IT’S JUNE 1944, and the “big one” is stirring.
This operation involves men by the millions and logistics to match. Complexities abound. Is there enough air support? What if the enemy knows what’s in the works and is readying countermeasures? The Germans are on the ropes, but if this war has taught us anything, it’s that the Wehrmacht always bounces back.
Any student of conflict knows the topic: Operation Overlord, June 6th, 1944. D-Day. The juggernaut prepares to set forth. Eisenhower weighs the odds on the eve of his greatest triumph.
Only it’s not.
The impending battle, shortchanged in western accounts of World War II, is Operation Bagration, the Red Army offensive against Germany’s Army Group Center, occupying Soviet Belorussia.
By summer 1944, the two armies rode contrasting arcs. The Wehrmacht was short of men, equipment, and resources. Germany had spread its forces in Belorussia across a vast, vulnerable bulge around the city of Minsk. Hitler’s men had no major terrain formation on which to anchor, and to their name hardly a Panzer division—by 1944, the only currency of German power that counted. Demotorized, undersupplied, and indifferently led by Field Marshal Ernst Busch, the Germans in Belorussia were on the wane.
In contrast, the Soviets were waxing in industrial production, combined arms, and operational skill. Their plan, overseen by General Georgi K. Zhukov, was superb, stressing the mix of stealth and surprise the Soviets called maskirovka. Only few staff officers participated in the planning, preparatory movements took place only by night, and a vigorous series of diversionary attacks had gulled the Germans into expecting the main Soviet offensive to take place far to the south, against Army Group North Ukraine.
That force, commanded by Field Marshal Walter Model, was bedazzled by deception measures including a blizzard of false radio messages and mockups of tanks, guns, even field kitchens, all convincing enough to fool German reconnaissance pilots. These Soviet moves reinforced an already-firm German belief that North Ukraine was the target. Hitler and his High Command gulped the bait, shipping every last Panzer division they could find to support Model, stripping Army Group Center of its tanks.
The Soviet assault opened on June 22, the third anniversary of the Germans’ invasion of the Soviet Union. Named for Russian military hero Prince Pyotr Bagration—killed leading an army against Napoleon at Borodino in 1812—Operation Bagration hit the enemy like a 2-by-4 to the skull. Besides displaying finesse, the Red Army could unleash brute force like no contemporary. Five Soviet army groups (“fronts” in Russian) made the assault, a million men backed by the greatest artillery concentration the world had ever seen and overflown by a revived, robust air force that had mastered close ground support.
Within hours, Soviet shock troops ripped the German front, requiring only days to peel open a 250-mile gap. With no enemy reserves in the theater, Soviet tank armies broke into the open and motored into Minsk, headquarters of Army Group Center, on July 3—day 12 of the offensive.
The Soviets rolled in as the enemy was pulling out, and the hasty German retreat featured ugly scenes of panic. The onslaught surrounded some German formations, such as LIII Corps at Vitebsk and much of the Fourth Army fighting east of Minsk, but many more it simply pulverized. Army Group Center, roughly a third of the German presence on the Eastern Front, completely ceased to exist. Bagration killed no fewer than 30 Wehrmacht divisions—a “far worse catastrophe than Stalingrad,” one German historian wrote.
By and large, the Eastern Front sets Americans to yawning—understandably. The locales were remote, the place names tongue-twisting, the Nazi-Soviet war a clash of regimes that each deserved to lose. And D-Day so dominates our memory of June 1944 as to eclipse anything else. But while we recall brave heroes storming Normandy’s beaches, let’s hoist a double shot of vodka, neat, toward Minsk, and remember the greatest victory in the history of land warfare.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2015 issue of World War II magazine.