Retreat Back to Poland Summer 1944 I

By 1 July 1944 Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model was certain the most easterly line he could try to hold was between Baranovichi and Molodechno. He expected some advantage from earthworks and trenches left there from World War I, but told Hitler he would need several divisions from Army Group North to defend Molodechno. He was worried most about his left flank. Between the Army Group North flank, “nailed down” at Polotsk by Hitler’s orders, and the Third Panzer Army left flank northeast of Minsk, a 50-mile gap had opened. A gap nearly as wide separated the panzer army’s right flank and the Fourth Army short line around Molodechno. Third Panzer Army could be encircled or simply swept away any time the Russians wanted to make the effort, and thereafter the road to Riga and the Baltic coast would be open.

Although Model branded it “a futile experiment,” Hitler insisted that Army Group North hold Polotsk and strike to the southwest from there to regain contact with Third Panzer Army. The Commanding General, Army Group North, Generaloberst Georg Lindemann, reported that with two divisions, all he could spare if his flank had to stay at Polotsk, he could not attack. When on 3 July, after receiving permission to go back a short distance from Polotsk, Lindemann continued to insist he could not attack, Hitler dismissed him and appointed Generaloberst Johannes Friessner in his place.

When the Russians reached Minsk, Army Group Center, judging by past experience, assumed that they had attained their first major objective and, having gone 125 miles, more than their usual limit on one issue of supplies, would pause at least several days to regroup and resupply. The army group was mistaken. The first objective, indeed, had been reached, but the Stavka had ordered the offensive carried west on a broad front without stopping. First Baltic Front was to go toward Dvinsk, Third Belorussian Front to Molodechno and then via Vil’nyus and Lida to the Neman, and First Belorussian Front to Baranovichi and west toward Brest. Second Belorussian Front stayed behind to mop up around Minsk.

The Russians moved faster than Army Group Center could deploy its meager forces even to attempt a stand. Russian troops were through the narrows south and east of Molodechno by 6 July, and the army group reported that they had full freedom of movement toward Vil’nyus. Second Army committed enough troops around Baranovichi to brake the advance a few days, but one panzer division and a Hungarian cavalry division could not stop four Soviet tank corps backed by infantry. Baranovichi fell on 8 July as did Lida, the road and rail junction west of the Nalibocka Forest.

By stretching its front west, Army Group North narrowed the gap to Third Panzer Army to about twenty miles. Friessner was going to attack south with three divisions, but First Baltic Front’s Fourth Shock and Sixth Guards Armies began pressing toward Dvinsk and thus tied down everything on the army group’s flank. Friessner then proposed as a “small solution” to let Sixteenth Army withdraw to the LITHUANIA position, a line being constructed from Kraslava east of Dvinsk to Ostrov; Hitler refused to consider going more than half that distance.

On the 8th Model reported that he could not hold the line Vil’nyus-Lida-Baranovichi—in fact, the attempt had already failed completely. The first town was surrounded and the latter two were lost. Since he did not expect any reinforcements within the next eight days, he could not attempt to stop the Russians anywhere. He asked for an audience with Hitler the next day.

At Führer headquarters, Hitler proposed giving him a panzer division from Germany and two divisions from Army Group North right away, two more later. With these Third Panzer Army was to attack north and close the gap. On the question of the “big solution,” taking Army Group North back to the Riga-Dvinsk-Dvina River line, which was what Model wanted most, Hitler was adamant. Admiral Dönitz, he said, had submitted a report proving such a withdrawal ruinous for the Navy.

For the next several days the Army Group Center front drifted west toward Kaunas, the Neman River, and Bialystok. The help from Army Group North did not come. Friessner could neither release the divisions promised Army Group Center nor attack south himself. Between the Dvina and the Velikaya, Second Baltic Front and the right flank army of Third Baltic Front were engaging Sixteenth Army in a series of vicious and costly battles. South of the Dvina, around Dvinsk, First Baltic Front troops cracked the line in two places.

On 12 July Friessner reported to Hitler that he still proposed to attack south toward Third Panzer Army, but even if the attack succeeded it would have no lasting effect. General Ivan Bagramyan’s armies would keep on going west. Moreover, he could no longer maintain a stable defense anywhere on his own front south of Ostrov. He urged—”if one wants to save the armies of Army Group North”—taking Armeeabteilung Narva back to Reval and from there by sea to Riga, Liepaja, or Memel and withdrawing the Sixteenth and Eighteenth Armies to the line Riga-Kaunas. “I cannot,” Friessner wrote, “reconcile with my conscience not having made every effort in this fateful hour to spare these loyal troops the worst that could befall them and not having found for them an employment that would make it possible to hold the enemy away from the eastern border of our Homeland.” If Hitler could not give him freedom of action he asked to be relieved of his command.

