Geographically, it dwarfed the campaign for Normandy. In four weeks, it inflicted greater losses on the German army than the Wehrmacht had suffered in five months at Stalingrad. With more than 2.3 million men, six times the artillery and twice the number of tanks that launched the Battle of the Bulge, it was the largest Allied operation of World War II. It demolished three Axis armies and tore open the Eastern Front. Operation Bagration, the Red Army’s spring 1944 blitzkrieg, was designed to support Allied operations in France, liberate Russian territory and break the back of the Wehrmacht once and for all.
In the south, Germany and its allies — mostly Hungarians and Romanians — held the line near the Ukraine’s western borders, south of the impassable Pripyat Marshes, with two army groups. To the north, in the Baltic republics, three Red Army groups faced Germany’s Army Group North.
It was in the center, in Belorussia (so-called White Russia), where the main Soviet blow would fall. There Adolf Hitler fielded 38 infantry divisions, two Luftwaffe field divisions, seven security divisions, two Panzergrenadier divisions and one panzer division, all grouped into four armies and led by Field Marshal Ernst Busch, a commander whose promotion was mainly due to his unquestioning loyalty to the Führer.
While Belorussia was the center of gravity for Germany’s eastern forces, it had by no means come fully under Wehrmacht control. Partisan activity was more pronounced there than in other sectors, where Nazi reprisals since 1941 had been brutal even by Eastern Front standards. Punitive operations by the Germans in January, February and April 1944 had left entire villages leveled, their inhabitants lined up and executed. All told, an estimated 1 million people, including the region’s entire Jewish population, had been exterminated. In response to this terror, by mid-1944 partisan numbers had swelled to something between 143,000 and 374,000, depending on who was counting.
What was worse for the occupiers, those partisan forces were becoming increasingly well organized and in better touch with Soviet authorities — who could direct their activities to maximum advantage.
The Red Army’s earlier progress in the Baltic region and Ukraine left a “Belorussian Bulge” in the center, from which Field Marshal Busch requested permission to withdraw in order to shorten his line and relieve the danger of a pincer movement against the salient. Hitler, concerned with wavering support among his Finnish, Hungarian and Romanian allies, was determined to cling to his defenses at the eastern end of the bulge, and the army high command, Oberkommando des Heeres, or OKH, denied Busch’s request.
Hitler’s no-retreat policy in the east left Busch in a vulnerable position. His sector was a tempting target for the Red Army, since the eastern end of the bulge included the 50-mile-wide land bridge between the Dniepr and Dvina rivers that guarded Russia from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Control of that gap would allow armies to pass overland to Moscow — or Berlin.
Another problem for Busch was that his army, while strong in raw numbers, included a large proportion of Luftwaffe field units, security troops, Hungarian and Slovak divisions, and Volksdeutsche — ethnic Germans from the occupied territories whose desire to lay down their lives for the Führer was rightly suspect. By 1944 the German army, still dependent on horse-drawn wagons for supply and movement, was an old-fashioned, slow force compared to its Communist opponents, who had been liberally supplied with the ubiquitous 2.5-ton Studebaker truck manufactured in capitalism’s heartland. Worse yet was the lack of air cover; Germany’s Sixth Air Fleet was vastly outnumbered along Army Group Center’s front.
The offensive would be a characteristically Soviet enterprise, a massive push along a 450-mile-long axis of advance. Four army group fronts would launch artillery barrages and attack simultaneously. To the north, the First Baltic Front under General Ivan Bagramyan, ultimately fielding 359,500 men, would push into Latvia to screen the right flank of the main assault and support forces farther south. Below him, the Third Belorussian Front under General Ivan Chernyakhovsky, with 579,300 men, would capture heavily defended Vitebsk and the area north of Orsha, then push southwest toward Minsk, the Belorussian capital, and Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, crushing or encircling Busch’s Third Panzer Army at Vitebsk and his Fourth Army, centered around Orsha. South of Orsha, General Georgy Zakharov’s Second Belorussian Front, with 319,500 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 — 1,071,100 men commanded by General Konstantin Rokossovsky — would assault Busch’s Ninth Army, skirting the Pripyat Marshes and pushing due west toward Bobruisk on the Berezina River, then in the general direction of Minsk. The First and Third Belorussian fronts, which held the bulk of the armor and firepower, would attack along converging lines with the aim of encircling the German armies east of Minsk, not simply pushing them back into Poland. To aid the attackers, partisan units coordinated by Stavka, the Red Army high command, would launch demolition attacks against Belorussian railways to prevent reinforcements from reaching the threatened zone.
