Courland Pocket

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Battles of the Courland Bridgehead
Part of the Eastern Front (World War II)
Date 9 October 1944 – 10 May 1945
Location Courland, Latvia
Result Soviet victory
Belligerents
Nazi Germany Germany Soviet Union Soviet Union
Commanders and leaders
Carl Hilpert Ivan Bagramyan
Units involved
Army Group Courland 1st Baltic Front
Casualties and losses
Over 150,000 killed and wounded
180,000 captured[1]
160,948 killed and wounded (16 Feb. to 8 May 1945)[2]

Latvian source: 394,000 killed, wounded and captured
2,651 tanks
900 artillery pieces
1,440 machine guns[3]

Soviet advances on the Eastern Front, 1 September 1943-31 December 1944
Evacuation at Ventspils (Windau), 19 October 1944

The Courland Pocket (German: Kurland-Kessel)[4] referred to the Red Army's blockade or encirclement of Axis forces on the Courland Peninsula during the closing months of World War II. The Soviet commander was General Bagramyan (later Marshal Bagramyan).[citation needed]

The pocket was created during the Red Army's Baltic Strategic Offensive Operation, when forces of the 1st Baltic Front reached the Baltic Sea near Memel during its lesser Memel Offensive Operation phases. This action isolated the German Army Group North (German: Heeresgruppe Nord) from the rest of the German forces between Tukums and Liepāja in Latvia. Renamed Army Group Courland (German: Heeresgruppe Kurland) on 25 January, the Army Group remained isolated until the end of the war. When they were ordered to surrender to the Soviet command on 8 May, they were in "blackout" and did not get the official order before 10 May, two days after the capitulation of Germany. It was one of the last German groups to surrender in Europe.

Background[edit]

Main article: Operation Bagration

Courland, along with the rest of the Baltic eastern coast and islands, was overrun by Army Group North during 1941. Army Group North spent most of the next two years attempting to take Leningrad, without success. In January 1944, the Soviet Army lifted the siege of Leningrad.

On 22 June 1944, the Red Army launched the Belorussian Strategic Offensive, codenamed Operation Bagration. The goal of this offensive was to liberate the Belorussian SSR from the German occupation. Operation Bagration was extremely successful, resulting in the almost complete destruction of Army Group Centre, and ended on 29 August. In its final stages (the Kaunas and Šiauliai Offensives), Operation Bagration saw Soviet forces strike deep towards the Baltic coast, severing communications between the German Army Group North and the remnants of Army Group Centre.

After Operation Bagration ended, the Soviets continued the clearing of the Baltic coast, despite German attempts to restore the front (Operation Doppelkopf). The Red Army fought the Memel Offensive Operation with the goal of isolating Army Group North by capturing the city of Memel (Lithuanian: Klaipėda).

Battles of the "Courland Bridgehead"[edit]

Army Group Courland cuff title.

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.[5]

Stamp used in Courland pocket (1945)

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 Liepāja, retreating to the more defensible Courland position, abandoning Riga.[6]

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.[citation needed]

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[edit]

From 15 to 22 October 1944 — Soviets launched the Riga Offensive Operation on the 15th at 10:00 after conducting a heavy artillery barrage.[3] 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.[7] The front stabilised with the main remnant of Army Group North isolated in the peninsula.

Second Battle[edit]

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.[3] Soviets also attacked southeast of Liepāja 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.[8][page needed]

Third Battle[edit]

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][page needed]

Fourth Battle[edit]

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.[8][page needed] On 23 January Soviets launched offensive trying to break through the front toward Liepāja and Saldus. They managed to take the bridgeheads on Bārta and Vārtāja rivers but were soon driven off by the Germans.

