On 14 January 1944 the operation began. Leningrad Front, General Polkovnik L. A. Govorov commanding, mounted the main effort. Second Shock Army drove east out of the Oranienbaum pocket while Forty-second Army attempted to push west on the front below Leningrad. Against Forty-second Army, the stronger of the two, the corps artillery of L Corps reacted fast, laying down a well-placed barrage that stopped the attack before it got started. Second Shock Army did better; the 10th Air Force Field Division began to crumble the moment it was hit.
Not a real surprise but, still, only half expected, were the strong thrusts that General Polkovnik Kirill A. Meretskov’s Volkhov Front launched the same day north and south of Novgorod on Eighteenth Army’s right flank. Novgorod had been considered a danger point, but the army had not been convinced that the Leningrad and Volkhov Fronts would have the strength to attempt simultaneous offensives on a major scale. Lindemann, on 10 January, had rated the build-ups—in the Oranienbaum pocket, southwest of Leningrad, and east of Novgorod—as relatively modest, particularly in terms of reserves. He had predicted that without more reserves the thrusts could not go very deep and that the attacks in the Oranienbaum-Leningrad sector and at Novgorod would “very likely” be staggered. In fact, the Leningrad and Volkhov Fronts had Eighteenth Army outnumbered by at least 3:1 in divisions (55 rifle divisions, 9 rifle brigades, and 8 tank brigades to 20 German divisions), 3:1 in artillery, and 6:1 in tanks, self-propelled artillery, and aircraft.
The Soviet commands had chosen exactly the two places in which Eighteenth Army had the least room to maneuver. The loop of the front separating the Oranienbaum pocket from Leningrad was only twenty miles wide at its base. On the Eighteenth Army right flank an envelopment five to ten miles deep was enough to chop out Novgorod and break the tie-in to Lake Ilmen. The danger was, as Zeitzler warned at the end of the day, that minor slip-ups could have consequences similar to the Nevel debacle.
During the second and third days the battle seemed to be going about as the Germans hoped it would. Neither Govorov nor Meretskov put in any new units, which seemed to indicate that they were operating without much in the way of reserves, and it appeared that Leningrad Front did not intend to do more than open the Oranienbaum pocket. On 16 January Küchler told his army commanders that the Russians had committed all their forces, and Army Group North could win the battle by taking some risks in the quiet sectors.
The next day his optimism started to fade. Lindemann had put in his entire reserve, the 61st Infantry Division, to stiffen the 10th Air Force Field Division, but it was barely managing to stave off a complete rupture. Before noon the army group informed the OKH that the fighting around Leningrad was taking a turn for the worse. Eighteenth Army would have to begin dismantling the siege artillery during the night, and if the army group wanted to see the battle through it would have to withdraw below Lake Ladoga to the ROLLBAHN position along the Leningrad-Chudovo road to shorten the front and gain two divisions. The army group had originally built the ROLLBAHN to provide just such insurance. In the afternoon the answer came from Hitler: he neither approved nor disapproved but thought it would be better to give up the hold on the Gulf of Finland and take back the front between Leningrad and Oranienbaum. Küchler protested that to do that would give the Russians the victory and an opportunity to turn south with their strength intact.
On the morning of the 18th Lindemann reported that the fronts east of Oranienbaum and west of Leningrad were collapsing. The same was happening at Novgorod where the encirclement was nearly complete, and the few extra battalions the army had been able to throw in would not even be enough to hold open an escape route much longer. After seeing for himself how near complete exhaustion the troops at the front were, Küchler asked and was denied permission to withdraw to the ROLLBAHN. In the afternoon Forty-second Army’s spearhead drove into Krasnoye Selo, the former summer residence of the Czars, and cut the two main roads to the north. After that, Küchler decided he had no choice but to take back the two divisions on the coast before they were completely cut off. He informed the OKH that he intended to give the order at the end of the day whether he had received permission by then or not. At the midnight situation conference Hitler approved, after Zeitzler told him the order had already been given.