Because the undertaking was so extensive and complex, the four army group fronts would fall under the overall command of two trusted Stavka representatives. Marshal Aleksandr Vasilevsky, the organizer of victory at Stalingrad, would direct the two northern fronts, while the southern fronts would be supervised by Marshal Georgi Zhukov, who directed the defenses of Leningrad, Moscow and, with Vasilevsky, Stalingrad.
For an offensive of this scope, the Red Army assembled 118 rifle divisions, eight tank and mechanized corps, 13 artillery divisions and six cavalry divisions, a total of approximately 2.3 million frontline and support troops. The attack would be led by the rifle and tank divisions, which collectively fielded 2,715 tanks and 1,355 assault guns. To feed the offensive, the Red Army stockpiled 1.2 million tons of ammunition, rations and supplies behind the front lines.
The assaulting troops would be supported on the ground by 10,563 heavy artillery pieces and 2,306 Katyusha multiple rocket launchers, nicknamed “Stalin’s Organ” because of their pipe-organ appearance. Air cover would be provided by 2,318 fighters of various types, 1,744 Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik ground-attack planes, 655 medium bombers and 431 night bombers; another 1,007 medium bombers would be drawn from the Soviet strategic bomber reserve. The code name selected for the operation referred to General Piotr Bagration, the fiery Russian prince who died fighting Napoleon at Borodino in 1812.
If successful, Operation Bagration promised huge rewards for Stalin. Minsk and other major Belorussian cities would fall back into Soviet hands, and a successful push would isolate Army Group North, which could then be dispatched more or less at Stalin’s leisure. To capitalize on the anticipated success, as Bagration achieved its objectives and the Nazis fed troops from northern Ukraine into Belorussia to stop the onslaught, a secondary Red Army attack would thrust toward Lwow in northern Ukraine, driving Axis troops out of Soviet territory; Romania, Hungary, Warsaw and East Prussia would become the new front lines of the war.
In the days preceding Bagration, Stavka executed a massive deception plan designed to convince its German counterpart, OKH, that the main attack would come farther south. Forces in the Ukraine were ordered to prepare deceptive concentrations similar to the phantom army that had assembled under Lt. Gen. George S. Patton opposite the Pas de Calais prior to the landings at Normandy. The Red Army Air Force clamped down on Luftwaffe reconnaissance missions along the front, allowing only occasional flights that would spot the phony troop concentrations, while headquarter units made greater use of more secure telephone lines in lieu of radio communications.
For its part, OKH concluded that the presence of oil-rich Romania and the more maneuverable terrain of the Ukrainian steppes made that sector the most likely target, particularly since the Red Army had just concluded an offensive in that region during the late winter.
Hitler and OKH were convinced that the next attack would be launched in the northern Ukraine, and reinforcements to the east — including the potent 56th Panzer Corps — were diverted to Field Marshal Walter Model’s Army Group North Ukraine, leaving Busch’s Army Group Center with only about 11 percent of the tanks and assault guns allocated to the Eastern Front. While some members of Busch’s intelligence staff predicted a major Belorussian offensive in mid- to late June, Busch himself was evidently persuaded to accept the OKH assessment as more accurate and, following Hitler’s policy to the letter, he refused to let his army commanders pull back to shorten their fronts and pack their defensive lines more tightly.
Operation Bagration was preceded by coordinated partisan attacks on German supply lines, code-named “Rail War” and “Concert.” Between June 19 and 23, Belorussian guerrillas sabotaged rail networks and bridges — detonating some 10,500 demolition charges during the night of June 19-20 alone — impeding the movement of ammunition, food and reinforcements to the front.
Originally timed for June 14, 1944, the operation’s start was delayed by Soviet rail congestion until June 22, 1944 — three years to the day from the Nazi invasion of Soviet territory. The offensive opened at 5 a.m. with a massive artillery bombardment. Each of the thousands of guns along the line was allotted roughly 6 tons of ammunition to fire during a two-hour barrage. The shelling was conducted in a rolling manner so as to destroy the Wehrmacht’s forward trenches and pillboxes, then catch retreating soldiers in the open before they could reach the safety of their intermediate lines. The less precise Katyusha batteries showered artillery targets with 82mm and 132mm rockets to ensure that nothing remained alive in the forward zone. Shocked German survivors described this barrage as the most intense and destructive they had ever witnessed.
