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The Tartu Offensive Operation (Russian: Тартуская наступательная операция), also known as the Battle of Tartu (Estonian: Tartu lahing) and the Battle of Emajõgi (Estonian: Emajõe lahingud, German: Schlacht am Embach) was the campaign fought over South Estonia in 1944. It took place on the Eastern Front between the Soviet 3rd Baltic Front and parts of the German Army Group North. The Soviet tactical aim was to defeat the German 18th Army, capture the city of Tartu. From then on the Soviet command planned to reach the coast of the Bay of Riga and trap the army detachment "Narwa" in Estonia. The 3rd Baltic Front captured the city with 40 millions rubles worth of damage done to the property of the University of Tartu and the Estonian National Museum destroyed while Kampfgruppe Wagner stabilised the front at the Emajõgi River. The XXVIII Army Corps supported by Estonian Omakaitse civil defence battalions stalled the front at the Väike Emajõgi and Gauja rivers, restricting the 3rd Baltic Front from cutting off the "Narwa".
Comparison of forces
At the beginning of the Soviet Tartu Operation, the ratio of Soviet to German strength was 4.3:1 on troops, 14.8:1 on artillery and 4.1:1 on armour. The German forces comprised mostly of battle groups manned from various formations and smaller units from different branches. A significant proportion of the German side constituted of Omakaitse battalions with their poor weaponry and little fighting ability.
The main thrust of the Soviet operation was first aimed at the southern Petseri County. On 10 August, the Soviet 67th Army broke through the defence of the XXVIII Army Corps and captured Võru town on 13 August. The XXVIII Army Corps were forced to the banks of the Väike Emajõgi and Gauja Rivers in the west where they were supported by the Omakaitse battalions of the Viljandi County and stalled the front. While the defence restricted the 3rd Baltic Front from cutting off army detachment "Narwa" in Estonia, the retreat left open the direction towards the city of Tartu, the capital of Southeast Estonia. The Army Group North subjected the defence line to a kampfgruppe led by SS-Brigadeführer Jürgen Wagner and manned by the "Narwa". The Soviet tank units forced a wedge between the Kampfgruppe Wagner and the XXVIIIth Army Corps while the kampfgruppe had insufficient troops to man the defence line ahead of Tartu. On 16 August, Lieutenant Grechkin's group landed an amphibious assault over Lake Peipus behind the German left (east) flank beating the defence of the Omakaitse battalions and forming a bridgehead in Mehikoorma village. In fierce battles, a regiment of the Estonian Border Guard stopped their advance.
On 23 August, the 3rd Baltic Front launched an artillery barrage at the positions of the II.Battalion, Waffen Grenadier Regiment of the SS 45 (1st Estonian) covering the German right flank in the village of Nõo southeast of Tartu. The Soviet 282nd Rifle Division, the 16th Single Tank Brigade, and two self-propelled artillery regiments bypassed the defence from the west side and captured the Kärevere Bridge across the Emajõgi River west of Tartu. Being one of the four bridges across the 100 kilometres long marshy floodplains of the Emajõgi River, it was of high strategic importance. The bridge was not destroyed due to an error of German sappers. Sturmbannführer Léon Joseph Marie Ignace Degrelle improvised to form a defence line of the 5th SS Volunteer Sturmbrigade Wallonien, avoiding a Soviet breakthrough to Tartu. For the defensive battles, he was awarded with the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves.
