The Nazis' Violent Road to Leningrad

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December 28, 2020 Topic: History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: World War IINazi GermanySoviet UnionLeningradOperation Barbarossa

The Nazis' Violent Road to Leningrad

The chances of taking Leningrad with another lightning attack seemed nothing more than a dream —a dream that had been shattered with Russian blood.

Although the main tanks of the Soviet Army at the time were the T-26 and T-28, the Russians were also producing the heavier T-34s and the KV I and KV II. On June 23, Maj. Gen. Egor Nikolaevich Soliankin’s 2nd Tank Division, which had some KVs in its inventory, overran elements of the 6th Panzer Division near Skaudvile, about 20 kilometers west of Raseiniai. The Germans’ Czech-made Panzer 35s, equipped with 37mm guns, proved ineffective against the 45-ton monsters, as did German antitank guns.

Soviet tanks roamed the battlefield at will, often crushing antitank guns under their treads when they ran out of ammunition. The Soviet behemoths were finally destroyed by first immobilizing them with concentrated fire at their treads. Once that occurred, teams of tank-killers moved in, blowing them up with explosive charges. Soliankin lost much of his armor and was killed in action on June 26. However, those tanks that remained continued to be a thorn in the 6th Panzer’s side.

A single KV I cut the 6th Panzer’s supply route to its bridgeheads on the Dubysa. It held out against everything the Germans could throw at it for a day. Finally, an 88mm gun was moved into position while the KV was distracted by a panzer platoon. The 88 was able to destroy the Russian, opening the supply route and allowing other elements of the 6th to advance.

Major General Kirchner’s 1st Panzer was similarly surprised. “The KV I and KV II which we first met here were really something,” wrote a member of the division. “Our companies opened fire at about 800 yards, but it remained ineffective.…Very soon we were facing each other at about 50 to 100 meters…. The Russian tanks continued to advance, and all armorpiercing shells simply bounced off them.”

Eventually, the Russians were stopped with special purpose shells fired from 30 to 60 meters. A counterattack forced the Soviets back, leading to further advances by the division. By June 26 Kirchner’s division had linked up with Brig. Gen. Otto Ottenbacher’s 36th Motorized Division, encircling the main body of the 3rd Mechanized Corps. Many of the Russian tanks were out of fuel, making them easy targets for the Germans.

The 2nd Tank Division was decimated. Only one tank and 400 men made it back to the Russian lines. Colonel F.F. Fedorov’s 5th Tank Division and Maj. Gen. Petr Ivanovich Formenko’s 84th Mechanized Division were greatly understrength, and the 12th Mechanized Corps, which had escaped the trap, was in similar straits. Soviet tank losses were estimated to be in the hundreds.

“Keep Going at All Costs”

While Reinhardt was slugging it out with the Soviet armor, von Manstein kept moving forward. His corps had hit a relatively weak part of the Russian line, and after the first lively encounter with Red Army frontier forces his armored units were able to break uncoordinated enemy counterattacks and continue their advance. By June 24 the LVI Motorized Corps had reached the Daugavpils highway near Ukmerge, about 170 kilometers inside Lithuania.

Von Manstein was now within striking distance of the bridges over the Daugava, about 130 kilometers away. Disregarding the fact that he had outpaced his neighbors, he kept his units moving, ignoring flank protection. Short, sharp engagements were fought against reserve Soviet tank units sent to intercept him, but his orders were simple—“Keep going at all costs.”

The Brandenburg Commandos

With the spearhead of the 8th Panzer Division was a special unit commanded by 1st Lt. Hans-Wolfram Knaak. In the early hours of June 26, the 26-year-old Knaak detached his men from the spearhead and sped toward Daugavpils in two captured Soviet trucks. Knaak and his troops were members of the Lehr (Training) Regiment “Brandenburg”—commandos trained in sabotage and subterfuge that were part of Admiral Wilhelm Canaris’s Abwehr (Intelligence Service).

Many of Knaak’s men were fluent in Russian, and the two trucks were able to make it through the Soviet defenses unmolested. The drivers, in Red Army uniforms, joked with sentries and disseminated false information concerning the German positions. Driving into Daugavpils, the trucks headed for the precious bridges. The first truck almost made it to the eastern side before sentries fired on it. Driving down an embankment, the men in the rear of the truck jumped out with weapons firing.

