Battle for Narva Bridgehead

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Battle of Narva - Battle for the Narva Bridgehead


caption=Recon unit from 20th Waffen-Grenadier Division der SS (1st Estonian), Narva, 1944.
partof=World War II
place=Narva, Estonia
date=February 2, 1944 – July 24, 1944
result=Tactical German victory
combatant1= (Large numbers of foreign volunteers [Command Editor's Magazine Staff, "Hitler's Army: The Evolution and Structure of German Forces", OECD Online Bookshop 2003, ISBN 9264199470, p293] and Estonian conscripts)
combatant2=
commander1=)
commander2= Ivan Fedyuninski (2nd Shock Army)
strength1=50,000 100 tanks / assault guns
strength2=250,000 600 tanks
casualties1=20,000 60 tanks / assault guns
casualties2=100,000 100 tanks |

The Battle of Narva Bridgehead was a battle fought on the Eastern Front during World War II between the forces of the German Heeresgruppe Nord and the Soviet Leningrad Front. It corresponded to the operation by the right (North) wing of the Kingisep-Gdov offensive operation ( _ru. Кингисеппско-Гдовская наступательная операция) carried out by the Leningrad Front during February 1944 as part of the larger Leningrad-Novgorod strategic offensive operation, also know as the first of "ten Stalin's shocks" ( _ru. Десять сталинских ударов). [Бешанов В. Десять сталинских ударов. — Мн.: Харвест, 2004.] The Soviet offensive stalled after securing the bridgehead, but eventually pushed westward to the city of Narva on the northern shore of Lake Peipus later in 1944.

The first phase of the battle is documented here, entitled The Battle for the Narva Bridgehead. This operation took place in February 1944. The second phase of the related battles are called Battle of the Tannenberg Line.

The battle is also sometimes referred to as "The Battle of the European SS" [In the context of this battle the term "Battle of the European SS" merely refers to the high proportion of foreign nationals present. (see Christopher Ailsby, "Hitler's Renegades: Foreign Nationals in the Service of the Third Reich", Brassey's 2004, ISBN 1574888382, page 145 and Tim Ripley, "The Waffen-SS at War: Hitler's Praetorians 1925-1945", Zenith Imprint 2004, ISBN 0760320683, page 189). It should be noted that the notion of a "European SS" was also a post-war myth created to falsely portray the Waffen SS as a multinational European army composed of idealists fighting to preserve western civilisation from the onslaught of 'Asiatic Bolshevism' (See George Stein, "The Waffen SS" Cornell University Press 1966, ISBN 0801492750, page 137). No such army existed, since the majority of foreign nationals were in fact east Europeans conscripted mostly in 1944 and who were more motivated in saving their own countries from Soviet domination in a situation where Germany was clearly losing the war, rather than for any alleged pan-european ideal. (See Stein, page 138)] . Large number of volunteer Waffen SS units from Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium fought on the German side. Tens of thousands Estonian conscripts (20th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS) fought to defend their country against the 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] Less well publicized was the larger presence of two corps of the German Army who also played key roles in the defense of Estonia.

Although the operation was an overall Soviet success in that the Red Army achieved the crossing of the Narva river and captured Narva, the small German force managed to block the Soviet advance for several months due to the nature of the terrain in the area of operations.

Crisis and recovery

The main brunt of the Soviet attack was to fall on Steiner's SS Corps, positioned east of the strategically important town of Narva. Steiner's corps was mostly made up of SS "Freiwilligen" or volunteer formations. SS men from Scandinavia, Belgium, France, The Netherlands, Hungary, Romania, Italy, Spain and the Baltic States joined German formations in the defense of the river line.

The Dutchmen of the 4.SS-Freiwilligen-Panzergrenadier-Brigade "Nederland" and the various nationalities of the 11.SS-Freiwilligen-Panzergrenadier-Division "Nordland" began frantically digging in along what had become known as the "Narva Line". The defensive line ran for over seven miles, from the village of Lilienbach in the north to the village of Dolgaja Niva in the south, bulging eastwards from the river near Narva itself.

