Latvian LegionThe 19th Division's battles in Vidzeme province, Latvia.
On 18 July 1944, general Streckenbach, the divisional commander, met with his regimental commanders in order to decide the fate of the 19th Division. From the Latvians, Col. Lobe (divisional infantry commander), Col. Skaistlauks, Lt.-Col. Taube, Lt.-Col. Kocins, and Maj. Galdins took part in the meeting. In the discussion of organizational questions it became clear, that the division could not be reconstituted on the
lines existing before the 10 July Russian offensive, when each regiment had consisted of three full battalions; the manpower losses were too great. Gen. Streckenbach announced, that for re-forming and training purposes it had been decided to transfer the 15th Division to Germany. The fate of the 19th Division, he said, was an open question; a decision would have to be made. The Latvian commanders should first decide whether their units wanted to participate in the defense of their homeland at all. To the last question, the Latvian commanders unanimously gave affirmative answers. Lt.-Col. Kocins proposed to leave small, heavily armed units in Vidzeme, which, if it came to the worst, could continue a guerrilla war. Col. Lobe stated, that the 19th Division should remain as it was; new reinforcements were needed. The divisional commander agreed, that the divisional form should be nominally retained; the regiments should consist of as many companies as could be handled by the remaining officers. In order that the units would receive tactical tasks commensurate with their true battle strength, the army and corps were advised that the 19th Division had been reduced in strength and for the time being would call itself Kampfgruppe Streckenbach. In order to facilitate the regrouping, the units of the 19th Division were pulled further back (the 1st Artillery Regiment, however, remained in position to support German units). On 20 July, the Division began the march and on 23 July reached the Lubana-Dzelzava region. In a week the regroupment had been accomplished. The regiments were renamed battle groups. The 1st Regiment [Latvian numeration] — Kampfgruppe-bataillon 42. [German numeration]; the 2nd Regiment [Latvian numeration] — Kampfgruppe-bataillon 43. [German numeration]; the 6th Regiment [Latvian numeration] — Kampfgruppe-bataillon 44. [German numeration]. In
official documents the units retained their former names. In reducing the infantry regiments, a part of the men were assigned to the 15th Division; the 15th Artillery regiment and the 15th Sapper Battalion, in turn, were now assigned to the 19th Division. The remainder of the 15th Division, including a small nucleus of officers and NCO's, was moved to the Valmiera-Limbazi region; later, during the second half of August, 1944, they were shipped via Riga to Germany, to be utilized as cadres for the new 15th Division forming there. At this time, changes also took place in the command of the VI SS Corps and the 15th Division
took place: Generalleutnant Treuenfeld, who had commanded the Corps only since June, was replaced by SS General Krieger; von Obwurzer replaced the 15th Division's former commander General Heilmann.
On 27 July, the 19th Division was ordered to take up positions on the northern shore of Lake Lubans and the forests lying north of the lake. The German units had been pushed back all along the front and were so frightened, that they actually expected the Russians to cross Lake Lubans itself to attack them.
The 19th Division's strength was as follows. Infantry: 1st Regiment (CO, Maj. Galdins) — six assault companies, a headquarters company, a heavy company with mortars, an antitank platoon; 2nd Regiment (CO, Maj. Stipnieks) — 4 assault companies, a headquarters company, a heavy company; the divisional reserve battalion (CO, Maj. Laumanis) — 3 assault companies and a heavy company; 6th Regiment (CO, Lt.-Col. Kocins) — 4 assault companies, a heavy company, a headquarters company. Artillery: 1st Artillery Regiment (CO, Col. Skaistlauks) — 3 light and 1 heavy sections. This force arrived on 8 August, during the time of the Aizkuja-Cesvaine battles. The 2nd Artillery Regiment (CO, Maj. NN), with 2 light sections, arrived only in the beginning of September, when the Division stood at Tirza. Technical units: The 15th Sapper Battalion (1st lt. Ijabs, CO); the 19th Communications Battalion (CO, maj. Gosepath); the 19th Sapper Battalion (CO, lt.-col. Saulitis) — arrived from Czechoslovakia during the second half of August; finally, the 19th Antitank and 506th Antiaircraft units.
