ESTONIA 1944 (5)
10 Sep 2002 Priit Aruvald
The year 1944 was fateful for the Estonians and the Republic of Estonia. Occupied first by the Russians four years earlier, then occupied by the Germans in 1941, in the chaos of World War II a desperate and heroic effort was made in 1944 to save what could be saved of Estonia’s independence. The following article by Priit Aruvald follows the events of that crucial year in Estonia’s history.
BEGINNING OF THE END At the beginning of September Hitler had decided to finally abandon Estonia, though not entirely. Germany was still dependent on Swedish iron and he needed the Baltic Sea kept open. It was decided that Tallinn would be kept as a bridgehead. But at the same time Finland decided to end their war against the Russians and the fate of Estonia was sealed. The commanders of army group “Nord” now drew up a plan for a complete withdrawal from Estonia. On September 16 Hitler made the final decision to implement the withdrawal plan nicknamed ‘Aster’.
Implementation of the plan became urgent when the Red Army renewed its attack in southern Estonia with the aim of driving north to cut off the retreat of the German divisions at Narva which would have been a catastrophe for the Germans. The withdrawal was carried out without anyone bothering to inform the Estonian units. At the Emajõe line, all German units of the 87th Division and all their heavy artillery were removed. The last hope to stop the advancing Red Army was gone. The only German units left behind were there to fight a rearguard action and nothing more. The Estonian units, unbeknownst to them, had been left on their own - ‘deserted and betrayed’.
The Red Army began its attack across the Emajõgi on September 17. Interestingly, a number of the men in the Estonian Rifle Corps refused, for whatever reasons, to cross the river and were summarily executed. By the evening of September 18, despite energetic resistance by the Estonian units and whatever Germans were left, the Red Army had broken deeply through the line at Emajõgi and into the heart of Estonia.
At Narva the German army was in full retreat, the Red Army at their heels. But the Soviets still faced fierce resistance. For example, from 17 to 20 September, by their own account, the Red Army lost 200 tanks in northern Estonia to relatively lightly armed Estonian units. Nevertheless, the Soviet forces continued to press on towards Tallinn. Meanwhile to the south, by September 26 the Red Army had control over all of southern Estonia.
In Tallinn, on the night of September 17, Felix Steiner, commander of the 3rd SS Tank Corp, called Inspector General Johannes Soodla and the chief of the Estonian Self Defence unit A. Sinka to his headquarters and informed them that German forces would be withdrawn in the next three days. Colonel Sinka told the general: “Do you know what you have done? You have given the Estonian people a death sentence.”
The next day the Germans began mining the harbour and other important installations. In the city, wild rumours circulated of the arrival of the English or Swedish navy and of Red Army airborne troops parachuting down outside Tallinn. Many began making plans on evacuating and leaving their homeland behind.
In the midst of this chaos, Professor Uluots made a final attempt to persuade the German authorities to transfer power to a lawful Estonian government. The answer was a categorical no, which was of no surprise. In the weeks prior, not wishing to give the Estonian Government an opportunity to establish itself, the German military police had in fact opened fire on any group of Estonian soldiers who acted against their orders and on anyone organising action outside German command. (In Haapsalu, on Estonia’s western shore, an Estonian ‘uprising’ was put down with uncalled for brutality.)
But now, faced with no other alternative, on Professor Uluots’s orders on September 18, Otto Tief called together representatives of all parties, formed a cabinet and in the presence of the acting president J. Uluots the new government was sworn in and the first session was held the next day. A declaration from the Estonian National Committee was read whereby the Committee declared itself dissolved, recognizing the authority of the new government. A demand that all foreign armed forces leave Estonian territory immediately and a protest against the violent occupation of their homeland was read into the record. More than mere posturing, there had been some reason to believe that the proclamation of a new government might succeed. Militarily they could rely on the Finnish IR200 whose first loyalty was to the National Committee and the Committee could also count on six Border Guard regiments formed in February 1944 of mobilized men led by Estonian officers. As well, it has been remarked that ‘no other political leader in its (Estonia’s) entire history has never had a more complete command of the loyalty of the nation than had Professor Uluots during these fateful months before the return of the Soviet occupation’. But by this time it was clear the Red Army would soon occupy Tallinn and it was highly improbable that military units would be of any assistance.
