Marshal of Armoured Troops Pavel Rotmistrov.
The war cemetery and memorial at Lestene, Latvia, where the heaviest battles took place.
Iakov Grigorevich Kreizer, cmdr. 51st Army, wearing Hero of the Soviet Union star.
Marshal Hovhannes Bagramyan, wearing Order of Victory around neck and two Hero of the Soviet Union stars on upper left breast.
Latvian soldiers in the 19th SS Division.
Carl Hilpert, last cmdr. of Army Group Courland, wearing Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves.
Friedrich von Volckamer und Kirchensittenback, last cmdr. of 16th Army, wearing Knight’s Cross.
German Kurland stamp issued April 1945.
Ehrenfried-Oskar Boege, cmdr. 18th Army, wearing Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves.
THIS WEEK, 70 years ago, Army Group North, commanded by Ferdinand Schörner, remained trapped in the Courland Peninsula, which became known as the Courland Pocket. The Courland Peninsula is located in Latvia and is bordered on the east by the Gulf of Riga and the west by the Baltic Sea. Army Group North had become trapped there when the Red Army had launched Operation Bagration, in June, which tore a gaping hole in the German lines on the Eastern Front.
A land connection between Army Group North and Army Group South was first cut when the 5th Guards Tank Army, commanded by Marshal of Armoured Troops Pavel Rotmistrov, of First Baltic Front commanded by Ivan Bagramyan of Armenia, reached the Baltic coast near the 700-year-old town of Tukums, on the west side of the Bay of Riga, on July 30, 1944. This earned General Bagramyan his first Hero of the Soviet Union star.
Connection between the two Army Groups was reestablished with the success of Operation Doppelkopf, which began on August 16. Within the week, Tukums had been recaptured and a narrow 18 mile wide stretch along the coast connected Army Group North with the rest of the front.
By September 26, the last Axis units were evacuated from Estonia.
On October 5, General Bagramyan’s 1st Baltic Front slammed into 3rd Panzer Army, commanded by Erhard Raus, which was defending Klaipėda/Memel. That week, General Bagramyan’s 1st Baltic Front’s 51st Army, commanded by Iakov Grigorevich Kreizer, arrived at the coastal town of Polangen, Lithuania, just north of Klaipėda/Memel, again cutting Army Group North’s land communications with the rest of the Wehrmacht. Today, Polangen is Lithuania’s largest seaside resort with a population of 17,500. The 700-year-old city of Memel, once the northernmost city in Germany, is now the third-largest city in Lithuania, now known as Klaipėda and has a population of 157,000.
With Army Group North permanently isolated from the rest of the Army, its leaders begged Hitler to allow it to be evacuated or to break out. But Kriegsmarine chief Großadmiral Karl Dönitz urged that the area be held. The, new, Type XXI submarines that the Großadmiral and der Führer were convinced would be able to stem the overseas flow of Allied men and materiel, was in the testing stage. Having lost the French ports, the Baltic ports were essential to: 1) sea trials for the new “wonder weapon”; and 2) launching centers, should the trials be successful. Additionally, Courland’s air bases were the only ones from which the Luftwaffe could protect the flow of Swedish iron ore and nickel to Germany. Always reluctant to authorize a retreat, Hitler now had a valid reason to reject the army’s calls for a breakout/evacuation. Army Group North would fight on, in isolation, instead of returning to defend the Fatherland.
At the end of October, 1944, General Bagramyan’s First Baltic Front and Second Baltic Front, commanded by Andrei Yeremenko mounted an offensive against the Courland defenders. Just when it seemed the Soviets would overwhelm the defenders, the same heavy fall rains that had slowed the Axis offensive in 1941, did the same to the Red Army, finally halting it on November 25, 1944. During that assault, the Soviets had fired 480,000 artillery rounds at 18th Army, alone. They also lost 522 tanks.
The 18th Army, commanded by Ehrenfried-Oskar Boege, was one of two armies in Army Group North. The other was 16th Army commanded by Carl Hilpert.
On December 21, 1944, the Soviets tried, once more, to eliminate the Courland Pocket. After some initial success, the effort ended in failure on New Year’s Eve. Its artillery had expended 177,000 rounds and the VVS had flown 1600 sorties. The Second SS Latvian Division, commanded by Bruno Streckenbach, was a part of General Hilpert’s 16th Army. During this phase of the fighting, it was opposed, at times, by the Latvian CXXX Rifle Corps, commanded by Detlavs Brantkalns (for whom a street in Riga is named). It consisted of the 43rd Guards Division, and 308th Guards Division, with a total of 15,000 soldiers. When that occurred, there was very little fighting, so the Soviets transferred the Latvian Corps to another sector.
The Red Army made another attempt on January 24, 1945. By now Army Group North’s commander was Lother Rendulic, who would only remain in that position for another three days. The following day, the army group’s name was changed to Army Group Courland. This attempt ended on February 3, 1945, also in failure.
General Yeremenko’s Second Baltic Front attacked General Boege’s 18th Army, on February 20, 1945, attempting to capture the port of Libau/Liepãja, in order to further isolate the Axis, by eliminating its last remaining port. Today, with a population of 80,000, it is the third largest city in Latvia. The Red Army got as close as 12 miles to the city. Finally, the Red Army abandoned its efforts to eliminate the pocket on March 28, 1945. General Rendulic was given command of Army Group South which was engaged in a desperate struggle in Austria. He was succeeded by Heinrich von Vietinghoff, who served a month and a half in that position before General Rendulic returned, for two weeks. General Rendulic was succeeded by the Army Group’s last commander - General Hilpert - on March 25, 1945. Friedrich von Volckamer und Kirchensittenbach succeeded General Hilpert as commander of 16th Army.
On the morning of May 7, with Hitler dead and Berlin lost, General Hilpert received news that a surrender was imminent. He was ordered to evacuate as many soldiers as possible, to surrender to the Western Allies. From Libau/Liepãja, more than 25,000 were sent back to the Fatherland, while the remaining 200,000 awaited the warm embrace of the Red Army. Amongst those were 42 generals and 8038 officers of lesser rank. General Hilpert would die two years later in a Soviet prison.
With a death sentence already imposed on it by the U.S.S.R., SS-Oberführer Streckenbach’s Second Latvian SS Division did not surrender, although its commander did.
In the end, it didn’t matter whether the Army Group remained in Latvia or returned to help defend the Fatherland. The Wehrmacht, out of fuel and having ceded air supremacy to the Allies, could not stand against the combined might of the U.S.S.R., U.S.A., U.K., Canada and a rejuvenated, vengeful France.
NEXT: A FOURTH TERM
Mr. Wimbrow writes from Ocean City, Maryland, where he practices law representing those persons accused of criminal and traffic offenses, and those persons who have suffered a personal injury through no fault of their own. Mr. Wimbrow can be contacted at email@example.com