Authors: Howard D. Grier
Küchler’s hopes to retreat before an expected Russian attack proved in vain. The next day Zeitzler complained that he had almost convinced Hitler to approve the withdrawal but then Hitler had wavered, recalling Küchler’s remark that Lindemann wished to remain in his present positions.
Subsequent attempts to persuade Hitler to reverse his decision failed. Army Group North would have to face the next Soviet offensive, which Küchler deemed imminent, in its old positions with insufficient forces—it defended a front of approximately a thousand kilometers with forty infantry divisions, and not a single armored division.
The Soviet High Command had already devised plans for a winter operation against Army Group North. The offensive in the northern sector
aimed to annihilate Eighteenth Army and clear the Leningrad area of German forces as far as the pre-1940 border with the Baltic States. To encircle and destroy Eighteenth Army, the Leningrad and Volkhov Fronts were to strike the army’s flanks and join forces in its rear. Second Baltic Front would conduct holding attacks against Sixteenth Army to prevent the transfer of reinforcements to Eighteenth Army’s flanks.
On 14 January 1944 the Soviet offensive began with an attack from the Oranienbaum Bridgehead that quickly penetrated German defenses. At the same time Russian forces on Eighteenth Army’s southern flank crossed Lake Ilmen and advanced to within ten kilometers of Novgorod on the first day of the offensive.
The following day the Soviets attacked from Leningrad, attempting to join with troops moving out from Oranienbaum. Army Group North requested permission for Eighteenth Army to pull back in order to gain reserves, warning that the critical issue was not where the army group stood after this battle but the fact that it still existed.
Without waiting for authorization, Küchler ordered his divisions along the Gulf of Finland between Oranienbaum and Leningrad to retreat before the Russian pincers closed; Hitler sent his approval later that day. Soviet forces attacking from the Oranienbaum Bridgehead and Leningrad linked up on 19 January, unhinging Eighteenth Army’s northern flank. From there they attacked toward Narva, on the Soviet-Estonian border, and Luga. To the south, the Russians captured Novgorod on 20 January and pushed into Eighteenth Army’s rear. Küchler requested an immediate withdrawal to the Panther Position. He warned Zeitzler the Soviets would achieve a breakthrough if they persisted in their attacks and claimed that losses were already so heavy that the retreat would release no forces.
The following day German Army High Command (Oberkommando des Heeres, or OKH) finally informed the army group it would receive reinforcements, announcing that an armored division was on the way.
On the 22nd Küchler went to Hitler’s headquarters, but instead of obtaining permission to retreat he received a lecture on the importance of the Leningrad sector with regard to Finland’s political attitude, Swedish iron imports, and German naval domination of the Baltic. Promising Küchler another division, Hitler insisted the war be fought as far as possible from Germany’s borders and argued that voluntary retreats demoralized the troops.
Despite Hitler’s wishes the Soviets continued to gain ground. On Eighteenth Army’s northern flank the Red Army advanced along the coast toward Narva, and on the army’s southern flank it continued to drive a wedge between Sixteenth and Eighteenth armies. Soviet forces attacking from Novgorod and Leningrad thrust toward Luga, threatening to ensnare
three German corps. Küchler announced that Sixteenth Army’s northern flank had collapsed and requested permission to retreat behind the Luga River, but Hitler refused. A few days later the army group reported that Eighteenth Army had splintered into three groups and that it could establish a cohesive front only along the Luga. Eighteenth Army had suffered over fifty thousand casualties in only two weeks.
Küchler again met with Hitler on 27 January, but the Nazi leader forbade any large-scale retreat. On the 28th Kinzel, acting on his own responsibility, ordered Eighteenth Army to fall back to the Luga, but Küchler countermanded the order. Kinzel complained that Küchler had been so influenced by the Führer at their last meeting that he spoke only of attacking, exclaiming in frustration that everyone except Hitler and Küchler realized the army group must retreat to the Panther Position.
Kinzel finally convinced his commander of the desperation of Eighteenth Army’s plight, and on 30 January Küchler flew to Hitler’s headquarters and secured permission for the withdrawal to the Luga. Displeased with Küchler’s performance, the next day Hitler relieved him of command and replaced him with Field Marshal Walter Model, an expert in defensive warfare.
From Hitler’s headquarters Model ordered the army group not to retreat one step without his approval, but even Model’s determination could not prevent the Soviets from crossing the Luga at three points on the day he took command. When he arrived at army group headquarters Model found his forces reeling before the Soviet onslaught. Sixteenth Army’s left flank had crumbled, Eighteenth Army had shattered into several groups, Soviet units were advancing on Narva, and Russian spearheads had secured bridgeheads across the Luga River. Model ordered Eighteenth Army to reestablish contact with Sixteenth Army, regain and secure the west bank of the Luga, hold the narrow strip of land between Lake Peipus and the Gulf of Finland in front of Narva, and close the gap between it and a conglomeration of decimated units known as Group Sponheimer.
But the situation continued to deteriorate. In the south Sixteenth Army came under increasingly heavy attacks, and in the north on 2 February, Soviet forces gained a bridgehead over the Narva River, although on the same day a German counterattack reestablished contact between Sixteenth and Eighteenth armies.
By 13 February the Nazi dictator bowed to the inevitable. Zeitzler informed Model that Hitler had decided the Narva sector must be reinforced as quickly as possible and requested an immediate schedule for a retreat to the Panther Position. Hitler approved the retreat on 17 February, the same day that he sanctioned the breakout from the Cherkassy Pocket in southern Russia, and the army group concluded its withdrawal by 1 March.
