General Leonid Govorov, Leningrad Front CG (left).General Kirill Meretskov, Volkhov Front CG (right).
By mid-January the Soviet buildup was almost completed. The Leningrad, Volkhov and Second Baltic Fronts were ordered to:
- end the Leningrad siege
- cut off and destroy the German Eighteenth Army
- reach the Narva – Pskov - Velikaya line
- lay the foundation for retaking the Baltic States
Furthermore, the Soviet offensive in the north was an enabling operation for the destruction of Army Group Center later that year. The three Soviet Fronts fielded 822,000 troops and were facing half a million men of Army Group North. The offensive would be supported by 35,000 partisans operating behind the German lines.
The main effort was going against the German Eighteenth Army. Initially the Leningrad and Volkhov Fronts were to smash Eighteenth Army’s flanks by simultaneous attacks in the Leningrad and in the Novgorod regions. Then the two Fronts would reach the Luga River before the retreating Germans, so as to cut them off and destroy them.
|2. Planned Soviet advances.|
Generaloberst Georg Lindemann, Eighteenth Army Commanding General, was of the opinion that the Leningrad and Volkhov Fronts lacked the strength to attempt simultaneous offensives on a major scale. On January 10, he had rated the Soviet buildups in the Oranienbaum pocket and east of Novgorod as relatively modest, particularly in terms of reserves. He had predicted that without more reserves the Soviet thrusts could not go very deep and that the Soviet attacks would "very likely" be staggered. The reality was that the Leningrad and Volkhov Fronts outnumbered Eighteenth Army by 3:1 in divisions; 3:1 in artillery and 6:1 in AFVs and aircraft. The Eighteenth Army had only one formation in reserve, the 61st Infanterie-Division deployed near Gatchina (Krasnogvardeysk), an important rail and road junction.
The Offensive is Launched
On January 14, 1944 Leningrad Front (Colonel-General Leonid Aleksandrovich Govorov) launched Operation “Neva”. Second Shock Army (General Ivan Fedyuninsky) drove east out of the Oranienbaum pocket while Forty-Second Army (General Ivan Maslennikov) from the Pulkovo area pushed west. The loop of the front separating the Oranienbaum pocket from Leningrad was only twenty miles wide at its base. The two Armies would meet at Ropsha to encircle Eighteenth Army’s coastline divisions. Then they would conduct a joint attack on Kingisepp.
The attack was heavily supported by artillery and naval gun fire. By the evening of the first day the Second Shock Army achieved a three kilometer penetration along a ten kilometer front. The next day the Forty-Second Army delivered Leningrad Front’s main effort. Fierce resistance from L Armeekorps limited Soviet gains to a four kilometer penetration. However, German combat strength was fading and on January 16 the German front began to crumble. Further to the northeast the Sixty-Seventh Army (Lt. General Vladimir Sviridov) attacked on the Mga – Gatchina axis.
On January 14 the Volkhov Front (Colonel-General Kirill Afanasievich Meretskov) with the Fifty-Ninth Army (General Ivan Korovnikov) attacked north and south of Novgorod on Eighteenth Army's southern flank. The objective was to cut off Novgorod from the west. Subsequently, the Fifty-Ninth Army was to capture the city of Luga and cut off the retreating Germans. The Eighth (General F. N. Starikov) and Fifty-Fourth Armies (Lt. General S. V. Roginsky) were directed against Tosno, Lyuban and Chudovo (Rollbahn position). So, on the first days of the offensive the Leningrad and Volkhov Fronts bore down heavily on Eighteenth Army's northern (Oranienbaum) and southern (Novgorod) flanks.
On January 16 Generalfeldmarschall Georg von Küchler, Army Group North Commanding General, was of the opinion that the Russians had committed all their reserves and that he could win the battle by taking some risks on the quiet sectors.