For both sides, from the first, the struggle focused on securing bridgeheads across the Narva River. The German defense line included a bridgehead on the east side of the river across from the town of Narva. The Soviet 43rd Rifle Corps (2nd Shock Army) seized two bridgeheads across the river north of Narva on February 2, 1944. The next day, the 122nd Rifle Corps assaulted across the river south of the city and established two further bridgeheads. [Glantz, "The Struggle for Narva and Luga".] One of the southern bridgeheads would grow large enough to hold six rifle corps.

On 3 February, a Soviet armoured group quickly penetrated the German line and established a bridgehead on the western bank of the Narva.

The "Nordland's" Panzer Abteilung, named "Hermann von Salza", and commanded by SS-Obersturmbannführer Paul Albert Kausch and assisted by Tiger ace Leutnant Otto Carius and a platoon of four Tigers, sprung into action. Quickly eliminating the Soviet armour, the Panzers and Tigers then began supporting the SS-Grenadiers as they cleaned out the Soviet infantry. Crisis was averted in the centre, but further north the Soviets successfully established a bridgehead near the village of Siivertsi.

To the South of the city of Narva, in the zone defended by the ad-hoc Army Abteilung "Narwa", Soviet troops crossed the river and threatened to cut off Steiner's SS Corps and two Heer division-sized Kampfgruppen. The German commander ordered Major Willy Jähde's Tiger armed 502.Schwere Panzer Abteilung into action, stabilising the German line for the time being. To strengthen the German defense, the newly-formed Estonian 20.Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS (Estnische Nr.1) division was rushed into the line and attached to Steiner's corps. Steiner threw the division into battle on the 20th against the Siivertsi bridgehead. The Estonians proved themselves capable, and within nine days the Soviets had been pushed back across the river. The first of many crises for the Germans at Narva had passed.

To the south, however, the ragged remnants of several Infantry divisions quickly collapsed under a fresh Soviet assault. By the 24th the Soviet spearheads had reached the main rail line supplying the Narva area and threatened to encircle Steiner's corps to the north. Despite heavy resistance from the 61.Infanterie-Division, the Soviets pushed onwards. Armee-Abteilung "Narwa" rushed forces south to halt the Soviet advance. The 61st Infanterie and Panzergrenadier Division "Feldherrnhalle", supported by Jähde's Tiger Abt counterattacked and in heavy fighting managed to drive the Soviets back to the river. A battalion from the "Nordland's" 26th SS-Panzergrenadier Regiment "Norge" was brought south to help shore up the line.

Defence of the "de Ruyter" regiment

Despite heavy losses and several setbacks, the Soviets kept up constant probing attacks all across the Narva line.

Soviet General Leonid A. Govorov, the commander of the Leningrad Front, realised that the Narva line could not be breached until the German bridgehead on the eastern side of the river was annihilated. A heavy assault was ordered in the Lilenbach area, defended by men of the "Nederland's" 49.SS-Freiwilligen-Panzergrenadier-Regiment "de Ruyter", commanded by SS-Obersturmbannführer Hans Collani, a veteran of the "Wiking" Division. After an artillery duel between the "Nederland" and the Soviet attackers, the attack disintegrated into fierce hand-to-hand fighting between the attacking Soviet infantry and the outnumbered Netherlanders of Regiment "de Ruyter". After several hours of fierce combat, the Soviets fell back. "De Ruyter" had held the line, and Govorov decided to shift his focus of the attack elsewhere. Over the next few weeks, the "Nederland" was subjected to almost constant artillery and aerial attacks.

On the night of 6/7 March, the Red Air Force made a huge bombing raid on Narva, flattening the city. As the bombing finished, the Soviet artillery began bombarding the town. All surviving civilians fled to the west, leaving the city to the defenders.

