Liberation of the Baltic States
The largest part of Lithuania was liberated by the Red Army during successive Belorussian and Baltic Offensives in 1944. Its capital Vilnius was taken by the Soviet troops on July 13. Kaunas was liberated on August 1, 1944. The Klaipėda (Memel) Region annexed by Hitler in March 1939 was relieved from Nazi occupation in January 1945.
During the fighting, Soviet troops took 43,966 German servicemen prisoners, captured 912 artillery pieces, 67 tanks and self-propelled guns, 3,884 motor vehicles and other equipment. 80,600 soldiers and officers of the Red Army were killed during the liberation of Lithuania.
The successful advance of the Red Army drove the Germans out of Lithuania, a substantial portion of Latvia, and southeastern Estonia during the summer of 1944. The troops of the 1st Baltic Front (commander – Ivan Bagramyan) reached the Gulf of Riga, west of the city of Riga, thus cutting off a considerable part of the Army Group North’s formations in July 1944. The enemy, however, managed to rebuild his strength and mounted a counteroffensive in August. Although the Soviets succeeded in fending off the attack from almost all directions, the Wehrmacht drove the units of the 1st Baltic Front back from the gulf, thereby restoring the communications with its cut-off divisions.
The Soviet advance in the summer of 1944 prepared the ground for the final blow against the Army Group North. The Stavka developed a plan of the Baltic Strategic Offensive. It involved the Leningrad Front, the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Baltic Fronts, the 3rd Belorussian Front, and parts of the forces of the Baltic Fleet. In total the Soviets concentrated 1,546,400 of military personnel, over 3000 tanks and self-propelled guns, 2,640 warplanes and 17,480 guns and mortars.
Aware of the strategic importance of the Region, the enemy was going to hold its ground at any cost.
The offensive was launched on September 14, 1944. Three Soviet Baltic Fronts attacked Riga from the northeast, east and south. The 43d Army of the 1st Baltic Front (commander – General Afanasy Beloborodov) broke through the German defenses in the first day of operation. Two days later it reached Daugava, just 20 km away from Riga. Yet, the Germans managed to amass here considerable forces, including most of their tanks. It allowed them to launch a strong counter-attack against the 43rd Army. The fierce fighting continued from September 16 to September 22. However, the troops of Beloborodov were able to retain their positions.
As further advance toward Riga had become impossible, the Stavka decided to shift the direction of the main thrust to Memel (Klaipėda) on September 24. The Leningrad Front went on the offensive on September 17. Marshal Govorov had managed to covertly and promptly deploy the 2nd Shock Army (Colonel General Ivan Fedyuninsky) near Tartu. The emergence of a large Soviet formation here came as a complete surprise to the German command. The divisions of the Army successfully broke through the enemy’s defense and rushed toward the Gulf of Finland. Thus they moved into the rear of the German Army Group Narva, which defended the isthmus between the Lake Сhudskoye (Peipus) and the Gulf of Finland. Fearing the encirclement, Ferdinand Schörner ordered his troops to retreat. In pursuit of the enemy, units of the 8th Army liberated Tallinn. Meanwhile the 2nd Shock Army continued advance towards Pärnu. The mainland of Estonia was liberated by September 27.
The 8th Army (Lieutenant General Filipp Starikov) started the operation to liberate the islands of the Moonsund archipelago on September 26. The island of Saaremaa was the most fortified of them. Units of the 8th Army supported by battleships and aircrafts of the Baltic Fleet expelled German troops from islands of Vormsi, Muhu and Hiiumaa from September 27 to October 2. The Red Army began to land on Saaremaa on October 5. Germans were fighting desperately. The largest part of the island was taken just by October 7. The remnants of the German garrison retreated to the fortified Sõrve Peninsula in the southwestern part of the island. They fended off Soviet attacks until November 24. Thus Estonia was completely liberated. The Leningrad Front lost 6,219 soldiers killed but took 16,000 German prisoners.
As the fighting for islands continued, the Soviet Command decided to circumvent Riga where strong German forces were deployed and ordered the 1st Baltic Front to deliver a powerful blow toward Memel. The offensive started from the area of Šiauliai on October 5. The 43rd Army quickly redeployed here once again successfully broke through German defense. This allowed Ivan Bagramyan to forward the 5th Guards Tank Army (Colonel General Vasiliy Volsky) into the breakthrough. Sweeping through pockets of enemy resistance, Soviet tanks reached the shore of the Baltic Sea near Palanga, thus once again cutting off the land communications of the Army Group North. Keeping the offensive rolling, the armies of the 1st Baltic Front together with the 39th Army (Colonel-General I.I. Ludnikov) of the 3rd Belorussian Front had liberated Lithuania by October 20. Germans troops were able to hold their positions only around Memel, due to strong fortifications.
Meanwhile, the troops of the 2nd and 3rd Baltic Fronts burst into the outskirts of Riga on October 12. After three days of fierce fighting the capital of Latvia was liberated.
During the Baltic Strategic Offensive, the Red Army liberated most of the territory of the Baltic region. Soviet soldiers showed examples of courage and heroism. Only for the fighting in September 112 soldiers and officers were awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union title. Over 300,000 people were awarded orders and medals, and 131 military units received honorary status.