Army Group North’s Years of Hope and Frustration I

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Army Group Norths Years of Hope and Frustration I

1941: Race to Moscow, German Army Group North, the leadership.

The German Push to Leningrad

The OKH issued the marshaling order—Aufmarschanweisung Ost (Deployment Directive East)—for the invasion of the Soviet Union on January 31, 1941. With respect to Army Group North, it called for an encirclement of major portions of enemy units west of the Dvina River. The main axis of advance would be from Dünaburg via Opocka to Leningrad. The town of Dünaburg is located on the Dvina River in the southeast corner of Latvia and the village of Opocka is located about 80 miles (130km) south of Pskov. This meant that the main effort was on the right. The missions assigned to Field Marshal Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb’s Army Group North were:

1. Destroy the Soviet armies in the Baltic States.

2. Neutralize Kronstadt.

3. Capture Leningrad.

4. Link up with the Finnish Army.

The distance Army Group North had to travel was 500 miles (800km). Army Group North consisted of the Sixteenth Army with ten infantry divisions under the command of General Ernst Busch (1885–1945), and the Eighteenth Army with eight infantry divisions under General Georg von Küchler. Leeb planned to lead with the Fourth Panzer Group, under the command of General Erich Höpner (1886–1944). This Panzer Group was redesignated the Fourth Panzer Army in January 1942. On June 22, 1941, it consisted of XCI and LVI motorized corps with three Panzer, three motorized infantry, two infantry, and three security divisions.

When reaching Leningrad, Höpner was to continue north or northeast, depending on the situation. The Eighteenth Army’s mission was to clear the Baltic area and be ready to capture the islands off Estonia. The Sixteenth Army, on the right flank, was responsible for maintaining contact with Army Group Center and thus constituted a screen for the right flank of Army Group North.

Army Group North made rapid progress through the Baltic States mainly because, contrary to German planning assumptions, the Soviets did not intend to make a stand in those areas. General Fyodor I. Kuzuetsov (1898–1961), the commander of the Northwest Front, successfully withdrew his forces virtually intact and nothing came of the great encirclement the Germans had planned west of the Dvina River. The Soviet retreat allowed the Germans to overrun Lithuania and Latvia quickly and they entered Estonia on July 4, reaching the old Russian border on July 8. Soviet forces began to offer stiffer resistance when the Germans reached Rus sian soil, and the advance of Army Group North slowed to a crawl. Field Marshal Leeb began his final push from the area west of Lake Ilmen and Hitler reinforced him with an armored corps from Army Group Center. Such transfers were planned for in the Barbarossa directive, but only after the enemy in Belorussia had been routed.

The primary mission of the German Navy in the Baltic was the protection of the sea route from Sweden. Support of Barbarossa was accorded a lower priority. Recognizing their own inferiority to the Soviet Navy, the Finns and Germans had agreed before the war began to rely primarily on mine warfare to neutralize the enemy surface fleet. This fleet was substantial—2 battleships, 2 light cruisers, 19 destroyers, and 68 submarines. In addition there were over 700 naval aircraft. Belts of mines were laid in the Baltic and Gulf of Finland beginning shortly before the commencement of hostilities. The German/Finnish tactics proved very successful and the Soviets were unable to make use of their naval superiority. The fleet remained, for the most part, bottled up in Kronstadt.

Army Group North’s drive toward Leningrad resumed on August 10, 1941, and it was rapidly approaching Leningrad. The question about what to do with Leningrad now surfaced. In line with his twisted ideology, Hitler decided that Leningrad should not be occupied. Its population would be reduced through a process of starvation and bombardment. In the end, it was expected that the city would be leveled to the ground. Halder notes in his diary that the decision was announced by Hitler on July 12 and Moscow was to be destroyed in the same way when that city was reached. Halder refers to it as a “humanitarian tragedy” that would strike communists and non-communists alike. The Finns had already expressed a desire to have the Neva River as their southern border and Hitler agreed that the territory north of the river should be given to them.

A memorandum prepared by the German Navy clearly lays out what had been decided. It reads in part:

The Führer is determined to raze Petersburg [Leningrad] to the ground. There is no point in the continued existence of this vast settlement after the defeat of Soviet Russia. Finland, too, has announced that it has no interest in the continued existence of a large city so close to its new frontiers.

The original request by the Navy that the wharf, harbor, and other installations of naval importance should be spared … has to be refused in view of the basic policy in regard to Petersburg.

It is intended to surround the city and then raze it to the ground by a general artillery barrage and by continuous air bombardment. Individual surrenders are unacceptable, because we cannot and do not wish to deal with the problem of quartering and feeding the population. We, for our part, have no interest in preserving any section of the population in the course of this war for Germany’s survival.

