Latvia (WW2)

Latvian AFVs of the Interwar and WW2

Latvia is a small country in eastern Europe on the shores of the Baltic Sea. It shares borders with the other two Baltic nations (Estonia and Lithuania), Russia and Belarus. After the Latvian War of Independence (1918-1920), the Latvian government was looking for a cheap way to acquire tanks. During the interwar period, Latvia experienced a period of economic growth. In 1934, there was a bloodless coup and Latvia was ruled by a nationalist dictator. When the Second World War began, Latvia signed treaties with Germany and the Soviet Union. Nonetheless, in 1940, the country was annexed by the Soviets. During the Second World War, the population of Latvia suffered hugely and had a high casualty rate.

History before the Great War

The first recorded invasion of Latvia took place during the time of the Northern Crusades in 1195. The Saxons, whilst invading, met the local Livs and called their country Livland, which means Livonia translated into Latin. The occupation lasted over three centuries, during which indigenous people suffered from hard labor and high taxes. Furthermore, they were converted from their spiritual belief (Baltic Paganism) to Catholicism.

In 1561, the country was partitioned into two. While the region of Courland in the southwest became the autonomous Duchy of Lithuania, the northern region of Livonia was fully integrated into Lithuania. Due to the further expansion of the Swedish Empire, the northern part of Livonia and Riga were taken over by Gustav II Adolf by 1629.

Map of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth around 1570. As seen in the picture, Courland is an autonomous region in the south while Livland is part of the Commonwealth. (Source: Pinterest)

After various failed attempts by the Russian Empire to gain control of the region of Latvia, they managed to occupy most of the area in 1772. Furthermore, the Russians acquired the southern region after the Third Partition of Poland in 1795. Until the First World War, the regions of Courland, Vidzeme and Livonia were part of the Russian Empire. Throughout this time, the Latvians gained more rights, which included the right to purchase land and the establishment of many public facilities, such as universities.

WW1 and War of Independence

During the First World War, Latvian people were mobilized and fought in the Russian Army to defend their homeland from the advancing Germans. These troops were called the Latvian Riflemen. Around 50% of the pre-war population of Latvia were evacuated and the existing industry was dismantled to avoid it falling into the hands of the advancing Germans.

After the Russian Empire was overthrown by the Bolsheviks in 1917, an armistice was signed between the newly formed Russian SFSR (Soviet Federative Socialist Republic) and the Central Powers in order to end the ongoing war. Additionally, in 1918, the Russian SFSR signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which ended Russia’s participation in World War One. In the treaty, Russia had to cede the Baltic Nations to the German Empire and the southern Caucasus region to the Ottoman Empire. Even though they already wanted to be independent, the German presence made it impossible for the Latvians to form a national army.

Eventually, following the November 1918 armistice with the Entente, Germany had to give up the territory it had annexed, with the Allied Powers and the Inter-Allied Commission of Control arriving in the region. Many of the former Latvian Riflemen joined the Red Army, while a small number joined the White Army.

Map of Latvia before the armistice with the Entente in 1918. The orange color represents German occupied territory while the purple Estonian territory. (Source: Wikipedia)

Latvia proclaimed its independence from Germany on 18th November 1918. A provisional government was formed, with Karlis Ulmanis as the leader. In direct response, Soviet Red Army units, which mostly consisted of ex-Latvian Riflemen, invaded Latvia in December 1918.

Due to the weakness of the defending forces, many parts of Latvia were captured by the advancing Reds, including Daugavpils and Riga. The provisional government of Karlis Ulmanis had to retreat to Liepāja (a Latvian city on the west coast), where it was protected by the Baltische Landeswehr and the British fleet. Furthermore, the Bolsheviks formed the Latvian SSR (Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic) in Riga.

Map of Latvia after the Bolsheviks invaded Latvia in March 1919. Yellow represents the small army of Latvia, while the pink color represents the Soviet forces. (Source: Wikipedia)
Portrait of Latvian leader Karlis Ulmanis. (Source Wiki)

With the help of the German forces, which included parts of the 6th Reserve Corps of the German Army, which had been allowed to stay in Latvia with the blessing of the Entente after the Armistice in order to fight the Bolsheviks, the Freikorps, a German anti-communist military organization founded after the defeat of Germany, and the Baltische Landeswehr (Eng. Baltic Country Protection), an armed force created by the Baltic Nobility, the Latvians managed to recapture some of the recently lost territory. Unlike in Estonia, where the national army could be created easily, the Latvians needed help from the Entente, Estonians, and Germans to build up their army.