Eighteenth Army had put in its reserve to stiffen the 10th Luftwaffe Field Division, but it was barely managing to stave off a complete rupture. Before noon the Army Group informed the OKH that the fighting around Leningrad was taking a turn for the worse. Eighteenth Army would have to withdraw from the Mga salient to the Rollbahn position to shorten the front and gain two divisions.
On the morning Lindemann reported that his front was collapsing. The Soviets stood on the Duderhof Hills. Küchler asked and was denied permission to withdraw to the Rollbahn. In the afternoon the Forty-Second Army drove into Krasnoye Selo, the former summer residence of the Czars. After that, Küchler decided to take back the two divisions on the coast (9th Luftwaffe Field Division and 126th Infanterie-Division) before they were completely cut off. He informed the OKH that he intended to give the order whether he had received permission or not. At the midnight situation conference Hitler approved, after Generaloberst Kurt Zeitzler, Chief of the Army General Staff, told him the order had already been given.
|5. Summer palace of Grand Duke Michael Pavlovich (1798-1849) in Krasnoye Selo.|
The Army Group reinforced the Eighteenth Army with schwere Panzer-Abteilung 502. The Battalion possessed 33 operational tanks. The Tigers were transported to Gatchina by rail.
At 21:00 hours the Second Shock and Forty-Second Armies joined forces northwest of Ropsha. General Lindemann ordered the withdrawal of the L and LVI Armeekorps during the night.
At Novgorod the Fifty-Ninth Army attacked the German positions between Myasnoy Bor and Shendorf. The sector was defended by the 1st Luftwaffe Field Division and the 28th Jäger-Division. Initial Soviet assaults near Teremets and across the Volkhov ice failed. The 58th Rifle Brigade (Major General Sviklin), however, made it across the ice on Lake Ilmen and achieved a 6X4 km bridgehead on the eastern shore of the lake, south of Novgorod. General Korovnikov exploited the success and rushed two rifle divisions to Lake Ilmen and drove them into the bridgehead. During the night eight Soviet divisions had encircled five German battalions. Küchler called Hitler and begged him to give the troops at Novgorod what would certainly be their last chance to withdraw. Hitler agreed.
The majority of the 9th Luftwaffe Field Division and 126th Infanterie-Division made it through to the German lines, leaving their heavy weapons behind. The Soviet offensive had achieved its first objective. Eighteenth Army’s northern flank was destroyed.
At 09:30 hours the Russians entered Novgorod; only fifty inhabitants remained in the city to greet them.
Küchler recommended that the pullback to the Rollbahn position be made the first step in a continuous withdrawal to the Panther Line, pointing out that the Army Group was already so weakened that it would have just enough troops to man the line when it reached there.
|7. The Great Gatchina Palace.|
The Forty-Second Army attacked towards Gatchina. The town was defended by Kampfgruppe Griesbach. The 3rd Company of schw. Pz-Abt. 502 was encircled near Skvoritsy (northwest of Gatchina). Eleven Tigers were lost and the Company Commander Leutnant Meyer committed suicide.
The Soviet attack on Mga could no longer be contained. At 17:00 hours troops of the Sixty-Seventh Army occupied the town. That night Küchler flew to Wolfsschanze. Army Group North was reinforced with the 12th Panzer-Division (Generalleutnant Erpo Freiherr von Bodenhausen) transferred from Army Group Center.
At Wolfsschanze Küchler was informed that Eighteenth Army could not hold Gatchina unless it gave up Pushkin and Pavlovsk (Slutsk). He proposed withdrawing the Eighteenth Army on the Luga River. The Führer exploded: "I am against all withdrawals!", "We will have crises wherever we are. There is no guarantee we will not be broken through on the Panther. If we go back voluntarily he will not get there with only half his forces. He must bleed himself white on the way. The battle must be fought as far as possible from the German border." When Küchler objected that the Panther Line could not be held if the Army Group was too weak to fight when it got there, Hitler insisted that every square yard of ground be sold at the highest possible price in Russian blood. Finally, demanding that the Rollbahn position be held, he dismissed Küchler.
|9. Two Soviet Maxim machine gun teams from the 110th Rifle
Corps at the |
old train station Detskoe Selo (Children’s Village) near Pushkin.