The preliminary work on several fronts began the same day with a reconnaissance in force, with company- to brigade-size raids designed to gather intelligence and fix German troops in place so they could later be destroyed. Several divisions also launched attacks against Busch’s Third Panzer Army to bore openings in the line, while the flanks of a four-division German salient at Vitebsk were squeezed to create jumping-off points for the encirclement of that city. That night, Soviet medium bombers flew 1,000 sorties to soften up the German line.
The next day, June 23, the full weight of the assault lurched forward. Abandoning their costly human-wave techniques of 1941, Red Army soldiers concentrated their fire upon tactically valuable ground, seized it, and then called up tanks to the new positions to deliver a larger breakthrough. By the afternoon of the second day, the Third Panzer Army’s line was perforated and Vitebsk was in danger of encirclement by two Soviet armies.
As the Soviet Forty-third Army closed in around Vitebsk from the north and the Thirty-ninth Army attacked from the south, Busch meekly requested permission from OKH to withdraw to a secondary line of defense, called the “Tiger Line.” But Hitler, still waiting for the main blow to fall elsewhere, had designated Vitebsk a “fortified place,” to be held to the last man. By nightfall, two German divisions were encircled and two others were fighting for their lives.
Subsequent attacks by the Soviet Thirty-ninth Army crushed Busch’s LIII Corps, and within three days, five German divisions — about 28,000 men — were wiped out. A continued drive west shattered the Third Panzer Army’s IX Corps by the end of the month, effectively destroying the Third Panzer Army.
Fifty miles south of Vitebsk, Busch’s Fourth Army, fielding 12 divisions, was fighting to hold the line around the Dniepr River and Orsha, a critical juncture along the Moscow–Minsk highway. Lead elements of the Eleventh Guards Army ran headlong into the 78th Sturm (Assault) Division, which had been kept at high strength and was heavily supplied with artillery to hold the crucial highway.
Anticipating well-prepared fixed defenses, each of the assaulting rifle divisions was preceded by a company of T-34 tanks fitted with mine-rollers, a heavy tank regiment, a heavy artillery regiment and an engineer assault battalion. Following this came a wave of flamethrower tank companies and light artillery regiments to liquidate pockets of resistance.
This massive push bogged down in a cluster of tank traps, mines and German infantry positions liberally supplied with Panzerfaust antitank rockets. But before long, General Chernyakhovsky managed to move his tanks north of Orsha, and promptly fed a mixed task force through the woods to exploit the gap. By the end of the day, the road to Minsk was within reach of the Third Belorussian Front.
By June 25, Chernyakhovsky had fed the Second Guards Tank Army through the breach, demolishing one of Fourth Army’s two corps. Despite Hitler’s firm refusal to allow a withdrawal from Orsha — and Busch’s endorsement of this policy — the commander of Fourth Army quietly pulled his units back toward more defensible lines. The next evening Orsha fell to the Red Army, and the road to Minsk now lay open.
Farther south, 13 divisions of Busch’s Ninth Army successfully resisted initial attacks by Rokossovsky’s First Belorussian Front (consisting of the Third, Forty-eighth and Sixty-fifth armies), which had to contend with bad weather as it worked its way around the north edge of the Pripyat Marshes. During the morning of June 24, the first day of the main assault in this sector, the Soviet Third Army — equipped with 500 tanks and assault guns and 200 heavy antitank guns — was repulsed, but at heavy cost to the Axis.
As the weather began to improve, the Third Army mauled two infantry divisions and began to break through German lines, driving a wedge between Busch’s Ninth and Fourth armies. The Ninth Army’s commander, General Hans Jordan, moved up his reserve, the understrength 20th Panzer Division. But as Rokossovsky committed his Sixty-fifth Army and the I Guards Tank Corps to the battle, 20th Panzer began taking losses with no appreciable effect on the advance. Jordan therefore ordered the division to move toward Bobruisk. By the end of June 24, Soviet tanks were six miles behind the Ninth Army’s lines, the vanguard of a spearhead three miles wide at its tip and 18 miles wide at its base.
It was not until June 26, three days after the main assault began, that the first Axis reinforcement, the 5th Panzer Division, arrived from the Ukraine to plug the gap between the Third Panzer and Fourth armies. Boasting 70 Panther and 29 Tiger tanks, 5th Panzer was sent to hold the line east of the Berezina River until Busch’s retreating Fourth Army could establish a proper defensive line. Soon thereafter, the Fourth Army endured a scene reminiscent of Napoleon’s 1812 campaign: A mass of troops retreating from the east had abandoned their heavy equipment on the east side of the Berezina and were fleeing west in disorder, crossing small crowded bridges under fire.
