From Admiral Kuznetsov Memoirs
Alarm Bells Clanging
...Just like many of my comrades I could not imagine that the enemy would be able to wedge deep into our country. However, I thought that he would possibly attempt to take Libau coup de main. That was why, when I visited this base before the war, I contacted the command of the Baltic Military Area to discuss the defence of Libau from the land. It was the duty of the fleet to cover the Army's deployment from the sea. Similarly the land forces were to defend the naval bases from the land. Unless the Army covered the deployment of the fleet, it would be unable to carry out its combat missions. Later developments confirmed this as the enemy made rapid headway towards Riga and Tallinn. Though the fleet was in a condition of heightened readiness, when the enemy attacked, though it had laid minefields and though the coastal defence batteries were outfitted with powerful pieces, these factors taken together were not enough to stop the enemy's advance. The ships had to leave their bases and to withdraw eastward. Here is an account of the events in Libau. At 0400 hours on June 22 the Nazis launched an attack in proximity of Polangen (Palanga). At the same time the Luftwaffe started to bomb the airfield at Libau. The enemy's 291st Infantry Division quickly advanced along a coastal highway in the direction of the town. The Soviet 67th Infantry Division which was not yet manned to wartime establishment and the shore units of the naval base put up a heroic resistance. In the morning of June 22 our ships started to lay mines at the entrance to the base. The submarines were dispatched to their patrol zones. Some of the ships were moved to Windau (Ventspils) and Ust-Dvinsk (Daugavgriva).
Although the enemy was unable to take Libau coup de main because the Soviet 67th Infantry Division supported by the coastal defence batteries managed to beat off the initial onslaught, the Nazis forced their way to Tosmare Shipbuilding Yard by the end of the day on June 25. As senior officer of the ships in refit the commanding officer of the destroyer Lenin issued an order to demolish the ships that were unable to sail. This was a sound decision. That same day the ammunition and fuel depots were blown up too. On June 25 and 26, the defenders continued to Fight for the town and base. In the evening of June 26 the division and naval base commanders were ordered to withdraw. They were able to accomplish the withdrawal only in part. The roads to Wmdau were already straddled by the enemy. The defenders of Libau continued to offer resistance in separate parts of the town for another Five days. The last rounds were fired only on the sixth day.
Libau could have hardly held out in face of Nazi superiority in numerical strength, in quality of equipment (aircraft and tanks) and in combat experience. However, the town could have resisted the enemy for a longer period of time.
We had underestimated the importance of defending the bases from the land and were now paying for our error. Although Libau was being defended by an adequate force comprising an infantry division, coastal defence artillery, ships and the fleet air arm, we failed to employ it with due effect. The division was defending a frontage of 200 kilometres. The division commander and the naval base commander established the sectors each was responsible for and the fortifications each was to build just before the Nazi attack. The fire support tables were drawn up at the very last moment, when the division commander assumed command of all the forces defending the base. Battalions made up of naval personnel and civilians were formed with a great delay. That was why Libau held out for only a short time, despite the heroism displayed by its defenders.
I consider it my duty to repeat that the local command cannot be held responsible for this. The People's Commissar of the Navy and the Naval Staff should have displayed greater firmness in the organisation of defence of the naval bases from the land.
The changes on the battlefronts were so quick that all the preliminary operational calculations were wholly impracticable. The Baltic Fleet was compelled to execute missions to meet the situation which was extremely unfavourable for us. The Germans' rapid advance to Riga and further to Pskov and Tallinn compelled them to make broad use of the sea routes. In the first half of July our reconnaissance planes sighted separate transport vessels and small convoys proceeding to Riga along the coast via the Irves Strait. Of course, the most effective weapon against transport vessels was torpedo bombers. They were trained for this type of warfare over a period of many years. But owing to emergency circumstances the bulk of the fleet air arm was being used against (.he enemy's tank columns heading for Leningrad. In addition, it provided covet for the Eighth Army fighting in Estonia. It also bombed Nazi army units heading for Tallinn, the Baltic Fleet's main base.
During the first few weeks of the war the situation in the Baltic was nerve racking. The army command frequently issued orders to (general M.I. Samokhin. fleet air arm commander, bypassing the commander of the Baltic Fleet. Under such cirtumstances the air arm's purely naval missions were disregarded. Admiral V. F. Tributs, Baltic Fleet commander, would report on this abnormal state of affairs which placed the fleet in a most difficult situation. We would reply to him in set phrases:
"Hold Tallinn, Hanko and the islands of Oesel and Dago till the last possibility."
