|Battles of the Courland Bridgehead|
|Part of the Eastern Front of World War II|
Soviet advances on the Eastern Front, 1 September 1943 – 31 December 1944
|Commanders and leaders|
Heinrich von Vietinghoff
|Army Group Courland||
1st Baltic Front|
2nd Baltic Front
|Casualties and losses|
October 1944–8 May 1945
2nd Baltic Front only: 16 Feb.–8 May 1945|
The pocket was created during the Red Army's Baltic Offensive, when forces of the 1st Baltic Front reached the Baltic Sea near Memel during its lesser Memel Offensive Operation phases. The Soviet commander was General Ivan Bagramyan. This action isolated the German Army Group North from the rest of the German forces between Tukums and Libau in Latvia. Renamed Army Group Courland 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.
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 Soviet forces continued the clearing of the Baltic coast, despite German attempts to restore the front in Operation Doppelkopf. The Red Army fought the Memel Offensive Operation with the goal of isolating Army Group North by capturing the city of Memel (Klaipėda).
Battles of the Courland Bridgehead
On 9 October 1944, the Soviet forces 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 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.
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 Field-Marshall Ferdinand Schörner were cut off from East Prussia and spread out along a front reaching from Riga to Liepāja, retreating to the more defensible Courland position, abandoning Riga.
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. 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.
From 15 to 22 October 1944 — Soviets launched the Riga Offensive Operation on the 15th at 10:00 after conducting a heavy artillery barrage. 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. The front stabilised with the main remnant of Army Group North isolated in the peninsula.
From 27 October to 25 November — Soviets launched an offensive trying to break through the front toward Skrunda and Saldus including, at one point initiating a simultaneous attack by 52 divisions. Soviets also attacked southeast of Liepāja in an attempt to capture that port. 80 divisions assaulted the Germans from 1 to 15 November in a front 12 km wide. Despite a 10:1 advantage in manpower at critical sectors, the Soviet breakthrough stalled after roughly 4 kilometers.
The 3rd phase of the fighting (also known as "the other Christmas Battle") started on 21 December 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, the Latvian 130th Rifle Corps faced their opposites in the Latvian 19th SS Division. The battle ended on 31 December 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.
On 15 January 1945, Army Group North was renamed Army Group Courland under Colonel-General 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. On 23 January Soviets launched an 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.
The fifth battle started on 12 February 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. On 16 February the Soviets started an offensive against the 19th Division.
On 8 May, Germany's Head of State and President 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.
On 8 May, General Rauser succeeded in obtaining better surrender terms from the Soviet command. On 9 May, the Soviet commission in Peilei started to interrogate the captive staff of Army Group Courland, and general collection of prisoners begun.
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.
Order of battle
See also Army Group Courland
Army Group North (to 25 January 1945)
Army Group Courland (25 January 1945 to 8 May 1945)
German 18th Army
|as at 5 November 1944:||as at 19 February 1945:|
|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|
The 4th Panzer Division was evacuated from the bridgehead in January 1945.
Soviet and Russian accounts
In this account, the Soviet actions in Courland were defensive blocking operations. Hostilities consisted of containing German breakout attempts, and the Red Army made no concerted effort to capture the Courland Pocket, 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. 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.
According to the Russian historian Aleksei Isaev, 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.
Stalin had initially been intent on destroying 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." As late as March 1945, Stalin was still making guarantees that German forces in Courland would soon be defeated. This victory was necessary, in Stalin's eyes, to re-establish Soviet control over its 1941 frontiers following the annexation of the Baltic states.
The Soviets launched six offensives to defeat the German Army Group Courland. 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. The Soviet operations were hampered by the difficult terrain and bad weather.
The German army group reported inflicting heavy losses on the Soviets. However, in the absence of heavy weaponry and a near total lack of air support, total German casualties in Courland were heavy as well, and estimated to be over 150,000.
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. By the start of April 1945, the Soviets viewed the German forces in Courland as not much more than self-supporting prisoners.
On 9 May 1945, General Ivan Bagramyan accepted the surrender of German forces at Ezere Manor in southwest Latvia. According to Russian records, 146,000 German and Latvian troops were taken prisoner, including 28 generals and 5,083 officers, 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: 189,112 Germans including 42 generals—among them the German commander, Carl Hilpert, who subsequently died in a Soviet POW camp in 1947—and approximately 14,000 Latvians.
- Frieser 2007, p. 661.
- 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.
- Russian: блокада Курляндской группировки войск (Blockade of the Courland army group), (German: Kurland-Kessel)/German: Kurland-Brückenkopf (Courland Bridgehead), Latvian: Kurzemes katls (Courland Cauldron) or Kurzemes cietoksnis (Courland Fortress).
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- Švābe, Arveds, ed. (1950–55). Latvju Enciklopēdija (in Latvian). Stockholm: Trīs zvaigznes. p. 3. OCLC 11845651.
- Mangulis, V. Latvia in the Wars of the 20th Century. CHAPTER IX JULY 1941 TO MAY 8, 1945 Archived 14 March 2012 at the Wayback Machine.. Historia.lv.
- 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.
- Thorwald, Jürgen (1951). Wieck, Fred, ed. Flight in the Winter: Russia Conquers, January to May 1945. New York: Pantheon. p. 64.
- ordersofbattle.com article
- 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.
- Isayev, Aleksey (28 December 2009). "Unknown Winter of 1945". Price of Victory (Interview) (in Russian). Interviewed by Dmitriy Zakharov. Moscow: Echo of Moscow. Retrieved 13 August 2012.
- Buttar, Prit (2012). Battleground Prussia: The Assault on Germany's Eastern Front 1944-45. Oxford: Osprey Publishing. ISBN 978-1849081900.
- 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.
- Haupt, Werner (2009). Heeresgruppe Nord: Der Kampf im Nordabschnitt der Ostfront 1941-1945 (in German). Dörfler Verlag GmbH. ISBN 978-3895555909.
- Dallas, Gregor., 1945: The War That Never Ended, Yale University Press, Yale, 2006 ISBN 0-300-10980-6
- Frieser, Karl-Heinz; Schmider, Klaus; Schönherr, Klaus; Schreiber, Gerhard; Ungváry, Kristián; Wegner, Bernd (2007). Die Ostfront 1943/44 – Der Krieg im Osten und an den Nebenfronten [The Eastern Front 1943–1944: The War in the East and on the Neighbouring Fronts]. Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg [Germany and the Second World War] (in German). VIII. München: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt. ISBN 978-3-421-06235-2.
Citation W; Wade, Richard. "The Survivors of the Kurland Pocket 1944-1945". American Military University, Charlestown, West Virginia, 2015., pg 57.