban, toward which the 8th Army and 54th Army, as well as the Leningrad Front’s 57th Army, were advancing. The main task of these three armies was to give the Soviets full control if the Kirov and 'Oktyabrsky' railways.
At the start of the operation, the Volkhov Front comprised 22 infantry divisions, six infantry brigades, four tank brigades, 14 tank and self-propelled artillery regiments and battalions, two fortified areas, and a large number of artillery and mortar formations and units as part of three combined-arms armies and the front’s reserve. By 10 January, the Volkhov Front totalled 297.860 men divided as 135,040 in the 59th Army, 45,328 in the 8th Army, 67,417 in the 54th Army and 16,482 in the 14th Air Army, as well as 33,593 men in the various support elements. The front also deployed about 400 tanks and self-propelled guns, 3,633 pieces of artillery and mortars and 257 aircraft. The general offensive of the two fronts was supported by long-range aviation (bomber) formations totalling about 330 aircraft.
Slightly farther to the south, General Markian M. Popov’s 2nd Baltic Front was to facilitate the offensive of the Volkhov Front and Leningrad front by launching its own offensive in the direction of Idritsa and to the north of Novosokolniki, thereby pinning the forces of the 16th |Army and preventing the redeployment of any of its forces toward Volkhov and Leningrad.
Additionally, a major role in the forthcoming offensive was to be played by the partisan forces in the Leningrad region, which totalled some 35,000 men in 13 partisan brigades. These were tasked with 'destroying the local command and control bodies of the occupation authorities…saving the population from destruction and removal to Germany' and also with the intensification of attacks on the railways and roads vital to the Germans.
At 10.50 on 14 January, a massive artillery preparation was followed by the Soviet ground attack in the sector immediately top the north of Lake Ilmen. This was directed primarily at the XXXVIII Corps (Generalmajor Rudolf-Friedrich Petrauschke’s 1st Felddivision (L), Generalmajor Hubert Lamey’s and later Generalleutnant Hans Speth’s 28th Jägerdivision and SS-Oberführer Hinrich Schuldt’s lettische SS-Freiwilligenbrigade). From the bridgehead on Volkhov river to the north of Novgorod, two infantry corps went onto the offensive: these were the VI Corps (65th, 239th and 310th Divisions) and the XIV Corps (191st, 225th and 378th Divisions).
The weather was bad, with falling snow and high winds, so on the offensive first day the ground forces received no air support, and their artillery support was ineffective. Adding to the difficulties encountered by the attackers, a significant number of their tanks became stuck in swamps and craters, and therefore could not support the infantry. Thus the VI Corps and XIV Corps failed to achieve anything but limited success, only the 239th Division and 378th Division being able to break through the German defences and advance.
Commanded by General Major Teodor-Verner A. Sviklin, the 59th Army’s southern group, whose task was to close the encirclement around the German forces in the Novgorod area in co-operation with the formations of the VI Corps, operated more successfully. The group’s advance detachment, comprising the 58th Brigade, part of the 225th Division, and the 44th and 34th Separate Aerosled Battalions, during the night of 14/15 January, bypassed Novgorod from the south on the frozen surface of Lake Ilmen . At dawn, units of the southern group on the north-western shore of the lake attacked units of the lettische SS-Freiwilligenbrigade, and by the evening had seized a bridgehead as much as 3.1 miles (5 km) wide and 2.5 miles (4 km) deep.
Fearing that their forces in the Novgorod aeea would be surrounded, the Germans committed additional strength into the area. Parts of Generalleutnant Conrad-Oskar Heinrichs’s 290th Division and Major Karl-Walrad Prinz zu Salm-Horstmar’s (later Rittmeister Hubertus Bischoff’s) Kavallerieregiment 'Nord' were tasked with checking the advance of the southern group, and one regiment of Oberst Kurt Versock’s 24th Division was redeployed from the Mga region to bolster the defences to the north of Novgorod.
On 15 January, the Soviets committed additional strength from the 59th Army’s second-echelon units in the areas to the north and south of Novgorod. Parts of the 239th Division and 65th Division, as well as the 16th Tank Brigade and 29th Tank Brigade, reinforced the VI Corps. In determined fighting during 15 and 16 January, the Soviets achieved significant advances, drove back the 28th Jägerdivision and parts of the 24th Division, and severed the railway linking Chudovo and Novgorod.
