For seven months in 1944, Estonian, Latvian and German Waffen-SS troops fiercely defended the strategically important Narva Isthmus against Soviet forces.
This wartime newsreel shows Estonian and Latvian infantrymen in combat, artillery and rocket launchers in action, flaks guns firing at Soviet aircraft, tanks moving up for deployment, and captured Soviet prisoners. (Latvian-language narration. Runtime: 3:18 mins.) Some 124,000 Waffen-SS men fought against 200,000 Soviet troops in this northern sector of the Eastern Front. The Soviets had about 100 tanks, against 32 for the defenders, and 800 combat aircraft, against 137 for the defenders. Casualties were heavy, with 68,000 for the defenders (including 14,000 dead or missing), and 480,000 on the Soviet side (including 100,000 dead or missing).
The Baltic Schutzmannschaft found themselves in a unique situation, they saw the Germans as liberators from Bolshevism. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were occupied by the Soviet Union for slightly over a year and had experienced the brutality of the Soviets hence a passionate zeal against Bolshevism.
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The fighting in and around Narva, Estonia was also known as the "Battle of the European SS" since it involved a great number of foreign members in the Waffen-SS.
This unit had its origins in the Estonian SS Legion which was first formed on the 28th of August, 1942.
In January 1944, the 20. Estnische SS-Freiwilligen-Division began formation. The majority of the troops were drawn from the 3. Estnische SS-Freiwilligen Brigade, however elements from Ost Battalions Nr. 658, also known as Pups of Rebane (="Fox") and Nr. 659, the 287.Polizei-FÃ¼silier-Bataillon and the returned Estonian volunteers of the Finnish army unit Infantry Regiment 200 were also absorbed into the division.
On 8 February 1944, the division was attached to SS-Gruppenführer Felix Steiner's III SS (Germanic) Panzer Corps, currently defending the heavily pressured Narva bridgehead. The division was to replace the remnants of the 9. and 10.Luftwaffe-Feld-Divisions, which were struggling to hold the line against a Soviet bridgehead near Siivertsi. Upon arriving at the front on 20 February, the Estonians were immediately ordered to eradicate the threatening Siivertsi Soviet bridgehead. In nine days of heavy fighting, the division had pushed the Soviets back across the river, and restored the line. The division remained stationed in the Ssivertsi sector, being engaged in heavy combat. In May, the division was pulled back and reformed as the 20. Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS (estnische Nr.1), and the returned Narwa battalion was absorbed into the division as the reconnaissance abteilung. By that time active conscription of Estonian men into the German armed forces was well under way, in violation of the international law of war. By spring 1944, approximately 32 000 men were drafted into the German forces, with the 20. Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS (estnische Nr.1) consisting of some 15 000 men.
When Steiner ordered a withdrawal to the Tannenbergstellung on July 25, the division was deployed on the Kinderheim-hÃ¶he, the first line of defence for the new position. Over the next month, the division was engaged in heavy defensive battles on the Kinderheim and Grenadier-hÃ¶he. In mid-August, the division's 45th Estland and 46th regiments were formed into Kampfgruppe Vent and sent south to help defend the Emajogi river line, seeing heavy fighting.
When Hitler authorised a full withdrawal from Estonia in mid September, all men who wished to stay to defend their homes were released from service. Many chose this offer, fighting the Soviets alongside other Estonians and then withdrawing into the forests to become the Forest Brothers. Severely weakened by this, the division was withdrawn to Neuhammer to be refitted.
Vistula-Oder Offensive - Final battles
Eventually, the reformed division numbered roughly 11,000 Estonians and 2,500 Germans. It was returned to the line in late February, just in time for the Soviet Vistula-Oder Offensive. This offensive forced the German forces back behind the Oder and Neisse rivers. The division was pushed back to the Neisse, taking heavy casualties. The division was then trapped with the XI. Armeekorps in the Oberglogau - Falkenberg - Friedberg area. On 17 March, the division launched a major escape attempt, but despite making headway, the attempt failed. On 19 March, the division tried again, this time succeeding but leaving all heavy weapons and equipment behind in the pocket.
In April 1945, the shattered remnants of the division were moved south to the area around Goldberg. After the final Soviet offensive, the division attempted to break out in the west, in order to surrender to the western Allies. After marching over the Reichenberg and Annaberg mountains, the division was encircled by Russian forces and capitulated on May 8. Some of the Estonians who had reached the western allies were handed back to the Soviets. The survivors could, at best, expect a lengthy stay in the Gulags.