Operation Sigulda-Stellung

Sigulda position

The 'Sigulda-Stellung' was the German defence line, otherwise known as the 'Segewold-Stellung', behind the outer 'Wenden-Stellung', in Latvia for the protection of Riga against a Soviet offensive from the north-west (autumn 1944).

The line included the town of Sigulda, some 30 miles (50 km) to the north-east of Riga, and extended in a semi-circle round the eastern side of the city’s area from the vicinity of Ogre on the Daugava river in the south-west to Saulkrasti on the Baltic Sea coast in the north-east. The position was extemporised in an belated effort to prevent the fall of this major city to the Soviet forces of General Ivan I. Maslennikov’s 3rd Baltic Front and General Andrei I. Eremenko’s 2nd Baltic Front despite the efforts of General Paul Laux’s (from 3 September Generaloberst Carl Hilpert’s) 16th Army of Generaloberst Johannes Friessner’s (from 25 July Generalfeldmarschall Ferdinand Schörner’s) Heeresgruppe 'Nord'.

The Soviet general offensive to clear the Baltic states began on 4/5 July 1944 as part of the 'Belorussian Strategic Offensive Operation' (otherwise 'Bagration') and developed into the 'Baltic Offensive Operation' and 'Riga Offensive Operation' on 14 September, and took Riga on 13 October, the remnants of Heeresgruppe 'Nord' being driven back into the Kurland pocket of the western side of the Bay of Riga.

In overall strategic terms, at the end of 1944 the Soviet high command intended to launch a co-ordinated series of broad-front offensives in East Prussia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Austria, these offensives' axes directed toward the Baltic, Berlin, Prague and Vienna. However, an important preliminary to this grand undertaking in Central Europe was the clearance of the German forces from the Baltic states to secure the right flank of any offensive striking west into Poland.

At the beginning of September 1944 Schörner’s Heeresgruppe 'Nord' held a front of nearly 500 miles (800 km) extending from the Gulf of Finland near the mouth of the Narva river, to the north of Lake Peipus, as far as the area of Dobele to the south-west of Riga, a front which was to be lengthened in a southerly direction toward the Niemen river when Heeresgruppe 'Nord' was allocated Generaloberst Erhard Raus’s 3rd Panzerarmee from Generaloberst Georg-Hans Reinhardt’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte'. In northern Estonia General Johannes Friessner’s Armeeabteilung 'Narwa' (from 25 September General Anton Grasser’s Armeeabteilung 'Grasser') held the line of the Narva river and the northern shores of Lake Peipus, but was threatened in the south by the Soviet penetration in the province of Tartu (Dorpat) between Lakes Peipus and Vorts (Wirts-Järw). General Ehrenfried-Oskar Boege’s 18th Army was positioned to the east of the Gulf of Riga, while the 16th Army was to its south.

Like Friessner, Schörner believed it to be only sensible in purely military terms to evacuate Estonia, and without Adolf Hitler’s knowledge had made secret preparations to do so, building the rings of earthwork defences for the 'Sigulda-Linie' in the 16th Army's area to the east of Riga, through which he planned to withdraw the 18th Army. Following Finland’s September 1944 acceptance of the Soviet terms for an armistice ending the 'Jatkosota' continuation war, which opened the way for Soviet use of Finnish waters and naval bases on Finland’s south-west coast, Soviet warships were free to enter the central part of the Baltic Sea, and as a precautionary measure Hitler had a German division put on the islands of Hiiumaa and Saaremaa (Dagö and Ösel in German) covering the entrance to the Gulf of Riga.

The Soviet offensive into the Baltic states was made by the armies of General Hovhannes Kh. Bagramyan’s 1st Baltic Front, Eremenko’s 2nd Baltic Front and Maslennikov’s 3rd Baltic Front co-ordinated by Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Aleksandr M. Vasilevsky as the local representative of the Soviet high command. Supporting operations were mounted on the flanks by Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Leonid A. Govorov’s Leningrad Front and General Polkovnik Ivan D. Chernyakhovsky’s 3rd Belorussian Front. In the north the Leningrad Front had to engage the Armeeabteilung 'Narwa' across the isthmus to the north of Lake Peipus and clear the Estonian shore on the Gulf of Finland. The 3rd and 2nd Baltic Fronts were to penetrate the defences of the 18th Army from the east and reach the coast of the Baltic Sea in order to cut the withdrawal route of both the 18th Army and Armeeabteilung 'Narwa'. Farther to the south, the 1st Baltic Front was to attempt to reach the sea near Riga and cut once more the narrow German corridor to the south of the city. The 3rd Belorussian Front was not given a task during this first offensive.

