March 16thLatvian Legion Commemoration Day

Seventy-five years ago, the two largest units of the Latvian Legion fought together, for the first time and only time under a Latvian commander, against the Soviet forces soon to re-invade Latvia. In battles lasting three days—March 16-18, 1944—on the banks of the Velikaya, a mere 40 kilometres from Latvia's eastern border, the Latvians managed to defeat Russian forces to re-capture strategic Hill 93.4, near Sapronovo[1].

Hill 93.4, the Velikaya River
lies about 15 km to the west

In 1952, the Latvian soldiers' welfare organization, "Daugavas Vanagi" ("Daugava's Hawks"), passed a resolution to recognize March 16th as a day of remembrance of the Legion. For nearly half a century, Latvians in exile celebrated Latvian Legion day without incident: former Legionnaires gathered with friends and family to remember their comrades—wounded, missing, dead (some 30-50,000 Latvians died in the hope of restoring Latvia's independence)—and to mourn the loss of their homeland's freedom. The day typically included a public church service including a moment of silence, and ceremonial and social events. Those same traditions were taken up in Latvia after independence—where the commemoration continued to be observed with no controversy until Russia launched its allegations of Nazism in 1998.

The Battle[2]

The Red Army began its expected attack at 6:40am on March 16 with a massive artillery barrage. At 7:00, their tank and infantry attacked the village of Sapronovo and Hill 93.4Hill 93.4 was a strategic target—possession of the hill gave the the Russians control over the entire Velikaya River valley and the villages of Sapronovo and Oshidkovo. By 7:10, Soviet tank had overrun Sapronovo, and the defeated 2nd Company of 15th Reconnaissance Battalion under Second Lieutenant Krastiņš began its retreat toward the Velikaya River. Hardest hit was the 11th Company of the 43rd Grenadier Regiment, nearly wiped out. Bolstered with newly arrived reinforcements, Russian forces captured Hill 93.4 by 11:00.

The 15th Division's reserve battalion, about 140 men, had already received the order at 7:05 to mobilize and move to Novy Put. A battle group was organized there under Colonel Silgailis consisting of the reserve plus another battalion and company, ordered to launch a counter-attack at 12:10. Their first attack was partly successful, eventually retaking Sapronovo and Oshidkovo, but failing to retake Hill 93.4. The battle group suffered heavy casualties in dead, wounded, and a large number missing in action. After additional action that evening, Sapronovo and Oshidkovo was firmly in Latvian hands and remained so for the remainder of the day. It is worth noting that the 15th Division's official (German) casualty record understated losses as compared to Latvian records of 187 lost within the units most directly engaged in battle by nearly 100 men.

Reinforcements arrived early on the morning of March 17th, however, both companies of antitank gun crews had no guns. Even with reinforcements, the individual companies reassembled averaged no more than about 15 men, a disastrous state of battle strength. The battle group commenced another counter-attack at 9:30 but failed because the Russians attacked at the same time, and with tank support—recall, the Latvian antitank companies had no guns. Latvian forces suffered another dozen killed, 46 wounded and two missing in action. That evening, additional reinforcements were added via redeployment of existing forces, however, the 15th Division was not granted any of the additional reserves it requested in time.

After harassing the enemy overnight and into the the next day, March 18th, the battle group was to counter-attack again at 17:00 with the assistance of air support. The first set of air strikes came at 15:47, followed by another coinciding with the ground attack. Hill 93.4 was back in Latvian hands by 17:40—after relatively light casualties as compared to the prior two days, suffering another seven killed, 20 wounded, and five missing.

After a failed attack, Russian forces ceased action and began to prepare for an attack elsewhere along the battle front.

[1]Duplication of place-names within Russia results in map searches returning locations other than actual villages referenced in the battle account.
[2]Kuzmins, Valdis. The 15th Division of the Latvian Legion in the Fight on the Velikaya River, at the Latvian War Museum website (summarized from source, see Additional Reading)

Additional Reading

Updated: June, 2017

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