Hitler, who rejected Friessner’s proposal emphatically, had another plan. He intended to give Model five panzer divisions, including the big Hermann Göring Parachute Panzer Division, and have them assembled behind Kaunas to attack and close the gap between the army groups. The OKH operations chief pointed out that the battle was moving too fast; in the time it would take to assemble the divisions, the front would undoubtedly change so greatly that the attack would be impossible.

On 13 July Model reported that he would try to stop the Russians forward of the Kaunas-Neman River-Grodno-Brest line, but he would have to use the fresh panzer divisions to do it. Counting new arrivals expected through 21 July, he would then only have 16 fully combat-worthy divisions against 160 Russian divisions and brigades. In a conference at Führer headquarters in Rastenburg on the 14th, Hitler changed his mind to the extent of giving Model the dual mission of first halting the offensive and then creating an attack force on the north flank.

During the third week of the month the Third Panzer and Fourth Armies managed to come to stop on a line from Ukmerge south past Kaunas and along the Neman to south of Grodno. Second Army, echeloned east, was consolidating as it drew back toward Bialystok. The Ninth Army staff supervised work on a line protecting the East Prussian border and organized blocking detachments to catch stragglers. The army group was beginning to regain its balance.

The Russians, having covered better than 200 miles without a pause, had for the time being outrun their supplies. They were now deep in territory ravaged by recent fighting, and bridges had to be rebuilt and rails relaid. Where there had been time to use it, the Germans’ Schienenwolf (rail wolf), a massive steel plow towed by a locomotive had, as on other similar occasions, turned long stretches of railroad into tangles of twisted rails and broken ties.

The North Flank of Army Group Center and Army Group North 18 July-31 August 1944

A Threat to Army Group North

On the 17th, the day the Russians marched 57,000 German prisoners through the main streets of Moscow to mark the victory in Belorussia, Army Group Center radio monitors intercepted messages to Soviet tank units north of Vil’nyus telling them to attack into the gap between Army Groups Center and North. Another, possibly greater, German disaster seemed to be at hand. Model advised the OKH he could not assemble the projected attack force in time to stop the Soviet armor; Army Group North would have to do it or suffer the consequences.

Army Group North was fully occupied trying to get into the LITHUANIA position, which was beginning to crack at the points where it had been reached. On 16 July Friessner informed Hitler that it was “a marvel” that the Russians had not already sent a force toward Riga to envelop the army group flank. He had nothing to use against them. He was taking one division out of the front at Narva; but it would be fully committed by the 10th; after that he would have no more reserves. “From then on,” he concluded, “that the front will fall apart must be taken into account.”

In a conference with Model and Friessner on 18 July, Hitler ordered the fighting in the gap conducted with mobile forces. He would have two self-propelled assault gun brigades there in four days, and by that time Göring would have strong air units ready to help. The army groups would each supply some infantry and a half dozen or so panzer and self-propelled artillery battalions. Göring, who was present, for once screwed up his courage and remarked that one had to speak out, the only way to get forces was to go back to the Dvina line. Hitler agreed that would be the simplest. But, he contended, it would lose him the Latvian oil, Swedish iron ore, and Finnish nickel; therefore, Army Group North’s mission would be to hold the front where it was “by every means and employing every imaginable improvisation.” Trying for the last time to talk Hitler around, Generaloberst Kurt Zeitzler Chief of Staff, OKH carried his argument to the point of offering his resignation and, finally, reporting himself sick. Hitler countered with an order forbidding officers to relinquish their posts voluntarily.

The Battle Expands to the Flanks

By mid-July, when the frontal advance against Army Group Center began to lose momentum, the Stavka was ready to apply pressure against the flanks. In the north the gap between the Third Panzer and Sixteenth Armies, the “Baltic Gap,” offered a ready-made opportunity. First Baltic Front, given the Second Guards and Fifty-first Armies, which had been moved up from the Crimea, deployed them for a strike west toward Shaulyay and from there north toward Riga.

On the south, Army Group North Ukraine was still strong, by current German standards, but it was not the massive “block” that had been created in May and June. It had lost three panzer and two infantry divisions outright and in exchanges had received several divisions that were not battle tested. In the southern three-quarters of the North Ukraine zone, Marshal Ivan Stepanovich Konev’s First Ukrainian Front had ten armies, three of them tank armies. In the northern quarter First Belorussian Front had three armies, reinforced during the second week of July by a guards army and a tank army transferred from the two southern fronts and the Polish First Army, a token force of four divisions. Apparently using the operation against Army Group Center as a model, Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky and Konev had positioned their armies for thrusts in the north toward Brest and Lublin, in the center toward Rava Russkaya and L’vov, and in the south toward Stanislav.