Already on 28 July 1944, the 19th Division took up a 40 km wide position on both sides of lake Lubans, on the line Aizkarkles - Ikaunieki - NW shore of lake Lubans - Zvidziena - Lielpurvi - Licagals - Roznieki; the right flank was manned by the 6th, center—by the 2nd, and left flank—by the 1st Regiment. On 30 July the Russians attacked our left flank and penetrated to Roznieki, defended by German units. The Germans could not halt the enemy; therefore, the 4th company of the 1st Regiment was sent there. It counterattacked and threw the enemy back. On 1 August, the line held by the 19th Division was extended to Barkava. Between companies now there were 0.5 - 1 km wide gaps of stands of unharvested crops. On 3 August, the Russians broke the resistance of the German divisions, took Varaklani and Barkava, and in the afternoon also Aizkraukles and Licagals. The enemy superiority was enhanced by our artillery's complete lack of ammunition. On 4 August, the Russians, after strong artillery preparation, penetrated into the gaps between the companies of the 6th Regiment. Since the enemy had penetrated into both flanks of the Division, it was ordered to retreat to the left bank of the river Aiviekste during the night of 4/5 August. On 5 August, the Russians began to cross the river and established a bridgehead by capturing a bridge defended by a German punishment battalion. Near Meirani, enemy infantry attempted to cross Aiviekste on rafts; our 6th Regiment destroyed them with bazooka fire. Strong enemy infantry and tank forces now assaulted the flank and rear of the 6th Regiment, coming from across the bridge, from the locality of Ubani, along the Western bank of the river Aiviekste; the enemy was attacking in the direction of Meirani and the town of Madona. Utilizing the deep Meirani forest on its right flank and the Olga swamp behind it, it was possible to patch up the Division's exposed flank after a difficult forest battle. Unable to crush the 1st Regiment's defenses at Licagals, the Russians tried to go around lake Lubans, by forest paths, from the North; they hoped to cut the Lubans-Cesvaine highway on the left flank of the 19th Division—and that was the only supply road for the entire division. Although the 1st Regiment repulsed a Russian attack along the highway, the enemy, moving by forest paths, went around the left flank of the 19th Division and reached Dambisi (some 3.5 km North of Lake Lubans). On 6 August, the 2nd Regiment, thrown over there by auto transport, and supported by artillery, after a battle lasting seven hours defeated 2 Russian regiments from 2 different divisions. Still, on the afternoon of 6 August the 19th Division's situation was not good. Our units securely held the positions on the river Aiviekste. The Russians, however, had concentrated strong forces near Cepurites (5 km Northeast of Dambisi) and began a new attack. In order to cut the 19th Division's rear communications, the Russians—continuing their push against Dzelzava and Madona—on 6 August threw 2 divisions North; thus, they hoped to bypass the Lubans forest from the West and take the towns of Cesvaine and Dzelzava. Since neither the [German] l6th Army nor the VI SS Corps had any reserves to throw against both of the Russian wings attacking the 19th Division from the North and the South, the situation could only be saved by a retreat from the river Aiviekste position.
Already on 6 August the 2nd Regiment was ordered to pull back to the Cesvaine region. For this move, the Division had only a single road—the Cesvaine-Lubans highway. Since the 6th Regiment was near Meirani, it had to first get to the highway, skirting the Olga swamp, where its motorized columns bogged down several times. On 7 August 1944 the 19th Division took up new positions on the line Dalgi - Silenieki - Aizkuja - Ataugas - Dravenieki. There, especially in the right wing, began a battle with the Russians, who were attacking on a broad front. Our regiments were placed as follows: Right wing—2nd, center—6th, left wing—1st. Already in the evening of 6 August the 2nd company of the 2nd Regiment came into contact with superior Russian forces near Poteri. When both sides received reinforcements, on 7 August began a struggle on both sides of the road, North and South of Poteri. Both flanks of the 2nd Regiment were exposed. In order to improve the situation, Maj. Stipnieks launched an attack designed to create an unbroken front line. A company commanded by 1st Lt. Butkus took Lejasbulatas. In the afternoon the enemy broke in the forest east of Gaitnieki and Silenieki. An immediate counterattack, led by 1st Lt. Butkus, partly cleared the forest. The 6th Regiment was ordered to attack in the direction of Aizkujas and Silenieki. The attack began on 8 August. The only tie between the 6th and 1st regiments was at Pietnieki; therefore, the brunt of the Russian assaults was directed against this juncture, l½ Latvian companies were attacked by an entire Russian regiment, supported by artillery. Kalnabulatas also changed hands several times in bitter fighting; yet, the 2nd Regiment managed to retain them. The 6th Regiment took Priednieki, Lejiesi, and Abolkalns, but having suffered heavy losses, could penetrate no further; artillery support was lacking. The commander of the 2nd Regiment, in view of his exposed right flank, in the evening of 8 August decided to pull back to new positions West of Bikseri. With this, ended the so-called "Lubans battles." On 9 August, the 6th and 1st Regiment were also pulled back to new positions; on the whole, the front line now stood along the railroad [running between the towns of] Plavinas and Cesvaine. Already on 9 August, the Russians had penetrated to the Cesvaine railroad station, but were thrown back again.