In the following days, the mobile group of the VI Corps overcame impassable roads, swamps and forests, and on 20 January reached the railway linking Novgorod and Batetsky about 1.25 miles (2 km) to the east of the Nashchy junction.
Simultaneously with the offensive in the region to the north of Novgorod, the southern group’s offensive was also under way. This group had been reinforced by units of the 372nd Division and 225th Division as well as a number of artillery units. On 18 January, advancing units of the 372nd Division seized firm control of the railway and road linking Novgorod and Shimsk, and continued their offensive toward Staraya Melnitsa and Gorynev.
The Soviet advances to the north and south of Novgorod threatened the encirclement of the XXXVIII Corps, and in its effort to restore the situation the 18th Army responded by redeploying to the threatened area units of Generalleutnant Gerhard Matzky’s 21st Division, Generalleutnant Friedrich Weber’s 121st Division and Generalleutnant Friedrick Volckamer von Kirchensittenbach’s 8th Jägerdivision, as well as some other units, but it soon became obvious that it was impossible to salvage the situation. On 18 January, therefore, Lindemann ordered the abandonment of Novgorod and a retreat along the only remaining route toward Batetsky.
On the morning of 20 January, elements of the 191st Division 225th Division of the XIV Corps and the 382nd Division of the VII Corps (from the front reserve) occupied Novgorod. Units of the 1st Felddivision (L), 28th Jägerdivision and Kavallerieregiment 'Nord' abandoned their heavy weapons and departed the city during the evening of 19 January 19. Even so, the German troops failed to escape encirclement. On this same day, some 6.2 miles (10 km) to the west of Novgorod in the Gorynev area, elements of the VI Corps and the 372nd Division of the 59th Army’s southern group met, thereby cutting the German line of retreat. Most of the German group was destroyed, and about 3,000 men were taken prisoner.
After liberating Novgorod, the Soviets found the city both deserted and practically destroyed: out of 2,500 residential buildings only 40 survived. All architectural monuments, including the St Sophia Cathedral and the Millennium of Russia monument, had been badly damaged. By the time only 30 civilians remained in the city, the rest of the population having been removed to Germany or killed by the occupation forces.
Farther to the north, meanwhile, on 16 January the 54th Army went over to the offensive in order to pin the German forces in front of it. It was planned, in co-operation with the 8th Army and 67th Army, then to encircle and destroy parts of the XXVI Corps and XXVIII Corps, which held the areas of Mga, Chudov and Lyuban. By 20 January, after four days of intense combat, the 54th Army had managed to advance only 3.1 miles (5 km) and could not overcome the resistance of Weber’s 121st Division, Matzky’s 21st Division, Generalleutnant Kurt-Jürgen Freiherr von Lützow’s 12th Division and Generalleutnant Hellmuth Reymann’s 13th Felddivision (L). It was vital for the Germans to retain their positions in the Chudovo and Lyuban areas, since their intermediate defence line passed along the 'Oktyabrsky' railway and the road linking Leningrad and Moscow, and the German forces from the Mga area started to withdraw to this on 21 January.
As soon as Soviet reconnaissance had established that the Germans had withdrawn from the so-called 'Mga-Sinyavino salient', the Leningrad Front’s 67th Army and the Volkhov Front’s 8th Army were ordered to start in pursuit of the retreating German forces. By the evening of 21 January, Mga had been liberated, and the Soviets soon after this regained control of the Kirov railway. From this time onward, however, the Soviet offensive developed less rapidly. Covering the withdrawal of the XXVI Corps from the Mga area, Generalmajor Dr Karl Koske’s 212nd Division delayed the Soviet advance, which allowed the German main forces to gain a foothold in the defensive line along the 'Oktyabrsky' railway.
The German retreat from the Mga area compelled the Leningrad Front to cancel the planned attack on Pushkin, Slutsk and Tosno by part of the 42nd Army with the aim, together with the 67th Army and the forces of the Volkhov Front, of encircling major parts of the XXVI Corps and XXVIII Corps in the area of Mga, Tosno and Lyuban. The task of liberating the 'Oktyabrsky' railway was now assigned to the 67th Army and the Volkhov Front, and the 42nd Army launched an offensive against Krasnogvardeysk.
