The 'Riga Defensive Operation' was the Soviet attempt to hold Riga, the capital of Soviet-annexed Latvia, against Generaloberst Georg von Küchler’s 18th Army in the first days of the German 'Barbarossa' invasion of the USSR (28/30 June 1941)
The major Soviet preoccupation at this time was the 'Baltic Strategic Defensive Operation' (22 June/9 July) to blunt the German drive to the north-east from East Prussia. The sub-operations of this undertaking were the 'Baltic Border Defensive Battles Operation' (22/24 June), the 'Siauliai Counter-Offensive Operation' (24/27 June), the 'Riga Defensive Operation', the 'Pskov Defensive Operation' (4/9 July) and, across the Gulf of Finland, the 'Defence of Hanko Operation' (22 June/2 December) against the co-belligerent Finns.
The defence of Riga began on 28 June was the responsibility of General Major Piotr P. Sobennikov’s (from 30 June General Leytenant Fedor S. Ivanov’s) 8th Army as the German forces of Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb’s Heeresgruppe 'Nord' approached the city as part of their drive to advance along the east coast of the Baltic Sea wheeling to the right along the southern coast of the Gulf of Finland toward Leningrad. The German approach to Riga was made along the left bank of the Daugava (Dvina) river, but was preceded by a number of preventive measures by the Soviet command.
First of all, decisions were made on the mobilisation of sub-units, and for this purpose, General Polkovnik Fedor I. Kuznetsov’s North-West Front decided to include the first secretary of the Central Committee, Janis Kalnberzins, in the front’s military council, and the party also selected specially trained people as commissars tasked to strengthen the critical sectors of the city’s defences such as bridges and channels of communication. At the same time, the city’s defences were seen as woefully deficient in terms of Soviet regular troops: at the time of the start of the German invasion, the city was garrisoned by only one NKVD (internal security) regiment.
It was clear therefore that the Soviet forces required significant reinforcement, and on 25 June, 18 former soldiers and representatives of the command staff of the International Brigades, who had been involved in he Spanish Civil War (1936/39), were summoned to a meeting with Kalnberzins, in which it was decided to create workers' battalions. As a result, more than nine ex-members of the International Brigades were instructed to organize battalions as political instructors or regimental commissars. Specially selected commissars with broad powers began to staff the companies of workers' battalions, which were deployed at strategically important points. In total, three workers' security battalions, each of three companies, were created. Formed from workers in Riga’s industrial enterprises, the new companies dug trenches, and also built defensive fortifications and protective shelters.
The main group of workers was established in the afternoon of 27 June 27 at the Pont Bridge, under the commander of the 1st Workers' Battalion. In the same area was a border guards detachment arriving from Bauska. In an area of special risk, which included the railway bridge and central market, was based the 2nd Workers' Battalion, and the 3rd Workers' Battalion was ordered to depart and strengthen the defences of bridges, water crossings and key road and rail junctions in the areas of Ikskile, Krustpils and the Kegums hydro-electric power station. The 3rd Workers' Battalion remained in these places outside Riga proper until 30 June without orders as a result of its lack of communication with the higher command element.
As early as 25 June, there began the creation of a security unit began as the Special Komsomol Company, which included students of the preparatory courses at the Latvian state university: these were mostly adolescents of worker and peasant families who had arrived from the provinces to enter the higher educational institution. The workers' defensive element included Komsomol (Soviet youth organisation) activists from the Proletarsky, Kirovsky and Moskovsky districts of Riga.
On an almost daily basis, the city’s defenders were faced by the hostile activities of all kinds of provocateurs ready to side with the Germans, and saboteurs who despatched ti Riga by the Germans to carry out subversive acts. In particular, patrols of workers/guards located and destroyed groups of saboteurs in the Shmerli, Kengarags and Mezaparks areas, and measures were taken to neutralise a number of anti-Soviet groups which fomented active provocation within the city.
Two days before the start of the German assault on Riga, on 27/28 June, there was constant movement across the bridges in Riga: Soviet troops entered the city after withdrawing from Kurzeme, and much of the civilian population fled the threat of any artillery bombardment. Thus the situation in Riga was very tense even before the start of the German blockade of the city from the Daugava river’s left bank. In the afternoon of 27 June, in order to facilitate the German capture of the city, local pro-German armed groups seized several buildings in the immediate vicinity of the bridges and fired at the positions of the city’s defenders.
In the evening of 28 June, scattered formations and units of the X Corps, already weakened by earlier fighting, approached the city. The corps' commander ordered the 62nd Regiment of the 10th Division to occupy and hold the defence sector to the right of the railway bridge, a task in which the regiment was aided by individual units of the 125th Division. Farther to the right of them were the units of the 5th Regiment of the NKVD’s operational forces, together with the soldiers of the workers' battalions. In the immediate vicinity of the railway bridge, batteries of anti-aircraft guns and corps field artillery were sited. An armoured train stood on the tracks at the railway station, and men of the 2nd Workers' Battalion were stationed around the central railway junction.
