The Naval War in the Baltic Sea 1941-1945

The German naval campaign in the Baltic Sea was one of Germany’s most successful military efforts of the entire Second World War. For most of the Second World War, the Baltic Sea was a virtual German lake. The most successful year for the Germans in the Baltic Sea was 1943. In that year, not one Soviet ship or submarine made it past the anti-submarine net the Finns and the Germans had erected from Helsinki to Tallinn.

In the end, in the Spring of 1945, the German Kriegsmarine under Großadmiral Karl Dönitz was able to evacuate nearly 2.5 million Baltic and German civilians and soldiers from Baltic shores to safety in northern Germany despite vigorous attempts by the Soviets to prevent just that from happening. This operation, the last of the once-mighty Kriegsmarine, would be the largest sea-rescue operation in history. The German navy started and ended the naval war in the Baltic Sea supporting the German Army to meets its operational objectives.

Marinekommando Nord under the command of Admiral Claasen and headquartered in Kiel had the following forces at its disposal for Operation Barbarossa:

  • Battleships: Schlesien and Schleswig-Holstein (they did not participate in any attacks though)
  • Submarines: 22nd U-Bootflotilla, Korvettenkapitän Ambrosius commanding (U140, 142, 144, 145, and 149)
  • Minesweeper group: Grille, Preussen, Skagerrak and Versailles
  • Minesweeper group Nord: 5th, 15th, 17th, 18th, and 31st Sweeper Flotillas
  • Sperrbrecher group: 6th, 8th, and 138th
  • Submarine chasers: 11th Submarine chaser flotilla, 11th, and 12th Räumbooteflotilla
  • Naval Group “D”: Minesweeper group “Cobra”, 1st Torpedoboat flotilla (S26, 39, 40, 101, 102, and 103)5th Torpedoboat flotilla (S27, 28, 29, 45 and 47), Half of the 5th minesweeper flotilla (R56, 57, 58, 60,61 and 62), Base ships Carl Peters and Tsingtao, 3rd Finnish coastal patrol flotilla (V304-308 and V310-314), Ilmarinen, Väinämöinen, Hämeenmaa, Karjala, Turunmaa and Uusimaa, 3submarines and some lesser ships

Opposing them were the following Soviet forces:

3rd Battle Group:

  • Battleships: Marat and Oktyabraskaya Revolustiya
  • Destroyers (flotilla leaders): Leningrad and Minsk
  • Destroyers: Artyom, Engels, Jakov Sverdlov, Kalinin, Karl Marx, and Volodarsky

Light Battle Group:

  • Cruisers: Kirov and Maksim Gorkiy
  • 1st Destroyer Division: Gnevnoy, Grodnoy, Grozhjashtshy, Smetlivoy, and Steregushtshy
  • 2nd Destroyer Division: Storozhevoy, Stoiky, Silnoy, and Sereditoy
  • And all former Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian merchant, and navy ships.

The German submarine bases named Krefeld and Seeburg were established in Saaristomerre, Finland.

Germany began the Baltic Sea campaign by laying a number of minefields just prior to and right after 21 June 1941. Specifically, the Germans laid three minefields in proximity to German waters – Wartburg I minefield off of the coast of Klaipeda(Memel), Wartburg II minefield between Karlskrona, Sweden, and Klaipeda(Memel), and Wartburg III minefield off of the Gotland coast close to Swedish waters. The primary purpose of these minefields was to prevent the Soviet Baltic Sea Fleet from attacking the vital German-Swedish commerce routes. In addition to establishing these minefields, Helsinki became a German forward-area naval base. The Wartburg mining efforts were successful as they caused the Soviet navy to take heavy losses in the early days of the war.

Although the Kriegsmarine had started its minelaying campaign in the Baltics a few days before Barbarossa, the first official naval action between the Germans and the Soviets took place at 0345 hours,22 June 1941. The German torpedo boats S59 and S60 sunk the ex-Latvian steamer (now in Soviet colors)not far off of the Gotland coast. On 23 June 1941, S43 was sunk off of the Hiiumaa coast. A few days later, S101 was also lost near Hiiumaa island. That same day, the Soviet cruiser “Maksim Gorkiy” hit a German 250kg mine in the Apolda minefield. She made it to Tallinn, was made seaworthy again, and proceeded to Kronstadt a few days later. On 28 June 1941, five German S-boats boldly entered Liepaja harbor and took the port. The German 291.Infanterie-Division arrived a day later.

In addition to the Baltic Sea, minor naval engagements also took place on Estonia’s Lake Peipus. In 1915, the Russian first formed a small fleet on Lake Peipus. During the interwar period, Tartu was the home of the Estonian Lake Peipus Fleet. The largest vessels were approximately 140-ton gunboats armed with102mm, 75mm, and 47mm guns. All of these Estonian boats were heavily damaged through Luftwaffe attacks. Once the Germans had secured the area, they repaired all of the boats for continued use.

On 29 June 1941, Ju-88’s from Kampfliegergruppe 806 seriously damaged the Soviet destroyer, Karl Marx (a Ukraiyna class destroyer built in Tallinn in 1904) in Tallinn. The Soviet vessel MO-229, moored next to the Karl Marx, was also pulverized.

In early July of 1941, the Germans started to insert the Estonian ERNA commando teams behind Soviet lines in Estonia. By the end of August 1941, the ERNA II commando teams were inserted into Estonia.

