The Hero of the Sinimäed Hills

Stories of Ümera, Paala, Paju and Võnnu battles all talk about the Estonians' fights, wins and losses. Next to these battles the one that took place at the end of July and the beginning of August 1944 in Sinimäed Hills has an equal, if not to say even more meaningful position in Estonian history. There have not been any battles on the Estonian ground of such scale. The soldier's courage displayed in this battle was unexampled. The battles in Sinimäed can be called the battles of the nations, where on one side was the West with its ideals and people and on the other side was the East's despotism – the descendants of Attila and Genghis Khan with their warriors. By today there have been attempts made to turn it all around because a part of the West was cooperating with the descendants of Attila and Genghis Khan, but this does not make it non-existant. The West's cooperation with despotism does not make our attackers angels nor take away the freedom fighters title from those who battled against them. When we change the relative world into absolute, we immediately step against the laws of nature and those who step against these laws will be punished by the Almighty. Since the ones battling against evil always have the Holy Justice on their side, it does not disappear from those who battled against Stalin tyranny – the world's bloodiest regime. Not from Estonians, Finns, Lithuanians, Latvians or Ukrainians. That's how the world is.

So let us talk about the battles in which Captain Paul Maitla became a hero. He was undoubtedly the biggest hero of these battles. First let's talk about what happened after Auvere battle. July 25, 1944 was a horrible day for Estonians. At 7 a.m. the Russians rocket gave a signal to an unprecedented fire attack. On the west bank of Narva river Estonians were hit by 200,000 missiles within 80 minutes. The Estonian Shooters' Corps cannon army also fired. There have been texts about heavy pillars of dirt rising to the sky, the flames were constantly rising and falling. The world was shaking like it had a fever.

The Red Army soldiers began crossing the river at 8.20 a.m. and on the background the "Holy War" and the Soviet Union hymn were playing. The Estonian Shooters' Corps was not allowed to this attack. The defence of the 46th Regiment led by Colonel Tuuling was crushed. The men received an order to retreat. Sergeant Major Rein-Oskar Männik, a man who would have received two Iron Crosses in cases of the Riigiküla bridgehead's cleaning, refused to retreat. There – behind Narva – was he born and it was his land, it was Estonia. Once the enemy had passed him on two sides, he ordered his men to withdraw. When they refused, he threatened them with a gun to make them retreat. When he was left alone, he solely kept firing from the machine gun. Tens, probably hundreds, died who had come to conquer this land. Nobody knows to this day where is Männik's grave. They retreated to the Tannenberg line. Narva, or more precisely, what was left of Narva, was taken over by the Russians. On the next day, by the morning of July 26, the Russians' infantry units were in front of the Sinimäed Hills.

Remark: Establishing forts in Sinimäed Hills had already begun in 1943 and in 1944 these had been constantly improved. The defence line began in Mummussaare, crossed the Sinimäed Hills, went over the railway near Hundinurga and then made a sudden turn back, crossed Sirgala, Puhatu and Gordenko swamp until Narva river and then went until to Lake Peipsi. This line can be viewed on the map above. A network of trenches reached all over the defence line, which contained armored shooting places. Here and there were the machine gun nests. What about the hills? There weren't any hills, only some uplands covered with forest. When you happen to visit this place nowadays, you'll see that the land, which was called hills, was really modest. And you can see the signs of war from the trees. When you examine the land more closely, you can find a number of rusty missile splinters and other pieces of metal, which name and meaning in the past can only be guessed.

From East to West these uplands which had made and seen history had different names – the Hill Lastekodumägi (in translation orphanage hill), because there used to be a orphanage before the war, the Grenadier Hill, which we will mention the most, the last one didn't really have a name, it was known as the Upland 69,9. On the backside of the hills, in more protected places, were the bunkers for the headquarters and shooting positions to the batteries of "the fog launchers". On the southern side of the Upland 69,9 was the headquarters of the 23rd SS Regiment Norge, in the northern side was the 49th SS Regiment's headquarters.

The Sinimäed Hills and its surroundings were a historical setting already in the past. The East and West had encounters there, one time East was attacking, the other time West. During the years of the Liivi War and then during the Northern War. In the latter the hills became a starting place for the young Karl XII attack against Peter I. In the First War of Independence the hills became an important battle place before Narva was released. All available armored trains and the Estonian battalions were sent there. The legendary Johan Pitka made a sea operation with Finnish and Estonian volunteers nearby to Utria in 1919.

