It’s the summer of 2018, and a team of volunteer archaeologists walk through the dense, isolated woods of Courland – a region in the west of the Baltic republic of Latvia. But these men seek something far more macabre than the tranquillity of the wilderness. This terrain, after all, was once the scene of ferocious fighting in both the First and Second World Wars.
But we’ll return to those men a little later, as to understand what they were doing there, we need to backtrack and take in some history. You see, the most violent battles of WWII were fought on the Eastern Front between Germany and the other Axis powers and the Soviet Union and its allies. And Courland itself was the site of much intense and deadly combat.
In addition, as many know, WWII began after France and Britain declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939, following the Nazi invasion of Poland. In this manner, a conflagration that would ultimately engulf much of the planet got under way. However, to understand the events that were to happen in Eastern Europe – including those in Courland – we need to go back to the days just before WWII started.
On August 23, 1939 – just ten days before war broke out – what became known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed. The agreement’s formal title, in actual fact, was “Treaty of Non-aggression between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.” And while that name may lack brevity, it nevertheless has the virtue of summing up the document to which Germany’s Joachim von Ribbentrop and Russia’s Vyacheslav Molotov added their signatures.
So, owing to that treaty, it seemed that the war would be fought in the territories of Western Europe rather than those in the east of the continent. The Nazis and the Communists therefore divvied up much of Eastern Europe between themselves without a shot being fired. For example, Latvia and the other two Baltic countries, Estonia and Lithuania, went to the Russians. In June 1940 the Soviets then duly occupied Latvia and installed a puppet government.
But Germany and Russia’s peaceful coexistence didn’t last long, as on June 22, 1941, Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa. This was nothing less than the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union and the lands that the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact had given to the Russians. In effect, then, the non-aggression treaty was no longer worth the paper that it had been written on. And for the Latvians, this meant that their Soviet occupiers were now replaced by Germans.
At first, the Axis forces pushed the Russians back, and by the end of 1941 they had reached the gates of Moscow. The German Army bulldozed through Latvia, too, and completed its occupation by July 1941. But the Nazis’ advance on Moscow was halted, with the Soviets then choosing to begin the long and bloody process of pushing the enemy back.
Massive battles were thus fought on Soviet territory and in other eastern European countries until 1945, when the Russians entered Germany. But one German force in Courland ultimately became isolated from the rest of their nation’s army. A large cadre of Nazi soldiers was trapped on the Courland peninsula, with the Baltic Sea at their rear and the Soviets at their front.
Yes, in October 1944 some 200,000 troops – including 20,000 men of the Latvian Nineteenth Division of the Waffen SS – were stranded in what became known as the Courland Pocket. This was a broad peninsula of land to the west of Latvia’s capital, Riga, with the territory overlooking the Gulf of Riga to the east and the Baltic Sea to the west.
And the scene was now set for some of the most pitiless and brutal fighting of WWII. The Germans and the Latvian SS soldiers had no route of escape, either, as the Russians had advanced all the way to the Baltic, cutting off the land route to northern Germany.
However, an evacuation by sea could have been achieved but for one thing: Hitler’s obduracy. The Nazi leader’s senior military advisors, including chief of the general staff, Heinz Guderian, had urged Hitler to rescue the Nazi soldiers. The troops could then have been used to good purpose in defending Germany from Russia’s onslaught through central Europe.
But Hitler ordered the beleaguered troops to hold out; even in late 1944, he still assumed that Germany could pull victory from the jaws of defeat. And the Führer believed, too, that a key element of that German success would be the U-boat. Given that there were various submarine bases along the Baltic coast, then, the dictator considered it essential that the Courland Pocket should be held to defend them.
Of course, the Soviets could not allow this German force to remain where it was, even though it did not stand in the way of their main thrust into Germany. Yet while the Russians launched no fewer than six major assaults to take the territory, they never managed to defeat the Germans – despite their determined and ruthless attacks.
