Riga Offensive Operation

The 'Riga Offensive Operation' was the Soviet first of the four sub-operations together constituting the 'Baltic Strategic Offensive Operation' and designed to expel the German forces from Latvia (14 September/24 October 1944).

The other three sub-operations were the 'Tallinn Offensive Operation' (17/26 September), the 'Moonzund Landing Operation' (5/22 October) and the 'Memel Offensive Operation' (27 September/24 November).

The Soviet forces had advanced toward the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea at the end of their 'Belorussian Strategic Offensive Operation', otherwise known as 'Bagration', during July and August 1944, and at one point had broken through to the Gulf of Riga. During August the German forces had mounted their 'Doppelkopf' counter-offensive, but by the next month the Soviet fronts were ready to resume their own offensive. As noted above, one of the sub-operations of the 'Baltic Strategic Offensive Operation' was the 'Tallinn Offensive Operation', in which the Soviet forces took the Estonian capital as Generalfeldmarschall Ferdinand Schörner, commanding Heeresgruppe 'Nord', pulled his troops out of most of Estonia in 'Aster'.

In the parallel 'Riga Offensive Operation', the Soviet forces applied further pressure on Heeresgruppe 'Nord', which still held much of Latvia. 1

In September 1944 the agreement of an armistice between Finland and the USSR to halt the 'Jatkosota' continuation war, the withdrawal of the 20th Gebirgsarmee from northern Finland into northern Norway, and the German failure to take the Finnish island of Suursaari in 'Tanne Ost' almost wholly invalidated Adolf Hitler’s long-standing rationale for holding the northern extension of the Eastern Front and, moreover, by mid-September Heeresgruppe 'Nord' was, by the middle of September, in a decidedly dangerous operational and tactical situation. The Eastern Front to the north of the latitude of Königsberg, was a sinuous coastal strip averaging 70 to 80 miles (115 to 130 km) in width and more than 400 miles (645 km) long between a point to the east of Gumbinnen in the south and the south coast of the Gulf of Finland to the west of Narva in the north. It was distinctly waisted near its centre, in the area of Tukums and Riga, where the 5th Guards Tank Army had broken through to the south coast of the Gulf of Riga at the end of July, to a width of less than 20 miles (32 km). Thus Heeresgruppe 'Nord' and the 3rd Panzerarmee were effectively committed in a long and tortuous lodgement that was dangerously shallow and threatened at every point.

In August, Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Aleksander M. Vasilevsky, the chief of the Soviet general staff, had become involved in the planning and co-ordination of the operations to be continued by the three Baltic fronts. General Leonid A. Govorov’s Leningrad Front remained under the direct control of the Stavka, and its left-hand boundary was shifted farther to the south to give it the sector flanking Tartu between Lake Peipus and Lake Võrtsjärv in southern Estonia. In September Govorov transferred the 2nd Shock Army from the vicinity of Narva to a location to the south of Tartu for a thrust to the north behind General Anton Grasser’s Armeeabteilung 'Narwa', which was redesignated as the Armeeabteilung 'Grasser' on 25 September. The Baltic fronts deployed for converging offensives toward Riga, each initially putting two armies into its main effort. That of Maslennikov’s 3rd Baltic Front was drive to the south-west via Valga and Valmiera, while Eremenko’s 2nd Baltic Front was to strike straight to the west from Madona. Bagramyan’s 1st Baltic Front had the shorter distance to advance, just some 35 miles (55 km) from Bauska, to reach Riga. The fact that Bagramyan had the possibility of a second, and indeed crucial thrust, to the Baltic coast across the corridor linking Tukums and Riga, was later omitted from Soviet accounts of the planning, but German intelligence reports of the time reveal that in addition to the 4th Shock Army and 43rd Army at Bauska, Bagramyan had a stronger force, comprising the 5th Guards Tank Army, 6th Guards Army and 51st Army, deployed in the area of Jelgava. If Bagramyan and Vasilevsky had not in fact planned to exploit the availability of these armies to sever the Tukums/Riga corridor, they must have had suffered an extraordinary tactical lack of vision.

