The Battle For Riga September-October 1944

Soviet propaganda poster celebrating the "liberation of the Baltic States"

Soviet propaganda poster celebrating the “liberation of the Baltic States”

On October 13 1944 another “liberation” of Riga took place. Similar to July 1 1941 when German army marched in, the “liberators” were greeted with flowers while others were fleeing. Only now there was no sign of Red and White flag or Latvian anthem. Instead the Soviet Red flag and anthem was everywhere. Riga was occupied by the Soviets for the second time. Soviets made no secret they are here to restore Soviet power and made no false illusions as Germans did on 1941. However, in contrast to first battle for Riga on July 1941, the city escaped massive damage and was taken without bitter fight. However, the Soviet political and military leadership wanted to make Riga a – “another Stalingrad”. Luckily thanks to the wise German military leadership Riga escaped this fate. And it was achieved not without the help of Latvian Waffen SS Legion men who gave their lives to help Germans evacuate the city.

On August 1944 the German army on the Eastern front was in grave danger. From July 30 Soviets had managed cut off German north group from the main group by reaching Jelgava and Tukums. The main command in Moscow made numerous calls to make attack on Riga from Madona and South Estonia. Soviets had also successfully defeated Germans in Belarus and Lithuania and headed for German East Prussia. Germans were also involved in relentless fighting with Allied forces in Northern France. So Germans had to give everything they had left. At Klaipēda (Memel) the 3th German tank army was restored. From Koenigsberg (Kaliningrad) a infantry division was send by air to South Estonia. The Riga was cut off from the land roads so small units were sent by sea route and then sent to Madona.

Soviet advance in the Baltic region 1944

Soviet advance in the Baltic region 1944

The Soviet attack group was called the Third Baltic Front. Soviets were confused by the German decision to leave Rēzekne and Daugavpils line. The Soviets overestimated their breakthrough to Šiauliai Lithuania as complete defeat for the German forces. On July 24 Moscow ordered to capture Viru Estonia, Valka and Valmiera in Latvia. However, the German stable line of defense cooled down the attackers. Cesvaine-Alūksne-Alūksne was in German hands till August 19, Cesvaine till September 12. Three soviet corps had a tough time fighting few German divisions and only on August 21 they were beaten.

Soviet 54th Army moved on Latvian soil to Alūksne and threatened to encircle it from the north. On August 17 three divisions from 1sth Shock Army moved to bypass Alūksne on route to Ape. Soviets gathered large forces of tanks and artillery and managed to breakthrough. However, for they faced organized German resistance and failed to encircle the city. Germans themselves left the city on August 19. With heavy casualties Soviets moved forward by August 27 . Soviets lost 4594 men, Germans 945 men according to Latvian Soviet War Commissariat reports. Such heavy casualties were  caused by vague tactics and officer incompetence. Many battalions were destroyed in frontal attacks right in the rear of the enemy positions.

Latvian Waffen SS Legion was fighting at Cesvaine and Nesaule. Soviets failed to bypass them from behind and were halted. After heavy battles at Ērgļi and the breakthrough of the 42th army to Jumurda lake the front in Vidzeme region stabilized. Latvian civilians constructed a defensive position from Lielezere to Lejasciems.

Meanwhile after Soviet victory in Belarus and raid to Tukums on July 30 situation was more dramatic. Germans still controlled Klaipēda and Tilzit (Sovetska) and gathered forces to relieve the Soviet breakthrough.  The Army group North was cut off from the main German forces in Courland. They now were under command of army group Center that operated in long line from the Cape of Kolka to Carpathian mountains. Adolf Hitler wanted to make a last grand tank offensive in the Eastern Front – with two tank corps from the Eastern Prussia, with 39th corps to Jelgava and 40th  corps to Šiauliai. The task was to recapture Tukums and relieve the line of communications from Riga to East Prussia.

But, Germans lacked forces to do this. There were just two Latvian and German battalions with few flak cannons, and very small SS tank brigade with some 10 tanks. But, Soviets had no proper fores on their own since the capture of Tukums was a great venture that succeed because there were no proper German forces to defend it. But, Soviets lacked fuel to move their tanks further. Now Germans formed two tank groups – Liepaja and Tauraģe tank group. To Taurage a 40th tank corps staff was moved from Romania. The operation was lead by talented general Heinz Guderian. Hitler took a close eye on this operation and sent the best Pz V type tanks. Latvian Artillery Division also joined.

