Nazi Germany Invasion in Latvia 1941

The Soviet fast moving tanks BT-7 abandoned in the streets of Riga

The Soviet fast moving tanks BT-7 abandoned in the streets of Riga

On June 22 the long tensions between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union finally turned into full scale war. Modern research shows that the both countries were planning to attack each other at the same time. In fact the aggressive stance of the Red Army was the cause of the enormous defeats on Sumner of 1941. Gathered across the Western border in large numbers and not prepared for defense and was caught by surprise. Recent studies show that in the first weeks of the war the Red Army was not simply retreating, but running away and deserting in panic. Tanks and airplanes were abandoned and the Germans captured many thousands of POW’s. The most serious cases of resistance were when Red Arny soldiers were simply surrounded and unable to escape. This was the case of the Fortress of Brestlitovsk and the city of Liepāja. This article is about the first war battles in the Soviet occupied Latvia.

The soviets had gathered enormous forces in the Baltic states or the Special Baltic war region lead by colonel-general Kuznetsov. 24 divisions with 375 863 men, 1514 tanks and 1814 airplanes. In Lithuania the 7 Army by Colonel General Sobennikov, the 24 Territorial corpus made out of the surviving ranks of the Latvian Army was under command of the 27 Army of Major General Berzarin. Also 11 army lead by lieutenant general Morozov. Also 16 ad 67 Rifleman division. German military intelligence was well informed about the Soviet military situation and that was the reason for their quick success in the Baltic front.

The German attack force was gathered in the army group “Nord”. Its main task was not the capture of Riga, but advance quickly trough the Baltic States to Leningrad. So Daugavpils was more important. The main attack force was the 4 tank group. The leading commander was marshal Leeb, the 4 tank group was lead by colonel general Hepner, and 56 tank group was under the command of colonel general Manstein.

On 4:00 in a morning German aviation made air raids against the main airfields, war ports and railways. There was an occurrence when airfield received warning about the air attack and the joyful Soviet pilots rushed to their planes shouting “It’s time to bomb Germany!”.  After the second air strike and artillery cannonade German infantry moved on the way of Kreitinga-Palanga-Rucava -Liepaja. German army did not bother to meet the Soviets in frontal battles, but tried outmaneuver them and encircle them. That proved successful as the Germans already in June 22 reached Palanga and Rucava. On the next day Germans were around Liepaja and Ventspils. The Red Army was unable adequately react as their airfields were too close to the border and tanks too heavy to move quickly. Even the state of the art fast moving BT-7 tanks suddenly were unable to move on the rotten Soviet roads.

German invasion on 22. June 1941.

German invasion on  June 22 1941.

As the Germans invaded in Lithuania and Latvia a sharp rise of the partisan activity occurred.  However, these people attacked Soviets not Germans. Motivated by the will to avenge the Soviet terror and reclaim independence the Red Army faced even harder times. Important factor in this was the mass deportations in  June 14 that made many to take their arms and chase away the Soviets. After one year of terror the Nazi’s seemed as the lesser evil.

On June 24 Germans reached Liepaja and moved to Daugavpils. The Red Army forces defeated in Lithuania were retreating. One of the first heavy tank battles took place near Šiaulai, where medium level German tank 41 tank corps destroyed 2 Soviet tank division featuring the most modern Soviet tanks. At the start of the war the Soviet tanks were actually heavier and stronger than the German tanks. However, the discipline and maneuverability of these tank corps were quite low. On June 25 Soviets were routed in panic as the Germans entered Ilūkste next to Daugavpils.

The Daugavpils had supreme tactical importance as the main direction of the attack was Pskov and Leningrad. 56 tank corps lead by General Manstein was tasked to capture the bridge over the Daugavpils unharmed. The special task force “Brandenburg” with four captured Soviet trucks and soldiers in the Soviet uniforms headed to the bridge.  The bridge was full of moving Soviet transport. After they attempted to check the fourth truck the fire was opened. After bloody 2o min fire exchange the bridge was captured. The path to Leningrad was clear. Out of 50 Brandenburg group men only 15 survived. General Manstein went over bridge himself and greeted them. A similar attempt was made on the bridge of Jekabpils, however it failed and the bridge was blown in half.

Between June 23-29 June the Battle for Liepaja took place. Despite the usual Soviet stories about the heroic defense of the city in reality the Soviets were desperate to break out of the city. Similar story took place in the famous fortress of Brestlitovsk. Because of the specific planing of the fortress the soldiers could not escape the German encirclement and was forced to fight until the end. Liepaja was the home base for the Red Baltic Fleet. Liepaja was bombed on the first hours of the war. The military command had no plans how to defend the city and the war port. Soon the whole city was under the German siege. The Soviet Soldiers were trying to get rid of their uniforms and leave the city. However, the national partisans were hunting them too. Those who really resisted were the young cadets of the Infantry war school. As all the attempts of breaking out and counter attacks were thwarted the  defense force was broken. In the rush Soviets sunk all the ships and submarines. On the 29 June after chaotic street fights Liepaja was captured.

