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The Black Knights of 1919. The Baltic Freikorps and the Army of Bermondt

The uniforms of the Baltic  German Freikorps

The uniforms of the Baltic German Freikorps

The Latvian national epoch Lāčplēsis – The Bear Slayer tells the story of the Latvian mythological hero Lāčplēsis fighting against the Crusaders and their vile leader the Black Knight. The 1930 Latvian movie of the same name depicts the Black Knight being reborn in the vile German officer who leads the  war against the Latvian independence. The Black Knight personified the most strongest Latvian enemies – the Baltic German chauvinists, revisionists and imperialists.  95 years ago the new Republic of Latvia faced two strong enemies. The Bolsheviks from Russia and the German chauvinist reactionary forces. While Bolsheviks striven for breaking up the old order, the Baltic Germans and their supporters from the Fatherland fought to restore the old German order and prevent from any major changes directed against them.  Both the Bolshevik Latvia, both the national state of Latvia was their enemy. This article is about these forces, their leaders and the fate of them.

Present day Estonia and Latvia had significant German population since the Middle Ages. The Livonian Confederation ruled by the Livonian Order and the Bishoprics was dominated by the German knights, merchants and nobles. The Confederation was destroyed by the Russian invasion in 1558 and to prevent it from being taken by the Ivan IV The Terrible, the Livonian Order ceded to Poland-Lithuania and Sweden. Despite becoming the Polish and Swedish subjects the Baltic Germans kept their rights and privileges. The Swedish administration in Vidzeme tried to reduce the power of the German nobility, but failed. The Polish leadership was more tolerant, the autonomous Duchy of Courland and Semigallia was lead by the Baltic German elite. In Riga the town leadership was in the hands of Germans. Yet German population in Latvia was around 3%. Yet Germans following the ideas of Enlightenment helped Latvians to gain education and knowledge. First Latvian schools and books were made by the German missionaries and pastors. They believed the peasants should have education to work better, but they never thought that the peasants one day could become strong enough to lead the uprising against their captors.

At the end of the 18th century all Latvian lands were included in the Russian Empire. At first the  Russia was friendly towards Germans – they entered the Royal Court, Administration and the Army. However, during the reign of the Tsar Alexander II the wave of Russian nationalism affected the Baltic Germans limiting their rights and enforcing Russian language and leadership. The Serfdom was abolished after the end of the Napoleonic Wars sparking the rise of the Latvian national movement. The new Latvian educated middle class started tensions with the disturbed Baltic Germans. At the beginning of the 20 century the rise of the Latvian Left movement was equally hostile to the Baltic Germans. On 1905 the Revolution came from Russia to Latvia. The revolutionaries both fought the Russian Tsarist government and the Baltic German nobility. The mansions in the rural areas were burned down, people killed sparking German fear from Latvians. The Russian punishment expeditions trying to stop the revolt made double hate towards Germans and the Russian authorities. Then on 1914 Russia came to war with Germany. On 1915 Germans entered the Latvian lands. Occupying Courland (Kurzeme) and Semigallia (Zemglale). It was a deciding point – while some local Germans greeted them in open arms – thousands of Latvians joined the Latvian Rifleman to fight the Germans under the Russian banner.

On February (March) 1917 the Russian Empire had crumbled. Courland and Semigallia was ruled by the German Eastern Front Chief Command Region (Ober-Ost) The territories were under the German Military Administration. Despite for calls to annex the occupied territories, the German leadership considered Poland and the Baltic States as a military buffer zone to keep Russia as far as possible. Germany first desired to sign a separate peace agreement with Russia that would be complicated because of the annexation. Second – Berlin was unsure of the reaction of the Baltic nations and the local Germans that would want to keep their local power. It was more preferable to either keep the Eastern occupied territories under military administration or form new loyal puppet states. The Ober-Ost was under the direct leadership of the commander in chief Paul von Hindenburg and his deputy Erich Ludendorff. The Courland Civil Authority was lead by reserve major A Gosler. Gosler believed that Latvians must be assimilated despite their intelligence and potential. Although he was forced to accept Latvians within the local rural administrative positions. The German propaganda expressed the ideas of the German superiority and Baltic lands as the ancient parts of the German world.