The Finns Go Their Own Way

Army Group North was ordered to encircle Leningrad, but not to enter the city or accept surrender. To isolate Leningrad, Army Group North planned to cross the Neva River near Schlüsselburg. It would then establish contact with the Finns on the Karelian Isthmus. It also intended to drive north to Volkhov and Tikhvin and link up with the Finnish Army of Karelia near the Svir River.

To assist in the accomplishment of its mission, Army Group North wanted the Finns to advance south on both the Karelian Isthmus and from the Svir River to meet the Germans moving north. These proposals were contained in a letter from Keitel to Marshal Carl Gustaf Emil von Mannerheim (1867–1951) on August 22, 1941. Keitel’s proposal elicited a refusal by Mannerheim based on gloomy and somewhat contrived reasoning. The real reason was that the Finnish leaders did not believe it was in Finland’s interests to cross the Svir River or launch an offensive against Leningrad. The failure of proper pre-war planning was now coming back to haunt the Germans. In the end the Finns moved their front south on the Karelian Isthmus a short distance, not to cooperate with the Germans but for occupying better defensive terrain.

The letter from Mannerheim to Keitel created dismay at OKW and OKH. It resulted in an immediate message to Army Group North from OKH ordering it to link up with the Finns as quickly as possible, even at the cost of delaying the encirclement of Leningrad. Leeb was not impressed when Keitel informed him on September 3, 1941, that the Finns were moving their front south a short distance on the Karelian Isthmus. Leeb observed that a kilometer or two of territory was of no importance. What was essential was to have the Finns undertake operations to tie down the maximum number of Soviet troops on their fronts. If they failed to do that the Soviets could create serious problems for the Germans by withdrawing substantial forces from the Finnish front for use against his army group.

Leeb was correct. The Soviets quickly realized that the Finnish offensive on the Karelian Isthmus had ended. They had six divisions and several separate battalions and regiments defending Leningrad from the north. They quickly withdrew two of these divisions on September 5 and threw them against the Germans. Army Group North’s arrival in the Leningrad area in September 1941 coincided with the Finns reaching the Svir River and the start of their drive into East Karelia.

Early September was a momentous period for the Germans and the course of the war. Despite signs of an early winter and the exhausted state of his troops, Hitler decided that the time was right to resume the German offensive against Moscow, notwithstanding the wording of the Barbarossa directive stating that the offensive against Moscow would resume only after the objectives in Army Group’s North’s area—the capture of Leningrad and the link-up with the Finns—had been achieved. Hitler’s decision to resume the offensive against Moscow involved removing Höpner’s Fourth Panzer Group from Army Group North and transferring it to Army Group Center. This left only one mechanized formation in Army Group North, the XXXIX Corps. This corps had belonged to General Hermann Hoth’s Third Panzer Group and had been sent north after Army Group North paused in the vicinity of Lake Ilmen.

Schlüsselburg fell to the Germans on September 8, 1941, and the Germans now had a foothold on Lake Ladoga, and the city of Leningrad was encircled. This was the moment when OKW had planned that Leeb should send the XXXIX Corps on an eastward drive to Volkhov and Tikhvin. Leeb objected on the grounds that the operation would dissipate his strength at a time when he needed to make the ring around Leningrad secure. He was successful in his appeal—for the time being. Instead, the OKH ordered him to cross the Neva River and link up with the Finns on the Karelian Isthmus. However, he did not have the strength to cross the Neva.

The Soviets upset the German plans by launching heavy counterattacks against Schlüsselburg. Leeb pointed out to OKH on September 15, 1941, that the Soviets were withdrawing forces from the Finnish fronts and using them against the Germans. He urged that the Finns resume their offensive on the Karelian Isthmus and predicted that if they did, the battle for Leningrad could be decided within a few days. If they did not, he could not predict when he would be able to cross the Neva River.

There can be little doubt that Leeb was correct. The handful of mauled Soviet divisions north of Leningrad could have been brushed aside easily by the Finns, particularly if they had not transferred forces to East Karelia or if those transfers had been delayed until after the requested German operations on the Karelian Isthmus. Such operations would also have closed the one opening in the German encirclement—across the southern part of Lake Ladoga. The OKH answered Leeb on September 18, 1941. General Halder assured him that the Finns intended to resume their attacks both on the Karelian Isthmus and south of the Svir River. But there were conditions. The Finns told their brothers-in-arms that the offensive on the Karelian Isthmus would be undertaken as soon as the Germans had crossed the Neva River. The drive out of the Svir bridgehead would be pursued as soon as the effects of a German drive to the east became observable.

These conditions caused a conundrum for the Germans and doomed the hoped-for cooperation from the Finns, since the drive to the east had been cancelled temporarily and Leeb had just stated that he did not have the strength to cross the Neva River in force. It appears that the Finns were well informed on what was happening at OKH and used that information to their advantage.