As the German Army rapidly advanced into the Baltic States, one Baltic port after another was lost to the Soviets. Liepaja and Ventspils in Latvia were evacuated on 27 June 1941. Daugavgriva and Riga, also in Latvia were evacuated between 27 June and 04 July 1941. Pärnu in Estonia was evacuated on 03 July 1941.

The loss of Liepaja was an especially hard blow for the Soviets because they had built up the port substantially to service the needs of the Soviet Baltic Sea Fleet. In addition to numerous Soviet naval vessels, the two ex-Estonian and two ex-Latvian Navy submarines were also located in Liepaja in June of1941. Though the Soviets scuttled the two ex-Latvian navy submarines Ronis and Spidolis in Liepaja as blocking vessels, they were able to successfully evacuate the two ex-Estonian navy submarines Kalev and Lembit. Numerous ex-Baltic naval vessels were lost during this period as the Soviets attempted to evacuate them to safer regions. Most of the escaping Soviet naval forces from the Latvian and southern Estonian ports were redeployed to Tallinn in Estonia by the Soviets.

By late August 1941, it became clear to the Soviet military command that Tallinn and Estonia would also fall into German hands within a matter of days. The Soviet navy ships located in Tallinn had to be evacuated. On 26 August 1941, Moscow gave Admiral Vladimir Tributs permission to evacuate Tallinn with all available naval forces. But the Germans did their best to prevent just that from happening. The Kriegsmarine and Luftwaffe attacks conducted against the Tallinn naval exodus can arguably be said to be Germany’s greatest naval success of 1941 and the Soviet Red Banner Baltic Fleet’s worst moment.

By the time the Soviets had decided on a maritime evacuation of Tallinn, over 200 Soviet civilian and military vessels had been assembled in the harbor of Tallinn. Many of the Soviet vessels belonged to the former Estonian and Latvian navies. An evacuation of Tallinn by the Soviets would not be an easy undertaking for the Germans had long since anticipated a Soviet breakout. To increase their chances of neutralizing the Soviet Navy, the approaches to Tallinn and the Gulf of Finland, in general, were extensively mined by the Germans. Daily Luftwaffe attacks against the ships in Tallinn harbor did not make life any easier for the Soviet evacuation effort. Tallinn had to be evacuated by the Soviets as soon as possible. Soviet evacuation plans, as coordinated by Vice Admiral Drozd, called for the assembled ships to depart Tallinn in seven staggered sailings: one primary battlefleet, four lesser sized convoys, a screening squadron, and a rear guard squadron. Each of these components was to carry as many Soviet Army personnel, Soviet/Estonian Communist Party members, and refugees as possible.

The Germans and their Finnish allies too were preparing for the eventual departure of Soviet naval forces from Tallinn. Between 09 August and 23 August 1941, the Germans and the Finns created nearly 20minefileds within the Gulf of Finland. Ironically, Soviet forces observed these activities but did not interfere with them.

On 28 August 1941, at 1118 hours, just as the Germans were entering Tallinn’s central business district, Captain N Bogdanov led the first Soviet naval convoy out of Tallinn harbor. This convoy contained the following 32 ships:

  • Destroyers (DD): Surovoy, Svirepoy
  • Minesweepers (MS): Nr. 52 (Buyok), Nr. 56 (Barometr), Nr. 57 (Imanta, ex-Latvian Navy), Nr. 71(Krab), Nr. 72 (Dhzerzhinski), Nr. 91 (Lyapidevski)
  • Minelayers (ML): KTShtsh type – 1201, 1204, 1205, 1206
  • Coastal patrol boats: Ametist (ex Sulev, Estonian Navy), Banyan, Kassatka, OLS-7
  • Patrol boats: MO-204, MO-207
  • Maritime rescue vessel: Saturn
  • Training vessel: Leningradsoviet
  • Staff vessel: Virona (ex Estonian merchantman)
  • Floating workshop: Serp i molot
  • Transporters: VT-511 (Alev, ex-Estonian merchantman), VT-524 (Kalpaks, ex Latvian merchantman), VT-547 (Järvamaa, ex Estonian merchantman), VT-530 (Ella, ex Estonian merchantman), VT 563 (Atis Kronvaldis, ex Latvian merchantman)

That afternoon, at 1325 hours, Captain N. Antonov departed with the second convoy (Some Soviet naval history sources claim that Captain N. Antonov actually departed with the fourth convoy). The second convoy contained the following ships:

  • Sloop: Moskva
  • Minesweepers: TTShTsh 43, 44, 47, 84, 121
  • Minelayers: KTShTsh 1510, 1511, 1512, 1514
  • Patrol boats: MO-200
  • Netlayers: Ergonautis (VT-537) (ex-Latvian merchantman),Ivan Papanin (VT-505), Naissaar (VT-584) (ex-Estonian merchantman), Kazhakhstan (VT-523), Siaulia (VT-550) (ex-Lithuanian merchantman)
  • Powered sailboat: Rein (ex-Estonian)

The third Soviet naval convoy, under the command of Captain J. Yanson departed Tallinn at 1350 hours with the following ships:

  • Sloop: Amgun
  • Coastal Patrol boat: Uran
  • Minelayers: Nr. 33 Olonka, Nr. 35 Shuya, Nr. 58 Osetr, Nr. 83
  • Minesweepers: KTShTsh 1101, 1104, 1105, 1107
  • Patrol boats: MO-501, 502
  • Q-ship (armed merchantman): Hiiusaar (ex-Estonian merchantman)
  • Maritime rescue vessel: Kolyavan
  • Tanker: TN-12
  • Transport vessels: Kumari (VT-574) (ex-Estonian),Lake Lucerne (VT-581) (ex-Estonian),Luga (VT-518), Skrunda (VT-529),Tobol (VT-512), Vtoraya Pyatilekta (VT-543)
  • Steamship: PK-233 (scuttled in Tallinn harbor prior to the convoy’s departure)

At 1452 hours, the main Soviet battlefleet under the command of Vice-Admiral V. Tributs, departed Tallinn harbor.

