For nearly three years, Heeresgruppe Nord had been holding its positions outside the city of Leningrad, with little change in the opposing lines. Although the Leningrad and Volkhov Fronts had opened a land corridor to Leningrad with Operation Iskra in January 1943, a year later the Germans were still within artillery range of the city. Generalfeldmarschall Georg Wilhelm von Küchler commanded Heeresgruppe Nord from his headquarters in Pskov and he had two armies: AOK 18 holding the lines around Leningrad and AOK 16 deployed between Novgorod and Velikiye Luki. Given the static nature of warfare on the Leningrad sector, the OKH had stripped Generaloberst Georg Lindemann’s 18.Armee (AOK 18) down to the bone during 1943. Several Luftwaffe Feld-Divisionen were sent to this relatively quiet sector, which allowed Heer infantry divisions to be sent southward and AOK 18 received far fewer personnel replacements than other German armies. At the start of 1944, Lindemann had 20 divisions holding a 280km-long front. In terms of armour, AOK 18 had relied upon the Tigers from s. Pz.Abt. 502 to repel enemy attacks and this unit enjoyed a considerable amount of success outside Leningrad. Oberleutnant Otto Carius was one of the Tiger ‘aces’ who made a name for himself in this Stellungskrieg (positional warfare).
However, on 6 October 1943, the Soviet Kalinin Front launched a massive attack near the boundary of Heeresgruppe Nord and Heeresgruppe Mitte. The 3rd and 4th Shock Armies, with a total of 16 rifle divisions and 300 tanks, attacked the II.Luftwaffen-Feldkorps near Nevel and rapidly achieved a major breakthrough. Both AOK 16 and PzAOK 3 were compelled to commit all their reserves to this endangered sector, to prevent the Kalinin Front from driving a wedge between the two German army groups. Von Küchler had to send his only mobile reserve, the Tigers of s.Pz.Abt.502, to support a counter-attack intended to retake Nevel and crush the Soviet penetration. The fighting around Nevel dragged on indecisively for months, although the Germans claimed that 1,450 Soviet tanks were destroyed in this sector over the course of the battle.
Despite the distraction of the Nevel breakthrough, by late 1943 the OKH assessed that the Soviet Leningrad Front would eventually attack Heeresgruppe Nord’s AOK 18 in force, so Obergruppenführer Felix Steiner’s III.SS-Panzerkorps headquarters was sent to join Lindemann’s command in ealy December 1943, along with 11.SS-Panzergrenadier-Division Nordland and 4.SS-Panzergrenadier-Brigade Nederland. Despite their grandiloquent titles, these recently-raised Waffen-SS formations were of mediocre quality, consisting primarily of Volksdeutsche, and poorly equipped. The Nordland’s SS-Panzer Battalion 11 was supposed to be equipped with Panther tanks, but most proved defective and the battalion was still unready for combat in January 1944.1 A few of the immobilized Panthers were sent to the front and dug in as strongpoints. Instead, the Nordland had SS-Sturmgeschutz Battalion 11 with 42 StuG III and the Nederland brigade had a battery with 10 StuG III. In order to increase its anti-tank capabilities, AOK 18 had also formed Panzer-Zerstorer-Bataillone 477 and 478, each equipped with 20 of the new 8.8cm Panzerschreck rocket launchers. As a contingency plan, Heeresgruppe Nord began construction of the Panther Line on 7 September 1943; the line was intended to run from Narva, behind Lake Peipus to Pskov and Ostrov. By the end of December, some anti-tank ditches and fieldworks were in place, but the bulk of the fortification effort would not be completed until March 1944.
The main problem for AOK 18 was the Oranienbaum salient, which the Red Army had held since late 1941. This heavily-fortified salient was supplied by sea and forced AOK 18 to maintain at least a corps-size formation to contain it. Steiner’s corps was assigned to defend the southern side of the Oranienbaum salient, to prevent a link-up between the Soviet forces in Leningrad and the enclave. Nordland would serve as a mobile reserve for this critical sector. However, von Küchler and Lindemann were not particularly concerned about the Oranienbaum salient, which had been a quiet sector for two years. Instead, von Küchler and Lindemann focused on repelling a Soviet breakout from Leningrad toward the Pulkovo Heights. Once again, the Germans were let down by their poor intelligence support, which failed to note a shift in Soviet intentions. General-leytenant Leonid A. Govorov, commander of the Leningrad Front, was resolved to end the German threat to the city and to destroy AOK 18. Instead of attacking from the east, as he had tried in all previous offensives in 1941–43, this time Govorov decided to make his main effort from the Oranienbaum salient.
