August 10th in German History: The Battle of Narva

Narva 1944.jpg
German soldiers defend the Narva River.

Although the Soviet Union largely held the initiative on the Eastern Front after the Battle of Kursk, the weakened German armies were still able to put up significant resistance throughout 1944. At the Battle of Narva, the Soviet assaults were held back by soldiers of the Wehrmacht and SS. Although Narva itself fell to the Red Army, the Soviets failed to achieve their goal, to retake Estonia, and suffered heavy casualties and were forced to cease their offensive on August 10th, 1944.

After the failure of the Siege of Leningrad, Germany was pushed back to the Baltics and there was forced to hold against numerically superior Russian forces. This region had been occupied by the Soviet Union before the war, but had been under German control since Barbarossa in 1941. Stalin wanted to retake the Baltics in order to secure air and naval bases for attacks on the German iron ore trade from Sweden, and further to facilitate an invasion of East Prussia. As it was, German control of the northern Estonian coast prevented the Soviet Baltic Fleet from operating. However, the German defenders benefited from the lakes and swamps on the Estonian-Russian border and further from the river behind which Narva was located. However, if Estonia were captured, the Soviets would gain a base of supply from which they could launch further operations against the Germans. Although the Germans were not critically outmatched in manpower, they had 123,000 men to the Soviet’s 200,000, they had less than a fourth the tanks and one fifth of the planes of their enemy. Thus, when the Soviets attacked on the second of February they were able to secure multiple beachheads on the western side of the Narva River. However, despite suffering from heavy bombardment, the Germans were able to prevent the Russians from expanding their bridgeheads for several weeks. Large numbers of Estonians volunteered to fight alongside the Germans, hoping that by forming military units they would be able to secure Estonian independence. However, Soviet attacks in the Ukraine and in Belarus forced Germany to move many formations south, leaving the defensive line in front of Narva untenable. Although several Soviet battle groups had been annihilated in March, the exit of Finland from the war freed up men and material for Baltic operations. This gave the Soviets four-to-one superiority and allowed them to take Narva on July 26th, although they sustained very heavy losses. Estonian troops saved the Germans from being cut-off and allowed them to withdraw to the Tannenberg Line. On July 29th, Soviet shock troops assaulted several hills that made up part of the line, and looked poised to take them. However, seven tanks under the command of Felix Steiner flanked the Soviet armored columns and forced them to retreat. This allowed a German counterattack to retake Grenadier Hill and stabilize the front. Subsequent assaults failed to break the Tannenberg Line and the offensive was terminated on August 10th.

The Soviet failure to take Estonia on August of 1944 merely delayed the eventual outcome for Germany. Failures on other parts of the line and the growing Soviet superiority in men and equipment eventually forced Germany to abandon the Baltics, leaving behind 200,000 men encircled in the Courland pocket. However, resistance by the Germans and Estonians did buy Finland time to negotiate an acceptable peace treaty with Stalin. Further, it provided inspiration for future Estonian nationalist movements which would contribute to the country’s fierce resistance to Soviet occupation.

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