Next, Govorov launched an attack using both overwhelming numbers and concealment. After a heavy artillery barrage on SS-Obersturmbannführer Graf von Westphalen's "Danmark" regiment of the "Nordland", the Soviets made an all-out assault on the "Nederland's" 48.SS-Freiwilligen-Panzergrenadier-Regiment "General Seyffardt" commanded by SS-Standartenführer Wolfgang Jörchel, positioned to the south of "Danmark". Taken by surprise, the Dutchmen were forced from their positions. Jörchel quickly rallied his men and led a ferocious counterattack. In intense hand-to-hand fighting, Jörchel's men regained their positions and annihilated the Soviet attack force.

No respite

Govorov now switched his point of attack back to Lilienbach and Collani's regiment. After a heavy barrage, a Soviet infantry force with tank support launched an attack. Despite fierce resistance, Collani's men were pushed back. The Soviets made a breakthrough, and throwing his reserve armour into the fray, Govorov ordered his men to make for the bridges over the Narva river. Kausch's "Hermann von Salza" Panzer Abt was committed to hold the line, forcing back the Soviet armour, but heavy anti-tank fire halted Kausch's counterattack. Collani ordered his men to leave the Lilienbach position and take up new defensive positions further south.

The Soviets got wind of the withdrawal, and threw artillery and infantry at the retreating Dutchmen. The "De Ruyter" suffered heavily, and only the actions of SS-Untersturmführer Helmut Scholz and his men averted disaster. Scholz's depleted company retook the trenchline and then cut through a Soviet encirclement to rescue SS-Hauptsturmführer Karl-Heinz Ertel's II./Battalion. For a week, relative peace descended on the front lines, until on 22 March yet another Soviet barrage fell on Collani's lines. Red Army troops attacked, annihilating 5.Kompanie and breaking through into the regiment's rear. SS-Hauptsturmführer Heinz Frühauf formed an assault group from his headquarters personnel and assaulted the 150 man Soviet force, destroying them in heavy fighting, before reforming his men and clearing the regiment's trenches of enemy troops.

After two month's heavy fighting, both sides were exhausted, and a relative peace fell upon the front line. Over the month of April, both sides replenished their forces and licked their wounds. The rasputitsa had arrived, and had virtually halted all movement.

oviet frustration and shift to the South

During this lull in the fighting, the Soviets continued daily artillery and aerial bombardments, and many casualties were inflicted on the Axis defenders. Frustrated in all attempts to attack the Panther line defenses head on, Govorov ordered an amphibious assault. Troops were to attack from the Gulf of Finland, landing several miles behind the Axis lines and attacking the enemy from behind. The "Nordland's" "Norge" Regiment and SS-Kampfgruppe Küste quickly responded and annihilated the Soviet beachhead before the Soviet force could cause any real threat.

On 23 March, Hitler ordered the creation of "Festung Narwa" (Fortress Narva). Narva was to become a fortress city, to be held at all costs.

The German defensive efforts had not been without their cost. The SS "Nordland" and "Nederland" units had suffered over 7,500 casualties since December, while they received only 1,336 replacements during the same period. Survivors claimed that fewer than half of the foreign SS volunteers survived the fighting around Narva. [ [http://www.gutenberg-e.org/esk01/esk04.html "A European Anabasis" Gutenberg online version.] ]

The spring thaw and the "rasputitsa" meant that large scale attacks were impossible, and for the months of April and May, the front stagnated. With the exception of artillery, air and reconnaissance activity, the Narva line was quiet. The end of May signalled the end of the thaw, and the ground began to dry. Govorov had spent the time reinforcing his southern flank and preparing for an all-out attack against the town of Dolgaja Niva, held by the Danes of "Nordland's" "Danmark" regiment.

On June 7, hundreds of Soviet guns opened up all across the seven-mile Narva front. The entire 13th Air Army of the Red Air Force took to the skies with minimal Luftwaffe opposition. Special attention was paid by the Soviets to "Danmark's" positions. As the smoke from the bombardment cleared, the Danes found themselves under attack from masses of Soviet infantry, attacking in human waves.