The cruiser Kirov was selected to be the Tributs’ flagship for this mission:

  • Cruiser: Kirov
  • Destroyers: Gordoi, Jakov Sverdlov, Smetlivoy
  • Submarines: Kalev (ex-Estonian navy),Lembit (ex-Estonian navy),S-4,S-5
  • Ice breaker: Suur Tõll (ex-Estonian navy)

German Luftwaffe attacks, German and Finnish minefield operations, combined with German and Finnish surface and submarine actions took an additional toll on the departing Soviet fleet. Korvettenkapitän Birnbach’s 1st Torpedoboat flotilla (S26, S27, S39, S40, and S101) left Helsinki on 28 August 1941 to attack the departing Soviet ships. Three times he attacked the convoy’s but was forced to abort his runs due to heavy Soviet counterfire. German mines and Luftwaffe attacks were far more successful in their interdiction efforts. The survivors of the Tallinn exodus (in German parlance -the Juminda mine battle) arrived in Kronstadt and Leningrad on 29 and 30 August 1941. Over 50 Soviet naval ships were lost or sunk mostly to mines (the Krivoi was damaged by mines, but managed to make it to Kronstadt):

Sunk (total loss of life was in excess of 14.000 people):

  • Destroyers: Artiom, Engles, Kalinin, Jakov Sverdlov, Skoroy, Volodarsky
  • Submarines: S-5, ShTsh-301Minelayers: Nr. 56 (Barometr), Nr. 71 (Krab), TTShTsh-42, Izhorets-17
  • Coastal Patrol Boats: Sneg, Topaz, Tsyklon, Yupiter
  • Patrol boat: MO-202
  • Gunboat: I-8
  • Hydrographic vessels: Astronom, Vostok
  • Maritime rescue vessel: Saturn
  • Staff ship: Vironia (ex-Estonian)
  • Tanker: TN-12
  • Floating workshop: Serp i Molot
  • Torpedo boat: TKA-103
  • Icebreakers: Kristjans Valdemars (ex-Latvian navy)
  • Q-ship: Hiiusaar (ex-Estonian)
  • Motorized sailing vessel: Tiir (ex-Estonian)
  • Merchantmen, Passenger Steamers, and Transport ships: M.S. Alev (ex-Estonian), Atis Kronvaldis (ex-Latvian), M.S. Ausma (ex-Latvian), Balhash, Ella (ex-Estonian), M.S. Ergonautis (ex-Latvian), M.S.Everita (ex-Latvian), Ivan Papanin, Järvamaa (ex-Estonian), Kalpaks (ex-Latvian), M.S.Kazakhstan, M.S. Lake Lucerne (ex-Estonian), Luga, Lunatsharsky, M.S. Naissaar (ex-Estonian), M.S. Petergof (Peterhof), M.S. Siauliai (ex-Lithuanian), M.S. Sigulda (ex-Latvian), M.S. Skrunda(ex-Latvian), Tobol, S.S. Vaindlo (ex-Estonian), S.S. Vormsi (ex-Estonian).

On 08 September 1941, the Germans launched their amphibious invasion against the Estonian Islands. Operation “Beowulf” was a success, for, within a very short period of time, all German objectives had been met. Greater detail of this effort is described below.

Soviet naval losses for all of 1941 were devastating. They lost one battleship (the 22 September 1941loss of the Marat to Rudel’s Ju-87 attack), one cruiser (the Petropavlovsk), 17 out of 24 destroyers, 26out of 65 submarines, two gunboats, 35 tugboats, six coastal patrol boats, 14 torpedo boats, 24 submarine chasers, and 10 other minor ships. In addition, the Soviets also lost 91 of their own merchantmen, mostly to German and Finnish mines. Combined, the Baltic States lost nearly 100 merchantmen during the same time period; nearly all of these were flagged as Soviet ships.

Taken as individual nations, the following totals would apply for Baltic Sea combat-related naval and maritime losses in 1941:

  • The Soviet Union lost 217 ships (126 military and 89 civilian ships)
  • Estonia lost 71 ships (2 military and 69 civilian ships)
  • Germany lost 52 ships (35 military and 17 civilian ships)
  • Latvia lost 32 ships (4 military and 28 civilian ships)
  • Sweden lost 4 ships
  • Finland lost 3 ships (3 military ships)
  • Lithuania lost 3 ships (1 military ship and 2 civilian ships)

1942: In practical terms, for all of 1942, both the German and Finnish naval forces retained full control of the Baltic Sea except for the direct approaches to Kronstadt and Leningrad. In the spring of 1942, the Finns and the Germans fought several see-saw battles with the Soviets for control of a number of small islands off of the northern Estonian and Ingrian coastlines.