Stalin insisted that Gen. L. A. Govorov’s Leningrad Front capture Narva. On 14 February he commanded: “It is mandatory that our forces seize Narva no later than 17 February 1944. This is required both for military as well as political reasons. It is the most important thing right now.”
The Soviets launched furious assaults against German positions in the Narva sector, but they were unable to break out of their bridgeheads to the north and south of the city. On two occasions in March Govorov renewed the attack at Narva, but German defenses in the area held.
The Soviet winter offensive had run its course.
Although failing to encircle and destroy Eighteenth Army, the Soviets had inflicted a major defeat upon the Germans. They had driven Army Group North from positions it had held for nearly two and a half years and cleared the Leningrad area of German forces, pushing the Nazis back to the borders of Estonia and Latvia. Leningrad’s nearly nine-hundred-day siege had finally been lifted. The Russians probably would have had greater success, and possibly could have encircled and destroyed Eighteenth Army, if they had not pursued two main objectives at the same time. Instead of destroying Eighteenth Army and then breaking through German defenses on the Narva isthmus, the Soviets had tried to achieve both goals simultaneously, failing to attain either one.
Following the defeat at Leningrad, Army Group North dug in along the Panther Position, resting and replenishing its battered formations. Hitler sent Model to command an army group in the south, and Lindemann became the army group’s commander on 31 March.
Hitler, the German Navy, and Army Group North, June 1941–May 1944
S DETERMINATION NOT
to yield ground in the Leningrad area had risked the annihilation of Eighteenth Army, which probably had escaped destruction only because Küchler convinced Hitler to permit a retreat to the Luga at the end of January. Military, economic, and diplomatic factors caused Hitler to cling stubbornly to this area. Decisions regarding the fate of Army Group North were closely connected to naval interests, for the Baltic was of vital importance to the German navy. Hitler often delayed approval for Army Group North to withdraw to a more defensible position due to concerns expressed by the navy.
The navy required control of the Baltic to carry out submarine testing and training, and its intense desire to preserve the Baltic for this purpose was evident from the start of the Russian campaign. When Hitler informed the naval commander in chief, Erich Raeder, of his intention to invade the Soviet Union, Raeder did not share Hitler’s enthusiasm. Raeder did not object to the idea of attacking the Soviet Union per se, but he preferred to wait until after Britain’s defeat. He warned that conflict with Russia would threaten the navy’s submarine training areas in the eastern Baltic, which could disrupt the U-boat war.
Once the invasion of the Soviet Union began, however, the navy insisted that Russia’s Baltic Fleet never be allowed to reach the open Baltic, and Hitler did not ignore the navy’s wishes. Barely a week into the campaign Hitler emphasized the urgency of gaining control of the Gulf of Finland. He commanded that the Soviet fleet must be eliminated to permit undisturbed shipping in the Baltic, especially of Swedish iron ore from Luleå.
Several high-ranking German officers attest to Hitler’s desire to ensure the Soviet fleet’s destruction in the summer of 1941, in order to protect Baltic shipping routes and the navy’s submarine training areas.
Once Leningrad had been isolated, the navy hopefully awaited its collapse. But Leningrad survived the winter. At the beginning of 1942, concerned the Soviets would renew the war at sea once the ice melted in the Gulf of Finland, the Naval Staff (Seekriegsleitung, or Skl) requested an air assault on the Soviet fleet. The Luftwaffe carried out six raids on Russian warships in April 1942, and German pilots reported scoring several direct hits on the battleship
the heavy cruiser
and numerous other vessels.
To prevent the Soviet fleet from sailing into the Baltic, the navy called for a tighter blockade of Leningrad. This was a source of constant concern for the Skl, and throughout 1942 and 1943 the navy repeatedly requested the army to eliminate the Oranienbaum Bridgehead and capture the islands of Lavansaari and Seiskaari in the Gulf of Finland. Possession of these islands and the coast at Oranienbaum would enable the navy to seal off the Soviet fleet in Kronstadt Bay more effectively and with far fewer mines. On several occasions Hitler instructed the army to carry out these operations, but Soviet attacks on other sectors deprived the Germans of the troops required to carry out the assaults.
Hitler had not abandoned his hopes of seizing Leningrad, either. In July 1942 he ordered Küchler to plan an offensive to capture the city, promising to send five divisions and heavy siege artillery from Eleventh Army, which recently had taken the Crimean stronghold of Sevastopol.
As the army group prepared for the assault, the navy voiced its anxiety that the Soviet fleet would attempt to flee once the attack began, possibly to seek internment in Sweden. The Skl requested Eighteenth Army to shell Soviet vessels with its long-range artillery and promised to strengthen its minefields in the Gulf of Finland. Confident of success, the Skl appealed to Armed Forces High Command (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, or OKW) to spare shipyards and port installations in Leningrad and at the fleet’s main base at Kronstadt as much as possible, because the German navy desperately needed additional repair facilities. Raeder informed Hitler that Leningrad’s capture and an end to the threat in the Baltic would signify a great relief to the navy, because it would release warships for other theaters and expand the navy’s training areas.
On several occasions Hitler declared his intention to make the Baltic a German lake and emphasized that he could not tolerate the presence of another great power in the Baltic.