It was inevitable that German attention would fall upon this small enclave of `oppressed’ Germans, and in 1939, Berlin demanded the return of Memelland to Germany in an ultimatum delivered verbally by Joachim von Ribbentrop on 20 March to the Lithuanian Foreign Minister, Juozas Urbsys, who was passing through Berlin on his way home from the coronation of Pope Pius XII. Although the only records of this ultimatum to have survived are from the report that Urbsys gave to his colleagues on his return to Kaunas, it seems that Germany threatened military action unless Memelland was returned to German control. 2 The Lithuanian government felt that it had no real choice. The Memelland Assembly was expected to reconvene on 25 March, and was likely to pass a motion calling for return to Germany, and the threat of German military intervention had to be taken seriously, given German conduct in the Sudetenland. The convention that had settled matters in 1924 did not allow Lithuania to reassign sovereignty over the region without the consent of the other signatories of the convention, so the Lithuanians contacted both France and Britain to discuss the matter. Although both Western Powers expressed sympathy for the Lithuanians, neither was prepared to take any steps to support resistance to the German demands.
Hitler set sail for Klaipeda aboard the pocket battleship Deutschland, accompanied by the Admiral Graf Spee, Nürnberg, Leipzig, Köln, and a fleet of smaller ships. He intended to go ashore on 22 March, but negotiations between Ribbentrop and Urbsys dragged on into the night, leaving Hitler to cope with the throes of seasickness on a windy night at sea. A five-point treaty was finally signed shortly after midnight, and the following day Hitler was able to enter Klaipeda, at the same time that the German 1st Infantry Division, a formation recruited mainly in East Prussia, marched into the city from the south, led by the division mascot, a large dog.
The loss of Memelland was a major blow to Lithuania. Although it formed only 5 per cent of the country’s land area, it comprised perhaps a third of Lithuania’s industrial base, and over 70 per cent of Lithuania’s foreign trade passed through the port. The resulting dependence upon Germany played a major part in local politics in the months that followed.
In the autumn of 1944, war threatened the area once more. Prior to the first isolation of Army Group North, Bagramian had considered a thrust to the Baltic coast at or near Klaipeda, but decided that the risk to the flanks of any such advance was too great; instead, he opted to turn north and push on to the Gulf of Riga. In late September, the western option once more came under active discussion, and Bagramian received new orders on 24 September, that his front was to move the bulk of its forces from the Riga axis to the Klaipeda axis, in order once more to isolate Army Group North. The entire operation was to be prepared in six days, and executed within a further 11 days. At the same time, 2nd and 3rd Baltic Fronts would renew their attacks towards Riga, to tie down as much of Army Group North as possible, far away from Bagramian’s axis of advance.
There were several advantages in switching the axis for Bagramian’s front. Firstly, STAVKA calculated that this could be achieved faster than German forces could be redeployed; it would therefore be possible for Bagramian to operate in an area with far weaker German units facing his assault formations. Secondly, unlike the heavily contested territory immediately west of Riga, the approaches to Klaipeda had seen no fighting since 1941, and the roads and bridges were therefore in relatively good condition. Thirdly, Memelland was currently part of the Reich, and its capture would be an event of great political significance for the Red Army, particularly with Anglo- American forces approaching the Reich’s western frontiers. Nevertheless, the timescale for preparing the operation was daunting, requiring the movement of about half a million men, a thousand tanks, 10,000 guns and mortars, and all their associated supplies, over a distance of up to 120 miles across roads already heavily degraded by the fighting of August and September. In order to release Bagramian’s 4th Shock Army and 51st Army from the Riga axis, 2nd Baltic Front would have to move 10th Guards Army and 42nd Army south, and use them to replace 3rd Shock Army and 22nd Army; these latter two would then replace Bagramian’s armies outside Riga. And, of course, this had to be achieved without the Germans becoming aware of it.
