Siege of Memel (October 1944) III

Column of Tiger Is, late 1944.

Local Party officials were of course aware of the fighting, and had been enquiring nervously of the Wehrmacht whether there would be a need to evacuate German civilians from Memelland. As early as 5 October, Schörner declared that such an evacuation was unnecessary. Whether an evacuation could actually have been carried out in an orderly manner is questionable, but the fact that it wasn’t even attempted left thousands of civilians in the path of the advancing Red Army.

Whatever Schörner may have believed about there being no requirement for a civilian evacuation, Raus had different views, and on his urging the Party officials along the northern borders of East Prussia finally ordered civilians to leave. The process began slowly, but soon became a panic-stricken stampede as the Red Army drew closer. Troops struggling to withdraw to the East Prussian Defence Position found the roads choked with refugees. Movements were already difficult due to constant air attacks and fuel shortages; in some cases, they now became almost impossible. Huber’s tank had suffered a transmission failure, and had to be towed out of the frontline. On 8 October, Huber and the rest of the crew were towed back in the early hours through Telsche and Plunge:

Beyond Plunge it is even harder to make progress along the congested Rollbahn [main road], with rear-area units, trucks and horse-drawn vehicles, all wanting to move west. There is nothing for it but to stop for hours at a time. … We pull off the congested Rollbahn and make no further progress. Suddenly, at about 1500, all motors are switched off and there’s general silence, and we hear from the left, up front, at about 10 o’clock, a gun firing. Everyone immediately looks in that direction, from where black smoke is now rising: T-34 to the left! So since last night, when we were still defending near Luoke, the Russians have advanced at least 60 kilometres… I quickly estimate the distance to the forest edge where the T-34 is positioned. It is at least 1,400 metres, so there’s no point in shooting. At that range, we would achieve nothing against a T-34’s armour. Our armour-piercing rounds are only effective against this type of enemy tank at less than 800 metres. The T-34 fires again and again, and a good 1,200 metres down the Rollbahn there is now a black cloud – he’s hit something, vehicles are burning. But then there’s one of our yellow tracers going left. A hit! The T-34 immediately starts to burn. It was alone, no more are nearby.

The Soviet advance showed no sign of letting up. By dawn on 8 October, Plunge had already been bypassed, as Huber and his comrades discovered. The town came under increasingly heavy attack throughout the day, but then alarming reports arrived of Soviet tanks with infantry mounted aboard, approaching the River Minge east of Krottingen, and therefore already through the East Prussian Defence Position. These were the leading formations of the Soviet 43rd Army, pressing forward almost unopposed. Elements of Grossdeutschland were dispatched to secure the crossings at Kartena. This reinforced company found its route from Plunge to Kartena had already been cut by the Soviet spearheads, and had to fight its way through.

Difficulties in moving supplies forward to the fighting troops were beginning to bite, and several Tiger tanks had to be abandoned due to fuel shortages. But reinforcements were also arriving: 58th Infantry Division had been moved by sea from Army Group North into Memel, and now took up defensive positions northeast of the city. Heavy fighting continued in and around Krottingen, and further north around Salantai and Polangen. Grossdeutschland created two battlegroups, Battlegroup Schwarzrock and Battlegroup von Breese, which pulled back in stages over the last few kilometres to Memel, while other formations raced the Soviet spearheads westwards, across the Minge and into the developing positions around the city. The division’s reconnaissance battalion effectively formed a third battlegroup, and in heavy fighting alongside Battlegroup von Breese, it was able to hold up the pursuing Soviet forces for a few critical hours. Without this delay, 1st Baltic Front’s armoured spearheads would probably have overrun several of the formations struggling to reach Memel, with serious consequences for the defence of the city. Schwarzrock’s battlegroup had the furthest distance to withdraw; pulling back through Salantai, it drove through Polangen while the town was under aerial bombardment. The rubble-strewn streets hindered, but did not prevent, its withdrawal.

Memel itself had been under increasingly heavy air attack since 6 October, and most of the civilian population had now been evacuated. Von Breese’s battlegroup continued to hold off the Soviet forces near Krottingen. One of its battalions found itself isolated, and during the evening of 9 October it received orders to try to break through to Memel. Despite being badly scattered by a recent encounter with a large group of T-34s, the battalion was able to concentrate its surviving vehicles and pull out, reaching Krottingen unopposed. There they found a new obstacle: the road passed over a bridge, underneath which was an ammunition train set ablaze by air attacks. The vehicles raced across one by one without mishap, and continued their withdrawal.

The troops swiftly moved through the deserted streets of Memel to their assigned defensive positions. The 58th Infantry Division would hold the northern part of the bridgehead perimeter; 7th Panzer Division would hold the centre; and Grossdeutschland was to hold the southern part.