On September 1917 Riga was captured by the Germans. The city was visited by the Kaiser Wilhelm II  himself. On February 1918 all Latvia and Estonia was taken over by the Germans. After the peace between the Germany and the Bolsheviks a question was raised of what to do with the occupied Baltic States. On February Lithuanian and Estonian national councils already had declared independence. The Latvian Provisional National Council (LPNC) and the Democratic Block was pinned down both by Germans and the Bolsheviks were unable to form a national government. Now was the moment to realize the German dream of restoring the Livonian confederation.

The map of the proposed United Baltic Duchy

The map of the proposed United Baltic Duchy

On March 8 1918  the Courland Land Council (Kurländischer Landesrat) proclaimed the restoration of the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia. The throne was presented to Kaiser Wilhelm II. The response from Kaiser was positive and on March 15 he recognized the “Duchy” as sovereign state and was ready to sign agreements with it. But that was not enough. With German Military still in charge the Provincial Assembly was formed of the local Germans and loyal Latvians and Estonians. On April 12 the Provincial Assembly (Der Vereinigte Landesrat für Livland, Estland, Ösel und Riga) issued decision to form the United Baltic Duchy and asked Germany to take it under their protectorate. On September 22 Kaiser recognized the sovereignty of the United Duchy. The leadership was presented to the Duke Adolf Friedrich of Mecklenburg. Known as explorer of Africa and governor of the German African colony Togoland until 1914 he was noble candidate for head of the new state. On November 5 1918 the United Baltic Duchy was proclaimed. Until his arrival the Regency Council head by the Vidzeme Land Marshall Adolf Pilar von Pilchau was the acting government. The duchy was to include Courland, Semigallia, Vidzeme and Estonia. Latgale as region with less German influence was left out. The main pillars of the state was the individual freedom of political beliefs, rights of movement, private property and the national equality. That however, did not meant the full equal rights for the Latvian ethnic majority. The Latvians and Estonians would gain proportional part in the parliament.  The Latvians would be represented by loyalists lead by Fricis Veinbergs who was fro pro-German since 1905. From November 5 to November 9 the councils worked on the new state constitution, formed Land Council, elected local governors, some of them Latvians and Estonians.

However, despite official recognition’s Berlin was slow and unwilling to fully realize the Baltic Duchy project. One of the reasons was the ongoing war in the West, lack of resources and hope that after the victory the Baltic question would be fully solved.  The victory never came. After the capitulation on November 11 1918 the United Baltic Duchy project was abandoned. There was no common idea what will happen next. On November 18 1918 the Latvian National Provisional Council and the Democratic Block declared independence. The new state was based on the will of the Latvian majority, it presented equal rights for all national minorities, but they were based on aproportionality. That was not what the Baltic Germans wanted.

German military authority was turned into civil. The LPNC was recognized by the Great Britain as de facto representative of Latvia. Berlin despite abandoning the Baltic Duchy project still tried to support the local German population. But, the main question was when the defeated German 8th army will be moved back to Germany. The question was answered by the Bolsheviks. They annulled the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty and declared the start of the Worldwide Socialist Revolution. With communist uprisings in Germany itself and the Bolshevik threats to march to Europe it was vital for both Allies and Germans to keep the 8th army in the Baltics. For Latvians it was unfortunate, but there was no other choice as Bolsheviks were marching towards Riga on December. Latvian Provisional Government signed provisional agreement with Germany for temporary alliance that would include forming German troops within the Latvian national forces.

