Eastern Front in the Autumn of 1944
Russian advance in Eastern and Central Europe
September - October 1944
author Paul Boșcu, December 2016
During the Autumn of 1944 the Russian Red Army continued its advance towards Germany. Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, the Baltic states, Eastern Hungary and large parts of Poland were all taken from German hands.

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After the great winter-summer Russian offensives the Germans were pushed out of Russian territory and into Eastern Europe. When the Soviets took Romania and Eastern Poland they had the opportunity to strike in the Balkans and Central Europe. In the North, after the successful Novgorod-Leningrad operation and the subsequent defeat of Finland the Soviets were in a position to take the Baltic states.

Events would quickly spiral out of control for the Germans as they would lose one territory after another. The disintegrating German armies were not able to hold out against the might of the Red Army. At the end of the year the Soviets were in striking distance of Germany.

As the fighting approached the old German border, desperate German resistance, shorter German lines of communications, and newly activated German divisions made the going slower and harder for the Allies in both East and West.

At the end of the year, the Red Army was clearly coming to the end of its ability to sustain major offensive operations against substantial resistance until there had been time to rebuild communication systems behind the new front line reached in the summer and fall offensives, as well as an opportunity to replace casualties, rest and reform units, and replenish weapons and ammunitions.

The Soviet offensive into the Balkans was an impressive achievement—a masterful marriage of military operations to the goals of politics and grand strategy. It destroyed much of Army Group South Ukraine and laid the foundation for Soviet domination of the Balkans in the postwar period.

When the Warsaw insurgents surrendered, another uprising in Eastern Europe was also in the process of being brutally crushed by the Germans. Resistance elements in the puppet state of Slovakia had contacts and sympathizers in the Slovak armed forces. They were preparing a coup to shift Slovakia to the Allied side, open the door to the Red Army, and begin the return of Czechoslovakia to independent status. After an initial success, the German and Slovak collaborationists forces managed to crush the uprising.

The weeks after the First Ukrainian Front reached the border of Czechoslovakia were a time of preparation inside the Axis satellite. Pro-Soviet partisans, commanded by Russian officers, carried out a number of attacks on Germans. This, together with rumors of a coup by the Slovak army, led by Defense Minister Ferdinand Catlos, precipitated a German move to occupy the country. This in turn provoked the Slovak uprising which quickly came to control large portions of Slovakia.

There was an opportunity to fly in reinforcements and supplies since the insurgents held airports and substantial areas for drop zones. The Western Allies, though publicly sympathetic and providing a little assistance, had clearly decided not to try for any large-scale supply operation. It seemed pointless to them to try to support another uprising right in front of the Red Army front.

Although it had been possible for the Russians to fly in officers for partisan bands, they now sent in few reinforcements and slowly at that. There was an effort, utilizing regular Red Army units and a Czechoslovak army raised and trained in the Soviet Union, to break into Slovakia through the Carpathian mountains at the Dukla Pass. All this was inadequate, however.

Mistakes by insurgent leadership on the first days of the rising, German seizure of full control of Hungary which opened up the southern flank to them, conflicts among the insurgents between those loyal to the government-in-exile in London and those looking to a Communist Czechoslovakia, and entirely insufficient Soviet aid enabled the Germans to crush the Slovak uprising.

It had all lasted just as long as the battle in Warsaw and came to the same end. The Nazis slaughtered to their hearts' content, though in the rural areas of Slovakia, unlike the urban rubble piles of Warsaw, some guerilla activities continued into the following year.

After the uprising, the efforts of the Fourth Ukrainian Front to break into Slovakia and through the Carpathians had been slowed practically to a halt. The fact is that the offensive power of the advancing Red Army had been exhausted. The different railway gage in much of the area over which it was advancing added to supply problems. The Germans, at Hitler's personal insistence, had allocated a disproportionately large part of their armor to this portion of the Eastern Front.

Bulgaria had thought it wise to join Germany in the war, first against Greece and Yugoslavia, then against Britain and the United States. The Bulgarian government, which had carefully avoided joining the Axis war against the Soviet Union, had carried out some soundings with the Western Allies. But the Bulgarians had refused to surrender to the Allies when they still had the chance. Their effort to pull out of the war now was far too late. The Soviet Union declared war on Bulgaria, and the Third Ukrainian Front crossed the border. On the same day Bulgaria declared war on Germany.