General-leytenant Ivan F. Fediuninskiy, a protégé of Zhukov, was put in command of the 2nd Shock Army, which consisted of seven rifle divisions, two tank brigades and three tank regiments. Fediuninskiy’s strike force was quietly moved into the Oranienbaum salient in late December; not all of this could be concealed, but the Germans failed to appreciate this as the Soviet main effort. Instead, the Germans focused on General-polkovnik Ivan I. Maslennikov’s 42nd Army, which was outfitted with nine rifle divisions, two tank brigades, six tank regiments and two artillery divisions. Golikov’s preparations were meticulous, and for once the Red Army was allowed adequate time for preparation. On the morning of 14 January, Golikov attacked. Fediuninskiy’s artillery commenced a massive artillery bombardment against the 9. and 10.Luftwaffe-Feld-Divisionen on the eastern side of the salient. Two Soviet battleships supported the attack, with 305mm naval gunfire. After smashing their positions with over 100,000 rounds in 65 minutes, Fediuninskiy then attacked with five rifle divisions and two tank brigades. Contrary to expectations, the Luftwaffe troops put up a stout defence that prevented an immediate breakthrough and enabled Nordland to send some reinforcements. At the same time, Maslennikov distracted the German L Armeekorps with a massive bombardment, which kept Lindemann from committing his limited reserves against Fediuninskiy’s 2nd Shock Army. As night fell, Fediuninskiy committed a mobile group consisting of Polkovnik Aron Z. Oskotsky’s 152nd Tank Brigade and two tank regiments to begin pushing toward the road junction at Ropsha.
On the morning of 15 January, Maslennikov’s 42nd Army attacked the L Armeekorps after another lengthy artillery bombardment and quickly achieved a 4km-deep penetration on the Pulkovo Heights. The breakthrough was assisted by the 36th and 49th Guards Tank Regiments, each equipped with 21 Churchill tanks. Meanwhile, Fediuninskiy smashed the remnants of the two Luftwaffe divisions but mobile group Oskotsky was stopped by a counter-attack from Nordland before it could reach Ropsha. Lindemann was able to organize local counter-attacks on 16–17 January that temporarily slowed the two Soviet armies that were advancing toward each other. Nordland employed its assault guns and mobile artillery to strike at the flanks of the Soviet penetration, but could not seal it off. Maslennikov formed a mobile group with the 1st and 220th Tank Brigades, but these were stopped north of Krasnoye Selo. However after five days of battle, the German defence began to crumble and the Soviet armies surged toward Ropsha. On 19 January, the 2nd Shock Army and 42nd Army fought their way into Ropsha, which isolated a number of German units and forced Lindemann to retreat. Adding to von Küchler’s problems, Meretskov’s Volkhov Front launched an attack against AOK 16 which overran a Luftwaffe division at Novgorod and threatened to unhinge AOK 18’s right flank, as well. Lindemann’s centre was pierced and both flanks were in retreat.
Hitler ordered von Küchler and Lindemann to stand fast, as help was on the way. He promised the transfer of the 12.Panzer-Division from Heeresgruppe Mitte and Panzer-Grenadier-Division Feldherrnhalle from France to reinforce AOK 18, but neither would arrive soon enough to prevent Golikov from completing his breakout. Instead, the only immediate help came from s.Pz. Abt.502, which sent its 3.Kompanie under Leutnant Herbert Meyer with 15 Tigers by rail on 19 January. By the time Meyer’s Tigers arrived at Gatchina on 20 January, the station was already under artillery fire and the lead elements of the 42nd Army were approaching. With the rest of the battalion still en route, Meyer’s Tigers were scooped up by a local commander who ordered him to advance northwest to assist elements of the L Armeekorps, which were under pressure from Soviet armour. With a platoon of four Tigers, Meyer promptly advanced in a movement to contact, completely ignorant of both the friendly and enemy situation. Advancing to the sound of gunfire, Meyer unexpectedly bumped into an enemy tank battalion with 20–30 tanks. The terrain around Leningrad is heavily wooded and the ensuing action must have occurred at short range; three of Meyer’s four Tigers were knocked out and abandoned. Meyer returned with his last Tiger to link up with the rest of his company north of Gatchina, assembling a blocking force on the main road to Leningrad. However, Meyer had no supporting infantry and when the 42nd Army came rolling down the highway the next morning, Kampfgruppe Meyer was quickly encircled. Although Meyer’s Tigers knocked out eight enemy tanks and six anti-tank guns, the situation was hopeless since fuel and ammunition were low. In desperation, Meyer committed suicide and all 11 of his Tigers were destroyed or captured. Without support, the Tiger was little more than a bunker.