The Soviet build-up proceeded slowly enough for the Germans to be able to follow it in some detail. The problem faced by Heeresgruppe 'Nord' was simple, but even so was not amenable to any rational solution. The prudent and obvious decision would have been to evacuate the army group from the Baltic states while the Tukums/Riga corridor remained open. But it was clear to the commanders on the sport that there was absolutely no chance that this would be permitted by Hitler, so the army group had created four rear positions as the left- and right-hand portions of two arc-like defence lines centred on Riga. The most important, and indeed the only ones with any realistic chance of being held, were the 'Wenden-Stellung', which was a quarter circle on a 6o-mile (100 km) radius from Riga; the 'Segewold-Stellung', 10 miles (16 km) inside the 'Wenden-Stellung'; and the 'Mitau-Ost-Stellung', on an almost straight line beginning 20 miles (32 km) to the south of Riga and connecting with the 'Segewold-Stellung' and 'Wenden-Stellung' to the east, the latter by means of the short 'Dwina-Stellung'.

Even Schörner, the dedicated believer in Hitler, could not bring himself to the belief that the Germans could hold Estonia and northern Latvia against a determined Soviet assault: the Soviets were only 35 miles (55 km) from Riga in the south and 50 miles (80 km) from the north coast of the Gulf of Riga in the area to the south of Lake Võrtsjärv, while in Estonia the left and right flanks of the Armeeabteilung 'Narwa' were 120 and 220 miles (195 and 355 km) respectively from Riga. The army group had prepared 'Aster' as a map exercise (so called because of Hitler’s all-too-clear antipathy to the planning of retreats) but thus was actually an advance directive to the Armeeabteilung 'Narwa' and the 18th Army for a withdrawal to the 'Wenden-Stellung'.

The Oberkommando des Heeres, however, was intent on holding the Tukums/Riga corridor, and on 12 September ordered the 3rd Panzerarmee to strengthen the corps on its left flank for an offensive from Auce into the rear of 1st Baltic Front’s concentration around and to the west of Bauska.

Any chance that the army could do so disappeared during the morning of 14 September when the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Baltic Fronts went over to the offensive. The 1st Baltic Front immediately drove a bulge 4 miles (6.5 km) deep into the German line. Within four days Hilpert’s 16th Army had suffered serious damage, while in sector of Boege’s 18th Army 10 of the 18 divisions had been reduced to the level of Kampfgruppen. The other two fronts did not do as well on either 14 or 15 September, but on the latter day Bagramyan’s front, exploiting the foothold in the German line it had gained on the first day, drove a spearhead through to the 'Mitau-Ost-Stellung' 25 miles (40 km) to the south of Riga. Thus as early as 15 September the 3rd Baltic Front had ruptured the German lines in the east, while from the south General Leytenant Afanasi P. Beloborodov’s 43rd Army was threatening the approaches to Riga itself, where General Friedrich Köchling’s X Corps had been shattered. Schörner began to move his divisions into the Kurland peninsula, intending to shorten the front and pull back from Riga.

Schörner requested authorisation to evacuate Estonia, to the north of Latvia, urging that this represented the final chance to do so, and on the following day he travelled by air to Hitler’s East Prussian headquarters to make a personal report and once more urge the case for an evacuation. As always, Hitler was reluctant to approve a retreat and, with a type of perverse logic, argued that in any event SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Felix Steiner’s III SS Panzerkorps 'germanisches', on the outer flank between Lake Peipus and the Gulf of Finland, would not be able to get away. Hitler also claimed that the USSR had extended peace feelers, and that therefore he needed the Baltic territories as bargaining chips. He bemoaned, as he had in every previous discussion of the subject, the loss that the navy would suffer in the event that its training areas in the Baltic Sea were denied to it. Ultimately, though, Hitler granted a provisional agreement after he had been assured that under 'Aster' the withdrawal would not begin for another two days and before then could be cancelled if this seemed indicated.

On 16 September, the 3rd Panzerarmee started its attack, but none of the three divisions of General Dietrich von Saucken’s XXXIX Panzerkorps committed found a soft spot in the Soviet front, and by the end of the day had been expelled from the few areas they had managed to penetrate. That night Generaloberst Heinz Guderian, the chief of the Oberkommando des Heeres’s general staff, told Generaloberst Georg-Hans Reinhardt, the commander of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte', that given that fact that momentous events were taking place in the field of foreign affairs (possibly a reference to the USSR’s alleged peace feelers), Hitler demanded success from the 3rd Panzerarmee or Heeresgruppe 'Nord'. Guderian added that immediately he appreciated that his attack was not about to succeed, Reinhardt was to report the fact to Hitler and prepare to transfer the divisions in question to Heeresgruppe 'Nord'.