The Western Allies, of whom the United States in particular had originally tried to persuade the Bulgarians that they could live very happily without a war with America, had not pushed them very effectively.

In a few days whole country was occupied by the Red Army, and the Bulgarian army insofar as it did not dissolve began to fight alongside it. A "National Bulgarian Government" under Professor Alexander Zankoff was established in Vienna, but would have no influence in the country which the Soviet Union had decided to occupy, place under a Communist dictatorship, and retain in its control.

The government led by Prime Minister Konstantin Muraviev was overthrown by a coup. Muraviev’s government was replaced with one by the Fatherland Front led by Kimon Georgiev. While the Soviet Union supported the coup, their forces were not directly involved in it. Soviet troops flooded over the countryside on the way to Macedonia. This advance put the entire German position in the western Balkans and northern Greece in question, while Yugoslav partisans continued to harass the Germans.

In Hungary, the approach of the Red Army to the Carpathians earlier in the year had stimulated both projects to leave the war, and reinforcement of the army. The events in Romania were of special importance in both directions. On the one hand, the Hungarian army now fought more vigorously and effectively than before. The Russian army was at the gates and the Romanian army was fighting alongside it. Especially in the new front being built up in Transylvania, the Hungarian army fought hard, and at first managed, to halt and even throw back the invaders.

The old territorial dispute with Romania provided an added incentive for the Hungarians as for the Romanians. On the other hand, elements in both the government and in the army, led by the regent, Admiral Horthy, now began sounding the Soviet Union seriously about peace. During the fighting in eastern Hungary, Horthy decided to send a delegation to Moscow. He personally wrote a letter to Stalin.

Initially, the Hungarians put up stout resistance, mostly against Romanian units fighting on the other side. But contact with Soviet forces quickly revealed how little stomach the Hungarians had for the fight. After the Hungarians lost Arad panic gripped Budapest. Guderian ordered a strong panzer force to the vicinity for rest and refit.

Romania’s collapse caused the OKW to position two SS divisions within striking distance of Budapest. In early September, rumors circulated in the Hungarian capital that the Soviets were 225 km away. The government immediately demanded that the Germans provide five panzer divisions within 24 hours.

Alarmed by Hungarian overtures to the West, the Germans had forced Admiral Horthy, the regent, to install a pro-Nazi government in Budapest in March 1944. That government had then cooperated in shipping off to Auschwitz a substantial portion of Hungary’s Jewish population until Allied threats forced a cessation of transports.

General Johannes Friessner, commander of Army Group South Ukraine and thus intimately acquainted with Balkan countries attempting to bail out of the war, reported that matters were tenuous in Budapest. He was right. Horthy tried, but failed, to persuade the Cabinet to support a request for an armistice. A visit by the Hungarian chief of staff on to Rastenburg only aggravated German suspicions. On his departure, Heinz Guderian presented the Hungarian with a new Mercedes, which, several weeks later, he used to drive over to the Soviets.

Hitler was assembling panzer forces for a major counterattack to trap Soviet forces north of the Transylvanian Alps. But Marshal Malinovsky’s Second Ukrainian Front struck first. Initially, the Soviets made significant gains, but a German counterattack by two panzer divisions trapped three Soviet corps near Debrecen. However, most of the Soviets soon escaped by breaking out.

As the fighting approached Budapest, Horthy again attempted to abandon the alliance. But the majority in parliament and a substantial number of senior officers remained loyal to Germany.

The Hungarian faction hoping for peace planned to pull out of the Axis, but botched the operation about as effectively as the Italians had in the preceding year. The Germans seized the leader, Admiral Horthy, and took over the capital. There they instituted a new regime under Ferenc Szâlasi, the leader of the Hungarian Arrow Cross movement. This was a lunatic fringe organization of the right whose chief was seriously thought to be a lunatic himself by many.

Horthy broadcast his acceptance of Soviet terms for an armistice, but by then the Germans were ready. SS General Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, recently in command of Warsaw’s destruction, and SS commando leader Otto Skorzeny almost effortlessly removed Horthy’s supporters. The SS shipped Horthy to Germany, and established the leader of the Arrow-Cross Party, Ferenc Szalasi, remarkable for his stupidity, at the head of a new government. The internal conflict destroyed what remained of Hungarian resistance.