On August 16 the attack started. Heavy battles took place involving heavy German Panther tanks. 39 Soviet tanks including 17 heavy tanks were destroyed. Germans however, failed to reach Jelgava. Meanwhile the forces heading to Sloka and Ķemeri to bypass Tukums managed to encircle the two soviet divisions. In so the gap between Riga and Courland was eliminated. That lead to the beginning of the Battle of Riga.

Soviets now planned to start a massive operation to capture Riga First Baltic Front with five armies and 44 divisions, Second Baltic Front with 33 divisions and Third Baltic Front and 29 divisions.Germans had army group North with two armies without proper reserves. On the morning of September 14 Soviet started operation to capture Riga.

The initial success was rather light. The Third Baltic front became stuck in South Estonia. The Second Baltic Front charged in Vidzeme. Along with them the Latvian 43th Guard Division made the most of the battle. However, as usual their Soviet comrade divisions were less successful and limited the offensive. From Iecava to Ķekava in route to Pārdaugava 43th army with 4th Shock army with 476 tanks was stopped at the very first day.

Soviet troops moving towards Riga

Soviet troops moving towards Riga

On September 15 the Latvian 2th Borderguard regiment was sent to halt the Soviets. On the night of September 16 with the help of German cannonade Latvia borderguards made a counter attack and took the defensive position  at the Riga-Ķekava highway. Soviets reached Baldone and made the Baldone-Ķekava route as the main position. Large forces were gathered here. Germans knew about this and planned to avoid casualties and evacuate.

On September 15 German army group North commander in charge Ferdinand Shorner made personal report to General Guderian and asked to start evacuation. His plan was to retreat from whole Northern Baltic region, from Narva to Cēsis. On September 16 Shorner visited the German general Staff. Hitler was very found of Shorner as fanatic Nazi and allowed him to carry out this operation. On September 19 Operation Aster was called to start.

On September 17 the Lenningrad Front opened offensive to capture Tallinn. Germans moved away from Narva to the port of Tallinn. Soviets were caught by surprise and was not even ready to chase the retreating Germans. Germans started to move to Sigulda and beat off the chasing soviets. Soviet commanders did not dare to inform Stalin about this evacuation and instead made tales of “massive attack operation”.   Germans retreated orderly by destroying all bridges and railroad lines. Many places were mined. Despite Jelgava being controlled by Soviets, Germans managed to build railroad from Riga to Liepaja.

From Northern Vidzeme Germans started to move on September 19. Soviets moved fastly but failed to break up the evacuation. On September 23 Germans left Parnu Estonia and Streņči in Latvia. Soviets faced heavy defeat near Ērģeme on September 20. Soviets also lost many men in unsecsuff raid to Valmiera. On September 25 Germans reached defensive position at Sigulda.

Latvian 19th Waffen SS Legion also retreated with the rest of the Germans. Many of these men hoped to fight for free Latvia. As the front was breaking, the goal seemed hopeless. Still without dissent they carried out their task and on September 24 -25 at night reached Sigulda defense position. They stationed near More school house blocking the Nītaure-Sigulda highway. And that was the main attack route for three heavy armed soviet regiments. Latvians had 44th, 42th and 43th regiment against large Soviet forces.

Soviet forces approached on September 26 and made fast attack with tanks. Soviets attacked directly at More were Latvians resisted fiercely. Soviets sent never ending attacks with artillery support and tanks. But, Latvians stopped every attack. All reserves of 44th regiment were depleted, the second echelon of the 43 regiment were sent to fight. Latvian artillery were out of ammunition. At September 28 Latvians were still holding their positions. Soviets made a small success by changing the attack route and trough the swamp and forest invaded Kartūži. However, they were beaten off. Small attacks continued until September 30. But, they all were stopped.