German Troops of the Baltische Landeswehr blocking a railway road in Riga in 1919. Note the machine gun post on the left. (Source: IWM)

In April 1919, the Baltic Nobility, a privileged social class consisting mostly of Baltic Germans, carried out a coup d’etat which created another regime, starting a civil war during the War of Independence. After a major offensive from Estonian and Latvian forces, the Soviets were pushed back to the area of eastern and southern Latvia. Meanwhile, the Baltische Landwehr and Freikorps successfully recaptured the city of Riga, where they executed over 3,000 civilians who were accused of supporting the Bolsheviks. Furthermore, the Estonians managed to recapture northern Latvia, since their war of independence was going much better in comparison to the Latvian one. The Estonians also decided to sign a pact with Latvia.

Map of Latvia in April 1919, when the combined Latvian and German forces managed to recapture most of the Courland and later Riga. (Source: Wikipedia)

After the combined German forces headed north to the city of Cēsis, which was previously captured by the Latvian Army, the Allies (the term ‘Allied’ or ‘Allies’ refers to the Entente powers which intervened in the former territories of Russia during the civil war) realized that the German goal was not just eliminating the Bolsheviks, but rather sustaining German influence in Latvia. Ignoring the orders of the Estonian Army commander to retreat to a southern area, the German forces attacked some villages and cities located in the area. These attacks were halted and beaten back by the Estonian Army, which received reinforcements. Both the Iron Division, the unit of the Freikorps which fought in Latvia, and the Landeswehr had to retreat to Riga, where they signed an armistice with the Allies.

Map of Latvia shortly after the German attack on Estonian forces had been repelled. June 1919. (Source: Wikipedia)

Due to the consequences of the treaty, the Landeswehr was put under the control of the Allied forces and the Iron Division had to leave Latvia, ending the 700-year long rule of the Baltic Nobility. Furthermore, the first provisional government of Karlis Ulmanis was re-established. In fact, the Iron Division did not fully leave. Many soldiers turned to the West Russian Volunteer Army, an army created covertly by Germany which officially only consisted of Russian prisoners of war (POWs) from the Great War and the Civil War. Unofficially, over 50,000 troops from the Freikorps and other German groups also joined this army. Their goal of keeping German influence in the Baltic area persisted. In October 1919, the newly created army marched to Liepāja, where they were attacking the Latvian Army which was assisted by Allied naval support and Estonian armored trains. The West Russian forces suffered from a defeat and the remaining troops had to retreat to Lithuanian territory, where they were eliminated by Lithuanian forces

Map of Latvia (11th November 1919) after the surrender of the German forces. The orange part is now the area controlled by the newly created West Russian Volunteer Army. The blue part is Polish-controlled territory and the green part is Lithuanian. (Source: Wikipedia)

In January 1920, the Polish and Latvian Armies joined forces and attacked the Soviet-occupied city of Daugavpils. Since not only Latvians fought in this battle but also the Polish Army, the battle is also considered to be part of the Polish-Soviet War. The Polish-Soviet War was similar to the independence wars fought by the Baltic states. The war started in the winter of 1919, when Soviet troops attacked Poland which had declared its independence after the end of WW1. After pushing the Red Army back, they eventually reached Daugavpils where they reached an agreement with the Latvians. In frigid conditions, the Latvian-Polish forces, which included some Renault FTs from the Polish Army, managed to capture the city. This battle was important because of its direct impact on the ceasefire signed between Latvia and the Soviet Union signed about a month later. On 11th August 1920, the Latvian–Soviet Peace Treaty was signed, resulting in the end of all conflicts between these two states. Due to these actions, Latvia and all other Baltic states became independent and gained military control over the areas within their borders.

Polish Renault FTs of the 2nd Tank Regiment before the advance on the Soviet occupied Daugavipils fortress. January 1920. (Source: Wiki)

Armored Trains, Latvia’s Best Weapon

Armored trains played a crucial role during the Russian Civil War and contributed greatly to the Bolshevik’s success. During the Latvian War of Independence, these armored trains proved more effective for Latvia than for the Reds.

Armored train No. 1 was built by the Communists in Šķirotava when they first invaded Latvia in 1919. After the recapture of Riga, the armored train was commandeered by the Freikorps. Following the surrender of the Freikorps, the train was transferred to the Latvian forces.