The Honorary Badge and Medal of the Baltische Landeswehr

The Honorary Badge and Medal of the Baltische Landeswehr

This leads us to the main part. The 8th army of 75 thousand man was breaking up. The commander general Hugo von der Kathen  had start evacuation, the army withdraw it forces to Istenburg East Prussia. Before leaving von Kathen signed the order to form a Baltic Landguard die Baltische Landeswerh. It was intended to have 18 Latvian, 5 German and 1 Russian company and 5 artillery batteries with the force of 7050 man. The commanding officer was to be Swede. Both local Germans and the Germans citizens could join. The main units were the Baltic German battalion, Stormtroopers, the prince Lieven Russian company lead by Anatol Lieven a member of the historic German noble family, said to be originated from the Livonian (Liv) ruler Kaupo on 12th century. The Latvian units under command of colonel Oskarts Kalpaks and general Balodis was also under this army formation. The first commander was major Sheibert from December 1918 . On February 1919 the command was taken over by major Alfred Fletcher. Born in Germany, fought on many front lines he found himself in Latvia. As imperial officer his main allegiance was the German interests. Many Baltic Germans feared the Red terror and wowed to protect themselves.

The Flag of the Iron Division

The Flag of the Iron Division

Another German formation was the Iron Brigade later the Iron Division. It was formed from the German volunteers or the German Freikorps. The paramilitary German movements spring up from the returning German soldiers taking stand against the Bolsheviks. Adolf Hitler was one of them, as they were instrumental of crushing the communist rebellions in Germany. Freikorpers also moved to Baltic States as they were the main frontier in the war against Bolshevism. The Iron Brigade was  first made to cover the retreating German 8th army. For these men with no connection to Latvia, it was war of loot and adventure. Many hoped to gain land and riches here.

On December 3 1918 Bolsheviks invaded Latvia. They took over Valka, Valmiera, Rēzekne and Daugavpils. Latvian Provisional Government was forced to sing agreement with the Berlin representative August Vinning to give Latvian citizenship to all German volunteers who fought in the Latvian lines for at least 4 weeks. It was viewed as disgrace by many, leading to support the Bolsheviks rather than the Latvian “German puppets”. Latvian ethic units given order to face the Latvian Red Riflemen started uprising and were disarmed by the Landeswerh. On January 1 the German Iron Brigade and Landeswerh faced the Latvian Red Rifleman at Inčukalns and were defeated. Germans tried to stop their advance to Riga and took the old WWI positions. However, they were attacked from behind and were forced to retreat leaving all the cannons and machine guns. The route to Riga was open. Germans evacuated it along with the allied warships and the Latvian government. Bolsheviks chased Latvians and Germans to Courland and stopped along the river Venta. The German forces were broken and needed leadership and reinforcements. The remaining Latvian forces gained experience and strength in battles with Bolsheviks. Berlin needed the right the card for the Baltic gamble. They choose the King of Spades – Rüdiger von der Goltz.

Rüdiger von der Goltz.

Rüdiger von der Goltz.

Von der Goltz was born in December 4 1865 in Züllichau, Brandenburg. He graduated War Academy, served the German General Staff  for 13 years. On WWI he commanded the German army 12th Landeswerh division. On 1918 he was appointed as the commander of the German voluntary Ostsee division to fight the Bolsheviks in Finland. Together with the Finnish leader Karl Gustav Mannerheim he directed the operations against  the Bolsheviks. The victory was reached, however ethnic German Mannerheim served the Finland’s needs. Von der Goltz was appointed to Liepāja to lead the fight against the Bolsheviks. As the commander of the 6th German reserve corps and the Governor of Liepāja he soon accumulated great power he wanted to keep after the war. He had no respect for the Latvian Provisional Government and was playing tricks with the British Military Mission, for he once served in the English department of the German General Staff.

