Battle of Tannenberg Line


Battle of Tannenberg Line

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Battle of Narva - Battle for the Tannenberg Line


caption=Grenadiers of the "Norge" Regiment watch a Panther of the "Hermann von Salza" Abt move into position, Estonia 1944.
partof=World War II
place=Narva, Sinimäed Hills, Estonia / Dünaburg, Latvia
date=July 25, 1944 – September 19, 1944
result=Tactical German victory
combatant1= and foreign volunteers)
combatant2=
commander1=),
commander2=),

strength1=45,000 60 tanks / assault guns
strength2=200,000 450 tanks
casualties1=10,000
casualties2=150,000 200+ tanks|

The Battle of the Tannenberg Line (German: Tannenbergstellung; Estonian: Sinimägede lahingud) was the second phase of the Soviet offensive into Estonia, also known as the Battle of Narva. The battle was fought on the Eastern Front during World War II between the forces of the German Heeresgruppe Nord and the Soviet Leningrad and Volkhov Fronts. Tens of thousands Estonian conscripts and volunteers fought to defend their country against the looming Soviet re-occupation.cite book|author=Estonian State Commission on Examination of Policies of Repression|url=http://www.just.ee/orb.aw/class=file/action=preview/id=12709/TheWhiteBook.pdf|publisher=Estonian Encyclopedia Publishers|title=The White Book: Losses inflicted on the Estonian nation by occupation regimes. 1940 – 1991|year=2005] The battle is also known as The Battle of the European SS for the large number volunteers and conscripts within the Waffen SS from Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Holland Austria, France, and Belgium engaged on the German side.

The German force of 45,000 soldiers held off a Soviet advance of 200,000 men for seven weeks at the Sinimäed Hills, destroying over a hundred Soviet battalions and 200 Soviet tanks.cite web|url=http://www.okupatsioon.ee/english/overviews/walter.html|title=Estonia in World War II|publisher=okupatsioon.ee|author=Hannes Walter] The German units retreated, after the Soviet advance in Latvia, which threatned to cut off German forces in Estonia.

Consolidation of the line

After defending the Narva bridgehead for six months, the German forces fell back to the "Tannenbergstellung" (Tannenberg Line) of July 26th, 1944. The Tannenbergstellung consisted of three hills, known as Sinimäed Hills, _ru. Синие горы), running east to west. The Eastern hill was known as "Lastekodumägi" in Estonian or "Kinderheimhöhe" in German (Orphanage Hill), the centre was "Põrguaugu mägi" or "Grenadierhöhe" (Grenadier Hill) and the westernmost "Tornimägi" or "69.9 Höhe" (Hill 69.9, also known as "Liebhöhe" or Love Hill). The position was located near the coastal town of Sillamäe. These three hills, known as the Sinimäed Hills, were less than imposing, and resembled gently sloping mounds rather than defensible heights. Nonetheless, the formations of SS-Gruppenführer Felix Steiner's III SS (Germanic) Panzer Corps halted their withdrawal and fell into defensive positions on these hills. The corps was bolstered by the newly arrived Kampfgruppen of the Belgian volunteer units, the 5.SS-Freiwilligen-Sturmbrigade "Wallonien" and 6.SS-Freiwilligen-Sturmbrigade "Langemarck". The "Langemarck" was thrown into the line defending "Kinderheimhöhe", with the "Norge" regiment of the "Nordland" Division alongside it.

Battles for the Kinderheimhöhe

The forces of Soviet Marshall Leonid A. Govorov's Leningrad Front began their assaults even before the vastly outnumbered "Langemarck" and "Norge" had dug in. Elements of Major Willy Jähde's [502.schwere Panzer Abteilung] were sent to help out the beleaguered infantry, and after fierce fighting, the Hill was still in the hands of Steiner's SS men. "Wallonien's" Kampgruppe, personally led by Leon Degrelle, and elements of "Estland" regiment of the 20th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS (1st Estonian) were sent up to the "Kinderheimhöhe" to bolster the defence.

