Latvian LegionThe Latvian Divisions in Battle: Russia.
In April 1943, all three police battalions were located in the Krasnoye Selo region, where they were merged into the 1st Latvian Infantry Regiment; its commander was Col. Veiss. Col. Lobe, who arrived there shortly afterwards, began to form the 2nd Latvian Infantry Regiment (nicknamed the "Imanta" regiment). To form the latter, the 13th, 24th, and 26th [Latvian] Police battalions were merged (it should be noted, that the 18th battalion was only sent to the regiment in June 1943, when the regiment already held a sector of the front near Volkhov). Simultaneously with the infantry, Capt. Gravelis began to form the artillery section. Formation of other units was also begun.
After a month of training, the brigade was sent to the Volkhov front sector, to hold the position Terenitse Kurlyandskaya–Spaskaya Polist. This position was in a swampy vicinity and was almost completely unfortified. Within a short period of time, our soldiers transformed it into an exceptional fortified position. The brigade made several local attacks, the biggest of which was the 3 September 1943 assault on the Spaskaya Polist hill, designed to improve the battle line. The assault was successful and our losses small. Because of the great tactical importance of the hill, the Russians attempted to recapture it during the following days. In the heavy fighting that followed, the brigade, despite considerable losses, retained the hill. As of 5 October 1943, the brigade was commanded by Schuldt.
In 1944, the Russians began their great offensive in the Leningrad front. On 14 January, they broke through the German front some 4-5 km south of the positions of the 2nd Brigade. The enemy planned to encircle the German forces which stood in the Volkhov front sector south of Lake Ladoga. In order to relieve the pressure on those German units engaged at the site of the breakthrough, the brigade formed a battle group, consisting of 1st Battalion of the 1st Regiment (commander, Capt. Jansons), and the 2nd Battalion of the 2nd Regiment (commander, Maj. Stipnieks). Its task was to attack the enemy flank . from the North. The battle group, commanded by Col. Veiss, successfully carried out the assigned task, freeing a corridor through which two surrounded German divisions could retreat. The battle group had to fight particularly bitterly near Kekochov on 17 January 1944. Col. Veiss, for his courageous and able leadership, was awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross—the first Latvian to receive that decoration.
Due to the generally deteriorating situation on the Northern Front, the 2nd Brigade, on 19 January 1944, had to leave the positions it had built with difficulty and defended with gallantry, and to begin to retreat southeast, towards Gorenko. The retreat took place in great cold, deep snow, through a swampy and roadless region. Finding it impossible to break through towards Gorenko, the brigade changed directions and turned towards Pinev-Luga, where it took up a defensive position in the Gusi-Pyatiletsy region, some 10 km south of Pinev-Luga. This position was defended until 31 January. On 1 February the brigade retreated further southwest, through Orodezh and Bol'shie Sokol'niki. On 7 February, the brigade attacked Velasheva Gora, in order to lessen enemy pressure on the neighboring division. Having accomplished this task, the brigade during the following days retreated through Dubrovka - Antipov - Mal. Utorgosh - Podubyi - Romanovichi to Pskov. During this time (19 January to 25 February 1944), the brigade was incessantly battling both the advancing enemy and partisans, who attempted to block its retreat. During the heavy fighting near Zabolotye, the brigade lost Capt. Skrauja and Capt. Grants, commanders of the 2nd Battalion of the 2nd Regiment. From Pskov, the brigade was transferred to positions on the river Velikaya, where it was ordered to hold a section of front next to and immediately north of the 15th Latvian Division.