On 22 January, the military council of the Volkhov Front presented to the Soviet high command 'a plan for the development of the Novgorod-Luga operation'. In the report, the primary task of the front’s forces 'in connection with the beginning of the enemy’s withdrawal on the Mga and Lyuban axes and the defeat of the Novgorod grouping' outlined the following tasks: the liberation of Luga by the 59th Army, and of Tosno and Lyuban by the joint actions of the 8th Army and 54th Army'. On the same day, and making some adjustments to the Volkhov Front’s plan, the Soviet high command approved the proposed plan in a directive which, in particular, stated '…the capture Luga no later than 2930 January. By this time, the left wing of the troops to reach the Luga-Soltsy line. Capture Lyuban by the right wing no later than 23/24 January, assist the left wing of the Leningrad Front in the occupation of Tosno and advance to Siverskaya.
In addition, to secure more effective actions, the Soviet high command allowed the commander of the Volkhov Front to transfer most of the 8th Army’s forces to the 54th Army. At the same time, the headquarters of the 8th Army was transferred, in order 'to increase the efficiency of command and control of the advancing troops' to the front’s left flank in the area of Lake Ilmen .
By this time the German forces, now entrenched in the intermediate defence line along the 'Oktyabrsky' railway line, continued to offer fierce resistance but at the same time, realising that it was impossible to check the Soviet offensive at this line for ay lengthy time, were preparing to retreat to the west.
On 25 January the 54th Army, which had received major reinforcement from the 8th Army and 67th Army as well as the front’s reserves, continued the offensive. On 26 January, the 124th Division, 364th Division and 1st Brigade (transferred to the 54th army from the 67th Army) liberated the village of Tosno. On 28 January, the 80th Division, 281st Division, 374th Division and 177th Division took Lyuban, and on 29 January the 44th Division, 14th Brigade and 53d Brigade liberated Chudovo. At 12.00 on 29 January, the Volkhov Front reported to Iosif Stalin the complete liberation of the 'Oktyabrsky' railway. The report included the words '[t]he troops of the Volkhov Front, continuing the offensive, at 24.00 on 28 January 1944, with swift actions from the east, north and west, enveloped Chudovo and, destroying the [Germans] located there, captured a large railway junction of the ''Oktyabrsky'' railway and the city Chudovo in the he Leningrad region, which the Germans had turned into a heavily fortified centre of resistance. Thus, the ''Oktyabrsky'' railway and the Leningrad highway were liberated from the German invaders along their entire length from Tosno to Sosnitskaya Pristan.
In close pursuit of the retreating Germans, the 54th Army had reached the line lining Sluditsy, Eglino, Apraksin Bor and Glushitsa line by 31 January. At the same time, the 42nd Army and 67th Army liberated Krasnogvardeysk, Pushkin and Slutsk. By the end of January, the Leningrad Front’s 2nd Shock Army and 42nd Army had reached the Luga river in the areas Kotlov, Kingisepp and Bol’shoi Sabsk, and the 67th Army had reached Siversky.
After the liberation of Novgorod, the main task of the 59th Army was the immediate launch of an attack on Luga. If successful, Soviet troops would be able to encircle most of the 18th Army. Some five German divisions retreated to the west in the direction of Narva, and about 14 divisions fell back to the south-west in the direction of Pskov through Luga. For this reason, the Soviet supreme command ordered the front to 'capture Luga no later than 29/30 January'.
Leading the 59th Army’s primary attack, the VI Corps was advancing with the task of breaking the German resistance in the Batetsk area and, together with the CXII Corps, was operating on the army’s right wing to develop an offensive toward Luga. At the same time, the CXII Corps was to commit part of its strength in the direction of Finev Lug and sever the line of retreat needed by the German forces falling back from the line of the 'Oktyabrsky' railway. On the 59th Army’s left flank, two corps were advancing: the VII Corps moved forward in the direction of the railway linking Leningrad and Dno, and the XIC Corps to the south-west in the direction of Shimsk.
