May 14, 2014

A Panzer Raid in the North!

Ritter von Leeb with Erich Hoepner
Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb 
(center-left) with Generaloberst Erich Hoepner 
(center-right), June 1941.
On 22 June 1941 Operation “Barbarossa”, the largest land offensive ever, was launched. The Axis Armies were concentrated into three Army Groups; South, Center and North. Of them, Army Group North, with two Armies and one Panzer Group, was the weaker one. Commanded by Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb, Army Group North was to cut off the Soviet troops stationed in the Baltic States and advance on Leningrad (Saint Petersburg). It was composed of:
  • the Sixteenth Army,
  • the Eighteenth Army and
  • the Fourth Panzer Group.

Against Army Group North was General Kuznetsov’s Baltic Special Military District, which at the start of the war was redesignated “The Northwestern Front”. It consisted of:
  • the Eighth Army,
  • the Eleventh Army and
  • the Twenty-seventh  Army.

Dispositions of the German and Soviet forces in the northern sector
2. Initial dispositions of the German and Soviet forces in the northern sector.

Fourth Panzer Group

Manstein with Generalmajor Erich  Brandenberger
3. Manstein with Generalmajor Erich 
Brandenberger, June 1941.
According to the plan, Fourth Panzer Group was to break through the Russian defenses in the area bordering on the Gumbinnen (Gusev) - Kovno (Kaunas) highway. The armored units were to precede the infantry elements and cross the Dvina (Daugava) river at Dvinsk (Daugavpils) and farther downstream. Their objective was to advance to the area south of Pskov as quickly as possible, so that they could continue their drive to the north or the northeast in accordance with the overall situation. Sixteenth Army was to follow Fourth Panzer via Dvinsk in the direction of Pskov.

Fourth Panzer Group was commanded by Generaloberst Erich Hoepner, an accomplished tank general. It was composed of:

XLI. Armee-korps (mot.)
  • 1st Panzer-Division
  • 6th Panzer-Division
  • 36th Infanterie-Division (mot.)
  • 269th Infanterie-Division

LVI. Armee-korps (mot.)
  • 8th Panzer-Division
  • 3rd Infanterie-Division (mot.)
  • 290th Infanterie-Division

In reserve
  • SS-Division “Totenkopf”
Daugava River
4. Map highlighting the river Daugava (Western Dvina) flowing through 
Vitebsk (16), Daugavpils (Dvinsk) (17) and Riga (18).

Barbarossa is Launched
PzKpfw IV of the 8th Panzer-Division
5. A PzKpfw IV of the 8th Panzer-Division 
next to a destroyed bridge.

General der Infanterie Erich von Manstein, already famous from the French campaign, assumed command of LVI. Armee-korps (mot.) on 5 February 1941. The korps had only one Panzer-Division, the 8th. The Division’s Panzer-Regiment contained 197 tanks, of which 118 were the PzKpfw 38(t). The rest were PzKpfw II & IV. The korps concentrated in East Prussia, close to the Lithuanian border and waited.

At 03:05 hours, on 22 June 1941, the artillery preparation began. Manstein’s korps had to cross a series of water obstacles well before reaching the Dvina. The most significant of them was the Dubysa river, some fifty miles away. The korps had to cross that river in the first day of the campaign, or it risked getting bogged down in unsuitable terrain. The Russians’ frontier positions were overthrown by infantrymen of the 290 Infanterie-Division and then the battle groups of the 8th Panzer-Division moved through and raced ahead. It is noteworthy that the Division’s commander, Generalmajor Erich Brandenberger, was moving with his most forward elements. The Dubysa river was reached at 15:15 hours, close to the city of Ariogala. A bridge was seized intact and the Division crossed over.

Daugava River
6. The Daugava River near Daugavpils.