The Soviet 53rd Army took Polangen on 10 October, isolating Army Group North. Beloborodov’s 43rd Army swept past the southern edge of Memel and pressed on to the coast, cutting off Memel from the rest of the world. The first objective of 1st Baltic Front, to isolate the German forces north of the East Prussian border, had been carried out in a mere five days. Despite repeated attempts by Grossdeutschland and 7th Panzer Division to re-establish a continuous frontline – at Tryskiai, Luoke, Telsche, Plunge and finally the East Prussian Defence Position – the Soviet assault troops were unstoppable.

In addition to the main drive from the Kursenai-Schaulen area, a second Soviet thrust came further south, between Kelmy and Raseinen. Here, the attacking infantry had secured a bridgehead across the River Dubrissa. On 2 October, General Karl Decker’s 5th Panzer Division was ordered south from Estonia to join XL Panzer Corps in an assembly area near Kelmy, but by 5 October only small elements of the division – mainly its infantry, without any of its tanks or rear-area formations – had arrived. XL Panzer Corps’ commander was General Gotthard Heinrici, a veteran of the Eastern Front who would, just a few months later, take command of the armies arrayed to defend Berlin from the final Soviet assault. His corps had originally consisted of two divisions, 201st Security Division and 548th Volksgrenadier Division, but he had been forced to transfer the former to the neighbouring XXVIII Corps. Until 5th Panzer Division arrived, his only asset was the single Volksgrenadier division. On the evening of 5 October, Braumüller, commander of 5th Panzer Division’s anti-aircraft battalion, was ordered to take up positions east of Kelmy with a battery of 88mm guns, supported by one of the divisions Panzergrenadier battalions and an artillery battalion. Rather than risk taking the artillery too far forward, Braumüller ordered it to deploy west of the town.

The Soviet attack was led by 2nd Guards Army, with I Tank Corps as its spearhead. On its southern flank, 39th Army – the northern wing of Cherniakhovsky’s 3rd Belorussian Front – would join the attack as it developed. The assault formations simply bypassed Braumüller’s position and moved west, passing either side of Kelmy. Beyond the town, they ran into the artillery battalion that Braumüller had tried to keep out of harm’s way. In a confused fight, the gunners knocked out four tanks at close range, but lost ten of their guns and were swept away.

Decker prepared to mount a counter-attack. The 21st Panzer Regiment, the division’s tank force, arrived during the afternoon of 6 October. Like Grossdeutschland and 7th Panzer Division, it had been heavily involved in fighting further north since August, and was below its establishment strength, with only 12 Pz. IVs and 15 Panthers. Nevertheless, its commander, Oberstleutnant Hans Herzog, was immediately ordered to attack, supported by the division’s 14th Panzergrenadier Regiment. The battle raged all afternoon, with Herzog’s battlegroup claiming 26 Russian tanks destroyed, but the gap between it and the next German unit to the north – an ad hoc Panzergrenadier brigade commanded by the energetic Oberst Meinrad von Lauchert – remained at least 8km. With other elements of his division being driven back to the west, Decker ordered a halt to the attack. Instead, his division would try to set up a defensive line that could link up to 548th Volksgrenadier Division on the right. The gap to the left remained wide open, and the Soviet I Tank Corps roared through it, heading west and southwest, monitored by 5th Panzer Division’s armoured reconnaissance battalion. Even if 5th Panzer Division were able to link up with 548th Volksgrenadier Division on its right, this union would be of limited value.

To the south of the 548th, another Soviet assault had fallen on 95th Infantry Division. This division had been almost annihilated during the summer battles near Minsk, and had been reformed from its survivors, combined with the remnants of 197th and 256th Infantry Divisions. Although these disparate fragments had been fighting together since the summer disasters, they had yet to bed down properly as a new division. Under heavy pressure, its left flank was driven back on 7 October, sundering its link with 548th Volksgrenadier Division to the north. With much of its artillery lost and its infantry battalions taking heavy casualties, the division fell back under constant pressure.

At 3rd Panzer Army’s headquarters, Raus was critical of the way that XL Panzer Corps committed the division. The corps diary includes the following entry:

6 October was marked by an attempt by 5th Panzer Division – even though it didn’t have most of its armour – to deploy for a mass operation. A telephone conversation from the army reproached the corps for its ‘dribbling’ deployment. In the opinion of the corps, this was unfounded. The development of the situation in view of the fact that there were insufficient forces to hold both the right and left flanks of the corps, and particularly the developments in the neighbouring corps had a not insubstantial effect. A mass operation by 5th Panzer Division might well have stabilized the situation, but could not have prevented the enemy from succeeding in achieving and widening breakthroughs at other points. Crucially, the late arrival of the armoured elements of 5th Panzer Division by rail affected the conduct of operations.