A heavy German tank blow was designed to be given behind the western flank of the Soviet lines in Elva on 24 August. On the night before the attack, the designated commander of the operation Brigadeführer Hyazinth Graf Strachwitz von Gross-Zauche und Camminetz suffered a heavy car accident. The Soviet tank units repulsed the German attack on the following day. Four Soviet Rifle Divisions with the support of armour and artillery launched an attack at Tartu. After fierce street battles, the Soviet forces conquered the city and established a bridgehead on the north bank of the Emajõgi on 25 August. Referring to Kampfgruppe Wagner's inability to hold back the Soviet offensive, the headquarters of the Army Group North turned the command of the Emajõgi front to the II Army Corps, commanded by Infantry General Wilhelm Hasse. At the end of August, the III.Battalion, 1st Estonian Regiment was formed from the 1st Battalion of the Finnish Infantry Regiment 200 recently returned to Estonia. As their largest operation, supported by Estonian Police Battalions No. 37, 38 and Mauritz Freiherr von Strachwitz's tank squadron, they destroyed the bridgehead of two Soviet divisions and recaptured Kärevere Bridge by 30 August. The operation shifted the entire front back to the southern bank of the Emajõgi and encouraged the II Army Corps to launch an operation attempting to recapture Tartu. The attack committed on 4 September reached the northern outskirts of the city but was repulsed by units of the Soviet 86th, 128th, 291st, and 321st Rifle Divisions. Relative calm settled on the front for the subsequent thirteen days.
The property of the University of Tartu suffered heavy losses in the campaign, accounting for 40 million rubles in 1944. The university lost fifteen buildings permanently. The damage done to the roofs, interiors, doors, windows, heating systems, study cabinets and laboratories exceeded the damage to the permanently ruined buildings by three times. Among the greatest harms was done to the Museum of Zoology which lost all of its wet preparations. The interiors of the laboratories of chemistry, physics, pathology and dairy, and a large amount of instruments of the observatories of astronomy and geophysics were destroyed by shrapnel or looted.
The campaign also cost the destruction of the main building of the Estonian National Museum.
The three Soviet Baltic Fronts launched their Riga Offensive Operation on 14 September along the German 18th Army front stretching from Madona town in Latvia to the mouth of the Väike Emajõgi river. In the Estonian segment from Valga railway junction to Lake Võrtsjärv, the 3rd Baltic Front attacked the German XXVIII Army Corps and the Omakaitse battalions. In fierce battles, the German and Estonian units held their positions.
The 135,000 troops, 13,200 horses, 9,100 lorries, 2,183 artillery, and 8,300 tons of ammunition of the 2nd Shock Army crossed Lake Peipus and the 2nd Shock Army acquired command over the Emajõgi front on 11 September 1944. The Soviet Tallinn Offensive of the Leningrad Front commenced in the early morning of 17 September. After the 2nd Shock Army had fired out an artillery barrage of 132,500 shells and grenades, three vanguard rifle corps crossed the Emajõgi river in the twenty five kilometres long front segment eastwards from Tartu and went on offensive with armoured and air support. The 2nd Shock Army forced its way through the II Army Corps divisional headquarters and artillery positions, killing several superior officers. Only Kampfgruppe Rebane placed near Tartu held their front segment and got besieged. SS-Obersturmbannführer Alfons Vilhelm Robert Rebane operated the troops out of the siege, suffering heavy losses. The "Narwa" and the XXVIII Army Corps, the northernmost elements of Army Group North were at a risk of being encircled and destroyed. The headquarters of the Army Group North ordered the II Army Corps to abandon the defence of the Emajõgi line and to move quickly around the northern tip of Lake Võrtsjärv to Latvia.
Operation Aster was the code name for the withdrawal of Army Group North from mainland Estonia. Beginning on 17 September 1944, a naval force under Vice-Admiral Theodor Burchardi evacuated elements of the army detachment "Narwa" and Estonian civilians. Within six days, around 50,000 troops, 20,000 civilians and 1,000 prisoners were evacuated. The remaining elements of Army Group North in Estonia were ordered to withdraw into Latvia by way of Pärnu. The III SS (Germanic) Panzer Corps reached the town by September 20, while the II Army Corps retreated south to form 18th Army's rearguard. As they retreated, Soviet forces advanced. Tallinn was taken by the Soviet forces on September 22. The Soviets demolished the harbour at Haapsalu, the Germans evacuating Vormsi island, just off the coast by September 24.
The German command released thousands of native Estonian conscripts from military service. However, the Soviet command began conscripting Baltic natives as areas were brought under Soviet control. While some ended up serving on both sides, many hid in the woods to avoid conscription.
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