On 04 April 1942, the Germans initiated operation “Eisstoß”. This was the first major aerial effort specifically designed to eliminate the Soviet Baltic Red Banner Fleet in Kronstadt and Leningrad. Luftflotte 1 was selected to accomplish this task. Although the German was able to sink the cruiser Krivoi and the training ship Svir, the operation did not attain the results the Germans had hoped for. By 30 April 1942, “Eisstoß” was canceled.

In October of 1941, the Germans home based the newly created Marinebefehlshaber Ostland in Tallinn. This component of the German navy was responsible for securing the Gulf of Finland and the eastern areas of the Baltic Sea from Soviet naval activities. By early 1942, Marinebefehlshaber Ostland contained two geographic areas of responsibility, the northern sector – the Estonian coastline up to the 1939 Estonian-Latvian border, and the southern sector – the 1939 Latvian and Lithuanian coastlines. The northern sector command center was co-located in Tallinn along with the Marinebefehlshaber Ostland, the southern sector command was headquartered in Liepaja.

Marinebefehlshaber Ostland contained the following basic components:

  • Kommandant der Seeverteidigung Reval (Tallinn): Kapitän zur See Jörss commanding
  • Köstenschutzgruppe Ostland: responsible for coastal protection in the Baltic States
  • 531. Marineartillerieabtailung: Naval coastal artillery from Narva into Ingermanland up to the Leningradblockade ring
  • 311. Marinefestungsbaubatallion
  • 321. Marinefestungsbaubatallion
  • Oberwerftstab Ostland: Tallinn based naval construction. Kontra-Admiral Göhle commanding
  • 3. Marinekraftfahrausbildungsabteilung: Naval motorized transportation training group
  • 6. Marinekraftfahrabteilung: Naval motorized transportation group
  • Seetransportchef Ost: bases in Hanko, Helsinki, Liepaja, Paldiski (Baltischport), Pärnu, Riga, Tallinn, Turkku, and Ventspils. Kapitan zur See Nicloe commanding

As soon as the ice had cleared in the Gulf of Finland in the spring of 1942, the Germans started to redeploy a number of Kriegsmarine vessels to Baltic and Finnish ports primarily from northern Germany.

By late spring, early summer, 1942, the following German naval units were operating in the northern and western Baltic Sea:

  • 1. Minensuch Flotilla
  • 11. Minensuch Flotilla
  • 12. Minensuch Flotilla
  • 18. Minensuch Flotilla
  • 31. Minensuch Flotilla
  • 34. Minensuch Flotilla
  • Räumboote (Minesweepers) Kaiser and Roland
  • 12th Submarine chaser group
  • 3rd Patrol boat group
  • 27th Amphibious assault group
  • 32 additional coastal patrol boats

By the summer of 1942, all of the islands in the Gulf of Finland, except Lavansaari and Seiskarisaari were under German or Finnish control. Very few Soviet submarines were able to make it into or through the Gulf of Finland that year; though a few did and they caused the Germans some minor losses.

On 04 June 1942, Finland’s Fieldmarshal Mannerheim celebrated his 75th birthday. To honor this event, Adolf Hitler decided he would fly to Finland to personally congratulate Fieldmarshal Mannerheim and give Mannerheim a Mercedes-Benz as a birthday present. Hitler and Wilhelm Keitel departed from Rastenburg in Hitler’s FW-200. An escort of 30 fighters now also headed towards Tallinn, Estonia. All along the route, German, Estonian auxiliary, Latvian auxiliary, and Lithuanian auxiliary FLAK units had been ordered not to fire at anything except 100% identifiable Soviet targets. This order was also passed along to all of the Estonian manned auxiliary FLAK units stationed on the Estonian islands and in and around Tallinn; though no one was told of the reason for this order. The Germans did not want to have happened to Hitler what had happened to Italy’s Marshal Italo Balboga on 28 July 1940 where Italian FLAK units shot down their own commander.

On the morning of 03 June 1942, Finnish and German patrol boats were stationed every 2.5km covering the distance between Helsinki and Tallinn. The Germans wanted to take no chances. Once Hitler and Keitel arrived in Tallinn, his Luftwaffe escort was replaced with four Finnish Air Force airplanes. The Luftwaffe escort remained in Tallinn. The Finnish escort commander was Finland’s fighter ace Ilmari Juutilainen. Hitler and Keitel spent the day with Mannerheim and his Finnish hosts before returning to Germany via the same route he had taken to get there.

By years end, Finnish and German naval forces had erected the following major minefields in the Gulf of Finland:

  • Nashorn minefield – erected May to September 1942; from Hanko to the Estonian coast
  • Seeigel minefield – erected May to October 1942; near Suurtöttarsaar, Gulf of Finland
  • Rukajärvi minefield – erected May to October 1942; near Suursaari, Gulf of Finland
  • Lachs minefield – erected July to August 1942; near Ulko Tammio Island
  • Norppa minefield – erected August 1942; near Someri Island, Gulf of Finland
  • Seehund minefield – erected August 1942; near Lavansaari island, Gulf of Finland
  • Ontajärvi minefield – erected August 1942; near Someri Island, Gulf of Finland
  • Brummbär minefield – erected June 1942; near Seiskari Island, Gulf of Finland
  • Peninkulma minefield – erected September to October 1942; near Peninsaari Island
  • Sauna and Tiger minefield – erected May to June 1942; entrance to Kronstadt harbor

German and Soviet naval operations essentially ceased by late October – early November when the Baltic Sea froze solid again for the winter.