"Nordland's" artillery opened up, tearing holes in the advancing Russians. The Russians made it to "Danmark's" positions and began heavy fighting. Over the next four days, the Danes held their positions against the Russians, but on 12 June a hole appeared in their lines, and the Soviets managed to occupy the strongpoint known as "Post Sunshine". Only scattered forces blocked the Russian way to the bridges over the Narva river.

Seeing the danger, SS-Scharführer Egon Christofferson sprung into action, counterattacking with the remnants of 7./Kompanie "Danmark". Despite being heavily outnumbered, the small force pushed the Soviets before it, recapturing "Post Sunshine", inflicting many casualties and restoring the line. Christofferson was awarded the Knight's Cross for this action. Though the fighting continued for another two weeks, the Soviets made no progress against the remnants of "Danmark".

Despite continued attacks on the Narva front, STAVKA had begun to look elsewhere for their breakthrough. A new offensive, codenamed Bagration after the Napoleonic-era Russian field marshal, was launched on June 22 against Army Group Centre.

Operation "Bagration" - Withdrawal to the Tannenberg Line

While Steiner's SS Corps had held the line, the losses suffered could not be replaced as easily as the Soviets. Steiner realised that his men could not hold out for much longer, and that to do so would be to risk annihilation. He ordered work to begin on a new defensive line, the Tannenberg Line ("Tannenbergstellung"), located on a series of hills to the west of Narva. Time would be needed to make the new defences ready, and Steiner's corps would have to hold out till then.

Govorov launched an attack against the SS Corps Northern flank. This attack succeeded in creating a bridgehead on the western bank. Kausch and Jähde's panzers were sent north to support the Estonians of the 20th Waffen Grenadier Division in countering this new threat.

Fresh Soviet attacks against the German bridgehead on the eastern shore were met with fierce resistance from the Danes and Dutchmen. For over a month the bridgehead held against fierce and incessant Soviet attacks. Despite this, the SS Volunteer regiments were now reduced to less than battalion strength, and would not be able to hold out for much longer. News of the successes of Bagration, including the destruction of five German divisions near Vitebsk, increased the Soviets' morale, and their attacks were stepped up. The Soviet bridgeheads were being reinforced daily, and Steiner knew that an offensive to trap his corps was not far away. On 23 July, despite Hitler's orders to "stand or die", Steiner ordered a withdrawal to the Tannenberg Line. The "Nederland" was tasked with covering the withdrawal, with the "General Seyffardt" regiment and the artillery battalion to be the last units to withdraw across the battered Narva bridge.

Govorov was soon aware of Steiner's plans, and on the 24th he launched an all-out attack across the front in an attempt to destroy the withdrawing Germans. The 20th Waffen Grenadier Division was pushed back from the north by a heavy Soviet tank attack, and the Tallinn-Narva Rollbahn, the German's only line of retreat, was threatened. The 45/I Battalion (Waffen-Haupsturmführer Paul Maitla) of the 20th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS (1st Estonian) and the SS-Waffen-Füsilier Battalion 20 (former battalion “Narva” from division „Wiking“) under the leadership of Waffen-Obersturmführer Hando Ruus stopped the Soviet advance. Luftflotte 1, Army Group North's Luftwaffe force, was sent into the air to provide cover for the withdrawing men of Steiner's corps, but despite brave efforts, the 137 aircraft of the Luftflotte were overwhelmed by the 800-plus aircraft of the Thirteenth Air Army. The 47/II grenader regiment of the Estonian Division, lead by(Alfons Rebane) managed to hold the Soviets while the last of the SS men withdrew across the bridge. However, due to a colossal mistake by its officers, the "General Seyffardt" regiment would not survive the withdrawal.