The second truck, caught in the middle of the bridge, came under heavy fire that resulted in several casualties. The survivors pushed forward to link up with their comrades on the other side, and their combined fire forced the Soviets back before engineers could arrive to blow the bridge. Some of them were then able to make it to the nearby railroad bridge and succeeded in cutting the detonation wires on that structure.

Holding off attempts to recapture the eastern side of the bridge, the Brandenburgers were soon reinforced by the 8th Panzer spearhead, which had sliced through the Russian lines. Following units took control of the city, and armor was soon massing to meet the main body of Maj. Gen. Dmitri Danilovich Leliushenko’s 21st Mechanized Corps, which was on its way to help the Russian defenses.

Knaak’s unit had won the day, but Knaak himself did not live to see it. He had been killed during the fight for the crossing. For his actions that day, he was posthumously awarded the coveted Knight’s Cross on November 3, 1942.

Von Leeb Defies Orders

As the German armor crossed at Daugavpils, the foot units of von Wrede’s division followed in its wake. Although the 290th could not possibly hope to keep up with the panzers, its advance served to widen the hole punched through the Russian lines and guaranteed relative safety for von Manstein’s supply lines.

Hearing of von Manstein’s success, Hitler began meddling in the affairs of Army Group North. In his war diary, General Franz Halder, the chief of the General Staff of the Army, wrote, “Führer wants to throw the whole weight of Armored Group Hoepner on Dvinsk. Possibilities of a crossing at Jakobstadt (Jekabpils) problematic.”

Von Leeb would have none of it. Reinhardt had defeated the bulk of Kuznetsov’s armored forces, leaving the way open to the bridge at Jekabpils. The movement to von Manstein’s sector would entail traveling through wooded areas where few roads existed and would take days to accomplish. He simply ignored any suggestions to change the original plan, giving Reinhardt free rein to continue.

Crossing at Jekabpils

On June 27 the XLI Corps moved forward again. With a battle group under the command of Brig. Gen. Walter Krüger, the 1st Panzer smashed the remnants of the 12th Mechanized Corps, which were desperately trying to form a line on the Musa River. At the same time, Stavka Chairman Marshal Semen Konstantinovich Timoshenko ordered Kuznetsov to pull his remaining forces back to join up with Berazin’s 27th Army, which was occupying positions along the Daugava.

Battle Group Krüger moved on, spearheaded by the I/113th Rifle Regiment under the command of Major Josef-Franz Eckinger. By 2300, the battalion was 10 kilometers southwest of Jekabpils. At 0415 on the 28th, the fight for the crossing began.

As at Daugavpils, a unit of Brandenburgers tried to take the bridge by deception. This time the plan did not work, and the commandos found themselves involved in heavy fighting. Soon the main elements of Colonel Hans-Christoph von Heydebrand und der Lasa’s 113th Rifle Regiment joined the fray. The Soviets were slowly pushed back, but Red Army engineers stood at the ready. As the Germans advanced toward the Daugava, a series of explosions shook the area. The bridges had been destroyed.

Assault boats were brought forward and, as German artillery from Artillery Regiment 73 hammered Soviet positions on the north shore, Major von Kittel’s II/113 was able to cross and establish a bridgehead. By midnight, the south bank of the Daugava at Jekabpils was firmly in German hands, and engineers were building a bridge to funnel reinforcements to von Kittel.

Red Army’s Respite

Both Reinhardt and von Manstein were now coming under attack by the 27th Army. The 21st Mechanized had also arrived, and Russian units managed to occupy the northern suburbs of Daugavpils, setting off a round of savage house-to-house fighting. The Germans also received reinforcements as the first elements of the Totenkopf entered the city.

Leliushenko’s units were driven back with heavy losses, but Soviet bombers were able to make it through German air defenses to hammer German positions. Arriving Totenkopf soldiers noted, “The greater part of the city has been totally destroyed.”

Reinhardt had also been able to hold his bridgehead as more German forces arrived at Jekabpils. The first great objective on the road to Leningrad had been achieved. Most of the Soviet forces in Lithuania had been destroyed, and the Germans had their crossings in Latvia. With his mechanized forces chomping at the bit, von Leeb was ready for the next stage, but once again, Hitler intervened. This time the order could not be ignored or conveniently “lost.”

Hitler had suddenly become nervous about his army’s success in the north. The enemy was in disarray and the lightning advances in Poland and France had proven the panzers’ ability to strike deep into the enemy’s rear, but he became jittery when looking at the long narrow arrows on the map showing Reinhardt and von Manstein far to the north of the slowly advancing infantry armies on their flanks.