The Tikhvin Thrust

OKW ordered Leeb to attack eastward on October 14, although there was no evidence that the Soviets had reduced their force levels in the Leningrad area to counter the offensive against Moscow. The plan was to drive eastward and envelop the Soviet forces south of Lake Ladoga. It was expected that XXXIX Corps would link up with the Finns in the area between Tikhvin and Lodeynoye Pole. It appears from this intention that the Germans still harbored hopes that the Finns would undertake operations south of the Svir River.

XXXIX Corps began its advance on October 16, 1941. The advance was slow due to strong Soviet resistance and the onset of rain that turned the roads and earth into mud. The mud and soft ground was so bad that the armored divisions were forced to leave their tanks behind after a few days. The situation became bleak enough for Hitler to want to cancel the operation, but OKH and Leeb persuaded him to continue.

By the first week in November, the Germans were still 6 miles (10km) from Tikhvin. They planned one final push on November 6. The attack succeeded and Tikhvin was captured on November 9, 1941. Thereupon, one division was turned north along the railroad toward Volkhov. However, the Russians were not giving up the fight for the town and began a counteroffensive against Army Group North with new forces. Some of these forces, according to General Waldemar Erfurth (1879–1971), chief of the German liaison detachment at Mannerheim’s headquarters, had been withdrawn from the Karelian Army front. The Soviet forces succeeded in virtually encircling the Germans and Leeb found it necessary to commit two additional divisions to hold the flanks of the Tikhvin salient. Any plans for linking up with the Finns in the Lodeynoye Pole area or of a continued advance to Volkhov were out of the question.

On December 3, 1941, General Hans-Jürgen von Arnim (1889–1962), who commanded the German drive to Tikhvin, reported that he would not be able to hold that town. Leeb gave him a “be prepared” order to withdraw on December 7, but not to execute it until Hitler had given his permission. Hitler then issued Directive 39 on December 8, 1941, which stopped all offensive operations on the Eastern Front. Tikhvin was ordered held and XXXIX Corps was fighting desperately to hold on to the town in the middle of a blizzard with temperatures well below zero. Leeb notified OKW that he intended to withdraw XXXIX Corps and Hitler grudgingly agreed, provided that the railroad between Volkhov and Leningrad was held. Tikhvin was evacuated on December 9 and Leeb decided to withdraw behind the Volkhov River, despite Hitler’s insistence that he should establish his new front closer to the town of Volkhov. Hitler relented on December 15 after Leeb told him that a failure to withdraw behind the Volkhov River would lead to the destruction of XXXIX Corps. That corps was behind the river on Christmas Eve; it had sustained heavy losses in the fighting for Tikhvin and in the withdrawal.

The year 1941 had been full of disappointments for the Germans. They had not succeeded in convincing their co-belligerent to participate in the attack on Leningrad or even to take aggressive action to tie down Soviet forces north of Tikhvin and Leningrad. This doomed any hopes of capturing Leningrad. The Germans in Finland had not accomplished their objectives of severing the Murmansk railroad and/or capturing Murmansk. The support of the Finns became just a token gesture after the United States issued a virtual ultimatum with regard to the Murmansk railroad.

The Leningrad Front in 1942

The southern fronts in the Soviet Union were accorded the highest priority in the 1942 summer offensive, and Army Group North had its forces spread over an extensive area in a defensive posture. It was disposed in a very irregular frontline, a legacy of the previous year and the Soviet winter offensive. On the left, the Eighteenth Army held an arch around Oranienbaum on the Gulf of Finland. The front then bent eastward south of Leningrad, anchoring on Lake Ladoga at Schlüsselburg. From there, it bent sharply southeastward along the Volkhov River to the northern tip of Lake Ilmen.

The Sixteenth Army held a jagged line south of Lake Ilmen. The main feature of its front was a large salient jutting out from the main line in the direction of the Valday Hills, known as the Demyansk Salient, after the largest city in the area. From its easternmost point it curved sharply westward to Kholm and then southwestward to the northern boundary of Army Group Center, north of Velikiy Luki.

In 1942 the Eighteenth German Army was primarily involved in preparations for an operation that Hitler hoped would bring about Finnish cooperation in the prosecution of the war. The Twentieth Mountain Army had reached agreement with the Finnish High Command to undertake a major operation against the Murmansk railroad—Operation Lachsfang (Salmon Catch). The Finns promised to make 11 divisions available for a drive to cut the southern part of the railroad, while two corps from the Twentieth Mountain Army directed their offensive against the railroad further north, at Kandalaksha. The Finns stated that the forces needed would come from the Karelian Isthmus and Svir fronts and would be assembled as soon as the Germans captured Leningrad and moved their front eastward to give cover for the Finnish front on the Svir River. The Finns considered this pre-condition necessary in order for them to have the requisite forces available.