The 15th Division, the formation of which had already begun on 23 March 1943, was sent to the front in mid-Novembcr 1943. The Division contained the following units [Comment: Latvian numeration]: The 3rd Infantry Regiment (CO, Col. Kripens), the 4th Infantry Regiment (CO, Col. Janums), the 5th Infantry Regiment (CO, Col. Apsitis), the 1st Artillery Regiment (CO, Col. Skaistlauks), the 15th Fusilier Battalion (CO, Capt. Lapainis), the 15th Sapper Battalion (CO, Capt. Klavins), the 15th Antitank Battalion (CO, Capt. Trezins), the 15th Antiaircraft section (CO, Capt. Bergs), the 15th Liaison Battalion (CO, Dostmann), and the 15th Field Reserve Battalion (CO, Maj. Smits). Many units were undermanned by as much as 25 percent. The regiments had only 2 battalions each. The 1,500 recruits of the 3rd Regiment had had only two weeks' training. Units of the division received their battle equipment only a few days before leaving for the front, or even on the very day (as for example, the 5th Regiment). There were either no boots, or they turned out to be too small. There was a shortage of horses, cars, and other equipment. The reason for such hurry was the Russian breakthrough at Nevel; the German army command had already in November 1943, decided to withdraw also the Northern front to previously prepared positions on the river Velikaya. Due to a lack of reserves, the 15th Division was ordered to defend those positions. After their arrival at Novo Sokol'niki, the Latvian units were ordered to continue training and to finish construction of defensive fortifications in the rear. In order to give the new soldiers battle experience, small groups of them were assigned to German front-line units in a rotating order. When in January began the Russian offensive, these Latvian soldiers were thrown into battle and thus were lost to the Division. The same must be said about the soldiers engaged in constructing fortifications; they, too, were drawn into rear-guard action. All protests by the Latvian commanders about such dispersal of Latvian units were of no avail. Even more—during the continuing battles, the 15th Division was repeatedly forced to send individual units to German divisions. For example, the 1st Battalion of the 5th Division was assigned, to the 69th German division, and the 2nd Battalion—to the 83rd German division. Moreover, the 2nd Battalion was broken up into companies: One company was assigned to the 457th German infantry regiment, two more—to the 275th regiment; finally, the last company was split into squads and assigned to various German units. The Latvian regimental commander and his staff remained in the rear with nothing to do; the battalion staffs also could not command their companies, and thus they likewise had no tasks which to fulfill. The Germans also took the light and heavy machine guns belonging to the men of the 15th Division which had been killed or wounded.
Finally, in the beginning of February, 1944, the 15th Division was ordered to proceed to the Belebel'ka region, some 45 km southwest of Staraya Rusa, and to take up positions on the river Redya. On the way to the Loknya railroad station, where the Division was to board trains, the 1st Battalion of the 3rd Regiment, and a part of the 15th Fusilier Battalion were suddenly [taken from the main body of troops and] thrown into battle in order to liquidate a Russian breakthrough. The battle lasted from 5-10 February, at which time the breach was contained and the Division could resume its march to the Loknya railroad station unmolested. In this battle the Latvian units were led by col. Kripens.
The sector assigned to the Division was approximately 30 km wide; due to such width, the Division's right flank consisted of a number of defensive points, with spaces in between. The Russians utilized this fact. During the night of 14/15 February 1944, under cover of a snowstorm, one of their ski battalions, and the 638th Russian Assault Regiment (totaling some 400 men), crossed our battle line south of Sokolye, at a location where the distance between our defensive points was 3 km. Having spent the day in the depths of the forest, the Russians on the night of 16/17 February attacked a point in our line simultaneously from the front and from the rear. The attack was directed against the junction of the 4th Regiment and the 15th Fusilier Battalion; therefore, the inner flanks of these units soon found themselves in a very dangerous position. Local reserves, organized by a regimental commander, counterattacked successfully. The Russians in our rear were encircled, and, after a battle lasting until the evening of 18 February, almost completely annihilated; only some 30 were taken prisoner.
However, the 15th Division did not long remain in this position. Already on 17 February it was ordered to start retreating (during the night of 20/21 February) to the so-called "Panther line" positions on the western bank of the river Velikaya. On that day the Division's commander, general von Pueckler-Burghaus, was replaced by the police officer Heilmann, a timorous man with little knowledge of military matters. Since the Division's route of retreat led through a swampy area, it was decided to utilize the single usable road Beiebel'ka - Dedovichi. The 4th Regiment and a company of the 1st Sapper Battalion, on the other hand, had to secure the Division's main column from the South; thus, it had to proceed westward in a separate column, straight through 70 km of swamps and forests. The retreat succeeded as planned. On 21 February, the Division's main column reached Aleksino, 30 km south of Dedovichi. On 22 February, the 15th Division was ordered to speed up the pace of the retreat. Since artillery and motorized units could not proceed in the direction indicated, they made a forced march along the Belebel'ka-Dedovichi road and then through Novorzhev to the river Velikaya. The rest of the Division reached its destination on 28 February, after 6 days of extremely difficult marches in great cold and snowstorms, through forests 30 km deep, finding directions often by compass alone, threatened by the advancing Red Army and partisans. The 3rd Regiment, which covered the Division's rear, had to also beat off repeated enemy attacks.
