Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Battle of Narva, 1944 Part II

To Narva
The 3rd SS Panzer Corps had been in the thick of battle since the opening of the offensive. Its 9th and 10th Luftwaffe Field Divisions were shattered, and the remaining units (11th SS "Nordland" Division and 4th SS Brigade "Nederland") were sorely understrength. Steiner's men had been on the move constantly, always just one step ahead of the Russians, but as soon as the panzer corps reached the Luga River, new orders were received.

After a retreat of over 150 miles, they were ordered to dig in and make a stand at the Narva River. The orders were crystal clear Narva had to be held at all costs.

Hitler was determined to hold the Narva line for political as well as military reasons. Foremast was that his far northern ally, Finland, was growing weary of the war, and several peace initiatives had been passed between officials in Moscow and Helsinki. Hitler could not afford to lose Finnish support for his forces fighting on the arctic Murmansk front. If Finland quit the war, German units there would be in jeopardy, and the loss of the Baltic States might be the thing to make Finland finally sue for peace.

Second, if Narva were taken by the Soviets, they would, in one stroke, succeed in penetrating the Panther Line’s far left flank. Such a move would put them in place to flank the entire fortified position, thus rendering the German expenditure of time and engineering resources a complete waste.
Further, the ebb of the front elsewhere in the Soviet Union had given Narva a symbolic importance beyond that indicated by logical strategy alone. That is, the town had suddenly become one of the Wehrmacht's last toeholds inside the boundaries of Old Russia. Once Narva was given up (along with some other small bits and pieces around Pskov, just south of Lake Peipus), the fighting would have moved entirely into areas the Baltics, Belorussia, the Ukraine outside the Russian ethnic heartland. That benchmark would be a first class propaganda coup for Stalin one Hitler was loathe to concede.

Whether aware of all that or not, Steiner's men (barely) won the race to the Narva River for their Führer. Interestingly, the SS units that did the racing were composed mostly of volunteers from countries other than Germany. For example, 40 percent of the soldiers of the "Danmark" Regiment of the 11th SS Division "Nordland" were actually recruits from Denmark. A large number of Norwegians served in the "Norge" Regiment of the same division. Further interspersed with those contingents were men from Finland, Sweden, Holland, Belgium, and Estonia, along with a German cadre. The corps' "Nederland" Brigade was mainly composed of Dutch volunteers.

If those troops could not pin the Soviet advance, the attackers might swing south, behind Lake Peipus, and cut the rail lines at Riga and Dvinsk, leaving Army Group North and much of Army Group Center without supply routes. The only other combat units in the area were some half trained Estonian security forces and the SS Kampfgruppe "Kueste”; which until then had only been used for coastal defense.

By 2 February, the 11th SS Division and the 4th SS Brigade had established themselves along the Narva line. At Narva itself, a strong bridgehead was formed on the eastern bank. (Beyond complying with the Führer's will, that move was also in accord with German military doctrine, which called for bridgeheads to be maintained on the enemy controlled side of rivers, as possible jump off points for later counteroffensives.) The frontline of the Narva bridgehead ran for over seven miles, from above the village of Lilienbach in the north, to the village of Dolgaja Niva in the south.

The town itself had known war almost from its birth. Denmark controlled it in the mid-13th century. Then Teutonic knights fought for, and gained control of, the rich lands surrounding it. Hermannsburg, their castle on the west bank of the Narva River, had been one of the keystones of their eastern kingdom. The forces of Peter the Great and Charles XII of Sweden fought around Narva during the Great Northern War. Czar Ivan III built Ivangorod, the Russian counter to Hermannsburg, on the east bank of the river, directly across from the Teutonic castle.

Rag tag survivors from smashed Luftwaffe and army divisions were thrown into the line north and south of the city to hold the western bank of the river. At first, the river itself was the only defensive position the Germans possessed, but as the Soviets started to mass on the eastern bank, SS engineers worked frantically to provide bunkers and trenches. Inside the bridgehead itself, engineers of the 54th "Nederland" Pioneer Battalion worked with frontline troops to provide crude but effective barricades and connecting trenches to stop the Soviets.

On the outskirts of Narva, Maj. Wilhelm Schlütter was supervising the placement of his batteries from the "Nederland" artillery detachment. Although an officer, Schlütter and his staff worked side by side with the enlisted men, since he knew time was essential to get his unit ready. The quick arrangement of camouflage, trenches, bunkers, and hundreds of smaller details was necessary to insure the safety of his guns, but there was little time to make sure the emplacements were laid out by the book.

While Schlütter's artillery was digging in, the men of the "Nederland" Brigade and the "Nordland" Division hastily prepared defenses on the eastern bank of the river.

On the southern sector of the bridgehead, the Danes of Lt. Col. von Westphalen's 24th Regiment were under constant artillery fire. In the center and the north, "Nederland" units reported large concentrations of enemy infantry and armor.