Fully appreciating the serious nature of their situation, the Germans were compelled to reinforce and regroup their forces facing the 59th Army. Several Kampfgruppen were created, and these were tasked with delaying the Soviet advance troops on Luga and securing the withdrawal of the XXVIII Corps' formations and units from the Lyuban and Chudov area. By 21 January, the Kampfgruppe 'Shulta' (lettische SS-Freiwilligenbrigade, remnants of the 28th Jägerdivision and small groups of the 24th Division, 121st Division and 21st Division) took up defensive positions in the Spasskaya Polist and Tatino sector to cover the axis to Finev Lug. The Kampfgruppe 'Shpet' (the remnants of the 1st Felddivision (L) and the Kavallerieregiment 'Nord'), as well as the 8th Jägerdivision, took up defensive positions on each side of the railway linking Novgorod and Batetsky, and the Kampfgruppe 'Ferguta' (parts of the Kavallerieregiment 'Nord' and 290th Division) covered the axis toward Shimsk.
Continuing the offensive, the VI Corps and the 29th Tank Brigade, advancing directly on Luga, encountered stubborn resistance and could not immediately overcome the German defences. Only by 26 January, after several days of fierce fighting, did parts of the corps, moving along the railway linking Novgorod and Batetsky, manage to push the Germans slightly to the rear, liberate Lyubolyady and advance to the Luga river.
The 59th Army’s formations operating on the left flank achieved considerably greater success. Elements of the VII Corps in five days broke the German resistance and advanced some 18.5 to 21.75 miles (30 to 35 km) to the west and south-west, and reached the Luga River near the village of Trebon. At the same time, the 256th Division, with the support of the 7th Guards Tank Brigade and 5th Partisan Brigade, took Peredolsk station on the railway linking Leningrad and Dno on 27 January, and the 382nd Division drove off the 8th Jägerdivision, occupied the village of Medved and cut the road linking Luga and Shimsk. At the same time, the XIV Corps and the 16th Tank Brigade cleared the north-western coast of Lake Ilmen and by 26 January had reached Shimsk, which they could not capture as the Germans, in order to maintain links between the 18th Army and the 16th Army, offered a stubborn defence.
Since the Shimsk axis was secondary, the Volkhov Front decided to suspend the offensive in this area and concentrate its forces on the Luga axis. For this, on 25 January, the VII Corps (256th, 382nd and 372nd Divisions) and the XIV Corps, as well as the 7th Guards Brigade, 16th Tank Brigade, 122nd Tank Brigade and some other elements of the 59th Army were grouped. The 8th Army’s formations were tasked with falling on Luga from the south and south-east to facilitate the 59th Army’s offensive. Covering the 8th Army’s left flank was supposed to be the 150th Fortified Area, which took up defensive positions in the area of Shimsk.
On 27 January, the 59th Army, which at that time comprised only the VI Corps, CXII Corps and one tank brigade, continued its offensive, delivering the main blow to Luga along the railway linking Novgorod and Batetsky. For several days and in fierce fighting, the 59th Army could not break the German resistance in this area, and managed to achieve only some local successes. Elements of the VI Corps were unable to seize Batetsky, a potent centre of German defence, and the CXII Rifle Corps failed to capture Oredezh and cut the road to Luga, and this allowed the XXVIII Corps to retreat from the Chudovo area.
Like the 59th Army, the 8th Army did not achieve significant successes. The Germans made every effort to recapture Peredolsk station, which was of key importance. Elements of Units of Generalleutnant Gustav Adolph-Auffenberg-Komarow’s 285th Sicherungsdivision and Generalleutnant Erpo Freiherr von Bodenhausen’s 12th Panzerdivision were thrown into the battle, and the station changed hands several times. Although Peredolsk station finally remained in Soviet hands, the fighting had coast the 8th Army significant casualties and as a result this formation could not continue its attack on Luga.
The Volkhov Front failed to take Luga by 29/30 January, as had been demanded by the Soviet high command. Trying to hold their positions in the Luga area regardless of cost, the Germans concentrated all available forces in this area: early in February, elements of the 12th Panzerdivision, four infantry divisions, six infantry Kampfgruppen and the remnants of six more divisions and brigades held their positions. The Soviets could not overcome the resistance of this grouping, and this made it possible for most of the 18th Army to retreat from Leningrad without any loss of cohesion and combat capability.