Due to a technical difficulty, the radio did not work; thus, it was impossible to relay the order about increasing the pace of the retreat to Col. Janums group [i.e., the 4th Regiment, proceeding separately]. Attempts to establish contacts with its patrols failed; they were destroyed by partisans. Meanwhile, Col. Janums' battle group, having beat off partisan attacks, reached the river Polisto only on 22 February, after a difficult cross-country march. Having received no orders, Col. Janums on the morning of 25 February continued to retreat along a country road. At this time, it became apparent that the battle group was surrounded deep within the rear of the enemy. In the afternoon of 26 February, in the village of Buligina, Col. Janums ordered his men to prepare for a breakthrough. All equipment—except weapons, ammunition, and food—was discarded. Avoiding roads and finding directions by compass, the group first headed due South, then West, through primieval forests. Already at the beginning of this march it was attacked by Russian cavalry; all vehicles were destroyed. Under cover of darkness, our exhausted soldiers during the night of 26/27 February broke through the envelopment and reached German lines near Novorzhev at noon of the 27th.
After their arrival in the "Panther line," the 2nd Brigade and the 15th Division were subordinated to the VI SS Corps, commanded by the Police General von Pfeffer-Wildenbruch. The assigned line of defense was 22 km wide. The line began at Voronichi, then went along the southern shore of the river Sorota until its junction with the river Velikaya, then along the western shore of Velikaya to Terekhov. The right flank of this position was defended by the 15th Division, the left—by the 2nd Brigade. Tactically, the position was ill-chosen: The western bank of Velikaya was much lower than the eastern bank; thus, the enemy could see deep within our rear and command it with his fire. Following a proposal of col. Veiss, it was decided to move the line of defense to the heights of the eastern bank. This could be done only opposite the position occupied by the 15th Division and the 2nd Brigade, since only here the Russians were yet not in close contact with the line of defense. Of course, this action was immediately followed by determined enemy counterattacks. A bitter and prolonged struggle, lasting from 4 to 19 March 1944, now began; it was started by a Russian attack on the Seredniye-Slepnyi village. One of the most bitter battles took place from 16-19 March, for possession of hill 93,4. The hill, on the eastern bank of Velikaya, commanded the entire river valley in the 2nd Brigade sector; if the hill were lost, the entire position on the eastern bank of Velikaya would have been endangered. During the three-day battle the hill changed hands several times. Finally, in the evening of 18 March, after a counterattack supported by German assault guns and bombers, it remained decisively in our hands. This was the only battle in the entire war, when both big Latvian units fought jointly and under Latvian command; in their sector, the Russians utilized 11 divisions.
During this time, the right flank and center of the 15th Division was not engaged in any large-scale battles; however, reconnaisances in force did take place. In this respect, the most successful were attacks by the 4th Regiment near Zhelezov (13 March) and Sizovka (14 March). Here, the first reinforcements arrived from Latvia, and our units could partly replenish the gaps in their ranks. The units which had been left attached to German formations near Novo Sokol'niki, also arrived. In mid-March, the 6th Regiment 2nd Brigade was assigned and was renamed the 19th Division.
Now, the Latvian units were named as follows: 15. Waffen-Grenadier Division der SS (Latvian no. 1), and 19. Waffen-Grenadier Division der SS (Latvian no. 2). The regiments of the 19th Division were named 42. Waffen-Grenadier Regiment der SS (Latvian numeration: 1st Regiment), 43. Waffen-Grenadier Regiment der SS (Latvian numeration: 2nd Regiment), and 44. Waffen-Grenadier Regiment der SS (Latvian numeration: 6th Regiment). The 1st Regiment was commanded by Maj. Galdins, the 2nd—by Col. Lobe, and the 3rd—by Lt.-Col. Kocins. Col. Veiss was named the infantry commander of the 19th Division.