Army Group North Ukraine and the Ninth Army 14 July-15 September 1944

Army Group North Ukraine Broken Through

The Army Group Center disaster mitigated the Army Group North Ukraine command problem somewhat in that it produced a slightly more flexible attitude in the highest headquarters. At the end of June Hitler lifted the “fortified place” designations on Kovel’ and Brody and a week later allowed Fourth Panzer Army to give up Kovel’ and go into a shorter line fifteen miles west of the city. In the second week of July he also allowed the army to straighten a bulge on its right flank around Torchin.

When Fourth Panzer Army started back from Torchin, Konev, hoping to catch the Germans off balance, opened his attack toward Rava Russkaya on 13 July, a day earlier than planned. That move disconcerted both sides. Third Guards Army made a ragged start. The German divisions in motion stopped where they were supposed to, but a division a few miles farther south crumbled and a panzer division ordered to backstop it was slowed by air attacks. Next day Thirteenth Army found the weak spot and worked in deeper.

On 14 July two armies hit the First Panzer Army left flank due east of L’vov. The army had two reserve panzer divisions close behind the front. On the 15th they counterattacked from the south, stopped Thirty-eighth Army, and even drove it back a mile or two. But farther north Sixtieth Army opened a small breach in the German line.

Without waiting for the gaps to be widened, Konev on 16 July committed First Guards Tank Army to the fighting on the Fourth Panzer Army right flank and a day later did the same with Third Guards Tank Army on the First Panzer Army left flank. The two German armies took their flanks back fifteen miles to a switch position named the PRINZ EUGEN, but before that was done the Russians penetrated the new front at the two crucial points. Elsewhere the withdrawal did not shorten the line enough to release troops either to close the gaps or to stop the westward rolling tank columns.

On the 18th Soviet armored spearheads from the north and south met on the Bug River thirty miles west of L’vov. Behind them XIII Corps (five German divisions and the SS Division Galicia), was encircled. During the same day First Guards Tank Army, going toward Rava Russkaya, crossed the Bug near Krystynopol. That night Fourth Panzer Army began taking its whole front back to the Bug. The withdrawal was necessary both because of the breakthrough in the south and because Second Army, its neighbor on the north, was being forced back toward Brest. Fourth Panzer Army reported that it had 20 tanks and 154 self-propelled assault guns in working order; the Russians had between 500 and 600 tanks. The army’s 12 divisions faced 34 Soviet rifle divisions, 2 mechanized corps, and 2 tank corps. The Russians had 10 rifle divisions, 2 cavalry corps, and 4 independent tank regiments in reserve.

After 18 July the whole Army Group North Ukraine front from Stanislav north was in motion. Having waited for Fourth Panzer Army to start toward the Bug, First Belorussian Front began its thrust to Lublin. On the 10th Eighth Guards Army forced its way across the river nearly to Chelm.

That day, First Guards Tank Army, striking between the Fourth and First Panzer Armies, reached Rava Russkaya, and Third Guards Tank Army passed north of L’vov, while the newly committed Fourth Tank Army closed up to the city from the east. XIII Corps, encircled forty miles east of L’vov, was drawing its divisions together for an attempt to escape to the south before the right half of the First Panzer Army front was pushed too far west.

On 22 July the Second Army right flank went into the Brest defense ring. Against Fourth Panzer Army Soviet tanks rammed through at Chelm in the morning, covered the forty miles to Lublin by afternoon, and after nightfall 70 enemy tanks and 300 to 400 trucks were reported going northwest past Lublin. Hitler refused to lift the “fortified place” designation, and the 900-man garrison stayed in the city. In the gap between the Fourth and First Panzer Armies, by then thirty miles wide, First Guards Tank Army had an open road to the San River. Fourth Panzer Army told the army group that the only way it could save itself was to withdraw behind the Vistula and San Rivers without delay. During the day XIII Corps staged its breakout attempt, but it had too far to go. Of 30,000 men in the pocket no more than 5,000 escaped. Around L’vov First Panzer Army resisted more strongly than the Russians expected, which probably explains why Konev did not launch his planned thrust toward Stanislav.