The stabilization of the Courland front on January 1919 was not just Goltz achievement. Latvian forces under colonel Kapaks stopped Bolsheviks at the Battle of Skrunda, but the city of Venstpils was lost. The worst case scenario was to evacuate to Lithuania and Northern Estonia. But, in the same time Estonian forces secured victory and pushed Bolsheviks downwards to Vidzeme. The Latvian Soviet Army was forced to send many regiments there. As Estonians were defeating the Latvian Red Rifleman, on February the Germans became active. The 6th German reserve corpus subordinated to the Northern Border Defense Staff were filled with men hostile towards the Latvian independence. They were young well equipped men akin to burn the Baltic States with fire and sword for a reward. Many of them later became members of the Nazi movement and served as the Third Reich as generals.

The 6th reserve corpus gained success in offensive of taking Kūldīga and Ventspils. Latvians moved along only to be caught in the friendly fire exchange at Airītes that caused the loss of the colonel Oskars Kalpaks. Latvians and Germans tried to encircle Bolsheviks, but unexpectedly they retreated by side and both Latvians and Germans fired on one other. As Germans were not keeping communications with Latvians, but just relied on the information from the Bolshevik POW, it could be a possible  German political conspiracy.

As mentioned A Vinning, Goltz and their henchmen had no positive regards towards Latvians. A scandal erupted when documents were uncovered about the plot to overthrow the Latvian government. The “von der Stryk affair” caused strife between Latvians and Germans, however the Goltz involvement was not proven.  Was the Stryk plot a unrelated to Goltz or a diverting move from the Goltz planned coup remains a question.

The April 16 coup was opened by the landeswerh unit lead by baron von Manteifel who disarmed the Latvian garrison. With silent accept by Berlin the Fatherland front force security committee lead by Manteifel, von Rekke, A, Maidel was established. Next day they declared that the Latvian Provisional Government was dissolved. However, it was still functional as it escaped on board the steamship Saratov that was guarded by the British ships. Goltz plan backfired because of the allied involvement.   The Military Directory was not accepted by the Latvian commander Balodis who replaced Kalpaks and Prince Lieven. In attempt to gain some legitimacy a new government was formed by pastor Andrievs Niedra that was formed from Baltic Germans and pro-German Latvians. O Borovskis was the nominal leader acting as Interior Affairs Minister. War minister Juris Seskovs, Minister of Justice Baltic German P. Sokolovskis, foreign Minister von Brimmer, minister of Agriculture K Slienis, and minister of national enlightenment pastor J.Kupčs. Niedra at first did not participate in the government meetings hoping to reach compromise with Ulmanis and the allies. After that failed Niedra issued order to fire the Ulmanis provisional government. On May 13 in the Liepāja war port he was kidnapped by the loyal Latvian officers and was forced to sign the resignation documents.  He soon escaped and rejoined his government. With no support and recognition both from Latvian nation and the allies the Niedra government was only the Goltz puppet.

On May 22 after pushing off the Bolshevik counter attacks Goltz ordered the landeswerh to capture Riga. City was captured without a fight and the “liberators” started to terrorize citizens. Bolshevik supporters and everyone suspected to be such was arrested or killed. Streets were filled with dead bodies. Shot people were dropped in the city canal. Germans established their own court or the Standrecht (the neck court) that routinely executed people without trial. 2-4 thousand people were killed during the white terror. However, its worth to note that during the Soviet rule even more thousands of Germans and Latvians were killed.

The Goltz reign of terror was stopped at Cēsis on June 22. The landeswerh and the Iron Division marched towards the united Estonian and Latvian forces in Vidzeme. That proved to be fatal mistake. Niedra government gathered the Iron Brigade and the Landeswerh under the “Latvian Forces”. On June 4 Estonian and Latvia  command demanded the major Alfred Fletcher to move away from their lines. Niedra ordered Fletcher to attack and defeat the Estonian forces. On May 6 his forces attacked the Cēsis 2th battalion forcing it leave the city. On June 10 allies forced to sign ceasefire. Allies made decision to order Germans to withdraw from Cēsis, but Germans ordered Estonians to do the same. After reaching no common ground battle started again. The reinforced Latvian and Estonian forces held off the attack and struck back, defeating the Goltz forces.

