German invasion of Estonia in 1941

​On 22 June 1941 Germany declared war against the Soviet Union. Occupying Estonia was of secondary importance. The main aim was to conquer Leningrad. The military unit called ‘Nord’ was tasked with taking over the naval bases in Paldiski, Tallinn and on the western Estonian islands, which would enable the Germans to eliminate the Baltic Navy and the danger to German shipping in the Baltic.

​The Wehrmacht crossed the Estonian border on 7 July, but a week later the front halted in central Estonia. The Germans managed to conquer mainland Estonia by early September, and the islands finally on 21 October, except for the small island of Osmussaar. The latter, together with the Hanko military base in Finland, was evacuated by the Red Army only on 2 December. Battles in Estonia led to the loss of many lives; over 3000 Wehrmacht men were killed, plus hundreds of Estonia volunteers perished in the Summer War. There was also significant loss of life among the Forest Brothers and members of the Home Guard. The losses of the Red Army are not known, although about 50,000 of its soldiers were imprisoned in Estonia.

​Estonians could not avoid taking part in the struggle between the two great totalitarian powers that was occurring in Estonia in summer 1941. Because the front came to a standstill, the Soviet Union managed to mobilise Estonian conscripts and reservists (about 33 000 men), who were then taken to Russia. As they were considered untrustworthy, they were forced into labour battalions. In 1942 they were gathered into the Estonian national troops in the Red Army. The men who had successfully avoided the Soviet mobilisation in Estonia fought in summer 1941 as guerrilla groups (known as Forest Brothers) in the bloody Summer War, and together with the German troops against the retreating Red Army.

​After the Soviet troops were forced out of Estonia, the self-formed Estonian military units were disbanded by the German army command. As the situation on the front got worse, however, the Germans were again keen to form units of Estonian volunteers under the command of the German army. Later, men were forced to join the German army, both through their jobs (policemen were temporarily organised into police battalions), as well as during mobilisations. The Estonian SS-Legion was started in 1942. Many conscripts managed to escape to Finland, where they joined the Finnish army (the ‘Finnish Boys’).

Details about this article