During the next two-three days, the "Langemarck", "Estland", "Norge" and "Wallonien" saw extremely heavy fighting on the gentle slopes of "Kinderheimhöhe". On the 27 July, the defenders, again with the help of Jähde's Tigers, and elements of "Nordland's" "Hermann von Salza" Panzer Abt, fought off several Soviet combined arms attacks and destroyed 113 Soviet armoured vehicles, including many T-34s and assault guns.

During these attacks, Flemish SS-Unterscharführer Remi Schrijnen of the "Langemarck's" anti-tank company singlehandedly destroyed several Russian tanks while wounded and cut off from the rest of the Kampfgruppe. Over a 48 hour period, Schrijnen, acting as loader and gunner for his 7.5cm "PaK 40" Anti-Tank gun, personally halted several Soviet tank attacks which otherwise would have encircled the "Langemarck" and "Estland". For his actions, Schrijnen was awarded the Knight's Cross.

Despite the tenacity of the volunteer and conscript formations, the SS-men were forced back from the "Kinderheimhöhe" late on 27 July. During this battle, the "Nordland's" commander, SS-Gruppenführer Fritz von Scholz, was fatally wounded by an artillery round.

"Norge" launched a ferocious counterattack on 28 July, but despite inflicting heavy casualties, the attack stalled. SS-Hauptsturmführer Sigfried Scheibe, commander of "Norge's" II Battalion, led the attack and was severely wounded. The defence now fell back to "Grenadierhöhe". As the Council of War of the Soviet Leningrad Front was convinced, that everything had been prepared for a breakthrough, July 29 turned into a decisive day in the battle for the Tannenberg Line. The Soviet Armed Forces delivered fresh heavy artillery to the front. Soviet units, which had suffered losses, were completed with fresh manpower. Ferocious Soviet attempts to conquer the German positions were held back by mainly Estonian forces.

August battles

There was to be no respite for the exhausted men of Steiner's corps. Throughout the month of August, the Soviets continued relentless attacks. Despite inflicting immense casualties on the Soviets, the SS units were slowly being worn down. The "Nederland" was now reduced to the size of a regiment, the Kampfgruppes of the "Wallonien" and "Langemarck" each to the strength of a reinforced company. The 20th Waffen-Grenadier division had virtually lost one of its regiments during the withdrawal and the subsequent fighting, and the "Nordland" was a shadow of its former self, with the "Hermann von Salza" Panzer Abt reduced to only 2 Panthers and a handful of Panzer IVs. All remaining armour available to the defenders was grouped into a Kampfgruppe, "Panzerverband von Strachwitz" under the command of the Großdeutschland commander and Panzer ace Generalleutnant Hyazinth Graf Strachwitz von Gross-Zauche und Camminetz. This formation, reinforced by panzers from the Großdeutschland's Panzer regiment, acted like a fire brigade, seeing heavy fighting along the Narva front and also acting on the southern flank of Army Group North.

Logic stated that Steiner's corps must be close to collapse, however the men of Armee Abteilung Narwa continued to hold, throwing back every Soviet attack and grimly holding the "Grenadierhöhe" and "69.9 Höhe".

Around mid August, the frustrated Russians reduced operations to patrol activities with occasional attacks. The defenders used this respite to rotate several exhausted units out of the line for a few days for rest and refit, and to strengthen their positions. For the time being, the Narva front was quiet.

Fighting around Riga

While the battle for the Narva bridgehead had been in progress, the Soviet Operation Bagration had been achieving unbelievable success. Army Group Centre was in tatters, and the northern edge of the Soviet assault threatened to trap Army Group North in Latvia and Estonia. Strachwitz's panzers had been sent back to the Latvian capital, Riga and in ferocious defensive battles had halted the advance of Hovhannes Bagramyan's 1st Baltic Front in late July, 1944.

Strachwitz had been needed elsewhere, and was soon back to acting as the Army Group's fire brigade. Strachwitz's Panzerverband was broken up in late July. By early August, the Soviets were again ready to attempt to cut off Army Group North from Army Group Centre. A massive Soviet assault sliced through the German lines and Army Group North was completely isolated from its neighbour.

