Tartu Offensive Operation

The 'Tartu Offensive Operation' was a Soviet undertaking otherwise known as the Battle of Tartu and the Battle of Emajõgi, and was a campaign fought in the south-eastern part of Estonia (10 August/6 September 1944).

The operation was fought on the northern end of the Eastern Front between General Ivan I. Maslennikov’s 3rd Baltic Front and elements of parts of Generaloberst Ferdinand Schörner’s Heeresgruppe 'Nord'.

The Soviet immediate objective was the defeat of General Loch’s (from 2 September) General Ehrenfried Boege’s 18th Army and the seizure of the city of Tartu within their strategic objective of a rapid occupation of Estonia. The basic Soviet plan without these objectives was to reach the coast of the Gulf of Riga and trap Generalleutnant Johannes Friessner’s Armeeabteilung 'Narwa'. The Germans included in their order of battle large numbers of Estonian conscripts, auxiliary police, border defence troops and Omakaitse (militia) personnel, who fought to defend their country against the looming Soviet threat of the Soviet annexation of their country for a second time. The 3rd Baltic Front nonetheless captured Tartu, but SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Jürgen Wagner’s Kampfgruppe 'Wagner' managed to stabilise the front along the Emajõgi river. General Hans Gollnick’s XXVIII Corps of the 18th Army, supported by Omakaitse militia units, checked the Soviet advance on the Väike Emajõgi and Gauja rivers, preventing the 3rd Baltic Front from cutting off the Armeeabteilung 'Narwa'.

In July the attacks of the Leningrad Front’s 'Narva Offensive Operation' had pushed Heeresgruppe 'Nord' to the west of Lake Peipus, resulting in a series of operations around Narva. The German high command considered it essential to maintain control over the southern shore of the Gulf of Finland, which eased the situation in Finland and kept the Soviet Baltic Fleet in its eastern bay outside Leningrad. From a military economy point of view, the preservation of the oil shale reserves and oil shale industry in Ida-Viru was also important. In the south, Soviet forces advanced toward the coast of the Baltic Sea at the end of the 'Bagration' operation against Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model’s (from 16 August Generaloberst Georg-Hans Reinhard’s) Heeresgruppe 'Mitte'.

At the start of the 'Tartu Offensive Operation', the Soviet superiority of the Soviet forces over the German forces was 4.3/1 in men, 14.8/1 in artillery and 4.1/1 in armour. The German forces for the most part comprised Kampfgruppen based on a number of formations and smaller units from different branches, and a significant portion of the German strength comprised Omakaitse militia battalions with poor weapons and little fighting ability.

The main thrust of the Soviet operation was initially directed against Petseri area in the south as, on 10 August, General Leytenant Vladimir Z. Romanovsky’s 67th Army broke through the defences of Gollnick’s XXVIII Corps and took Võru on 13 August. The men of this corps were forced to the banks of the Väike Emajõgi and Gauja rivers in the west, where they were supported by the militiamen of the Viljandi county’s Omakaitse battalion. While the defence prevented the 3rd Baltic Front from severing the line of retreat for the Armeeabteilung 'Narwa' southward from Estonia, there was open territory in the direction of Tartu, Estonia’s second largest city. Heeresgruppe 'Nord' now created a Kampfgruppe under the command of Wagner for the defence of the new line. Soviet tank units drove a wedge between the Kampfgruppe 'Wagner' and the XXVIII Corps, and Wagner lacked the strength to hold the area in front of Tartu. On 16 August, a Soviet grouping under the command of General Leytenant Aleksei A. Grechkin launched an amphibious assault over Lake Peipus behind the German’s eastern flank, defeating the Omakaitse defence and establishing a bridgehead in the village of Mehikoorma. In fierce fighting, a local border guard regiment then managed to stop the Soviet advance.

The 3rd Baltic Front launched an artillery barrage on the positions of the 2/45th Waffen-Grenadierregiment (1st estnische) covering the German right flank in the village of Nõo to the south-east of Tartu on 23 August. The 282nd Division, backed by the 16th Independent Tank Brigade and two self-propelled artillery regiments, next bypassed the defence on the city’s western side and captured the Kärevere bridge across the Emajõgi river to the west of Tartu. This was one of only four bridges across the river’s marshy flood plain, about 60 miles (100 km) long, and was therefore an objective of prime significance. After sappers failed to destroy the bridge, SS-Sturmbannführer Léon Degrelle improvised a defence line held by the Belgian men of his SS Freiwilligen-Sturmbrigade 'Wallonia', thereby preventing a Soviet breakthrough to Tartu.