Armored Train No. 1 built by Latvian Communists and later used by the Latvian Army. June 1919. (Source: Spoki)

No. 2, also named “Communist Destroyer”, was the first indigenously built Latvian armored train. However, it received this name only after the destruction of a Soviet armored train. During its service time in the War of Independence, the train managed to destroy two other armored trains of the Red Army.

A Schneider-Canet 6-inch gun of No. 2 during the Latvian War of Independence. (Source: El Ejército de Letonia y Las Guerras Bálticas)

After the great success of the first two armored trains during the war, the Latvian High Command ordered the production of the third armored train. No. 3 was built in the Zilani train depot and proved fairly effective during combat in November 1919 against the West Russian Volunteer Army but had to be pulled out of service for a while because of spare parts shortages in Latvia. It was in service again in early 1920 against the Soviets.

Armored Train No. 3 in June 1919. (Source: Spoki)

No. 4’s origin is not clear but it was captured from the West Russian Volunteer Army during the liberation fight of Jelgava in December 1919 and rebuilt in Jelgava train depot with parts of No. 5.

Armored train No. 4 captured from the West Russian Volunteer Army. Late 1919. (Source: El Ejército de Letonia y Las Guerras Bálticas)

Armored train number 5 (“Kalpaks”) was built in October of 1919 in Liepāja and participated in the defense of the city against the West Russian Volunteer Army. Later it was disassembled and the parts were given to No. 4.

There was also No. 6 which was a narrow-gauge line train and saw action in the area of Liepāja.

These armored trains proved excellent at securing bridges and important railway stations, and destroying other armored trains. Furthermore, they had a positive impact on the morale of the Latvian forces.

These armored trains were organized in the Unit of Armored Train, which on 26 June 1926 was reformed into the Regiment of Armored Trains. All bar two of the armored trains were dismantled and the regiment was transferred to Daugavplis from Riga.

In 1940, the Latvian Army had only 2 armored trains left in running condition (No. 1 and No. 2). After the Soviets took over the equipment of the Latvian Army, both were incorporated into the 10th Independent Railway Artillery Battalion of the Baltic fleet, while their main artillery guns were rebuilt onto coastal defenses.

One of the Canet 6-inch railroad guns belonging to the 4th Armored Train in 1919. Note the same three-tone camouflage which was also applied to armored cars. (Source: Worthpoint)
Armored train of the Estonian Army on the Rauna river bridge in the area of Cesis. June 1919. (Source: Alex Tarasoff)

Armored cars

During the battles for Latvia in May 1919, the Latvian Army managed to capture 2 Austin-Putilov and 2 Putilov-Garford armored cars. These had a meager contribution to the war effort. They had to be repaired often and there was a lack of spare parts. The armored cars “Zemgaleetis” (an Austin-Garford, named after the southern region of Latvia) and “Lāčplēsis” (a Putilov-Garford, name after an epic Latvian poem hero), supported the Latvian infantry in the areas of Krustpils and Livani in June 1919. In the autumn of 1919, these Latvian armored cars managed to destroy 3 Freikorps armored trains. Furthermore, two German armored cars were captured by the Latvian forces. They were sent to Riga as support, but never saw action.

In 1920, Latvia had 9 armored cars:
– 1 Austin-Garford armored car named “Zemgaleetis”
– 1 Izhorskiye-FIAT 55 armored car named “Staburags” after an unusual rock formation on the shores of the Daugava
– 2 German Daimler-Krupp BAK Kw 14 Self-Propelled Anti-Aircraft Guns (SPAAG) named “Max” and “Moritz” and later renamed “Thunder” and “Talivaldis”
– 1 Pierce-Arrow armored car named “Viesturs” after a duke of the region of Semigallia/Zemgaleetis
– 2 Putilov-Garford armored cars named “Lāčplēsis” and “Kurzemnieks” after the Latvian name for Courland
– 1 Sheffield Simplex armored car named “Imanta” after a region close to Riga
– 1 Latvian-made armored car built on a FIAT chassis named “Sargs”, Latvian for guard

Later, a single armored car based on the Ford AA truck chassis was built in Latvia in 1930 for training purpose

In 1940, all armored cars were part of the First Armored Car Company, except for the German SPAAGs and “Lāčplēsis”, which had been destroyed in combat during the Independence War.