On 15 March Schuldt, the commander of the 19th Division, was killed in action. The command was temporarily taken over by Bock; finally, on 13 April 1944 generalleutnant Streckenbach assumed permanent command. In view of our past manpower losses, the three recently formed Latvian frontier guard regiments were placed at the disposal of the VI SS Corps during the second half of March. The men of the 1st and 2nd Frontier Guard Regiments were used to replenish the ranks of the 15th and 19th Divisions; the 3rd Frontier Guard Regiment, together with the 15th Field Replacement Battalion, were placed in villages near Krasnoye (some 18 km East of the Latvian border), thus setting up something like a training and replacement center.
During the second half of March, 1944 it became known that the Russians were gathering forces for an offensive. On the morning of 26 March, they opened a very heavy artillery barrage on our positions along the river Velikaya. In a short space of time all of our heavy weapons had been destroyed. Around 7:30 AM the enemy attack began; it was directed mainly against the 5th Regiment. Having crossed the frozen river, the Russians already before noon had achieved a deep salient, reaching up to the regimental headquarters at Strezhnevo. This breakthrough was then, rapidly widened towards Southwest and South. Therefore, the 4th Regiment, which defended a sector South of the river Sorota, was forced to withdraw its left flank and to take up positions on the eastern bank of the river Velikaya. The 3rd Regiment, since it stood to the left of the 4th Regiment, was also obliged to withdraw its right-flank. Counterattacks, in which besides some units of the 4th Regiment and the 15th Fusiliers Battalion, also some German units took part, succeeded (with help of assault guns, and support aircraft) in stopping the Russians; however, the former positions could not be regained. When darkness fell, the battle died down. The enemy held a 3 km deep and 4 km wide bridgehead on the western bank of the river [Velikaya]. All Russian attempts to enlarge it during the following day were unsuccessful; so were also the German efforts to regain it. As the 15th Division had suffered heavy losses during the battle, it was replaced by German units (with exception of the 4th Regiment, which remained in position until 16 April, at which time it was transferred to Bardovo). The [4th] Regiment defeated several Russian attempts to cross the river Sorota, taking enemy prisoners and equipment.
Unable to increase their bridgehead towards Southwest and South, the Russians increased pressure against the right flank of the 19th Division. To defeat their attack, it was necessary to call in the 3rd Regiment (just withdrawn from the battleline) and some German units. During the attack of 7 April 1944, Col. Veiss was mortally wounded. He died in Riga on 16 April.
A second powerful Russian thrust, aimed at enlarging their bridgehead towards Northwest, took place on 11 April. After 30 minutes of very heavy artillery fire, the enemy attacked on a 2 km wide front running from Telechino to Aluferovo. The German units holding this sector began to retreat in disorder. The situation was saved only by a counterattack of our 2nd Regiment. In spite of their numerical superiority, the Russians were forced to retreat. When darkness fell, our previous positions had been largely regained, with exception of the Novyy Put' heights, which proved impossible to regain. After this engagement, there were no major operations in the sector held by the 19th Division for the time being.
During the second half of April 1944, the VI SS Corps was gradually transferred to the so-called Bardovo-Kudevere positions, some 50 km East of Opochka. As the spring thaw had begun, the transfer was difficult to accomplish. The sector which the corps had to defend was about 46 km wide; out of that distance, lakes constituted 20 km. The right flank (the so-called Bardovo position) was defended by the 15th Division; the left (the so-called Kudevere position)—by the 19th Division. As the Russians were not too active in this sector, both Divisions began intensive training; various courses were organized. In addition, formation of the 2nd Artillery Regiment [attached to the 19th Division] was begun; the rest of our artillery units were at this time being formed in Vainode [Latvia]. In the middle of May 1944, Col. Plensners (transferred from the staff of the Inspector General to the front by order of Jeckeln) took over the command of the 2nd Regiment; its former commander, Col. Lobe, was named infantry commander of the 19th Division. Col. Silgailis replaced Col. Plensners as the chief of staff of [Inspector General] Bangerskis.