The Baltic Gap

By 18 July the increased weight against the adjacent flanks of Army Groups Center and North was also being felt. (Map 29) A captured Soviet officer said that he had seen Second Guards Army moving west toward the Third Panzer Army north flank. Fifth Guards Tank Army, with Thirty-third Army close behind, had closed up to the Third Panzer Army front east of Kaunas and along the Neman River south of the city. Reinhardt, who had a weak panzer division and 4 infantry divisions facing 18 rifle divisions, 3 tank corps, a mechanized corps, and 3 independent tank brigades, reported that he saw no chance of restoring contact with Army Group North and proposed that he be allowed to take back his flank on the north enough at least to get a strong front around Kaunas. Model, having returned from the day’s conference with Hitler, told him the army would have to stay where it was. Stretching the facts slightly, he said Army Group North would take care of closing the gap. He promised Reinhardt the Herman Göring Division.

During the next three days, while Fifth Tank Army increased its threat to Kaunas by working its way into several bridgeheads on the Neman, Second Guards Army moved west into the Baltic Gap and began pushing the Third Panzer Army flank south. By 22 July the flank division, trying to hold off six guards rifle divisions, was beginning to fall apart, and the gap had opened to a width of thirty-six miles. During the day Second Guards Army’s advance elements reached Panevezhis, forty miles behind the Third Panzer Army front. The army was down to a combat effective strength of 13,850 men, but Model again refused a request to go back. As far as reinforcements were concerned, he told Reinhardt, the army would have to withstand the “drought” for two or three more days.

Sixteenth Army, meanwhile, had completed its withdrawal into the LITHUANIA position on 19 July but had not been able to stop the Russians there. On the 22d Friessner ordered the army back another five to ten miles, which meant giving up its northern anchor at Pskov. To Hitler he sent word there was no other way of holding the army together; the new line also would not hold, and then he would have to go back again. Soon, he added, the front would lose its Pskov Lake-Lake Peipus tie-in, and getting behind the Dvina would then become a “question of life or death” for the whole army group.

Attentat!—Guderian—Schörner

In the Führer headquarters on 20 July the Attentat (attempted assassination) against Hitler had taken place. A time-bomb had injured all nineteen of the officers at the afternoon situation conference, three of them fatally, and had demolished the building in which the meeting was being held; but Hitler had escaped with minor burns, bruises, and an ear injury. In the first few hours after the explosion, a widespread anti-Hitler conspiracy centered in the Army and reaching into the highest command echelons, especially the Army General Staff, came to light. It was quickly smashed, and before the day was out Hitler had placed new men in a number of key posts. The most significant change as far as the Eastern Front was concerned was Guderian’s appointment as Acting Chief of Staff, OKH.

Guderian got the appointment by default. In fact, Hitler’s first choice was General der Infanterie Walter Buhle, who was among those wounded in the assassination attempt, and now could not assume the post until he had recovered. Hitler never completely forgave a general who had once failed him, but on 20 July 1944 Guderian was perhaps the only general in the OKH not under direct suspicion. Although his motives were not entirely clear, Guderian had been the officer who, in Berlin on the afternoon of the assassination attempt, had turned back the tank battalion drawn up to take the SS headquarters on the Fehrbelliner Platz. He had, moreover, lately been full of ideas for winning the war, and he had not attempted to dissemble his low opinion of the field generalship on the Eastern Front since the time he had been relieved of command there. His recent charges of defeatism in the General Staff made it appear unlikely that he had been a member of the conspiracy.

On his appointment, Guderian moved swiftly to give fresh evidence of loyalty to the Führer and to dissociate himself from his predecessors. In an order to all General Staff officers, he demanded of them an “exemplary [Nazi] attitude” on political questions and that publicly. Those who could not comply were to request to be removed from the General Staff. “In order to ease the transition to, for them, possibly new lines of thought,” he directed further, that all General Staff officers were to be given opportunities to hear political lectures and were to be detailed to National Socialist leadership discussions.

On his first day in his new post Guderian demonstrated how he proposed to conduct the war on the Eastern Front. When the Army Group North chief of staff told him Friessner was convinced the course Hitler was following would lose him the Baltic States and the Sixteenth and Eighteenth Armies to boot, Guderian dismissed the statement with a sneer, saying he expected “General Friessner will be man enough to give the necessary orders [to surrender] in the event of a catastrophe.”

After Friessner sent in his 22 July report his hours in command of Army Group North were numbered. The next day, at Guderian’s behest, Friessner and Schörner traded commands. Guderian told Model he was confident Schörner would “put things in order” at Army Group North. It was time, he added, also to stiffen the Army Group North Ukraine command’s backbone.

Schörner went to Army Group North with a special patent from Hitler giving him command authority over all combat forces of the three Wehrmacht branches, the Waffen-SS, and the party and civil offices in the Baltic States. Unusual as such sweeping power was, substantively it did not amount to much. It placed at Schörner’s disposal a few thousand men who could be committed in the gap on the army group’s south flank; otherwise, its main effect was to underscore Hitler’s determination to hold what was left of the Baltic States.

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