To accommodate the Finnish wishes, Hitler ordered the preparation of an operation—Nordlicht—to capture Leningrad. The German plan was rather simple. After a preliminary softening of the enemy by the Luftwaffe and massed artillery, the Germans planned to advance across the Neva River above Leningrad, link up with the Finns if that were possible, and then capture the city. The Eighteenth Army, in the Leningrad sector, estimated the Soviet Forces confronting it at 13 divisions and three armored brigades. The Eighteenth Army had five divisions and it would have four more with the arrival of Erich von Manstein’s Eleventh Army which Hitler was moving from Sevastopol in southern Russia. The Eighteenth Army was still eight divisions short of what it believed was necessary for Operation Nordlicht.

Georg von Küchler (now a field marshal), the new commander of Army Group North after Leeb asked to be relieved in January 1942, briefed Hitler on Operation Nordlicht on August 8, 1942. He pointed out that the Germans were outnumbered two to one in the Leningrad area and requested additional divisions. Hitler answered that Küchler would have to do with what he had, since he could not give him divisions that he did not have. Küchler indicated that he would be ready to launch Nordlicht at the end of October. General Jodl objected and pointed out that it would have to be launched earlier because it was not an end in itself but a preparatory operation for Lachsfang. Hitler set September 10, 1942 as the date of the offensive.

No one was happy with either the outcome of the conference on August 8 or Jodl’s later recommendation and Hitler’s acceptance that the mission of taking Leningrad be given to Manstein’s Eleventh Army. Küchler protested that a switch in the command of Operation Nordlicht at this stage would only create confusion in view of all the plans and preparations made by Eighteenth Army. This argument did not change Hitler’s mind.

The Eleventh Army headquarters arrived on the Leningrad front on August 27, 1942, and its staff began to plan for an attack on Leningrad. It was agreed that the Eleventh Army would take over that part of the Eighteenth Army’s front which faced north, while the latter retained responsibility of the Eastern Front on the Volkhov River. The Eleventh Army, which was made directly subordinate to OKH, ended up holding three sectors: the Neva sector from Lake Ladoga to the southeast of Leningrad; the assault area south of Leningrad; and the sector blocking the Soviet forces in the Oranienbaum pocket.

Manstein had grave misgivings about the operation and stated in his first meeting with Küchler on August 28, 1942, that he did not believe artillery bombardment would break Soviet resistance. He concluded that Nordlicht would be difficult and that the main attack should be made from the Karelian Isthmus or from both directions. Manstein wrote that “it would naturally have been of tremendous assistance to us if the Finns … had participated in the offensive.”

The lack of forces continued to plague the operation. Despite these difficulties, preparations for Nordlicht proceeded well and it held out great promise if successful. However, fate decided otherwise. The Soviets launched an offensive from the east along the south shore of Lake Ladoga on August 27, 1942, against the front of the Eighteenth Army commanded by General of Cavalry Georg Heinrich Lindemann (1884–1963). This area was referred to as the “bottleneck” and was that part of Army Group North’s front which projected like a wedge from Schlüsselburg in a southwest direction. This wedge was vulnerable to attack from both the west and east and had grown very narrow, less than 6 miles (10km) across in certain locations. The objective of the Soviet offensive was to lift the siege of Leningrad by opening a land route through the wedge.

After the Soviets achieved local breakthroughs over a wide stretch of the slender Eighteenth Army’s front south of Lake Ladoga, Hitler telephoned Manstein on September 4 and placed him in command of the break through areas, since they threatened the German hold on Leningrad. The first concern now was to restore the front. As usual, there was a scramble to find forces to restore the situation. The 3rd Mountain Division, already at sea from Norway to Finland, was diverted to Army Group North’s front on August 31, 1942. Four divisions planned for use in Nordlicht also had to be moved to the bottleneck area.

The Eighteenth Army front was penetrated south of Lake Ladoga by strong Soviet forces; the army, however, was able to seal the penetration, which progressed some 8 miles (13km) to the vicinity of Mga. The attack against the base of the pocket was carried out by the Eleventh Army using three corps, and the German encirclement was completed on September 21. Despite desperate Soviet attacks from both within and outside this pocket, Manstein writes that the Soviets lost seven infantry divisions, six infantry brigades, and four armored brigades in ferocious fighting.

The front was not restored until October 15. OKW, which had to watch helplessly as its own offensive plans evaporated, announced on October 20 that Operation Nordlicht was indefinitely postponed. This also doomed plans for Operation Lachsfang. The heavy siege artillery brought north with Manstein’s army was to be used to support incremental advances in the front around Leningrad as long as that could be done without a great commitment of troops. After their experience the past winter, the Germans, including Hitler, were wary about any offensive which would extend into the winter season. Manstein and his Eleventh Army were shifted to the Velikiy Luki area between Army Group Center and Army Group North.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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