1943: This was Germany and Finland’s most successful year in terms of naval success in the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Finland. Starting in the month of April 1943, just as the pack-ice in the Gulf of Finland begins to dissipate, the Germans and the Finns erected two rows of anti-submarine nets between the Porkkala peninsula in Finland and Naissaar Island off of the coast of Tallinn, Estonia; a distance of approximately 60 miles. Again, the Soviets were well aware of the German and Finnish operation, but they took no efforts to interdict the undertaking. Over 140 German and Finnish ships participated in this effort. As a result of the successful deployment of the submerged anti-submarine nets, not one Soviet submarine (or other Soviet naval surface vessels) was able to proceed past the German and Finnish net into the western portions of the Baltic Sea during the remainder of 1943.

1944 and 1945: In January of 1944, the Soviets were able to lift the German siege of Leningrad. Within a month, they had pushed the Germans back to Narva in Estonia. In the early summer of 1944, the 6.Zerstörer Flotilla (Z-25, Z-28, Z-35, Z-36, and Torpedoboat T-30) was transferred by the Kriegsmarine from Germany to Paldiski (Baltischport) and Tallinn. Their mission was to help secure the maritime approaches to Narva from Soviet actions. By the end of the summer of 1944, the Soviets broke through Narva and attacked the Germans in southern Estonia and northern Latvia. Riga had to be evacuated by the Germans on 23 August 1944.

By late March 1944, the Soviets were ready to challenge the German and Finnish positions in the Gulf of Finland. On paper, the Soviets could still call on one battleship, two cruisers, six torpedo boats, 11destroyers, 19 minesweepers plus numerous supporting vessels. In contrast, the German forces available in March of 1944 were two torpedo boats, three minelayers, four destroyers, six R-boats, nine artillery barges, 15 civilian fishing vessels, 17 minesweepers, 46 naval landing barges, and 85 patrol boats. But the Soviets never engaged their full potential, they always attacked in small groups. In contrast, the Germans always maximized the limited capabilities of their entire naval force. The German and Finnish efforts to construct a second set of nets across the Gulf of Finland from Porkkala to Naissaar were not successful due to Soviet naval interdiction efforts.

The late summer of 1944 saw the first large-scale German naval evacuation effort from the eastern end of the Gulf of Finland. Over 90,000 soldiers and 85,000 Estonian, Finnish, and German refugees (and Soviet Prisoners of War) were safely evacuated to German ports in the Baltic Sea (Danzig, Königsberg, etc.). The German cost of this undertaking was the loss of only one steamer. Additional German naval evacuations were to follow from Estonian and Latvian ports. The last German evacuation ships left Kurland a day or two after the end of the war, 09 May 1945.

Between the fall of 1944 and May of 1945, the German Navy’s top priority rested in evacuation efforts and supporting the military needs of the German army on land. The Soviet army recaptured the Estonian islands during October and November of 1944 (see below). Interestingly, the Soviets did not use any of their nearly 240 planes located at Pärnu airfield to interfere with the German evacuation effort of the Estonian islands. During the fall of 1944, the German cruisers Lötzov and Prinz Eugen were transferred to the Baltic Sea. For the most part, the Soviets made few attempts at interfering with any of the missions assigned to these two German capital ships. For example, although the Soviet Army had reached the city limits of Klaipeda (Memel) by October of 1944, German naval fire from its capital ships helped the Germans hold onto Klaipeda until January of 1945. Rarely did Soviet forces return fire to the German ships.

As the Soviets were attacking German positions in the Baltics, they also increased the military pressure on Finland. By August of 1944, Finland was ready to surrender; the actual Finnish-Soviet armistice treaty being signed on 04 September 1944. Thereafter the Finnish navy ceased its activities. The Germans were now alone in the Baltic Sea.

By the end of the war, the German Kriegsmarine had successfully evacuated over 700,000 German, Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian soldiers, 300.000 wounded, and 1.5 million German, Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian refugees from the Baltic States (including the Kurland pocket) to safety in German rear areas. In the final stages of the war, the Germans were hopelessly outnumbered by their Soviet opponent in the Baltic Sea. Yet time and time again, the Germans successfully checked the Soviet naval activities in the Baltic Sea. That gave the Germans the time they needed to evacuate their troops and the refugees to safety.

The German conquest of the Estonian Islands in 1941: On 31 January 1941, while planning for the invasion of the Soviet Union, Heeresgruppe “Nord” (Army Group North) received its objective orders – The 16th and 18th Armies as well as Panzerkampfgruppe Hoeppner (the 4. Panzerarmee), was to engage the enemy (Soviets) in the Baltics and destroy them, occupy all ports in the Baltic region including Kronstadt and Leningrad, deny the Baltic Red Banner Fleet the use of its port facilities and work with Heeresgruppe “Mitte” (Army Group Center) to reach Smolensk as quickly as possible.

Shortly after Heeresgruppe “Nord” received its general attack directives, more specific plans were formulated regarding the conquest of the Baltic regions. These plans also called for the conquest of the Estonian Islands from Soviet forces. Two operational plans were considered for the island operation; both under the general code name “Beowulf”.

Operation “Beowulf I” directed German infantry troops to launch an amphibious invasion against the Estonian Island from northern Kurland in Latvia. Beowulf, I was basically a repetition of the invasion plan the Germans used against the Estonian Islands in the First World War. Beowulf, I was to be executed only if German forces were able to decisively defeat the Soviet forces in the Baltics very quickly.