The quiet period in the VI SS Corps sector was suddenly shattered by a Russian assault on height 228,4, lying in the extreme right flank of the 15th Division, and which was later nicknamed "Jani Hill." At 8 AM on 22 June 1944, the enemy opened a heavy artillery barrage against the hill, defended by the 3rd Regiment, and stormed it. Counterattacks, made with regimental reserves, were unsuccessful. Further attempts by the 15th Division, utilizing the 5th Regiment, the 15th Fusiliers Battalion, and units of the German 23rd Division, were likewise unsuccessful; the heights could not be regained. On 26 June, the Russians even managed to extend the breach.somewhat, surrounding the 3rd Regiment and some units of the 5th Regiment. How¬ever, our surrounded forces broke out during the night, suffering only small losses. This battle had brought about a conflict between Col. Kripens, (commander of the 3rd Regiment) and divisional commander Heilmann. Kripens requested that he be relieved of command. The request was granted, and on 26 June Lt.-Col. Aperats took over command of the regiment.
Towards the end of June 1944, superior Russian forces, supported by artillery, attacked height 261,1 (the so-called "Gruzdova height") in the 19th Division's sector. Their attacks were repulsed. On 22 June 1944, the Russians began a general offensive in the Vitebsk region, which resulted in the German line being broken through. In the beginning of July, the Red Army was rapidly approaching Vilnius; therefore, the German command was forced to pull back also their forces east of Opochka. On 9 July, preparations for the retreat began; our service organs, transports, and ammunition reserves were being pulled back. The Russians, whose observation planes often flew over our rear, found this out (or, partisans operating in the German rear could have given the Russians that information). On the morning of 10 July 1944, the Russians opened a concentrated barrage by artillery, mortars, and antitank weapons on a broad front; the fire was chiefly directed against the main roads [in our rear]. Many of our heavy weapons were destroyed before they could begin to return the fire. Thus, when the enemy, supported by tanks, began his assault, our troops began to retreat in a number of locations. The few rounds remaining for our weapons meant that the enemy could not be fought successfully. Regimental and battalion commanders hurriedly attempted to organize resistance in the lines to which the troops were supposed to have retreated, and tried to halt the Russian assault by counterthrusts. These attempts were frustrated by pincer movements of Russian tank forces.
There were many dramatic moments in the course of the Corps' retreat. The brunt of the enemy attack on 10 July was borne by the right wing of the 4th Regiment, holding a sector North of lake Ostriye. Here, Russian tank columns had penetrated deep into our positions. The tanks threatened to outflank us towards the Southwest (in the direction of Krasnoye), and to cut the single route of retreat for the units of the 15th Division (3rd Regiment, 5th Regiment, 15th Fusiliers Battalion), standing South of the lake just mentioned. These units were also threatened by Russian tank forces which had penetrated into the sector held by the German 23rd Division, and were approaching Krasnoye from the Southeast. However, our units managed to retreat behind the river Alolya; that this could be done, was partly due to a counterattack by the 34rd Regiment, and partly to Russian losses and fatigue.
In the 19th Division's sector, the brunt of the Red Army's attack was directed against the 1st Regiment, i.e., immediately North of lake Kudevere. Already at noon the Russians had penetrated 3 km into our lines and reached our artillery positions; there, they were halted by concentrated artillery fire, and our units were thus permitted to retreat. The defense was also aided by a heavy fog. In the sector held by the 2nd and the 6th Regiments (South of the lake), our lines held; the only exception was the extreme right wing of the 6th Regiment, where the Russians managed to break through and imperil that regiment's right flank.
Despite the disorganisation caused by the general Russian offensive, both divisions retreated without being surrounded, and early in the morning of 11 July took up new defensive positions (on the western bank of the river Alolya, near Vodobeg, and further on the line Berezovskoye–Dukhnov). Of course, this position, hurriedly manned with disorganized units, could not stem the pursuing enemy. Already on 11 July, the front was broken through in several places; yet, we frustrated Russian efforts to surround our units. Fighting a continuous rear-guard action, the 15th Division during the night of ll/l2 July retreated across a narrow neck of land between lakes, near Panov.