Rokossovsky’s men drove west toward Bobruisk, a critical crossing point on the Berezina, threatening to cut off those German units fighting on the east side of the river. As Rokossovsky’s Third Army crept toward Bobruisk, Busch, following Hitler’s “no retreat” injunction, refused to allow his infantry to cross. When the Soviet IX Tank Corps and I Guards Tank Corps captured Bobruisk and the major crossings over the Berezina, several German infantry divisions found themselves trapped on the east side. Rokossovsky exploited the collapse of German resistance in this sector with a cavalry and a mechanized corps, killing or capturing thousands of German
As Soviets were pouring across the Belorussian border, Hitler and OKH were slow to grasp the danger Army Group Center faced. On June 26, Busch and Ninth Army’s General Jordan flew to Hitler’s headquarters to convince the Führer to relent on the no-retreat policy that was destroying armies a division at a time. Furious with the near-collapse of the Ninth Army, Hitler relieved both Jordan and Busch, replacing the latter with Field Marshal Walther Model, commander of Army Group North Ukraine and the Führer’s top troubleshooter.
At the end of June, Model arrived at Minsk to find the Red Army across the Berezina, only eight miles from his new headquarters, and Army Group Center without reserves left to counterattack Soviet bridgeheads. The city of Borisov, the Berezina crossing point for the Moscow–Minsk highway, fell the day after Model’s arrival, and some 40,000 Germans were trapped east of Bobruisk. Soviet artillery and the Red Air Force turned a 15-mile German pocket east of the Berezina into a slaughter pen, and about 10,000 troops were killed and another 6,000 captured. Many of those who escaped the slaughter east of the river became trapped a second time at Bobruisk as two tank corps closed in around the city and captured it on June 29, effectively destroying the Ninth Army. In a week’s fighting, Rokossovsky’s forces had killed about 50,000 German soldiers, captured another 20,000 (including 3,600 wounded prisoners at Bobruisk who would be murdered by their Soviet captors) and destroyed some 3,000 artillery pieces and armored vehicles.
Picking up at the Berezina line, Rokossovsky continued his drive northwest toward Minsk, hoping to trap Model’s retreating Fourth Army along with any remnants of the Ninth Army that had escaped the cauldron at Bobruisk. Meanwhile, farther north, Model’s 5th Panzer Division, on the Moscow highway, braced itself for the onslaught of two converging Belorussian fronts, Rokossovsky’s First and Chernyakhovsky’s Third. Because Hitler refused to permit an orderly withdrawal, the only reinforcements available at Minsk were stragglers who had filtered in from the front, and they were for the most part unarmed, disorganized and demoralized.
On July 1 and 2, the 5th Panzer Division fought a series of intense battles against the Fifth Guards Tank Army northwest of Minsk, buying time for wounded and administrative personnel to be evacuated west along railway lines. By the end of a week’s fighting, 5th Panzer, a supporting Tiger battalion and some smaller reinforcements had knocked out 295 Soviet armored vehicles. By July 8, however, all the Tigers were lost, the division was reduced from 125 tanks to eight, and its position was outflanked to the south. The remaining panzers withdrew westward to regroup, abandoning comrades retiring toward Minsk from the Berezina. When the Fourth Army was permitted to retire west of the Berezina, there was almost nothing left to save. By the end of the operation, it had lost some 130,000 of its 165,000 men.
On the evening of July 2, even Hitler conceded that Minsk was a lost cause, and OKH permitted the evacuation of remaining Axis forces — some 1,800 organized troops from differing units, another 15,000 unarmed stragglers from the east, 8,000 wounded and 12,000 rear-echelon staffers. The next morning, Chernyakhovsky’s tanks entered Minsk, closing off another large eastern pocket and trapping some 15,000 isolated German soldiers lurching west in division- and brigade-size groups. As food and ammunition ran low for these marooned units, they broke into smaller formations, which quickly became vulnerable to unforgiving partisan bands and special Red Army infantry detachments. About 900 of the 15,000 trapped soldiers managed to reach German lines, and by July 8 the pocket collapsed. Model’s Fourth Army ceased to exist.
To the north, other units of the Third Panzer Army became isolated as a result of the rapid advance on Minsk and were quickly crushed. Meanwhile, Stavka expanded the objectives of its exhausted soldiers, ordering them to push westward toward Grodno, Brest and other cities along the Polish and Lithuanian borders despite dwindling supplies of gasoline and ammunition.