Lindemann gave the order to evacuate Pushkin and Pavlovsk and reported to the OKH that it could either accept his decision or send a general to replace him. During the day the Army completed the withdrawal to the Rollbahn, which the Russians had already penetrated in several places.
January 24 - 26
At Eighteenth Army headquarters Küchler accused Lindemann of having submitted false estimates of Soviet reserves at the end of December. Lindemann admitted "mistakes" had been made. However, such a discussion was of no importance anymore because in the morning the Russians entered the outskirts of Gatchina
A Tiger group at Voyskovitsy (southwest of Gatchina) under Leutnant Strauß destroyed 41 enemy tanks, however, the Soviet advance could not be stopped. On the 26th the Soviet 120th Rifle Division captured Gatchina. The withdrawing SS-Division “Nordland” and the remnants of the 10th Luftwaffe Field Division dug in around Kingisepp.
The same day Lindemann reported that his southern flank (Novgorod) had lost contact with Sixteenth Army and Pavlovsk would fall. Army Group North estimated that the Leningrad and Volkhov Fronts were going toward Narva from the east and toward Luga from the north and east and were about to cut Eighteenth Army to pieces. Permission was asked to go back at least to the Luga River. In the evening Zeitzler replied that Hitler's orders were to hold and fight to the last. At the end of the 26th the Russians stood at Gatchina, Tosno, and Chudovo.
|11. The siege of Leningrad is over! An artillery warning sign is covered with paint.|
The 27th of January was celebrated in Leningrad as the day of liberation. At the same day Küchler and the other army group and army commanders on the Eastern Front attended a National Socialist Leadership Conference at Kaliningrad (Königsberg). Hitler addressed the generals on the subject of faith as a guarantee of victory. In a private talk with Hitler, Küchler repeated the situation estimate he had sent in the day before. Hitler responded by prohibiting all voluntary withdrawals and reserving all decisions to withdraw to himself. However, Lindemann began withdrawing his main forces during the night.
January 28 - 29
The Army Group reported that Eighteenth Army had lost 35,000 wounded and 14,000 killed and had an infantry strength of 17,000. By January 29, LIV Armeekorps and III SS Panzerkorps had been thrown back to the Luga River.
Troops of the Second Shock Army reached the Luga River at Bolshoy Sabsk.
|12. The Luga River at Bolshoy Sabsk.|
Hitler finally approved a retreat to the Luga River but directed that the front then be held, contact with Sixteenth Army regained, and all gaps in the front closed. When Küchler passed this along to Oberst i.G. Carl-Ulrich von Gersdorff, his operations officer, the latter protested to the Operations Branch, OKH, that it was impossible to execute. Zeitzler agreed to tell Hitler that the Luga position could not be held. In the meantime Küchler had been told to report back to the Führer headquarters the next day.
Hitler relieved Küchler of his command. Generaloberst Walter Model was given temporary command of the Army Group. Model telegraphed ahead, "Not a single step backward will be taken without my express permission. I am flying to Eighteenth Army this afternoon. Tell General Lindemann that I beg his old trust in me. We have worked together before."
|13. Soviet advances until the 31st of January.|
During the last two weeks of January 1944 the Red Army raised the blockade of Leningrad, penetrated German defenses along the entire front from the Gulf of Finland to Lake Ilmen and put the entire Eighteenth Army in jeopardy. However, Leningrad and Volkhov Fronts’ advance on Narva and Luga was slow and arduous and despite their best efforts the Eighteenth Army succeeded in withdrawing its forces relatively intact.
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From Leningrad to Narva Part 2: Fall BLAU