The task of taking Riga and Jaunelgava was assigned to von Küchler’s 18th Army, which allocated two of its three corps to the mission. General Albert Wodrig’s XXVI Corps was approaching from the south-west and in the afternoon of 29 June captured Jelgava (Mittau in German). The main strength of General Kuno von Both’s I Corps were heading for Jaunelgava, located on a strategically important position on the approaches to Riga. The German vanguard, comprising two infantry regiments, deviated from their planned route, however, and moved to the north. At dawn on 29 June, these regiments swiftly seized Bauska and organised a westerly breakthrough to Riga and establishing themselves near Zadvinya, on the left bank of the Zapadny Dvina river. On 30 June, units of the XXVI Corps, which the defence was already expecting, approached the Zadvinya area. Meanwhile, Soviet forces had failed in attempts to stop the advance of General Georg-Hans Reinhardt’s XLI Corps (mot.) of Generaloberst Erich Hoepner’s neighbouring 4th Panzergruppe was nearing Jekabpils. The day before the start of the blockade of Riga on June 29, in the Jekabpils area, German units had already captured two important bridgeheads on the right bank of the Daugava river: Generalleutnant Friedrich Kirchner’s 1st Panzerdivision of the XLI Corps (mot.) had reached a strategic position in the vicinity of Krustpils, while Generalleutnant Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma’s 6th Panzerdivision of the same corps was operating near Lebanon. The successful advances of the German armoured and motorised formations in these two locations had broken the the defensive line of the Soviet 27th and 8th Armies. At the same time, with a well-executed retreat beyond the Daugava river, the main Soviet forces had saved themselves even as the staff of Heeresgruppe 'Nord' was making plans to encircle and destroy these formations.
Even as they pulled back, detachments of the area’s Soviet military formations and naval units resisted in the area on the left bank of the Daugava river: this resistance was often stubborn and protracted, a fact noted in the reports and war diaries of several German formations and units. In the area of the cemetery on the left banks of the Daugava river, for example, 'Soviet troops fired from behind every grave, from behind every cross. Even the wounded threw grenades at the [German] soldiers.' On the axis toward Riga, the combat detachments incorporating the cadets of the Riga infantry school, who had already been involved in the fighting near Aizpute, were falling back in an organised manner.
On 29 June, a company of these cadets met German units in Zadvinye and engaged them. Workers and naval units retreating from Ventspils and Liepaja joined the cadets, and these combined elements managed to neutralise the fire of several German machine guns and break through to the right bank of the Daugava river.
With their attention focussed on the active resistance of the Soviet forces in Riga, the Germans could not move units to the aid of those which had arrived earlier and were tasked with the quick capture of the city and thereby maintaining the German offensive momentum. During prolonged fighting, the workers' battalions demolished the Ponton and Zemgale bridges. The destruction of the railway bridge demanded quantities of explosive which the defenders did not possess, so they had to leave the crossing intact while attempting to weaken its supporting structures. It was along the railway bridge to the right bank of the Daugava river that the German vanguard broke through and pressed forward with the capture of the city’s main strategic points. However, a German attempt to make a rapid seizure of a key bridgehead failed despite the fact that three tanks broke through to the river’s right bank. The first of these tanks was hit by a gun on the armoured train that was steaming along the section between the railway station and the embankment. The second tank was put out of action by artillery fire. The third tank crossed the bridge and lingered in the area of the embankment before moving along this in order to suppress the fire of the defenders' artillery, which was preventing the German infantry’s advance across the undamaged railway bridge, and after a short engagement it was knocked out of action
The Germans maintained a constant rain of artillery fire and aerial bombardment on the city of Riga’s workers' and Komsomol defence detachments. During the so-called first shelling of Riga, the tower Riga’s Church of St Peter was destroyed and later, after the occupation of Riga in the first days of July, the German propaganda machine launched a massive anti-Semitic campaign, linking the destruction of the church tower with the 'Bolshevik' retreat in the course of which Soviet units allegedly 'did not stop before the destruction of such a priceless German cultural and architectural monument, which is the Church of St Peter'. Many other gems of Riga’s architectural heritage were also destroyed.
Because of the fire of 29 June, the entire area of the city’s embankment was covered with thick smoke, which rendered combat difficult.Even so, the urban fighting went largely the way of the city’s defenders. The first German attempt to take city was therefore unsuccessful. For some time after the failed assault, there was sporadic fighting across the Daugava river. Throughout 30 June, the Germans readied a crossing of the river slightly to the south of Riga, in the area of Dole island about 3.1 miles (5 km) from the city. In view of the danger of encirclement in the event of the almost certain breakthrough at Dole island, orders were issued for workers/guards detachments to leave the city, which was blockaded from the left bank. On the night of June 29/30 an organised retreat of the defenders began in the direction of Valka. In this city, on the border with Soviet-annexed Estonia were now located the evacuated government and the central committee. In the atmosphere of the day’s chaotic fighting, with the onset of night on July 1, the city was also abandoned by units of the 8th Army. On the basis of the current situation, the German command ordered the XXVI Corps to cross the Daugava river, and this occurred during the evening of 30 June in the area of Katlakalns, the southern suburb of Riga. After the Germans became certain that the Soviet armed forces were withdrawing from the city, the remaining German formations and units poured into the city as many of its citizens escaped. Many of these subsequently took part in the defensive battles waged by the Soviet forces in this initial period of the 'Great Patriotic War'.