The advance of the 8th Panzer-Division was resumed at 17:50 hours, on 23 June. The city of Kedainiai was seized at 03:40 hours, on 24 June and the bridge on the Nevėžis river was secured. In the following hours the Division came under attack by strong Soviet forces, including the heavy KV-2 tanks. After tough fighting the Division was able to march east again at 21:30 hours. The Division was advancing with its flanks open, deep in enemy territory. At 15:00 hours, on 25 June the Division had reached the town of Utena, where it was engaged with Soviet forces until 19:30.

Early on 26 June, with the help of a Brandenburger (Special Forces) team, 8th Panzer accomplished the korps objective, by seizing a road and a rail bridge on Dvina river at Dvinsk. The Division secured the city and prepared itself for the expected Soviet counterattack. The battle raged until 21:30. By that time all Soviet efforts had been repulsed. 8th Panzer had achieved an unparalleled success by advancing 200 miles in four days and accomplishing an operational level objective. With the Dvina behind Mantsein’s korps had gained its operational freedom.

Manstein’s advance through Lithuania
7. Manstein’s advance through Lithuania, 22-26 June 1941.

A radio operator of the SS-“Totenkopf” –Division
8. A radio operator at the Command 
Post of SS-“Totenkopf” –Division.

When Dvinsk fell the way to Leningrad, for the mobile units of Army Group North, was opened. But an immediate exploitation of the initial success didn’t take place. The Army Group commander chose to immobilize his leading korps until the foot Armies could catch up.  Manstein received the order to enlarge, a few miles, the bridgehead he had established on the east bank of the Dvina. LVI Armee-korps (mot.) after advancing 200 miles in four days remained inactive for five days. On 26 June Manstein was reinforced with the SS-Division “Totenkopf”.

As Manstein had predicted, now that his korps was stationary it became the target of numerous Soviet attacks. The bridgehead held. At the top level von Leeb and Hoepner had quite dissimilar views about the future. While Hoepner supported a deep panzer thrust culminating with the capture of the strategic objective –Leningrad- von Leeb, more cautious and conservative, was reluctant to let the Panzer Group loose.

On the Soviet side General Fyodor Kuznetsov, Northwestern Front commander, was relieved and replaced by General P. Sobeninikov.

The Advance is Resumed but faces Unsuitable Terrain
8th Panzer-Division
9. Logo of the 8th Panzer-Division.

On 2 July the advance was resumed. The korps was ordered to move northeast toward Porkhov at the Mshaga river. The korps would advance with the 8th Panzer-Division on the left, the 3rd Infanterie-Division (mot.) in the center and SS-Division “Totenkopf” on the right. As expected, 8 Panzer would serve again as the point division.

The Soviet resistance was stiffened and along with worse road conditions resulted in modest gains for the Germans for the second day of July and first day of their renewed advance. On 3 July 8 Panzer spent most of the day fighting around Rēzekne. The city was cleared in the evening at 21:50 hours. It had become apparent that the German pause had given time to the Soviets to organize their defense.

Karsava, northeast of Rēzekne, was reached at 08:30 hours on 4 July. Further east, close to the Latvian-Russian border the bridge on the Ludza river was destroyed in time by the retreating Russians. A bridgehead was established at 20:00 hours. The Division was facing swampy terrain and was partially immobilized. The korps was of the opinion that 8 Panzer should turn back and make use of the far better Karsava – Ostrov road, which was assigned to XLI korps. The suggestion was not accepted by Hoepner, who in a personal meeting with Brandenberger directed him towards Pushkinskyegory (Pushkinskiye Gory), through the swamps. However at 18:00 hours, on 5 July, Krasnoye (Krasnogorodskoye) was seized. It was imperative for 8 Panzer to improve the road network in its rear area, so the 6th of July was devoted to that. The next days the Division continued to suffer from poor roads and its mobility was restricted. By 8 July the Division reached the Velikaya river, some four miles west of Pushkinskyegory, and established a bridgehead. The next two days the Division fought off determined Soviet counterattacks and held its gains. Summing up 8 Panzer had advanced some 115 miles in eight days, hardly the tempo Manstein had expected.   