Putilov-Garford “Kurzemnieks” during the 1920s. Note the Latvian three-tone pattern. (Source: Wikimedia)
The AC Putilov-Garford “Lāčplēsis” after its destruction by the German-Landwehr. One Soldier managed to kill the driver through the viewing slits. 1919. (Source: Imperial War Museum)
The only Izhorskiye-FIAT 55 armored car named “Staburags” during a parade in 1936. The vehicle behind is the Sheffield Simplex “Imanta” (Source: Latvian National Library)
The only Pierce-Arrow armored car named “Viesturs” during Winter 1920. (Source: Tankfront)
Latvian-made armored car built on a FIAT chassis named “Sargs” and made for the national guard. Unknown date and place. (Source: Latvian National Library)
Armored Car “Imanta” after the War of Independence in Summer 1920. (Source: Latvianmilitaryblog)

German half-tracks in Latvian service

One of the first half-tracks to ever see service was the Marienwagen II. It was a later version of the Marienwagen I, a cross-country truck built during the First World War. An unknown number of Marienwagen IIs were captured during the fighting against the West Russian Volunteer Army since they got most of their equipment from the dissolving Freikorps. These were not armored and had no armament, so their main role was to carry heavy artillery guns. Later, the vehicle was transferred to the Latvian Army with the same task. The trucks stayed in service until 1940 when their trace was lost.

One of the Marienwagen IIs, towing an unidentified heavy artillery gun. Circa. 1920-1922. (Source: Private Collection)
Marienwagen II towing a heavy artillery gun in the 1920s. (Source: Latvian National Library)
Krupp Protze purchased from the Germans and used by the Latvian Army, 1930s. (Source: Latvianmilitaryblog)

Latvian SPAAGs

The origin of the first Latvian SPAAGs can be traced back to the Russian Civil War, when Great Britain and France sent troops and AFVs to aid the White Army. Although their exact origin is not clear, Latvia received four Peerless-4-ton AAGCs at one point during the Latvian War of Independence. Later on, they were a part of the Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment Artillery Company. These trucks were armed with a QF 13-pdr 9-cwt Mk.IV. Even though Britain declared these trucks obsolete after 1921, Latvia used them for many years after the war.

Two Peerless-4-ton SPAAGS during a parade near the town of Skulte in 1935. (Source: Amoredcars-ww-one.blogspot)

The First Tanks

Like the Latvian SPAAGs, Mark V ‘Composite’ tanks (fitting one male and one female sponson) were originally sent to support the White Army and stop the Red Army. Although Estonia tried to acquire tanks, their request was rejected since the Allies feared that the Baltic Nations might be overrun by the Soviets. But, after the failed offensive led by General Nicholas Yudenich of the White Russian Northwestern Army in late October 1919, the Army was dissolving and retreating into Estonian territory. As a result, 4 Mark Vs and 2 Renault FTs were given to the Estonian Army. The only request was that two of the Mark Vs had to be given to Latvia. Shortly after, the Latvians bought 1 more Mark V and 2 Medium Mark B tanks from the UK. They did not take part in the War of Independence but were sent to the area of Daugavpils to secure the region after the Battle of Daugavpils. By 1940, only two of the Mark Vs were still in running order, while the rest had been scrapped.

Mark V Composite 9116 “Minstr. Pres. Ulmanis” crushing wooden pillars. Unknown date and place (Source: Tankfront)
Mark V “Generalis Balodis” and Mark B “Latgalietis” at the Latvian Army parade in Riga. (Source: Tankfront)
Mark B “Latgalietis” during training in the 1920s. (Source: Latvianmilitaryblog)
Mark V Composite 9116 “Minstr. Pres. Ulmanis’ ‘ during training at an unknown date and place. (Source: Tankfront)

FIAT 3000 in Latvian service

In 1926, the Latvian government searched for new ways to acquire tanks due to the obsolescence of the British tanks. They reached out to the Italians and ordered 6 FIAT 3000 tanks. While two of the vehicles bought were armed with a 37 mm SA-18 L/33 gun (which was similar to the main armament of the cannon-armed Renault FT), the other four were armed with one .303 Vickers machine gun. One year later, the tanks arrived. Their fate is unknown but they were likely scrapped by either the Latvians before 1940 or the Soviet Union afterward.

All six FIAT 3000s shortly after purchase in the late 1920s. Note that only two of them are armed with French weaponry, the other four were armed with the standard Latvian machine gun. (Source: Tankfront)
FIAT No. 105 during training in the late 1920s. (Source: Tankfront)

Carden-Loyd Mk.IV

During the War of Independence, a special national guard force consisting of the supporters of Karlis Ulmanis’ Provisional Government was created. This force was called the Aizsargi (Lv. Aiszargu). During a visit to Great Britain in 1930, they bought one Carden-Loyd Mk.IV which arrived during the same year. The tankette was bought as a training vehicle for the national guards and not for the army.