With AOK 18’s front broken and the Soviets rolling inexorably toward the Luga River, von Küchler’s nerve cracked and he ordered both armies to retreat to the Panther Line, even though its fortifications were incomplete. Under heavy pressure, AOK 18 conducted a fighting retreat to the Luga River, while AOK 16 fell back about 30km. The remaining Tigers of s.Pz.Abt.502 assisted the AOK 18 in its withdrawal by turning to ambush the Soviet spearheads; on 25 January they claimed 41 Soviet tanks destroyed at Voyskovitsy, 5km southwest of Gatchina. However, German supply lines were disrupted by the retreat and resupply of fuel and ammunition became problematic. On 28 January, the Tigers made a brief stand at Volosovo while the infantry retreated to the Luga River. One lone Tiger was engaged by a battalion with 27 T-34s; despite having only three AP rounds and nine HE rounds, it managed to knock out seven T-34s and then fall back. Yet aside from the few remaining assault guns, Heeresgruppe Nord had almost no other armoured units to serve as a rearguard.
Von Küchler’s retreat order was unauthorized and Hitler immediately sacked von Küchler and decided to replace him with Generaloberst Walter Model, who had already made a name for himself as a steadfast commander. However, by the time that Model arrived in Pskov on 31 January, Heeresgruppe Nord was already in full retreat and Fediuninskiy’s 2nd Shock Army was on the outskirts of Kingisepp. Even worse, Model found that AOK 18 had barely 17,000 combat troops to hold the 115km-wide front on the Luga River, which was insufficient to repulse a determined offensive. Affecting a bold front, Model declared that Heeresgruppe Nord would employ Schild und Schwert (sword and shield) tactics to stop the Soviet steamroller. By this he meant limited tactical withdrawals to enable him to concentrate enough troops for local counter-attacks. Model ordered the establishment of large-scale stützpunkte at Narva and Luga, while combing out infantry replacements from Heeresgruppe Nord’s rear-area troops. He personally went to inspect the defences at Narva and decided to commit the remaining Tigers to reinforce Steiner’s III. SS-Panzerkorps’ defence, since the loss of Narva would fatally compromise the Panther Line.
Yet despite Model’s bravado, the Soviet steamroller kept right on coming, advancing up to 16km per day, overrunning Kingisepp on 1 February and then seizing bridgeheads over the Luga River. At Narva, Fediuninskiy’s 2nd Shock Army managed to cross the Narva River south of the fortress city, but was stopped by a fanatical defence by Gruppe Sponheimer. Other Soviet elements crossed the frozen Lake Peipus, but were quickly destroyed. Generalleutnant Erpo von Bodenhausen’s 12.Panzer-Division arrived by rail from Heeresgruppe Mitte and Model decided to use it in a Schild und Schwert effort to stop the 42nd Army on the Luga River. The 12.Panzer-Division had never been completely refitted from its losses in 1941 and could only field a single Panzer-Abteilung, equipped with a mix of Pz III and Pz IV tanks. In contrast, the Leningrad Front received additional armour for the breakout, included some of the new KV-85s and IS-1s. After a few failed counter-attacks, von Bodenhausen used his armour and Panzergrenadiers to slow the Soviet advance, but the 42nd Army still managed to capture Luga on 13 February. Any hope Model had for standing on the Luga were demolished when Popov’s 2nd Baltic Front joined the Soviet offensive on 16 February and its 1st Shock Army overran the AOK 16 position at Staraya Russa. With Hitler’s grudging acceptance, Model ordered all of Heeresgruppe Nord to retreat to the Panther Line. When the troops arrived at the designated positions, they were forced to dig fighting positions in the frozen, snow covered ground. One innovation that did help was the ‘trench plow,’ a large steel hoe that was towed behind a semi-track vehicle and used to rip open the ground.