On 17 September, toward the northern end of the front, the 2nd Shock Army drove to the north past Tartu, breaking the hold of the Armeeabteilung 'Narwa' on the east/west line between Lake Võrtsjärv and Lake Peipus. During the night which followed, Schörner made a major revision of 'Aster', and instructed the III SS Panzerkorps to make the 120-mile (195-km) march from the Narva river to Pärnu on the Gulf of Riga by 20 September, with its baggage and supply trains evacuated through Tallinn or shipped across the straits to the Baltic islands in the mouth of the Gulf of Riga. From this moment on, the German withdrawal became a scarcely controlled flight with very slender prospects of success. The corps might be extricating itself from one possible encirclement only to be caught in another, for the 18th Army had reported that it could no longer hold the southern tip of Lake Võrtsjärv. For several days of acute crisis, the fate of Heeresgruppe 'Nord' was uncertain, but never lurched into outright defeat. Schörner allocated the 18th Army a number of additional anti-aircraft guns, anti-tank guns and small motorised detachments from the Armeeabteilung 'Narwa', and ordered it to hold Lake Võrtsjärv. The army’s line did bend, but did not break. On 17 and 18 September the 3rd Panzerarmee's attack gained momentum and drove a wedge, some 10 miles (16 km) deep, into the flank of Bagramyan’s 1st Baltic Front, but by the latter day the army was in the position that it could not keep going as Heeresgruppe 'Nord' needed reinforcements, but could not come to a complete halt because this would free too many Soviet formations for redeployment. Even so, Reinhardt believed that he had been able, at a critical moment, to prevent Bagramyan from committing his reserves into the attack to the north of Bauska and from developing a second thrust across the Tukums/Riga corridor.

On 19 September a spearhead of the 1st Baltic Front passed Baldone and reached at point almost on the Dvina river some 10 miles (16 km) to the south of Riga, but could press its advance no farther. On the next day the III SS Panzerkorps reached Pärnu after disengaging the Narva front with an ease that was astounding. Meanwhile the II Corps, the other major element of the Armeeabteilung 'Narwa', had executed a 180° on the northern end of Lake Võrtsjärv.

Despite the overall situation, Hitler was still angling for a victory, if only of a limited nature, and on 20 September ordered the transfer of the 3rd Panzerarmee to Heeresgruppe 'Nord' and authorised Schörner to continue the 'Aster' withdrawal past the 'Wenden-Stellung' to the 'Segewold-Stellung'. The infantry divisions freed by the withdrawal of the 18th Army and Armeeabteilung 'Narwa' into this shorter line were to be employed to relieve several Panzer divisions in the 3rd Panzerarmee's front on the Tukums/Riga corridor. Schörner was thus to plan and launch a counter-offensive in which the Panzer divisions would drive from a position to the west of Siauliai and the infantry divisions would advance in a converging thrust from a location to the north of Bauska. The objective was to destroy Bagramyan’s strength in the salient below Riga and push the front out to a straight line between the 'Segewold-Stellung' and Siauliai.

In the five days between 20 and 24 September, Vasilevsky tried once again to achieve his original object of sundering and then destroying Heeresgruppe 'Nord'. Using a few divisions which no longer had to be held back as a contingency reserve after the 3rd Panzerarmee's offensive petered out on 19 September, the 43rd Army pushed closer to Riga. On 22 September, the massed armour and infantry of the 2nd Baltic Front smashed the X Corps to the west of Madona, and the 3rd Baltic Front surged past Valga.

In the area to the south of Riga, SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Joachim Ziegler’s 11th SS Freiwilligen Panzergrenadierdivision 'Nordland' completed a four-day forced march which had brought it 250 miles (400 km) from the German outermost flank on the Gulf of Finland, and arrived on 22 September just in time to prevent the unfolding of a catastrophe. Against the X Corps Eremenko failed to commit his mobile reserves in time to exploit the advantage. The 3rd Baltic Front’s advance brought it to Valmiera, but this was not deep enough to achieve anything more than a complication of the German withdrawal. On 25 September the 16th Army reported that 1st Baltic Front had ceased its attempt to reach Riga and had in effect sacrificed its most advanced spearheads, which were being cut off and destroyed. By the morning of 27 September the Germans were ensconced in the 'Segewold-Stellung', and the 2nd and 3rd Baltic Fronts went over to the defensive.