Strachwitz was trapped outside the pocket, and "Panzerverband von Strachwitz" was reformed, this time from elements of the 101.Panzerbrigade of panzer-ace Oberst Meinrad von Lauchert and the newly formed SS-Panzerbrigade "Gross" under SS-Sturmbannführer Gross. Inside the trapped pocket, the remaining panzers and StuGs of the "Hermann von Salza" and the last of Jähde's Tigers were formed into another Kampfgruppe to attack from the inside of the trap.

On 19 August, the assault, which had been dubbed "Unternehmen Doppelkopf" (Operation Doppelkopf) got underway. It was preceded by a bombardment by the cruiser "Prinz Eugen"'s 203 mm guns, which destroyed forty-eight T-34s assembling in the square at Tukkum. Strachwitz and the "Nordland" remnants meet on the 21st, and contact was restored between the army groups.

The 101. Panzerbrigade was now assigned to Armee-Abt "Narwa", bolstering the defenders armour strength.

Disaster had been averted, but the warning was clear. Army Group North was extremely vulnerable to being cut off.

Attacks from the South

Realising this weakness, OKH ordered "General der Infanterie" Wilhelm Hasse's weak II.Armeekorps into Estonia to strengthen the defences to the south of the "Tannenbergstellung". II Corps was deployed in the Karula - Sangaste area to the southwest of Lake Peipus, covering the town of Tartu.

On 21 August, 15 Soviet divisions attacked from the south towards Tartu. Graf von Strachwitz, commanding the 101st Panzer Brigade, attacked the advancing force, but despite destroying scores of tanks, the brigade was soon forced to pull back in the face of huge numbers of enemy tanks. The II Corps was pushed back toward Tartu and by 25 August was clinging to the front along the Emajõgi River."General der Infanterie" Hasse, and ordered a formation of a Kampfgruppe from Army Abteilung "Narwa" to assist his beleaguered men.

Kampfgruppe Wagner was formed, consisting of elements of the 11.Infanterie-division, the Kampfgruppe from the SS-Sturmbrigade "Wallonien", "Nordland's" artillery component, Kampfgruppe Vent (the remnants of the Estonian 20th Waffen Grenadier Division, including men from JR 200 returning their exile in Finland) and various German and Estonian security and police formations. KG Wagner reached the front just in time to be forced back beyond Tartu, which was now in Soviet hands. During the withdrawal, Leon Degrelle, commander of the "Wallonien's" Kampfgruppe executed a masterly defensive battle, and was flown back to Berlin to be awarded the Oakleaves to his Knight's Cross. KG Wagner settled in defending the Emajõgi River line, receiving elements of the 563.Volksgrenadier-Division from Germany as reinforcements.

Retreat into Courland

On 14 September, a huge offensive was launched by the Soviet 1st, 2nd and 3rd Baltic Fronts. The offensive was aimed at capturing Riga and cutting off Army Group North in the Courland area.

After much argument, Hitler finally agreed to allow the evacuation of all troops in Estonia. After months holding the line, the exhausted men of Steiner's SS-Corps joined the withdrawal, fighting their way back from the "Tannenbergstellung". Govorov, not wishing to allow his enemy to escape, launched an attack on the 17th with his 2nd Shock Army. This attack, launched from the Emajõgi river line, was aimed at cutting off the line of retreat for the German and Estonian forces, trapping them in a small pocket. Unable to hold this huge Soviet force, KG Wagner, II Corps and the 563. Volksgrenadier withdrew to the northwest, stalling the Soviet attack but not halting its advance.

The remnants of the Narva sector defenders withdrew quickly towards the Latvian border. On 22 September, Tallinn, the Estonian capital, was abandoned. Many of the Estonian formations now began to attack the retreating Germans, attempting to secure supplies and weapons to continue a guerrilla war against the Russians and Soviet occupation. [Toomas Hiio, "Estonia 1940–1945: Reports of the Estonian International Commission for the Investigation of Crimes Against Humanity", Tallinn 2006, ISBN 9949130409, pp1082-1084]

On the same day, the majority of the defenders of Narva had reached Riga in Latvia and set up defensive lines to halt the Soviet advance. The Courland Pocket would be formed within the month, and the Narva defenders would see action in the battles to hold this pocket before being withdrawn to defend Berlin and the Oder.

