Rezhitska-Dvinsk Offensive Operation

The 'Rezhitska-Dvinsk Offensive Operation' was the Soviet undertaking designed by General Polkovnik Andrei I. Eremenko’s 2nd Baltic Front to trap and destroy the German forces in the area of Opochka, Idritsa and Sebezh in the Kalinin region of Latvia (10/27 July 1944).

The plan was developed by the headquarters of the 2nd Baltic Front and sent on 26 June to the Soviet high command, which signalled its approval on 2 July. As well as the destruction of the German forces in the Opochka, Idritsa and Sebezh area, the operation was to provide protection for the northern flank of General Hovhannes Kh. Bagramyan’s 1st Baltic Front in the latter’s 'Belorussian Strategic Offensive Operation' and to co-operate with General Polkovnik Ivan I. Maslennikov’s 3rd Baltic Front to create the conditions required for the defeat of German forces in the Baltic states. Developed for a start date of 12 July, the plan was posited on a penetration of the German defences by two strike groups. General Leytenant Vasili A. Yushkevich’s 3rd Shock Army and General Leytenant Mikhail I. Kazakov’s 10th Guards Army were to advance from the north, and General Leytenant Piotr F. Malyshev’s 4th Shock Army and General Leytenant Gennadi P. Korotkov’s 22nd Army were to advance from the south with the object of meeting in the area of Rezekne. To ensure the continuance of a rapid advance into the depths of the German defences, a front reserve (V Tank Corps and a mobile group) was created for subsequent commitment, and each army also created its own mobile groups. Air support was to be provided by the 546 aircraft of General Leytenant Nikolai F. Naumenko’s 15th Air Army.

The 2nd Baltic Front’s opposition was General Paul Laux’s 16th Army of Generaloberst Johannes Friessner’s (from 23 July Generaloberst Ferdinand Schörner’s) Heeresgruppe 'Nord', whose primary defence line was the northern end of the 'Panther-Wotan-Stellung'. The Germans forces had been positioned here for a period of seven months, and had used this time to create a defensive zone of several lines. Of these the first and second positions were the 'Panther-Linie' and 'Reyer-Linie' respectively along the front from Opochka top Osveya via Sebezh. Next to the west came the 'Blau-Linie' intermediate position along the Sinyaya and Shkyaune rivers and the border of the Kalinin region to the Zapadnaya Dvina river. The rear position was the 'Grün-Linie' extending along the western bank of the Lzha river, Rundanam, Dagda and Kraslava. All of the defence lines featured reinforced concrete bunkers and pillboxes, ditches, minefields and barbed wire entanglements.

By the beginning of July 1944, Soviet intelligence estimated that the planned offensive would be faced by some 100,000 men, but by the time of the offensive’s start this figure had been reduced to 72,000 men as three division had been redeployed to Belorussia. The Germans were believed to possess 80 tanks and assault guns, 1,229 pieces of artillery and mortars, and 223 aircraft. Against this the Soviets pitted 391,200 men.

Of great benefit to the Soviets was their reconnaissance capability, which had been used to good effect: in June alone there had been 1,142 reconnaissance missions, 16 of them being reconnaissances in force. As many as 2,000 prisoners and 1,000 documents had been seized in these undertakings.

In the last days before the start of the offensive, Soviet intelligence discovered that the Germans were starting to withdraw units from the forward to the rear defence line, most probably in order to ready themselves for the offensive. Eremenko therefore decided to start the operation ahead of schedule on 10 July, and then not in the morning, as had become standard in Soviet operations in the 'Great Patriotic War', but in the evening. The decision was a risk, not least to Eremenko’s survival in the event of any failure as he had made the decision without any mention of the fact to the high command. Eremenko justified his decision by the fact that the chance to inflict significant losses on a partially confused foe should not be missed.

At 19.30 on 10 July, a 30-minute artillery preparation was followed by the advance of the northern strike group. Its success exceeded all expectations as the Germans were taken by complete operational and tactical surprise. Caught in the middle of their redeployment, the German front-line formations and units could offer no serious resistance and the Soviet forward battalions took the first and second trench lines on the move. By 22.00 the Soviets were able to feed army and corps mobile groups into the breakthrough area, and in the course of the night and the following day the German front-line defence was completely broken, and parts of two German divisions were cut off and destroyed. Throughout, the 15th Air Army provided powerful air support to the advancing units.

The front’s southern strike group began its offensive on the night of 11 July, but its leading forces could not match the success achieved by those of the northern strike group as the Germans had not yet begun their withdrawal in this sector. The German defence was based on the Saryanka river, and effective defensive positions had been created on the basis of the area’s large numbers of lakes, streams and swampy areas. Nevertheless, in 22nd Army’s sector, Soviet troops had taken the German forward trenches by 02.00. Counting on the improbability of a stable German defence against the northern strike group, Eremenko committed his front’s main strength at 04.00. During the night of 12 July, the Soviet forces crossed the Drissa river near Volyntsy, and on the following day an army mobile group was brought into the battle. This broke the German resistance and began to develop success in the direction of Osveya. On 14 July, however, the Germans launched as many as 10 counterattacks with tanks supported by aircraft. After repelling these counterattacks, the Soviet forces advanced 7.5 miles (12 km) in a day and began to pose a threat to the German forces holding the second defend line along the Nishcha and Drissa rivers. In just this first full day of the operation, the Soviet main forces advanced some 6.2 to 9.33 miles (10 to 15 km), and the advance groups more than 12.5 miles (20 km). Thus, on the offensive’s first day the German forward line had been completely broken, as many as 1,500 prisoners had been taken, and up to 7,000 German soldiers had been killed, and in the process the Soviets had created the conditions in which a swift advance could not just be contemplated but actually implemented.