Then, finally, on May 8, 1945 – and after the soldiers in the Courland Pocket had held out for over six months – Nazi Germany capitulated to the Allies. With Hitler dead by his own hand, President Karl Dönitz became Germany’s new leader, and he ordered the commander of the Courland force, Colonel-General Carl Hilpert, to surrender.
That decision spelled the end of the Nazis’ bitter resistance in the Courland Pocket, during which there had been a considerable cost to human life. It’s estimated that the Germans suffered 100,000 killed, while the Russian casualties are thought to have numbered as high as 170,000. Many of those dead from both sides never had proper burials, either, and so their broken bodies lay where they died in the mud of the Courland forest floor.
And that brings us back to those men tramping through the Courland landscape in summer 2018. As members of the organization Legenda, they were looking for the unclaimed thousands of Germans, Russians and Latvians who had lost their lives in the fighting of 1944 and 1945.
Legenda was founded in 1999 as a group of volunteer military archaeologists who search for the lost remains of men who fell in both of the 20th century’s world wars. And though we’ve heard mostly about WWII, there was in fact fighting in Latvia during both those conflicts. For Latvians, the existence of the dead men’s remains across the countryside is just a fact of life.
Indeed, one of the Legenda founders, Talis Esmits, told Bloomberg in 2016, “In Latvia, it is normal for you to have dead soldiers on your yard. When people came back to their homes after the war, they saw [that] there was a dead soldier here and a dead soldier there, and they just buried them.”
And another Legenda member, Jonny Bay, spoke to the WW2 Wrecks website about his work with the organization. He said, “I have taken part in the exhumation of hundreds of soldiers from both world wars. Legenda [is] a non-governmental organization of around 60 volunteers from all over the world, [and] we are responsible for finding the victims of war still missing in Latvia.”
It seems, too, that Legenda volunteers often succeed in their searches. At the very least, when speaking to Bloomberg, Esmits estimated that members of the organization usually come across some 700 sets of remains of missing soldiers in total each year. And sometimes, depending on the evidence found during excavations, it is possible to make positive identifications.
When the Legenda archaeologists come across a skeleton with a dog tag, for example, they forward the details to the appropriate authorities. In Germany’s case, the Volksbund – or German War Graves Commission – is the relevant department. And it seems that officials there are very keen on receiving these reports.
Fritz Kirchmeier, a Volksbund spokesman interviewed by Bloomberg, said on the matter, “We believe all people have the right to a worthy grave. There are lots of people who want to clear up their relatives’ fates. Before 1990 we couldn’t work in Eastern Europe, and now many of these descendants are 70 years or older and in a phase where they want to clear up these questions and find some inner peace.”
On the other hand, when the Legenda volunteers uncover the remains of a Soviet soldier, any details they can glean about identity are passed on to the Latvian authorities. The remains are then stored and then formally interred at an annual ceremony with senior officials from both Latvia and Russia in attendance.
And while writing about Legenda’s summer 2018 expedition in the forests of Courland, Bay described some of the finds that he and the team had made. In the process, too, he pointed out one of the dangers that the archaeologists routinely face: unexploded munitions. When Legenda members find shells in the ground, however, these are carefully marked and left for later attention from Latvian Army bomb disposal units.
In his description of that summer dig, Bay wrote, “We opened a standard zigzag German trench a few hundred meters from [a] former farmhouse. [There,] we found the remains of some German soldiers. Heavy artillery had smashed their position. The mix of bones and equipment showed exactly what heavy artillery shelling could do.”
Bay continued with his graphic description, “One soldier’s equipment – such as his mess tin, water bottle and spade – were full of holes and twisted by the shrapnel. After a few hours of careful searching, we uncovered what seemed to be all of him. His remains lay stooped over his equipment, just as he fell in the winter of 1944/1945.”
In addition, Bay related how one of the team, Gytis Jasenauskas, had subsequently found a dead soldier’s dog tag – suggesting in turn that the remains nearby were that of a German. And it seems that such discoveries are what make all the hard work the volunteers put in worthwhile. Bay wrote on the War History Online website, “It’s moments like that where we all pause and smile at each other. The human we had just found now had his identity back.”