Carden-Loyd Mk.IV used by the Aizsargi during training. Circa 1930. (Source: Tankfront)
Carden-Loyd Mk.IV tankette which was purchased by the Latvian Army. Riga 1930. (Source: Tankfront)

Coup d’état of 1934

The first official Latvian government was formed in 1922. The regime consisted of a unicameral parliament with a president. Although this form of government made it impossible for one party to rule, since the 100 members were newly elected every three years, it was far from democratic. Even though Karlis Ulmanis held the position of Prime Minister of Latvia three times, he did not have full power over the state which was divided into the members of the parliament.

As a result, Ulmanis, with the help of the Army, police and the national guard (Aizsargi) launched a coup d’état on 15th May 1934. The coup began with the occupation of several buildings of the parliament. Most of the people that were loyal to Ulmanis were part of the national guard which played a big role during the coup. During the night, many important politicians were arrested. The following day, the streets of Riga were blocked by the police. During this time, the only Carden-Loyd Mk.IV was used by the National Guards to help suppress any protesters. In the end, no one was harmed and the prisoners were all released by 1935. The coup d’état resulted in the establishment of an authoritarian regime controlled by Karlis Ulmanis and his conspirators and the dismissal of the parliament (the Saebi).

This regime was not comparable to other authoritarian regimes, since Ulmanis did not enforce a one ruling party system. His ideology was based on Corporatism (a political ideology in which all classes work together for one goal), which was similar to the one used in Estonia and Portugal at that time. Although his regime restricted freedom of speech and of press, he was fairly popular amongst the people. During his time, Latvia experienced a rise in the Gross Domestic Product and a reduction in illiteracy rates. Additionally, he helped many Jews escape from Germany and Austria in 1938.

Karlis Ulmanis visiting his supporters in 1934. (Source: Adam Szelągowski “Wiek XX’, Warszawa 1937)

Latvian Vickers Light Tanks

In 1935, the Latvian government felt the need to get new tanks that would eventually replace the old and outdated Mk.Vs and FIAT 3000s. They reached out to the Vickers company, which was a big export company for weapons at that time. The Latvians managed to successfully buy 18 Vickers 4-ton light tanks.

The first 12, which arrived in 1936, were armed with a single .303 Machine gun. These tanks were the Model 1936, often called ‘Dutchman’. The last 6 arrived in 1938 and were armed with a Vickers 40 mm 2 pdr QF-canon, which was a rare Vickers export gun made for this tank. This was a specific Latvian request, and this was the only time this gun was mounted on these tanks. The tanks stayed in service until the annexation by the Soviet Union in 1940, after which they were organized by the Soviets into the 23rd Tank Division.

When the German Army attacked the Soviet Union, the 23rd Tank Division was in possession of 17 Vickers tanks, since one was sent to Kubinka for further examination. Only 5 (the ones armed with the anti-tank gun) saw service at the front, but performed rather poorly and were all destroyed. The machine gun variants stayed in Riga, where they were taken over by the Wehrmacht the following days.

A column of Vickers light tanks on a parade in November 1938 in the capital of Latvia, Riga. The tank in the front is No. 212 while the one behind is No. 210. (Source: Tankfront)
One of the Vickers 4-ton tanks with a winter camouflage scheme. (Source: Tankfront)
Tankers from the 2nd Company 1st Platoon washing their tanks, Daugavpils, 1937. From right to left: No. 205, 208, 202. Note the white insignia is not visible since this was located on the right side of the turret for this Platoon. (Source: Private Collection)
Two Platoons of the Auto Tank regiment during a parade in March 1936, Riga. The vehicle in the middle seems to be No. 212. (Source: Antik-War)
Latvian Vickers light tanks on their way to a parade in Riga 1938. The first vehicle is No. 204. (Source: Tankfront)
Vickers light tank No. 211 in 1938. (Source: Latvian National Library)

Organization of the Auto-Tank-Regiment

The Auto-Tank-Regiment (Lv: Autotanku brigāde) was formed after the War of Independence in 1922. It was first composed of the three Tank Mk.Vs and two Medium Mark Bs. It was a part of the Latvian Technical Division, which consisted of the Aviation, Auto-Tank, Engineer, Signal, and Division HQ regiments and was first located in Riga. When the Soviets annexed Latvia in 1940, the Division was disbanded.