The situation in Tallinn became increasingly chaotic. Roads, train stations and the harbour began to fill with those trying to escape. The police had disappeared from the streets, there were instances of exchange of gunfire between Estonians and Germans. In a defiant effort to put up at least some kind of resistance and make an attempt to at least defend Tallinn, Estonian War of Liberation hero Admiral Johan Pitka began to form an armed unit with soldiers returning from the front and those who had deserted from German reserve units. Although their aim was to fight the Russians, Pitka’s group initially ended up engaging the Germans who were attempting to blow up various facilities, including the electrical generating station.
By the afternoon of September 20 German command began to realize that they were quickly losing control of the situation in Tallinn. They withdrew to the harbour area, sending out only patrols of military police to arrest anyone in uniform. There was a rebellion of Estonian soldiers at Klooga. Used as an internment camp for Jews by the Germans, on September 19 the evacuating Germans had a special German unit kill the remaining Jews in the camp. The Estonians strongly protested this action. The protest was delivered by Lt. Egon Valter to the regimental commander Ahlemann who tore Valter’s Iron Cross ribbon from his tunic, demoted him to private and had him jailed. Infuriated, the Estonians broke into the armoury and armed themselves, released Valter and jailed Ahlemann.
In the midst of all this, there occurred in Tallinn a remarkable event. Late in the afternoon of the twentieth, the citizens of Tallinn suddenly realized that the blue-black-white flag of the Republic of Estonia, which had not flown in Estonia for over four years, had been raised to the top of the Pikk Hermann tower. Evald Aruvald relates:
“On Wednesday, September 20, the city was full of hectic activity. There was increasing disorder and during the day there were registered several encounters between various elements where gunplay was involved. Shots being fired in the city could be heard frequently. Everywhere the Germans were making preparations to leave. A loaded truck appeared in the courtyard of Toompea castle. Amongst other things, the departing occupation forces had loaded alcohol onto the truck. The truck was unloaded into the waiting room of the Parliament building from where any soldier who wanted to could take a bottle. Soon a drinking party developed and an Estonian non-commissioned officer Lieutenant T., who had gathered some courage, decided to raise the Estonian flag atop the Pikk Hermann tower. And he did. The swastika was lowered and the blue-black white was raised. This was between about five and six o’clock in the afternoon.
Seeing the colours atop Pikk Hermann, the mood in the city changed since the colours suggested some kind of nationalist signal was being sent. Those who had raised the flag, including Lieutenant T., who was a member of a guard detail of the Inspector General’s office and who had also been drinking, marched jubilantly down from Toompea. Arriving on Rüütli Street Lieutenant T. began to fire his revolver into the air in celebration. A German soldier happened to be approaching the Estonians and thought the Estonians were shooting at him. He grabbed his revolver and fired in Lieutenant T.’s direction, who was badly wounded in the stomach and soon died...The flag waved for only a short time on the mast atop Pikk Hermann. That evening, the German command and the Inspector General agreed that both the blue-black-white and the swastika would be raised together the next day. The Toompea commander Captain V. gave me an Estonian flag around six o’clock Wednesday and ordered the flag to be raised with the appropriate detail of men the next morning at sunrise. With that I was designated the head of the detail. Thursday morning, September 21, between five and six o’clock around sunrise, the German honour guard detail arrived from German command downtown, headed by a lieutenant. There were six men in our detail. We went to the top of Pikk Hermann. The weather was windy but completely clear. The sky, after a long while, was cloudless and a deep blue. I tied my national flag to the flagstaff and then the German sergeant major did the same with his, which was a German naval flag and larger in format than ours. Orders to raise the flags were given in Estonian and German. The flags started to rise and both the Estonian and German groups stood to attention. The wind twisted our flag around the flagstaff wire. I climbed up the flagstaff halfway and loosened the flag. Both flags now were pulled to the top and remained there flying together.”
Colonel Sinka of the Self Defence battalion informed the freshly sworn in government on the evening of September 20 that any kind of resistance was futile; there were no organized military units to call upon as they were spread out over Estonia fighting last ditch battles as they retreated in front of the advancing Red Army. For the government there was little left to do except to leave the country and carry on the fight in exile. Despite his protestations, Prof. Uluots was immediately sent to Sweden by speedboat. The government left Tallinn on September 22 three hours before the arrival of Russian troops and made their way to the west coast of Estonia where a motorboat from Sweden was expected to take them to safety. The motorboat arrived, but a week later on September 29 when the area had been occupied by the Red Army for four days. Thus, with only a few exceptions, all the members of the government in Estonia fell into Russian hands. Nevertheless, the government had managed to make known to the outside world that it had been sworn in as the legal government, thus fulfilling its objective of ensuring the legal continuity of the Republic of Estonia.