The Grenadier Hill probably got its name ages ago during some battle but its exact origin is unknown. Now the 3rd Panzer Corps' units, led by Felix Steiner, were facing Fedyuninsky and Starikov who represented the Eastern tyranny. The units consisted men from different nations. There were 1,386 Danes, 554 Norwegians, 42 Swedes, 2,736 Dutch and 20 Belgians. It is known that there were also Swiss and Finnish men, the majority of the units was still made up of Estonians and Germans but the exact numbers are unknown. The units were distributed on the Tannenberg line by July 26 in the following way: Rebane's battalion was on the coast, Nederland Pioneer Battalion and the Infantry Regiment's 2nd Battalion were close to the Hill Lastekodumägi, the 23rd SS Regiment was in south. The Flemish SS Brigade Langemarck was on the Hill Lastekodumägi. Estonian 20th Division was protecting the Gernadier Hill and the Upland 69,9. Some Estonians remained in reserve.

Describing the battles exactly is a quite complicated assignment, if not to say impossible. What happened in the Sinimäed Hills from July 27 to August 4 was a real hell. The battles took place in deafening noise. There were no breaks between the cannon fires and missile explosions. When a missile exploded, a huge cloud of dust rose from the ground. It was hot and the smell of dead bodies was lethal. Not a single missile hole offered protection because the second or third missile could have hit it. The Russians attack concentrated on these three hills and this gave the unified name to the battles – the Sinimäed Hills battles. The Tannenberg line was attacked by the whole Russian 2nd Attack Army and a half of the 8th Army. The Russians outnumbered the protectors hugely. In the memories of those who participated in these battles all have two similar understandings: none of them believed that it's possible to get out of there alive and none of them had the plan to retreat.

Some uncertain calculations show that during the first battle day the protectors were hit by 3,000 tons of missiles. Only 200,000 missiles and mines were used to destroy the Sirgala foothold. Let's observe this hell on earth during those five decisive days to understand what happened and what Paul Maitla did there. By the evening of July 26 the Russians had brought their tanks. Probably through the Krivasoo bridgehead. The Russians conquered the eastern side of the Hill Lastekodumägi. The 20-year-old Junior Officer Mellenthin from Division Nordland sneaked close to the tanks in darkness with his men, destroyed personally 7 tanks and damaged 3. Soon the lost positions on the Hill Lastekodumägi were retaken.

July 27 the Russians started with a stormy cannon fire, which signaled that something horrible was coming. At 10 o'clock the attack began. The battle passed the Hill Lastekodumägi. The contact between most units was cut off. Soon the Russians managed to conquer the Lastekodumägi. Nordland's Commander Fritz von Scholz (on the photo) was killed – he had been a true and understanding friend to Estonians. He posthumously received the Swords to the Knight's Cross with Oak Leaves. At 10 o'clock Sooden's battalion got an order to start the attack against the Lastekodumägi. Sooden himself had gone to the regiment in Division Nordland because the battalion was subjected to it. They went to Vaivara cemetery for a counterattack. On the western side of the cemetery the enemy's firing became so intense that it hit about a quarter of the battalion in about twenty minutes. The cannons and mine throwers firing was accompanied by "Stalin's organs". The enemy's aircrafts, which were flying low, were making a loud noise in the sky.

Sooden received an order: "The enemy is in front of you – kick him away!" They attacked. They had to face a strong and stormy Russian counterattack. A close combat began during which both sides got caught. Out of Sooden's 150-men companies about 20 to 30 men in each unit remained, 2 mine throwers out of 12 were still working. Sooden received a new order at night – to continue the attack in the morning and conquer the hill. The legendary battalion leader, Major Georg Sooden, got hit with a missile splinter and died that day. He was Alfons Rebane's best friend and war buddy from the Eastern Battalion days. When Rebane heard about his friend's death, his face froze like he had had a lethal hit himself.

Georg Sooden was buried in his hometown Jõhvi near a church, where the former Freedom Statue had been. Although it was war time, the burials took place with paying a tribute to the fallen heroes, like it was appropriate. The grateful people of Jõhvi set up a stone pillar on his tomb. In September 1944, when the Russians reached Jõhvi, the pillar was taken down. Nevertheless the young people of Jõhvi took there flowers at night. To prevent the locals from taking flowers there, the Red Army built a children's playground with a big sandbox on the grave. These were the actions of those who now blame Estonian people in destroying the occupants symbol – the Bronze Soldier. Isn't it hypocritical? Now the Freedom Statue is on its former place and thanks to Estonian Oil Shale director general Väino Viilup, so is the tombstone to mark the spot where the Major and his friend 1st Lieutenant Raul Jüriado are buried. Jüriado was killed on August 23, 1944.