The Russians penetrated into, the 19th Division's sector through the junction between the 19th and 15th Divisions South of Dukhnov. The 2nd section of the 19th [Latvian numeration: 2nd] Artillery Regiment found itself in a particularly dangerous position. Its route of retreat had been cut by enemy tanks; the unit's antitank guns had no ammunition; simultaneously, the unit was under artillery fire from the rear. Suffering heavy losses, the unit at last broke out. The 15th Artillery Regiment, which retreated together with the 19th Division, also suffered heavy losses. Near Dukhnov, Col. Plensners had an incident with the commander of a VI SS Corps rear guard company, a German lieutenant. Accused of having disobeyed orders, Plensners was arrested and turned over to a military field court. However, the court found that the charges against Col. Plensners were untrue, and released him.
On the morning of 12 July both divisions took up a new position on the line Chernoye - Zvoni - Laptev, some 10-15 km East of Opochka. But already around noon the Russians broke through this position; the fighting lasted all through 12 and 13 July. During the night of 13/14 July our units retreated to the Western shore of the river Velikaya. The retreat was difficult, because there were only two bridges&mash;near Opochka and Krasnogori; the latter had been prematurely blown up by the Germans. The river was high and the current rapid. Many of our units had to wade across shallows, swim across, or cross the river on improvised rafts. On the Western side of the river Velikaya the Latvians fought until 15 July, when all units were obliged to retreat.
The retreat of the 3rd Regiment was particularly tragic. The regiment (including the 1st Battalion of the 4th Regiment and a company of the 15th Sapper battalion), had 500 men, as well as a German battalion of 240 men. The regiment, commanded by Lt.-Col. Aperats, on 15 July started to retreat in the direction of Pokrovskoye (near Zilupe, east of Karsava, on the Latvian-Russian border). The German battalion, which headed the march, lacked maps, and, instead of Pokrovskoye, reached Kopin on the river Isa, around midnight on 15 July 1944. Since the bridge across the river had been destroyed, the force had to swim across, and—at the same time—beat off attacks by strong partisan forces. On the morning of 16 July the group had crossed the river and continued to march North. At Stolbov the exhausted soldiers rested, and at 1 PM, continued to move North, in the direction of Mozuli. At a crossroads the group surprised a Russian battalion (the battle school, as it turned out, of a Russian division), and totally annihilated it, capturing weapons, horse-drawn transport and motorized transport. Having reached Peski, the battle group met renewed resistance and again attacked the enemy. Then, suddenly, 40 Russian tanks appeared over the crest of Mozuli hill; simultaneously, the enemy attacked the group from the rear. After a desperate battle lasting five hours, Lt.- Col. Aperats' battle group was destroyed: 22 Latvian and 6 German officers, and 300 men, were killed; some 300 were taken prisoner. According to reports, the critically wounded Lt.-Col. Aperats shot himself. Posthumously, he was awarded the German Knights Cross of the Iron Cross. As the battle died down, the wounded Maj. Hazners could only gather around him 4 wounded officers and about 60 men. On the night of l6/l7 July, 40 men succeeded in breaking through, and, utilizing swamps and forests, they moved West. It was found, that Aperats' battle group had been in the rear of an entire Red Army corps. Our soldiers, having gone several days without food, ill-armed, and lacking ammunition, had tied the enemy down for an entire day, thus aiding the retreat of the German units, including that of the VI SS Corps. On 17 July, both Latvian divisions crossed the Latvian-Russian frontier East of Karsava.
The retreat organized by the VI S3 Corps had been poorly planned. The infantry was asked to do too much. Within the space of 24 hours, the soldiers had to take up more than two defensive positions; the unavoidable consequence of this was the mixing up of units and the lowering of their capacity to resist. The organization of the rear was unbelievably bad. For example, a section of the 19th Division's staff took over the direction of the regiment's supply vehicles. Due to incorrect orders, the vehicles were pulled back too far and could not fulfill their assigned tasks. The field kitchens of some battalions were in Karsava, Rezekne [Latvia], and even near Riga, while our forces were still fighting at Opochka and Krasnoye. The February, March, and April battles on the banks of the river Velikaya, Southeast of Ostrov, had caused us heavy losses, particularly as regards cadres. The replenishments of the gaps in our ranks (i.e., from the frontier guard regiments), could not replace the losses of officers and NCO's—neither in a tactical and technical sense, nor in morale. During the stabilization period in the Kudevere position, the best NCO's and soldiers were sent to officers schools and NCO courses; they had yet not returned. This explains the relatively poor performance of the Latvian units during the retreat.