In winter 1944, the Red Army arrived at the Estonian border again. By the end of the summer, it was evident that the Red Army would re-conquer Estonia and the terror that ceased in the summer of 1941 would continue.
On 14 January 1944, the Red Army groups of the three fronts started the Leningrad-Novgorod offensive against the German Army Group North (Nord) headed by General (Generaloberst) Walter Model. Their aim was the liberation of the Leningrad and Novgorod regions (oblast) and cutting off Army Group North from Army Group Centre (Mitte) that would enable the Red Army to reach the Baltic Sea. The offensive was successful and at Lake Peipus, the German units were cut into two. The left flank took positions on the line of the Narva River and the remaining army groups retreated towards Pskov.
The German Military High Command considered it vitally important to stabilise the frontline at the Narva River, because losing control of the southern coast of the Gulf of Finland would also have meant losing control of the whole Gulf of Finland, providing free passage for the Red-Bannered Baltic Fleet to the Baltic Sea. This in turn, would have caused grave danger for the whole Baltic coastline controlled by Germany. If the Germans had lost Estonia, the southern coast of Finland would have been open for attacks by the Red Army. As the German Army was suffering from a chronic lack of fuel and lubricants, it was of the utmost importance to maintain access to the shale oil production in North-East Estonia.
To restore fighting capacity, several German Army units were withdrawn, including many units that had been manned by foreigners. The completely demoralised 250th Infantry Division, better known as the Blue Division or the Spanish Legion, was removed from the frontline to the Tapa region and then sent home altogether. They were replaced by the 4th SS Armoured Grenadier Brigade Nederland formed by the Dutch and the 11th SS Armoured Grenadier Division Nordland that consisted of Danish and Norwegian volunteers. The German elite units were hurriedly deployed to Estonia by air to bear the brunt of fighting. The Wehrmacht Armoured Grenadier Division Feldherrnhalle arrived at the front already on 1 February. On 6 February, Hitler ordered the Wehrmacht Armoured Grenadier Division Grossdeutschland to be deployed to Estonia.
The Panther Line and the Evacuation of Civilians
By the end of January, the Red Army units under the command of General Leonid Govorov had lifted the Leningrad blockade and reached the frontiers of the pre-war Republic of Estonia in the region between Lake Peipus and the Gulf of Finland. On 25 January, Narva was proclaimed a frontline city and evacuation of the civilian population began. The Estonian borderline was not of any significant importance for the German command because the natural conditions at the line of the Narva River offered better positions for future battles. The Red Army units reached Narva River on 1 February, and the day after, they already established several bridgeheads on the western bank of the river.
For some time, the Germans had been making preparations for battles on the line of the Narva River and the west bank of Lake Peipus. These positions were part of the Panther Line (Panther-Stellung). The latter constituted a part of the East Wall (Ostwall) that stretched all the way from the Black Sea to the Gulf of Finland. The construction of the Wall had started back in August 1943, but it was far from finished and fortification works continued also during the battles. At the same time, defences were built along the North Estonian coast to push back possible attacks from the sea.
The evacuation of the civilian population from the region between the defence line and the front began simultaneously with the creation of the Panther Line. This was the first wave of war refugees in Estonia, called Operation Robot (Roboter). In addition to strictly military and humanitarian purposes, the operation, as its name suggests, was launched to attain labourers, which is in short supply in any country at war. Those that were unable to work had to remain on enemy-occupied territory. As a result, by 23 January 1944, more than 300,000 persons had been evacuated from between the still unfinished Panther Line in the rear and the frontline. Among them were Estonians who had lived on the eastern side of the Narva River and Lake Peipus, Ingrian Finns, and Russians. Tens of thousands of them also reached Estonia.
The compulsory evacuation of the civilian population of Narva began on 25 January and was probably unexpected for many of them. The German propaganda persistently tried to draw a more optimistic picture of the situation, while the reality was mostly reflected in rumours and the noise of battle could already be heard. The local press informed the population of the battles reaching the Narva River with some delay, while referring to possible temporary evacuation. On 3 February, the Eesti Sõna newspaper printed a speech by Hjalmar Mäe, Head of the Directorate of the Estonian Self-Administration: “When the enemy is close to the borders of our homeland, it may become necessary to evacuate some of the nearby settlements to keep people away from danger. Every Estonian must remain cool-headed and leave their home when ordered to do so without complaints. Every Estonian should also have a warm heart to give others shelter.” Even so, evacuation in Mäe’s speech was a side issue; he mainly focused on strengthening the morale of the fighters and encouraging mobilisation.
Preparations for the General Mobilisation
The battles that had reached the Estonian borders were the primary motive for declaring a general mobilisation. On 1 February, the mobilisation order by the Head of the Directorate of the Estonian Self-Administration appeared in newspapers and on billboards. It stated that according to the agreement with the German military authorities, all male citizens born between 1904 and 1923 had to report at the Defence Service Commissions as conscripts. Thus began the general mobilisation of the Estonian citizens that was against the laws of war, just as the mobilisation into the Red Army by the Soviets in summer 1941.
The mobilisation did not start out of nowhere. Estonian Home Guard had already carried out the registration of men of mobilisation age. In parallel with the registration of the men and planning of the formation of the units, a real mobilisation was also carried out in 1943, when conscripts born in 1925 were drafted.
Rumours about a possible general mobilisation had been circling among the population for several months. The security police’s reports on the mood of the general public indicated that the results of the mobilisation (including the attitudes towards it) would be unpredictable. The earlier mobilisations, whether carried out openly or not, gave reason to assume that avoidance would be massive.
The Germans were definitely aware of this problem. However, there were also factors which indicated that the mobilisation could be successful. It is reasonable to believe that an ordinary citizen at the time had no precise understanding of the “Byzantine nature” of the occupying forces or international laws of war. The Estonian institutions controlled by the occupying forces (the Directorate of the Estonian Self-Administration, Home Guard and Office of the Inspector-General) were used to raise the conscripts’ motivation to join. The mobilisation order also referred to the Republic of Estonia legislation and citizenship applicable before 22 June 1940. In addition, the Estonian national opposition, which had been relatively passive until then, came on board and agreed to support the mobilisation.
The clever propaganda conducted by the occupying forces was equally important for the success of the mobilisation. The motive of the Second War of Independence, used since 1941, did not glorify the Germans. Rather, it emphasised that in the struggle against eastern barbarism, there was no alternative to supporting the Germans.
The beginning of 1944 did not bode well. There were several turbulent changes ahead for Estonia, which determined its fate for the following decades. The fear of terror forced tens of thousands of Estonians to leave their homeland.