Indeed, these revelations seem to be key in motivating Bay and his fellow volunteers to spend so many hours in the mud of the Courland woods. The Irishman continued, “There could now be a named gravestone in a military cemetery. Perhaps a loved one would get a letter from the German authorities. Moments like that are why we spend hours walking, digging and searching the long-forgotten forests.”
Meanwhile, after finding those remains, the Legenda team discovered another German fighter. And as it happens, the soldier’s metal cap badge – which resembled a mushroom in shape – had been well preserved. The pin showed, too, that the man had once been a member of the Wehrmacht’s 205th Infantry Division – a formation that had seen action in the invasion of France in 1940.
After a period of garrison duty, in 1942 the 205th had been sent to the Eastern Front, where it ended up being one of the units trapped in the Courland pocket two years later. And like the rest of the Germans, the men of the 205th would have surrendered at the end of the war in May 1945. But that truce had come too late for the soldier whom Bay and his colleagues had found.
Then, not far from where the Legenda team had uncovered the German men, they came across a well by a farmhouse. Several Russian soldiers lay at the pit’s bottom, too, although it was impossible to say how they’d come to be there. As Bay later wrote on the War History Online website, “Maybe [the men] were thrown down after the battle, or maybe they were killed there – we will never know.” The soldiers will ultimately be buried in a nearby military graveyard.
And Bay has also described another Latvian excavation in which he’d been involved – this time in a WWI location. He wrote, “I will never forget one cold morning when we opened a trench line from WWI outside Riga. The soldiers that lay there were a mix of Latvian riflemen and standard Czarist soldiers who had fought there in 1917. The ground was pale sand, dry and cold.”
During WWI, the entire citizenship of Courland had been evacuated, with some 500,000 souls heading east to escape the Germans. The Russian Army responded, however, by destroying crops and razing buildings to deny the Germans supplies and shelter. Truly, Courland is a region that saw more than its fair share of destruction and death during the 20th century.
In his account of that WWI-affiliated dig, Bay added in War History Online, “We began to find soldiers lying where they fell.” Some of the uncovered remains were still partially clad in uniforms, while a few others possessed amazingly well-preserved leather boots. Yet others were close to bottles of chemicals and scraps of material that were used in conjunction as primitive gas masks.
And Bay has since recalled one especially poignant discovery. He wrote, “As I was brushing the sand away from one soldier, I noticed a pocket watch poking out. It was exposed to the light for the first time in almost 100 years. I opened it and observed the time when it had stopped ticking. Moments like that I will never forget.”
Then there was the unearthing of a downed Russian WWII airplane. Legenda’s mission on that dig was to confirm the identity of the craft and to find and retrieve any remains they could. And it turned out that the plane in question was a Petlyakov Pe-2 – a light bomber that fulfilled a variety of roles including ground attack, heavy fighter and reconnaissance.
More than 11,000 examples of this model of plane were built by the Soviets during WWII, with each flying with a three-man crew; pilot, gunner and navigator. And in the fighting around the Baltic, the Petlyakov bombers typically faced German JG54 Grünherz fighters – sometimes to disastrous effect. One Soviet unit alone lost 86 of its planes during the fighting over the Baltic territories.
This particular Petlyakov Pe-2, meanwhile, had apparently been brought down by a German fighter plane and had crash-landed in a thickly wooded area. It seems, too, that one of the crew had managed to parachute from the stricken aircraft. The other two men had remained trapped in the plane as it plummeted to the ground, however, and both had died.
“I was knee-deep in wet mud and bent double,” Bay later recalled on the War History Online website. “With my hands buried in the mud, I found one of the crew member’s side arms. It was a pistol that had been ripped apart and bent during the crash. Even all those years later, I could still see evidence of the destructive force of the plane hitting the ground.”
And Bay described the feeling of melancholy that almost overwhelmed him after that particular dig, revealing, “The experience truly horrified and saddened me.” Yet the sadness is counterbalanced, it appears, by the knowledge that Legenda’s cause is a worthy one. As Bay explained, “I truly believe that finding these men and woman, regardless of who they fought for, is a noble thing to do.”