In June 1944, the decisive battle in the fight against the Third Reich began. Not in Normandy, but thousands of kilometres to the east in Belorussia.
To state this is in no way to disparage the achievement of the Allied soldiers who stormed ashore on D-Day and fought in the gruelling Normandy campaign that followed. But the simple fact is that the Eastern Front mattered far more.
Operation Bagration – or the Battle of Army Group Centre – was a decisive victory for the Red Army. The strategic objectives were accomplished in full, and the Red Army was left well-placed for the final assault on Germany.
In just 23 days, the Red Army advanced between 400km and 500km, an average of 20km a day. The German losses were 381,000 killed and 158,480 captured, far greater than the losses at Stalingrad.
Yet victory came at a price: 180,040 Soviet soldiers killed or missing, 590,848 sick or wounded, and 2,957 tanks and 822 aircraft lost.
Where to strike?
The Germans had expected a major Russian offensive that summer. The question was: where? The Soviet Commission of State Defence Committee began meeting in April 1944 to decide this, and they considered three options.
One was to continue with the success they had enjoyed in the Ukraine, ideal tank country, with an offensive which would carry the Red Army into the Balkans, where Romania and Bulgaria were already looking fragile allies of Hitler. Yet this would have directed the main advance away from Germany.
The second option was to attack in the north, into the Baltic States, cutting off sizable German armies as the Red Army advanced on East Prussia and potentially Berlin. But the meeting thought this too ambitious.
The third option was chosen: an offensive in Belorussia against Germany’s Army Group Centre, which was holding the ‘Belorussian Balcony’ – a salient jutting eastwards into Soviet territory. Success here would carry the Red Army into Poland and, in the future, open a direct road to Berlin.
Stalin and the Stavka (the State Defence Council) approved the decision, ruling out a simultaneous offensive along the whole Russian line, agreeing instead to sequential offensives, with forces to the north and south of Belorussia advancing after the blow against Army Group Centre.
The Stavka also set strategic objectives for the offensive: (1) to liberate Belorussia; (2) to destroy Army Group Centre; and (3) to ‘liberate’ European countries under German occupation.
Almost in passing, Stalin was asked to give a name to this offensive and he chose Bagration, after a fellow Georgian who had died fighting Napoleon at the Battle of Borodino in 1812.
In contrast, German strategy now centred on: (1) defeating the expected Allied landing in France; (2) winning time until the ‘unnatural’ Allied coalition broke up; (3) defending occupied territory in the East by defeating the Russian summer offensive (expected on the southern front); and (4) holding the Allied advance in Italy. This was a tall order!
Further, Hitler had observed that the expected Allied landings in northern France would place them less than 500km from the German border, whereas the Red Army was still 1,000km away. Defence in the West seemed the priority.
The build-up of Wehrmacht forces in France and Belgium left nothing more for the Eastern Front; the German generals facing the Soviets would have to fight with what they had.
Yet Hitler also issued orders forbidding any withdrawals. The Wehrmacht was to fight where it stood, come what may. In particular, he forbade building a new defence-line in the rear, stating that Vitebsk, Orsha, Mogilev, Bobmisk, Borisov, and Minsk were to be defended at all costs.
By June 1944, Germany had lost 3.3 million men, and the Wehrmacht was understrength by an estimated 20%. Of the 1 million men lost in the winter fighting in Russia, only 100,000 had been replaced. Experienced units could outmatch the Red Army, but there were far too few of them.
The Soviet plan
The plan for Bagration revealed how far the Red Army had developed since 1941, or even since Stalingrad. To achieve deep penetration, the Soviets knew that armour, artillery, and air power had to be closely coordinated. In 1944, moreover, Stalin allowed a degree of independence to his commanders that Hitler’s generals no longer enjoyed.
Problems still existed for the Red Army, notably in its communications, the quality of its junior officers and NCOs (because of terrible losses of experienced personnel), and logistics (despite abundant US vehicles arriving via the Lend-Lease programme).
Soviet commanders envisaged launching a massive attack along a 720km-long axis. The plan was for four army-group fronts to attack simultaneously.