It was possible for Estonians and Latvians to wipe out the Iron Division and the Landewerh once and for all. However, they were spared by the allies who insisted to sign ceasfire on July 3 at Strazdumuiža. Germans retreated to Jelgava. The Landeswerh was brought under control by the British colonel Harold Alexander. Prince Lieven forces did not joined the Goltz side. His company was moved to Jelgava and Liepāja. As Russianized  German prince Lieven did not want to fight against the Latvians and Estonians, he wanted to fight Bolsheviks.

Pavel Bermondt Avalov in the center

Pavel Bermondt Avalov in the center

The Black Knight struggle reached the final phase. A new plan was devised to restore the dream of the United Baltic Duchy. This time more evil and vicious. Germany was holding thousands of Russian WWI POW’S. They were unable to return to Civil war raged Russia. So Berlin devised a plan to gather them in the anti-Bolshevik White Guard forces.  The chosen commander was peculiar individual named Pavel Bermondt-Avalov. His origins were a mystery. Born as Pavel Berman on 1877 in Tbilisi Georgia, he was rumored to have Karaite Judaist farther and Georgian mother. He gained the surname Avalov from his adoptive father Georgian prince Mikhail Avalishvili. His military carrier started with the Ussurian Cossacks  as musical conductor. He took part in the Russian wars against China and Japan. During WWI served in Caucasus. He made contacts with Germans in Southern Russia, but was arrested by Ukrainian nationalists. Germans recommended to release him. He moved to Saltzwedel POW camp. There he gathered forces to fight the Bolsheviks. With  his men he moved to Jelgava on August 12 1919. The White Guard Leader general Yudenitch appointed him as commander of the Western Voluntary Russian Army. General hoped that self declared count and major general will aid his forces to capture Petrograd.

The West Russian Volunteer Army badges

The West Russian Volunteer Army badges

Instead he joined with the remaining Iron Division and other Germans to lead march against Latvians in Riga. His army was formed from the Count Keller Corpus named after the fallen Russian general was mainly devised from the Russians in Germany. The Vigolitch corps were also Russian mainly. The Dibitch Corps were mainly from German volunteers. The Pleve group also and so as the German Legion. The defeated Iron Division joined the Bermondt. Only 1/6 of the “Russian” army were Russians. The German soldiers had to wear Black Uniforms with Russian Imperial symbols. As some Germans did not know how the Russian Orthodox Cross looks like they placed it on their uniforms the wrong way. Their symbolism included the Iron Cross and skull and bones. Many of their members were future Nazi party members.

On August 26 in Riga allies called a meeting and issued goal for a common attack on September 9 towards the East. Yudenitch ordered Bermondt to send his forces to Narva. Prince Lieven forces loyal to the White Guard did so. The rest of the Bermondt army instead marched to Riga on October. His adviser was Andrievs Niedra while Goltz was pulling the strings from behind. The goal was to destroy Latvian government and make Latvia a Germanic Russian province and assured the White Guard commanders that after capture of Riga he would move towards Russia. Yudenitch and Denikin mistrusted the pro-German cossack and turned him down. Traitor Bermondt issued operation “Thunderstrike” Bliztschlag. A force of 45 thousand men started attack on October 8.

Goltz-Bermondt venture ended in disaster. After getting stuck at the left bank of Riga, unable to capture Liepāja they were pushed away from Riga on November 9-11. On December all of the broken army of rouge terrorists who later claimed they “killed Latvians like rabbits”, burning down Jelgava on their way back. The German high command sent statement on November 25 that Bermondt army is under their command now. Latvia in return concluded that its in the state of war with Germany. Germany replied that its in no means in the state of war with Latvia. Later when a agreement with Berlin was signed to normalize the relations between two states, Germans refused to call it a Peace agreement since there was no war between Germany and Latvia.

