Memel Bridgehead 1944-45

During the remaining months of the war, Stalin referred disparagingly to the German presence in Courland as ‘the largest prison camp in the world’. But the Red Army wasn’t content to leave the Germans in peace, and launched six major assaults on the bridgehead. If the Soviet leadership was genuinely happy to tie down German divisions in this increasingly irrelevant area, why was so much effort and blood spent in attempts to destroy Army Group North? The answer probably lies in the fact that the Courland bridgehead formed the last remaining piece of territory, occupied by the Germans, that Stalin regarded as Soviet terrain. When he reassured Churchill and Roosevelt with comments about wanting to restore pre-war borders, he meant the borders of 1941, not 1939 – and by that date, the Baltic states were part of the Soviet Union.

By the end of 1944, the Red Army had launched three major assaults on the southern flank of the Courland bridgehead. All of these attacks – and three similar assaults in 1945 – were repulsed, with major losses on both sides. Slowly, the Germans were driven back into their bridgehead, and as the perimeter of the bridgehead shrank, German divisions were extracted and sent back to Germany. But this trickle of soldiers could achieve little; most of them disappeared into the inferno of the frontline. If the entire pocket had been evacuated en masse, sufficient troops might have been made available to intervene decisively, but Hitler would never have agreed to such a move.

Meanwhile, as the Red Army completed its encirclement of Memel, three German divisions – 58th Infantry Division, 7th Panzer Division and Grossdeutschland- scrambled to take up positions around the besieged city. Rittmeister Kühn was commander of a Panzergrenadier battalion, and was ordered on 10 October to secure Grossdeutschland`s left wing. When he reached his assigned sector, he found none of the prepared positions he was expecting, and ordered his men to improvise as best they could:

Scouting further north of the church I met a brave old rural police sergeant who was standing in front of his pretty white cottage in full war paint. He asked me rather timidly where our fighting troops were. When I told him that was us, he asked if he might now be allowed to withdraw to Memel, as he had received orders to fall back when the combat troops arrived. I felt sorry for the old man, and I couldn’t help thinking about the fairy tale about the steadfast tin soldier.

Kühn gave the old man permission to head for Memel. He then came across some border guards, whom he promptly incorporated into his battalion, much to their alarm. He needed every man he could get – even with this small additional force, he could barely manage a two-man rifle pit or machine-gun nest every 100m. He made contact with a coastal naval battery, armed with eight 128mm guns, and arrangements were made for fire support. A group of 60 Luftwaffe personnel appeared from the north, and were also incorporated into the battalion.

The Soviet 5th Guards Tank Army and 43rd Army, which had pursued the Germans to the city, launched their first assault, starting with a heavy artillery bombardment on the southern and eastern defences at dawn on 10 October. Many local civilians – invalids, the elderly and the Hitler Youth – had been mobilized in the ranks of the Volkssturm, and these inexperienced soldiers, occupying reserve positions behind those held by the regular army, endured the bombardment with varying degrees of stoicism. As daylight grew stronger, bombers also joined the assault. In the meantime, the last refugee columns from the Krottingen area struggled into Memel, picking their way through the rubble-strewn streets. The city was engulfed in a dense cloud of smoke, lit by the flashes of fresh explosions. For the refugees, it must have seemed like a vision of hell.

When the assault began, the Wehrmacht units were ready for it. As a result of the various formations that retreated into the city, there were plentiful weapons and ammunition, and despite the limited time, good preparations had been made for a coordinated defence. On Grossdeutschland`s left flank, Kühn and his battalion came under attack during the day.

Late in the morning the half-tracks in Dargussen reported enemy tanks approaching from the northeast. The observers in the church spire also saw about 15 tanks moving west from the direction of Grabben. At first everything remained quiet opposite the battalions front. In the afternoon … enemy tanks attacked 1 Company’s position at the church from the north. The spire was holed by shells and the artillery observers and the timberwork in which they had positioned themselves began to give way. The valiant commander of the 18-man-strong 1 Company, Feldwebel Zwillus, was almost killed by a falling rafter. He sprinted into the rectory and, standing at the window, described to me by telephone the course of the battle. He was interrupted when the tanks began firing into the house and he had to lie down on the floor. An anti-tank gun, which went into position at the last moment, knocked out the leading tank right in front of the church. The rest remained beyond the stream that ran north of the church. The only way across the stream for the tanks was a small bridge at the policeman’s house, and consequently they had little opportunity to deploy.