A German counter-offensive drove back the Second Ukrainian Front temporarily as the Germans tried to protect the agricultural and oil resources of Hungary. A coherent front had been put together by what was now being called the German Army Group South, but most of Transylvania had been occupied by Soviet and Romanian troops. The prospects for a continued holding of this front by the Axis were very poor. The Second Ukrainian Front was already in the open Hungarian plain.

Much but by no means all of the Hungarian army rallied to the new regime. The Nazis were now in direct control of most of Hungary, and with the enthusiastic aid of Szâlasi and the Arrow Cross began what they considered their most important task: the deportation to slaughter of Hungary's over half a million Jews. The last refuge for Jews in German-controlled Europe provided the last large contingents of victims until the advance of the Red Army compelled them to halt the deportations.

The dramatic developments in Budapest led to a long and bitter battle in Hungary which lasted into the last days of World War II, causing enormous devastation and heavy casualties for both sides. Local German and Hungarian successes blunted the thrusts of Second Ukrainian Front into the Hungarian plain. The Germans fought on. Near Nyiregyhaza, they trapped three Soviet corps that had rashly advanced too far and too fast. This time the Soviets did not escape. Nevertheless, Soviet attacks ground steadily forward toward Budapest, as attacks by Rodion Malinovsky battered the Germans back on the Hungarian capital.

Russian forces pushed forward to the outskirts of Budapest, surrounding it. But the Germans had succeeded in their holding operation in three important ways. They had built up a new front in the wake of their disaster in Romania and Bulgaria, they had kept Hungary from changing sides, and they had contributed to the slowing down of the advancing Red Army. Hungarian formations contributed only a small part of this effort, as Szâlasi admitted when he saw Hitler. The siege of Budapest would last 50 days and result in heavy casualties for the German defenders. Budapest itself suffered extensive damage and many Hungarian civilians died during the siege.

Hitler was especially concerned about protecting the remaining oil fields in southern Hungary, and he appears to have had something of a fixation about Budapest, the Hungarian capital. The puppet government of Arrow Cross leader Ferenc Szâlasi was trying to operate under German auspices, collaborating in the murdering of Jews with greater enthusiasm than the much more dangerous task of righting the Red Army.

Szâlasi promised to fight on, but urged Hitler to make no compromise with the Anglo-Saxons, crushing them, but doing everything possible "to reach an understanding with the Soviet Union." While Hitler agreed that no compromise was possible with the Western Powers, he was less definite about one with the Soviet Union. He was "willing to reconsider the whole question and adopt some new line of action" but the Red Army had to be driven back first.

The Russians established a bridgehead over the Danube and encircled Budapest on Christmas Eve. Soviets finally drove into the city, largely owing to German mistakes. General Friessner took the two reinforcing panzer divisions and divided the armor and the supporting infantry into separate forces. The infantry went to defend the northern approaches to the city, while the armor, without supporting infantry, moved to bolster the defenses south of the city.

Malinovsky launched two massive blows, one south and the other north of Budapest. This time the Soviets broke through and trapped the IX SS Mountain Corps and a number of Hungarian units in the capital. Budapest was almost in Stalin’s hands.

The German effort to relieve Budapest had had no more success than the earlier attempt of the Red Army to seize the Hungarian capital on the anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution. The frustrations of the Red Army besiegers were taken out on the women of Budapest, with mass rape in scenes that were to be repeated across Europe, and especially in Germany. The Hungarian capital held out bravely, if in vain, through terrible privations until mid-February 1945.

The Red Army concentrated on building up its bridgeheads across the Vistula and Narew rivers in preparation for future offensives. The spearheads aimed toward Warsaw had been halted, and the Russians observed the agony of Warsaw from a safe distance. While at Hitler's orders the city was, in effect, razed to the ground, the Red Army in that sector remained quiet. The key concerns for it were the four bridgeheads across the Vistula, several of which were expanded slightly in heavy fighting after earlier German attempts to eliminate them had failed.

In general, the last three months of 1944 saw the central portion of the Eastern Front stable, with the Soviets rebuilding the transportation system and destroying the Polish underground army behind their lines and the Germans attempting to create an effective defensive system on their side. Although a Soviet patrol had briefly crossed the pre-war border into East Prussia, the German defense held until mid-October when the Russians drove onto German territory almost to Gumbinnen. There the front stabilized for several months.

The German attitude towards the Poles after the uprising was confused. While they attempted to encourage the natural anti-Soviet stance of the majority, the regime of terror still continued. In an effort to woo the Poles, Hans Frank, Hitler’s lawyer, made a proposal to create a Polish National Committee in Kraków. In addition, the Germans would select prominent Poles, including priests, to serve on local committees in every district. The Germans ran out of time to implement their plan.

