September 9, 2016

From Leningrad to Narva Part 2: Fall BLAU

The Panther Line
The Panther Line.

After the failure at Kursk Hitler gave his consent to the construction of a defensive line in the east, known as the “East Wall”. The north part of the “East Wall”, the “Panther Line”, was laid behind the Narva River, Lake Peipus, and Lake Pskov. The south half of the Panther Line run to the east of Pskov and Ostrov and to the west of Nevel where it linked to Army Group Center. In essence the Panther Line was the modern day border of Estonia.

General Eberhard Kinzel
2. General Eberhard Kinzel.
He committed suicide on May 23, 1945.
Army Group North estimated that the Panther Line would reduce the Army Group frontage by 25 percent and it would release eight divisions. Work on the Panther Line had begun in September 1943 and by the end of that year a construction force had built 38 km of tank obstacles; 62 km of barbed wire entanglements; 56 km of trenches; 1,880 combat positions; 5,900 shelters; 659 concrete bunkers and 137 tank positions.

Army Group North, merely a supporting effort in the Russian theatre, was losing one infantry division after the other to Army Group South and much of its front was held by Luftwaffe Field Divisions and newly formed SS units. The Army Group believed that a withdrawal was inevitable and had begun planning for Operation “Blau”, the withdrawal to the Panther Line. The Army Group staff estimated that preparatory measures could begin on January 6 and the withdrawal itself on January 20. The duration was calculated at twenty-eight days at the quickest. The army withdrawal would be preceded by an evacuation of the male population that could be recruited by the advancing Red Army, if left behind.

On December 22 the Army Group Chief-of-Staff Generalleutnant Eberhard Kinzel told the Armies that Hitler would probably not order “Blau” unless another Soviet offensive forced him to. At the moment, Hitler's opinion was that the Russians had lost so many men in the fighting in the Ukraine that they might not try another big offensive before the spring of 1944.

General Georg von Küchler
3. General Georg von Küchler
On December 29 Generaloberst Kurt Zeitzler, Chief of the Army General Staff, informed Generalfeldmarschall Georg von Küchler, Army Group North Commanding General, that Hitler intended to execute “Blau” after all and would tell him so personally the next day. During the noon conference in Wolfsschanze on 30 December Küchler reported on the state of the Panther Line and the time he would need to complete “Blau”. However he made a crucial mistake when he remarked that he had talked to Generaloberst Georg Lindemann, Commanding General Eighteenth Army, who had asked for his Army to stay where it was. To a question from Hitler, Küchler replied that the Eighteenth Army front was well fortified, since the Army did not have enough troops to man it completely. Hitler then assured Küchler that Army Group North had as much combat power as it needed and terminated the conference without reaching any decision.

The next day Zeitzler told Kinzel that Hitler had begun to falter in his decision as soon as Küchler made the remark about Lindemann wanting to keep his Army where it was. On January 4 Küchler went to Eighteenth Army headquarters and almost pleaded with Lindemann to reconsider. Lindemann replied that his troop commanders were confident they could weather any enemy attack. After that, none of the Army Group's arguments counted for much, since in such instances Hitler always took the word of the commander on the spot.

Kinzel said to Generalleutnant Adolf Heusinger (Chef der Operationsabteilung im OKH) that the Army Group was marching to disaster with its eyes wide open. It is unclear whether Lindemann was trying to attract attention to his self or he was being sympathetic to his men reluctance to leave positions they had become accustomed to. In any case none of that mattered much because the Soviet offensive was about to begin.

Del Gaudio, Andrew M. “Operational Art and the Narva Front 1944, Sinimäed and Campaign Planning.” PhD thesis, University of Liverpool, 2012.
Heiber, Helmut and David M. Glantz. Hitler and His Generals. London: Greenhill Books, 2002.
Ziemke, Earl F. Stalingrad to Berlin - The German Defeat in the East. 1968. Reprint. Washington, DC: Office of the Chief of Military History, U.S. Army, 2002.

Photos attribution
1., operational details: author
2. Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1985-048-28/Bieber, E./CC BY-SA 3.0 de, via Wikimedia Commons
3. Wikimedia Commons

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