Several battalions of the Estonian 20th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS were trapped in Estonia. These units continued fighting, some survivors joining guerrilla groups known as the Forest Brothers which fought the Soviet occupying forces until the end of the 1970's.

Aftermath

The battles of Narva were perceived by Estonian people as the battle for their country, a consolation for the humiliation of 1939. The lengthy German defense prevented a swift Soviet breakthrough into Estonia, which gave the underground Estonian National Committee enough time for an attempt to re-establish Estonian independence. On 1 August 1944, the Estonian National Committee pronounced itself Estonia’s highest authority, and on 18 September 1944, acting Head of the State Jüri Uluots appointed a new government led by Otto Tief. Over the radio, in English, the Estonian government declared its neutrality in the war. The government issued two editions of State Gazette. On September 21, the national forces seized the government buildings in Tallinn and ordered the German forces to leave. [ [http://books.google.com/books?ei=cm01R5fMF5SysgP38dmFAg&id=V4siAAAAMAAJ&dq=%22Otto+Tief+%22&q=Otto+Tief&pgis=1#search Estonia. Sept.21] Bulletin of International News by Royal Institute of International Affairs Information Dept.] cite web|url=http://web-test.vm.ee/estonia/pea_172/kat_509/7786.html|publisher=Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs|title=The Otto Tief government and the fall of Tallinn|year=2006] The Estonian flag was raised in the permanent flag mast in the tallest tower of the government buildings only to be removed by the Soviets four days later. Estonian Government in Exile served to carry the continuity of the Estonian state forward until 1992, when Heinrich Mark, the last prime minister in the duties of the Head of State, handed his credentials over to the incoming President Lennart Meri.

The delay of Soviet occupation allowed over 25,000 Estonians and 3,700 Swedes to flee to neutral Sweden and 6,000 Estonians to Finland. Thousands of refugee boats and ships sunk in the Baltic Sea.cite book|author=Estonian State Commission on Examination of Policies of Repression|url=http://www.just.ee/orb.aw/class=file/action=preview/id=12709/TheWhiteBook.pdf|publisher=Estonian Encyclopedia Publishers|title=The White Book: Losses inflicted on the Estonian nation by occupation regimes. 1940 – 1991|year=2005] In September, 90,000 soldiers and 85,000 Estonian, Finnish, German refugees, and Soviet Prisoners of War were safely evacuated to Germany. The sole German cost of this undertaking was the loss of a steamer. More German naval evacuations followed from Estonian ports,cite web|url=http://www.feldgrau.com/baltsea.html|title=Naval War in the Baltic Sea 1941-1945|author=Arvo L. Vercamer|publisher=feldgrau.com] where up to 1,200 people were drowned by Soviet attacks.

The battles of Narva denied a Soviet-occupied Estonia as a favourable base for amphibious invasions and air attacks against Helsinki and other Finnish towns. Hopes of Soviet Armed Forces to strangle Finland from the Baltic Sea and force it into capitulation, were diminished. Finnish Commander-in-Chief Mannerheim repeatedly reminded the German side that in case their troops in Estonia retreated, Finland would be forced to make peace even on extremely unfavourable terms. Thus, the battles of Narva helped Finland to avoid the Soviet occupation, to sustain its capacity of resistance and to enter the negotiations for Moscow armistice with terms of its own.cite book|title=Поднятые по тревоге|author=Иван Иванович Федюнинский|url=http://militera.lib.ru/memo/russian/fedyuninsky/08.html|publisher=Воениздат, Moscow|year=1961] cite book|author=В.Бешанов|title=Десять сталинских ударов|year=2004|publisher=Харвест, Minsk] et iconcite book|author=Mart Laar|title=Sinimäed 1944: II maailmasõja lahingud Kirde-Eestis|publisher= Tallinn: Varrak|year= 2006]

The Estonian citizens, who fought on the German side, were condemned as traitors of Soviet Union. If captured, they were sent to prison camps or shot immediately. The Western countries were insisted on rendering up the Estonians in German forces. The Soviet demand was generally disobeyed by most of the Western countries, excluding Sweden and Finland. The Nuremberg Trials, in declaring the Waffen SS a criminal organisation, explicitly excluded conscripts in the following terms: :Tribunal declares to be criminal within the meaning of the Charter the group composed of those persons who had been officially accepted as members of the SS as enumerated in the preceding paragraph who became or remained members of the organisation with knowledge that it was being used for the commission of acts declared criminal by Article 6 of the Charter or who were personally implicated as members of the organisation in the commission of such crimes, "excluding, however, those who were drafted into membership by the State in such a way as to give them no choice in the matter, and who had committed no such crimes." [Nuremberg Trial Proceedings, [http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/imt/proc/09-30-46.htm Volume 22, September 1946] ] .