Attempting to avoid Soviet forces, the regiment was ordered to take a different route than that planned. The withdrawing Dutchmen were soon discovered by fighter-bombers of the Red Air Force, and pinned down. Soviet ground forces were brought in to attack the regiment, and soon it was under attack from both air and ground. After a short time, the "General Seyffardt" ceased to exist, with only a few survivors reaching the Tannenberg Line a week later.

On the afternoon of the 24 July, the artillery battalion of the "Nederland" withdrew across the Narva bridge, and Pioneers from the "Nordland's" Pioneer Battalion blew the bridge. With the exception of the annihilation of the Seyffardt SS Regiment, the withdrawal had been a success, and Steiner's men began to dig in on the Tannenberg Line, in preparation of the next Soviet attacks.

On July 26, the Red Army captured Narva, ending the battle for the city. While the Soviets could claim victory, they had been held from their objective for months by a smaller force.

Aftermath

The five-month campaign for Narva Bridgehead gave the German Armed Forces the chance to secure positions in Tannenberg Line, which were kept for three more months. 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 baroque style town of Narva was shattered by the battle and lay in ruins. Less than five per cent of the prewar population returned to their former homes. The frustration of Soviet troops lead to air raids over the Estonian towns of Tallinn and Tartu, serving the sole purpose of revenge to civilians for collaboration. 10% of the historic centres of the towns was destroyed, including Vanemuine Theatre, Estonia Theatre, St. Nicholas Church and the medieval documents of Tallinn City Archives. In the air raids, 1000 people were killed and more than 20,000 people left without a shelter. The international composition of the SS troops has fascinated several authors who have written very focused (but one-sided) works about the battle. In terms of the battle’s scale and other actions happening during the same period of the Russo-German War, the Battle of the Narva Bridgehead was both geographically and numerically a secondary effort, but 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.

Formations and Units involved

oviet

*2nd Shock Army - "Lieutenant General Ivan Fedyuninski"
**14th Rifle Corps - "Major General Pavel Artyushenko"
**30th Guards Rifle Corps - "Lieutenant General Nikolai Simonyak"
**43th Rifle Corps - "Major General Anatoli Andreyev"
**109th Rifle Corps - "Major General Ivan Alferov"

German

*SS 3rd (Germanic) Armoured Corps - "SS-Obergruppenführer Felix Steiner"
**11th SS Armoured Grenadier Division "Nordland"
**4th SS Armoured Grenadier Brigade "Nederland"
**20th Armed Grenadier (Infantry) Division of the SS (1st Estonian)

Other Military units
*Artillery Command No. 113
*High Pioneer Command No. 32
*502nd Heavy Tank Battalion
*752nd Anti-Tank Battalion
*540th Special Infantry (Training) Battalion

ee also

For the next Phase of the campaign, see Battle of Narva - Battle of the Tannenberg Line (1944)

Citations and notes

References

* Beshanov, V., Ten of Stalin's shocks., Minsk, Harvest, 2004 ( _ru. Бешанов В. Десять сталинских ударов. — Мн.: Харвест, 2004.)
* David Glantz, "The Battle for Leningrad 1941-1944", Lawrence, University Press of Kansas, 2002. ISBN 978-0-7006-1208-6.

Recommended reading

* Estes, Kenneth, "A European Anabasis — Western European Volunteers in the German Army and SS, 1940-1945", Columbia University Press. Online with the Gutenberg Project [http://www.gutenberg-e.org/esk01/frames/authorframe.html here]
* Andrei Grechko, "Geschichte des Zweiten Welt Krieges" (Soviet official history of World War II), Volume 8, 1977.
*
*cite book|last=Steiner|first=Felix|title=Waffen-SS im Einsatz
*
* [http://www.axishistory.com/index.php?id=1736 Armeeabteilung Narwa Order of Battle from Axis History Factbook]

External links

* [http://www.waffen-ss.nl/nedgesch-e.php Netherlanders in the Waffen SS]
* [http://vana.narvaplan.ee/vananarva/O35-021C1976.jpgTopographic map of Narva area]


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