As Model’s intermediate lines were collapsing, he tried to form a line of resistance from Vilnius to the Ukraine, partly based on a series of trenches left over from World War I. In the center, he took the remnants of the Ninth Army, reinforced them as best he could, and redesignated the thin group as a component of the Second Army. With a 45-mile gap yawning between the tattered shards of the Third Panzer Army and Army Group North, Model was exceedingly vulnerable, but sooner or later the Soviet tanks had to outrun their fuel and ammunition supplies, and Model could give East Prussia and Poland a respite while he rebuilt his forces.
The Soviet juggernaut was not yet spent, however. By July 8, portions of Model’s line cracked, and Vilnius was soon surrounded. Despite Hitler’s initial orders to hold the Lithuanian capital “at all costs,” on the night of July 12-13 some 3,000 of the 15,000 trapped men broke free, leaving the rest to face the certainty of death or captivity when the city fell on July 13. Pinsk and Grodno fell by July 16, and Third Panzer Army’s line collapsed by the end of the month, pushing Model’s northern flank onto Prussian soil. As Bagration drew to a close, the Red Army held bridgeheads over the Niemen River, the traditional border of Russia and Poland, and had reached the Gulf of Riga at the Baltic, isolating Army Group North. By mid-August Model could do nothing more; he was decorated and transferred to the Western Front for a brief term as supreme commander in that crumbling theater.
All told, Operation Bagration cost Hitler 350,000 men (including 31 generals), plus hundreds of tanks and more than 1,300 guns. Of the men lost, 160,000 were taken prisoner, half of whom were murdered on the way to prison camps or died in Soviet gulags. In a throwback to ancient times, 57,000 German prisoners taken from pockets east of the Berezina were shipped to Moscow and paraded before Muscovites on July 17, partly to refute Nazi claims of a “planned withdrawal” from Belorussia, and partly to rebut suggestions by Western newspapers that the operation had been made easy because large numbers of German troops had been tied down in western France.
During their 400-mile drive from Vitebsk to Warsaw’s outskirts, the Soviets lost some 765,000 troops, of which 178,000 were either killed or missing, plus 2,857 tanks and assault guns, and 2,447 artillery pieces. Despite those losses the Red Army launched a follow-up campaign in northern Ukraine, the Lwow-Sandomierz offensive, employing more than 1 million men, 1,600 tanks and assault guns, 14,000 artillery pieces and mortars, and 2,800 combat aircraft. The offensive, launched on July 13, smashed Army Group North Ukraine, which had released units to help stop the collapse of Army Group Center.
By early August, the German Fourth Army and almost all of the Ninth and Third Panzer armies were gone. Thirty German divisions disappeared, and nearly 30 more were crippled. The Red Army was within striking distance of the Vistula and had reached the outskirts of Warsaw. By mid-August, Red Army soldiers were entrenched on Prussian soil, only 350 miles from Berlin, and Romania, with its vital oil fields, was poised to desert the Axis cause. Until January, however, the exhausted Soviet giant would remain relatively quiet, refitting and re-equipping for the final push from the Vistula to Berlin.
Many German and Soviet accounts agree that Operation Bagration was Hitler’s worst military setback of the war. But the offensive lacked a single, dramatic focal point, such as at Stalingrad, and the commanders and place names sound strange to Western ears. For those reasons, the operation was never acknowledged in the West to the same degree as any number of smaller campaigns — such as Overlord, the Ardennes Offensive, the Torch landings in Africa or Operation Husky in Sicily. Given the massive waves of soldiers and tanks that Stalin mustered for the offensive and marked improvements in Soviet war-fighting capabilities — Stavka’s successful deception campaign, the effective use of partisans, improved infantry-armor tactics and superior weaponry such as the Shturmovik ground-attack plane and the T-34 medium tank — it is an unfortunate omission. Nevertheless, Bagration, combined with the Lwow-Sandomierz offensive in the Ukraine, dramatically turned the tide of war against the Third Reich.
The irreplaceable German losses in Belorussia, in conjunction with the Normandy landings and the July 20 attempt on Hitler’s life, spread demoralization throughout the upper ranks of the Wehrmacht’s command structure, and made certain that the Red Army would ever after move west. Operation Bagration also ensured that the former Soviet republics, from the Baltic Sea to the Crimea, would return to the Communist fold. In so doing, it set the stage for Soviet domination of much of Eastern Europe for the next 40 years.
This article was written by Jonathan W. Jordan and originally appeared in the July/August 2006 issue of World War II magazine.
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