During the "Lubans battles" the Latvian units achieved the impossible. No matter how the Russians tried, the Latvian forces could not be surrounded; indeed, they beat the attacker at the southern end of Lake Lubans (6th Regiment), and at Dambisi anf Valgi (2nd Regiment). The battles at Dalgi, Aizkujas, and Priednieki frustrated the enemy's effort to take the town of Cesvaine, which, if taken, would have let the Russians to (1) surround the Latvian forces in the Lubans area, and (2) open up the road to the city of Cesis—this would have meant that Vidzeme province would have been cut in two, and a wedge driven between the German l6th and 18th Armies (the latter was still fighting in Estonia).
On 10 August, the Russians, supported by strong tank forces and using a hitherto unequaled concentration of multiple guns (the so-called "Stalin organs"), attacked the 2nd Regiment. The regiment repulsed the attack, but the German sapper battalion on its right flank buckled under the pressure. The Russians broke through the main line of defense and threatened to envelop the right flank of the 2nd Regiment. Panic threatened to break out in its ranks, and only through the energetic leadership of Maj. Stipnieks were the units rallied and the enemy stopped.
On 12 August, a new defensive position was formed on the line Cesvaine - Ceplisi - Kurpnieki - Nesaule hill. After the retreat to these positions there was a lull in the fighting, which the Division utilized to replenish losses suffered in the preceding battles. The Field Reserve Battalion, which had taken part in all actions, was renamed the 19th Fusiliers Battalion and sent to Jaunpiebalga for training. Col. Lobe (the infantry commander of the 19th Division) was first sent to Zosen to supervise the training of reserve units, and then to Torn [Germany] as second in command of Latvian construction regiments. There, already on 16 December 1944 he was turned over to a field military court, being accused of collaboration with the Latvian resistance movement.
On 20 August the Russians again attacked the Division's right wing, defended by the 2nd Regiment. A heavy struggle, with luck favoring alternatively both sides, now began. After an extremely heavy artillery barrage the Russians on 21 August continued their attack; the center and the left wing of the 2nd Regiment could not stand the pressure and started to retreat North. The attack also hit the right flank of the 6th Regiment, whose 3rd company also started to retreat. Utilizing this breakthrough, the Russian forces rapidly moved in the direction of Karzdaba. However, thanks to a concentrated curtain of fire from our [depressed] antiaircraft guns, personally directed by the divisional commander Gen. Streckenbach, we surprised the Russians and forced their remnants to retreat. The enemy, because of heavy losses, broke off the attack, and there was another lull in the fighting. Thus ended the so-called Cesvaine-Karzdaba battles. During this all three battle groups received new battalions and discarded the title Kampfgruppe. The grenadier regiments were now 2 battalions strong, had an artillery battery, and sapper and communications platoons. The so-callcd "Ulrich regiment," consisting of a German battalion and Lt.-Col. Birzulis' police battalion, was also tactically subordinated to the division.