On 19 January the first stage, which plainly was only the prelude to the battle, ended. The difficult task was to get Hitler to accept the consequences. Küchler’s order had come too late to save the divisions on the coast; some elements escaped, others were trapped and destroyed as the Russians swept in from the east and west. Second Shock and Forty-second Armies then joined forces, and the appearance of several fresh divisions demonstrated that they had more than adequate reserves. At Novgorod eight Soviet divisions encircled five German battalions. Their one hope for escape was to elude the Russians in the swamps west of the city.
Shortly after nightfall, after Zeitzler had argued unsuccessfully for half an hour, Küchler called Hitler and begged him to give the troops at Novgorod what would certainly be their last chance. Suddenly dropping the argument he had clung to stubbornly throughout the day, that Novgorod could not be given up because of its “extraordinary symbolic significance,” Hitler agreed. On the subject of the ROLLBAHN, however, he merely read Küchler a short lecture on the demoralizing effects of voluntary withdrawals. Fifteen minutes later he called back to give permission for that too. At midnight he changed his mind about the ROLLBAHN, but Zeitzler told him the orders had gone out to the divisions and could not be recalled.
Hitler had also tried to extract from Zeitzler and Küchler guarantees that the ROLLBAHN position would be held. On the 10th Küchler, appraising the situation, declared that the two recent tactical setbacks, at Novgorod and southwest of Leningrad, had resulted from lack of reserves and an overtaut front. The same conditions still existed. The withdrawal to the ROLLBAHN would free three divisions, two to go into the front below Leningrad, the other west of Novgorod. With that, the army group would have exhausted its resources for creating reserves. The three divisions would be used up in a short time, and an operational breakthrough could then be expected. He recommended that the pullback to the ROLLBAHN be made the first step in a continuous withdrawal to the PANTHER position, pointing out that the army group was already so weakened that it would have just enough troops to man the front when it reached there.
Less than a day passed before Küchler’s forecast began to come true. On 21 January Forty-second Army attacked toward Krasnogvardeysk, the junction of the main rail lines and roads coming from the south and west. L Corps had not had time to sort out its battered units and start setting up a front.
That night Küchler flew to Führer headquarters where the next morning, shortly before his interview with Hitler, word reached him that Eighteenth Army could not hold Krasnogvardeysk unless it gave up Pushkin and Slutsk, also important junctions but farther north. Hitler was deaf to all his proposals. The Führer brushed off everything said concerning Pushkin and Slutsk, the PANTHER position, and possible new threats on the army group right flank with a statement that Army Group North was spoiled; it had not had a crisis for more than a year and, consequently, did not know what one was. “I am against all withdrawals,” he went on. “We will have crises wherever we are. There is no guarantee we will not be broken through on the PANTHER. If we go back voluntarily he [the Russians] will not get there with only half his forces. He must bleed himself white on the way. The battle must be fought as far as possible from the German border.” When Küchler objected that the PANTHER position could not be held if the army group was too weak to fight when it got there, Hitler blamed all the gaps in the front on the egoism of the army groups and insisted that every square yard of ground be sold at the highest possible price in Russian blood. Finally, demanding that the ROLLBAHN be held, he dismissed the field marshal. Later Zeitzler said the time had been bad and Küchler should try again in a few days; Hitler was worried about the landing that day by Allied troops at Anzio south of Rome and had not listened to what was said.
Meanwhile, Eighteenth Army was beginning to disintegrate. Fighting in mud and water, the troops were exhausted. Govorov and Meretskov, on the other hand, had managed, since the warm weather set in at midmonth, to give their divisions a day out of every three or four to rest and dry out. On the morning of 23 January, Lindemann gave the order to evacuate Pushkin and Slutsk and reported to the OKH that it could either accept his decision or send a general to replace him. During the day the army completed the withdrawal to the ROLLBAHN, which the Russians had already penetrated in several places.
On the 24th at Eighteenth Army headquarters Küchler accused Lindemann of having submitted false estimates of Soviet reserves at the end of December. Lindemann admitted “mistakes” had been made. The belated revision of the army’s past intelligence estimates was swiftly buried, however, under waves of bad news from the front. In the morning the Russians entered the outskirts of Krasnogvardeysk and rammed through to the bend of the Luga River southeast of Luga. The divisions in the ROLLBAHN position tried to patch the front by throwing in their rear echelon troops. At the end of the day Lindemann reported that his right flank had lost contact with Sixteenth Army and Krasnogvardeysk would fall within twenty-four hours.
