Operation Bagration, Part One
In the spring of 1944, the Red Army’s General Staff and the State Defense Committee decided on a series of five offensives for the coming summer to drive back the Axis invaders then standing on Soviet soil. They would unroll from north to south, starting with an assault on Finland opening on 10 June to drive the Soviet Union’s small but annoying nemesis out of the war. Next, Operation Bagration, the largest of the offensives and the only one with a cool code name, would attack the German Army Group Center in Belarus. This assault, named by Great Stalin himself in honor of another Russified Georgian, would begin on 22 June 1944, the third anniversary of the Axis invasion.
July would see two further offensives in southern Poland, the L’vov-Sandomierz and Lublin-Brest operations. The final piece, the Jassy-Kishinev operation in Romania, would unfold in August. By rolling the offensives, the General Staff and the Red Army’s logistical framework would hopefully not be overwhelmed as was feared could happen in a general offensive all along the line.
On their side of the line, the Red Army successfully concealed their intentions. German Eastern Front intelligence chief Reinhard Gehlen, still in his post despite years of stellar failures, bought into Soviet deceptions promoting a two separate offensives on the very northern and southern ends of the front. The main effort would be Operation Bagration, and the concentration of reserves and ammunition well behind the front remained hidden from Axis eyes. Yet for their part Soviet intelligence greatly over-estimated German fighting power, and their enormous successes would catch them by surprise.
The assault on Finland jumped off on schedule, with the initial effort made on the Karelian Isthmus just north-west of Leningrad. The Finnish front line had not moved for nearly three years, but even after that much time construction of concrete bunkers and other fortifications and obstacles had not been completed. The Finns manned their lines with 75,000 troops; the Leningrad Front struck them with nineteen rifle divisions with plentiful supporting tank and engineer units, 3,000 artillery pieces, 1,500 aircraft plus support from the Red Banner Baltic Fleet.
A Finnish BT42 home-made assault gun knocked out in the fighting for Viipuri.
Crushed by Soviet firepower, the Finns withdrew in good order but with heavy casualties. The Red Army suffered huge losses but captured Viipuri on schedule, signaling the offensive’s second phase. The Soviet Karelian Front attacked to the east of Leningrad with sixteen rifle divisions and numerous smaller formations, and soon pushed the Finns back across their 1940 border.
There the front stabilized, and the Finns asked for peace terms. The Soviets initially demanded unconditional surrender, which Finland rejected. Nevertheless, the Red Army began to withdraw many of the armored and engineer units for deployment on the main front. In August the Finns again asked for terms, and received harsh demands that did not require full surrender; Finland left the war the following month.
The Main Event
Stalin originally hoped to launch Operation Bagration five days after the Finnish offensive jumped off, but planners added more troops and tanks, pushing the start date back by a week. The offensive would include a staggering 1.6 million troops, 5,800 tanks, 32,000 artillery pieces and 6,700 aircraft. The General Staff laid out objectives about 150 kilometers beyond the Soviet start line, including the Belorussian capital of Minsk. Two army-level encirclements would be carried out on the northern and southern flanks, with the ultimate objective being a large-scale encirclement meeting at Minsk in keeping with “deep battle” doctrine.
The Germans were thought to oppose them with approximately 850,000 men, giving the Soviets considerably less than the 3:1 advantage they desired. German infantry divisions had been reduced from nine to six infantry battalions, but in most cases remained responsible for the same defensive frontage. That robbed them of reserves for use in the favored German tactic of immediate counterattacks, turning the German lines into a fortified crust with little depth. Army Group Center had few operational reserves behind the lines, with just a single depleted panzer division serving as its mobile reserve.
Operations actually began two days early, with partisans making concerted efforts to destroy or disrupt communication and transportation lines. Air attacks against the rear areas began on the night of 21-22 June as well as infiltration between German strongpoints. The bulk of the attackers – tanks and infantry – actually surged forward on the 23rd, but Soviet historiography always made the 22nd the starting date because of its symbolism.
Almost immediately, the Soviet attacks had great success. The northern prong of the operation, led by the 1st Baltic and 3rd Belorussian Fronts, swiftly broke through the defenses of Third Panzer Army. They bypassed centers of resistance, and isolated the German 53rd Corps in Vitebsk. By the 27th, Third Panzer Army was in full, disorganized retreat and a huge gap had opened between Georg-Hans Reinhardt’s formation and its neighbor to the south, Fourth Army.
German Army vehicles abandoned near Bobruisk.
Gen. K.K. Rokossovsky’s heavily-reinforced 1st Belorussian Front conducted the southern prong, an armored double-envelopment of the German Ninth Army at Bobruisk. Soviet engineers built secret wooden causeways through the swamps on the northern edge of the vast Pripet Marches, and the tanks surged out of the “impassable” terrain on the 24th to catch the Germans by surprise. Army Group Center’s mobile reserve, 20th Panzer Division, wandered behind the German lines following a blizzard of contradictory orders from every possible headquarters until it became trapped in the Bobruisk pocket along with 41st Panzer and 35th Corps.
The Germans began to fall back here as well, quickly abandoning towns and cities before Adolf Hitler could declare them fortresses to be held at all costs. A new gap appeared between Fourth Army and the stricken Ninth Army, and Soviet armored and mechanized-cavalry forces poured through. The German Army’s high command sent reinforcements to try to close the gaps, but couldn’t stem the oncoming tide.
The first Soviet forces to reach Minsk actually bypassed the city, sealing it off from potential reinforcements or counter-attacks. The actual occupation came swiftly, as tanks and infantry penetrated Minsk in the morning hours of 3 July and had the city secured by noon. Behind them, most of the German Fourth Army had been trapped.
With Minsk in Soviet hands, the Red Army began to liquidate the German Fourth and Ninth Armies and 53rd Corps, trapped in large pockets behind the new front line. The German Army’s high command contributed a single panzer division to try to break through to the Ninth Army, and against all odds it did succeed in liberating 10,000 of the 70,000 isolated troops. Adolf Hitler contributed another in his series of lunatic stand-fast orders, demanding that the already-pocketed divisions form a new front line.
Two destroyed PzKpfw IV tanks of 20th Panzer Division.
The German put up stiffer resistance in front of the next Soviet target, the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, but Third Belorussian Front had the city surrounded by 8 July. In five days of intense house-to-house fighting Fifth Guards Tank Army eliminated the garrison, an ad hoc force built around an infantry division and a parachute regiment. Once again, a lone panzer division attempted to relieve the city, and despite heroic efforts only managed to rescue a few of the defenders but could not turn back the Red Army’s advance. Pavel Rotmistrov of Fifth Guards Tank Army committed his heavy armor to street fighting, resulting in enormous losses of tanks and leading to his relief. Waffen SS troops trapped in the city refused to join the defense, instead committing themselves to a final frenzy of mass murder in an attempt to kill all of Vilnius’ Jews before the Soviets could stop them.
Army Group Center had effectively ceased to exist; half of its combat troops had become casualties and few of its formations remained combat-effective. At the end of June the Army high command placed Walther Model, commander of Army Group North Ukraine, over the remnants of his northern neighbor as well. Model transferred some of his own reserves north, and the Army command drew others from Army Group South Ukraine defending Romania, including most of the panzer and mobile divisions. That deployment broke Germany’s commitment to defend Romania, a legalism which would have dire consequences only a few weeks later.
By mid-July the Soviet advance had outrun its logistical tail, and the remaining tanks and other vehicles began to break down in large numbers for want of maintenance. But even as Operation Bagration wound down, new offensives began.
The story continues here.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.