On 19 August 1944, a Russian tank force had penetrated from Madona to Ergli, threatening to surround all German forces North of the river Daugava. A counterattack by German mechanized units completely defeated this armored wedge at Ergli, and the threat to Riga was averted. The Red Army, which on 1 August had penetrated to the city of Tukums, was thrown back to the city of Jelgava and Siauliai [Lithuania] by General Schoerner's successful counterattack, begun on 16 August. In the second half of August, the front line in Vidzeme province was: Ergli - Skriveri - Liezere - Karzdaba - Cesvaine - Dzelzava - Gulbene - Lejasciems - [The river] Gauja. Thus, from Liezere to Lejasciems there was a "sack" towards the East; in it, together with other formations of the VI SS Corps, also was the 19th Division.
Knowing, that the enemy would try to pinch off the neck of the "sack," [the army command] mobilized civilians and had them dig a new line of defense on the banks of the rivers Kuja and Tirza, the so-called "Tirza position." During this time, the commander of the 2nd Regiment, Major Stipnieks (who was ill) was replaced by battalion commander Rubenis; the latter was later killed in action in Pomerania in 1945. Awaiting a new Russian attack, the commanders of the VI SS Corps decided to straighten out the front during the night of 11/12 September; this involved a retreat to the "Tirza position." This was a part of a general retreat maneuver, the aim of which was to leave Vidzeme province. For the units retreating frontally, the 20-km march was comparatively easy; both of the pivoting flanks, however, had a much more difficult time. The Russians' initially did not notice this maneuver, and even during 12 September opened fire on our empty trenches. Only the 6th Regiment, in the Division's right flank, had to beat off heavy attacks by the pursuing Red Army. The brunt of the attack was directed against the 1st Battalion, commanded by private Praudins. This man, a former captain of the Cesis Regiment [of the independent Latvian army], in the summer of 1942 commanded the 19th ("Latgale") [police] battalion in the Leningrad front. Following a denunciation, a German court-martial sentenced him to death. However, after 3 months of imprisonment in the Riga Central Prison, on intercession of Latvian authorities the sentence was cancelled, and he was sent back to the front as a private. There, the commander of the 6th Regiment ordered him to take charge of a battalion, even though still having the rank of a private. Only on 30 January 1945 was he promoted to major.
During the night of 12/13 September, the 3rd company of the 6th Regiment also left the Karzdaba heights; this rear guard, already surrounded, had still managed to hold all road junctions. On 15 September, the Corps took up positions on the line Liezere - Dobuli - Tospavari - Kujpapeni - Kaulaci - Murani - Kempji - Grote. Already in the late afternoon the Russians were gathering for an attack on the [19th] Division's center, but were defeated already in their own trenches. The enemy attacks during the days immediately following were also unsuccessful. During this time, Col. Osis replaced Maj. Rubenis as commander of the 2nd Regiment; the latter was sent to the 15th Division in Germany.
In mid-September, the 18th German army was being rapidly evacuated from Estonia. It passed by the rear of the l6th Army to Riga, and from there to Kurzeme [Courland]. Therefore, the Russians tried to break through the front held by the 16th Army, in order to reach the Gulf of Riga, frustrate the evacuation which was proceeding as planned, and destroy at least a part of the German forces in Vidzeme. In this situation, the 19th Division was not destined to remain in the "Tirza position" for long. Fighting rear-guard actions on previously prepared positions near Ranka, Jaunpiebalga, Vecpiebalga, Drusti, Sermuksi, Skujene, and Nitaure, the Division reached the so-called "Sigulda position" during the night of 24/25 September. There, it manned a sector between Silini (3 km North of More), and Purlauri (3 km North of Kartuzi). Two regiments were placed in battle positions: The 6th Regiment to the right, the 1st—to the left. On 26 September 1944, the Russians, supported by tanks, launched a powerful thrust in a comparatively narrow front sector, in the direction of Nitaure-Sigulda. The brunt of their attack hit the 1st Battalion of the 6th Regiment, where that battalion's 3rd Company defended Mazratnieki. That day the 1st Battalion was attacked by 4 Russian battalions; on 27 September 1944, it was attacked by 9 Russian battalions. Since the Latvian artillery ran out of ammunition, the Russians broke in Mazratnieki six times, but each time were thrown out by counterattacks. With the aid of 2nd Battalion of the 2nd Regiment, the enemy breakthrough was liquidated in the bloodiest close combat ever experienced by the 19th Division. The Russians thrown out of our trenches during