Operation “Beowulf II” directed the occupation of the Estonian islands through an attack from infantry forces assembled on the western coast of Estonia. The operation was to be handled as if it were a large river crossing exercise. A number of diversionary attacks were to be undertaken in this case. The primary diversionary attack against Soviet positions on the Estonian Islands was codenamed “Södwind”. “Södwind” itself was composed of three elements – Operation “Nau”, a diversionary attack against Koiguste Bay, Operation “Stimmung”, a diversionary attack against Sutu Bay, and Operation “Lel”, a diversionary attack aimed at Kuressaare on Saaremaa Island. A second diversionary attack was to be conducted on the western coast of the Island of Saaremaa; codenamed “Westwind”. “Westwind” was to commence from the port of Liepaja in Latvia. For this, the 2. Torpedobootsflottille and the 2. and 3. Schnellbootsflottille, three transporters, three submarine chasers, and three minesweepers were assembled. Finally, a third diversionary attack was also envisioned. Operation “Nordwind” was to make it appear to the Soviet defenders as if the main German invasion was coming from the Finnish coast and that the first German goal was to attack the Estonian Island of Hiiumaa – not Saaremaa. The Germans wanted to use the Finnish port of Utö for “Nordwind”, but because of hesitance on the part of the Finnish military to support this plan, the Germans had to alter “Nordwind” and go at it alone.

Because the German forces were not able to decisively defeat the Soviets in the Baltics in the summer of1941, (the Germans encountered a number of delays as they reached the Estonian border regions); it was decided to implement Beowulf II for the conquest of the Estonian Islands. Elements of the 61.Infantrie division was withdrawn from the front lines and made available for Beowulf II.

To support the Wehrmacht, the German Kriegsmarine created a special naval command for Beowulf II, the Erprobungsverband Ostsee under the command of Rear-Admiral Schmundt. By 10 September 1941, elements of Erprobungsverband Ostsee were located in the port-cities of Liepaja, Riga, Roja, and Ventspils in Latvia. The Erprobungsverband Ostsee contained the following forces:

  • Cruisers: Emden, Köln and Leipzig
  • Four heavy floating artillery platforms
  • Two light floating artillery platforms
  • Six coastal motor ships outfitted with special Sturmboot launching ramps
  • 16 Kriegsmarine Landing craft (Type AF 46; initially slated for Operation Seelöwe)
  • 18 Wehrmacht Landing craft
  • 20 Auxiliary naval craft (mostly converted civilian types)
  • The Mothership H-27, the Hospital ship “Pieta” and 20 “Siebel” type Landing Craft

Finnish naval forces consisted of the Coastal Battleships Ilmarinen and Väinämoinen and two Ice Breakers.

For Beowulf II, Infantrieregiment 151 was reinforced with additional troops as wasArtillerieabteilung 161. Infantrieregiment 389 (temporarily detached from the 217.Infantriedivision) was responsible for securing the Estonian Island of Vormsi. Estonian ERNA commandos were to participate in the attack as well, arriving from their bases in Finland. Sonderkommando “Benesch”, a group of Regiment Brandenburg was ordered to neutralize the Soviet long-range naval guns on Saaremaa Island. The Luftwaffe established an ad hoc command, “Air Command B”, to provide the Wehrmacht and Kriegsmarine with air support. The 1st and 2nd groups of Kampfgeschwader 77 (primarily JU-88 bombers), the 2nd group of Pursuit Interceptor Group 26(fighters), the 10. Flakregiment, as well as Luftnachrichtenregiment 10., were made available for the conquest of the Estonian Islands. German (and Estonian and Latvian) civilian fishing vessels displaying the red cross flag were also made available in case their rescue services would be required at sea.

German military intelligence had determined that the Soviets had approximately 20.000 troops on the Estonian Islands:

Available Soviet forces:

  • 1 Battalion of Soviet Naval Infantry
  • 37th Technical Battalion
  • 91st Technical Battalion
  • 1 Battalion of Soviet Naval Infantry Volunteers
  • 3rd Rifle Battalion
  • 136th Engineers Battalion
  • 1 Bicycle company
  • 1 Naval company
  • 1 Gas warfare company
  • 2nd Rifle Division (elements of)

Ordnance available:

  • Four 180mm naval guns (inoperable)
  • Four 152mm guns
  • 12 130mm guns
  • 10 122mm artillery
  • 4 105mm howitzers
  • 6 75mm artillery
  • 10 76.2mm anti-tank guns
  • various smaller pieces

The Soviets did not have more than 25 land and seaplanes on the island. This would limit their air support capabilities.

On 08 September 1941, Beowulf II became a reality. The first part of the plan called for Infantrie regiment 389 to attack the Estonian Island of Vormsi. They did this successfully and captured200 Soviet prisoners in the process. Now the second phase of the plan could be executed. On 13 September 1941, the Germans briefed the regimental commanders of the 61. Infantrie division.

