Operation Yanvar' Grom

January thunder

This was the Soviet offensive, also known as ‘Neva-2’ and the ‘Krasnoye Selo-Ropša Offensive Operation’, designed to liberate the western approaches to Leningrad within the ‘Leningrad-Novgorod Strategic Offensive Operation’ (14/30 January 1944).

In preparation for the offensive, during November and December 1943 General Leytenant Ivan I. Fedyuninsky’s 2nd Shock Army was moved by night in barges along the south coast of the Gulf of Finland from Leningrad and Lisiy Nos to the beleaguered Oranienbaum lodgement: the barges returned by day to simulate the evacuation of the beach-head, command of which was assumed by Fedyuninsky in succession to General Leytenant Vladimir Z. Romanovsky.

As a part of the ‘Leningrad-Novgorod Strategic Offensive Operation’, which was scheduled to begin on 14 January 1944, Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Kirill A. Meretskov’s Volkhov Front and General Leonid A. Govorov’s Leningrad Front planned the ‘Krasnoye Selo-Ropša Offensive Operation’ aimed at forcing Generalfeldmarschall Georg von Küchler’s Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ back from its positions blockading the Soviet lodgement round Oranienbaum, which had existed since the third month of ‘Barbarossa’. In the process, the attack was expected to encircle Generaloberst Georg Lindemann’s 18th Army, which had only 110 armoured fighting vehicles.

The situation of Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ toward the end of 1943 had deteriorated to a critical point. General de División Emilio Esteban Infantes y Martín’s Spanish División Azul and three German divisions had been withdrawn by October, yet the army group now had to hold an additional 60 miles (100 km) of front reallocated from Generalfeldmarschall Ernst Busch’s Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ during the same period. The staff of Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ planned a new position to the rear of the army group’s current front in an effort to shorten the army group’s front by a quarter and at the same time remove the threats posed by the many Soviet salients on the current front. This ‘Blau’ (iii) plan proposed that in January 1944 the army group should pull back westward more than 150 miles (240 km) to the natural defensive barrier formed by the Narva and Velikaya rivers and Lakes Peipus and Pskov. In this so-called ‘Panther-Stellung’, the natural defences were strengthened fortifications that had been constructed since September. The retreat would be carried out in stages, using intermediate defensive positions, the most important of which was the ‘Rollbahn-Linie’ on the line of Oktyabr’skoy Zheleznoy Dorogi (October Railway) running through Tosno, Lyuban and Chudovo. There the two most exposed major formations, General Carl Hilpert’s XXVI Corps and General Herbert Lochs’s XXVIII Corps, would regroup falling farther back into their positions in the ‘Panther-Stellung.’

The fate of Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ became worse in the new year, for Adolf Hitler rejected all proposals for an early withdrawal into the ‘Panther-Stellung’ positions and demanded that the Soviet forces had to be kept as far as possible from Germany, paying very heavily in blood for every mile they advanced. Then Hitler compounded the folly of this demand by ordering the transfer of three more first-rate divisions from Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ to reinforce Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein’s Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ as it was driven back from the line of the Dniepr river by continuous Soviet assault.

von Küchler appreciated that the position of his army group was now precarious in the extreme, all the more so as the Volkhov and Leningrad Fronts were clearly planning a major offensive with three armies, 1,200 pieces of artillery some 680 armoured fighting vehicles.

On 14 January Fedyuninsky’s 2nd Shock Army and General Ivan D. Maslennikov’s 42nd Army fell on the sector held by SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Felix Steiner’s III SS Panzerkorps (germanisch) within the 18th Army, the main weight of the Soviet offensive falling on General Ernst Michael’s 9th Felddivision (L) and Generalleutnant Hermann von Wedel’s 10th Felddivision (L). By the third day of the offensive, the 2nd Shock Army had broken through the German line over a width of 14 miles (23 km). The ex-Luftwaffe field divisions swiftly disintegrated, and Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ fell back westward to new positions along the Narva river in Estonia. In a key Soviet assault on 19 January, the 63rd Guards Division seized German positions in front of Krasnoye Selo. On the same day the 2nd Shock Army took Ropša and the 42nd Army liberated Krasnoye Selo.

By 30 January 30, the attacks of the 2nd Shock Army and 42nd Army had inflicted some 21,000 casualties on the Germans, captured 85 pieces of artillery ranging in calibre between 150 and 400 mm (5.9 and 15.75 in), and driven the Germans back between 35 and 60 miles (60 and 100 km). In overall terms, the ‘Krasnoye Selo-Ropša Offensive Operation’ was part of the Volkhov and Leningrad Fronts’ operations that finally lifted the German siege of Leningrad after struggle that had lasted almost 900 days. The Soviets followed the ‘Krasnoye Selo-Ropša Offensive Operation’ on 1 February with the ‘Kingisepp-Gdov Offensive Operation’, in which the 2nd Shock Army’s CIX Corps captured Kingisepp. The III SS Panzerkorps was the rearguard of the Germans’ continued retreat, and fought many bloody actions as the Germans fell back to the ‘Panther-Stellung’ positions on the eastern bank of the Narva river.