In operational terms, the September offensive against Heeresgruppe 'Nord' had achieved exactly the opposite of its intended effect, for instead of splitting the army group, it had reduced the German front to the north of the Riga/Madona line by more than 67%, from 240 miles (385 km) to about 70 miles (115 km). The Armeeabteilung 'Narwa', the 18th Army and the 16th Army, organisationally intact even if their strength had been much reduced, had been compressed into a tight line round Riga. For the Soviet forces, the breakthrough to Riga had thus become both more difficult and less profitable.

On 27 September the 16th Army reported heavy Soviet truck traffic heading away from its front in a south-western direction. The Stavka had indeed been preparing a new axis of attack under the cover of a further push toward Riga, the new plan being put forward in a directive of 24 September. In fact, several major Soviet force concentrations (notably General Leytenant Piotr F. Malyshev’s 4th Shock Army and General Leytenant Yakov G. Kreizer’s 51st Army) were being relocated to the south in preparation for a major thrust to the west, in the direction of Memel, by the 1st Baltic Front in the 'Memel Offensive Operation'. German intelligence detected the movement of several of the armies involved, but was unable to fix their destination. In the last week of the month, therefore, Bagramyan had dispersed his concentration to the south and south-east of Riga and moved the 4th Shock Army, 43rd Army, 51st Army and 5th Guards Tank Army to the area of Siauliai for a westward thrust to Memel. The 2nd and 3rd Baltic Fronts were still to attack on a broad front in the direction of Riga and were, as the operation progressed, to pursue Heeresgruppe 'Nord' into the Kurland peninsula to the west of Riga. The Leningrad Front was ordered to occupy the Baltic islands of Muhu, Saaremaa, and Hiiumaa in the 'Moonzund Landing Operation'. On Bagramyan’s left, the 3rd Belorussian Front prepared to commit an army in an attack toward Tilsit.

At the end of September, Hitler was more determined than ever that Heeresgruppe 'Nord' should take the offensive. In the course of a meeting with Schörner on 28 September, Hitler shifted the start line for the 3rd Panzerarmee to a location to the south of Siauliai and that of the 16th Army to a location to the west of Riga. Two days later Schörner informed Hitler that the army group would first have to pull back its front, in the area to the east of Riga, back closer to the city, start a precautionary evacuation of Riga, absorb some 30,000 replacements which had in any event not yet been despatched, and complete an extensive regrouping, and therefore that 3 November would be the earliest date on which the offensive could be started.

On 30 September Generalmajor Oldwig von Natzmer, the chief-of-staff of Heeresgruppe 'Nord', told Oberst Dietrich Beelitz, the operations officer of the 3rd Panzerarmee, that in all probability there would be no offensive because the Soviets would pre-empt any such effort by attacking first, but that the task which had been demanded of the army group was not in itself unwelcome as it offered the army group a chance to make some useful redispositions. The 3rd Panzerarmee had reported earlier in the same day that the headquarters of the 4th Shock Army had been identified to the north-west of Siauliai and that Soviet radio traffic in that whole area had suddenly come to an end. Although the signs were clear, as late as the morning of 5 October the staff of Heeresgruppe 'Nord' could not bring itself to believe that the 1st Baltic Front could complete the redeployment of its major formations in fewer than 10 days. The German staff was therefore inclined to tailor the regrouping of its own forces to the schedule for its own projected attack on the assumption that this would also bring enough forces into the right place in time to stop the Soviets. Several panzer divisions had moved into the area of Siauliai and Raseiniai by 5 October, but the 3rd Panzerarmee was still drastically short of infantry: for example, Generalleutnant Siegfried Verhein’s 551st Grenadierdivision, in the area to the west of Siauliai, was charged to hold a sector almost 25 miles (40 km) long, and could man only a series of strongpoints. It was expected that the first infantry reinforcements would not arrive until 16 October.