the day, tried to attack again during the night of 27/28 September. However, on the morning of 28 September our artillery received ammunition and thus could lay down a curtain of fire on the enemy infantry already in its own positions. Our trenches in the Mazratnieki region had to be filled up—they were overflowing with Russians killed in close combat, including a regimental commander. In the afternoon of 28 September the Russians attacked the 1st Regiment's position Northeast of Kartuzi. Yet, the regiment, supported by 6 German assault guns, regained its positions on 29 September. With this, the "More battles" came to a close; they were the last ones for the 19th Division in the Vidzeme province of Latvia. The Division not only held its sector against an enemy nine times stronger, but even defeated it, notwithstanding the fact that the Russian infantry attacked supported by artillery, mortar, antitank gun, and tank fire. During the night of 6/7 October 1944 the 19th Division left Sigulda and started to move towards Kurzeme province. On 10 October, it crossed the river Daugava near Mazjumprava, and, bypassing Riga from the South, continued its march towards Dzukste, [in Kurzeme], which it reached on 11 October. Only the 15th Artillery Regiment, together with German batteries, still had to fight from 8-13 0ctober 1944 near Ropazi and Rumpmuiza, in order to relieve the increased Russian pressure on Riga along the right shore of Daugava. During this time our batteries used up more ammunition than ever before. During the night of 13/14 October the artillery regiment crossed the Ramava army bridge across Daugava, and proceeded by highway to Bitskepi (some 30 km South of the town of Tukums) in order to take part in further battles of the 19th Division.
In their retreat from Latgale province, and—particularly—from Vidzeme province, the German armies continued the "scorched earth" tactics pursued in Russia. The rural population was driven out from their homes to dig trenches; the buildings, not excepting churches, were set on fire and destroyed, even those which were of no military significance whatsoever. Only when general Bangerskis protested against these actions, did general Schoerner, commander of Army Group North, point out in a special bulletin to his troops, that: Latvia was not enemy territory; it was forbidden to destroy crops and to senselessly slaughter cattle, rob, and requisition property without authorization, particularly the property of refugees. In this connection, it was said that most complaints were directed against the units composed of volunteers of Russian nationality who had lived in Latvia, and members of the Todt organization.
As regards evacuation of the population, there was no agreement among either Latvian or German authorities. One day it was announced that Riga would be held at any cost and that Vidzeme would not be evacuated; the second day this announcement was cancelled. It was clear, that for technical reasons alone it was impossible to totally evacuate the 500,000 inhabitants of Vidzeme—the roads were clogged with retreating army units. Kurzeme could not support that many evacuees. Jeckeln, the police chief, stated in a conversation to Bangerskis on 19 September, that only the families of soldiers would be evacuated. The rest of the population was contained in a 15-20 km deep strip in back of the front line, and forced to dig fortifications—a completely senseless task. The Latvian policemen on independent duty (some 2,000 men) were gathered in Riga for transportation to Germany. Russians [i.e., citizens of Latvia of Russian nationality] were appointed in their place. The Russian civilians evacuated from Russia, as well as the Russian prisoners released for farm work—these, too, now began to reveal their true colors. In Riga, Generalkommissar Lohse was replaced by Koch, the former boss of the Ukraine; Koch ordered the liquidation of the [Latvian] Local Authority. He also ordered that no one be left in Riga and Vidzeme whom the Russians could use as a soldier or as a worker. On 27 September, Jeckeln told Bangerskis about this decision. In order to hasten voluntary evacuation, a special Evacuation Headquarters was established at the Generaldirektorium for Internal Affairs [reference to a department of the Latvian Local Authority]; it was headed by J. Niedra. On 6 October, by order of Jeckeln, people were literally hunted down in the streets of Riga for transportation to Germany. When Bangerskis objected to such deportation methods, Jeckeln answered, that Germany needed all men who could bear arms, and that Germany was not Siberia. The removal of the inhabitants of Riga took place mostly by night, in ships escorted by German naval units, sailing from Daugavgriva. The Russians often bombed the refugee ships with incendiaries, sinking several vessels. The rural population proceeded to Kurzeme by horse transport. Riga fell to the Russians on 13 October 1944.