Three German assault guns arrived shortly afterwards, and the position stabilized. Elsewhere in the Panzergrenadier regiment’s sector, the first wave of ‘Soviet’ attackers turned out to be Lithuanian civilians, collected together by the advancing Soviet forces and now ordered to charge into the German lines. Behind them were tanks, which were swiftly knocked out by naval gunners and Grossdeutschland’s remaining Tigers.

The Soviet infantry, with tanks in close support, repeatedly achieved penetrations into the German lines, only to be thrown back by determined counter-attacks. Off the coast, the Kriegsmarine intervened in the shape of the pocket battleship Lützow and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen: ‘[They] delivered astonishingly rapid salvoes from their enormous turrets with clearly visible effect. The physical destruction and damage to morale had as much effect on the Russian soldiers as the strength of the frontline soldiers’ defensive fire.’ Almost without exception, German first-hand accounts of the fighting in the closing phases of the war in the east give high praise to the fire support provided by the Kriegsmarine. The accuracy and range of the warships’ guns were phenomenal, as was their striking power. The effect on morale of these ships lying off the coast was enormous. They had sufficient anti-aircraft guns to make attacks on them by Soviet planes a tough prospect, particularly as, unlike their British, German, American and Japanese counterparts, the Soviet Air Force had few formations that specialized in anti-warship operations. The failure of the Soviet Red Banner Fleet, based near Leningrad, to intervene in any way other than limited submarine operations is curious. At this stage of the war it possessed a battleship, two cruisers and 17 destroyers and torpedo boats; had the Soviet fleet made a serious attempt to disrupt German shipping, the entire course of the campaign would have been different. Although there is little hard evidence to support the hypothesis, one can speculate that this restraint was a deliberate policy – Stalin wished to drive the Germans, soldiers and civilians alike, out of East Prussia, and therefore saw no point in closing their one escape route. Furthermore, many Soviet naval personnel had been re-assigned to land-based units during the long fighting around Leningrad, and it is unlikely that all of these warships would have been operational.

The assault raged for three days. Positions changed hands several times – the estate at Paugen, just outside Memel, was lost and retaken by the Germans three times before they finally had to concede it to the Red Army. Eventually, on 12 October, the fighting died down, and the exhausted soldiers on both sides could take stock. The frontline had hardly moved. Bagramian must have hoped that a swift, powerful attack coming hard on the heels of the often chaotic German retreat to the coast would secure the city quickly; instead, the defenders made his assault formations pay a heavy price for minimal gains.

Both armies strove to resupply their frontline formations. Freighters continued to arrive at the bombed-out Memel docks, unloading precious ammunition and other supplies. The next great assault began on 14 October. The preparatory bombardment was even heavier than before, and lasted for two hours, before the infantry, supported by tanks and assault guns, moved forward. They were greeted by a tremendous tornado of fire from the defenders – artillery, tanks, coastal guns, anti-aircraft guns and the Kriegsmarine’s warships all contributed. Again and again, the attackers penetrated deep into the German defences, only to face furious counter-attacks. To the north of Memel, at Karkelbeck, 58th Infantry Division faced the Soviet 179th and 235th Rifle Divisions, and was forced to concede some ground, but everywhere else, the German front held firm.

The 7th Panzer Division was involved in hard fighting to restore the frontline where Soviet forces had made deep penetrations. Willi Hegen was in one of the division’s few remaining Panthers:

We set off – our tank group was led by Leutnant Müller – to the designated preparation area and waited for our deployment. At daybreak, the damned Il-2s were also constantly aloft again. Meanwhile, there were ever more attacks by enemy bombers, which dropped their loads on us. Our tank shook on its springs from the heavy artillery fire. Smoke and dirt was hurled into the air. Suddenly, the fire moved to our rear, and we knew that our foremost lines had been overrun. There soon came an order to counter-attack and, knowing the frontline positions in the Löllen-Paugen-Klausmühlen sector well from the fighting of the last few days, we ran into Russian assault guns and tanks after a few hundred metres. We were the lead vehicle and were able to deal with two assault guns in the moment of surprise. The vehicles of our battlegroup that were following were also successful, shooting up several Russian tanks. …

Slowly, guarding to either side, we rolled forward over an open meadow, of the sort that you often find in this terrain of dunes. This meadow was about a kilometre wide, bordered by a small wood. We advanced slowly over the open ground and drove the enemy from our former positions. Just before the wood, they mounted greater resistance and we drove into a firebreak. Our battlegroup still had four or five tanks, which came under increasing tank fire from the left flank. Unteroffizier Behren’s tank, which was on our left flank during the attack, reported a hit, as a result of which the viewport (which was made of armoured glass in the Pz. IV) shattered into the driver’s face. We were at the firebreak, under fire from the Russians, and we could not see into the firebreak clearly.