In addition, the supply elements of 5th Panzer Division were still far to the north; consequently, the fighting troops had to be careful about their consumption of fuel and ammunition.

Decker continued to struggle to keep his far-flung division from being swept away by the Soviet attack. Late on 7 October, he was driven back along the road from Kelmy towards Tauroggen, forced to pull back his flanks to prevent envelopment. To the south was the inexperienced 548th Volksgrenadier Division, and on 8 October a Soviet thrust by the Soviet 39th Army pierced its front and threatened to break into the rear of 5th Panzer Division. Abandoning all attempts to link up with von Lauchert’s forces to the northwest, Decker sent his remaining mobile assets to deal with the most threatening Soviet penetrations on his own flanks, and with the assent of XL Panzer Corps, pulled back towards a small bridgehead north of Tilsit. The 5 th Armoured Reconnaissance Battalion, the division’s reconnaissance battalion, could only watch impotently as Soviet forces pushed on towards the Baltic coast.

The town of Heydekrug was overrun on 9 October, and several thousand civilians, with fragmented army formations amongst them, were trapped against the coast to the north. Using pioneer boats, army engineers laboured to evacuate them from the small town of Minge and the nearby coast. Ad hoc companies of soldiers set up a rudimentary perimeter, but for the most part the Red Army made little attempt to prevent the evacuation, which was completed on 15 October. The evacuees were landed on the Kurische Nehrung, the long sandy strip running parallel to the coast, north of Rositten. From here, they were able to withdraw south to East Prussia. Prökuls was also taken by the Red Army on 9 October. A large portion of the civilian population left it too late to attempt to leave, and those who did escape brought tales of rape and slaughter.

Pressure continued against the Tilsit bridgehead. Here, 5th Panzer Division and 548th Volksgrenadier Division, with 1st Paratroop-Panzer Division Hermann Goring now arriving on the western flank, beat off a series of attacks between 11 and 13 October. The 5th Panzer Division claimed to have shot up 65 Soviet tanks; whatever the true figure may have been, the Red Army was unable to break up the German bridgehead. Finally, the need for German armoured forces elsewhere necessitated the withdrawal of both Panzer divisions from the bridgehead, and it was completely evacuated by 22 October.

On the Soviet side, preparations were in hand for an assault across the Niemen on 31 October in order to seize Tilsit. The town was on high ground, dominating the northern side of the river, and an assault against prepared defences would be difficult to say the least. The 87th Guards Rifle Division was given this daunting task, and its personnel spent several days preparing wooden rafts for the crossing. There were no doubts amongst the Soviet troops about the difficulties posed by such an attack; Isaak Kobylyanskiy, serving as an artillery officer in the division, wrote a sombre letter to his girlfriend as preparations continued: ‘I am on the verge of a very serious battle, and only the Lord knows what end is waiting for me. This letter might be fated to be the last one.’

To the relief of Kobylyanskiy and his comrades, the assault was called off on 30 October. Fighting along the Niemen valley died down as both sides took stock. General Decker left his division to take command of a Panzer corps in East Prussia and was replaced by Oberst Rolf Lippert.

It is hard to assess whether the southern flank of the drive to the Baltic coast achieved all of its objectives. On the one hand, in cooperation with 39th Army, the right-hand formation of Cherniakhovsky’s 3rd Belorussian Front, 2nd Guards Army rolled the Germans back to the Niemen valley and secured a large stretch of coastline. On the other hand, the envelopment of German forces east of Tauroggen was not successfully carried out, not least due to the presence of 5th Panzer Division. Clearly, as shown by the preparations of Kobylyanskiy’s division, there were plans to secure a bridgehead at Tilsit, and there is certainly some evidence that 39th Army was expected to sweep over the Niemen into the northern parts of East Prussia, but the timely withdrawal of 548th Volksgrenadier Division and 5th Panzer Division to the Tilsit bridgehead effectively prevented this movement. As was the case further north, the Soviet spearheads swiftly identified the location of the strongest German defenders, in this case 5th Panzer Division, and shifted their main points of effort to either side. One consequence was that Second Guards Army was perhaps unable to turn south sufficiently early to threaten an envelopment of the German forces pinned against the frontline. Finding a gap to the left of 5th Panzer Division, the Red Army simply surged through to the coast. Further incursions into East Prussia would have to wait for another day.

Horst Messer, a German panzer soldier, was at Memel when he was wounded. He described his evacuation confirming that in late 1944, evacuations were reasonably orderly.