In 1940, when it was moved to Cesis, the regiment consisted of four companies. The first company was an armored car company. The 6 armored cars were split up into 3 Platoons with 2 vehicles each. The Platoons were sorted by heavy armament, light armament, and company leader vehicles.

The first tank company consisted of 3 platoons. The first was formed from the two remaining Mark Vs and one Medium B tank. The other two platoons consisted of the 6 FIAT 3000s.

Before 1938, the second and third tank companies had only 6 Vickers machine gun tanks each. Therefore, every platoon had 3 vehicles and only two platoons per company. After the arrival of the 40 mm Vickers tanks, the second and third companies had 9 Vickers tanks each (6 machine gun tanks, 3 anti-tank gun tanks). Each platoon consisted of 2 machine gun tanks and 1 gun tank. The Armored Car, First and Third Tank Companies were stationed in Riga, while the Second was stationed in Daugavpils.

The Latvian Army was supported by the Vickers tanks during training in 1936. (Source: Tankfront)
Badge of the Autotankubrigade. (Source: Latvianmilitaryblog)

Numbering System, Insignias, and Camouflage

The camouflage pattern applied to the Mark Vs and Medium Bs was the same since the start, a dark green paint. The armored cars had various patterns, including the standard base green-olive and three-tone pattern. The Carden-Loyd Mk.IV stayed in the standard olive green, while the FIAT 3000 tanks were painted in an Italian three-tone pattern which did not include the black lines between the color patches. The Vickers had the typical three-tone pattern, which had an olive green base with rust red and sand yellow patches. All colors were separated by thin black lines.

Latvian 18 pdr QF Mk.I gun being loaded onto a truck in the early 1920s. Note the camouflage which is similar to the one used on armored cars. (Source: El Ejército de Letonia y Las Guerras Bálticas)

The numbers of the Mk.Vs were 9116 (nicknamed “Minstr. Pres. Ulmanis”), 9369 (“Generalis Balodis”), and 9147 (“Generalis Burt’s”), while the Medium Mark Bs got 1209 (“Latgalietis”) and 1615 (“Vidzemnieks”). The FIAT 3000s got the numbers 101-106. 101-103 made up the first platoon and the others the second.

The Vickers light tanks had the numbers 201-218. Tanks with the numbers 201-209 were part of the 2nd Company which was stationed in Daugavpils in 1940. 210-218 were part of the 3rd Company, which was stationed in Riga at that time.

The first system was the originally planned organization which was first created in 1935, but had to be delayed until November 1938.

The insignias or identification marks of the second company were a white square with a red circle on the right side of the turret for the first platoon and a white square with a red circle on the left side of the turret for the second platoon. The third platoon had a white square with a triangle on the left side of the turret.

The third company had similar insignias. The first platoon had a white triangle with a red circle on the left side of the turret and the second platoon had a white triangle with a circle on the right side of the turret. The third platoon had a white triangle with a red square on the right side. Additionally, during big parades, the Latvian flag was put onto the tanks.

The second system was the improvised variant which was implemented in 1936. This occurred due to the delayed delivery of the Vickers 40 mm tanks. Therefore, the Latvian High Command was forced to introduce an improvised system.

The second company still had the white square and the third, the white triangle as a base. The first platoon of the first company had a red circle on the right side of the turret. Meanwhile, the second platoon had a red triangle on the left side. In the 3rd Company, the first platoon had a red circle on the left side, while the second platoon had one on the right side.

Missing table

Missing table

Vickers tanks in the Ergļu area (Riga). Vehicle No. 209 in the foreground. Circa 1936. Note the clearly visible identification marks. The white square with a triangle on the left side means the vehicle belongs to the Second Company’s Second Platoon. (Source: Aviarmor)

Latvia in WW2

In August 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression pact (the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact) with the Secret Additional Protocol that divided Eastern and Central Europe between the two powers. In the following months, Latvia was bullied by the Soviet Union into de facto becoming a puppet state, as it was forced to sign a mutual assistance pact with the Soviet Union which allowed the Soviets to build military bases on Latvian soil.

Latvia’s leader, Ulmanis, signed an agreement with Germany. All Baltic Germans were asked to return to the fatherland. Settlements were built and promised for the over 50,000 returning Germans in the newly annexed Poland. By 1940, nearly all the 15,000 Germans who remained after 1939 left Latvia after a second resettlement scheme was signed.

