The Christmas is getting close this time and spirit of love and joy is in the air. But in 1944 at this time the air was filled with rockets, artillery shells and gunfire. It was the Battle at Courland (Kurzeme) region of Latvia between the trapped German army and advancing Soviet forces. May Latvian soldiers fought there on the both sides. This battle has many names the Courland pocket and the Courland Fortress. I like the therm fortress because the German army defended the Courland like a fortress fighting of six large Soviet offensives. Also Courland was a last stand for many Latvians – those who fought on the German side, those who still believed in independent Latvia and Courland was the last resort for many Latvian refugees who escaped the Soviet regime. Latvian SS Legion veteran and author Visvaldis Lācis has called Courland as the fortress of the Latvian spirit and shelter. This article tells the story of this fortress.
In Summer 1944 Soviet army returned to Latvia. First Soviet forces entered Latgale forcing German forces to give up their positions. In September Soviet forces reached the line that crossed large part of Vidzeme and Semigallia (Zemgale) Then heavy battles were fought by the Soviet advance to Riga. The German army could fight back many Soviet attacks and hold on for a long time. However, the German army was forced to evacuate Riga at October 13 and it was taken without a fight by the Soviets. Then the Soviet army advanced to west to Mēmele river. Soviets managed to break through to Palanga and Klaipeda (Lithuania) at the Baltic Sea and Rucava at Latvian side. In so the German army group North was trapped in to Courland. Later the group North was renamed as army group Courland. Along with Germans Latvian SS Legion 19th Division was trapped in to Courland fortress.
The Courland fortress had strategical importance. As the Soviet fleet was still unable to move because of the frozen Gulf of Finland, Germany was still able to send evacuation and supply transports to ports of Liepaja and Ventspils. Courland helped the Germans to paralyze the Soviet Baltic fleet and preserve Swedish iron ore exports. The Soviets had to capture Courland to gain control over ice- free harbors and take over the Baltic sea.
First battles for Courland started in October 15 as the Soviets were attacking to Sloka and Dobele. The Latvian 19th Division was set to defend the positions. On October 11 19th Divison along with German 6 Corpus retreated to Džūkste. Here all main division parts gathered. On October 12 the division received orders to take over defense positions at Lestene command point. On 15 October Soviets were attacking this position with tanks and artillery fire.
The 19th Division survived continuous Soviet attacks from 15 to 22 October. Facing heavy causalities Latvians defended its sector. At Putnukrogs Soviets lost 26 tanks and reported an especially heavy resistance in this sector. At the same time at night to 17 October German units retreated to Tukums line that they held until the end of the war. By that the Latvian defense line was moved from Līvbērze station to Apšupe station.
Adolf Hitler decided to hold German troops in Courland and defend is as a fortress. Many of the German General staff resisted this including General Heinz Guderian who in the day of his sacking at March 28 1945 in heavy argument again criticized Hitler that he had not evacuated the Courland army group. But for Latvian legion it was a relief because many thought that they will have to leave Latvia that cause many to desert the ranks.
On October 20 after the Soviet attack a front line in length of 218 kilometers from the Gulf of Riga to Žagare had been taken by the Second Baltic front group with six armies and air force army under the command of the general A Yeryomenko. A 80 divisions at whole. The first Baltic front group was located from Mažeikiai to the coast of the Baltic sea with four armies and air force. The Germans had two field armies with 33 divisions.
First Baltic front planned to crush the fortress with two armies on the direction of the Vaiņode – Skrunda. On the second day including 5 tank guard army to reach Durbe. The Second Baltic front planned to break through to direction of Saldus. This was the first Courland great battle.
In reality the Soviet plans failed. The attack began on October 27. Soviets could not break through the German lines for three days. Only in November 6 Soviets reached Venta river at Nīgrande. Heavy battles were fought around Auce that was captured but the Soviet attack was stopped. Only Soviet success was capture of Mažeikiai.