Bagramian and his army commanders began detailed planning on 25 September. It was decided to mass roughly half of the front’s strength on a narrow frontage of only 12 miles, allowing for a concentration of up to 200 guns per kilometre (5/8 mile) of front. 6th Guards Army, with 2nd, 22nd and 23rd Guards Rifle Corps, 103rd Rifle Corps and 19th Tank Corps, would attack across about half the width of the selected sector, aiming to reach the Telsiai-Plunge area within five days. 43rd Army, with 1st, 19th, 90th and 92nd Rifle Corps, would attack alongside, with its axis of advance slightly to the south. 2nd Guards Army, with 11th and 13th Guards Rifle Corps, 44th and 54th Rifle Corps, and 1st Tank Corps, would attack south-west from Siauliai. 5th Tank Army would be held back as the main exploitation force, intended to be inserted between 6th Guards Army and 43rd Army on the second day to rush on to the Baltic coast. Obukhov’s 3rd Guards Mechanised Corps would be held back as front reserve, allowing it a little more time to recover from its losses in the September fighting.
Secrecy was an absolute priority for Bagramian:
As always, we did all we could to keep the attack preparations secret. This time, we laboured to use every opportunity. First, we rigorously restricted the circle of those in the know. We formally struck the word `attack’ from our vocabulary. Everything was carefully planned and executed. This also required well-organised leadership by the staff. General Kurasov [Bagramian’s chief of staff] played an outstanding part in this, in addition, the movement of troops and equipment on all roads during the day was of course forbidden.
This time, we did not rely just upon camouflage, but also sought to mislead the enemy. Generals Malyshev [commander of 4th Shock Army] and Obukhov were ordered to simulate the resumption of the attack on Riga from the south, to strengthen their reconnaissance, to regroup, and to allow trucks to be seen driving to the front. Additional preparation instructions were given via wire communication.
The same happened with General Kreiser in the Jelgava area. We simulated the building of defences at Siauliai. Obstacles were reinforced, trenches deepened, the network of communication trenches widened.
Despite the best efforts of all his staff, Bagramian had to ask Moscow for more time to prepare for the operation. He was relieved when the start of the attack was delayed to 5 October. On the eve of the attack, the Soviet commanders gathered for a final briefing. They were advised that the Germans had established three lines of defence. The main position consisted of a series of field fortifications over a three-mile depth, with a second line of much deeper positions. Finally, there was a third position, stretching from Tilsit to Klaipeda. Although the assessment of the strength of the main position was perhaps overstated, other observations made by Colonel Klebnikov, Bagramian’s intelligence officer, were accurate:
When describing 3rd Panzer Army’s dispositions, Colonel Klebnikov described a further peculiarity of the enemy’s defences, namely the linear deployment of his forces. All five infantry divisions were in the first defensive line as if along a string. One only had to break through this string with a forceful thrust, and there would be no further cohesion, as there were no strong reserves to the rear. Actually, to the south-west of Siauliai, in front of the left flank of 43rd Army, armoured troop formations had been detected; the same applied to the seam with 3rd Belarusian Front, where aerial reconnaissance had detected the concentration of considerable infantry forces. As was later determined, these were from Panzergruppe Lauchert (about the equivalent of a tank brigade) and 21st Infantry Division.
The main forces of Army Group North were positioned as before in the Riga area and 36km east of the city. General Yeremenko [commander of 2nd Baltic Front] had told me in a telephone conversation that the enemy was ensconced in the strong Riga Positions, which would cost 2nd and 3rd Baltic Fronts considerable efforts and losses to penetrate.
The main danger to us was from the armoured forces south of Riga. Tanks and infantry had been spotted in concentrations on the south-west approaches to the city. These consisted of one panzer division and two infantry divisions, which were in reserve. The breakthrough of 3rd Mechanised Corps in the area that extended 9.5 miles from the southern edge of Riga had forced Schörner to position this strong reserve on the road to the city.