In those days we could not give him any other instructions. We were fighting a strong and experienced enemy who had made thorough preparations for the attack. Our officers and men fought heroically. They were doing all they could to stop the enemy. But they lacked fighting experience. You needed time to acquire it. This in turn called for strenuous effort. In addition, the price you had to pay in blood was high. But this effort and losses were not in vain. Had not the defenders of Libau fought so gallantly, had not the units resisted the enemy so fiercely in Estonia, Tallinn would not have held out a whole month. Had not the defenders of Tallinn and later of the islands of Oesel and Dag5, and the peninsula of Hanko fought so selflessly, it would have been harder to defend Leningrad during the critical months of September and October 1941.
In the situation that had taken shape we had no alternative but to employ the Baltic Fleet air arm against ground targets. Though it is a pity, it could not be used for attacks on enemy convoys. In this particular case we could not approach the matter speculatively. We could not discuss what should or should not be done from the standpoint of combat regulations and manuals. The unusual situation frequently made it necessary to take unconventional decisions.
Despite our blunders, the Navy played an extremely important role in protecting the Army's flanks. Neither in the beginning of the war nor later did the Nazis land a single descent behind the Red Army's lines. This was not fortuitous. Nor was it a miscalculation of the German command.
When a naval base formed a flank of an army it was always staunchly defended. This was an important factor. When the Nazis ran into stiff and prolonged resistance on land, it would slow down the rate of progress of the entire battlefront. No wonder Hitler who was aware of this demanded in August-September, 1941 that Antonescu should take Odessa as quickly as possible. While Odessa offered resistance it exercised an influence on the course of battles waged by the German group of armies in the southern sector.
In July-August, 1941 the German fleet was not as active as we expected it to be. A German fleet comprising the biggest battleship Tirpitz, a heavy cruiser and several light cruisers appeared in the Abo-Aland skerries in the very end of September. At approximately the same time a Nazi cruiser formation was concentrated at Libau. We logically assumed that the German navy would act in close co-operation with the army precisely here, in the Leningrad sector. We feared that it might land descents. We expected the big enemy ships seriously to interfere with the evacuation of Tallinn by sea. Why was the German navy so passive then? I was unable to Find a direct answer to this question in West German war memoirs. But Friedrich Ruge, a Hitler admiral and, later, Commander-in-Chief of FRG's Naval Forces, touched upon it in his Der Seekrieg 1939-1945. He pointed out that in drawing up Plan Barbarossa Hitler and his generals pinned their hopes on a successful Blitzkrieg without the navy's active support.
Ruge maintains that the Soviet navy carried out non-naval missions. It took part in operations together with the land forces. In Ruge's opinion, this reflected the weakness of our Navy. He maintained that it was incapable of executing purely naval missions. In actual fact this was one of our Navy's strong points. In Odessa, Sevastopol, Tallinn and Hanko the Navy did what our general strategy required it to do. It fought the enemy at sea, in the air and on land. This is precisely why our naval air arm considered it more essential to strike at targets on land than on the sea. When the need arose the fleets released several hundred thousand officers and men to form marine units which fought brilliantly practically on all the battlefronts. They inflicted heavy losses on the Nazi Wehrmacht. In analysing the reasons why the German navy was so passive I am inclined to think that the Germans were above all afraid of suffering heavy losses from our torpedo bombers. submarines and minefiefds. During the First few days of the war 20 submarines of the Baltic Fleet were already deployed in their patrol zones. It would also be appropriate to note that Hitler was highly sensitive to the loss of big ships.
We too could not afford to ignore such a factor as the prohibitive cost of a big ship which could not be replaced during the war. I recall the sense of anxiety as we watched the battleships moored on the open roads off Tallinn. We were eager to shift them to a safer place, namely Kronstadt. The conditions were much the same in the Black Sea. But in contrast to the German capital ships our big ships would be committed to action, when the situation required it. Thus, we used the battleship Sevastopol to bombard the enemy's dispositions around the besieged Sevastopol and in other places. The battleships Marat and Oklyabrskuyu Revolutsiya of the Baltic Fleet employed their powerful guns in the defence of Leningrad. First they would Fire at the enemy manoeuvring in the limited area near Kronstadt and later, while moored alongside the jetty.
When the Baltic Fleet was forced to withdraw from Libau to Kronstadt in 1941, it stood up to a tough trial. The fleet coped with many critical situations later. Though the winter of 1941-1942 was an ordeal, I think the general situation then was not as bad as during the early months of the war. It was precisely then that our men were subjected to the most rigorous test. It would be fair to say that they stood up to it with honour.
The Baltic Fleet was trained for naval warfare over a period of many years: for attacks on enemy shipping, for Fire fighting and torpedo attacks at the entrance to the Gulf of Finland, for defence of naval bases from the sea and defence of the coast against enemy descents. When the war broke out the fleets had to aim their guns in the reverse direction, so to say.
The situation compelled the naval command to abandon the plans that had been worked out in peace time and concentrate wholly on fighting the danger from the land.