Because losing Krasnogvardeysk would badly weaken the supply lines of the corps farther east, the army group asked to go back at least to the Luga River. In the evening Zeitzler replied that Hitler’s orders were to hold the corner posts and make the troops fight to the last. Since there was nothing else to do for the time being, he advised the army group command to be “a little ruthless” for a while.
On 27 January, Küchler and the other army group and army commanders on the Eastern Front attended a National Socialist Leadership Conference at Königsberg. Hitler addressed the generals on the subject of faith as a guarantee of victory. He called for a strengthening of faith in himself, in the National Socialist philosophy, and in the ultimate victory and suggested that the generals’ faith needed strengthening as much as anyone else’s. During one of the interludes, in a private talk with Hitler, Küchler repeated a situation estimate he had sent in the day before: the Leningrad and Volkhov Fronts were employing four strong attack forces to cut Eighteenth Army to pieces; they were going toward Narva from the east and toward Luga from the north and east; if the attack from the east carried through Luga it would cut the communications lines of six of Lindemann’s eight corps. Hitler responded by prohibiting all voluntary withdrawals and reserving all decisions to withdraw to himself. When Küchler remarked, probably with the subject of the day’s meeting in mind, that Eighteenth Army had suffered 40,000 casualties and the troops had fought as hard as could be expected, Hitler replied that the latter statement was “not quite” true. He had heard the army group was not fighting everywhere with as much determination as it might.
That interview destroyed Küchler as an effective army group commander. When he returned to his headquarters he still seemed, as his chief of staff later put it, to realize that all he could do was retreat, but all he could talk about was showing more determination and attacking—with what, nobody knew. On the 28th the chief of staff, Generalleutnant Eberhard Kinzel, took matters into his own hands and told the Chief of Staff, Eighteenth Army, that the time had come. An order to retreat must be issued, but the army group was forbidden to do that. The army would, therefore, have to act as if it had been given, issuing its own implementing orders orally rather than in writing. He would see to it that the army was covered “in the General Staff channel.” The next day Kinzel prevailed on Küchler at least to submit a report pointing out to Hitler that Eighteenth Army was split into three parts and could not hold any kind of a front forward of the Luga River.
On the 30th Küchler went to Führer headquarters where Hitler finally approved a retreat to the Luga River but directed that the front then be held, contact with Sixteenth Army regained, and all gaps in the front closed. When Küchler passed this along to his operations officer the latter protested to the Operations Branch, OKH, that it was impossible to execute; one of the gaps was thirty miles wide, and at Staritza northwest of Luga the Russians were already across the Luga River. Later Zeitzler agreed to tell Hitler that the Luga line could not be held. In the meantime Küchler had been told to report back to the Führer headquarters on 31 January.
At the noon conference the next day Hitler informed Küchler he was relieved of his command. Model, who had been waiting to replace Manstein, was given temporary command of the army group. Reacting quickly as always, Model telegraphed ahead, “Not a single step backward will be taken without my express permission. I am flying to Eighteenth Army this afternoon. Tell General Lindemann that I beg his old trust in me. We have worked together before.”
During the last days of January the Eighteenth Army’s attrition rate had spiraled steeply. On 27 January the army north front had lain about ten miles north of the line Narva-Chudovo over most of its length and forty miles northeast of Narva in its western quarter. By the 31st it had been pushed back nearly to the Narva River in the west and slightly below the Narva-Chudovo line in the east, by itself not a surprising loss of ground; but in the interval the front had virtually dissolved. On the situation maps of the 27th it had still appeared as a distinguishable, continuous line, albeit with several large gaps. By the 31st all that was left was a random scattering of dots where battalions and companies still held a mile or two of front. The only two divisions still worthy of the name were the 12th Panzer Division, which had come in during the last week in the month, and the 58th Infantry Division, moving in from the south by train. On 29 January the army group reported that as of the 10th Eighteenth Army had had an infantry combat strength of 57,936 men; it had lost since then 35,000 wounded and 14,000 killed and now had, including new arrivals, an infantry strength of 17,000.
