Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Battle of Narva, 1944 Part III

SS Nordland at the battle of Narva
Another Try
During the first week of March, the German troops at Narva could sense something was coming. Soviet units were on the move, and the roar of tank engines could be heard from beyond the enemy lines. In the sky, the Red Air Force roamed at will, strafing anything that moved in the defenders positions. Finally, on the night of 6/7 March, the storm broke. Soviet bombers turned Narva into rubble as they dropped their explosives with devastating accuracy. There was hardly a building left standing in the city. After the bombing, the Soviet artillery added to the carnage with another barrage. The town was left completely to the soldiers as the civilians fled west.

Govorov kept the Germans off balance by bombarding the "Danmark" Regiment on the southern flank of the bridgehead. At the same time, though, he ordered his troops to attack the center, held by Col. Wolfgang Jörchel's 48th Regiment. The Soviets forced Jörchel's Dutch troops back, and a breakthrough seemed imminent. By summoning his last reserves, however, Jörchel was able to lead his men in a counterattack that caused the Soviets to retreat yet again. The 48th Regiment regained its lost trenches, but the cost had been high.

Undaunted, Govorov switched to the Lilienbach area once more. His men attacked the 49th Regiment's positions after another huge artillery strike, and achieved success as they battled their way into the Dutch defenses. After some minor setbacks, caused by German counterattacks, Govorov ordered his reserve tanks and infantry into the breach. Schlütter's artillery and Jähde s tanks caused many casualties among the attackers, but the Soviet commander kept up the pressure. His tanks were now on an all out drive to the Narva bridges. If they could be secured, the entire bridgehead would be without supply.

As the Soviet tanks moved south, Gen. Steiner called on Kausch's panzers to counterattack. While SS and Soviet infantry fought in the forward areas, the panzers and Govorov's T 34s played a deadly game of cat and mouse at the approaches to Narva. The hulls of burned out vehicles littered the landscape as Soviet and German fought each other, often at point blank range.

The Soviet commander, realizing the bridges were beyond his reach, ordered his tanks to retreat and dig in. Kausch's panzers followed, but were met with a withering fire that then forced them to halt. Even though the bridges were safe, the breach in the German lines still threatened to unhinge the Lilienbach area.

By this time, Collani knew his battered regiment could not hold out any longer in front of Lilienbach. His companies had taken heavy casualties and the survivors were at the end of their endurance. If the Soviets attacked in force again, there would be little hope of repelling them. In the end, there was no real choice. Collani ordered his troops to prepare to withdraw to new positions farther south. The shorter line of defense would compensate somewhat for the gaps in the ranks left by the violent fighting of the last few days.

But the Soviet commander was also aware of the situation and immediately brought up reinforcements to attack the retreating Germans. If his men could catch the enemy unaware, the retreat could be turned into a rout.

Shortly after midnight on 14 March, the Soviets pounded the grenadiers of the 49th with a short but heavy artillery barrage. While exploding shells kept the SS men huddled in their trenches, Soviet infantry moved out of their forest positions and crept silently toward the German lines. Before the Germans could recover from the barrage, the Reds were upon them. Cries of alarm rang through the German positions as Soviet soldiers spilled into the trenches.

The Soviets had caught Collani’s men flat footed. Soviet units raced to intercept and surround the dazed German forces as they tried to withdraw. 2nd Lt. Helmut Scholz, leader of the 7th Company, saw the danger immediately. As the Soviet barrage lifted, he formed an assault group from the survivors of his unit and pushed forward to counterattack the enemy who were infiltrating the German lines.

Scholz's men fought with desperate energy, knowing SS prisoners were not given a good chance of survival in Soviet POW camps. The confined area of the trenches left little room for sophisticated weapons. Bayonets, spades, and bare hands became the main instruments of destruction. Step by step, Scholz's men drove the Soviets back. Finally the trenches were cleared, and the enemy were all either dead or back in the forest but that was still not the end of Scholz's fighting for the day.

The 2nd Bn./49th Regiment had been surrounded by enemy forces as it withdrew from the Lilienbach line. Capt. Karl Heinz Ertel had taken over command of the battalion when his commander was killed in the fighting. Ertel realized the danger that faced his men, but the Reds were masters of night fighting, and as Germans made their way back to new positions, the Soviets seemed to be everywhere at once.

Scholz's depleted company then formed a wedge and sliced through the encirclement. In heavy fighting, they formed a corridor through which the battered 2nd Battalion escaped. Once the new positions were reached, a coordinated artillery and heavy weapons barrage drove the remaining Soviets to ground.

Again a Pause
For a week, the sector remained relatively quiet as both sides caught their breath. The spring thaw was fast approaching; with it would come rains that would turn the ground into a sticky morass, making the movement of heavy vehicles all but impossible.

