Operation Winterzauber

winter magic

'Winterzauber' was a German-supervised anti-partisan operation directed at the creation on the Eastern Front of a depopulated zone of between 18.5-and 25-mile (30- to 40-km) depth along the Belarusian/Latvian border (15 February/30 March 1943).

The operation was undertaken largely by Latvian collaborators under German command in a triangular area with its corners at Sebezh, Osveya and Polotsk in the northern part of Belorussia (Drissa, Osveya, Polotsk and Rasony districts) and in the Sebezhsky district of the Pskov region in Russia. As noted above, the operation’s purpose was the establishment of a buffer zone, bereft of people and devoid of settlements between Drissa in the south and Smolnya in the north, covering the Belorussian area of Asveya, Drysa, Polotsk, Sebezh and Rasony, and thereby deprive the partisan groups in the region of their strong points and resources.

'Winterzauber' was supervised by the Höherer SS- und Polizeiführer of the Baltic region, SS-SS-Obergruppenführer Friedrich Jeckeln, who had under his control seven Latvian police battalions (271st 'Aizpute', 273rd 'Ludza', 276th 'Kuldiga', 277th 'Sigulda', 278th 'Dobele', 280th 'Bolderaya' and 281st 'Abrene' Police Battalions. In its early stages the operation also had available the Ukrainian 50th Police Battalion, one SS police company, part of a Flak unit, one German artillery battery, two German signals platoons, one special-purpose air group, The German units and the Ukrainian police battalion were not included in combat groups, but were available as reserves.

During the operation, new units which were added were the hastily formed Latvian 282nd Sicherungsbataillon, the Lithuanian 2nd Polizeibatallon, part of the Estonian 36th Polizeibatailon, one German Einsatzkommando of the security police under the command of SS-Obersturmfuhrer Krause, and one Einsatzkommando under the command of SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer Kaufman. The total number of Einsatzkommando men of the security police and the Sicherheitsdienst was 210, and the overall strength of the forces involved in 'Winterzauber' was about 4,000 men.

Typical of the units committed to 'Winterzauber' was the Kampfgruppe 'Bertha', which comprised elements of Generalleutnant Alfred Jacobi’s 201st Sicherungsdivision, Generalmajor Bruno Scultetus’s 281st Sicherungsdivision and Generalleutnant Albrecht Baron Digeon von Monteton’s 391st Feldausbildungsdivision.

The operation was characterised by the execution of civilians in the villagers' own homes: the bodies were then covered with straw and the houses set on fire. Evidence from Russian sources indicates that many persons were deliberately burned alive, while the rest, primarily women and children, were sent on foot to the place of the so-called 'second sluicing'. Any person who collapsed from exhaustion en route was summarily shot. The overflowing nature of the modular camps to which most people were initially sent resulted in secondary deportations to other camps, including Salaspils concentration camp near Riga, where women were separated from their children and sent to work in Germany or Latvia.

Between 16 and 18 February, the village of Rositsa was destroyed: its younger and stronger inhabitants were sent to the station of Bigosovo, where they were loaded into wagons and taken to the concentration camp of Salaspils and work in Latvia and Germany. The remaining people were burned in houses: one large group was driven into a barn which was then ignited. Among those who were killed were a pair of Roman Catholic priests: one was burned with other residents, and the other was shot for persistent requests to spare the children.

The operation resulted in the destruction of several hundred villages. In one part of the Osveya area, for example, 183 villages were burned, 11,383 people were killed, and more than 7,500 residents were deported, the adults to work in Germany while the children were sent to Salaspils concentration camp. Partisans in Novgorod region, Belorussian partisans, Soviet partisans in Latvia, and the civilian population resisted their attackers with desperation. The most famous episode was the fight on Apsu Kalny hill of 90 Soviet Latvian partisans against four Latvian punitive battalions supported by tanks and aircraft. In order to effect the rescue of civilians, the command of the Soviet 6th Air Army swiftly planned and executed an air operation in which somethings between 8,000 and 11.000 persons were evacuated to Soviet territory.

According to one somewhat controversial Russian historian, during 'Winterzauber' 221 partisans and about 3,900 local inhabitants were killed, more than 7,000 were deported for forced labour or imprisoned to Salaspils concentration camp, 439 villages were burned; alternatively 70 partisans and between 10,000 and 12,000 local inhabitants, including women and children, were killed as a 'dead zone' of 9.33-mile (15-km) depth was created.