June 1944 was a devastating month for the Third Reich. Fortress Europe had been breached on the Coast of Normandy by the British, Canadians, and Americans, and Allied troops were pouring into Europe, sweeping aside a desperate, outnumbered, and outgunned German defense. The Western Allies also continued their push up the boot of Italy, tying down German troops. On the Eastern Front, things were about to get even worse for the beleaguered Germans. Operation Bagration was about to begin. The Soviet answer to D-Day would be the biggest Allied offensive of the entire war, resulting in Germany’s biggest defeat in history.
The Beginning of Operation Bagration
The German-Soviet front line was long, and the Germans knew that a massive Soviet offensive was going to happen, but they didn’t know where. In April 1944, the German High Command met to discuss the matter, and three conclusions were drawn.
An attack in the south, through Ukraine, would be ideal for tank battles. This would be the easiest option from a tactical perspective for the Soviets, but from a strategic perspective, as the offensive gained momentum, the natural lay of the land would draw the Soviets too far south of Germany, which was, after all, their main objective. An attack in the north into the Baltic states would be dangerous, as it would shorten the front significantly once the Baltics fell and allow the Germans to concentrate forces in the north to repel any Soviet offensive. An attack in the center would meet with significant resistance, but it would take the Soviets directly to Berlin.
The Soviet forces were split into four main groups along the front. The northern two groups were under Aleksandr Vasilevsky, while the southern two groups were under the command of Georgy Zhukov. Stalin decided that the attack would happen in the center, using Vasilevsky’s southernmost troops and Zhukov’s northernmost troops. After the initial success, the offensive would broaden to include the north and the south, encompassing the entire front line, which would be necessary to avoid Soviet forces creating a salient which could be encircled. When asked what the offensive operation was to be called, Stalin recalled the name of a fellow Georgian who had fought against Napoleon’s forces at the Battle of Borodino over a hundred years before. That man’s name was Pyotr Bagration.
The Attack Begins
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On June 23, the Soviet summer offensive of Operation Bagration commenced. Attacks began in the South, deceiving the Germans into thinking the main thrust would come through Ukraine. When the main attack came through the Belorussian corridor instead, the Germans realized they had been deceived.
The Germans, meanwhile, were in an unenviable position. They were focusing on stalling the Allied advances in France and Italy. It was hoped that the “unnatural alliance” between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union would fall apart, and Germany hoped to be able to stall the Allied offensives long enough for this to happen. Things, however, would not go Germany’s way.
The Wehrmacht was still reeling from the previous year’s onslaught and by 1944, had lost over 3.5 million soldiers. Hitler also ordered that no other defensive lines were to be built, as retreat was forbidden. The Germans were expected to fight and die where they stood in defensive positions called Fester Plätze (strongholds), which was great for the Soviets but not so great for any sane-minded German.
This was one of Hitler’s insane strategic decisions that made his generals’ eyes roll. German Ninth Army General Jordan remarked:
“Ninth Army stands on the eve of another great battle, unpredictable in extent and duration… the Army believes that, even under the present conditions, it would be possible to stop the enemy offensive, but not under the present directives which require an absolutely rigid defense.”
The inflexibility of being able to fall back to new defensive lines was absolutely disastrous for the Germans in an offensive that was far greater than the western Allies’ and was on a front where the attackers could maneuver with relative ease. Operation Bagration would rip asunder any notions of military superiority within the Axis forces.
The first phase of Operation Bagration focused like a trident on three major German positions of Army Group Centre. The Vitebsk-Orsha Offensive resulted in the towns of Vitebsk and Orsha being liberated while German armies were either pushed back or encircled. Orsha had been designated as a Fester Platz and was completely encircled after the 1st Baltic Front ripped a 25-mile (40-kilometer) hole in the German front line by June 24. This gap was exploited with Soviet mechanized units prepared for the eventuality per the Soviet “Deep Battle” strategy.
Either without orders to retreat from the Fester Platz or with orders that came too late, the German positions were completely surrounded and neutralized. By June 26, German divisions were in full retreat. After losing contact with his divisions, the German general in charge of the sector, Georg Pfeiffer, was killed in an air attack.
To the south at Mogilev, directly east of the Belorussian capital of Minsk, the German XII Corps and XXXIX Panzer Corps were under heavy attack. They suffered major casualties while the Army Group commander had to take valuable time getting permission from Hitler to withdraw. After attaining this permission, the German forces fell back but had to do so under cover of darkness, as the Soviet air force made it impossible to move during the day without being subject to severe air attacks. Unfortunately for the Germans, they retreated into a trap, where they were encircled and taken prisoner.
South of Mogilev, General Rokossovsky attacked the two fortress cities of Bobruisk and Slutsk. While the former put up stiff resistance, Soviet coordination and firepower smashed through the lines and carved through Slutsk, allowing the Soviets to enter Bobruysk, which fell on June 29 after bitter urban fighting.
So far, Operation Bagration had been a stunning success for the Soviets.
Minsk & Polotsk Liberated
The capture of the capital of the Belorussian SSR, Minsk, was the most important objective of Operation Bagration. From June 28, Soviet forces capitalized on their momentum and pushed forward, moving up towards Minsk from the south and the east, securing crossings on the Berezina River. Within days, the entirety of Minsk was surrounded, trapping the German 4th Army and the remnants of the 9th Army that escaped Bobruisk and Slutsk.
In the north of Belorussia, the Soviets pursued German forces to the town of Polotsk, where fighting continued until July 4. With the capture of Polotsk, Belorussia was now secure and protected from any attempt at a German counter-offensive from the German Army Group North.
From June 22 to July 4, the German Army Group Center lost 300,000 soldiers: killed, captured, wounded, or missing. It was the most comprehensive and stunningly fast defeat the Wehrmacht suffered during the entire war.
Offensive Operations Turn North & Push West
After the successful capture of Belorussia, Operation Bagration continued against the German Army Group North. Attacks in Lithuania saw Šiauliai and Vilnius liberated by the Soviets, who then repelled counter-attacks on each of the cities. The Lithuanian city of Kaunas was also liberated on August 1. In Poland, Białystok was stormed and taken after just two days of fighting, which led to the Lublin-Brest and Osovets offensives which were the last pushes of Operation Bagration. The Germans were finally able to form a defensive line in mid-August on the Narew River between Białystok and Warsaw – a position they held until the renewed Soviet offensive in January 1945.
The Aftermath of Operation Bagration
Operation Bagration was a stunning victory for the Soviets and a crushing defeat for the Germans. Seventeen German divisions had been completely destroyed, and 50 divisions had lost more than half their complement. Nine German generals were killed, and 22 were captured. Belorussia was retaken, and vast portions of Poland and the Baltics were also captured, all in under two months. As they progressed, the Soviets found villages burnt and whole areas depopulated by the brutal German occupation. During Operation Bagration, 57,000 German prisoners were transported back to Moscow and marched through the streets. Precise casualty rates are difficult to determine, but an approximate figure stands at around or just under half a million casualties on the German side and over half a million on the Soviet side.
Operation Bagration dealt a fatal blow to the Germans. It forced the German High Command to commit divisions on the Western Front to the Eastern Front, allowing the Western Allies to push further east. Despite the attempt at reinforcing the east, the Germans had lost so much material and manpower that the Soviets now had a springboard into the German heartland that would be almost impossible to defend effectively.
In addition to Operation Bagration being a massive Soviet victory, it triggered the Warsaw Uprising, which, although it failed, signified the loss of control in German-held areas, eventually leading to a complete collapse in the face of the Soviet onslaught.