Model had never had a greater opportunity to display his talent as an improvisor, and he took it with a flamboyant zest which, though it did not change the tactical situation, quickly dispelled the sense of hopelessness and frustration that had been hanging over the army group. He also had the advantage of Hitler’s tendency to give new appointees, particularly when they were also his favorites, greater latitude, at least temporarily, than he had allowed their predecessors.
Model’s first moves were as much psychological as military. To dissipate what he called the PANTHER psychosis he forbade all references to the PANTHER position and abolished the designation. Past experience had shown that in times of adversity, named lines, particularly when the names suggested strength, had a powerful attraction for both troops and commands. On the other hand, the state of Eighteenth Army being what it was, Model could not attempt to enforce his original “no step backward” order. Instead, he introduced something new, the Schild und Schwert (shield and sword) theory, the central idea of which was that withdrawals were tolerable if one intended later to strike back in the same or a different direction in a kind of parry and thrust sequence. The theory was apparently Hitler’s latest brain child, a remedy for—as he viewed it—the disease of falling back to gain troops to build a new defense line which in a short time would itself prove too weak to be held. That Model placed overly much faith in the theory may be doubted. He was enough of a realist to know that while the withdrawal was usually possible the counter-thrust was not. On the other hand, he was also well enough acquainted with Hitler to know that it was always advantageous to make a retreat look like the first stage of an advance.
Model applied the Schild und Schwert theory in his first directive to Eighteenth Army issued on 1 February. He ordered Lindemann to take his main force back to a short line north and east of Luga. After that was accomplished and the 12th Panzer Division had finished closing the gap to Sixteenth Army, as had been directed before the change in command, the 12th Panzer and the 58th Infantry Divisions plus as many more divisions as could be spared from the short line would be shifted west of Luga for a thrust along the Luga River to establish contact with the two corps on the Narva. The first part of the directive gave the army a chance to reduce its frontage by almost two-thirds, which was necessary, the second envisaged a gain of enough strength—which was highly doubtful—to open a counteroffensive and extend the front fifty miles to the west.
To apply the Schild und Schwert theory on the Eighteenth Army left flank was impossible. LIV Corps and III SS Panzer Corps, both under the command of General der Infanterie Otto Sponheimer, the Commanding General, LIV Corps, had fallen back along the Baltic coast from the Oranienbaum pocket. After 28 January they had been thrown back to the Luga River and then to the Narva River, the northern terminus of the PANTHER position. They could go no farther without endangering the entire PANTHER line and the important shale oil refineries near the coast about twenty miles west of the river.
On 2 February, when Model inspected Sponheimer’s front, his divisions were crossing to the west bank of the river and pulling back into a small bridgehead around the city of Narva. South of Narva the Russians were probing across the river and before the end of the day had a small bridgehead of their own. Elements of the Panzer Grenadier Division Feldherrnhalle, coming from Army Group Center, and a regiment of the 58th Infantry Division were arriving to strengthen the front below Narva.
Everywhere Model heard the same complaint: the troops were worn out; and everywhere he gave the same order: they would have to see the battle through. The help the army group could give was small enough: an infantry adviser for III SS Panzer Corps; an artillery expert to match the skilled artillerists the Russians were using; requests to Himmler for some experienced SS replacements, to Dönitz for reinforcements for the coastal batteries, and to Göring for air force personnel to be used against the partisans.
Nevertheless, the near collapse of Eighteenth Army at the end of January had had the effect of a temporary disentanglement, at least in places, as on the Narva River. Model’s decision to close up the front around Luga gave the army a chance to maneuver and to catch its breath. The next move was still the Russians’, but it would be met on a coherent front. For a few days at the beginning of February the points of greatest pressure were in the Sixteenth Army area where the Second Baltic Front pushed into the front south of Staraya Russa and west of Novosokol’niki, tying down German troops which might be shifted north and, as a bonus, creating entering wedges which might be exploited for deep thrusts later.