Šiaulai Offensive Operation

This was a Soviet operation by General Hovhannes Kh. Bagramyan’s 1st Baltic Front within the third phase of the ‘Belorussian Strategic Offensive Operation’, otherwise known as ‘Bagration’ 1, to drive the German troops from much of Lithuania and take the city of Šiauliai (Schaulen in German) (5 July/20 August 1944).

The German forces involved in this phase of the great Soviet strategic campaign were elements of Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model’s Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ (northern wing of Generaloberst Georg-Hans Reinhardt’s 3rd Panzerarmee and General Gerhard Matzky’s XXVI Corps) and elements of Generaloberst Johannes Friessner’s Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ (southern wing of General Paul Laux’s 16th Army), while the Soviet forces were those of Bagramyan’s 1st Baltic Front including General Leytenant Porfiri G. Chanchibadze’s 2nd Guards Army, General Leytenant Ivan M. Chistyakov’s 6th Guards Army, General Leytenant Ivan I. Lyudnikov’s 39th Army, General Leytenant Afanasi P. Beloborodov’s 43rd Army and General Leytenant Yakov G. Kreizer’s 51st Army.

During July 1944 'Bagration' had been achieving great success, leaving Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' in little more than tatters, and the westward progress made by northern flank of the Soviet assault threatened to trap Heeresgruppe 'Nord' in Latvia and Estonia. The 6th Guards Army and 43rd Army involved in ‘Bagration’ advanced to the line of the Druya river, western Voropaevo and Lake Naroch from 4 July with the task beginning an advance in the direction of Švenčionys, Kaunas and (by other parts of the front) toward Panevežys and Šiauliai. Also included in the composition of the front for this operation was the 39th Army, which was concentrated on the left wing by 10 July. The front was also reinforced with the 2nd Guards and 51st Armies from the Stavka reserve, though these could only arrive in the front sector by the second half of July.

The offensive began on 5 July with an assault by two infantry corps of the 6th Guards Army and three infantry corps of the 43rd Army, with support from General Major Boris S. Bakharov’s reduced I Tank Corps. Facing them were two German corps, which were positioned on the adjacent southern wing of Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ and northern wing of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’. From the morning of 10 July the 39th Army was introduced into the battle, advancing in the direction of Kaunas. By 12 July the three armies’ assault frontage had increased to some 125 miles (200 km), and Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ was still offering stubborn resistance.

As a result of the way in which the offensive was developing, the Stavka now shifted the object of the 1st Baltic Front’s attack from Kaunas to Šiauliai, and the 39th Army and its sector of its offensive were transferred to General Ivan D. Chernyakhovsky’s 3rd Belorussian Front on 14 July for the 'Kaunas Offensive Operation'. In exchange the 1st Baltic Front received General Major Ivan F. Dremov’s III Guards Mechanised Corps. For the development of the offensive on the Šiauliai axis, the 2nd Guards Army and 51st Army were introduced into the battle on 14 July, and by 22 July had taken Panevežys, an important communications centre for Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’. On 27 July the III Guards Mechanised Corps, in co-operation with the combined arms units of the 51st Army, took Šiauliai, which had been held for two days by an extemporised force led by Oberst Hellmuth Mäder, commander of the Lehr-Brigade 'Nord'. The troops of the right wing of the 3rd Baltic Front collaborated with those of the 2nd Baltic Front to take Daugavpils (Dvinsk) on 27 July. Pressing home its attack, the 1st Baltic Front on 30 July overran strongpoints and road junctions Biržai and Bauska, and by 31 July had reached Jelgava (Mitava). The front’s mobile detachments entered Tukums and reached the coast of the Gulf of Riga just to the south-west of Riga, cutting all German land communications with Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’. At the end of July and beginning of August Bagramyan’s forces repulsed German counterattacks in the region of Biržai (some four infantry divisions and as many as 100 tanks and assault guns, according to Soviet estimates) and Raseiniai (one infantry division and one Panzer division).

Between 16 and 29 August the 1st Baltic Front reported strong counterattacks in the region to the west and north-west of Šiauliai (part of ‘Doppelkopf’). During these defensive actions, the ground forces were supported by the 3rd Air Army. By 20 August, by means of counterattacks in the regions to the west of Tukums and Sloki and with gunfire support from warships of the Kriegsmarine, the German forces were able to push the Soviet forces back from the coast in the southern sector and to restore sea communications with their formations around Riga.

The 1st Baltic Front resumed its offensive during the autumn of 1944, finally destroying much of the 3rd Panzerarmee and severing the connection between Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ and Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ in the 'Memel Offensive Operation'.

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The components of the 'Belorussian Strategic Offensive Operation' between 23 June and 29 August 1944 were the 'Vitebsk-Orsha Offensive Operation' (23/28 June), 'Mogilev Offensive Operation') 23/28 June), 'Bobruysk Offensive Operation' (24/29 June), 'Polotsk Offensive Operation' (29 June/4 July), 'Minsk Offensive Operation' (29 June/4 July), 'Vilnius Offensive Operation' (5/20 July), 'Šiauliai Offensive Operation', 'Bielostok Offensive Operation' (5/27 July), 'Lublin-Brest Offensive Operation' (18 July/2 August), 'Kaunas Offensive Operation' (28 July/28 August) and 'Osovets Offensive Operation' (6/14 August).