Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Battle of Narva, 1944 Part IV

Operation Bagration
Meanwhile in Moscow, STAVKA was working on another operation, code named "Bagration, " that promised to break open the eastern front once and for all. With the attack in the north stalled, the Soviet strategists planned to shift the bulk of their forces south and use them to destroy Army Group Center. Nineteen Soviet armies, as well as numerous independent and support units, stood ready to launch an offensive that would eventually annihilate two thirds of the 38 German divisions facing them. Narva was now reduced to a secondary, yet still important, objective.

As preparations for "Bagration" continued, Govorov was once again ordered to start operations against the Narva position. The ground was now dry enough to allow tanks and heavy vehicles to attack. His new replacements had been put through combat training and were assimilated into his battle hardened divisions.

During the past two months, artillery and small arms ammunition had been stockpiled, while the Soviet commander made plans for an attack meant to finally break the German line. Preliminary operations, scheduled to begin two weeks before the great offensive further south, were planned to focus German attention on the Narva front and thus draw reinforcements away from Army Group Center.

On 7 June, the German Danish units on the southern flank of the Narva bridgehead were subjected to a murderous barrage. Low flying Soviet ground attack aircraft pummeled their positions with fragmentation bombs and heavy machine gun fire. At the village of Dolgaja Niva, men clawed their way deeper into their foxholes, trying to escape the deadly fire. In the trenches and outposts, casualties mounted at an alarming rate, even though the positions had been reinforced with tree trunks and mounds of earth.

When the artillery fire lifted, hordes of Soviet infantry rushed to the attack. The shell shocked Danes had little time to coordinate their defenses. Amid the dead and dying, groups of men manned machine guns and laid out grenades in preparation for close combat. The artillery of the "Nordland" Division was called in for support as the Reds advanced.

For several days, the Soviets threw regiment after regiment against Dolgaja Niva. Finally, on 12 June, they achieved success and broke through the main trench system. As the Danes began pulling back, Soviet forces gathered to make a drive toward the Narva Bridge.

Amid the chaos, Danish Sgt. Egon Christopherson led an assault group against the Soviet flank. With his handful of men, Christopherson charged through the enemy, firing automatic weapons and tossing grenades as they went. Luck was on the Danes' side. The Soviets panicked at the unexpected assault and pulled back toward their own lines, leaving many dead and wounded behind.

The men of the "Danmark" Regiment settled back into their old trenches, but their losses had been heavy. The gaps in their ranks could not be filled with reinforcements as easily as the enemy filled theirs. At his battle headquarters, Steiner read every report coming in from the bridgehead. He knew his men could not hold for much longer, so he ordered a new defensive line to be constructed west of Narva. This so called "Tannenberg Line" would take time to become operational, however, and that time would have to be paid for with more blood from Steiner's men.

Meanwhile, the Soviets again stepped up their assault. Govorov had his units continually switch their focus of attack at the bridgehead, keeping the Germans guessing as to where they would strike next. Soviet units once again established lodgements on the west bank of the river, and the German commander was forced to order Kausch and Jähde's panzers north to counter that threat. The defenders were stretched to the limit all along the river, and the meager replacements they received had to be thrown piecemeal into the line to hold the massive Soviet forces threatening to break out onto the German side.

Inside the bridgehead on the eastern shore, Soviet attacks were met with aggressive German counterattacks. Engineers of the "Nederland" Brigade fought tanks with flamethrowers and bundles of grenades, while the Soviet infantry was engaged in close combat by Dutch and Danish infantry waiting in the trenches. Casualties on both sides mounted as the see saw battle continued. Small groups of men fought for mere yards of land, and entire platoons sometimes disappeared in the mighty air and artillery bombardments that swept the front.

For over a month, the German forces held their ground. Maj. Schlütter moved his artillery observation post into the Narva courthouse, one of the few buildings left standing in the city. From a turret overlooking the town, he was able to direct accurate support fire that broke up several Soviet attacks, but he also knew time was running against the defense. The volunteer regiments of the SS were down to little more than battalion strength.

Hitler was still demanding Narva be held, but on 22 June, events in the south changed the entire shape of the German front. Operation Bagration, the long planned Soviet offensive against Army Group center, began with a gigantic barrage of artillery and air strikes. Red Army units broke through several areas in the German lines, and were followed by reserve forces that opened the gaps even wider. German regimental and divisional commanders pleaded for reinforcements, but there were none left.

Five German divisions were lost at Vitebsk, while many other units simply disappeared as the Soviets drove deep into the Nazi rear areas. Untold numbers were trapped in pockets by advancing Soviet armor, to be captured later by oncoming infantry units. Within days, long lines of German prisoners were heading east to uncertain futures as POWs.

At Narva, news of the breakthrough raised Soviet morale and made Govorov even more determined to achieve success. He increased his air and artillery attacks, and concentrated a force of 20 divisions for yet another assault.

The German forces along the river watched events in the south with great apprehension. Soviet bridgeheads on the west bank were being reinforced daily, and Steiner knew an attack would not be long in coming. There was no doubt a withdrawal would have to be carried out, with or without orders from Berlin. Steiner gave the order, and by 23 July several units inside the Narva bridgehead had begun to withdraw to the western bank.

Maj. Schlütter ordered his artillery to cover the retreating infantry, and then began making his own plans for moving his batteries. He had orders to remain in position on the west bank until the final remnants of the east bank defenders had crossed the bridge. When that was accomplished, the bridge was to be blown by the same engineers who had maintained it for so many months.

Govorov's reconnaissance, of course, immediately showed a withdrawal was in progress. On 24 July, he ordered his forces to attack along the entire front. Strong Soviet units charged from their footholds on the west bank, driving the depleted Estonian SS Division before them. On the line south of the city, Red armor drove toward the main highway connecting Narva to Tallinin. There was little the Germans could do.

As the Soviets advanced under the protection of the Red Air Force, the Luftwaffe took to the skies in a final effort to slow the enemy spearheads. Several Soviet aircraft were shot down, but it was not enough to make a difference. Luftflotte 1, Army Group North's air force command, could only muster 137 aircraft of all types to fight the more than 800 planes of the Soviet 13th Air Army of the Red Air Force.

End of the Bridgehead
Schlütter watched from his observation post as the final companies of Dutchmen and Danes moved across the Narva River. His radioman stood by, ready to transmit the order to blow the bridge as soon as the last troops had crossed.

Suddenly, his post came under artillery fire. Soviet troops were seen edging toward the bridge even as the engineers completed their final demolition preparations. Schlütter could not afford to wait any longer. He gave the order and, with a deafening crash, the bridge that had supplied the Narva position for so many months collapsed into the river.

With his main mission accomplished, Schlütter and his observation team faced another difficult task survival. Soviet artillery was bombarding Narva with incendiary shells, and what little was left of the town quickly turned into an inferno.

Schlütter's command post was already burning when lie left the observation turret. Downstairs, he found his men trying to evacuate the building. With burning timbers crashing around them, Schlütter and his men forced their way through the wreckage and finally made it outside. Slowly, they passed through the ruined town until they reached the batteries of the "Nederland" artillery.

It was well into the afternoon before Schlütter received word a narrow trail was open for his guns to pass through. The horses were hitched, and the "Nederland" batteries began their journey westward. In that retreat they joined soldiers from half a dozen countries who had fought to protect the Narva line for the past six months. They would continue to fight in the Baltic States for almost another year before surrendering to the Soviets in May 1945.

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