Background to a Battle
The German army of 1944 was no longer the seemingly invincible military force that had conquered most of Europe in the first years of World War II. In the previous year, the Red Army had pushed the German Army Group Center back over 400 miles, from Voronezh to Kiev. Another 400 miles had been lost by Army Group South when the Soviets forced it to abandon the rich lands between the Don and Dniepr Rivers. The only relatively static German front was in Army Group North’s sector.
There the siege of Leningrad was in its 28th month. Apart from occasional probing attacks, the Germans were content to shell the city with artillery and maintain patrolling along the perimeter. Overall, it had become a quiet sector. However, Josef Stalin and the Soviet High Command (STAVKA) were planning a series of hammer blows designed to break that siege and eventually move the Red Army to the frontiers of Germany itself.
In the opening weeks of January, two Soviet Fronts (army groups) prepared massive assaults. Gen. LA. Govorov’s Leningrad Front was to strike out from the city with the 42nd and 67th Armies, while the 2nd Shock Army attacked from the Oranienbaum pocket
Gen. Kiril A. Meretskov’s Volkhov Front was to hit the enemy with another three armies; the 8th at Mga, the 54th on the Volkhov River, and the 59th around Novgorod. Between those two fronts, the Soviets hoped the entire German 18th Army would be enveloped in a Stalingrad like pocket offering no hope of escape. They were confident the superiority they had in arms and men would smash the Germans (see table).
On the other side, Adolf Hitler was not worried about the position of Army Group North. In fact, on 28 December 1943, while looking for units to strengthen the battered corps of his other east front armies, he told his army chief of staff, Gen. Zeitzler, “Even now we can get 12 divisions out of Army Group North” to send elsewhere. He ordered plans made to start transferring the first of those divisions in early January.
Hitler may have had confidence in the army group’s defences, but the commander of Army Group North, Field Marshal Georg von Küchler, was not as certain. He felt his 16th and 18th Armies could ill afford to lose the units being taken from them. Even before the withdrawals, there were not enough combat troops to properly man the positions.
A secondary line, known as the “Panther” position, had been under construction since the fall of 1943. It ran from the Gulf of Finland, along the Narva River and Lake Peipus, south through Pskov and beyond Vitebsk. This was to be the fall back position in case the army group was forced to retreat. Hitler’s plan for depleting von Küchler’s forces would, however, stretch the defenders to the absolute limit. The stage was thus being set for a possible major disaster.
The Offensive Begins
On the night of 13/14 January, the Soviet attack began. From the Oranienbaum pocket, over 100,000 shells fell upon the divisions of the3rd SS Panzer Corps, while the Leningrad Front attacked with 42 infantry divisions and 9 tank corps. The SS Corps was composed of the 9th and 10th Luftwaffe Field Divisions, the 11th SS “Nordland” Division, and the 4th SS “Nederland” Brigade.
The first German unit to be caught in the Soviet onslaught was the 10th Luftwaffe Field Division. It instantly fell apart, leaving a gap through which the Reds poured with tanks and infantry. The 9th Luftwaffe fared no better. Two days later, the commander of 18th Army , Gen. Georg Lindemann, was forced to use his only reserve, the 61st Infantry Division, to try to plug the gap left by the shattered Luftwaffe units.
The next morning, Govorov’s artillery unleashed a barrage that dropped over 220,000 shells on the German 50th Corps in front of Leningrad. Gen. Masslenikov’s 42nd Army then overran the German defenses, and by the end of the day achieved a penetration of 2.6 kilometers.
Meanwhile, Meretskov’s Volkhov Front assaulted the Germans at Lake Ilmen. It was clear to von Küchler the Communists had opened a major offensive, but bad weather on the 15th worked to restore some of his confidence, since the Red Air Force became temporarily grounded. Further, some reinforcements were made available to the army group and the movement of divisions to other fronts was halted. The German command was temporarily under the impression their forces could hold the present positions and cut off the Soviet penetrations into their lines. The next day, though, the Russian skies had cleared and the might of Soviet air power was again felt along the entire front.
Under the protective cover of their airpower, Soviet forces pushing out of the Oranienbaum pocket raced to meet the Leningrad units. There seemed to be no way for the German units on the coast to escape. The men of Gen. Steiner’s 3rd SS Panzer Corps were driven to ground by the Soviet artillery and the guns of the Baltic Fleet. Scattered pockets of resistance held the attackers in some places, but Soviet armor and air superiority made the overall situation hopeless.