The second great battle for Courland took place at 19 to 27 November. Soviets again tried to achieve what they did not in the first place. First Baltic front advanced to Skrunda, but was stopped at Pampāļi. Second Baltic front attacked Auce- Zvārde. Soviets captured Ezere but were halted by Germans. Soviet commanders blamed the lack of ammunition and because of the winter mud the artillery was unable to move. Also the thick clouds and fog made air force unable to operate. Air force commanders said that had enough flights. While German planes were out of fuel their only hope as anti-air guns that many Latvians operated including boys.
Soviets were too sure about themselves and underestimated the Germans. After first two failures the marshal M Vasilevsky came to conclusion that Latvian 130 Rifleman corps will be best units to break through the German lines. The corps had two divisions 43 guards division with 8276 men and 308 guards division with 7128 men. They would have to fight against their nationals in the Latvian Legion. Vasilevsky ordered to attack the direction to Saldus with Latvian divisions attacking to Lestene, Irlava and Kandava and Ventspils. The corps was commanded by major general Detlavs Brantkalns with chief of staff colonel Pēteris Baumanis. Once again the Soviets relaid on the Latvian soldiers.
In the line of the Soviet attack the Latvian SS 19th Division stood against. The Frontline was fortified and well prepared for soviet attack. The Germans had no idea where the next attack will take place and it will be watched by chief of Soviet General Staff Vasilevsky himself.
After month of preparation at December 21 the third great Battle for Courland started. With three armies with 44 divisions Soviets could only capture Pampāļi and reach Zvārde. Soviets opened a heavy artillery fire dropping 177 000 shells and 1600 air attacks. Latvians lost all of their fortifications, almost all officers were hurt or killed. All transport cars were destroyed.
The Soviet attack went as planned with 43 Latvian rifleman guards attacking. However, the 312 mobile artillery corps that was sent as tank replacement became stuck in first ditches and was stopped at the anti – tank ditch. Same happened with 19th tank corps. At 106 corps sector Soviet tanks came trough legionaries positions because there was no more any communications with artillery. Only then the tanks were discovered by Latvian artillery and great duel between tanks and artillery started. 14 tanks were shot and Latvian rifleman was tied to the ground because of opposing Latvian artillery and gun fire. Latvian artillery also had heavy causalities only 5 cannons out of 24 were still in order.
Soviets made a breach and Germans added reinforcements. Soviets were unable to move further in the dead of the night. Latvian legion lost 40% of its man. In exchange of attacks and counterattacks both sides suffered great casualties. Latvian rifleman was unable to attack and tanks were crushed. At December 29 Latvian rifleman was replaced with units from 1ts strike army. The fire ceased at December 31 with Soviet offensive stopped again with great cost.
The fourth great battle took place in 5-7 January. Germans aware that Latvian rifleman was removed from their captured positions intended to counter attack and take them back. With three tank battalions with Latvian grenadiers. But the Soviets had already swapped Latvian rifleman with four divisions and artillery support. Thrusting into Soviet positions German tanks directly came over Soviet artillery and Soviets needed 30 shots to destroy them. Germans could not fulfill their goals completely.
In December 16 Germans started their last offensive in the Ardennes hoping to beat the Allied forces to free more forces at the Eastern front. With surprise to allies Germans managed to break through behind the Allied lines at 100 km where they stopped because of the lack of ammunition. British prime minister Winston Churchill was forced to ask Stalin to fasten up his attack on the Eastern front. Really since September the Eastern front was stranded. Stalin agreed and on 12- 14 January Soviets attacked region between Visla river, Oder river and East Prussia. Within six days in heavy fights Soviets crushed the German defense and Soviet first line units even reached the Oder. It affected the Courland as the commander in charge general Sherner was moved to command group Center and was replaced with general Hilpert. The army group North was renamed as the Army Group Courland. Also some units were moved to Germany from Courland.
Soviets saw this a new chance to attack and in 21 January 1945 again attacked in whole front but were halted after two days. In 25 to 26 January Germans left Klaipeda that was still under their control. Soviets fired all of their shells at the besieged city.
Soviets united two Baltic fronts in one army group under the command of Marshall L. Govorov. New commander wanted to split German forces in half from Irbene to Skrunda. He wanted to that with two armies and one tank corps.
