Pskov-Ostrov Offensive Operation

The 'Pskov-Ostrov Offensive Operation' was a Soviet undertaking by General Ivan I. Maslennikov’s 3rd Baltic Front against part of General Herbert Loch’s 18th Army of Generaloberst Johannes Friessner’s (from 23 July Generaloberst Ferdinand Schörner’s) Heeresgruppe 'Nord' designed to break through the well-prepared German defences of the 'Panther-Wotan-Stellung' to liberate the city of Pskov and to develop an offensive deep into the Baltic states (11/31 July 1944).

The operation’s success made a significant contribution to the offensives of the 2nd Baltic Front and Leningrad Front.

The Soviet forces involved in the operation under the command of the 3rd Baltic Front were General Leytenant Vladimir P. Sviridov’s 42nd Army, General Leytenant Vladimir Z. Romanovsky’s 67th Army, General Leytenant Sergei V. Roginsky’s 54th Army and General Leytenant Nikanor D. Zakhvatayev’s 1st Shock Army, for which air support was provided by General Leytenant Nikolai F. Naumenko’s 15th Air Army.

The German forces involved in the operation under the command of the 18th Army were General Heinz Gollnick’s XXVIII Corps, General Kurt Herzog’s XXXVIII Corps and General Herbert von Böckmann’s (from 20 July General Philipp Kleffel’s) L Corps, for which air support was provided by General Kurt Pflugbeil’s Luftflotte I.

By a time early in the spring of 1944, as a result of the 'Leningrad-Novgorod Strategic Offensive Operation', Soviet forces had defeated the forces of Heeresgruppe 'Nord' and forced them to retreat to the 'Panther-Wotan-Stellung'. On this defensive line, which had been under development for some time and was now well prepared, formations of General Christian Hansen’s (from 1 July General Paul Laux’s) 16th Army and Loch’s 18th Army established themselves and managed to halt the Soviet pursuit. During the fierce battles of March and April, the formations of the Leningrad Front and the 2nd Baltic Front found themselves unable to break through the German defences and this managed to achieve only local successes. In particular, the formations of the 22nd Army and the 10th Guards Army seized a bridgehead at Strezhnevsky on the western bank of the Velikaya river.

In the middle of the summer which followed, the successful start of the 'Belorussian Strategic Offensive Operation' (otherwise 'Bagration') persuaded the Soviet high command to launch other offensives farther to the north in order to retake the Baltic states: in the north Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Leonid A. Govorov’s Leningrad Front was to carry out the 'Narva Offensive Operation', in the centre the 3rd Baltic Front was to undertake the 'Pskov-Ostrov Offensive Operation' and in the south General Andrei I, Eremenko’s 2nd Baltic Front was to launch the 'Rezhitska-Dvinsk Offensive Operation'. Being part of a single strategic campaign, these operations were to be carried out in close co-operation with each other and thus contribute to each other’s success.

By the time the Soviet offensive in the Baltic states began, the defeat of Generalfeldmarschall Ernst Busch’s (from 27 June Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model’s) Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' in Belorussia had placed Heeresgruppe 'Nord' into a highly critical situation: communications between the two German army groups had been severely disrupted, and the southern flank of Heeresgruppe 'Nord' was overextended and very short of troops. In its efforts to remedy this situation, the German high command was forced to transfer eight infantry divisions and one Panzer division from Heeresgruppe 'Nord' to Belorussia, but this could not prevent the Soviet forces from pressing forward in their offensive: most importantly, the 1st Baltic Front’s advance toward Memel on the Lithuanian coast of the Baltic Sea created the very real threat of cutting off the whole of Heeresgruppe 'Nord' from East Prussia.

In these circumstances, on 12 July Friessner submitted the following proposals for consideration by Adolf Hitler: 'Soberly assessing the situation, one can draw only one conclusion – to save Heeresgruppe 'Nord' it is necessary, leaving strong enough rearguard groups capable of fighting deterrent battles, to withdraw the armies in the following directions: Armeegruppe 'Narwa' in the direction of Tallinn, from where, depending on the development of the situation, its evacuation by sea to Riga, Liepaja or Klaipeda; and the 16th Army and 18th Army to the line between Kaunas and Riga… Given the situation to the south of the Zapadnaya Dvina river, it is impossible to say with certainty whether the withdrawal of the army group’s troops to new lines is still possible. But it is necessary to attempt this, because Heeresgruppe 'Nord' will otherwise be surrounded and partially destroyed.'

Hitler’s response was atypically decisive: on 23 July Friessner was transferred to the position of commander of the Heeresgruppe 'Südukraine', whose current commander, Schörner, became the new commander of Heeresgruppe 'Nord'. By this time, the Soviet forces had already gone over to the offensive.

On 6 July, the Soviet high command had issued a directive outlining the 3rd Baltic Front’s offensive to defeat the German forces in the area of Pskov and Ostrov (otherwise the 'Island'). In part, this directive ordered the 3rd Baltic Front to 'prepare and carry out an operation in order to defeat the Pskov-Ostrov grouping of the [Germans] and, in the first stage, capture [the area] of Ostrov, Lyepna and Gulbene. In the second stage, advance in the general direction of Vyra, advance into the rear of the [German] Pskov grouping and occupy Pskov and Vyra. In the future, capture Tartu, Pärnu and advance into the rear of the [German] Narva grouping. To accomplish this task, deliver one general blow with the forces of at least 12 or 13 infantry divisions with reinforcement from the Strezhnevsky bridgehead in the general direction of Yaunlatgale, Balvi and Gulbene.'