At 0400 hours, 14 September 1941, the main attack against Muhu Island would commence according to the following timetable:

  • X-40 Final pre-launch preparation phase
  • X-10 Launching of the assault boats
  • X-00 The last assault boats were to be launched from the mother ships
  • X+45 The assault force was to reach the Muhu beachhead and move inland
  • X+55 The empty assault boats were to return to base to pick up a second assault team
  • X+60 Second assault force was to load itself onto the assault boats
  • X+95 The second assault force was to be launched from the mother ships
  • X+195 All three German assault teams were now to be landed ashore

But the element of surprise was lost to the Germans. The Soviets had recognized the German threat and they were prepared to meet the Germans head-on. Despite having lost the element of surprise, I./Grenadierregiment 151 never-the-less successfully landed on Muhu Island. Once there, it quickly began to neutralize the Soviet defensive positions near the beach-head one by one. By the afternoon of 14 September 1941, II./Grenadierregiment 151, I./Grenadierregiment 162, and I./Artillerie-Regiment61 had reached the village of Saastna on Muhu Island. A short while later, the Germans had breached the Saaremaa-Muhu Island causeway and were pushing the Soviet forces towards westwards.

The German units were joined by a group of Estonian ERNA commando’s who were brought in to Muhu Island from Finland via air and sea. By the end of the first day, the German positions ran approximately from Visija-Liigalaskma-Rahula-Poide-Tornimäe on Muhu and Saaremaa Islands. Unfortunately, the Finnish Coastal Battleship “Ilmarinen”, which was also participating in this operation, ran into a Soviet mine and quickly sank. Over 270 Finnish sailors lost their lives.

While this was transpiring, one of the special Brandenburg commando teams was launched against Saaremaa Island. They were tasked with neutralizing the Soviet long-range naval guns on the island. The Brandenburgers, however, met fierce Soviet shore-based counter-fire and were forced to abandon their landing attempts. Sonderkommando “Benesch” (formed from the 16. Kompanie of the BrandenburgerRegiment) was brought into Saaremaa via gliders. Five DFS 230 gliders of 6./LLG 1 (Glider Wing)carried them in on 14 September 1941, and 4 Me 321 gliders of Grossraumlastensegler Staffel (giant glider squadron) carried supplies between 21-26 September. Their landing was successful, but they were quickly found by Soviet patrols and they were forced to seek shelter. Their deteriorating situation rapidly became a desperate struggle for survival. After evaluating their positions, Sonderkommando “Benesch” signaled headquarters and requested to be extricated from their positions. While the Luftwaffe provided cover, Sonderkommando “Benesch” was removed from Saaremaa via a seaborne evacuation.

By 16 September 1941, the Kriegsmarine had cleared most of the area of mines. This allowed them to increase the number of transport ships making the crossing between the Estonian mainland and the Estonian Islands. The cruisers Emden and Leipzig engaged the Soviet coastal fortress on the Sworbe half-peninsula in a duel towards the end of September. This particular Kriegsmarine sortie operated under the codename of “Weststurm”.

All throughout the battle on Saaremaa island, the Germans were making slow, but steady progress. By 21 September 1941, the town of Kuressaare had been reached and occupied by the Germans. On 22 September 1941, the men of the 61. Infantrie division were ready to attack the Soviet positions on the Sworbe half-peninsula. The Soviets’ resistance efforts were immense, for the Germans had to fight hard for every square yard Saaremaa. Fierce hand-to-hand combat situations, which the Germans generally detested, forced them to proceed with great caution everywhere.

Although the battle for Saaremaa was essentially completed, on 29 September 1941, the German Luftwaffe shot down a Soviet courier airplane close to the positions held by the 96. Infantrie division in Estonia. As the Germans inspected the wreckage, they found a Soviet dispatch addressed to the Soviet High Command in Leningrad. It outlined the Soviet positions on the Estonian Islands and requested that all remaining Soviet forces on Saaremaa to be withdrawn by rescue ships. Their plea for help would never be heard. By 05 October 1941, the last remaining pockets of Soviet resistance on the southern edges of Saaremaa had been neutralized. 4,000 Soviet prisoners were taken.

With Saaremaa secure, the Germans and their ad-hoc Estonian support forces now concentrated on attacking Soviet defensive positions on Hiiumaa, the second largest island in the Estonian archipelago. The German amphibious invasion plans were finalized on 20 September 1941 when the operation against Hiiumaa was given the Wehrmacht codename of “Siegfried”. According to German military intelligence estimates, approximately 3-5,000 Soviet troops were now located on Hiiumaa. It was assumed that the available German forces would be sufficient to take Hiiumaa with relative ease. By 10 October 1941, the Germans were ready to invade Hiiumaa.

Three attack groups were created for operation “Siegfried”; “Ost”, “Mitte” and “West”. Again, elements of the 61. Infantrie division took the lead in the operation. The German invasion site for Hiiumaa Island was at the perceived weakest point of the Soviet defensive positions – the Soela Straights which are the closest points between Saaremaa and Hiiumaa. Interestingly, this was the one area of Hiiumaa Island which the Soviets neglected to defend the most. The 176. Grenadier regiment landed safely on Hiiumaa Island and rapidly proceeded to secure the island. By 21 October 1941, all of the Estonian Islands were firmly in German hands. Approximately 3,400 Soviet prisoners of war were taken on Hiiumaa in addition to some Soviet weapons and war material. The Estonian Islands were to remain in German possession until November of 1944.

The German defense effort of the Estonian Islands in 1944: For three years (1941-1944), the Estonian Islands became inconsequential (and quiet) outposts of the German war effort against the Soviet Union. That all changed in the fall of 1944 when Soviet forces broke through Narva and advanced in on southern Estonia. This time, the Soviets were the attackers and the Germans the defenders.