Max Erwin von Scheubner-Richter right from Hitler planning the Beer Hall Putsch

Max Erwin von Scheubner-Richter right from Hitler planning the Beer Hall Putsch

Various were the fates of the Baltic Freikorps. One of its members Ernst von Salomon later remembered: “We killed what fell into our hands, . . . We saw red, we had nothing in the heart of human emotions. . . what were earlier houses, were rubble, ash and smoldering beams, like festering sores in the bare field . . . We had lit a bonfire, there was burning more than dead material, there also was burning our hopes, our desires, . . . the laws and values of the civilized world. . . We retreated, bragging, intoxicated, loaded with booty”. It was no wonder many of them became radical Nazis. One of the most well known was Max Erwin von Scheubner-Richter. Born in Riga on 1884, he first took action on 1905 commanding German noble self defense units. He moved to Germany after the revolution. During the WWI he was German vice councilor in Turkey. After Riga was taken by Germans he returned to work in the press center. For his service in Estonia he was awarded with the First Class Iron Cross. After German defeat in WWI he joined the Landeswerh and then the Bermondt army. After the defeat he moved back to Germany were together with Alfred Roznenberg another Baltic German from Estonia organized a secret German emigrant society from Russia.  Then he joined the Nazi Party and became one of the early prominent members. He made the plan for Hitler  for the infamous  Beer Hall Putsch on 1923. On November 9 1923 during the final phase of the coup attempt in Munichh he was walking arm-in-arm with Hitler, and was shot in the lungs and died instantly as Hitler and others marched toward armed guards.He had brought Hitler down and dislocated Hitler’s right shoulder when he fell. He was the only first-tier Nazi leader to die during the Putsch. Of all the early party members who died in the Putsch, Adolf Hitler had claimed Scheubner-Richter to be the only “irreplaceable loss”. Hitler dedicated his first part of the Mein Kampf to him and other fallen revolutionaries.

The fates of two main Black Knights Goltz and Bermondt were more humble. Bermondt moved to Germany and wrote memoirs of his adventures on 1925. As others he was involved in right wing movements. On 1936 he was exiled by the Nazi government and  then moved to Yugoslavia. When WW2 reached Belgrade he moved to US and died in New York on 1973. His satiric appearance as eccentric incompetent army musician wanting to lead the army, but defeated by the smaller Latvian forces haunted him his entire life.   Goltz moved to Germany also wrote memoirs of explaining his motives and actions. From 1924 to 1930, he headed the German government department on the military education of young German youth. On 17 July 1931 he handed over the command of the Economic Policy Association Frankfurt am Main to the Reich President Paul von Hindenburg. In the age of 80 he died on November 4 1946 after witnessing another major German defeat.

Selected Sources:

Juris, Ciganovs. (2013) Latvijas Neatkarības Karš 1918-1920. Rīga. Zvaignze ABC.

Latvijas Brīvības Cīņas. Enciklopēdija (1999) Riga. Preses Nams

Zariņš, Klāvs (2014) Vācu Okupācijas režīms Kurzemes Guberņā (1915-1917) Militārā Pārvalde un civiliedzīvotāji. Rīga. Drukātava.

Cerūzis Raimonds. Vācu faktors Latvijā (1918-1939). Politiskie un starpnacionālie aspekti. – LU Akadēmiskais apgāds: Rīga, 2004.

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The Courland Fortress 1944-1945

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The Map of Courland fortress

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.

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Latvian soldiers in the 19th division

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.

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The 130 Latvian Rifleman Corps

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.

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The Badge for wounded soldiers in Courland

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.

Image

The war cemetery and memorial at Lestene where the heaviest battles took place

Selected Sources:

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.