On June 29 Germans captured Jelgava, before that Saldus and Tukums. Soviet heavy divisions were running trough Riga abandoning their tanks. The only ones who tried to defend Riga was the 5 NKVD regiment. German tanks in many cases draw away 300 km from the infantry units. While German commanders were worried about this, the gap between tanks and infantry was controlled by partisans. The Germans had already made contacts with the most partisan units and gave them orders. Nazi planners had actually included a handful bunch of the Latvian commandos made of the exiles, but they were surprised about the local support. From June 22 to July 1 Soviets had lost 57 207 men, 1087 men were captured. 631 tanks, 40 airplanes and 3 armored trains were captured. On Daugavpils airfield Soviets simply left 30 warplanes to Germans. Soviets were more concerned about saving their skins than tanks, planes and cannons.

The 24 Territorial corpus was formed from the remains of the Latvian Army before 1940. The elite officers were already deported or shot. However, the simple soldiers were unwilling to fight and deserted. The Soviet Command in fear of uprising rushed to get them out of Latvia. The 181 division was moved from Litene to Russia where it faced battles and destruction. 183 division moved from Riga and made it to defense lines near Strugi Krasnije and Pavi. The 24 Territorial corpus at  the end was destroyed and disbanded. Later a new national Latvian unit was formed in the Red Army.

On June 29 Germans had captured the main points at the river Daugava. Only Riga was still under the Soviet control. On June 30 Germans advanced to Madona and Gulbene draw back the Red Army group at Rezekne, and bypass Riga from the north and Rezekne from the west. The Germans reached Madona. Soviets left Rezekne, the 28 motorized corps lost nearly all of their tanks in the vain attempt of defense.

Riga on fire 30 June 1941.  The Nazi propaganda blamed Jews and Bolsheviks for the destruction of the St Peters church while actually it was German cannon fire

Riga on fire 30 June 1941.
The Nazi propaganda blamed Jews and Bolsheviks for the destruction of the St Peters church while actually it was German cannon fire

On June 29 Germans entered the Pārdaugava the Riga neighborhood over the west bank of the River Daugava. Germans were intending to assault the bridges of Riga. They were defended by the two workers guard battalions and NKVD guards. Also two armored trains and artillery. 3 German mobile assault cannons managed to cross the river, but the special unit was unable to stop the Soviets from destroying the bridges. Bridges were blown up. Those who managed to cross the river were now involved in heavy firefight. Only few managed to cross the river back to safety. Battles emerged around Pārdaugava as more Germans arrived. The Germans then built a pontoon bridge at Katlakalns and crossed the river. On the night of July 1 the Soviets completely abandoned Riga. The Riga historical center was damaged by the artillery fire. The House of Blackheads, The  Riga Town House and the tower of the Church of the St Peter was in ruins. The whole city was filled with armed national partisans attacking the Soviets and NKVD agents.

The Soviet occupation of the 1940-1941 was the Great Shock for the Latvian nation. Latvians were ready to greet the Germans as liberators. The 700 year old hate was suddenly forgotten. People were gathering in the streets and greeted the German soldiers. Latvian national flags were waved and the anthem of Latvia was sung. Many believed that Germans will restore Latvian independence. Germans used this and posed as liberators, the propaganda on the radio and the press issued that Riga is finally free from the Bolshevism. Pretty soon Germans found the main scapegoats of the 1940 occupation – the Jews. At same time the Germans had no intentions of restoring independent Latvia. The Latvian flags were removed the anthem was forbidden. The conquered territories of Lithuania and Latvia were later included in the new Ostland province. Local self-government of collaborators was made, but it was a merely a puppet government unable to act independently. The national partisans were gathered in self-defense units and were used in the Holocaust and anti-Soviet activities.

Nazi Propaganda showing Germans as the liberators of Riga

Nazi Propaganda showing Germans as the liberators of Riga

After Riga was captured the Soviet army was all about retreating to Tallinn and Pskov. Many cities were taken by the national partisans before the Germans reached them. The Red Army was in disorder and run as fast they could. Soviets were running 50 km in a day and 10 hours in a single day. About 10 000 men were shot for retreating. All Soviet government officials left in a panic. Those  who did not make it were taken by the national partisans and shot. The Latvian Soviet government had already abandoned Riga on June 29. The dramatic breakup of the Red Army can be explained by the bad military training, lack of discipline and morale. The Red Army officers were incompetent and simple soviet soldiers were unwilling to fight.  However, Stalin was actually hoping to use this army to conquer the Western Europe.

After  5 July nearly all territory of Latvia was captured. On July 10 Germans captured Tallinn. Actions against the Jews that already begun in the first days of war is a different story.

Selected Sources:

Strods, Heinrihs. (2002) Sarkanarmijas haotiskā atkāpšanās no Latvijas (1941. gada 22. jūnijs- 5. jūlijs) In: Latvijas Okupācijas Muzeja Gada Grāmata. 2001. Nācija gūstā. Riga: Latvijas 50 gadu okupācijas muzeja fonds.

Pētersons, Aivars. (2007)  Krustugunīs : latviešu karotmāka, 1940-1945 : 60 gadus no tautas slēptais. Riga : Author publication.

Lācis, Visvaldis. (1995) Otrais Pasaules karš 3 daļa. Rīga. Preses Nams.

Солонин, (2009)  23 июня «день М». – Москва,

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