In April 13, 1950, a message from the U.S. High Commission in Germany (HICOG), signed by John McCloy to the Secretary of State, clarified the US position on the "Baltic Legions:" they were not to be seen as "movements," "volunteer," or "SS." In short, they had not been given the training, indoctrination, and induction normally given to SS members. Subsequently the US Displaced Persons Commission in September 1950 declared that::"The Baltic Waffen SS Units (Baltic Legions) are to be considered as separate and distinct in purpose, ideology, activities, and qualifications for membership from the German SS, and therefore the Commission holds them not to be a movement hostile to the Government of the United States."

The international composition of the SS troops has fascinated several authors who have written very focused (but one-sided) works about the battle. Generally, the Soviet and Russian authors try to diminish the importance of the battles of Narva. It is a tradition for the Soviet historians to present the actual outcomes of the battles as the desired goals of the Soviet leadership. In the beginning of 1944, the Soviet aim was not merely liberating Leningrad from the blockade and seizing Narva, but the destruction of entire Army Group North, capture of the Baltic States and invasion of East-Prussia. As the outcomes were not achieved, the Soviet authors claim, that the intentions were limited from the very start of the campaign. To deny this, the losses in the battles of Narva have been left out of the [http://www.soldat.ru/doc/casualties/book/ official count of human losses by the Soviet Armed Forces] The unusual spectacle of German troops resisting a Soviet advance for months on as late as 1944 has proven a compelling topic for those fascinated by the Wehrmacht, and particularly, the SS.

Modern controversy

After the re-establishment of the Estonian Republic in 1991, the Government of Estonia took the position, that the Estonians in the German Armed Forces were fighting for the independence of Estonia. Based on the actions of the Government of Otto Tief, it was demonstrated, that Estonians fought both the communists and nazis, thus differing in no way from the fight of the Finns for their country. Estonian soldiers in German forces earned the right to march as veterans in the Independence Day parade. Freedom fighters with outstanding services were rewarded with decorations of honour. In 1994, the first memorial stone was unveiled in Sinimäed Hills in the presence of Aleksander Einseln, Commander-in-Chief of Estonian Armed Forces. Books about the battles of Narva started to be published in Estonia and a full-length documentary film was made.

In 2002, near the Estonian city of Pärnu, the Estonian Government forced the removal of a monument, depicting a soldier of the Estonian Waffen-SS Division. The In 2004 the monument was reopened in Lihula but shortly after removed again because of the Estonian government opposed the opening. On October 15, 2005 the monument was finally opened in grounds of private museum located in Lagedi near Estonian capital Tallinn (See Monument of Lihula.)

On May 22, 2004, the "Jerusalem Post" ran a story about the plans of some Estonian individuals to build a monument to the 20.Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS. International outrage followed, due to the criminal status of the non-conscript Waffen-SS, after the Nuremberg Trials. One of Russia's chief Rabbis, Berl Lazar, condemned the action, stating it would breed anti-Semitism Fact|date=June 2007.

On July 28, 2007, gathering of some 300 veterans of 20th Waffen-Grenadier-Division and of other units of Wehrmacht, including a few Waffen SS veterans from Austria and Norway, took place in Sinimäe, where the battle between German and Soviet armies had been particularly fierce in summer of 1944. [ [http://www.kommersant.com/p790926/r_531/Waffen_SS_Forest_Brothers/ Official Estonia, Latvia Call Up Waffen SS Vets] ] .

ee also

For the first phase of the campaign, see Battle of Narva - Battle for the Narva Bridgehead (1944)

References

Recommended reading

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External links

* [http://www.waffen-ss.nl/nedgesch-e.php Netherlanders in the Waffen SS]


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