Baltic and East Prussia

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At the beginning of August, the German counterattack in front of Warsaw had succeeded finally in halting the momentum of the Soviet offensive, but not before the enemy had established bridgeheads across the Vistula and in places reached the East Prussian border. The bridgeheads over the Vistula south of Warsaw proved of most immediate concern. The OKH feared that any Soviet breakout could be exploited in a potentially decisive manner by either a turn north to encircle Warsaw or a drive straight west in order to seize the vital economic and industrial resources of Silesia, thus effectively crippling the German war economy. Already, as we have seen, the Germans had been forced to send units from the key tank battle at Warsaw to the south to prevent any Soviet exploitation of the bridgeheads and stabilize the situation. By mid-August, however, the Russians shifted the Schwerpunkt of their attacks to the key area just north of Warsaw where the Vistula, Narew, and Bug Rivers converged. If they could force their way across these rivers, the path to Danzig lay open, with the possibility of trapping German forces in the Baltic and East Prussia. The Soviets opened a new offensive on 18 August and over the next two months continued a series of attacks along the Bug and Narew Rivers designed to achieve a decisive breakthrough. Although the weight of these blows forced the Germans back, and despite the fact that they managed to create a few bridgeheads across the Narew, the Soviets proved unable to break the German defense line. Having achieved rather small tactical gains at a stiff cost in men and equipment, the Russians finally broke off attacks at the end of October.

At the same time as the Soviets began winding down their efforts near Warsaw, a new crisis erupted to the north in East Prussia. Although the Red Army had reached the German border at Schirwindt in mid-August, furious German counterattacks had thrown them back. In mid-October, however, the Soviets launched a frontal assault on Fourth Army positions with the intention, after breaking through, of sending one force streaming toward Königsberg and another to seize Danzig. If they succeeded, they would not only cut off Army Group North in the Baltic but also open the way to Germany proper. The assault began on 16 October with a three- to four-hour artillery and air bombardment of an intensity not previously experienced on the eastern front. By the eighteenth, Russian forces had again crossed the East Prussian border on a broad front and in places were advancing unhindered far to the west. On the twenty-first, they seized an intact bridge across the Angerapp at Nemmersdorf and also threatened to take the key railroad center of Gumbinnen even as German tanks were being unloaded from freight cars. With the roads full of refugees fleeing west in panic, concern rose at Führer Headquarters, less than fifty miles away in Rastenburg and within easy striking distance of enemy tank columns. Hitler, however, worried about the impact on the troops if he evacuated, refused to leave Wolf’s Lair, although some staff and files were sent away. Once again, the Germans averted disaster through a bold counterthrust. That same day, German panzer forces battled Soviet tank units near Gumbinnen, while others assaulted the base of the enemy breakthrough at Großwaltersdorf, managing the next day to cut off advance units of the Soviet Second Guards Tank Corps and the Eleventh Guards Army. Despite their numerical superiority, both Russian commanders and soldiers seemed stunned by the sudden turnabout in their situation. Lacking firm leadership, many men simply threw away their weapons and equipment and fled in panic eastward.

This initial foray into East Prussia had been fought with savage intensity and resulted in unusually heavy losses for an operation that lasted less than two weeks. German sources claimed to have destroyed almost one thousand enemy tanks and assault guns, while the Russians admitted to a casualty total of nearly 80,000 men of the 377,000 involved in the attack. Noteworthy, too, were the horrifying scenes that greeted German troops as they retook Gumbinnen and Nemmersdorf. In an explosion of violence, Soviet troops had exacted a first, bloody revenge on German civilians, with scores of women raped and murdered, often in the most gruesome fashion, stores plundered, and houses burned. Having suffered a whole range of German atrocities for three dreadful years, and having seen firsthand the awesome destruction of the scorched-earth retreat, Soviet soldiers engaged in an orgy of revenge that, although perhaps understandable, was, nonetheless, deplorable. Goebbels, of course, immediately seized on Nemmersdorf, that “place of horror,” as an example of what all Germans could expect. In a theme that would continue until the end of the war, he made clear that Soviet actions left Germans only one choice—fanatic, suicidal resistance—since they were going to be the victims of enemy cruelties in any case. Controversy still exists as to whether Stalin encouraged such action or whether Soviet commanders simply lost control of their troops, but one thing was clear: the atrocities at Nemmersdorf generally sent a chill through the German people and strengthened their will to resist. Although the SD reported a few examples of Germans drawing comparisons between the actions of their own government and soldiers against the Jews and what had now happened on German territory, the overwhelming majority simply feared that the Russians would do to them what they themselves had already suffered at German hands.

At the same time that the reality of war was being brought home to the German civilian population of East Prussia, an even more costly military drama was playing out in the Baltic as the Soviets now targeted Army Group North. Heretofore largely spared the full fury of the enemy summer offensive, the army group had, nonetheless, seen its strength dwindle as it had been forced to deliver more and more units to the defense of other sectors, even as its southern front expanded because of the disaster befalling Army Group South. By midsummer, it, too, faced a debilitating enemy superiority of up to eight to one across the board, yet Hitler forbade any withdrawal to shorter, more defensible lines. In this case, the Führer’s decision reflected less his typical hold-fast mentality than the key significance of certain political, economic, and strategic considerations. Always sensitive to the vital importance of Finnish nickel and Swedish iron ore to the German war effort, Hitler was determined to hold the Baltic as a guarantee of the continued deliveries of these ores. At the same time, he clung to the hope that new weapons technologies, both rockets and submarines, could produce a dramatic change in Germany’s fortunes. In the case of the latter weapon, the German navy was in the process of developing and testing two markedly superior types of U-boats that offered a glimmer of hope that the Battle of the Atlantic could yet be won. To complete sea testing, however, Hitler believed it was essential to hold on to the eastern Baltic coast, although his military (and even naval) advisers regarded this as a luxury Germany could not afford.