  The operation Aster was successful. But it was at the expense of the Latvian casualties at More.  The leading officers Rudolfs Kociņš and Nikolajs Galdiņš were awarded.  Soviets lost 2736 men, Latvians 186 men. The Battle of More was the most heaviest experience for the Latvian Waffen SS Legion. These men were not ready to give up any inch of their land.

The Commemorative event for the fallen in the Battle of More

The Commemorative event for the fallen in the Battle of More

Soviets came to conclusion that the German forces had successfully left the encirclement. Still in hopes for the “Second Stalingrad” Soviet attacked Klaipēda . Germans in response initiated operation Donnner to move German armies from Riga to Courland. This was one of the most successful military evacuation operation in the military history. 29 divisions, 2 brigades, 28 artillery units, 190 Anti-air units, 68 engineer battalions, all the civil authorities and 100 000 civil refugees were evacuated.

Germans also forcibly moved 20 000 Latvians from Riga to Germany for “work service”. Meanwhile the 19th Latvian Waffen SS Division on October 6-7 moved from Sigulda and head to Džūkste region in Courland. Last to leave Riga was the 227th infantry division. On 1:144 October 13 the bridges over Daugava were blown up. 87th division had to maneuver through the land strait  between lake Ķīšezers to Daugavgrīva. By the help special ferries they moved 5000 men and 160 armed trucks 20 cannons to other side of river Daugava.

Soviets entered Riga when nearly all Germans had left the scene on October 13. At 23:00 in Moscow 24 cannons fired to celebrate the “liberation of Riga”. There were gunfights in Pārdaugava for three days until all Germans left the left bank of the river Daugava completely. So officially the Riga was captured completely on September 15. However, Joseph Stalin had insisted that celebrations must begin allready on October 13.

Soviet Soldiers near the Monument of Freedom

Soviet Soldiers near the Monument of Freedom

Latvians were fighting on Soviet side as well and were just as good as the Latvian Waffen SS men. However, while it was technically possible and ideologically necessary the Latvian Soviet Soldiers were not the ones to first parade in Riga. Instead the 130th Latvian Rifleman corps were directed away from Riga to the swamps of Oilaine. Only after it became clear that the German evacuation had succeeded the Latvian Soviet soldiers were called to parade in Riga on October 16.

Soviets were heavily disappointed about the way the Riga was captured. Soviets commanders wanted to impress Stalin with complete destruction of the German forces and great street battles in Riga. Soviets wanted to encircle Germans in Riga. Soviets had intended to use heavy artillery and air fire that would result complete destruction of the Riga historical center. If such event would happen Riga would be just like Koenigsberg or Kaliningrad today.

Despite that Soviet propaganda made tales of “grandioze landing platoon operation over the lake of Ķīšezers” and the “battle for every house and street corner”. Those who were wise enough knew that there was no German troops from the early morning of October 13 that Soviets could fight with. Large painting showing Soviet soldiers fighting on streets of Riga was displayed. There was even plea to make Riga a “Hero Town” just like Stalingrad. In the end a large phallic monument was build to commemorate the “liberation of Latvia”. A move called “Spear and Rose” tried to convince that Germans had planned to blow up Riga in their way of retreat.

The real battle for Riga was fought on the roads Northern Vidzeme, More, Ķekava and Baldone. Outnumbered German and Latvian forces managed to stop Soviet forces and allowed others to escape. Soviets had enormous forces and resources. But, they level of military tactical knowledge was still 1939 level. German army despite many defeats all the way to 1945 suffered less losses than the victorious soviets.  And well motivated and disciplined Latvian Waffen SS 19th division was also one of the reasons why Riga was saved from being “second Stalingrad”. Their fight in More should be remembered and set as example for Latvian military bravery.

Selected Sources:

Pētersons, Aivars. (2007) Krustugunīs. Rīga.

Feldmanis, Inesis, Butulis, Ilgvars,Bleiere,Daina,Zunda, Antonijs. (2008)  Latvija Otrā Pasaules karā (1939-1945) Rīga. Jumava.

Viesturs Sprūde, Latvijas Avīze 1944. gadā Rīgai bija iespēja kļūt par lielu ”staļingradu”

http://gulags.wordpress.com/2009/10/13/1944-gada-rigai-bija-iespeja-klut-par-lielu-stalingradu/

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