On July 28 the battle continued with undying power. In the morning they attempted to attack the Lastekodumägi again to rescue the Estonians who were battling for their lives there. The Regiment Norge almost reached its destination but collapsed. The survivors headed to the Grenadier Hill where Estonians, Germans, Norwegians, Danes and Flemish were united by one goal. July 29 was the most decisive day in the Sinimäed Hills. It was the central point during which the destiny of the hills and probably the whole Estonia was determined. It was exactly in describing that day when Felix Steiner compared the Sinimäed Hills battles with the battles under Somme and Verdun in the World War I, which were considered to be the most terrible in the history of wars. And it was true, when comparing these battles some direct similarities can be found.

The Swedish historian Peter Englund has written about the Verdun Battle in 1916. 420,000 men were wounded on the German and French sides and 800,000 were wounded. The number of dead soldiers in Sinimäed was not that big, the war lasted for a shorter period of time, but every single day was a hundred times more lethal. The aim of the French in the Verdun Battle and the Estonians in the Sinimäed battles was the same – to protect their positions no matter what. The men dig here and there deep holes to hide away from the cannon fire. This often meant being buried alive. The new protectors arrived and dig new hideouts for themselves through rotten bodies. No one had time to bury them, they were simply thrown to the sides of the trenches. Englund described that in 1920 the smell of dead bodies was in the air over Verdun and every time after the rain there were rusty iron and human bones seen. The found bones were gathered to a building called L'Ossuaire – a bone chamber, where one could see piles of shinbones, some even had rotten boots on, and skulls pierced by missile splinters.

One Sooden's battalion member describes Vaivara cemetery where they went to the attack's starting line. This had turned into an impassable barrier because of the crushed trees. A disgusting, cloying smell confirmed that it was a cemetery and many who had been recently buried, had been dug out. Passing the trenches was impossible because these were full of rotten bodies of the Estonian soldiers. Gailit has written that there simply was no time to bury the dead ones. The bodies decayed quickly in the summer heat. And the smell was horrible. The pioneers' battalions sprayed the bodies with chlorine at nights to prevent the epidemic spread and suffocate the unbearable smell.

We don't have the L'Ossuaire – the bone chamber – at Sinimäed Hills but we could have a big memorial with the army's honor watch where the Estonian flag would raise to the flagpole each morning so that it could be taken down with the evening sun. We could have a memorial and a museum where the detailed stories of these rough days and the stories of the heroes would be told. Why not have a video hall for those who don't know much about history where they could see introductory movies about those events. We were on the right side, we should never doubt in that. But we have a long way to go to remember these men honorably. That's where the Republic of Estonia could do some thinking. The vandals' frequent diggings and destroying of the monuments should be stopped in the Sinimäed Hills. At this moment it is the concern of those few who are interested in history but it should be the concern of the Republic of Estonia.

Ülo Uluots, who has lived in that area for some time and gone through all the battle places tens of times, has told how after the rain one could see luminous skulls on the ground and from the jawbones one could find the healthy teeth of a young person. They lived in this hell on earth – Estonian soldiers and their fellows from Germany, Holland, Flanders, Norway, Denmark and Sweden. Valdo Kallion who battled in Sinimäed Hills has recalled how he saw his brother who was the liaison soldier in Maitla's bunker. His clothes were in rags, his skin was scratched, he was dark like black person because of the dust and sticky smoke.

Precisely on that day, July 29, the phase for Paul Maitla began in the Sinimäed Hills, which made him the hero. July 29, like all other days, began with the enemy's heavy firing. The hills, where the cannons were silent only for a few hours in the night, were once again covered with dust clouds, which buried people and the sun. Russian bombers crossed the sky over the hills constantly. The explosions once again brought out dead bodies in Vaivara cemetery. Then the Red Army took the Grenadier Hill as its main target. Two of their divisions were sent there – the 20th and the 256th division – not a squadron, battalion or a regiment. They were supported by the heavy tanks Jossif Stalin. The first defence line on the Grenadier Hill was destroyed. The Red Army moved west, their attack units surrounded the hill and it seemed that there was nothing to be saved and the road to Tallinn would soon be free.

When the German tanks tried to approach the Grenadier Hill, they were greeted by a red flag. The bringer of the flag, Georgi Amjaga, received the Soviet Union hero's golden star. The Grenadier Hill seemed to deserve its other name on that day – the Hell's Grave Hill. But the hill became the hell's grave for its conquerors and another man – not Amjaga – deserved the much higher award than the Soviet Union's golden star ever could have been. Felix Steiner had only one battle unit by that time, which had suffered great losses but was still full of battle spirit. It was Harald Riipalu's 45th Regiment's Battalion, led by Paul Maitla (on the photo Paul Maitla on the left and Edgar Kilk). What happened next has been described with small exceptions but with general similarities by 16 people either in a text, letter or verbally.