The attack began on February 16. Soviets headed to Liepaja but were stopped after five days. The only achievement was capture of Priekule with two armies in five days. Soviets lost the greatest number of casualties in all the war times in the Baltic region. In war cemeteries of Priekule, Vaiņode 29 188 were buried. At Ventas Pampāļi a 7 361 men were lost but at Rucava 1174 more.
The last six great battles started on March 4 . The objective was to reach the line between Kandava – Saldus. 22th army with 130 Latvian Rifleman corps started the attack but was stopped again. On March 13 the attacking forces were regrouped and 8 Estonian rifleman corpus was added and from Latvians and Estonians the 42 Army Baltic shock group was formed.
Battle took place during spring when ice melting caused floods with only roads used for moving around who also were in bad condition. A week break was taken by both sides until in March 16 battle restarted again. The route of attack was intended to Kuldīga. Because of thick spring fog the attack was postponed to 17 March. In three days of fighting both Latvian and Estonian corpus’s reached Dobele-Saldus railroad, while Russian divisions were unable to move. The Germans suffered great casualties and Latvian 19th Grenadier division was called to help also 43 legion corps came along. With great losses on the both sides again the Soviet offensive was stopped at 3 April. Soviet staff removed the Baltic Front and joined it with Leningrad front.
On April 4l Allied forces reached the River Elbe and stopped. On April 16 Soviets started an offensive against Berlin. 23 to 26 April the encirclement of Berlin was complete. Hitler made suicide on April 30. On May 7 the act of capitulation was signed in Reims.
On May 3 decision was made to evacuate from Courland as much as possible. In 7 and 8 May 26 000 men were evacuated with all possible ships in Courland harbor. Some Latvian motorboats reached Sweden while others were intercepted by Soviet ships and taken back to Ventspils.
On May 7 the Leningrad front command sent a radio message to Courland command that contained the terms of capitulation. Germans made radio contact with Govorov staff at 7:00 local time. Govorov demanded to cease-fire on 14:00. At 18:00 at Ezere both staffs met and signed to halt warfare on land, air and sea at 23:00 Central European time.
Using the unset time on 8 May at 12:00 Soviet bombers attacked the Liepaja harbor. All German aviation excluding the damaged planes already left for Germany while anti-air guns still intact. Three soviet bombers fell into the sea. 32 transport planes Ju-52 took part in the evacuation and were destroyed by the Soviets on their way back. Even if technically the May 7 capitulation in Reims was signed also by Soviet general Sulsoparov the Soviets still fired on German forces. To escape further causalities Germans retreated from Tukums, Saldus and Brocēni.
On May 9 last capitulation was signed in Berlin the war was over. Soviets reported that 181 032 soldiers and sergeants, 8038 officers and 42 Generals were taken captive in the Courland front. 130 Latvian rifleman corps disarmed 4172 soldiers from 24 German infantry division and also 16 officers 170 junior officers and 1291 legionaries from 19th division. Most of the legion disbanded few made it to Sweden and Denmark. There were 14 00 Latvian soldiers in Courland still remaining – 5200 at 19th division and 2500 in Rusmanis combat group. Soviets also detained all adult males in Courland and sent to filtration camps.
The Courland fortress was never conquered it survived until the last day of the war. Soviets with their flawed planing and underestimation of the German forces took great casualties. It was a tragedy for Latvians as the 19th Latvian SS division had to fight against the 130 Latvian rifleman corps. Brothers fought against brothers, fathers against sons. In a Lestene largest war cemetery for fallen Latvian legion soldiers was unveiled after the regain of independence. Many cemeteries for Soviet soldiers are all around these places. Today German organizations are coming to Latvia to take care of fallen German soldiers. The forests of Courland are still full of war relics, one can find shells, rusted medals and human bones… The bravery and tragedy on the both sides in the Courland fortress can never be forgotten.
Pētersons, Aivars. (2007) Krustugunīs : latviešu karotmāka, 1940-1945 : 60 gadus no tautas slēptais. Riga : Author publication.
Kurowski,Franz. (2002)Bridgehead Kurland: The Six Epic Battles of Heeresgruppe Kurland. Fedorowicz (J.J.) Canada
Lācis, Visvaldis (2010) Kurzeme (1944-1945) Latviešu gara un patvēruma cietoksnis. Rīga. Jumava.