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First World War in Latvia 1914-1918

Latvian Rifleman in the Christmas Battle

Russia joined war against Germany in 1914. Already in 1 August after German declaration of war German warships shelled city of Liepaja. In July 30 on  all territory of Latvia a mobilization was issued. Already in first days of war 20 to 25 thousand Latvians were sent to Eastern Front. On 1915 January 31 to February 21 Russians fought unsuccessful battle in Mazurian lakes and the town of Augustov. On 8 February the Baltic XX corpus was destroyed. From 35, 500 soldiers 27, 988 lost their lives.  In all region Russians lost 42, 000 men. Later Russian officers remembered the outstanding performance of Latvian soldiers and their courage. Latvian losses were one the largest in history of the Latvian warfare.

Latvia 1914-1918

On spring on 1915, German army marched in the Russian territory. They captured Lithuanian lands, and on May 7 took control of city Liepaja. However the heart of Semigallia the city of Jelgava was not taken because of Latvian Home Guards who stood against Germans. The main defense lines were among Ruļlu hills and Svēte. Home Guards already showed their best against Germans in Lithuania and Germans was looking to find the best way to defeat them. After attack on Ruļlu hills failed Germans attempted to attack from Skrunda and was also fought back. Then Russian reinforcements came and stopped German offensive.

In July 14 Germans advanced from the river of Venta. This time only Russian units stood against them and retreated in disorderly way. Jelgava was taken without a single gun shot. On August 1 Germans had captured all Courland, Semigallia and the front line stretched from the Gulf of Riga to city of Daugavpils.

After the capture of half of Latvian territory the strongest voices of patriots called to form Latvian national units. The units must be formed only from Latvians and must have their own Latvian officers. The strong dislike for Germans was the general reason for Latvians did not want the return of the German rule. Latvian activists contacted Russian military officials. The main pusher of this idea was the deputy of the Russian State Council Jānis Goldmanis. Many Russian officials resisted the idea, because of the memories of revolution in 1905 when Latvians were the strongest revolution force. Russian Empress Alexandra, an ethnic German recommended Czar Nikolai II to sent Latvian soldiers to other parts of Russia. However, because of outstanding performance of Latvian Home Guards the Russian High command accepted the idea.

The Latvian Rifleman

In first days of forming 3700 men joined voluntary, in second half of 1915, there was 6392 voluntary soldiers. Eight Latvian battalions were later reformed in regiments. With the reserve regiment in Tartu there were 38, 100 Latvians Rifleman fighting in Russian army. The formation of Latvian first national units was taken by great euphoria; this was different from Latvian Waffen SS legion, because it was pure Latvian initiative.

The front line as dangerously close to Riga. In length of 90 kilometers, from Dole Island in river Daugava, Berzmente-Dalbe-Mangaļi forest guard-house, the Swamp of Tīrelis, Ķemeri, Ragaciems to the shores of the Gulf of Riga a line of entrenchments and fortifications was established. Latvian Rifleman along with Russian soldiers guarded the city of Riga.

The German advance to Riga was stopped in October. Germans were surprised by the strength and courage of Latvian soldiers. Because of this Germans restrained from full blown attack against Riga for two years. Russians however ordered many attacks in the summer of 1916 which Latvians fought with heavy losses. The Russian High command was inefficient and issued foolish orders. In July, because of bad situation in the Western front Russians were forced by the allies to attack Germans to relive the allied defense. Russians ordered badly planed attacks near the road to Bauska to advance to Baldone and Iecava. Attack was in daylight and soldiers entered the Smerdkuļa swamp. Artillery bullets got lost in the swamp dunes and German lines were untouched. Soldiers were exposed to machine gun fire. Germans shelled the attackers and at the end of the day only the small part of survivors reached the German entrenchments.

Heavy battles took place on the left side of the river Daugava still owned by Russians. The 2 km² wide peninsula was made as fortification for two battalions. On April 16 1916 two Latvian Rifleman Battalions were sent there to assist the Russian troops who defended this bridgehead. The Germans wanted to capture this small plot of land to gain crossing point over Daugava. The Latvian Rifleman was under constant artillery bombardment. On September 25 1916 Germans even used chemical gas weapons. However, the bridgehead was not captured by Germans until July 27 1917, when following the German offensive the bridgehead was evacuated. Both Latvian battalions lost 167 men. That’s why the bridgehead got its infamous name – The Island of Death.