Heroes on Both Sides
The Soviets had learned their lessons well from their German teachers, and their soldiers had adapted the principles of the Blitzkrieg to their own kind of fighting. In the first two weeks of the offensive, 12 Red Army officers and enlisted men won the coveted title, “Hero of the Soviet Union.” For example, 2nd Lt. Volkov of the 131st Guards Regiment, Sgt. Skuridin of the 98th Infantry Division, A.F. Tipanov, of the 64th Guards Infantry Division and Pvt. I.N. Kulikov gave their lives by blocking the slits of German pillboxes with their bodies, allowing their comrades to successfully attack the positions. Sgt. Morozov, of the 90th Infantry Division repulsed a German counterattack, even though his comrades were all dead and he was badly wounded.
The Germans had their heroes, too. Maj. Fritz Bunse, commander of the 11th SS Engineer Battalion, and Lt. Col. Hanns Heinrich Lohmann, commander of the 3rd Bn./ “Norge” Regiment of the 11th SS Division, both received the Knight’s Cross for leading their units in successful, though ultimately futile, holding actions. On 16 January, 2nd Lt. Georg Langendorf’s 5th Company of the 11th SS Reconnaissance Detachment met a Soviet column of 54 tanks. With only six anti-tank guns, Langendorf’s company destroyed 48 of the enemy vehicles and forced the others to retreat.
The Retreat Begins
Despite their high casualties, the Soviets were more than able to make good their losses with reserve troops. By 18 January, von Küchler reported to Hitler his entire line from Leningrad to Novgorod was collapsing. The Soviet 58th Rifle Brigade had crossed the ice of Lake Ilmen and broken through German positions south of Novgorod. Troops of the 2nd Shock and 42nd Armies had linked up at Ropscha, and the German units on the coast could be written off.
Von Küchler gave orders for his 26th Corps to withdraw almost 20 miles to new defensive positions. But Hitler took his usual “hold or die” attitude and forbade the movement of the corps, though his will alone was no longer enough to stop the Soviets. At any rate, the order for withdrawal had already been implemented, and it was too late to countermand the retreat. After almost 900 days, the siege of Leningrad had been broken.
While Hitler and von Küchler argued over the retreat of one corps, Army Group North’s lines were being shattered everywhere. Partisan units attacked supply columns and destroyed rail lines and bridges. Many
German divisions were down to regimental strength, and regiments had worn away to company size. For example, on 19 January, the 503rd Grenadier Regiment of the 290th Infantry Division reported a strength of only 3 officers and100 men.
By 24 January, units of the Soviet 42nd Army had reached Krasnogvardeysk and were heading for the Luga River. Von Küchler had no choice but to order a full retreat to the Luga in the hope his troops could hold there. But again, Hitler rejected the proposed withdrawal and von Küchler was forced to appear before him personally to plead his case. He told Hitler the 18th Army had already suffered 40,000 casualties and only a fraction of those had been replaced, but the Führer remained firm in his demand for no retreat. The dictator had lost all confidence in von Küchler and was already looking for a replacement; but events on the northern front would wait for no man not even Hitler.
By the 30th, the situation had become even more desperate for the Germans. Soviet forces continued their advance under the protection of the Red Air Force. Their tank and motorized units fanned out and spread havoc in the German rear areas. Once more von Küchler appealed to Hitler for permission to retreat. Though it was already too late for some of his units, the Field Marshal also knew any further delay could cost him his entire command.
The advancing red lines on the map finally convinced Hitler 18th Army had to withdraw to the Luga River line, but he had delayed that decision for too long. Enemy spearheads had already crossed the river north of the town of Luga. A day later, Hitler relieved von Küchler of command and replaced him with Gen. Walter Model.
Model was a strong defensive tactician and a favorite of the Führer. He issued his first order, which of course merely echoed the wishes of the supreme commander:
“Not a single step backward will be taken without my express permission.” That attitude, along with having Hitler’s confidence, allowed Model to exercise a greater degree of independence than his predecessor. Model, too, soon realized the Luga line could not be held, so he carefully formulated a plan of defense that would bring his troops back to the Panther Line step by step.