Between them. the Leningrad Front and the three Baltic Fronts had 133 infantry divisions, six tank and one mechanised corps with a total strength of 900,000 men, 3,000 tanks and self-propelled guns, and 2,600 aircraft 1. The new Soviet offensive was scheduled to begin on 14 September, and was thus to follow on from the summer offensive of July and August. Heeresgruppe 'Nord' comprised 32 divisions, of which one was Panzer and two Panzergrenadier, and three SS brigades.

Immediately to the south of Riga, the upper reaches of the Memele (Nyemenek) and Lielupe (Ada) rivers had been dammed so that the level of the water fell rapidly below the obstruction, and tanks and infantry were thus able to pass over these obstacles with ease. At first the 1st Baltic Front made good progress, but by 16 September had been brought to a halt a few miles to the south of Riga. On the next day, however, Fedyuninsky’s 2nd Shock Army of the 3rd Baltic Front broke through the defences of General Wilhelm Hasse’s II Corps near Tartu, near the north-eastern tip of the 'Sigulda-Linie' defences, and this thrust not only threatened the security of the Armeeabteilung 'Narwa' but also endangered the continued existence of the whole of Heeresgruppe 'Nord' by the narrowing of the corridor to the south to Riga. After grudging agreement by Hitler, the order was issued for the withdrawal of Armeeabteilung 'Narwa' from northern Estonia to the ports of Tallinn and Parnu (Pernau), and the 18th Army began to fall back toward Riga.

Meanwhile Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' had ordered the 3rd Panzerarmee to thrust into the 1st Baltic Front’s flank from the area of Siauliai (Schaulen in German) in support of Heeresgruppe 'Nord', but the resulting attacks had only very limited success. It was at this stage that command of the 3rd Panzerarmee was transferred from Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' to Heeresgruppe 'Nord', so extending Schörner’s front to the south to Memel as far as the East Prussian frontier. In accordance with Hitler’s direction, Schörner shifted the weight of the Panzer formations from Siauliai to the area of Jelgava (Mitau in German), just to the south of Riga, as it was planned that a counter-offensive would be launched from this area.

On 24 September, when most of Estonia had already fallen to them, the Soviet forces suddenly and inexplicably brought their offensive to a halt. However, on the same day a new Soviet high command directive was issued, and this demanded a complete change of plan. Since most of the German forces had been successfully withdrawn from Estonia to the area of Riga and the Kurland peninsula, Moscow was no longer interested in closing the Riga gap and now intended to change the direction of the main offensive from the north to the west, attacking the 3rd Panzerarmee in order to reach the coast of the Baltic Sea near Memel and thus cut off the whole of Heeresgruppe 'Nord' in Kurland. To do this Bagramyan’s 1st Baltic Front was to transfer three infantry armies, a tank army and a number of independent corps from its right to its left flank, a distance of some 100 miles (160 km), over a period of six days. Two other armies were affected by the movement, and some 500,000 men and 1,300 armoured vehicles (tanks and self-propelled guns) were shifted. The transfer of troops was covered by deception measures including overt preparations for the resumption of the offensive near Riga.

Meanwhile Chernyakhovsky’s 3rd Belorussian Front, to the south of the 1st Baltic Front, was to support the offensive and pin the German reserves by means of an attack into East Prussia along axes directed at Tilsit, Gumbinnen and Suwałki. The 3rd and 2nd Baltic Fronts were to continue their offensive into Latvia toward Riga, while the Leningrad Front began to clear the Baltic offshore islands.