Maitla received an order to retake the Grenadier Hill. But they didn't have enough men for that. Maitla went to the battalion's gathering place and asked those who were still capable to join their attack. More than twenty men came without saying a word. Men from other units, which had been crushed, came as a support. According to the specified data these were the remains of Norge, some surviving Flemish men, German marine infantry soldiers and a few companies from the 46th Regiment. All men heading up the hill were merged into one battle unit. They moved onwards in a tough close combat. When they ran out of grenades, they took them from the fallen soldiers. If a gun broke, they found a new one from the ground.

Maitla's battalion group leader described this attack: "All the time we were shot by Katyushas, but the Russian planes were flying low in the air, trying to hit every single fighter. It seemed like the Hell's Grave will actually become the hell's grave. We were scattered all over the place and reaching our destination seemed impossible. We moved from one missile hole to another by jumping. The explosions tore men under dirt. The group leader saw the submachine guns strap in his hand when he stood up, the gun itself had been blown into pieces." It is known that some Germans wanted to retreat. Maitla got a hold of one of them and after being properly shaken, the German came to his senses and began to attack. Maitla himself went under the enemy's mountain pass with a Swimmingswagen, drove the enemy crazy by doing that and was a good role model to his fighters. Besides Maitla there was the driver and the soldier who handed him cartridges for his machine gun, the MG42, were also in the car. When the car was driving, Maitla began firing the Red Army soldiers who had conquered the hilltop. They jumped out of the car as they reached the mountain pass and started to shoot. Before reaching the hill, "hurray!" was yelled, which confused the Russians. They had a close combat and the Russians retreated.

By the evening of July 29 there were no more Russians on Grenadier Hill. There also wasn't a red flag anymore, the Russians had probably taken it with. It is likely that the future golden star recipient Amjaga took it along. Karl Gailit wrote about this battle day: "It was probably the most critical battle in the Sinimäed Hills. The enemy, having conquered the Grenadier Hill, was already preparing to attack the Upland 69,9." And the one who would have ruled all three hills, would have ruled the whole Sinimäed battlefield. Marshal Govorov had decided to crush the defenders positions on that day and then head towards Tallinn. This plan was cancelled by Captain Paul Maitla and his men. He became the HERO OF THE SINIMÄED HILLS.

July 30 the main target of the attacks was once again Grenadier Hill, which was covered by a black cloud of smoke. Maitla's battalion, which had a small number of men, was still holding on, proving once again that it was what it was. Paul Maitla did not know after the battle that for this great courage he would be the fourth Estonian to receive the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross. But he had deserved it in Grenadier Hill. His personal courage, as claimed by the participants of the battle, was what made his men want to be more like their leader. The proposal to give Paul Maitla the Knight's Cross came from Denmark Regiment leader Major Krügel (on the photo). He justified his proposal by bringing out the courage Maitla had shown in protecting the Tannenberg positions. At the same time he also received the 1st class Iron Cross. Major Krügel's proposal was filed in on July 31, 1944.

Nordland's General Major Ziegler supported the idea of giving Maitla the Knight's Cross on August 5, noting laconically: "I support giving him the Knight's Cross with the 1st class Iron Cross." After Maitla's awarding proposal was approved by Narva front's commander-in-chief and the 3rd Panzer Corps leader, General Felix Steiner, it reached the German army's leader's headquarters where it was finally confirmed on August 23, 1944. The same day Harald Riipalu's receiving the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross for leading the battle in Auvere was confirmed too.

The battles in Sinimäed Hills continued, but more calmly. We can talk about the final end of the battles around August 10. The hills remained invincible. "The following attempts to continue the attack were unsuccessful and the front was stabilized by September 18," wrote Peeter Larin from the point of view of the Red Army about what happened there. According to different data, the Red Army lost almost 20 divisions in the Sinimäed Hills, men were killed or wounded. One division normally has 12,000 to 16,000 men during the war, this meant that the Russians lost 240,000 to 300,000 men. Whether this number actually was this large, is unknown, but the price for the conquers was high.

Narva front proved that this war can easily be compared with the Finnish Winter War. The Finnish Winter War became Estonian Summer War. Besides, the Russian soldiers and commanders in Narva front had at least 3 years of war experience. Estonian sons Rebane, Nugiseks, Männik, Riipalu, Maitla, Ruus, Ruut, Sooden, Jüriado… and thousands of others proved that our land had worthy men, who will protect it if necessary.

After the Sinimäed Hills

On August 1 it was relatively peaceful in the Sinimäed Hills. On that day Maitla's battalion was replaced with Captain Kiisa's 45th Regiment's 2nd Battalion, which came to Sinimäed from Konju. What was left of Maitla's battalion wasn't even a company anymore. The unit, which helped to win the battle, had suffered great losses.