On 16th June 1940, Soviet forces attacked and killed three Latvian border guards and sent an ultimatum to the Latvian government which requested a reform of the government and the occupation of Latvia. Under false accusations, Karlis Ulmanis was forced to agree to the pact. The following day, Latvia was invaded and Soviet troops marched into Riga. The Auto-Tank-Regiment was disbanded and the tanks were handed over to the Soviet Union. Karlis Ulmanis asked the people to not resist since it was fruitless trying to fight the Soviets. Shortly after, the new leader, Augusts Kirhenšteins, who had been installed by the Soviets, held an election to give the appearance of democratic countenance. This was not the case, as the Communist Party was the only party that was allowed to participate and the Red Army was occupying the country. The Latvijas Darba Tautas Bloks (Eng. Latvian Workers Party) declared Latvia a Soviet Social Republic and requested the recognition of the Soviet Union. On 5th August 1940, Latvia was annexed into the Soviet Union.

During the time of occupation, the Latvian people experienced the so-called ‘year of terror’, during which more than 35,000 Latvians were murdered, arrested, or deported to Siberia. Furthermore, all property owned by the Latvian population was nationalized, all farming land was collectivized and atheism was enforced on the population. The Soviet Russian Criminal Code was introduced. This made anyone who opposed the Soviet Constitution a criminal and a target for arrest.

Most Latvian politicians, Latvian high-ranking officers, and NCOs were either killed or deported. This included Prime Minister Karlis Ulmains, who died in a Siberian camp in 1942.

While the tanks were incorporated into the 23rd Tank Division, which was a division consisting of only Soviet soldiers, all of the Latvian soldiers were organized into the 181st and 183rd Rifle Divisions, which were a part of the 24th Territorial Rifle Corps. Although both divisions received good training, some modern equipment and could even keep their uniforms, the level of trust between the Latvian soldiers and Soviet officers was low. This resulted in the demobilization of both divisions when the Germans invaded because the Soviets feared that the Latvians might turn on them. Additionally, many Latvian soldiers deserted at the start of Operation Barbarossa, leaving the total strength of the Territorial Corps at about 3,000 Latvian troops.

After the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, they managed to capture Riga by 29th June 1941. At first, the invading Germans were greeted with joy and support from the local people because of the relief from Soviet terror. The country was one of the four regions which made up the Ostland (the Reichskommissariat for the Baltics and Belarus). Furthermore, Latvia was involved in General Plan Ost (Eng. General Plan East), which was the deportation of all ethnic Jews and the reduction by 50% of the number of Latvians in Latvia’s case. Many Latvians fled to other countries or joined the Voluntary forces (2nd Latvian SS Brigade) to escape this fate. This Brigade saw action during the Siege of Leningrad but also helped with the deportation and killing of many Latvian civilians. At Leningrad, they were responsible for many mass arsons in the nearby villages and shootings of POWs and civilians, but also saw fighting against the Soviet Army.

The first Latvian-SS Division (15th Waffen-SS Panzergrenadier Division) was formed in February 1943 and the second Latvian Division (19th Waffen-SS Panzergrenadier Division) was formed in 1944. The latter mainly consisted of the Latvian Second Brigade. Since the people of Latvia were neither German nor a part of the germanic race, the division was not independent. It was organized within the Wehrmacht and put under German control. The term SS-Voluntary Division was simply a formality. For the sake of simplicity, the article is going to refer to both divisions as Latvian Legion. Over 100,000 Latvians joined the Legion but only a small portion of Latvians joined voluntarily. The main portion came from the Mobilization Act of Latvia which was established due to the German Army suffering more and more defeats on the Eastern Front. The term Voluntary SS was simply used as propaganda material. First, those who fit the criteria (male and born between 1906-1928) were asked if they would join labor work in occupied German territory. Additionally, they were drafted into joining the Latvian Legion. The required oath was also lowered, with the soldiers only needing to pledge to God, the German high command, and the demand to fight the Bolsheviks. Those who refused were punished with incarceration. This punishment aggravated itself during the years to come. The ones who joined on their own were either supporters of fascism or nationalists who were fighting not for Germany, but the independence of Latvia. Furthermore, many citizens joined to seek revenge against the Red Army for the annexation and repression against the people.