The reasons for the Soviet failure in the offensive on Luga at the end of January were the insufficient concentration of troops on the main attack’s axes, the difficulty of the terrain and weather, the overextension of supply lines, the lack of air support as a result of the adverse weather, and the heavy losses sustained by tank units. Unhappy with the course of events, on 29 January the Soviet high command ordered the Volkhov Front, without getting involved in the fighting for Shimsk and Soltsy, to direct all its efforts toward the fastest possible liberation of Luga. To accomplish the assigned task, the front received reinforcement in the form of 15,000 infantry and 130 tanks.
By the end of January 1944, the Leningrad Front and Volkhov Front had driven back the Germans and completed the lifting of the siege of Leningrad, but the Germans were not yet defeated and continued to offer fierce resistance. Early in February, the Soviet fronts continued their offensive. The Leningrad Front was advancing: the forces of the 2nd Shock Army and 42nd Army were pushing forward on Narva, and those of the 67th army were driving on Luga from the north and north-east. The main task of the Volkhov Front was still the capture of Luga by the 59th Army, 8th Army and 54th Army.
Since the Volkhov Front had failed to capture Luga at the end of January, the Soviet high command decided that it was necessary to effect a number of regroupings and to make some changes to the plan for the further offensive undertakings. At the suggestion of Govorov, therefore, on 1 February the Soviet high command decided to make a modest alteration in the the 42nd Army’s axis of advance: this army was, while still advancing in the direction of Gdov, to bypass the German forces in the Luga area from the north-west, cut the German line of communication on the line between Luga and Pskov, and support the 67th Army and the Volkhov Front in the capture of Luga. In addition, from 2 February, the Volkhov Front were reinforced by the 2nd Baltic Front’s 1st Shock Army.
Realising that the current situation could lead to the encirclement and defeat of the 18th Army main strength, von Küchler planned to start an orderly and staged retreat from the Luga area. On 30 January, however, Hitler ordered that the 'Luga line' was to be held, ground communications with the 16th Army were to re restored, and the Soviet offensive was to be brought to a halt. von Küchler considered the order impracticable, on on voicing this opinion was dismissed and succeeded by Model, who immediately issued an order not a single step back was to be made without a specific order to do so.
Model hoped, through the conduct of an active defence and constant counterattacks, to stop the Soviet advance and restore a common front between the two armies and the 18th Army's forces in the Luga area with two corps that fought independently in the Narva area. To strengthen the German grouping in the Luga area, several formations were redeployed from the 16th Army. Additionally, to ensure communication between the two armies and restore the common front, on 6 February, SS-Obergruppenführer Karl von Pfeffer-Wildenbruch’s VI SS Korps (lettische) became the core of General Johannes Friessner’s Armeegruppe 'Friessner', which also included Herzog’s XXXVIII Corps and General Thomas-Emil von Wickede’s X Corps.
On 31 January, the 42nd Army crossed the Luga river and continued its offensive in pursuit of General Wilhelm Wegener;s L Corps retreating to Narva. In a few days the Soviet troops, with the support of partisan units, made significant progress, liberated Lyady, Sara-Gora and Gdov, and reached the shore of Lake Peipsi, the northernmost of the three bodies of water constituting Lake Peipus.
Early in February, the front allocated a new task to the 42nd Army, namely to bypass the Luga group from the west and north-west and assist the 67th Army and the Volkhov Front in the liberation of Luga. Taking this into account, the army’s formations continued their offensive with the CVIII Corps from the Yamma region to Pskov, and the CXXIII Corps and CXVI Corps from the Lyada region to the south-east with the tasks of taking Plyussa and Struga Krasnye, and of cutting the road linking Luga and Pskov.
The 42nd Army’s offensive now threatened to achieve the encirclement of the 18th Army's main forces. Model saw the threat and ordered that communications between Luga and Pskov were to be held at any cost. For this, Generalleutnant Karl Burdach’s 11th Division, Koske’s 212th Division and Generalleutnant Bruno Frankewitz’s 215th Division were left in the Luga area, and Generalleutnant Hellmuth Reymann’s 13th Felddivision (L), Versoch’s 4th Division, Generalleutnant Curt Siewert’s 58th Division, Matzky’s 21st Division and Generalleutnant Bogislav Graf von Schwerin’s 207th Sicherungsdivision hurriedly began to take up defensive positions from the area to west of Luga to Lake Peipsi. At the same time, units of von Bodenhausen’s 12th Panzerdivision, Generalleutnant Gottfried Weber’s 12th Felddivision (L) and Generalleutnant Gotthard Fischer’s 126th Division were to counterattack from the eastern shore of Lake Peipsi to the north.