Our naval bases were not adequately prepared for fighting when the war broke out. The directions of the enemy spearheads came as a surprise. These factors caused us to make mistakes in the defense of our bases and fortified areas. Sometimes they put us in an extremely precarious situation. Thus, late in June, when the enemy captured Riga the detachment of light forces was compelled to use harbors which lacked the necessary facilities. After that the ships withdrew through the shallow channel of the Moonsund Strait. To enable the cruiser Kirov and other ships to navigate the Moonsund channel the Baltic Fleet command had to deepen it under the enemy's very nose. The Nazis were too much in a hurry to announce that they managed to lock a large Red naval force in the Gulf of Riga.
In my memory the latter half of July was filled with anxiely for the Baltic Fleet.
Though our men were Fighting valiantly we were forced to leave one naval base after another. Those hard times vividly revealed all the weaknesses in the preparation of our fleets for war. They were particularly evident in Army-Navy cooperation, in the construction of special ships, development of special weapons for the fleets and in many cases in the level of combat training.
During the fighting for Libau the Army and Navy did not immediately achieve a common understanding on cooperation between the fighting services on this concrete sector. The situation was much the same in the case of Tallinn too. Contrary to the plans worked out in peace lime the Military Council of the Baltic Fleet was made responsible for the defence of Tallinn from the land. But the land forces were subordinated to the fleet command with great delay.
And now I would like to deal with ships and fighting equipment. It is a fact that only a balanced naval force will secure maximum effect in war. A balanced fleet must comprise an adequate number of surface ships and submarines of all types. it was the direct duty of the People's Commissar of the Navy and the Naval Staff to assure the needed balance. I cannot shift the responsibility for the failure to achieve such a balance either on the higher authorities or blunders of the fleets.
The shortage of minesweepers and sweeping gear was particularly painful for the Baltic Fleet. The naval command was well aware that mines were a grave hazard in the shallow waters of the Baltic Sea. We realised that no sortie was possible without minesweepers. If anybody asked us what the Baltic Fleet needed above all, we would have said without a moment's hesitation: minesweepers, sweeping gear, and modern mines to fight the enemy. In actual fact it worked out differently. And I must admit this.
While paying serious attention to big ships, we took our time in building fast minesweepers. And we did not build enough of them. Another unforgivable mistake was that after the war broke out in Europe, when the danger of Nazi Germany's attack on the Soviet Union became imminent, we failed to reinforce the Navy with civilian vessels which could be converted into minesweepers. As a result, when the war started the Baltic Fleet had only 20 fast minesweepers instead of at least 100. Shortage of minesweepers made it impossible to employ big ships with due effect. In addition, when the fleet fought its way from Tallinn to Kronstadt, it would have lost fewer ships. Summing up the results of the first month of the war the Military Council of the Baltic Fleet decided that mines were the main danger. The need for minesweepers was so desperate that the Council ordered to commandeer every vessel in Leningrad fit for duty. If that proved impossible the order was to take over 15-20 seagoing or river tugboats, including paddle-wheel craft.
The Germans were apparently, aware of this. No wonder they did not want to take risks with their big ships. In pursuit of Plan Barbarossa Hitler decided way back in February 1941 to make broad use in the Baltic of all his minelayers, motor torpedo boats and some of the light forces. In theory we expected this, but in practice we were not ready to fight enemy mines. We should have sounded the alert, as soon as we learnt about the advent of German electromagnetic mines and about the heavy losses the British had suffered from them in 1939-1941.
In addition to minesweepers, we were short of antisubmarine ships and special patrol vessels. It hurts my heart to read over again a wartime document: ''The fast minesweeper Krambol is on patrol duty." Only an urgent need could have compelled the fleet command to employ a minesweeper on patrol duty.
The Baltic Fleet suffered badly from inadequate antiaircraft defence of its ships. It was not always possible to provide fighter cover, whereas the Lender antiaircraft guns were already obsolescent by then. The conditions for combat training were unfavourable. It was only shortly before the Great Patriotic War that the Soviet Baltic Fleet acquired bases outside Kronstadt which was icebound for four to five months a year. In November, the ships were usually moored at the jetties or at the repair yard in the iced-in Kronstadt. The ships did not put out to sea. The officers and men trained ashore. In autumn the men who had completed their active service were demobilised and replaced with draftees. Officers' annual leave and personnel shifts were timed to this season.
The situation in the fleets changed only in 1940. The experience of the Finnish campaign showed that it was necessary to go to sea all year round and to train for war in conditions close to those of actual combat. Having acquired bases at Tallinn, Libau and the Hanko Peninsula the Soviet Baltic Fleet was no longer icebound in winter. Its ships could ply the Baltic waters all year round. There being little time left before the outbreak of the war it proved impossible to work cardinal changes. It takes years to acquire and accumulate experience, especially experience in training men. It is far more difficult to educate and train competent officers and ratings than to build ships.