The Germans had been impressed by the performance of the AK, the Polish Home Army, and its commander, so they approached Bór-Komorowski several times to ask him to assist in the formation of an anti-Bolshevik Polish legion. He declined. As the prospect of a Soviet invasion and occupation of Germany became likelier, the head of German intelligence in the east, General Reinhard Gehlen, was asked what preparations should be made. His response was that the Germans should follow the model of the AK.

Another nail in the coffin of the Polish resistance was added when Stanislaw Mikołajczyk resigned as prime minister, following the failure of his talks with Stalin in Moscow. He was succeeded by Tomasz Arciszewski, whose government became known as the ‘Government of National Protest’. The decline in the influence of the Polish Government in London did not necessarily lead to support for the Lublin Committee, the Polish communists, rather, the Poles felt cast adrift and leaderless.

The territories of pre-war Poland were effectively split into three zones of occupation. The Germans held the territory to the west of the Vistula. East of the Bug river were Poland’s eastern provinces, to which the Soviet Union laid claim, and which were administered directly by their authorities. In the middle, between the Bug and the Vistula, the Lublin Committee sought to establish itself as the only legitimate administrative body in liberated Poland.

Leopold Okulicki, named by Bór-Komorowski as his successor as commander of the AK, left Warsaw with the civilian population and travelled via Kielce to Częstochowa to rebuild the AK. The Polish Government in London had not been consulted about this appointment.

Okulicki reported on the state of the AK: “Many provincial units, and in particular those which were operating in the Kampinos Forest, have been destroyed, while the soldiers of these units have taken shelter in the area on their own or in small groups. In the desperate situation in which these people find themselves, there lies the danger of the transformation of these small groups into common plundering bands or of their defection to the People’s Army, which serves Russia. To sum up: as a result of the loss of the Battle of Warsaw, grave signs of demoralization have appeared in the ranks of the Home Army in the provinces. New attitudes have arisen as well in society, as has a new reality, which must be taken into account.”

The surviving remnants of the AK, the Polish home Army, and the Underground Government clearly needed to redefine their plans. Both General Leopold Okulicki and the government delegate, Jankowski, knew that Operation Burza had failed. The Underground Government was now in Kraków. Reports reaching the AK command from all over Soviet-occupied Poland indicated that, the Soviets were making widespread arrests of all members of the Polish civilian and military underground. The days of the AK in its existing form appeared to be numbered. The Polish Government in London thought, however, that it was still possible for the AK to act as hosts for the Soviet armies.

The Kampinos group, operating in the vast forest to the west of Warsaw, had taken little part in the fighting for Warsaw. It had been destroyed in an attack launched by three battalions of the Hermann Goering Panzer Division and the SS Panzer Divisions Totenkopf and Wiking. The Radom district still had two untouched infantry divisions of 7,000 soldiers. The AK was also active near Kielce, engaged mostly in ambushing small German units, with other small units operating near Łódź.

Sometimes the AK was approached by German deserters wishing to join it, and all were screened. As Polish fighter Ralph Smorczewski recalled, some were ‘members of the notorious SS Kaminski Brigade so were directed to a shed at the edge of the village and given plenty of alcohol before being killed during the night’. Another member of the AK remembered: ‘All over Poland, the forests echoed with the executioners’ guns’, as the AK took revenge against the SS.

The ability of the Poles to continue resistance against their occupiers, both German and Soviet, was limited by the lack of support from outside Poland. Allied flights from Italy faced the risk of being shot down by the Soviets if they flew across Romania or by German air defences between Vienna and Kraków. The British Air Ministry attempted to obtain Soviet permission for operations to Poland to cross Soviet-occupied territory, but it was refused. Churchill refused to intervene personally.

East of the Bug the Soviet policy was mass arrests of the members of the Underground Government and AK. It is estimated that around 100,000 Poles were arrested. Some were murdered outright, some were deported to the Soviet Union and some were given the option of joining the 1st Polish Army. Polish civilians were encouraged to move west of the Bug, and this mass movement of the Polish population would continue in the following years.