Govorov gave his subordinates orders to break the 49th's lines before the thaw set in. So on 22 March, Soviet artillery fired a barrage that signaled the start of yet another attack. Red Army soldiers stormed the German lines in waves, shouting their ancient war cry, "Urra!" The brunt of the attack hit the 5th Company, and Soviet soldiers soon broke into the trenches and overran several outlying positions. The company was virtually wiped out as the Soviets continued on to the rear of the 49th Regiment's lines. Capt. Carl Heinz Frühauf had just replaced Ertel as commander of the 2nd Battalion, and upon hearing of the breakthrough, he formed an assault group from his headquarters personnel and immediately launched a counterattack.

His men hit a 150 man Soviet force head on, and in savage fighting that lasted for over half an hour, destroyed them. Frühauf then reformed his men and led them in an attack that pushed the Soviets completely out of the German trenches and forced them to retreat back to their own lines. For the time being, the Narva bridgehead was again safe.

For over a month, Soviet and German soldiers had fought each other in the swamps and forests around Narva. It was a precarious time for the defenders, whose only means of supply was the railroad and highway leading west. The Soviets had severed those lines several times during March, but German counterattacks had each time managed to restore them.

For the men of both sides, the fighting became a struggle for personal survival. Some Luftwaffe planes from Bombardment Squadron 3 harried Soviet armor and infantry columns with dive bombing attacks, while Red Air Force squadrons continued to bomb and strafe the German positions without let up. Both sides constantly and effectively used their artillery to bombard enemy positions. The bloody fighting can best be summed up in the strength report of the 1st Bn./399th Rgt./170th German Infantry Division. Toward the end, it had an effective strength of only 69 men barely half a company.
Finally, in late March, the "Norge" Regiment recaptured the vital area around Sergala, far to the rear, ending that threat to Narva's supply lines. It was then immediately sent back to the river line, with its last units arriving there in early April.

Along the entire front of Army Group North, the Russian weather turned in favor of the Germans. That is, the early spring thaw turned the marsh and lake areas into impassible terrain for tanks and heavy equipment. The Panther Line had been strengthened south of Lake Peipus, and enough forces had been gathered there to halt the Soviet advance. STAVKA, however, still hoped for a breakthrough at Narva, so they kept the pressure on the German bridgehead east of the city. Heavy artillery pounded the defenders daily, accompanied by flights of Red Air Force bombers.

On the German side, men braved the Soviet fire as they worked to strengthen bunkers and lay mines. The bridge at Narva came under attack from Soviet aircraft and artillery every day, but engineers of the "Nordland" Division kept it in operation. It required constant labor to keep it strong enough to carry supplies across to the bridgehead.

On the southern sector of the eastern bank, the men of the "Danmark" Regiment fortified their lines and established outposts to warn of any impending attack.

Soviet artillery made life dangerous and many casualties were suffered by the Danes, including their commander, Graf von Westfalen.

Schlütter's "Nederland" artillery, along with the "Nordland" divisional artillery, formed the defensive backbone of the line. Soviet fire was answered with swift counterfire, while infantry small arms kept Soviet reconnaissance patrols from getting too close to the German positions. Snipers roamed the area searching for targets, and anyone unlucky enough to be caught in the open soon found himself the object of accurate rifle fire. But despite the enemy fire, the men inside the bridgehead managed to use this brief respite to rest and regain strength for the next round of the battle.

Govorov was also regaining his strength. His troops had suffered heavy casualties during the previous month; Kausch and Jähde's panzers had been effective against the Soviet armor, and time was needed to replace the losses. Replacements for the infantry were also sent, but it took weeks of training to properly integrate them into the veteran divisions. Meanwhile, the Soviets continued to harry the Germans with probing attacks and heavy patrols.

On one occasion, Red troops made an amphibious landing miles behind the front on the shore of the Gulf of Finland, causing some panic among the defenders. Those Soviets, however, were destroyed by the quick action of SS and coastal defense units.

Then Govorov, under pressure from STAVKA, resumed his attack on the bridgehead. The Germans now held a front of approximately seven miles on the east bank of the river. On the north side of the bridgehead, the Dutch regiments of the "Nederland" Brigade held off several determined attacks around the village of Lilienbach. Savage hand to hand fighting made for heavy casualties on both sides.

The Soviet commander then turned his attention to the southern flank of the bridgehead held by the "Danmark" Regiment of the "Nordland" Division. The Red Air Force kept the Danes huddling in their trenches until attacking ground forces were almost on top of them. Wave after wave of Soviet infantry rushed toward the SS positions, but for all their courage, they gained little ground.

As his attacks smashed against the German lines, Govorov ordered his air units to concentrate on bombing the town of Narva, hoping to disrupt the flow of supplies to the east bank. Narva was bombed around the clock, until there were no more targets to be found. German forces inside took heavy losses, but the flow of supplies continued.

After another few days' respite, the Soviets attacked the Lilienbach area once again. The "Nederland" defenders had been so weakened by the previous attacks there was little hope for them against this new offensive. The order to retreat was given and, under the cover of Schlütter's artillery, the troops withdrew to new positions south of the village.

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