Estonia was evacuated by the Germans in September of 1944 under the operational codename of “Aster”. On 24 September 1944, the Germans demolished the harbor at Haapsalu. A day later, the Germans evacuated Vormsi Island. The first Soviet artillery round fell on Vormsi Island on 26 September 1944. Then, the question was asked by the Germans – what was the fate of the Estonian Islands to be? The German Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH) and the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW) were in favor of an immediate evacuation because the Estonian Islands no longer held a tactical purpose. In the past, the German Kriegsmarine had talked about using existing naval bases on the Estonian Islands to attack and harass Soviet maritime activities in the Baltic Sea. But in the fall of 1944, these plans were now no longer militarily applicable. The Kriegsmarine too voted for an immediate evacuation of the Estonian Island.

Hitler, however, talked about turning the Estonian Islands into “Festung Estland”; and in the end, his view on all matters was usually the prevailing one. On 18 September 1944, the staff of the 23. Infantrie division received the order – the Baltic Islands were to be defended by four infantry battalions, the artillery commands, and one Engineers battalion. Despite the order to hold Saaremaa, the Germans knew that the Estonian Island force would not be sufficient to hold off determined Soviet forces. To make matters worse, the Germans had evacuated thousands of civilians from the mainland to the Islands and the German had 20,000 Soviet prisoners of war there too.

To defend the Estonian Islands, the Germans assembled the following specific forces:


  • Fösilier-Grenadier-Regiment 68 (23.Infanterie-Division)
  • Grenadier-Regiment 67 (23.Infanterie-Division)
  • Artillerie-Regiment 23 (23.Infanterie-Division)
  • Pionier-Abteilung 23 (23.Infanterie-Division)
  • Landungspioneer-Kompanie 774
  • Sturmboot-Kompanie 902
  • Sturmboot-Kompanie 903


  • Infantrie-Batallion 23
  • Artillerie-Regiment 23 (23.Infanterie-Division)
  • Artillerie-Abteilung 810
  • Pionier-Abteilung 23 (23.Infanterie-Division)
  • 2. Landungspionier-Kompanie 772
  • Feldeisenbahn-Kompanie
  • Zollgrenz-Kompanie


  • Stab Grenadier-Regiment 67 (23.Infanterie-Division)
  • Sturmpanzerjäger-Abteilung 202
  • Artillerie-Regiment 23 (23.Infanterie-Division)
  • Pionier-Batallion 23 (23.Infanterie-Division)
  • Marine-Artillerie-Battalion 530
  • Heeres-Kösten-Artillerie-Regiment 1006
  • Artillerie-Regiment 210
  • Artillerie-Regiment 810
  • Marine-Flak-Battallion 239
  • Stab Landungspioniere 769
  • Sturmboot-Kompanie 902
  • Sturmboot-Kompanie 903
  • A few French 1940 vintage armored units

On 29 September 1944, the Soviet forces were ready for the attack. To cross the sound from Haapsalu to Muhu Island, the Soviets used American Lend-Lease amphibious craft. Their first landing location was at Kuivastu on the Island of Muhu. Quickly, the Germans gave the order – all German forces on Muhu were to retreat to Saaremaa without a fight. In the last minute, the Germans blew up the causeway connecting Muhu and Saaremaa. This would at least slow the Soviets down, though it would not stop their attack. For their attack against the Estonian Islands, the Soviets at first assigned the 8th Soviet-Estonian Rifle Corps and the 109th Soviet Rifle Corps for the task. Later, additional Soviet forces would join these troops.

At the same time, the Germans evacuated Hiiumaa island. This way, all of the German Island forces would be concentrated on one island, the biggest one. To the surprise of the defending Germans, they received reinforcements. The 218.Infantrie-Division and the 12. Luftwaffe-Feld-Division were landed on Saaremaa through ports on the northern and eastern ends of Saaremaa. The Soviets tried to interdict the landings, as they were not successful. Soviet forces, however, landed on Saaremaa between the villages of Jaani and Keskvere. Slowly, the Germans were forced to retreat from the northern sides of Saaremaa. Kurresaare fell to the Soviets on 20 October 1944 and with that loss, the Germans began retreating towards the Svorbe peninsula for their final stand. The Soviets now brought in the 30th Guards Corps to help in the clearing of Saaremaa of German forces.

The only Luftwaffe unit available to provide air support was the 3rd group of Jagdgeschwader 54. Surprisingly, though small in number, the German defenders were able to repulse several Soviet air and land attacks. Eventually, the Soviets succeeded in breaking the German lines. On 23 November 1941, the German defenders on Saaremaa requested permission to be evacuated. General Schoerner gave the order to evacuate Saaremaa Island. Operation “Delphin” amazingly removed the surviving Germans defenders (only 25% of the original German defending force survived to be rescued) and all of the wounded from their defensive positions around the far western ends of Saaremaa Island.

To effect Operation “Delphin”, the following German forces were available:

  • 128. Landungspioniere-Batallion
  • 772. Landungspioniere-Batallion
  • 772. Landungspioniere-Kompanie
  • 128. Landungspionieretransport-Kompanie
  • 772. Landungspionieretransport-Kompanie
  • 774. Landungspionieretransport-Kompanie
  • 128. Sturmboot-Kompanie
  • 903. Sturmboot-Kompanie

Despite numerous Soviet attempts at preventing just that from happening, Saaremaa was successfully evacuated. Saaremaa was under Soviet control on 0615 hours, 23 November 1944.