In liberated ‘Poland proper’, the Lublin Committee began to recreate the organs of local government and administration and to put its own policies into effect. The new administration was dominated by the communists. The Lublin Committee worked quickly to restore some semblance of normal life after five years of occupation, the deaths of many pre-war administrators and the void left by the departure of the Germans. It also worked to advance its own agenda and to prepare Poland for the eventual Communist takeover. The Lublin Committee virtually ruled by terror.

The Politburo consisted only of communists: from Poland,Bolesław Bierut and Władysław Gomułka, and Poles from Moscow, Jakub Berman, Hilary Minc and Aleksander Zawadzki. Until October, the cabinet included other political groups: five PPR members four from the Peasant Party, three Socialists, one Democrat and two unaffiliated members, General Berling and Emil Sommerstein.

Local Polish administrators were kept in their jobs, to be purged, based on their politics, at a later date. Industries which had been run by the Germans were kept running by the Poles who had worked in them. The Lublin Committee’s policy of land reform began slowly with the break-up of estates which had been owned by the Germans, the land going to the peasantry. These positive activities aimed at winning over the hearts and minds of the Poles.

The policy of encouraging members of the AK to join the Polish Army had been in operation since the Soviet armies had first encountered and disarmed the AK. The Lublin Committee wanted to expand the size of the Polish Army to 300,000 men. There were few volunteers from among the AK or local Poles. This meant that conscription had be forced.

Secondary education had been forbidden under the Germans and the universities had been closed. The Lublin Committee encouraged schools to reopen and, Lublin University was ready to welcome new students.

The policy of the Lublin Committee towards the AK took another downward turn. The communists realised that large numbers of soldiers forced to join the 1st Polish Army still owed their loyalty to the government in London. Evidence of political unreliability was reinforced by the mass desertion of almost the entire 31st Infantry Regiment of the 1st Polish Army near Krasnystaw in the Lublin province. The NKVD started to arrest former AK officers and men, and political education of the troops increased.

The original commander of the 1st Polish Army, Berling, became a casualty of the new hardline approach, probably because of his actions in support of the Warsaw Uprising. He was dismissed from his post and sent to the Frunze Military Academy in Moscow. There he went on hunger strike, until Jakub Berman, chief of the Polish secret police, placated him by promising a swift return to Poland.

The decree for the defence of the state created new categories of crimes that could be punished by death: possession of, or knowledge of someone who possessed, a radio receiver, failure to fulfil quotas of foodstuffs, and failure to reveal membership of the AK or of the Underground Government. Mass arrests of Home Army soldiers and also of civilians faithful to the London Government intensified, with the simultaneous seizure of landowners, teachers, doctors and other educated people.

The Lublin Committee was able to enforce terror because of the presence of the Red Army. There were nearly 2,000,000 Red Army soldiers on Polish territory. Working alongside them was the NKVD. An NKVD division was established in Poland of 11,000 well-equipped troops, under the command of General Ivan Serov. By the end of the year, this division alone had arrested nearly 17,000 people. The AK could not hope to battle such a large and well organised force.

The Lublin Committee had established a Citizen’s Militia to replace the Blue Police, and a Security Service whose members were recruited from the AL (the communist partisan movement) and Polish Army. By October the Militia numbered 13,000 men and was taken over by the Security Service, Poland’s own version of the NKVD.

The AK tried to resist the Soviets’ and the Lublin Committee’s reign of terror. Any large-scale action against the Soviets was pointless given the massive presence of Soviet troops. The AK did implement a policy of assassinating members of the Lublin Committee and Red Army. During the autumn of 1944 over 400 PKWN members and 277 Red Army soldiers were killed.

The repercussions of the collapse of the German position in Romania on the situation in Greece and related parts of South and Southeast Europe were equally dramatic but less destructive. With Soviet troops in Romania and Bulgaria, Hitler made the decision to gradually withdraw his troops from Greece so that they would not be cut off there. Thus the 3 years occupation of Greece ended. The Germans removed a substantial portion of German forces, but only because the Soviets focused on reaching Budapest instead of cutting German escape routes through Macedonia.

When the first news of the coup which overthrew Antonescu reached German headquarters, the Commander-in-Chief in Southeast Europe, Field Marshal Maximilian von Weichs, was at Hitler's headquarters. In the conference held that day, Hitler made several decisions which crucially affected German strategy and general developments in the whole theater of war.

The British forces would soon be in battle with Greek communists, not German fighters. Occupation was soon followed by civil war, but the first of the two ordeals for the Greeks was over. The Soviet Union and Great Britain had already decided that Greece would fall into Britain's sphere of interest while Romania was allocated to the Soviet Union. Neither great power was interested in upsetting these arrangements at a time when the war against Germany was still bitter and bloody.