Bagramyan’s offensive was committed on 5 October with a reconnaissance in force and an artillery preparation of a mere 20 minutes, but as a major proportion of the 3rd Panzerarmee's armour had been moved to the north into the area of Jelgava, the Soviet forces met only light resistance. The nature of the wooded and marshy terrain made movement difficult, but Chistyakov’s 6th Guards Army and Beloborodov’s 43rd Army had advanced more than 10 miles (16 km) by the end of the day. Low cloud and bad weather had restricted the level of support and observation the Soviet air forces could provide, and made it impossible to commit the tanks until the second day of the offensive, when General Leytenant Vasili T. Volsky’s 5th Guards Tank Army and two tank corps entered the battle. A great gap was quickly ripped through the 3rd Panzerarmee's defences and the 1st Baltic Front started to rumble to the west in the direction of the Baltic coast of Lithuania.

On 6 October Schörner started to withdraw troops from the region to the north-east of Riga and commit them against the right flank of the 1st Baltic Front, but this move gained the Germans nothing and on 10 October Kreizer’s 51st Army reached the Baltic coast just to the north of Palanga, only slightly to the north of Memel, while Beloborodov’s 43rd Army reached the outskirts of Memel but was unable to take the city. Except for the 3rd Panzerarmee, which had been forced to the south into East Prussia, the whole of Heeresgruppe 'Nord' was now cut off in Riga and the Kurland peninsula, and East Prussia was open to an attack across the Niemen river.

By 12 October, however, the 3rd Panzerarmee, with the assistance of Generalleutnant Wilhelm Schmalz’s Fallschirmpanzerkorps 'Hermann Göring', a Luftwaffe formation which had been rushed to the east from central Germany, had managed to stabilise the front on the line of the river.

To the north, in the Kurland peninsula, Schörner used the 18th Army to create an east/west line in the area to the south of Liepaja (Libau). He also ordered the evacuation of Riga, the German forces falling back to Tukums. In spite of the urgings of Generaloberst Heinz Guderian, the army chief-of-staff, Hitler refused to consider the evacuation of the Kurland peninsula, although this could have been effected by sea, since the German leader remained convinced that this lodgement would fill the useful purpose in pinning down Soviet formations. Although Memel was taken by the Soviet forces in January 1945, the Kurland lodgement, which was held by the 26 divisions of the 16th Army and 18th Army, was to remain in existence until after the end of the war.

Following the capture of Riga, the 3rd Baltic Front was disbanded. Farther to the south, the 3rd Belorussian Front went over to the offensive against General Friedrich Hossbach’s 4th Army of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' in East Prussia, where 35 Soviet infantry divisions and two tank corps were pitted against 15 German infantry divisions and two cavalry brigades. The Germans felt that the offensive was aimed at Königsberg, the capital of East Prussia, and with the aid of reinforcements provided by the 3rd Panzerarmee and the high command, the 4th Army counterattacked and dispersed or destroyed firstly, on 22 October, part of General Polkovnik Kuzma N. Galitsky’s 11th Guards Army at Gumbinnen and then, in the beginning of November, other Soviet elements near Gołdap. This was the first time that Soviet forces had reached German soil, and they left in the wake of their advance a trail of murder, rape and devastation which augured badly for the population of what was left of Germany’s eastern territories.

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The primary formations of the Leningrad Front were General Leytenant Ivan I. Fedyuninsky’s 2nd Shock Army, General Leytenant Ivan T. Korotnikov’s 59th Army and General Leytenant Filipp N. Starikov’s 8th Army; of the 3rd Baltic Front General Leytenant Ivan I. Maslennikov’s 42nd Army, General Leytenant Vladimir Z. Romanovsky’s 67th Army, General Leytenant Nikanor D. Zakhvatayev’s 1st Shock Army and General Leytenant Sergei V. Roginsky’s 54th Army; of the 2nd Baltic Front General Leytenant Mikhail I. Kazakov’s 10th Guards Army, General Leytenant Nikandr Ye. Chibisov’s 3rd Shock Army and General Leytenant Vasili A. Yushkevich’s 22nd Army; and of the 1st Baltic Front General Leytenant Piotr F. Malyshev’s 4th Shock Army, General Leytenant Ivan M. Chistiakov’s 6th Guards Army, General Leytenant Yakov G. Kreizer’s 51st Army, General Leytenant Afanasi P. Beloborodov’s 43rd Army, General Leytenant Porfiri G. Chanchibadze’s 2nd Guards Army and General Leytenant Ivan I. Lyudnikov’s 39th Army.