A potent German tank assault had been planned for the area behind the western flank of the Soviet line at Elva on 24 August. On the night before the attack, the designated commander of the operation, Generalmajor Hyazinth Graf Strachwitz von Gross-Zauche und Camminetz, leader of the Panzerkampfgruppe 'Strachwitz', had a serious car accident, and in his forced absence the Soviet tank squadrons repulsed the German attack on the following day. Four Soviet rifle divisions launched an attack at Tartu with the support of massed artillery, and after fierce urban combat the Soviet forces took the city and established a bridgehead on the northern bank of the Emajõgi river in the course of 25 August. As the Kampfgruppe 'Wagner' could not to hold the Soviet offensive, the headquarters of Heeresgruppe 'Nord' reallocated the control of the Emajõgi river front to General Wilhelm Hasse’s II Corps. At the end of August, the 3/1st Regiment (estnische) was created on the basis of the Estonian troops of Everstiluutnantti Eino Kuusela’s 1/Jalkaväkirykmentti 200, which had only recently returned from Finland to Estonia. In its largest undertaking, and supported by Estonian 37th and 38th Police Battalions and some armour of the Panzerkampfgruppe 'Strachwitz', the Estonian force destroyed the bridgehead of two Soviet divisions and had recaptured the Kärevere bridge by 30 August.

The success of this operation served to shift the entire front back to the southern bank of the Emajõgi river and encouraged the II Corps to launch an operation intended to retake Tartu. The attack of 4/6 September reached the northern outskirts of the city but was then driven back by units of four Soviet infantry divisions before a state of relative calm settled on the front for the following 13 days.

In the subsequent 'Baltic Strategic Offensive Operation', which included the 'Riga Offensive Operation' and 'Tallinn Offensive Operation', General Leytenant Ivan I. Fedyuninsky’s 2nd Shock Army crossed Lake Peipus on 5/11 September and assumed command over the Emajõgi front. In the 'Riga Offensive Operation' on 14/16 September, the 3rd Baltic Front attacked the XXVIII Corps and the Omakaitse militia battalions on the sector between the Valga railway junction to Lake Võrtsjärv, but in severe combat the German and Estonian forces succeeded in holding their positions.

The 'Tallinn Offensive Operation' by the 2nd Shock Army and General Leytenant Filipp N. Starikov’s 8th Army began in the early morning of 17 September.The 2nd Shock Army forced its way through the headquarters area and artillery positions of the II Corps along the Emajõgi river, placing at risk of encirclement and destruction both the Armeeabteilung 'Narwa' and the XXVIII Corps, which were the northernmost elements of Heeresgruppe 'Nord'. The headquarters of Heeresgruppe 'Nord' ordered the II Corps to abandon the defence of the Emajõgi line and move quickly around the northern tip of Lake Võrtsjärv to Latvia.

The withdrawal of Armeeabteilung 'Narwa' from the mainland of Estonia was undertaken in 'Aster'. Beginning on 17 September, a naval force under Vizeadmiral Theodor Burchardi evacuated elements of the Armeeabteilung 'Narwa' and Estonian civilians: within six days some 50,000 troops, 20,000 civilians and 1,000 prisoners were lifted by sea. The remaining elements of Armeeabteilung 'Narwa' were ordered to withdraw by land into Latvia by way of Pärnu and Viljandi. SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Felix Steiner’s III SS Panzerkorps (germanische) reached Pärnu by 20 September, while the II Corps fell back to the south of Viljandi as the 18th Army's rearguard.As these German formations retreated, the 2nd Shock Army and 8th Army advanced and took Tallinn on 22 September.

As their armies advanced to the south, the Soviets re-established their rule over Estonia by force, and 'sovietisation' of the country followed in 1944/50. The forced collectivisation of agriculture began in 1947, and was completed after the mass deportation of Estonians in March 1949. All private farms were confiscated, and farmers were made to join the collective farms. An armed resistance movement of the 'Forest Brothers' was active until the mass deportations: about 30,000 persons supported or were involved in the movement, and of these some 2,000 were killed. The Soviets fighting the 'Forest Brothers' themselves suffered some hundreds of deaths. The dead included many innocent civilians. Besides the armed resistance of the 'Forest Brothers', several underground groups of nationalist school children were active, and most of their members were sentenced to long terms of imprisonment. The Soviets' punitive actions decreased rapidly after the death of Iosif Stalin in 1953. and in the 1956/58 period, large numbers of deportees and political prisoners were allowed to return to Estonia. However, the Soviet attempt to integrate Estonian society into the Soviet system failed. Although the Estonian armed resistance was defeated, the population remained determinedly anti-Soviet. This helped the Estonians to organise a new resistance movement in the late 1980s and regain their independence in 1991.