For years Hitler had insisted on building up forces and positions in Greece, Crete, and the islands in the Aegean. After the Allied invasion of Italy the Germans had quickly taken over the portions of Greece occupied by Italy as well as the Italian Dodecanese islands.

At one time a basis for possible further advances into the Middle East through Turkey, the German positions in the area had more recently served the purpose of restraining Turkey from entering the war on the Allied side as well as ensuring the supply of chrome from that country, simultaneously denying to the Allies air bases from which their planes could more easily attack the Romanian oil fields. Turkey had already broken diplomatic relations with Germany.

With Romania lost and Bulgaria doubtful, the prior considerations all fell by the wayside, and under the new circumstances Hitler wanted the focus of attention shifted to a defensive posture further north. Southern Greece should be evacuated if attacked, and a key concern must be to make certain that the Bulgarians did not seize the only railway line through Serbia to Greece and turn it over to the Allies. Some garrisons on the islands in the Mediterranean, especially the large one on Crete, would have to be abandoned while others might be evacuated.

Hitler set the stage for a major withdrawal of German forces in Southeast Europe right after he had agreed to the evacuation of southwest France. Clearly he was prepared to go into a defensive position and evacuate substantial areas when this appeared to him to be the appropriate procedure. As the German troops withdrew from Greece, in Athens the population took to the streets to celebrate the end of the occupation.

As the danger of a Soviet breakthrough westwards from Bulgaria, cutting the key railway through southern Yugoslavia into Greece, began to develop German troops evacuated Greece, and drew back into Macedonia, establishing a new defensive position. With the forces of the Western Allies fully engaged elsewhere, the latter struck only air blows at the evacuation routes. The British landing force, which began to disembark in the Peloponnesus, made no effort to interfere with the departing Germans.

After the success in Romania, the 3rd Ukrainian Front, despite having advanced 400 km in ten days, actually speeded up, crossing 320 km to the Yugoslav border in the next six days. Marshal Tolbukhin’s 3rd Ukrainian Front marched on Belgrade, aided by Marshal Tito’s Yugoslav partisans, taking it. Thus the German occupation of Yugoslavia ended.

Linking up with Tito’s partisans, Soviet forces liberated Belgrade and ejected the Germans from southern Yugoslavia. Although Soviet troops found themselves crossing countryside over which their socialist Yugoslav brothers had fought and died in great numbers, they looted, burned, and raped their way forward. Such behavior outraged the partisans.

Partisan leader, Milovan Djilas complained to Stalin about the widespread raping of Yugoslav women by Soviet soldiers. The dictator, however, replied that one could hardly deny men who had sacrificed so much in the war a little “fun with a woman.” The criminal acts of Soviet troops against the civilian population drove the first wedge in the Soviet-Yugoslav rift that opened up in the late 1940s.

Hitler insisted on Army Group F staying in Greece for as long as possible. This meant that it could not help much in the defence of Yugoslavia, where, in order to avoid being cut off, Field Marshal Maximilian von Weichs, the German Supreme Commander in south-east Europe, was forced westwards via Sarajevo.

Army Group North still held most of Estonia, much of Latvia, and the western quarter of Lithuania. Their situation on this portion of the front, like that at the southern end, had however been made extremely tenuous by the Soviet victory in the central sector. And where the Germans had reopened a corridor to their Army Group North just west of Riga, the troops of General Ivan Bagramian's First Baltic Front were less than 30 km from the Baltic Sea. The Red Army would launch a massive offensive that would enable them to take the Baltic states from the Germans. The remaining German units were cut off in the Courland area of Latvia.

There were repeated German projects for offensives to widen the land corridor that had been reestablished by pincer attacks on the three Soviet armies in the bulge toward the sea west of Riga. But these operations were never carried through. The German hopes of regaining the initiative were thwarted by Red Army offensives. The Baltic States were liberated from Hitler’s yoke only to fall beneath Stalin’s for the next forty four years.

An offensive by the Leningrad Front broke into the rear of the German Narva Army holding the northernmost end of the front. This army (named for the city and river it was to defend) and the adjacent i8th Army had to be withdrawn toward Riga. The Third and Second Baltic Fronts pushed against the retreating Germans without breaking through and the First Baltic Front could not reach the sea. The September Soviet offensive, therefore, drove the Germans back, forcing them entirely out of Estonia and out of more of Latvia, but without cutting them off in a major breakthrough of the sort which had taken place in Romania.