On 7 February ands while preparing to launch their counter-offensive, the German forces were attacked by elements of the 42nd Army. In the Yamma area on the Zhelche river, fierce fighting erupted between the CVIII Corps and the 20th Division, and between the Luga and the Plyussa rivers the CXVI Corps and CXXIII Corps, advancing in the direction of Strug Krasnykh, attacked the positions of the 13th Felddivision (L) and 58th Division.
On 10 February, units of the 12th Panzerdivision counterattacked the 196th Division and 128th Division of the CVIII Corps in the Yamma area, but only slightly delayed the Soviet offensive. By 12 February, the formations of the CVIII Corps, pushing the Germans back to the south, occupied Podborovye, and one of its divisions seized a small beach-head on the western shore of Lake Peipsi.
At the same time, fighting continued on the Plyussa river line, where the defence of the 58th Division had been reinforced by the 21st Division and 24th Division, which had been redeployed to this area to deliver a counterattack. As a result of fierce fighting between 8 and 15 February, formations of the CXVI Corps and CXXIII Corps in the area of Zarudenye, Berezitsy and Orekhovno broke through the German defences, defeated three German divisions and surrounded part of the 58th Division. The Germans committed the 13th Felddivision (L) and parts of the 12th Panzerdivision into the battle with the hope of restoring the situation, but after suffering heavy losses, these failed to achieve anything of importance. Moreover, a Panzergrenadier regiment of the 12th Panzerdivision was also surrounded. On 13 February, after abandoning their tanks and artillery, the Germans tried to break through in the direction of Strug Krasnykh, crossing Lake Chernoye, but only a few men managed to escape the encirclement. By 15 February, two of the 42nd Army’s corps, having destroyed the encircled German units, continued their offensive toward Strug Krasnykh and Plyussa.
Simultaneously with the operations of the 42nd Army, the 67th Army’s CX Corps and CXVII Corps attacked Luga from the north and north-east. After encountering stubborn German resistance on the line between Krasnye Gory and Dolgovka, the 67th Army’s formations advanced with great difficulty and by 11 February had reached only the approaches to Luga.
The offensive of the 42nd Army and 67th Army placed the German forces in the Luga area into a critical situation. Heeresgruppe 'Nord' has lost the last opportunity to hold the 'Luga line' and stop the Soviet offensive. At the same time, although elements of the 42nd Army’s CXXIII Corps and CXVI Corps managed to reach the outskirts of Plyussa, they failed to cut the railway to Pskov. Thus the forces of the 18th Army still possessed the opportunity to retreat from the Luga area.
Early in February, the Volkhov Front’s three armies regrouped and continued their offensive toward Luga. Elements of the 54th Army attacked Luga from the north-east, and elements of the 59th Army from the south-east on the sector between Oredezh and Batetsky. The most difficult task was that facing the 8th Army, which was to commit part of its strength, advancing in the direction of the railway linking Luga and Pskov, to facilitate the 59th Army’s offensive, and the rest of its strength to co-operate with the 1st Shock Army in the encirclement and subsequent destruction of the forces of the 18th Army's right flank in the area to the south-west of Lake Ilmen. The 1st Shock Army, which became part of the front early in February, was tasked with breaking through the German defences in the area to the south of Staraya Russa and advancing in the direction of Dno station to meet the 8th Army.
Since the task assigned to the 8th Army was very difficult, the Soviets were soon forced to carry out an additional regrouping. On 8 February, therefore, after liberating Oredezh, parts of the 54th Army were transferred to the Leningrad Front’s 67th Army, and the army headquarters was transferred to the left flank of the Volkhov Front. Taking command of the CXI Corps and CXIX Corps, the 54th Army received the task, together with the 8th Army and 1st Shock Army, of encircling and destroying the German forces in the Staraya Russa area.
Despite the regrouping and the arrival of significant reinforcements, the attack on Luga developed once more only with great difficulty. The 59th Army, having met stubborn resistance from the XXXVIII Corps, managed to advance only 15.5 miles (25 km) in five days. It was only after the 54th Army had liberated Oredezh on 8 February that the Germans began to retreat, but until 12 February they continued to hold Batetsky, thus checking the 59th Army’s offensive.