To the north, the First Baltic Front under General Ivan Bagramyan, fielding 360,000 men, would push into Latvia to screen the right flank of the main assault.
To his south, the Third Belorussian Front under General Ivan Chernyakhovsky, with 580,000 men, would take Vitebsk and the area north of Orsha, before advancing on Minsk, the Belorussian capital, and Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital.
South of Orsha, General Georgi Zakharov’s Second Belorussian Front, with 320,000 men, would help complete the encirclement of Minsk and push west toward Grodno on the Niemen River as part of a mopping-up operation in the wake of the other fronts.
Farthest south, the First Belorussian Front – 555,000 men commanded by General Konstantin Rokossovsky – would attack Minsk from that direction.
The First and Third Belorussian Fronts deployed the greatest armour and firepower, and it was their joint task to achieve the encirclement of the Germans east of Minsk and prevent any retreat into Poland.
Behind enemy lines, partisan forces, now operating under tight Soviet control, were to concentrate on disrupting German rail lines.
In overall charge of Bagration were two of Stalin’s most-trusted commanders: Marshal Aleksandr Vasilevsky was in command of the two northern fronts, and Marshal Georgi Zhukov of the two southern fronts.
German intelligence, now less able to use air reconnaissance and with fewer agents behind the lines, believed the offensive would fall in the south, where, in April 1944, all five of Stalin’s tank armies where located. They dismissed the possibility of an attack on the Belorussian Balcony because the terrain suited defence and because of Army Group Centre’s excellent record.
Crucial to Russian success would be the art of maskirovka (‘deception’). Soviet radio traffic seemed to indicate a build-up in the south (the Stavka banned any mention of Bagration via the radio). Confident in their prediction, reserve Panzer units would be far to the south when the main blow fell in Belorussia.
A succession of blows
Operation Bagration was not one big blow, but a series of assaults from north to south.
Furthest north, First Baltic Front’s reconnaissance phase of the operation, supposedly preparing the way for the main attack, achieved such easy gains – advancing 5km into the German lines – that its commander, General Bagramyan, laid aside his plans and ordered an immediate advance, which, by nightfall on 23 June, had carried the Russians 16km forwards on a 50km-wide front.
The Third and Second Belorussian Fronts attacked 24 hours later. The former advanced 10-11km on the first day along a 50km front, while the latter achieved a more modest, piecemeal breakthrough.
On 24 June, the First Belorussian Front delivered a hammer blow north-east and south-east of Bobruisk. The latter attack saw the virtual destruction of the German divisions facing it by artillery bombardment. The attackers were able to encircle Bobruisk, then Mogilev and Vitebsk.
In 1941, the Red Army had stood its ground, been cut into segments, and then been surrounded and destroyed in a series of isolated pockets. Now the Soviets were the destroyers, facing an enemy denied any opportunity for strategic retreat.
The flexibility of the Red Army was demonstrated by way in which the 5th Guards Tank Army under Pavel Rotmistrov was used. This formation consisted of tanks, tank destroyers, artillery, aviation, infantry, and support units. It was supposed to have joined the attack on the fourth day of the operation, after the 11th Guards Army had punched through the German lines, but German resistance prevented that.
The 5th Tank Army was then simply switched to the Third Belorussian Front, where it was able to exploit a gap forced through the German defences in that sector.
It drove deep into the rear of Army Group Centre, preventing German withdrawals and cutting supply-lines. Maintaining a rate of advance of 30-40km per day, the 5th Guards Tank Army captured the key German communication centre of Orsha, and then encircled Minsk, where nearly 100,000 soldiers of the 4th and 9th German Armies were trapped.
Leaving those to be dealt with by follow-up infantry, it continued its advance to Vilna, reached on 13 July, and only stopped just short of Riga and the Baltic coast at the end of August.
In the meantime, 1st Guards Tank Corps under General Batov had been tasked with breaking through at Bobruisk, in an area whose marshy terrain was considered unsuitable for tanks. Batov ordered his engineers to lay down mats of sticks and branches and drove 193 tanks over the marshes.
The German defences here were lightly held, and 1st Guards Tank Corps achieved surprise, swinging north-west of Bobruisk, where six German divisions were cut off.