Once the German armies had concentrated in the immediate vicinity of Riga, they thought once again of the pincer operation against First Baltic Front. The Red Army redeployed rapidly, effectively, and without German intelligence getting any clear picture of what was afoot. Bagramian, before the Germans realized what was happening, launched a major offensive west of Shaulyay to the Baltic. Breaking through the front of 3rd Panzer Army, the Russians reached the Baltic both north and south of the port city of Klaipeda (Memel), isolating a German corps in that city and cutting off the two German armies, the 16th and 18th, in western Latvia.

The Germans could not reopen a corridor to Army Group North because a major Soviet offensive into East Prussia by the Third Belorussian Front occupied all their attention. The German army recovered sufficiently to contain this last major offensive of the Red Army on the northern and central parts of the Eastern Front in that year, but they simply did not have the strength, especially in armor, to make even an attempt to drive north into the Soviet wedge between East Prussia and the German armies stranded in the Courland area of Latvia.

Hitler decided to hold on to the Courland portion of Latvia rather than either order Army Group North to break through to the south or evacuate entirely by sea. Some divisions were transferred by sea to strengthen other portions of the Eastern Front, but in spite of the preference of army Chief-of-Staff Heinz Guderian, a large force was left there, fending off a series of Red Army attacks until the final surrender of May, 1945.

The portion of western Latvia held by the cut-off German Army Group North was compressed somewhat by Russian attacks. But the Germans refused to evacuate the region, while the Soviets, in a series of local offensives, proved unable to destroy the garrison. Heinz Guderian, attempted to get the twenty veteran divisions of Army Group North – a powerful manoeuvrable striking force – out of west Latvia so that it could reinforce the hard-pressed German units defending East Prussia to the south, but he was prevented from doing so by Hitler.

In the far north, the German troops withdrawing from the Finnish front were pulled back to the Lyngen position, at first under Soviet pressure. A buffer zone, devastated by the Germans and soon after controlled by a token police force sent by the Norwegian government-in-exile, separated the German and Soviet forces. The Red Army had other priorities; the Germans could continue to hold most of Norway and looked forward to utilizing its naval bases for that resumption of attacks on Allied shipping which they hoped to carry out with the new submarines.

The possibility of direct communication by sea across the Baltic made it easier to contact, resupply, or pull out troops from the Courland area than either of the other territories evacuated in the fall. This difference facilitated rather than caused the different decisions made about them. The Japanese urged Hitler to try and make peace with the Russians so that they could concentrate on the western front. But Hitler decide to launch a massive land offensive in the West in order to force a peace agreement with the Allies. This land offensive would be doubled by a U-Boat campaign. For the submarine campaign the ports to the Baltic were vital.

The German government was once again being urged by its Japanese ally to make peace with the Soviet Union. The hope of the Japanese, was that such a peace would make it possible for the Germans to concentrate on fighting the United States and Great Britain. They thought that the prospect of actually obtaining a German-Soviet peace was easier now than earlier as both countries had suffered vast casualties and were back practically where the campaign had started. This looked to Tokyo like a good opportunity, especially since in their eyes the Germans had suffered very serious defeats on both the Eastern and the Western Fronts.

The efforts of the Japanese to persuade the Germans of the wisdom of such a course did not fall on quite such deaf ears as earlier in the war. It was by now obvious to Hitler and his associates that the invasion in the West had succeeded and that the offensive capabilities of the Red Army in the East remained great. Perhaps it would be wise to get the fighting on one front ended and concentrate on the other. As it was very publicly obvious that the Western Powers were continuing to insist on a German surrender, the possibility of a peace in the East remained.

It is not at all clear whether the Soviet government would have been willing to make peace with Germany. There appear to have been contacts in Stockholm with adherents of the opposition to Hitler as well as with representations of the Nazi regime. In some instances it is impossible to tell which group specific individuals represented. But it all made no difference because Hitler came to an entirely different strategy.

In combination with the holding of ports in the West to make it more difficult to supply and reinforce the Allied invasion armies, Germany was building up new armies of its own which would strike a major offensive blow at the Western Powers. That offensive was to be two pronged: a land offensive, and, at the same time, a revived U-Boat warfare with the radically new submarines, against which the Allies had no effective defense at all, would return the initiative in the war at sea to the Germans, and contribute to a massive victory over the Western Allies.

