Tartu Offensive Operation

This was a Soviet undertaking, also known as the Battle of Tartu and the Battle of Emajõgi, to clear the German forces from Estonia (10 August/6 September 1944).

Pitting General Ivan I. Maslennikov’s 3rd Baltic Front against Generaloberst Ferdinand Schörner’s Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’, the operation was designed to ensure the speedy occupation of Estonia, but the German defensive effort was aided by Estonian conscripts and volunteers, who fought with grim determination to prevent a Soviet re-occupation of their country.

In August 1944, formations of the 3rd Baltic Front neared the city of Tartu, but the German position had then been stabilised by the efforts of SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Jürgen Wagner’s Kampfgruppe ‘Wagner’ along the line of the Emajõgi river. At the start of the Tartu operation, the ratio of Soviet/German strengths was 272,800 to 65,000 in men, 2,570 to 175 in pieces of artillery, and 300 to 75 in armoured fighting vehicles. The German forces comprised, for the most part, a number of Kampfgruppen using men of various formations and units from different branches of the army. A significant proportion of the German side constituted local Omakaitse Estonian civil defence battalions with poor weapons and little fighting ability. The main thrust of the Soviet operation was aimed at the southern Petseri county.

On 10 August, General Leytenant Vladimir P. Sviridov’s 67th Army broke through the defence of the northern elements of General Herbert Loch’s (from 2 September General Ehrenfried-Oskar Boege’s) 18th Army and captured Võru on 13 August. The hard-hit formations of the 18th Army were forced back toward the banks of the Gauja and Väike Emajõgi rivers in the west as part of a retreat which left open the approaches to Tartu. Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ entrusted the defence of this line to the Kampfgruppe ‘Wagner’, which was based on formations and units drawn largely from General Anton Grasser’s Armeeabteilung ‘Narwa’ (from 25 September the Armeeabteilung ‘Grasser’) otherwise tasked with the defence of northern Estonia.

The advance of the Soviet armoured formations now drove a wedge between the Kampfgruppe ‘Wagner’ and the 18th Army, and the former found itself without the strength to hold the defensive line to the east of Tartu. On 16 August the Soviets launched an amphibious assault over Lake Peipus to occupy a position behind the German flank as it crushed the resistance of civil defence units and established a bridgehead in the village of Mehikoorma village. In fierce fighting after this, however, an Estonian border defence regiment stopped the Soviet advance. On 23 August the 3rd Baltic Front launched an artillery barrage on the positions of the 2/45th SS Waffen-Grenadierregiment in the village of Nõo to the south-east of Tartu. The 282nd Division, the 16th Tank Brigade, and two self-propelled artillery regiments passed through the defence and captured the Emajõgi river bridge on the road between Tallinn and Tartu. This was one of the only four bridges across the 60-mile (100-km) marshy Emajõgi flood plain, and was therefore of great operational significance and, as a result of an egregious error, this bridge had not been blown by German pioneers.

SS-Sturmbannführer Léon Joseph Marie Ignace Degrelle’s 5th SS Freiwilligen Sturmbrigade ‘Wallonien’ improvised a fresh defensive line, so preventing a Soviet breakthrough to Tartu. A German operation was now planned for a heavy armoured blow to be struck behind the western flank of the Soviet line at Elva, but on 24 August, the night before the attack was scheduled to begin, the commander of the operation, Generalmajor Hyazinth Graf von Strachwitz of the Panzerkampfgruppe ‘von Strachwitz’, was injured in a car accident, and bereft of effective leadership the German attack was repulsed by Soviet tank units on the following day.

The 86th, 128th and 146th Divisions, with the support of armoured and artillery units, then launched an attack directly at Tartu. After fierce urban fighting, the Soviets took the city and established a bridgehead on the northern bank of the Emajõgi river on 25 August.

Command of the Emajõgi front was now switched from the Kampfgruppe ‘Wagner’ to General Wilhelm Hasse’s II Corps. At the end of August, the 3/45th SS Waffen-Grenadierregiment was formed from the Finnish 1/200th Regiment recently returned to Estonia. As its largest operation, with the support of the 37th and 38th Polizeibataillone (estnisch), the 3/45th SS Waffen-Grenadierregiment now succeeded in destroying two Soviet divisions holding the Kärevere bridgehead to the west of Tartu by 30 August. The operation shifted the entire front back to the southern bank of the Emajõgi river, and so encouraged the II Corps to launch an operation by Generalleutnant Gerhard Feyerabend’s 87th Division, SS-Sturmbannführer Alfons Rebane’s Kampfgruppe ‘Rebane’ and a small tank force commanded by Oberst Meinard von Lauchert in an effort to retake Tartu on 4 September. The attack was repulsed by the 86th, 128th, 291st, and 321st Divisions. Relative calm then settled on the front for 13 days.

The German losses in the Tartu offensive are not known, while those of the Soviets are acknowledged as 16,292 dead, missing or captured, and 55,514 wounded or sick.