In this situation, the Germans began the hasty withdrawal to the north-west of Generalleutnant Walter Hahm’s 389th Division, Generalleutnant Mauritz Freiherr von Strachwitz’s 87th Division and Generalleutnant Kurt Versock’s 24th Division from the line of the Nishcha and Drissa rivers. In order to develop success in this direction, Eremenko now decided to introduce the front reserve, in the form of the V Tank Corps, into the resulting breakthrough. The commitment of the V Tank Corps further improved the situation on this axis, on which lay Idritsa, the Germans' most important stronghold and air base in the area. The Soviets took Idritsa on 12 July, and followed with the liberation of Drissa on the same day and of Pushkinskiye Gory on the following day. However, in was in this sector that the Germans managed to bring up part of their forces, and from 14 July fierce and sanguinary encounter battles developed in the area of Opochka. Each side repulsed the other’s attacks and counterattacked themselves. On the night of 15 July, Soviet troops forced their way into the city, and by 16.00 had cleared the city. On 17 July, the centre of another fortified area, the city of Sebezh, was liberated.

In overall terms, therefore, in a period of fewer than 10 days between 10 and 19 July, the Soviet forces had penetrated through three powerful defensive lines and advanced to the west a distance of between 56 and 68 miles (90 and 110 km). Six German infantry regiments and 11 separate infantry battalions had each lost more than 50% of their men, something in excess of 5,000 men had been taken prisoner, and more than 30,000 German soldiers had been killed. Thus the liberation of the Kalinin region had been completed, and on 18 July elements of the 22nd Army entered Latvia as the end of the offensive’s first stage.

On 19 July there began the offensive’s second stage, and this was characterised by a significant change in the nature of the fighting as the Germans started to redeploy into the area forces from the zones of the 3rd Baltic Front and Leningrad Front. As they arrived, these redeployed forces occupied the two rear defence lines, and the the Germans began to exploit the difficult nature of the terrain, which comprised much forest, many swamps, rivers and lakes but only a small number of roads. The pace of the Soviet offensive inevitably slowed, and the stubborn nature of the German defence re-established itself.

Between 21 and 23 July, the 2nd Baltic Front’s troops fought on the defensive line along the Lzha river, and broke through only on 23 July, the day on which Ludza, Kraslava and Karsava were liberated. The front’s northern group managed to break through to the outer defences of Rezekne, and the city’s liberation followed on 27 July. After its liberation of Kraslava, the front’s southern group was ordered to commit the V Tank Corps in a deep enveloping attack from the north to Daugavpils (Dvinsk), and this was ultimately successful. On the city’s outskirts the Germans launched a major counterattack and managed to delay the Soviet offensive, but the weight of the Soviet offensive finally ground the Germans into defeat, at dawn on 27 July Soviet troops broke into Daugavpils, and in just three hours the city had been completely liberated. General Polkovnik Ivan M. Chistyakov’s 6th Guards Army of Bagramyan’s 1st Baltic Front also took part in the fighting which led to the liberation of Daugavpils, enveloping the city from the south. In the street fighting that preceded the city’s liberation, as many as 1,500 German soldiers were killed, and the Soviets took 157 warehouses filled with German supplies.

In Soviet official histories, 27 July is recorded as the date on which the 'Rezhitska-Dvina Offensive Operation' came to and end, and on the following day, the 2nd Baltic Front began the final preparations for a new undertaking as the 'Madona Offensive Operation'. As Eremenko later claimed, however, stubborn battles continued continuously as the front’s troops drove the Germans from the southern bank of the Dvina river, advanced from 6.2 to 18.5 miles (10 to 30 km), stormed the city of Lebanon on 29 July 29 but were able to liberate only the city’s southern half and reached a powerful new German defence line. An operational pause was now required, and the resulting order to go over to the defensive was given only on 31 July. And only then, after a short time for preparation and regrouping, the 'Madona Offensive Operation' began on 1 August.

In the 20 days of the 'Rezhitska-Dvinsk Offensive Operation', the Soviet forces had advanced between 120 and 125 miles (190 and 200 km) to the west, broken through five defensive lines, and liberated 5,261 settlements including seven large and 16 small towns. According to Eremenko, during this time as many as 60,000 German soldiers were killed (an exaggerated figure), 6,604 Germans had been taken prisoner, 900 pieces of artillery and mortars had been destroyed, 92 tanks had been destroyed, 663 pieces of artillery and mortars had been captured, and 53 tanks and assault guns had been captured.

In the process, the 2nd Baltic Front lost 12,880 men killed or missing, and 45,115 men wounded or taken ill.

The northern flank of the Soviet offensive in Belarus had been secured, and significant German forces had been pinned and the transfer of any of them to Belorussia had thereby been prevented. The Soviet plan for depleting the German reserves is curious: first, Soviet troops in Belorussia went onto the offensive and German troops were deployed against them from the zone of the 2nd Baltic Front. When, taking advantage of the concurrent weakening of the German defence, this front also went over to the offensive, the Germans began to transfer their troops against it from the sectors against which the 3rd Baltic Front and Leningrad Front were starting the 'Pskov-Ostrov Offensive Operation' and the 'Narva Offensive Operation'. As a result, the Germans lacked adequate strength on any sector of the front: the weakened forces could not hold even powerful defence lines, and the reserves, separated and thrown into battle on other fronts, were committed at different times and could not stop the Soviet offensive.