By early July, Army Group North found its position increasingly jeopardized by the collapse of its neighbor to the south. With Soviet forces racing west through the “Baltic hole,” a twenty-five-mile-wide gap between Army Groups North and Center, the commander of the former army group, General Georg Lindemann, not only had to defend more front with fewer troops but also faced the prospect that the advancing enemy might cut off his forces entirely. Lindemann, of course, reacted to the threat with the rational request that Hitler allow him to withdraw his forces to safety. Just as predictably, Hitler not only refused to give up territory but also ordered Lindemann to launch a counterattack with his nonexistent reserves. The latter responded by renewing his demand to be allowed to evacuate his troops in order to escape encirclement as well as halting the senseless counterattack. These actions left Hitler no choice, and, on 4 July, he replaced Lindemann with General Johannes Friessner, who, although initially determined to carry out Hitler’s orders energetically, soon discovered the correctness of his predecessor’s prescription. By mid-July, both Friessner and Model pleaded with Hitler to allow a withdrawal of Army Group North, which, as the most intact and battleworthy force on the eastern front, could be used to build the operational reserve so desperately needed to stabilize the front. These divisions, having been spared the brunt of battle in 1942 and 1943, had a level of primary group cohesion and combat effectiveness rare in German units at this point in the war and, thus, would have been invaluable as a backstop. Their fighting ability was on ample display in these weeks of summer fighting when, despite its overwhelming superiority in strength, the Red Army had been unable to achieve an operational breakthrough, instead being forced at high cost to push Friessner’s units back. Despite his dogged defensive success—in one month, his troops, mostly in close combat with the lethal handheld Panzerfaust, destroyed almost eight hundred enemy armored vehicles—Friessner met the same fate as Lindemann. On 23 July, he was relieved of his command, although formally he exchanged positions with the commander of Army Group South Ukraine, General Ferdinand Schörner. The latter, although given unusual command authority by Hitler, had no answer to the problems of the “poor man’s war” that the Germans were now fighting, and he too demanded withdrawal to sensible positions, which the Führer ignored. By the end of the month, the Soviets finally reached the Baltic coast just west of Riga, effectively trapping Army Group North. Although a tenuous connection to Army Group Center was reopened on 20 August, the position of Army Group North remained highly precarious.

After a temporary respite in order to prepare its forces, the Red Army on 14 September resumed its hammer blows against Army Group North. With any attempt to hold its exposed position untenable, Hitler finally relented two days later, following an impassioned appeal by Schörner, and approved the evacuation of Estonia, which commenced on the eighteenth. Still, he insisted on maintaining a bridgehead around Riga as well as holding on to Courland. Since Finland agreed to an armistice and left the war on 19 September, Hitler’s decision seemed to be based on his desire to continue testing the new-type U-boats. In any case, the Soviets continued their pounding attacks along the northern front, their forces increasingly augmented by units transferred from Finland, and, on 10 October, once again reached the Baltic coast. Although the Red Army paid a high price, suffering over 280,000 casualties and losing over five hundred armored vehicles, it had once more trapped Army Group North, with 250,000 troops and over five hundred armored vehicles, this time for good. Over the course of the next weeks and months, neither rational arguments (these tough, battle-hardened units could better be used as an operational reserve to defend Germany than sitting in Courland) nor emotional appeals (since most of the troops were from the eastern provinces, they would fight more fiercely than a bunch of untrained boys and elderly men in the Volkssturm) altered Hitler’s determination to hold on to Courland.

Nor, despite a series of battles until the end of the war that cost the Red Army a ridiculously high number of casualties, were the Soviets able to take it.

Of all Hitler’s controversial decisions in 1944, none has seemed to demonstrate so well his irrational stand-fast mentality as the decision voluntarily to entomb German troops and tanks sorely needed to defend the Reich in a backwater place such as Courland. As an illustration of his irrationality, however, it might be better to seek explanations on the strategic rather than the tactical level, with the key to the Courland puzzle lying in the Ardennes rather than the Baltic. As is generally known, Hitler hoped with the Ardennes offensive in December 1944 (originally scheduled for late November) to achieve a sudden turnaround in the war through an operation remarkably similar to Sickle Cut of May 1940. In this latest version, Great Britain was to play the role of France, with the United States, emulating the English, expected temporarily to withdraw from European affairs. Having dealt a savage blow to his Western enemies, and at the same time perhaps finally splitting the unnatural coalition arrayed against him, Hitler could then mass his remaining forces in the east to repel the Soviet invaders. In effect, he was clinging to the strategy outlined in November 1943 for the coming year: seek a turnaround in the war by striking in the west and holding on in the east. His forces had failed to achieve the desired results in both areas, but, Hitler believed, one last opportunity beckoned. For this plan to work, however, Courland had to be held as a springboard for a new offensive deep into the Soviet rear, while at the same time the new-model U-boats could be unleashed in the Atlantic. Although this interpretation is clearly a flight of fantasy, much speaks in support of it, not least the timing of Hitler’s final decisions to hold Courland and launch the Ardennes offensive, made within two days of each other in late October. Just as importantly, such a scheme fit his all-or-nothing mentality, his conviction, as Speer noted, that the war could be won only through offensive action. The Führer yearned to throw off the “eternal defense” into which Germany had been forced and again seize the initiative, but, when his “Blitzkrieg without gasoline,” as Karl-Heinz Frieser termed the Ardennes offensive, failed, he was left with the bankruptcy of his strategy. Only now, in early 1945, did he permit some units to be evacuated from Courland and sent back to Germany, although, even here, he could not quite fully abandon the illusion of a miracle that would again turn the war in his favor.

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