On 6 October 1944 the Russians attacked, broke through south of our front and penetrated as far as Memel. Our Army Group was cut off and encircled by this move. On 28 October there began the first of the six so-called Battles of Kurland—bloody butchery which by the end of November 1944 had cost 70,000 German soldiers and the same number of Russians their lives…We ‘seriously wounded’ were loaded aboard a bus standing ready to convey us to the port of Libau. Here a hospital ship awaited. Had I left as ordered, probably in a couple of days I would have been returned to the front. Instead, that evening I was in a convoy crossing the Baltic on course for home. The whole ship was full of wounded. Because I was actually only lightly wounded, I hung around the upper deck in case of torpedo attack. This was because I had no desire to go down in this steel coffin; I would have preferred to jump in the ice-cold water, for which purpose everybody had been given a lifejacket. When a submarine alarm was actually given, the mood of patients and crew fell to rock bottom. The fear can hardly be imagined — in the middle of the Baltic in icy temperatures, expecting the ship to be sunk by a torpedo at any moment. We were lucky, however, for nothing happened.

During the day we berthed at Danzig. A hospital train stood at the quayside and took us towards Berlin. On the way groups of wounded were unloaded at the big stations, my destination was Schneidemuehl in Pomerania. I spent fifteen days in the hospital there, afterwards got fourteen days’ convalescent leave and fourteen days’ leave from the front enabling me to spend the time between 15 November and 15 December 1944 at home. A wonderful time.

Horst Messer

On 9 October the Red Army reached the Baltic Sea near Memel cutting off Army Group North from East Prussia. As the year ended, things became more desperate at Memel. Guy Sajer, the Wehrmacht soldier, described the scene.

We passed through towns and villages where the inhabitants had still been living a more or less normal life until four or five days earlier, although they had realized that their danger might become imminent at any time. Now, for the last two days, old men, women, and children had been desperately digging out the trenches, gun pits, and anti-tank ditches which were to stop the waves of enemy tanks. This pathetic and heroic effort before the infernal debacle which would sweep them into the flux of terrorized civilians was a preliminary shock for these virtuous civilians, who saw the front coming toward them in the form of exhausted, half-starved troops, tired of fighting and of living, who brushed aside human pawns without a qualm, as if they were pieces in a losing game of chess.

We arrived in Memel with trucks pulled by men, and tanks serving as locomotives to trains of incredible length. We had reached the absolute limit of our capacities. Everything which still possessed a shred of human or mechanical life was moving, suppressing misery to a sense of gratitude that so much, at least, was still allowed them. Bombings stopped only those who were definitively dead. The rest—the merely wounded or dying—kept on, with burning eyes, pushing past the collapsing and the collapsed, whose bodies lay strewn along the road.

The town of Memel was still alive, in ruins beneath the flames, the smoke-darkened sky, the throb of Russian fighter-bombers, the heavy artillery, the terror, and the whirling snow.

The ruins of Memel could neither hold nor shelter the large segment of the Prussian population which had sought refuge there. This population, to which we could give only the most rudimentary help, paralyzed our movements and our already precarious system of defense. Within the half circle we were defending, ringing with the thunder of explosions which covered every sort of shriek and scream, former elite troops, units of the Volkssturm, amputees re-engaged by the services organizing the defense of the town, women, children, infants, and invalids were crucified on the frozen earth beneath a ceiling of fog lit by the gleam of fires, or beneath the blizzards which emptied their snows over this semi-final act of the war. The food ration was so meager that the occasional distributions which were supposed to feed five people for a day would not now be considered enough for a school child’s lunch. Appeals for order and observation of the restrictions rang incessantly through the fog, which in part veiled the scene. Ships of every kind were leaving by day and by night, loaded with as many people as they could carry. Long files of refugees, whom the authorities tried vainly to register, moved toward the piers, creating targets for Russian pilots which were impossible to miss. The bombs opened hideous gaps in the screaming crowd, which died in fragments beneath these blows, but remained in line in hopes of getting on the next ship. These people were exhorted to patience, reminded of the rationing, and told to fast while they waited for deliverance. Old people killed themselves, and mothers of families, who would hand their children over to another woman, begging her to feed them with the ration card she herself was giving up. A gun taken from a dead soldier would accomplish these jobs. Heroism and despair were closely intertwined. The authorities tried to keep up the spirits of the crowd by speaking of the future, but at that time and place everything had lost its importance.

Guy Sajer

Most units realized there was no point in holding out but a few did, anyway.

While many troops escaped encirclement, Hitler ordered that Memel be held at all costs. On 14 October the Red Army launched an assault to seize Memel that failed. The German troops were dug in and were supported by naval gunfire. While the Wehrmacht moved forces to reinforce Memel, the Red Army then shifted their offensive to Courland and East Prussia. When the defenders realized that Soviet armored units had been withdrawn and replaced by infantry, they settled in for a long siege. Their crisis had passed.

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