The summer of 1944 brought the reality of a two-front war home to the Germans. Before this, the Germans had fought simultaneously in Russia and in the Mediterranean area, from North Africa to Italy, but the latter theaters of war had always been secondary concerns. The invasion of Normandy had opened a direct threat to Germany itself from the west. Less than three weeks after D-Day, the Soviets opened a massive campaign north of the Pripyet Marshes. Named after the Napoleonic War general, the Bagration campaign struck principally at the bulge in Byelorussia occupied by the German Army Group Center; it effectively destroyed that army group and nearly cut off Army Group North from any overland lines of communication, while recovering Byelorussia and striking deeply into German-held Poland.
Fighting earlier in the year had brought the Soviets substantial gains in the south, recovering the Ukraine and seizing a large piece of northern Rumania. The northern boundary of these gains passed through the Pripyet Marshes, leaving the German Army Group Center in possession of an irregular bulge dubbed the “Byelorussian Balcony” by Soviet forces. Major operations ceased during the spring; the mud created by the melting snow and ice and fresh spring rain served as a greater barrier to offensive action than the winter snows themselves. Both sides arrayed themselves in response to their expectations for summer fighting.
The Germans were fully defensive in their posture. Given their own preferences, the leading commanders would have preferred a more efficient mobile defense posture, but Hitler’s orders drove the army fully into static warfare. Hitler classified many cities as fortresses, requiring defense at all costs; only Hitler himself could permit any retreat. Still, Army Group Center considered an attack in its sector unlikely. The terrain in Byelorussia tended to frustrate mobile warfare; heavy forest and meager roads had slowed German progress in 1941, and the Germans assumed that the Soviets would focus their efforts in the south, where progress could be more rapid. So thoroughly did the Germans cling to this assumption that a Panzer Corps was detached from Army Group Center and delivered to Army Group North Ukraine to assist in the expected attack.
By this time, the numbers favored the Soviets overwhelmingly. At the beginning of 1944, 5.5 million Soviet soldiers faced 2.5 million German soldiers. The Red Army also enjoyed the benefit of reserve troops, which the Germans no longer had in meaningful numbers. The prospect of a cross-channel invasion in the west only served to reduce the numbers of German troops serving in the east. The army transferred seven Panzer divisions to France, and the Luftwaffe saw an even more dramatic decline in deployments in the east. Air Fleet IV could muster only forty combat-effective planes when Bagration began; the Soviet VVS had some seven thousand planes in the same sector.
For their part, the Soviets had always intended to strike at the “balcony,” and they spent the three months of relative quiet preparing for the attack. Like Hitler, Stalin had assumed an active role in planning, but now he led a military that was dominant everywhere on its front, and he could afford a certain measure of flexibility. Mid-level Soviet officers were permitted to participate in the planning of the operation. This was not like the German system prior to Hitler’s assumption of direct control; middle and junior officers were not being afforded official leeway to undertake tactical actions under their own initiative, as German officers had, but they had some voice in the planning of operations before they became official orders. It is noteworthy that Bagration differed from standard Soviet practice in one major respect: instead of a straightforward push against the enemy’s front, crushing all centers of resistance as they were encountered (and accepting grievous levels of casualties as the necessary cost of such action), this operation frequently entailed the initial avoidance of such centers, isolating them and then clearing them out later. This practice more closely resembled the German style of Blitzkrieg than the Soviet doctrine of Deep Penetration. It was not so much a measure undertaken to save lives as it was to preserve concentrations of fighting power; armored columns were more often the beneficiaries of the practice than infantry formations.
In April, the Soviets were informed of Anglo-American plans for D-Day, and the general understanding was for the Soviets to initiate an offensive of their own at about the same time, trapping the Germans between two major offensives. The Soviets certainly meant to take advantage of the shift in German attention, but early planning was already underway. In the final analysis, the proximity of the dates of D-Day and of the opening of Bagration is no more significant than the third anniversary of Operation Barbarossa, which fell just before Bagration began. Both were significant, the former as a distraction for the Germans and the latter as a propaganda tool (just as the name Bagration, honoring a general in the first Great Patriotic War who was Georgian, like Stalin, had propaganda value), but neither was the reason for the date of the plan. Indeed, the plan was meant to begin on June 19, but logistical snarls caused by the enormous scale of the transfer of troops necessary for the operation necessitated a delay until the 23rd.
Planning proceeded with the utmost secrecy. The Soviets had effectively abandoned the use of radio communication, relying instead on the laying of land lines. This, combined with the almost total absence of German air units capable of performing reconnaissance work, meant that the Germans would see only local troop movements. In effect, the Germans would see only what the Soviets wanted them to see, and the Soviets took advantage of this to give the impression that the main blow would come in the south. In this, their principal objective was to prevent the Germans from bringing any additional forces to the support of Army Group Center. Indeed, it actually resulted in the removal of some forces from Byelorussia to reinforce the south.
