Latvian LegionThe 19th Division's battles in Kurzeme province.[1]

Battles of the "Courland Bridgehead"

On 9 October 1944, the Soviets reached the Baltic Sea near Memel after over-running headquarters of the 3rd Panzer Army. As a result, Army Group North was cut off from a route to East Prussia. Hitler's military advisors—notably Heinz Guderian, the Chief of the German General Staff—urged evacuation and utilisation of the troops to stabilise the front in central Europe. However, Hitler refused, and ordered the German forces in Courland and the (Estonian) islands Hiiumaa and Saaremaa to hold out, believing them necessary to protect German submarine bases along the Baltic coast. Hitler still believed the war could be won, and hoped that Dönitz's new Type XXI U-boat technology could bring victory to Germany in the Battle of the Atlantic, forcing the Allies out of Western Europe. This would allow German forces to focus on the Eastern Front, using the Courland Pocket as a springboard for a new offensive.[2] 

Hitler's refusal to evacuate the Army Group resulted in the entrenchment of more than 200,000 German troops largely of the 16th Army and 18th Army, in what was to become known to the Germans as the "Courland Bridgehead". Thirty-three divisions of the Army Group North—commanded by Ferdinand Schörner—were cut off from Prussia and spread out along a front reaching from Riga to Liepaja, retreating to the more defensible Courland position, abandoning Riga.[3] 

Soviet forces launched six major offensives against the German and Latvian forces entrenched in the Courland Pocket between 15 October 1944, and 4 April 1945.

The German two-phase withdrawals during the execution of the second stage of the Soviet Baltic Offensive (14 September-24 November 1944), subsequent to the pocket being formed in the Baltic Offensive's first stage, the Memel Offensive Operation.

First Battle

From 15 to 22 October 1944 — Soviets launched the Riga Offensive Operation on the 15th at 10:00 after conducting a heavy artillery barrage.[4] Hitler permitted the Army Group Commander, Ferdinand Schoerner, to commence withdrawal from Riga on 11 October, and the city was taken by the 3rd Baltic Front on 13 October.[5] The front stabilised with the main remnant of Army Group North isolated in the peninsula.

Second Battle

From 27 October to 25 November — Soviets launched offensive trying to break through the front toward Skrunda and Saldus including, at one point initiating a simultaneous attack by 52 divisions.[6] Soviets also attacked southeast of Liepaja in an attempt to capture that port. 80 divisions assaulted the Germans from November 1 to 15 in a front 12 km wide. Despite the 10:1 advantage in manpower, the Soviets seized only a strip of land roughly 4 by 12 km in size.[7] 

Third Battle

The 3rd grand battle (also known as "the other Christmas Battle") started on December 21 with a Soviet attack on Germans near Saldus. The Soviet 2nd Baltic (northern sector) and 1st Baltic Fronts (southern sector) commenced a blockade, precipitating the German defence of the Courland perimeter during Soviet attempts to reduce it. In this battle serving with the 2nd Baltic Front's 22nd Army Latvian 130th Rifle Corps faced their opposites in the Latvian 19th SS Division. The battle ended on December 31 and the front was stabilized. The Soviets had gained a few more square kilometers of territory at the expense of tremendous losses in men, tanks, aircraft, etc.[8] 

Fourth Battle

On 15 January 1945, Army Group North was renamed Army Group Courland (Heeresgruppe Kurland) under Colonel-General Dr. Lothar Rendulic. In the middle of January Heinz Guderian got Hitler’s permission to withdraw 7 divisions from Courland, however, Hitler refused to consider a total withdrawal.[9] On 23 January Soviets launched offensive trying to break through the front toward Liepaja and Saldus. They managed to take the bridgeheads on Barta and Vartaja rivers but were soon driven off by the Germans.

Fifth Battle

The 5th grand battle started on February 12 with a Soviet attack against the Germans towards Džukste. Other attacks took place south of Liepaja where the Soviets massed 21 divisions, and south of Tukums where 11 divisions tried to break through the German front and take the town; 4 of those 11 divisions were surrounded and destroyed. On February 16 the Soviets started an offensive against the 19th Division. Again savage fighting took place for the possession of a few farmhouses. The battle ended on March 12.[10] Soviets lost 70,000 men dead and wounded, 608 tanks and 178 planes, but gained only a small strip of land including Džukste and Priekule.

Sixth Battle

The last grand battle in Courland began on March 16 during the spring thaw and lasted until March 30. The Soviets suffered 74,000 casualties; 263 tanks were destroyed. The Germans near Saldus were pushed back a few miles. The 19th Division was replaced by a few German units and was used to counter-attack the Soviet breakthrough. It stemmed the Soviet advance and regained some of the positions lost by the Germans.[11] 

Surrender of Army Group Courland

On 8 May, Germany's Head of State (Staatsoberhaupt) and President (Reichspräsident) Karl Dönitz ordered Colonel-General Carl Hilpert—the Army Group's last commander—to surrender. Hilpert, his personal staff, and staffs of three Armies surrendered to Marshal Leonid Govorov, the commander of the Leningrad Front. At this time, the group still consisted of the remnants of 27 divisions and one brigade.[12]

On 8 May, General Rauser succeeded in obtaining better surrender terms from the Soviet command.[13] On 9 May, the Soviet commission in Peilei started to interrogate the captive staff of Army Group Courland, and general collection of prisoners begun.

By 12 May, approximately 135,000 German troops surrendered in the Courland Pocket. On 23 May, the Soviet collection of the German troops in the Courland Pocket was completed. A total of about 180,000 German troops were taken into captivity from the Baltic area. The bulk of the prisoners of war were initially held at the Valdai Hills camps.


[1]Based on Wiki[edia® content retrieved 02 March 2015. We have not independently verified its content. We are working on digitizing and translating the Latvju Enciklopedija "Kurzemes Cietoksnis" [Fortress Courland] entry.
[2]Gerhard L. Weinberg, Germany, Hitler, and World War II: Essays in Modern German and World History. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge, 1995, page 290
[3]McAteer, Sean. 500 Days: The War in Eastern Europe, 1944-1945. Dorrance Publishing. Pittsburgh, 2009.
[4]Latvju Enciklopedija
[5]Mitcham, Samuel. German Defeat in the East. Stackpole. Mechanicsburg, 2007. page 152
[6]Latvju Enciklopedija
[7]http://www.historia.lv/publikacijas/gramat/mangulis/09.nod.htm Mangulis, V. Latvia in the Wars of the 20th Century. CHAPTER IX JULY 1941 TO MAY 8, 1945 at historia.lv
[8] [9] [10]historia.lv
[11] historia.lv
[12]Kozlov, M. M. Velikaya Otechestvennaya Voina 1941-1945: Entsiklopediya [The Great Patriotic War, 1941-1945: An Encyclopaedia]. Soviet Encyclopedia. Moscow, 1985. page 442
[13]Thorwald, Jürgen; Wieck, Fred, Ed. Flight in the Winter: Russia Conquers, January to May 1945. Pantheon. New York. 1951. page 64
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