Fifth Battle[edit]

The 5th grand battle started on February 12 with a Soviet attack against the Germans towards Džūkste. Other attacks took place south of Liepāja 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.[8][page needed] Soviets lost 70,000 men dead and wounded, 608 tanks and 178 planes, but gained only a small strip of land including Džūkste and Priekule.[citation needed]

Sixth Battle[edit]

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.[8][page needed]

Surrender of Army Group Courland[edit]

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.[9]

On 8 May, General Rauser succeeded in obtaining better surrender terms from the Soviet command.[10] On 9 May, the Soviet commission in Peilei started to interrogate the captive staff of Army Group Courland, and general collection of prisoners begun.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

Order of Battle[edit]

German[edit]

See also Army Group Courland
Army Group North (to 25 January 1945)
Army Group Courland (25 January 1945 to 8 May 1945) [11]

German 16th Army[edit]

German 18th Army[edit]

as at 5 November 1944: as at 19 February 1944:
I Army Corps I Army Corps
II Army Corps
X Army Corps X Army Corps
III SS Corps
52nd Infantry Division, 300th Infantry Division, 563rd Infantry Division 52nd Infantry Division, 14th Panzer-Division [12]

Army Group Kurland included the 4th and 12th Panzer Divisions.

The 4th Panzer Division was evacuated from the bridgehead in January 1945.

Historiography[edit]

Western and Soviet historiography differ greatly with respect to the character of the fighting in Courland and to the strategic intent of Soviet forces.[original research?]

Soviet and Russian accounts[edit]

The First Courland Battle was intended to destroy German forces. After that failure, official accounts ignore Courland, stating only that the Soviet goal was to prevent the Germans from escaping.[1]

In this account, the Soviet actions in Courland were defensive blockading operations. Hostilities consisted of containing German breakout attempts, and the Red Army made no concerted effort to capture the Courland Pocket,[citation needed] which was of little strategic importance after the isolation of Army Group North, whereas the main offensive effort was required for the Vistula-Oder and Berlin Offensives. Soviet forces suffered correspondingly low casualties. While the modern research of Grigoriy Krivosheev offers a low account of Soviet casualties: 30,501 "irrecoverable" and 130,447 "medical" losses, for a total of 160,948 Soviet casualties between 16 February and 8 May 1945,[2] that period covers only the Fifth and Sixth (and final) Battles of Courland.[citation needed]

According to Russian historian A. Isayev, Courland was a peripheral front for both the Soviets and Germans. The Soviet goal was to prevent the German troops there from being transported by sea to reinforce the defense of Berlin. Soviet operations intended to further isolate and also destroy the enemy, but the strength of the attacking troops was too low to make any significant progress in the difficult terrain. However, the Soviet commanders worked competently and as a result the casualties were low.[13]

German sources[edit]

Stalin had initially been intent on annihilating the German forces in Courland, reporting in September 1944 that he was "mopping up" in the Baltics, and in November, that the Germans were "now being hammered to a finish."[1] As late as March, 1945, Stalin was still making guarantees that German forces in Courland would soon be defeated.[1] This victory was necessary, in Stalin's eyes, to re-establish Soviet control over its 1941 frontiers following the annexation of the Baltic states.[14] According to the Latvian Encyclopedia, the Soviet command attached great importance to the capture of Courland, which held special significance for the Latvians as it was the beachhead from which they had retaken their territory from the Bolsheviks after World War I.[3]

The Soviets launched six offensives to defeat the German Army Group Courland.[3][1] Throughout the campaign against the Courland pocket, Soviet forces did not advance more than 25 miles anywhere along the front, ending no more than a few kilometers forward of their original positions after seven months of conflict.[1] The Soviet operations were hampered by the difficult terrain and bad weather.[1]

The German army group reported inflicting heavy losses on the Soviets.[1][15] According to a communiqué from the German Courland command of 16 March 1945,[3] the Soviet army lost 320,000 soldiers (killed, wounded and captured), 2,388 tanks, 659 planes, 900 artillery pieces, and 1,440 machine-guns through the first five battles in Courland.[3] The Soviets are estimated to have lost an additional 74,000 with 553 taken prisoner in the sixth and last battle.[3] The total German casualties in Courland are estimated to be over 150,000.[1]

The withdrawal of Soviet units starting from December 1944, indicates that the Soviet command did not consider Courland to be as important as other sectors of the Eastern Front. Destroying the German forces there was not worth the effort and the goal was now to keep them from breaking out. The next three offensives were most likely intended to prevent the evacuation of German troops by sea.[1] By the start of April 1945, the Soviets viewed the German forces in Courland as not much more than self-supporting prisoners.[1]