Attaching great importance to the successful implementation of the planned offensive, Iosif Stalin ordered that a tea comprising General Polkovnik Sergei M. Shtemenko, the chief of the Stavka’s operations directorate, and a group of other officers as the representative of the high command to support the front command in preparing and effecting the operation.

In its final form, the operational plan developed by the 3rd Baltic Front’s military council and the high command representative was based on the concentration of the 1st Shock Army (transferred to the Stavka from the 2nd Baltic Front) and the 54th Army in the area of ​​the Strezhnevsky bridgehead with the task of delivering the main blow on the axis to Kurovo, Augshpils and Malupe. At the same time, the 67th Army and the 42nd army were initially to pin the opposing German forces, and then to liberate the cities of Ostrov and Pskov. The 3rd Baltic Front was then to drive its forces forward in the direction of Võru and thereby provide assistance for the Leningrad Front in its battle for Narva, and then advance from the line linking Pskov and Zeni via Võru in the direction of Tartu or Pärnu.

On 11 July, the Soviet high command issued a directive ordering the the acceleration of preparations for the offensive against the German forces in the area of Pskov and Ostrov as the German forces opposing the 2nd Baltic Front had started to withdraw in the direction of Opochka. As this might trigger a similar withdrawal by the German forces in the are of Pskov and Ostrov, the 3rd Baltic Front was ordered 'starting from 11 July to conduct combat reconnaissance in order to establish the strength of the [German] defence and detect a possible withdrawal in a timely fashion.'

On 11 July, therefore, the 3rd Baltic Front began its programme of ordered reconnaissances in force, destroying German fortifications with artillery fire and undertaking local operations. Between 11 and 16 July, therefore, elements of the 54th Army reached the Velikaya river in the sector of Pechekhnovo and Semendyakhi sector, where they seized another bridgehead on the river’s western bank.

On the morning of 17 July, the main phase of the 3rd Baltic Front’s offensive began. After a stunning artillery bombardment and heavy air attacks, formations and units of the 1st Shock Army and 54th Army went over to the offensive from the Strezhnevsky bridgehead. The German artillery response was wholly suppressed and the infantry forces were quickly able to break through the German defences, which were held in this sector by Generalleutnant Hans Boekh-Behrens’s 32nd Division, Generalleutnant Heinrich Götz’s 83rd Division, Generalleutnant Viktor Lang’s 218th Division and several Sicherungs regiments. It soon became apparent that these German formations were the German rearguard covering the withdrawal of the main forces to the west. In this circumstance, Maslennikov decided for the immediate commitment of the 'pursuit groups' were had earlier been established. The 1st Shock Army’s pursuit group comprised one regiment of the 85th Division and the 16th Tank Brigade, and that of the 54th Army elements of the 288th Division and the 122nd Tank Brigade.

In two days of pursuing the retreating Germans, elements of the 1st Shock Army and the 54th Army advanced some 25 miles (40 km), in the process expanding the width of breakthrough front to about 43.5 miles (70 km) and liberating more than 700 settlements. By the evening of 18 July, elements of the 1st Shock Army had reached the city of Ostrov from the south-west, but could not take it ff the march in the face of determined German defence.

As planned, on 21 July the 67th Army joined the offensive and, with the assistance of elements of the 1st Shock Army, liberated the city of Ostrov.

On 22 July, the 42nd Army went over to the offensive. With an attack from the left flank on Popov Krest, elements of the 42nd Army bypassed Pskov from the south, crossed the Velikaya river and on the following day the 128th Division, 376th Division and 14th Fortified Area, together with the 67th Army’s 291st Division, liberated Pskov.

After the main part of the operation had been completed, the Soviet high command ordered the 3rd Baltic Front to develop an offensive in the direction of Aluksne and Valga with the aim of further preventing all the German forces in Estonia and northern Latvia from a retreat to Riga, the major Estonian port city on the western coast of the Baltic Sea. For lack of adequate strength, however, the 3rd Baltic Front was unable to complete the plan in its entirety, but the continuation of the offensive contributed to the progress of the 2nd Baltic Front toward Rezekne and Madona, and of the Leningrad Front in the area of Narva.

By 31 July, the 3rd Baltic Front’s forces had reached the area to the west of Izborsk, the Valgov area and the region to the east of Aluksne and Gulbene, where the Germans had prepared new defences on the 'Marienburg-Linie'. At this point, the Soviet offensive was temporarily suspended.

In the operation, the 3rd Baltic Front had completed the tasks assigned to it, inflicted a serious defeat on the 18th Army and captured the well-defended area round Pskov and Ostrov. Thus the 'Pskov-Ostrov Offensive Operation' led to the final liberation of the Leningrad region. Having advanced between 30 and 80 miles (50 and 130 km) into Latvia and southern Estonia, the 3rd Baltic Front had reached the rear of the German forces in the Narva and Tartu areas and made a significant contribution to the Leningrad Front’s offensive.

Early in August, the 3rd Baltic Front carried out the 'Tartu Offensive Operation' in which it broke through the 'Marienburg-Linie' and continued the offensive.