We therefore withdrew a little to one side and tried with our collective fire to pin down the enemy who was firing on us. After a while, our second tank was set ablaze. Suddenly, at about 2 o’clock to our right, next to the wood, we saw a Stalin organ that had been brought forward, firing its projectiles. The turret was swiftly turned – which was easily done with the hydraulic traverse of the Panther, and we fired a couple of high-explosive rounds at about 1,600 metres. This resulted in the rockets flying off like at a firework display.

When we turned our turret back towards the enemy who was firing at us, we saw a Pz. IV of the Waffen-SS ablaze; it had accompanied our battlegroup in our counter-attack. But we still couldn’t make out the enemy tank that was firing on us from a well-camouflaged position, let alone engage it. At that moment, Leutnant Müller cried: ‘Quick, there – a T-34 in the firebreak.’ It was moving very carefully and slowly out of the firebreak, in order to bring its gun to bear on us. The turret was turned – and the Russian tank was barely 50 metres from us. We fired, and missed – in my haste, I had forgotten to take my foot off the turret traverse pedal. But quick as a flash, the loader inserted another round, I fired, and the T-34 exploded.

We had never before seen so clearly the law of war: ‘you or me’.

There was no time for celebration. There was smoke everywhere. In front and around us were the impacts of tank rounds. We were the last tank from the counter-attack in an advanced position in this sector and our driver, Jackl Schneeberger, turned and drove away in zigzags. The turret was swiftly turned to 6 o’clock, and then there was a dreadful impact and the fighting compartment filled with flames. Our driver, radio operator and loader bailed out immediately. Leutnant Müller didn’t stir, and the gunner, for whom there was no hatch in a Panther, could only get out through the commander’s cupola. So I had to shove the commander, Leutnant Müller, out until I could exit myself. As I came out of the cupola, I saw Leutnant Müller, who had partly recovered from his daze and confusion, running away from the tank. I leapt from the tank in one bound and ran away from it; I had gone barely 30 metres before it exploded behind me. The cloud of debris hurled us to the ground. We found ourselves in no-man’s land and sought out a little cover. Here, we found that apart from singed hair and a few small burns, none of us was wounded.

Everywhere, Soviet infantry with heavy tank support pressed home its attacks. The few remaining German tanks were sent back and forth to stiffen the defensive line. Willi Friele was the driver of another of 7th Panzer Division’s Panthers, and by the afternoon his tank, commanded by a Leutnant Hopfe, had already accounted for nine enemy tanks, including a Josef Stalin, which sustained no fewer than eight hits before its crew bailed out. The Panther was now assigned a new task: At the end of this defensive action, we received an order from Hauptmann Brandes: ‘324 (our turret number), drive left and take up a position. There’s an infantry platoon amongst the ruined houses, expecting a new armoured attack.’

We set off and came across a Feldwebel and the remnant of his platoon there. They were delighted that we were taking up position with them, as they could hear constant Russian tank engines and track noises from enemy tanks driving around. The infantry’s fear of a new Russian tank attack didn’t please us, though, as we had fired off almost all our armour-piercing rounds.

Late in the afternoon came the desperately awaited supplies of ammunition and fuel. When Leutnant Hopfe told the infantrymen that we had to drive off in order to refuel and take on ammunition, there was near-chaos. They were fearful that we were withdrawing and going to leave them alone. All our explanations achieved nothing, and some even threatened to lie down in front of our tracks if we tried to drive away. We stayed with the poor Landsers rather than leave them. Overjoyed, they fetched us fuel and ammunition from the supply vehicles. We remained overnight with our new friends, on guard, and the next morning, when everything remained quiet, we pulled back to our start-line at the Klemmenhof estate and then back to the Bachmann estate.

The defenders reported they had destroyed a total of 66 Soviet tanks and assault guns during this latest assault, bringing the total of claimed ‘kills’ since the siege began to 150. As darkness fell over the ruins, the Red Army called off its attack. The toll on both armies was heavy. Swiftly, the opposing sides repaired the damage to their lines, and prepared for more fighting. The next – and last – attempt to storm Memel came on 23 October. It was the least powerful attack, and once more it was beaten off.

