|Moonsund Landing Operation|
|Part of the Eastern Front of World War II|
|Commanders and leaders|
(Army Group North)
The Moonsund Landing Operation (Russian: Моонзундская десантная операция; Estonian language: Lääne-Eesti saarte kaitsmine ), also known as the Moonzund landing operation, was an amphibious operation and offensive by the Red Army during World War II, taking place in late 1944. It was part of the Baltic Offensive, and was designed to clear German forces of Army Group North from the islands in East Baltic Sea, the West Estonian archipelago (Moonsund archipelago). The attacking forces were from the 8th Army of the Leningrad Front.
The Estonian islands were defended largely by units of the German 23rd Infantry Division, which had been split across the three islands and reinforced with a variety of artillery, coastal artillery, and assault engineer detachments.
The islands of Saaremaa (German: Ösel), Hiiumaa (German: Dago) and Muhu (German: Moon) are the largest islands in the archipelago off the Northwest Estonian coast. They dominate the sea lanes to Helsinki, St. Petersburg (Leningrad), Tallinn (German: Reval) as well as the bay of Riga. They are almost completely flat, the highest point rising to about 68 m above sea level. Most of the islands are covered in woods, marshes and fields also dominate the landscape. Much of the surrounding area of the Baltic Sea is shallow, making it unsuitable for major vessels.
The Soviet forces assigned to the attack, the 8th Estonian Rifle Corps and 109th Rifle Corps, were given the order to advance on 29 September 1944. The troops were transported to the first beach head at Kuivastu on Muhu Island using lend-lease landing craft, including amphibious DUKWs.
Many of these troops were Estonians, few genuine volunteers, but many were forcibly conscripted into the ranks of the advancing Red Army, as was usual as the Russians recaptured (or, in this case, re-invaded) lost territories. While boosting the units` combat strength on paper, this influx of untrained and often unwilling civilians into military units often left something to be desired considering their combat capabilities. Also a Finnish detachment Arho took part in the operations especially on 4 and 5 October providing logistic support to the Soviet infantry units. The allied controlling committee for Moscow intermediate peace treaty between the Soviet Union and Finland had asked for 100 galeases and 100 motorboats with their Finnish crews, but Finland bargained the number of vessels to half of what was asked, 50 galeases and 50 motorboats. There were a captain, a chief motor operator and two other crew members on every galeas and two crew members on every motorboat.
The initial German response was to withdraw the garrison on Muhu after weak initial resistance, destroying the causeway between Muhu and Saaremaa; they also withdrew the forces on Hiiumaa to Saaremaa, landing the 218th Infantry Division and 12th Luftwaffe Field Division as further reinforcement. The Soviet plan had originally envisaged clearing the archipelago not later than October 5, but bad weather and German resistance interfered with their advance. However, after securing Hiiumaa, Soviet forces eventually landed between Jaani and Keskvere in the north of Saaremaa on October 5.
In an almost exact reversal of the roles from the German invasion in 1941, this time it was the weak German forces which traded space for time, withdrawing across the island and making occasional stands before the numerically superior Red Army forces. The plan was to make a final stand at the narrow, more easily defensible Sõrve Peninsula (German: Halbinsel Sworbe) on the south-western side of Saaremaa. Several sharp engagements took place, most notably the Battle of Tehumardi, but by the 8th, all remaining German forces had been forced back to the peninsula. The rest of the island, including the city of Kuressaare (German: Arensburg), was now in Russian hands, who now reinforced their attacking units with the 30th Guards Rifle Corps.
However, despite having a major numerical advantage in armor, artillery and infantry as well as air superiority, the violent Russian attacks failed to make any initial progress. The Germans had constructed solid defensive positions, built upon remnants of the Russian 1941 positions.
To provide an observation platform in the flat terrain, the Russians surprisingly launched two tethered observations balloons. From these they were able to direct artillery fire against German positions and supply columns.
The Russians tried launching renewed amphibious attacks behind the German lines, but these were repulsed, inflicting severe losses on the attackers.
A few days before the end of the battle, the Germans received effective naval gunfire support from flotillas including the heavy cruisers Admiral Scheer and Prinz Eugen. Their guns were accurate and hard-hitting, but it was too little, too late. The Russians also had naval support, and there were several minor clashes between the respective navies.
Eventually, after several weeks of bitter fighting, the attacks and artillery fire wore down the German defenders. They had lost their most powerful combat formation when the 12th Luftwaffe Field Division was pulled back to Courland on November 12, and no more replacements for wounded or killed soldiers were forthcoming, forcing them back on successive defensive lines. Due to marshy terrain and the high water table, it was often difficult to prepare proper defensive positions.
The number of German combat losses reported in the Soviet literature  are up to 7,000 killed and 700 prisoners of war.
By 23 November, the German defences had become untenable, and the Army Group commander, Ferdinand Schörner, gave the order to evacuate. This was contrary to an explicit order by Adolf Hitler to defend the island to the last man. Although Schörner got away with this, most other commanders would probably have been removed from their posts. Whether this was because of his open Nazi sympathies, or Hitler secretly realizing that he had done the right thing is unknown.
By the early hours of the 24th, all of the surviving defenders had been shipped out to Ventspils (German: Windau) on the embattled Kurland peninsula by a naval force under the command of Major-General Karl Henke. The surviving members of the defending forces numbered about 4500 men including 700 wounded, representing around 25% of the original defending force. Previous casualties had been evacuated earlier, along with Russian prisoners and a large portion of Estonian civilians not wanting to again be put under Soviet rule. All remaining guns and vehicles were destroyed and left behind and 1400 horses were shot, to prevent their use by the Russians.
As the tide of war turned against the Germans, Hitler increasingly forbade German forces to retreat, even from areas of dubious military value (much like Joseph Stalin's infamous "no step back" order). And just as the Russians had done in 1941, this time it was the Germans who clung to this island, even long after the main front had passed, removing its strategic and tactical value. As winter soon would have set in with full force, the shallow waters in the archipelago would have frozen over as well, making it impossible for the weak forces to defend successfully.
Hitler's argument that the defenders tied down substantial Russian forces that could have been used elsewhere was correct in theory, but the German units would have been more useful when incorporated in the main line of defense on the mainland, as the Red Army advanced ever closer to Germany.
After the war
The Soviet forces kept a large military presence on the island, many of the old coastal artillery positions were rebuilt and modernized. The entire island of Saaremaa was declared a restricted zone and much of the territory was off-limits to civilians, including most of the Sõrve Peninsula. There was also a new wave of deportations in the late 1940s.
- Battle of Moon Sound (1917)
Citations and notes
- “Halten bis zum letzen Mann; Der Kampf um Ösel”, Interessengemeinschaft ”Ösel 1941-1944”, Busum 2004
- Seidler, F.W., ”Verbrechen an der Wehrmacht”, Pour le Merite, 1997
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