The Latvian Legion (15th Division) first saw action in November 1943, when it fought in the area of Pskov Oblast. However, due to the German defeat, the legion was sent back to the River Velikaya, where they joined forces with the newly created 19th Division, which had retreated from Leningrad and fought intensely against Soviet troops. In July, the retreating Latvian Legion crossed the Russian-Latvian border, where it was split up. The 15th Division was sent to Prussia, while the 19th stayed in Latvia. The 19th fought during the Battle of Riga and was later cut off in the Courland Pocket. After resisting the attacking Soviet forces for over half a year, the 19th Division surrendered on 9th May 1945. After being sent to Prussia, the 15th Division continued fighting in the area of Danzig. Following the retreat to Pommerania, many Latvians had already died in combat or had deserted. Later, the rest of the Latvian Legion disobeyed German commands and surrendered to American forces. Although the Legion would fit the criteria of the Nuremberg Conference, they did not face any consequences.

In March 1943, the 24th Territorial Corps, which had been wiped out at Smolensk in 1941, was recreated by the Soviet Union and incorporated over 12,000 Latvians. It was part of the 60th Army and later of the 1st Ukrainian front. Over 5,000 Latvians joined the Soviet Army after eastern Latvia had been captured. Their first combat engagement was in Riga, where they also fought against the Latvian Legion. Both sides realized that they were fighting fellow Latvians for the independence of Latvia. As a result, they were unwilling to fight and disengaged from each other. After seeing this, the Soviet generals commanded their Latvian troops to another area.

In August 1943, many of the former Latvian politicians founded the Latvian Central Council in German-occupied Latvia (lv: Latvijas Centrālā Padome LCP). Their goal was to attain Latvian independence again. At first, their submission for more independence was declined. However, after the advancing Red Army reached Latvian soil, the LCP was allowed to create a separate military force that fought for the freedom of Latvia. Additionally, in September 1944, the renewal for Latvian independence was adopted by the Germans, but, due to the German forces not being able to control the newly created army, the Latvian military personnel were arrested and the unit dissolved.

After the war, Latvia was a part of the USSR again. This had been agreed to at the Tehran Conference (under the condition of a vote of the citizens, but organized by the Soviets and with no outside checks), which allowed Stalin to have full power over the country. During this time, the KGB searched for former members of the Latvian Legion. Many Latvian nationalists continued to fight the Soviet Occupiers for years. These guerilla fighters called themselves the Forest Brothers. Over 250,000 people escaped Latvia and the Red Army by fleeing to Germany and Sweden.

During the first occupation in 1940, over 35,000 Latvians had been either killed or deported to Siberia. During the first months of German occupation, 30,000 Jews were killed in the Riga Ghetto. Overall, Latvia had 100,000 military deaths, 300,000 civilian deaths, and 66,000 deaths from the Holocaust.

Members of the Latvian Voluntary Legion assembling a group of Jewish women for their execution near the beach of Liepaja during Winter 1941. (Source: Bundesarchiv)
Soldiers of the 15th Latvian SS Division, 32nd Company, 2nd Battalion in a parade in Riga, circa 1944. (Source: Archive of the Family of Valdaro)

Armored Survivors

The only surviving WW2 tank of the Auto Tank Regiment is located in the Kubinka tank museum. The tank is a Vickers light tank armed with a 40 mm gun.

The surviving vehicle, No. 204, in Kubinka. (Creator: Alan Wilson 24th August 2017, Source: flickr)

Back Under the Yoke

When the Soviets started Operation Bagration and Latvian territory was once again invaded by the Soviets, Latvia was annexed and the Latvian SSR was formed again. It would remain a part of the USSR until 1990, when Latvia finally gained independence as the Soviet Union started to collapse.

The Latvian Putilov-Garford “Kurzemnieks” with a three-tone camouflage, circa 1920.


Information from a now-defunct website on Baltic states AFVs

Latvian Military history blog on the Autotanku Brigade

Encyclopedia about Latvian tanks

A Latvian forum which provided many photos

Article about the Latvian Coup d´état

Wikipedia article about the declaration of independence (only basic information)

Article on the Soviet occupation of Latvia

Article about Latvia in WW2

Article and photos on the Latvian SPAAG

Museum website about Latvia under occupation

Encyclopedia about the Baltic wars of independence

Wikipedia article about the Latvian armored train regiment

Website which covers the Latvian armored trains

Lucas Molina Franco, El Ejército de Letonia y Las Guerras Bálticas 1918-1940 (Valladolid: Galland Books, 2019)


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