For the land offensive in the West, the Germans would need the new formations being organized and equipped. For the sea offensive in the West, they would need to train the crews in the new U-Boats—and for this, the safety of the training area in the Baltic was essential.

It was the need for keeping the Red Army away from the coast and the Red navy away from the sea in the central Baltic which played the determining role in Hitler's decision to hold on to Courland. He was very much encouraged in this decision by Admiral Dönitz, who expected the new U-Boats to be ready at any moment and who knew that they could not be employed without proper trials of the ships and training of the crews. The whole Courland issue, therefore, revolved about naval strategy against the West. The navy worked hard not only to influence Hitler's thinking but also to assist in the holding of portions of the Baltic area.

Eventually, the arguments over the evacuation or retention of the Courland area were to play an important role, first in Hitler's breaking with Guderian as his army Chief-of-Staff and, subsequently, in his appointing Dönitz to be his own successor. In the meantime, the fronts ground to a virtual halt in both East and West as both sides prepared for the final battles.

The German armies had suffered catastrophic defeats, and these defeats were accompanied by huge losses. It is not possible to give exact figures, but the killed, captured, and missing (most of whom were either dead or prisoners) were in excess of one million and are likely to have been over one and a half million. Besides manpower the Germans also suffered disastrous losses in war material. If Germany's military situation in the broader sense looked hopeless, her diplomatic position appeared to be even worse. Her European allies had been knocked out of the war one by one. With it’s long supply lines, the USSR had simply run out of steam and had to regroup.

Vast numbers of tanks and guns were destroyed in the fighting and additional quantities either fell into the hands of Germany's enemies or were destroyed by the Germans themselves, when surrounded or cut off, in order to prevent their capture.

The various classes of escorting warships and carriers earlier ordered by the Western Allies were becoming available, manned by ever more experienced crews—as very few were now lost—and able to protect the Allied merchant fleet, which was rapidly growing as construction continued and losses dropped. Even a revived submarine campaign would, therefore, have had to start from a position far more favorable for the Allies and much less hopeful for the Germans than in the fall of 1943, when the Allied construction curve had finally overtaken that of their losses from all causes.

Diplomatically, Italy was the first German ally to switch sides a year earlier. The shadow regime of Mussolini installed on German bayonets in northern Italy was of little more use than the shadow cabinets in exile arranged for Vichy France, Romania, and Bulgaria. Not even a propaganda façade could be erected to replace the Finnish forces which had once fought alongside Germany, while the military forces of the puppet states of Slovakia and Croatia were in revolt or near dissolution. Only in Hungary was a substantial satellite army still fighting alongside the Germans in Europe.

The military advance of the Soviet Union had run out of steam as German forces fell back and reformed. The transportation system in the huge area liberated by the Red Army had to be restored. Replacements had to be provided for the heavy casualties suffered during the summer offensive, and the great losses of equipment had also to be made good. Furthermore, any new offensives required extensive planning, the stockpiling of supplies, especially artillery ammunition, and very extensive regrouping of Soviet forces. This last was a result of geographic factors which created a converse of the problem the Germans had once faced as they headed east.

At sea, the last German surface raiders and larger ships had long since been swept from the oceans or confined to support duties in the Baltic Sea. German submarines had as yet been unable to recover from their 1943 defeat. Driven out of the Black Sea and Mediterranean, German submarines had also lost their bases on the French Atlantic coast.

In the air, the German defenses had been crushed through the intervention of long-range fighters —on top of the steady attrition suffered by the German air force in prior years. This defeat had reduced the once mighty Luftwaffe to the thankless role of trying to get back into the struggle for control of the air with masses of inexperienced and inadequately trained pilots. The American and British air forces dominated the skies over Western, Central and Southern Europe and the Red Air Force had overwhelming superiority in the East. The destruction by the American air force of much of Germany's synthetic oil industry made any revival of the German air effort doubtful.

Given the territorial funnel-like opening up of Europe as one moves from Central Europe eastwards, any invader of Russia must deal with the fact that the front becomes larger the further east the advance goes. When heading west the opposite is true. The major front in the North European plain between the Carpathians and the Baltic Sea becomes steadily narrower. With the exception of the Soviet units facing the remaining Germans in Courland, the armies which had fought on the northern end of the front from Leningrad through the Baltic States now had to be redeployed.