Advancing in the direction of the railway linking Luga and Pskov railway, the 8th Army initially achieved greater success. Thus the VII Corps, reinforced by the 256th Division, 1st Brigade and two tank battalions, achieved a major advance and on 2 February cut the toad linking Pskov and Luga near the village of Elemtsy. However, the 59th Army and the main strength of the 8th Army’s XIV Corps could not advance as rapidly and thus exposed the flanks of the VII Corps.
In this situation, in which control of the road linking Pskov and Luga was vital, the Germans decided to launch a counter-offensive: the Armeegruppe 'Friessner', with Adolph-Auffenberg-Komarow’s 285th Sicherungsdivision and elements of von Bodenhausen’s 12th Panzerdivision, was to advance from the area to the north of Lake Cheremenets, and Weber’s 121st Division was to strike from the area to the south of Utorgosh and close the encirclement on 3 February as the two pincers met in the area of Strashevo. Elements of the 256th Division and 372nd Division, as well as one regiment of the 5th Partisan Brigade, were surrounded. Finding themselves in a difficult situation, the Soviet forces, under the leadership of Polkovnik Anatoli G. Koziev, commander of the 256th Division, were forced to retreat from the road linking Luga and Pskov and adopt a defensive posture in the area of the village of Oklyuzhiye. The 8th Army was able quickly to quickly organise the air delivery of food and ammunition to the encircled force, which could thus drive off the many German attacks between 6 and 15 February.
Concerned about the situation, the front immediately tried to organise an offensive to defeat the Germans in the area to the south-west of Luga, cut the German lines of communication and rescue the Koziev group. The LXXXXIX Corps (229th Division, 265th Division and 311th Division) was allocated from the Soviet high command’s reserve, and was instructed to strike at Utorgosh and Strugi Krasnye. At the same time, reinforced by one division, the XIV Corps was to attack Soltsy.
Having launched an offensive on 7 February, the Soviet forces were unable to undertake a full implementation of the plan. Faced with fierce resistance from von Kirchensittenbach’s 8th Jägerdivision, which was supported by tanks and aircraft, the two Soviet corps fought with determination up to 15 February but could not achieve success. At the same time, this offensive greatly facilitated the position of the troops surrounded in the Oklyuzhie area: on 15 February, elements of the 59th Army arrived to the aid of the 8th Army, which on the following day relieved the Koziev group.
Fierce German resistance and constant counterattacks did not allow the 8th Army and 54th Army to offer effective support to the offensive of the 1st Shock Army, which comprised only four infantry divisions and one infantry brigade. Having launched an offensive early in February along a 60-mile (100-km) sector of the front, the 1st Shock Army was unable to break the resistance of Generalleutnant Rudolf-Eduard Licht’s 21st Felddivision (L), Generalleutnant Wilhelm Hasse’s 30th Division and SS-Gruppenführer Carl Graf von Pückler-Burghauss’s (from 17 February) SS-Brigadeführer Nikolas Heilmann’s) 15th lettische SS-Freiwilligendivision) from the 16th Army, and by the middle of February had advanced only a short distance.
Despite the Soviet failure to encircle the German forces in the area either of Luga or to the south-west of Lake Ilmen, the 18th Army was was in a critical situation. Until the last moment, Model had hoped to hold the front along the line between Lake Ilmen and Lake Peipsi. This concept was supported by neither Hitler nor the Oberkommando des Heeres, however, and both believed that it was better to retreat than to put the army group’s forces under the renewed threat of encirclement. Thus Model was compelled to order a retreat.
On 6 February, the withdrawal of German rear and auxiliary units from Luga started, and was then followed by that of the 18th Army's main forces toward Pskov. By the evening of 12 February, the city of Luga, whose rearguard defence had been entrusted to rearguard detachments, fell to the 67th Army’s 120th Division, 123rd Division, 201st Division and 46th Division aided by the 59th Army’s 377th Division.
Having liberated Luga, the Soviet troops continued their offensive against the German forces falling back to the 'Panther-Wotan-Stellung' on 17 February .