The Island of Death

The Island of Death

However, the Russian High command planed more attacks. Bulgarian General Radko Dimitriev planned to use eight Latvian Rifleman regiments to attack heavily fortified German lines in night-time without artillery support. In December 12 General Dimitriev gathered the Latvian commanders and issued his plans. He lied about the seven times larger Russian forces and the great reserves. In reality the attack force was only three times larger. Latvian commanders were mostly optimistic and promised to carry out the attack with greatest confidence.

Latvian soldiers were also optimistic and the Russian promise that they could liberate Jelgava boosted them. The spirits were high and nobody suspected that the attack was intended for much more local purposes and after they would break the first lines, Latvians without Russian support would have to face concrete or heavy rafter blockhouses and machine guns.

The map showing the location of the Christmas battle

At the first day of battle temperature was around O°, but on next days fell down to 25º to 30º. Wounded or sleeping soldiers froze to death. Latvians were ordered to capture the first German lines to open way for reinforcements. By the cover of snowstorm and arctic outfits Latvians cut passages trough the barbed wires. After that they rushed to the first German battle line. Next two days were spent on heavy fighting and the second battle line was captured. Attack was halted because there was no Russian reinforcements and Siberian units refused to assist Latvians.

Germans started heavy counterattack. It was withstood for 48 hours. Then on January 7 Latvian rifleman attacked heavily fortified German lines in the sand dunes of Tireli swamp. In the middle of the German fortification was the fortified hill that later was called Ložmetējkalns (Machine Gun Hill). Along with Siberian unit’s Latvian rifleman captured this fortification.  About 1000 German men were captured. The outcome of the attack was 7 km wide gap on the German front lines. But, no supportive attack from Russians ever took place.

On January 23 Germans gathered forces for the counter attack. In the temperature of -48º Latvian Rifleman along with Siberian divisions were left alone to face Germans. Russians ordered three counter attacks that all failed. In so Germans recaptured 4/5 of their lost positions. However, the Machine Gun hill remained in the hands of Russians.

German fortification at Machine Gun hill

The courage of Latvian Rifleman was known far outside Russia, because of this battle. However, the broken promises by the Russians turned down the morale of Latvian officers and soldiers. The foolishness of the Russian commanders and cowardice of the Russian soldiers was clearly visible. The Russian command sent Latvian to death on purpose, because they did not trust them and Latvians were the only ones who were truly capable to fight. Understandably the soldiers from Siberia did not saw any point to fight in land that they did not considered their homeland. But, for Latvians it was the fight for their very own land.

Front lines were broken only in the summer of 1917. Because of the fall of Czarist government, Germans captured Riga. Latvian rifleman’s again showed courage and managed to hold Germans back. But, it only helped the panicky retreating Russians to leave untouched.  This was the last time Latvian Rifleman fought for Russia. The sense of hopelessness led to radicalization of the Latvian Rifleman. Majority of then showed support for Bolsheviks and on the next years were the core of the Red Army. Those who stayed later fought in the Latvian Army in the war of freedom.

The site of the Christmas Battle the Tireli swamp was drained during the inter war period. After the regain of independence a museum dedicated to the battle site was brought up. A dozens of entrenchments and bunkers are restored and dozens of  people visit this site every year.

Selected Sources:

Bērziņš, Valdis. (1995) Latviešu strēlnieki: drāma un traģēdija. Riga : Latvijas Vēstures institūta apgāds.
Bērziņš, Valdis. (2000) 20. gadsimta Latvijas vēsture. I, Latvija no gadsimta sākuma līdz neatkarības pasludināšanai, 1900-1918. Riga: Latvijas vēstures institūta apgāds.
Lācis, Visvaldis (2001) Latviešu zemes un tautas vēsture. Rīga : ASF Saules koks : Vieda.

 

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