Aftermath[edit]

On 9 May 1945, General Hovhannes Bagramyan accepted the surrender of German forces at Ezere Manor in southwest Latvia.[citation needed]

According to Russian records, 146,000 German and Latvian troops were taken prisoner, including 28 generals and 5,083 high-ranking officers,[3] and taken to camps in the USSR interior and imprisoned for years. Current scholarship puts the count of those surrendering at more than 200,000:[1] 189,112 Germans including 42 generals—among them the German commander, Carl Hilpert, who subsequently died in a Soviet POW camp in 1947[1]—and approximately 14,000 Latvians.[16]

The Soviets detained all males between the ages of 16 and 60, and conducted widespread deforestation campaigns, burning vast tracts of forest, to flush out resisters.[3]

Footnotes[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Grier, Howard D. (2007). Hitler, Dönitz, and the Baltic Sea: The Third Reich's Last Hope, 1944-1945. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press. pp. 81–88. ISBN 978-1-59-114-345-1. 
  2. ^ a b Krivosheyev, Grigoriy F., ed. (2001). Россия и СССР в войнах XX века: Потери вооруженных сил. Статистическое исследование [Russia and the USSR in the Wars of the Twentieth Century: Losses of the Armed Forces. A Statistical Study] (in Russian). Moscow: OLMA-Press. ISBN 5-224-01515-4. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Švābe, Arveds, ed. (1950–55). Latvju Enciklopēdija (in Latvian). Stockholm: Trīs zvaigznes. p. 3. OCLC 11845651. 
  4. ^ Russian: блокада Курляндской группировки войск (Blockade of the Courland army group), German: Kurland-Brückenkopf (Courland Bridgehead), Latvian: Kurzemes katls (Courland Cauldron) or Kurzemes cietoksnis (Courland Fortress).
  5. ^ Weinberg, Gerhard L. (1995). Germany, Hitler, and World War II: Essays in Modern German and World History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 290. ISBN 0-521-56626-6. 
  6. ^ McAteer, Sean (2009). 500 Days: The War in Eastern Europe, 1944-1945. Pittsburgh: Dorrance Publishing Co. ISBN 978-1-4349-6159-4. 
  7. ^ Mitcham, Samuel (2007). German Defeat in the East. Mechanicsburg: Stackpole. p. 152. ISBN 0-8117-3371-8. 
  8. ^ a b c d e Mangulis, V. Latvia in the Wars of the 20th Century. CHAPTER IX JULY 1941 TO MAY 8, 1945. Historia.lv.
  9. ^ Kozlov, M. M., ed. (1985). Velikaya Otechestvennaya Voina 1941-1945: Entsiklopediya [The Great Patriotic War, 1941-1945: An Encyclopaedia] (in Russian). Moscow: Soviet Encyclopedia. p. 442. 
  10. ^ Thorwald, Jürgen (1951). Wieck, Fred, ed. Flight in the Winter: Russia Conquers, January to May 1945. New York: Pantheon. p. 64. 
  11. ^ ordersofbattle.com article
  12. ^ lexicon-der-wehrmacht
  13. ^ Isayev, Aleksey (December 28, 2009). Unknown Winter of 1945 (in Russian). Interview with Dmitriy Zakharov. Price of Victory. Echo of Moscow. Moscow. Retrieved August 13, 2012. 
  14. ^ Buttar, Prit (2012). Battleground Prussia: The Assault on Germany's Eastern Front 1944-45. Oxford: Osprey Publishing. ISBN 978-1849081900. 
  15. ^ Mercatante, Steven D.; Citino, Robert M. (2012). Why Germany Nearly Won: A New History of the Second World War in Europe. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO. ISBN 978-0-313-39592-5. 
  16. ^ Haupt, Werner (2009). Heeresgruppe Nord: Der Kampf im Nordabschnitt der Ostfront 1941-1945 (in German). Dörfler Verlag GmbH. ISBN 978-3895555909. 

Sources[edit]

  • Dallas, Gregor., 1945: The War That Never Ended, Yale University Press, Yale, 2006 ISBN 0-300-10980-6