On 5 October the 1st Baltic Front attacked from a point to the west of Siauliai toward Memel, and on the following day Bagramyan committed the 5th Guards Tank Army to make a run for the coast, and the 39th Army on 3rd Belorussian Front’s right flank began attacking toward Tilsit. During the day Leningrad Front, having occupied lightly defended Hiiumaa and Muhu islands several days earlier, undertook a landing on Saaremaa island. In a time of some 36 hours the Soviets took all of the island except the Sõrve peninsula at the south-western tip. Far more seriously for the German situation, the front of the 3rd Panzer Army broke on 7 October, allowing the 5th Guards Tank Army and 43rd Army to pass through it and in two days reach the Baltic Sea coast to the north and south of Memel. The headquarters of the 3rd Panzerarmee was overrun, and the staff had to fight its way out to Memel, where General Kurt Herzog’s XXVIII Corps, caught between the two Soviet armies, was being compressed into a beach-head round the port.

Knowing what Hitler would inevitably demand, Schörner declared he would attack toward Memel. To get enough divisions and to defend the northern tip of Kurland, where the Leningrad Front would have less than 20 miles (32 km) of water to cross after it had taken the Sõrve peninsula, he proposed to yield Riga. Soviet submarines were now operating in the Gulf of Riga, the port was itself under Soviet artillery fire, the last convoy departed on 10 October and, in Schörner’s estimation, it was no longer worth holding the city. Inevitably, though, Hitler protested and delayed a day before giving his approval.

Soviet forces were again moving forward outside Riga, and brought the city within artillery range on 10 October. Leaving a screening force of Generalmajor Maximilian Wengler’s 227th Division and the guns of Generalleutnant Werner Anton’s 6th Flakdivision (mot.), the 18th Army retreated through Riga into Kurland, destroying the bridges over the Daugava (Zapadnyi Dvina) river after it had crossed. Riga fell to the 3rd Baltic Front on 13 October.

Heeresgruppe 'Nord' possessed sufficient strength and resources to hold Kurland, and could almost certainly have spared sufficient forces for the mounting of a powerful counterattack, but the issue was to be decided elsewhere. On 10 October the Oberkommando des Heeres restored the 3rd Panzerarmee to Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' and with its single available corps (one other was in the Memel beach-head and a third had been cut off with Heeresgruppe 'Nord') now had to defend the northern flank of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' against the strong thrust which the 39th Army was making in the direction of Tilsit. What was happening to Heeresgruppe 'Nord' was yet another military disaster in a series of which in recent months there had been many. The threat to Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' was another matter, for a Soviet penetration into German territory in East Prussia threatened the whole German outlook on the war. The Stavka had set its traps well, and the last was about to be sprung.

On 16 October an initial two Soviet armies, later supplemented by another, swept across the East Prussian border between Schirwindt and the Romintener Heide toward Gumbinnen in the first stage of the 'Goldap-Gumbinnen Offensive Operation' (16/30 October). On the third day of the battle Hitler had to transfer armour from the 3rd Panzerarmee and permit the rump of this once powerful formation fall back behind the Niemen river. Then on 21 October, under the influence of two shocks, namely the loss of the first German city, Aachen, to the Allies and a report from the 4th Army that Gumbinnen might be lost on the following day, he ordered Heeresgruppe 'Nord' to go over to the defensive in Kurland, where it remained isolated until it surrendered at the end of the war in Europe.

The Soviet attempt to achieve a deep breakthrough into East Prussia failed two days later, in face, and despite the fact that the 3rd Panzerarmee's retreat behind the Niemen river had eroded its chances of success, Heeresgruppe 'Nord' again proposed an attack to the south in order to restore overland contact with Heeresgruppe 'Mitte'. At the end of the month Hitler rejected this proposal as wholly impractical, and ordered a start on the process of withdrawing divisions from Kurland.

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The operation involved, on the Soviet side, elements of General Hovhannes K. Bagramyan’s 1st Baltic Front (from south to north the 2nd Guards, 6th Guards, 5th Guards Tank, 51st, 43rd and 4th Shock Armies), General Andrei I. Eremenko’s 2nd Baltic Front (from south to north General Leytenant Gennadi P. Korotkov’s 22nd Army and the 3rd Shock, 42nd and 10th Guards Armies), and General Ivan I. Maslennikov’s 3rd Baltic Front (from south to north the 61st, 1st Shock and 67th Armies). On the German side was Schörner’s Heeresgruppe 'Nord' with General Carl Hilpert’s 16th Army and General Ehrenfried-Oskar Boege’s 18th Army, as well as elements of General Georg-Hans Reinhardt’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' in the form of General Erhard Raus’s 3rd Panzerarmee temporarily assigned to Heeresgruppe 'Nord'.