“Brandenburg” Commandos: June 1941 Army Group North

Conquest: The bridge over the Daugava river in Daugavpils, Lithuania, is seen from the river bank with the city in the background on fire. The city, called Dünaburg by the Germans, was captured and secured at dawn on June 26, 1941 in a camouflage operation by the half-company Knaak, of the 8th Company of the Brandenburg special forces. The Nazis occupied it until 1944 when it was liberated but Latvia was re-absorbed into the Soviet Union.

Devastation: The remains of a captured vehicle in which the Brandenburger special forces, dressed in Russian uniform, had crossed a bridge in Daugavpils, Latvia. The vehicle overturned and fell over the embankment.

Oberleutnant Hans Wolfram Knaak, commander of the 8th Company of the Brandenburg Regiment . On June 26th, 1941, Knaak and 30 of his men, dressed in Soviet uniforms and driving captured trucks, drove through the Soviet lines and seized the Dunaberg Bridges over the River Dvina. They held the bridge against Soviet counterattacks, but by the time reinforcements arrived 20 minutes later, Knaak and 4 of his men were dead and 20 others had been wounded. He was posthumously awarded the Knight’s Cross.

By June 24 General Erich von Manstein’s LVI Motorized Corps had reached the Daugavpils highway near Ukmerge, about 170 kilometers inside Lithuania.

Von Manstein was now within striking distance of the bridges over the Daugava, about 130 kilometers away. Disregarding the fact that he had outpaced his neighbors, he kept his units moving, ignoring flank protection. Short, sharp engagements were fought against reserve Soviet tank units sent to intercept him, but his orders were simple-“Keep going at all costs.”

With the spearhead of the 8th Panzer Division was a special unit commanded by 1st Lt. Hans-Wolfram Knaak. In the early hours of June 26, the 26-year-old Knaak detached his men from the spearhead and sped toward Daugavpils in two captured Soviet trucks. Knaak and his troops were members of the Lehr (Training) Regiment “Brandenburg”-commandos trained in sabotage and subterfuge that were part of Admiral Wilhelm Canaris’s Abwehr (Intelligence Service).

Many of Knaak’s men were fluent in Russian, and the two trucks were able to make it through the Soviet defenses unmolested. The drivers, in Red Army uniforms, joked with sentries and disseminated false information concerning the German positions. Driving into Daugavpils, the trucks headed for the precious bridges. The first truck almost made it to the eastern side before sentries fired on it. Driving down an embankment, the men in the rear of the truck jumped out with weapons firing.

The second truck, caught in the middle of the bridge, came under heavy fire that resulted in several casualties. The survivors pushed forward to link up with their comrades on the other side, and their combined fire forced the Soviets back before engineers could arrive to blow the bridge. Some of them were then able to make it to the nearby railroad bridge and succeeded in cutting the detonation wires on that structure. Holding off attempts to recapture the eastern side of the bridge, the Branden- burgers were soon reinforced by the 8th Panzer spearhead, which had sliced through the Russian lines. Following units took control of the city, and armor was soon massing to meet the main body of Maj. Gen. Dmitri Danilovich Leliushenko’s 21st Mechanized Corps, which was on its way to help the Russian defenses.

Knaak’s unit had won the day, but Knaak himself did not live to see it. He had been killed during the fight for the crossing. For his actions that day, he was posthumously awarded the coveted Knight’s Cross on November 3, 1942.

As the German armor crossed at Daugavpils, the foot units of von Wrede’s division followed in its wake. Although the 290th could not possibly hope to keep up with the panzers, its advance served to widen the hole punched through the Russian lines and guaranteed relative safety for von Manstein’s supply lines. Hearing of von Manstein’s success, Hitler began meddling in the affairs of Army Group North. In his war diary, General Franz Halder, the chief of the General Staff of the Army, wrote, “Führer wants to throw the whole weight of Armored Group Hoepner on Dvinsk. Possibilities of a crossing at Jakobstadt

(Jekabpils) problematic.”

Von Leeb would have none of it. Reinhardt had defeated the bulk of Kuznetsov’s armored forces, leaving the way open to the bridge at Jekabpils. The movement to von Manstein’s sector would entail traveling through wooded areas where few roads existed and would take days to accomplish. He simply ignored any suggestions to change the original plan, giving Reinhardt free rein to continue.

On June 27 the XLI Corps moved forward again. With a battle group under the command of Brig. Gen. Walter Krüger, the 1st Panzer smashed the remnants of the 12th Mechanized Corps, which were desperately trying to form a line on the Musa River. At the same time, Stavka Chairman Marshal Semen Konstantinovich Timoshenko ordered Kuznetsov to pull his remaining forces back to join up with Berazin’s 27th Army, which was occupying positions along the Daugava.

Battle Group Krüger moved on, spearheaded by the I/113th Rifle Regiment under the command of Major Josef-Franz Eckinger. By 2300, the battalion was 10 kilometers south- west of Jekabpils. At 0415 on the 28th, the fight for the crossing began.

As at Daugavpils, a unit of Brandenburgers tried to take the bridge by deception. This time the plan did not work, and the commandos found themselves involved in heavy fighting. Soon the main elements of Colonel Hans-Christoph von Heydebrand und der Lasa’s 113th Rifle Regiment joined the fray. The Soviets were slowly pushed back, but Red Army engineers stood at the ready. As the Germans advanced toward the Daugava, a series of explosions shook the area. The bridges had been destroyed.

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