The German experience
The German 12th Infantry Division formed part of XXXIX Panzer Corps. Its 1st Battalion was charged with defending a 32km front along the bend of the River Pronja, which was 15-25m wide. By June 1944, the battalion comprised 450 men divided into four companies.
Its first defence line, on rising ground above the river bank, consisted of weapon pits linked by trenches. A second line had been built on the reverse slope.
On 23 June, after a three-hour bombardment during which the men sheltered in the second line, the commander took the decision to reoccupy the first line.
The first and subsequent Soviet attacks were repulsed. During the night, the troops returned to the second line to escape artillery fire, again reoccupying the first in the morning. Later that day, because of the collapse elsewhere, they were forced to retreat.
Armin Scheiderbauer had just returned to the Eastern Front after completing his officer training and recalled:
To the north of Vitebsk, where we were, the Soviets began their offensive in the early morning of 22 June… In the course of the night of 21 June and in the early hours of 22 June, the Russians pushed up nearer and nearer to our position…
As I recall, the hurricane broke at 3.05am… The fire was concentrated mainly on the main line of resistance. Only isolated heavy-calibre shells dropped in the village. We had long since left our quarters in houses, and were waiting in the cover trenches beside them…
Towards 5am, the battalion received orders to move into the second line – that is, the trench that was planned for that purpose. It was good news, because as soon as the enemy attacked up front, we could expect the fire to be moved to the rear. Then it would be mostly the firing positions, villages, and roads, the position of which had been long established by enemy reconnaissance, that would be under fire.
But the division was divided, and there was no news of the other units on Scheiderbauer’s left. It quickly became clear that a gap existed there.
Visiting our main line of resistance, Hauptmann Müller and I found an 8.8cm army anti-tank gun, commanding the road to Lowsha from a clearing in the woods, towards which the Russians were bringing up tanks.
A T-34 passed by; one shot, and it was in flames. The second followed straight behind it. The next shot hit it; it stopped, and from the turret an oil-smeared figure twisted itself out.
A third tank came up and drove slowly past its comrades. The number one gunner of our anti-tank gun watched with a tense expression and once again pressed the firing button. Once again the shot scored a direct hit, and from the tank the whole turret blew into the air. High flames shot up.
After two sleepless days, Scheiderbauer witnessed the near disintegration of German units alongside his. Soldiers abandoned their posts to try to get on a goods train leaving for the rear. Only when the engine was hit by shell-fire did the panic end. But the die was cast.
The Army Group was not destroyed in one stroke… it took several days, and was greatly aided by Hitler’s idiotic ‘no retreat’ order to the troops in six cities (designated festungen).
Fall of the festungen
The festungen were ‘fortress-cities’. By 29 June, Vitebsk, Orsha, Mogilev, and Bobruisk, all designated ‘fortress-cities’, had fallen. The Red Army had advanced by between 120km and 150km within a week of the opening of the offensive. Next to fall was Minsk, the Belorussian capital.
‘The German behaviour in their fortified areas was stupid,’ wrote Veniamin Fyodorov, who fought with the 77th Guards Infantry Regiment.
Our shelling broke them down. Huge amounts of shells flew towards them and you couldn’t hear anything: only this booming! The fortified areas could be smashed completely. It was death… The Germans held the ground to the last man – they were all doomed to death.
Heinz Fiedler was one of those defending Bobruisk. He recalled:
Everywhere dead people were lying, dead bodies, wounded people, people screaming. You didn’t have any feeling for warmth or coldness, or light or darkness, or thirst…
He and a few other survivors tried to break out, heading, as he says, always towards the ‘setting sun’ in the West.
From 15 July to 16 July, the Red Army was able to enter the Baltic States from the south, taking Vilnius, capital of Lithuania. Further south, on the First Ukrainian Front, they entered Poland and captured Lvov. Further south again, the Red Army advanced to the borders of Romania and Bulgaria.
By now, though, the Red Army was operating up to 800km west of its railway supply-lines, and its soldiers were very tired.