The fighting had exhausted the defending formations. The 7th Panzer Division was reduced to barely more than a regiment in strength, while the other two divisions, Grossdeutschland and 58th Infantry Division, could only field 40 per cent of their paper strength. Both sides went over to positional warfare. The Germans constructed extensive bunker positions, and improvised additional artillery from 7th Panzer Division’s Panther tanks; there was a shortage of armour-piercing ammunition, but plentiful supplies of high-explosive rounds. Four tanks were positioned on a reverse slope, and fired into the Soviet-held hinterland. Sceptical artillery observers were asked to look out for the fall of shot, and were astonished by the range and accuracy of the 75mm guns. The Soviet forces came to dread them, as their muzzle velocity, far higher than that of conventional artillery, meant that there was no warning whistle of an incoming shell. This gave opportunities to use them against special targets:

From intercepted radio signals, it was possible a week later to learn that an award ceremony for decorated [Soviet] frontline soldiers had been ordered, to be held in a warehouse in front of our sector. Even the time of the ceremony was included in the message.

During the next day, the batteries fired without particularly targeting this location. The warehouse was plastered with a concentrated bombardment at the last moment. The award ceremony was ended before it even began. This example showed the results of the enemy’s carelessness with radio communications.

The Courland armies were entirely dependent on their maritime connection with the Reich for supplies. The loss of the Baltic islands close to Riga had effectively broken the German anti-submarine barriers that held back the Red Banner Fleet’s submarines, but most attacks on German shipping were by Soviet aircraft. The pressure on German shipping, which had been minimal for much of the year, grew steadily. In the first eight months of 1944, total German shipping losses in the eastern Baltic amounted to 17 ships, totalling about 31,000 tonnes. In the remaining four months 53 ships with a total displacement of over 122,000 tonnes were sunk, mainly by air attacks.

The Füsilier was a transport ship that relayed elements of 58th Infantry Division to Memel from Riga, and subsequently shuttled up and down the coast, bringing supplies into Memel and taking away wounded. On 19 November, the ship set off from Pillau with about 250 soldiers aboard, mainly personnel returning to the front from leave. With a single escort, the Füsilier made the run to Memel at night, but in poor visibility the following morning was unable to make out the entrance to the port. A soldier from Memel who happened to be aboard went to the bridge to say that, based on his knowledge and what he could see of the coast, they had already passed Memel. The captain ordered the ship to turn towards the open sea, to avoid Soviet artillery batteries that were known to be on the coast north of Memel. At almost the same moment the coast was lit up by muzzle flashes as Soviet gunners opened fire on the Füsilier. The steamer was rapidly left powerless, and drifted slowly north along the coast, under constant bombardment. The ship’s three lifeboats took off as many men as they could, and as the remainder attempted to find lifebelts and other means of escape, Soviet aircraft attacked and inflicted further damage.

The ship swiftly sank, at which point the Soviet fighters turned their attentions to the lifeboats. One had already disappeared, and a second was now shot up and destroyed. The third survived repeated attacks, and led by the soldier from Memel its occupants sailed it through the day and following night to Libau. The ordeal of the exhausted men and two women in the lifeboat wasn’t over; high waves smashed it against the pier, capsizing it. Ten perished in the freezing water, and only 13 made it to safety.

Both sides began to run down their forces in and around the Memel bridgehead. The 7th Panzer Division was ordered to leave at the end of October, followed by Grossdeutschland, which was to be reorganized as a Panzer corps. They were replaced by 95th Infantry Division, which had fought at the southern edge of the Soviet assault in early October and had been driven back through Ragnit. After the briefest of pauses for recuperation, the weary soldiers of the division were dispatched to the devastated city on the coast, taking over the northern section of the city defences, with 58th Infantry Division holding the southern perimeter. Despite fears that the Red Army would take advantage of the winter to cross the frozen waterways around the city, there was little major fighting around Memel until it was finally evacuated in January 1945.

From the Soviet point of view, the offensive on Memel gained its main objective, of isolating Army Group North. Inadequate reserves, however, prevented opportunities on both flanks from being effectively exploited; in the north, the ‘aggressive defence’ of Betzel’s 4th Panzer Division also contributed to the rapid German stabilization. The assault on Memel itself, too, was a failure, resulting in considerable Soviet casualties. From the Soviet point of view, though, given the German setbacks during 1944, there must have been a belief that German defences would be unable to withstand a series of strong blows. The determined defence of Memel rapidly dispelled any such opinions.

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