On 13 February, the Soviet high command ordered the disestablishment of the Volkhov Front, whose forces were thereupon redistributed: the 54th Army, 59th Army and 8th Army were transferred to the Leningrad Front, and the 1st Shock Army to the 2nd Baltic Front. The Volkhov Front’s headquarters elements passed into the high command reserve for subsequent reallocation. The proposal for the Volkhov Front’s disestablishment came from Govorov, who believed that unity of command would be improved by the transfer of all the forces in the Pskov area to the Leningrad Front. Meretskov, who had already outlined a plan for his front to take the offensive into Estonia, Latvia and Belorussia, the order obviating his command came as a complete surprise.
Two months later, on 21 April, a new 3rd Baltic Front was created under the command of General Polkovnik Ivan I. Maslennikov, and this included the 42nd Army, 54th Army and 67th Army from the Leningrad Front, and then the 1st Shock Army from the 2nd Baltic Front.
The 'Novgorod-Luga Offensive Operation' had ended in a decisive Soviet victory, and in any respects this predetermined the success of the entire 'Leningrad-Novgorod Strategic Offensive Operation'. It should be noted, though, that the offensive did not develop as rapidly as had initially been conceived. It had not been possible for the Soviet forces to liberate Luga within the time frame ordained by the Soviet high command using only by the forces of the Volkhov Front. The Soviet high command therefore had to use the main forces of the Leningrad Front’s 42nd Army and 67th Army to accomplish this task, which significantly weakened the offensive farther to the north in the Narva region. The 18th Army had sustained a major defeat, bit the Germans were still not defeated and retained a significant part of their combat potential, which made it impossible for the Soviet forces to break through the 'Panther-Wotan-Stellung' in the spring of 1944 and press ahead with the recapture of the Baltic states.
One of the reasons for this development of events can be discerned in the extremely unsuccessful actions of the 2nd Baltic Front, which were not properly co-ordinated with the Volkhov Front’s offensive, a fact which allowed the Germans to redeploy significant forces from the 16th Army to the Luga area.
As a result, the Volkhov Front could not break the resistance of the 18th Army's main forces and take Luga by the end of January. However, the Germans managed only to slow rather than to halt the offensive of the armies of the Volkhov Front and Leningrad Front. The Soviet command then made the necessary adjustments to the offensive plan and promptly carried out a number of regroupings. Continuing the offensive, the Soviet troops did not allow the Germans to hold the 'Luga line' and to establish a new front line between Lake Peipsi and Lake Ilmen. In the second half of February, German troops began a general retreat to the 'Panther-Wotan-Stellung'.
By 15 February, the Volkhov Front, as well as the Leningrad Front’s 42nd Army and 67th Army, had driven the Germans back some 30 to 75 miles (50 to 120 km), reached the the line between the southern coast of Lake Peipsi to Simsk via Plyussa and Utorgosh. Some 779 cities and towns had been liberated, these including Novgorod, Luga, Batetsky, Oredezh, Mga, Tosno, Lyuban and Chudovo.
The restoration of Soviet control over the strategically important railways, primarily the Kirov and 'Oktyabrsky' lines, was of great importance, and traffic was fully and swiftly restored on seven railways from Leningrad to Vologda, Rybinsk, Moscow, Novgorod, Batetsky, Luga and Ust-Luga.
According to a major Russian study, the losses of the Volkhov front amounted to 50,300 people killed, missing and wounded (including 12,011 killed or missing, and 38,289 wounded or taken ill). In addition, the losses of the 1st Shock Army in the period from 14 January and 10 February were 1,283 men killed or missing and 3,762 men wounded or taken ill. The greatest casualties were those of the 59th Army, which lost 25,155 men killed and wounded (14,473 of them in the battles for the liberation of Novgorod) and the 8th Army, which lost 22,253 men.
The 42nd Army and 67th Army of the Leningrad Front also suffered significant losses.
From the beginning of 1944 as they were forced back from Leningrad, the losses of the 16th Army and 18th Army were recorded only spasmodically, so it is difficult to gain any accurately indication of the German losses. It can be argued, however, that Heeresgruppe 'Nord' nonetheless retained a significant proportion of its combat capability/
According to Soviet data, the Volkhov Front defeated eight infantry divisions and one Panzer division, and also inflicted heavy defeat on another four infantry divisions, whose the total losses amounted to about 82,000 men.