We were particularly pleased to learn from the reconnaissance chief and the commander of 3rd Air Army that the panzer divisions that had given us so many headaches in August and September were as before south-west of Jelgava. It therefore seemed that the Fascists had not noticed our regrouping. If they were now to discover something, it would be too late. Nevertheless, we made some allowances. It was simply impossible to keep the regrouping of an entire Front secret. Apparently, enemy reconnaissance in the first days of October had spotted something. This was probably the reason why Schörner had slowly pulled the panzer divisions back, in order to move them further towards Memel. But this plan came too late.
Raus’ 3rd Panzer Army had two corps protecting the western approaches to Klaipeda. Of these, Hans Gollnick’s XXVIII Corps was the one that would feel the full weight of Bagramian’s attack. Between them, XXVIII Corps and XL Panzer Corps to the south had five infantry divisions, as Bagramian’s intelligence had assessed, and they were indeed strung in a very thin line, covering over 120 miles. The division in the path of the main Soviet thrust was 551st Grenadier Division, commanded by Siegfried Verhein. During the course of the coming fighting, like all grenadier divisions, it would be redesignated as a Volksgrenadier division, but despite its grandiose name, it was a weak formation. Its regiments were actually up to strength in numbers, but they had been formed largely from rear area units, personnel transferred to the army from the navy and Luftwaffe, and men previously deemed unfit or too old for front-line service. The division had little experience of war, particularly under the harsh conditions of the Eastern Front, and had had no opportunity to establish the essential cohesion required to survive a Soviet assault. Furthermore, it was defending a sector of 29 miles, leaving its positions hopelessly thin.
German staff officers first considered the possibility of a Soviet attack towards Klaipeda as early as 25 September, but at this stage, it was considered merely as one possible option. There continued to be considerable concerns about a possible Soviet operation once more aimed at reaching the Gulf of Riga. Nevertheless, the arrival of more elements of III SS Panzer Corps from Estonia in the area south of Riga allowed for plans to be made for 4th and 7th Panzer Divisions and Grossdeutschland to be moved to protect the approaches to Klaipeda. Hitler continued to fantasise about a renewal of German offensives, and on 28 September Schörner returned from a meeting in Germany with the news that Hitler still wished to attack towards the north-east from Siauliai, i. e. a resumption of Doppelkopf. The reaction of Schörner’s subordinates is not known.
German reconnaissance belatedly detected the Soviet preparations, spotting that 6th Guards Army had moved south-west on 29 September. The whereabouts of 5th Guards Tank Army – Bagramian’s most powerful force – remained unknown. By the following day, it was clear that an attack was being prepared in the general Raseiniai- Kelme area, and plans were made to move 7th Panzer Division to this sector. In the meantime, plans were drawn up for a German offensive, codenamed Blitz, which would attack north-east from the Raseiniai area, with a view to destroying or at least disrupting Soviet forces that were now known to be gathering in the Siauliai area. It was planned that forces for this attack would begin to gather at the end of October, with a view to a start date of 3 November. Grossdeutschland was alerted to move to XXVIII Corps, and its first elements, a battalion of Tiger tanks and the reconnaissance battalion, set off late on 3 October. The rest of the division would follow as soon as trains could be provided. 5th Panzer Division was also on the move, assigned on 2 October to strengthen the defences of XL Panzer Corps; like Grossdeutschland, its redeployment was held up by a shortage of trains. Finally, Gruppe Lauchert was sent from its current deployment in the Riga defences to XL Panzer Corps. But, as Bagramian had already concluded, these moves were too late to prevent the Soviet attack from gaining crucial momentum.
Despite Bagramian’s preparations, his forces were a long way from recovering from their losses earlier in the year, particularly in terms of infantry. The rifle divisions should have had nearly 12,000 men, but most had barely 7,000, with some as few as 3,000 men. Many of these were barely trained recruits, often forcibly conscripted from the newly liberated areas of the western Soviet Union. Nevertheless, 1st Baltic Front enjoyed a substantial superiority over the German forces it faced, particularly given its concentration on such a narrow front.