Manstein’s advance from the Dvina River to the Velikaya River
10. Manstein’s advance from the Dvina River to the Velikaya River, 2 – 10 July 1941.

The Final Effort
Velikaya River
11. The Velikaya River in Ostrov.

On 10 July Hoepner changed his mind and concurred with Manstein’s suggestion. 8 Panzer-Division was withdrawn and was concentrated in the middle of the Ostrov – Opochka road and marched north.

On 11 July the leading elements of the Division were half-way between Ostrov and Porkhov, the korps objective. The 3rd Infanterie-Division (mot.) was advancing in parallel on the left.

On 12 July Prokhov was reached. On 13 July a strong Soviet force, including the heavy KV-2 tanks, struck the Germans. The Soviet attack was shattered and the advance was resumed.

On 14 July, Fourth Panzer Group had turned northward, advancing between Lakes Ilmen and Peipus toward Leningrad, with XLI Armee-korps (mot.) on the left and LVI korps on the right. Manstein’s korps was heading toward Novgorod (Veliky Novgorod) with the distant objective to cut off the Moscow - Leningrad railway line at Chudovo, while XLI korps was following the east shore of Lake Peipus, towards the Luga River. Manstein was of the view that the two motorized korps of the Panzer Group should advance abreast against Leningrad and not split.

A destroyed KV-2
12. A destroyed KV-2 heavy tank.

By the end of 14 July 8 Panzer-Division was two miles away from the Mshaga river. The 3rd Infanterie-Division (mot.) was on the left, while SS-Division “Totenkopf” was taken from the korps and was placed under the Panzer Group’s control. 

The next days, 15-17 July, the largely isolated 8 Panzer-Division was partially encircled by strong enemy forces. The crisis was mustered but the advance was halted. On 19 July the Panzer Group decided to turn LVI korps towards Leningrad, instead of Chudovo. Also 8 Panzer-Division was taken from Manstein and he was given the 4th SS-Division “Polizei”.

For the next two months LVI korps, without its striking punch, was engaged in bitter fighting in swampy and forested terrain. The days of the spectacular panzer thrusts were over. On 12 September Manstein was ordered to Army Group South, where he was to assume command of the Eleventh Army. 

 Infantrymen and PzKpfw 38(t), of Army Group North
13. Infantrymen and PzKpfw 38(t), of Army Group North, advance through forested, muddy terrain.

The rapid advance of LVI Armee-korps (mot.) in the first four days of the war and the early capture of the bridges on the Dvina river provided Army Group North with a significant opportunity, which the high command failed to exploit decisively.

Overview of Manstein’s panzer-raid
14. An overview of Manstein’s panzer-raid, 22 June – 14 July 1941.

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Photos attribution
1. Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1971-068-14/CC-BY-SA-3.0-de, via Wikimedia Commons
2., 14. DA PAM 20-261a, aditional details author
3. Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-209-0086-12/Koch/CC-BY-SA-3.0-de, via Wikimedia Commons
4. LA2 derivative work: Alþykkr, via Wikimedia Commons
5. Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-209-0052-35A/Koch/CC-BY-SA-3.0-de, via Wikimedia Commons
6. Gatis Pāvils, GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
7. Lithuania CIA map 2002, via Wikimedia Commons, additional details: author
8. Bundesarchiv, Bild 101III-Wiegand-114-03/Wiegand/CC-BY-SA-3.0-de, via Wikimedia Commons
9. Marco Kaiser, via Wikimedia Commons
10. Baltic States CIA map 1994, via Wikimedia Commons, additional details: author
11.  Неизвестный. Дореволюционная открытка, via Wikimedia Commons
12. Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-209-0091-11/Nägele/CC-BY-SA-3.0-de, via Wikimedia Commons
13. Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-213-0267-14/Gebauer/CC-BY-SA-3.0-de, via Wikimedia Commons