The greatest Soviet victory on the Eastern Front
A little over two weeks after D-Day in Normandy and a day after the third anniversary of the fateful German invasion of the Soviet Union, on 23rd June 1944 along the hundreds of miles of the Eastern Front in Belarus a massive artillery barrage opened. After weeks of preparation, the Red Army launched its largest offensive so far. Codenamed ‘Bagration’ (after a famous tsarist general of the Napoleonic period), the operation was aimed at defeating the famed German Army Group Centre.
Abandoned German vehicles and military equipment along Operation 'Bagration' battlefront in Belarus (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Its scale was gargantuan in comparison to much more known land operations on the Western Front. For the first phase of the operation just in Belarus, the Red Army gathered over 1,7 million soldiers, 4.000 tanks and assault guns, and 25 thousand artillery pieces. Against them the Germans, depleted in the previous struggle and hard-pressed on three fronts, concentrated 800.000 soldiers, 550 tanks and 9.500 guns. The scale of the fighting dwarfed the operations on the Western Front; in terms of numbers engaged, only the air campaign in the West was more intense, as the Soviets had amassed 6.300 combat aircraft against the 800 German ones.
Although the official Soviet history adamantly claimed that the Red Army was liberating their Motherland from the Fascist yoke, the reality was much more complicated. Although the initial phase of Bagration covered Eastern Belarus, during the operation the Red Army would soon be entering some of the lands that only recently had been added to Stalin’s empire. The 1941 borders of the Soviet Union encompassed lands Stalin had annexed thanks to his alliance with Hitler concluded in 1939 – the entirety of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, plus parts of Finland, Poland, and Romania. During the fateful years after Hitler-Stalin Pact, the Soviet brutal occupation regime swept away the elites and decimated populations. Thousands were shot; hundreds of thousands of others were sent to Gulag or deported to Siberia.
Then, in 1941, the Nazis arrived, establishing no less ruthless regime, exterminating Jews while brutally persecuting Poles and Belarussians. Different groups emerged – Soviet partisans controlled from Moscow, Polish partisans loyal to the Government in Exile based in London, Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian units hoping to regain independence Nazi Germany as the only possible ally; further south, Ukrainian nationalists went on with genocide of their own, massacring over 100.000 Poles and Jews. Over all these developments make the story of liberation in the east much more ambiguous from the moral standpoint.
The Red Army that attacked in June had been transformed by the three-year struggle. Having paid an enormous price in blood, the Soviets learned their trade. Stalin lessened his grip on the operational warfare, leaving the conduct of the operations to brilliant military commanders, like Konstantin Rokossovsky, Ivan Chernyakhovsky, or Pavel Rybalko. The situation in the German Army was the opposite – Hitler increasingly interfered in the decisions of his commanders, forbidding any retreats and thus denyed his troops flexibility. Moreover, the Soviets successfully mislead the Germans as to the direction of their upcoming offensive. Overt concentration of forces in the Ukraine in preparation for further offensives got the German attention, while a similar build-up further north remained overlooked. Hitler had been entirely convinced that the Soviets would attack in the Ukraine in order to capture Romanian oilfields, the last source of oil for the German war machine. Consequently, the Army Group Centre had been severely weakened in the weeks before Bagration due to redeployment of a number of elite units to the south.
Destroyed German panzers near Bobruisk, Belarus (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
In the last days before the offensive, Soviet partisan groups intensified their attacks on German communications, in order to hamper the Wehrmacht’s response to the attack. In the morning of the 23rd June, a massive artillery barrage swept away German defences in key locations near Vitebsk, Mogilev, and Bobruysk. Huge gaps were created in the German frontlines, immediately exploited by Soviet mechanized units, which penetrated deep into the German rear and surrounded remaining pockets of defence in pincer operations. Various German commanders repeatedly requested permission to withdraw, but were met with orders to stand fast and defend “Fortresses” that proved to be traps death traps for their quickly encircled garrisons. Within a week, two large groups of German units near Vitebsk and Bobruysk were surrounded and largely reduced, with nearly 100.000 casualties. Only on the 26th June did Hitler agree on a limited withdrawal of Army Group Centre and released a single Panzer division from the reserves. Too little, and much too late. Frontline units and meagre local reserves had already been engaged and thrown back or destroyed and no German efforts could stop the advancing Red Army.
The Soviets pursued ruthlessly, capitalizing on the destruction of much of German frontline and sending their mechanized groups to liberate Minsk, the capital of Soviet Belarus. On 3rd June Soviet armoured units captured the beleaguered city after heavy fighting, and closed the encirclement of the shattered remains of German 4th and 9th Armies desperately attempting to retreat west. It was another Stalingrad – over 100.000 German troops were taken prisoner; only a small number managed to avoid Soviet blockades and join the rest of the retreating forces. In little over two weeks German units holding the line in Belarus – the vaunted Army Group Centre - had effectively ceased to exist. ‘Bagration’ proved to be an astonishing success.
Further operations followed, allowing the Soviets to pursue the Germans into Baltic states, deeper into Poland - reaching the Vistula in late July. This victory came at high price – Soviets lost nearly 160.000 killed and many wounded. Nevertheless, German losses were staggering – almost half a million, among them 120.000 taken prisoner. On July 17th, nearly 60.000 German prisoners were paraded through the streets of Moscow, as a poignant demonstration of Red Army superiority over the Wehrmacht. The number of prisoners was so large, that it took 1,5 hours for the column to pass a single point. This was a true knockout blow for the German Army. Although the battles of Moscow, Stalingrad or Kursk are more well known, operation ‘Bagration’ was one of the greatest victories of the Red Army in the struggle against German Wehrmacht.
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