The Eight for Narva
On 3 February, the Soviet commander attempted to establish a bridgehead on the western bank of the river north of Narva. This attempt ended in failure when tanks of the 11th SS Panzer Detachment, commanded by Lt. Col. Paul Albert Kausch, and a platoon of Tiger tanks under Lt. Otto Carius, attacked and destroyed the Soviet units which had crossed the river.

But three Soviet armies, the 8th, 47th, and 2nd Shock, continued to probe for weak spots in the German positions. Finally, they managed to secure a bridgehead at Ssiversti on 12 February. More troops and equipment were sent across the river as the Soviets expanded and consolidated their tenuous foothold on the west bank.

South of Narva, the 8th Army also achieved some success. There, Soviet troops pushed across the river and established a dangerous bridgehead that threatened to cut off the entire 3rd SS Panzer Corps, as well as two army divisional battlegroups. To oppose the 8th Army, the German commander mustered battlegroups from the 170th, 227th, and 61st Infantry Divisions. But he also had elements of the "Feldherrnhalle" Panzer Grenadier Division and Tiger tanks from Abteilung 502.

That Tiger Abteilung (battalion), under the command of Maj. Willy Jähde, proved invaluable during the coming months. Jähde's tanks were again and again placed in key positions in the line, where probing Soviet armor soon found the combination of artillery and tank fire made moving in the open a deadly proposition.

Gen. Lindemann’s 18th Army was slowly bleeding to death. In one month, Army Group North had been pushed back about 150 miles. Three divisions had been wiped out, and the Soviets claimed 7,200 prisoners, 189 tanks destroyed, and 1,800 artillery pieces captured. At the same time, 18th Army reported 35,000 wounded and 14,000 killed. Hitler finally had no choice but to agree to Model's request for a total withdrawal of all units to the Panther Line.

At the same time, Soviet forces allowed the Germans no respite at Narva. While their 8th Army prepared to assault the southern flank, the 47th and 2nd Shock Armies kept up the pressure in the north. The Ssiversti bridgehead was reinforced, and a new crossing was made even farther north.
To strengthen their line, the Germans rushed units of the 20th SS "Estonia" Division from their training centers in Germany directly to the front. That unit, commanded by Maj. Gen. Franz Augsberger, was composed mainly of Estonian volunteers. They reached the fighting on 20 February, and in 9 days of combat, forced the Soviets on the west bank north of Narva to withdraw to the eastern side. (A company of Tigers from Abteilung502 also played a major part in that success, and Maj. Jähde ultimately received the Knight's Cross for his leadership during the battle.) The first of many crises for the Germans at Narva had passed.

Although the Soviets had lost their foothold north of Narva, the German line south of the city was still vulnerable. The terrain there was ideal for defense, but the German divisions holding it were "divisions" in name only. It was no longer possible for them to maintain a solid line of defense in the dense forests and marshlands. The Soviets perceived that and therefore ordered their 8th Army to move quickly, before the Germans could consolidate their positions.

After the usual pre assault bombardment, the Soviets attacked. Their troops stormed forward from the bridgehead west of Kriwasoo. By 24 February, Soviet units had reached the main railway supplying the Narva area, and only two battalions of the German 61st Infantry Division were available to meet them. Despite dogged resistance, the Soviets pushed ahead. STAVKA's plan was to force a wedge in the German lines and drive to the coast, totally isolating the 3rd SS Panzer Corps at Narva.

Fierce fighting raged for days, as units of the 61st and "Feldhermhalle" Divisions counterattacked. Elements from PanzerAbteilung 502 were also used as a mobile "fire brigade" to bolster any place in the line that seemed in danger of caving in. Again, Jähde's Tigers finally helped turn the tide of battle in favor of the Germans. Lt. Carius' platoon played a major role in destroying Soviet armor that had broken through the defenses.

The Soviets were finally driven back with heavy losses, but the German lines remained strained. Units from the "Norge" Regiment at Narva were called in to help strengthen them.

Constant Soviet probing actions kept the Germans on alert. At Auwere, the 122nd Infantry Division repulsed a heavy Soviet attack. The Reds suffered such massive losses there that, according to divisional accounts, "they did not bother us again, but looked elsewhere for an easier way through our lines."

While the 8th Army attacked in the south, the Narva bridgehead was receiving its own taste of hell. Although the Soviet attacks to the north of the city had been partially successful, Front Commander Govorov realized the German bridgehead on the eastern bank had to be crushed before a decisive breakthrough could be achieved. He therefore ordered a heavy assault in the Lilienbach area, held by Lt. Col. Hans Collani’s 49th SS Regiment, composed of Dutch volunteers.

As Collani’s men lay in their trenches, Soviet infantry advanced under the covering fire of several Red Army artillery batteries. The Soviet barrage let up only when their troops were directly in front of Collani's positions. Collani in turn called for fire support from Schlütter's artillery, and after hours of savage hand to hand fighting, the attackers were forced back.

The 49th was subjected to strafing attacks and artillery fire during the next few weeks, but Govorov decided to use his main forces elsewhere for the time being. During that welcome respite, engineers of the "Nederland" Brigade continued to strengthen the defenses with barbed wire and mines.

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