On 1 August, First Belorussian Front forces entered Praga, on the east bank of the Vistula near Warsaw, and secured two bridgeheads across the river. German resistance, having fallen back on its supply-lines, was stiffening. In Russian plans, this was the halt line. Yet for the Poles, liberation beckoned – with tragic results.
The Warsaw Uprising
The Polish Government exiled in London watched the Russian advance with trepidation. They realised that as the Red Army entered Polish territory, the likelihood was that it would establish a Communist regime.
The Polish Government was fiercely anti-Communist. This attitude had been reinforced by knowledge that Stalin had ordered the massacre of 22,000 Polish officers by his secret police in April-May 1940 – men who had been captured after the Red Army had invaded Eastern Poland in September 1939, in line with the partition plan agreed under the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.
The main Polish resistance force, the Home Army, was loyal to the London-based government. Until now, it had kept its powder dry, waiting for an Allied advance.
Britain had declared war in September 1939 in support of Poland, and President Roosevelt had to consider the views of a large Polish immigrant community in the United States. But neither Churchill nor Roosevelt were prepared to break with Stalin – and they were, in fact, in the process of effectively ceding Eastern Europe to the Russian dictator.
The fate of the Warsaw Uprising was thus decided by politics more than military affairs.
On 31 July, as the Red Army reached the Vistula just 50km from the Polish capital, the Home Army decided to launch an uprising the following day. By then, reports that the Germans had checked the Red Army’s advance had reached them, but they went ahead anyway.
The Polish Home Army duly gave the command to begin attacks at 5pm – designated ‘W (Fight) Hour’. At this moment, it appeared that the Germans were retreating and abandoning the city. The Polish fighters were eager to seize it on behalf of the exiled Polish government.
But the Germans had decided not to evacuate the city, and the Red Army, exhausted after Bagration and suffering supply problems, could not advance in the face of growing German resistance.
Instead, the Germans were able to unleash their full might against the poorly armed Poles, using tanks and aircraft, inflicting terror on the civilian population.
Stalin refused landing rights to British and American planes that might otherwise have dropped supplies before landing to refuel on Soviet airfields. The Western Allies did manage air-drops, but much was captured by the Germans. Stalin gave landing permission only towards the end of the battle.
After 63 days, on 2 October 1944, the Polish Home Army surrendered. Surprisingly, the Gemans treated them as prisoners of war, but, on Hitler’s orders, razed the city to the ground, killing or expelling hundreds of thousands of its citizens.
When the Red Army finally resumed its advance and captured the city, following a German withdrawal, on 17 January 1945, 90% of central Warsaw was in ruins. The population had been reduced to just 153,000, compared with a pre-war population of 1.3 million.
Stalin installed a Soviet puppet regime in the Polish capital. At the Yalta Conference the following month, Churchill and Roosevelt ceded Stalin control of Eastern Europe, including Poland.
In the five weeks of Operation Bagration, the Red Army had advanced 700km, driving through Minsk all the way to the outskirts of Warsaw, tearing the guts out of Hitler’s Army Group Centre.
Nearly 20 German divisions were totally destroyed and another 50 severely mauled – an even worse disaster than Stalingrad. General Heinz Guderian admitted that Army Group Centre ‘has now ceased to exist’.
For the Red Army, this was its high-water mark in many ways. Troop shortages, largely caused by the mammoth losses of 1941 and 1942, would affect future operations, with costly street-fighting in Berlin, Budapest, and other cities.
As victory neared, the independence enjoyed in the summer of 1944 by Zhukov and other Soviet generals would be whittled away. The brief liberalisation, necessary to avert complete collapse in 1941, was replaced by the iron heel of the NKVD.
Yet, in the wake of Bagration, the Red Army was poised for its final, successful, war-winning assault on the Third Reich.
Gerhard Udke, who fought with Army Group Centre in Belorussia, warned in his last letter home: ‘[We] having devastated Russia in such a manner, the Soviets will want a terrible revenge.’
He would be proved right, but by then he was in his grave.
Chris Bambery is a historian, author, and broadcaster whose recent books include A People’s History of Scotland and Catalonia Reborn.
All images: WIPL, unless otherwise stated.