Govorov focused most of his effort on Narva, hoping to capture the city and outflank the rest of the Panther Line. He decided to reinforce Fediuninskiy with the 8th and 47th Armies. General der Infanterie Otto Sponheimer commanded a mixed force of survivors at Narva, including the Nordland division, the Nederland brigade, four infantry divisions and s.Pz.Abt.502 (with 23 operational Tigers), as well as Estonian Waffen-SS troops and Luftwaffe troops. In early February, the Panzer-Grenadier-Division Feldherrnhalle arrived to bolster his command.* Narva was a formidable defensive position, located on a narrow isthmus between the Gulf of Finland and Lake Peipus, surrounded by marshes and forests. The city itself was located on the west side of the Narva River, which effectively served as a wide moat. While the Nordland division moved into the city, Oberleutnant Otto Carius and four Tigers were left as a rearguard on the east side of the river to gain time for the Waffen-SS troops to fortify their position. Model promptly arrived at this exposed position and personally told Carius, ‘I am holding you personally responsible that no Russian tanks break through.’ Once the Nordland was dug in, Carius’ Tigers were allowed to retreat across the river and the bridge was blown up.
Rather ambitiously, the Soviets attempted a double envelopment of Gruppe Sponheimer at Narva, with the 47th Army crossing the Narva River north of the city at Riigi and Siivertsi and the 8th Army crossing south of the city at Krivasso. In addition, on 13–14 February the Soviet Baltic Fleet landed a battalion of naval infantry behind German lines on the Gulf of Finland. Somehow, Sponheimer was able to scrape together just enough of a reserve to deal with each Soviet attack. Otto Carius’ Tigers played a major role in defending Narva, first sending three Tigers to crush the amphibious attack on 14 February. Next, several Tigers assisted the Nordland in battering the northern Soviet bridgeheads on 18 February, then shifted to deal with the southern threat. While the Soviets came close to encircling Narva, the Tigers prevented the pincers from shutting and kept a narrow lifeline open. Soviet tanks crossed the river, but not in sufficient numbers to overcome s. Pz. Abt. 502, which was reinforced with 17 new Tigers in late February.
On 1 March, the Soviet 59th Army began a major offensive from the Krivasso bridgehead which created a substantial lodgement south of Narva. However, the Nordland division finally destroyed the small bridgeheads north of Narva, which allowed the Germans to shift the Feldherrnhalle division to block this southern threat. On 6 March, the Soviets heavily bombed Narva, turning it into a pile of rubble, then attacked across the river with 2nd Shock Army. On 17 March, the 59th Army attacked from the south to sever the main east-west rail line, but three Tigers under Carius managed to hold the thinly-manned HKL and destroyed 14 T-34s and 1 KV-1, which halted the attack. Instead of overwhelming Carius’ small force, the Soviets attacked piecemeal, with only company-size groups of tanks supporting a battalion of infantry. Despite heavy casualties, the German defence held and after two weeks of heavy fighting the Soviets ceased their attacks.
As the Soviet offensive ebbed, the OKH decided to mount a major counter-attack to try and eliminate the 59th Army’s Krivasso bridgehead. It was a decidedly low-budget affair. Oberst Graf von Strachwitz was sent to Narva to lead a Panzerkampfgruppe formed from the remaining Tigers and a handful of Panthers and Pz IVs scraped up from repair depots. Elements of three infantry divisions were also committed to the effort. On 26 March, Strachwitz attacked and in six days he managed to demolish the western side of the Soviet bridgehead. The 59th Army had not expected a tank attack and failed to establish effective anti-tank defences. Strachwitz resumed the counter-offensive in early April and achieved more success until the spring thaw brought a halt to his mobile operations. The Soviets still maintained a toehold at Krivasso, but the threat to Narva was temporarily reduced. Strachwitz’s counter-offensive inflicted about 12,000 casualties on the 59th Army and brought the Soviet steamroller to a halt.
By early April, the situation along the Panther Line had stabilized for Heeresgruppe Nord. The defence of Narva was difficult and resource-consuming, but the fanatical defence of the city brought Govorov’s advance to a halt. The Soviets became too engrossed with taking Narva, rather than pressing hard at other sectors of the Heeresgruppe Nord front. Consequently, the rest of AOK 16 and AOK 18 were able to establish a new defensive line on the border of Estonia, although the army group lacked mobile reserves. As it was, the Leningrad Front came close to breaking Heeresgruppe Nord in February and it was the lack of large armoured mobile groups that reduced the scale of the Soviet victory. With all the tank armies committed to the Ukraine, Govorov and Meretskov had to make due with combining various tank brigades and regiments into ad hoc groups, which was little better than the Red Army tactics of 1941–42. For the Germans, it was equally unnerving to realize how little armoured support they had when a positional campaign transitioned to mobile warfare.