Because of the numerical advantages that the Red Army enjoyed, the Soviets could contemplate multiple offensives at a given time. This plan would involve four. The first offensive would serve as part of the deception campaign. The attack would be real enough, striking against Army Group North and the Finns, but its purpose was to draw German attention to the north. Then the main effort would strike at Army Group Center in Byelorussia, involving four Fronts in the attack. A Soviet Front was comparable, as a unit on the map, to a German Army Group, but it was smaller and more mobile. This effort would drive the Germans out of Byelorussia and into the Baltic States and Poland, with the river Vistula as the end point of the operation. If the second offensive met with a certain level of success, one or even two subsidiary offensives would open in the south, evening out the Soviet front lines and paving the way for the next wave of offensives, once the logistical issues were resolved.
Soviet partisans represented another asset to be used to the full in the operation. The largest number of partisans had been concentrated in Byelorussia, and for two years they had worked with official support from the Red Army. Shortly before Bagration began, scouting units called razvedchiki infiltrated German lines and made contact with partisan units, giving specific orders orally. Some 270,000 partisans operated in Byelorussia at the time; these were used especially in the disruption of rail transport.
The first stage of the plan began on June 10, just four days after D-Day. The attack in the north eventually drove the Finns out of the war, at least as a German ally. The Finns began negotiations with the Soviets on June 21; by then, the second stage of the Soviet plan was already underway.
The main attack had been planned for June 19; the opening of partisan strikes on the rail networks had already been timed to coincide with the beginning of the attack. While the main attack was delayed, the partisan effort was allowed to proceed, in part because informing everyone of the change in plans would have been too difficult. Initial results were disappointing, and on the 21st, air assets joined in the effort to disrupt rail communications. The infantry began to move on the 22nd, not in frontal attacks, but instead in small operations to test the forces before them.
On the 23rd, the main attack began in typical Soviet fashion, with an artillery barrage carried out from 5 am to 7 am on a huge scale. The quantities of smoke generated by the artillery largely precluded air support, but such support was largely secondary at this stage and it made little difference. After 7 am, the main attacks began as outlined above; German survivors took note of the change in Soviet tactics. The first four days of the Soviet advance drove deeply into German lines, and the 4th and 9th armies were largely encircled.
Defeat turned into disaster because of Hitler’s inflexibility. Field Marshal Busch, commanding Army Group Center, sought permission to withdraw, but Hitler was slow to accept its necessity. In some cases, like the defense of Vitebsk, repeated requests resulted in partial permission, but the combination of a late response and the requirement to leave one division behind resulted in the effective failure of the effort to break out of Vitebsk. In other cases, local commanders disregarded Hitler’s orders and permitted retreat. On June 28, Hitler removed Busch and placed General Model in command of Army Group Center. By this point, there was little that Model could do to salvage the formation, especially the encircled armies. By July 4, Army Group Center had lost 28 divisions out of its tota establishment of 38. Bagration was still less than two weeks old, and would proceed for nearly two more months.
A side product of the offensive was the damage done to Army Group North, which was mainly an infantry organization by this time. This formation was largely driven into Estonia, and almost cut off from Army Group Center, save for a small bridge of land west of Riga. While the second phase of the plan continued to unfold north of the Pripyet Marshes, the third phase began in the south on July 13, with the long-anticipated attack on Army Group North Ukraine. German resistance was unexpectedly hobbled even further on the 20th, when the bomb plot almost killed Hitler.
Soviet forces reached their objectives on the river Vistula by August 2nd. The Polish government in exile had hoped to secure its place in Poland’s future by arranging for a Polish uprising in Warsaw, intending to work with the Soviets as they approached. Instead, the Soviets allowed the Germans to crush the uprising. In part this was political, with Stalin preferring a Communist Poland instead of any return to the government before 1939; in part, it was also a reflection of military necessity.
It was almost an afterthought when the fourth offensive, at the southern end of the front lines, opened on August 20. This was brief, however; the second, third and fourth offensives were all brought to an official end on August 29. The Soviet front lines began to resemble a semicircle from Estonia to Rumania, and it had become possible to plan for attacks into Germany itself. Bagration had been devastating to the Germans, who lost more than 560,000 men due to death, injury or capture. As a matter of scale, it had been even more catastrophic than Stalingrad.
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Stilwell, Alexander, ed. The Second World War: A World in Flames. Osprey, 2004
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