June 23, 1944 - Operation Bagration & the German Defeat in the East
Updated: Jun 12, 2021
June 23, 1944. Three years after they invaded the Soviet Union, this time it is the Nazis that are taken by surprise when the Red Army unleashes a colossal attack, codenamed Operation Bagration on Germany’s Army Group Center. In the space of a month, the Germans will suffer their greatest defeat of World War II, and the Soviets launch the steamroller that will take them to Berlin. It is the beginning of the end.
The German invasion of the Soviet Union was carried out by three massive Army Groups. Army Group North attacked through the Baltic States, with its destination as Leningrad. Army Group Center struck directly east through Belorussia with its destination as Moscow. Army Group South invaded into Ukraine, aiming to capture the Ukraine. All three had been brought to a halt by the Soviet counterattack in 1941, with Army Group Center – the main effort – only miles from Moscow. Army Group Center had been forced back in the blizzards and forests of the Russian winter, but had managed to hold its position against furious Soviet counterattacks.
Despite its obvious proximity to the Soviet capital, Army Group Center fell out of the limelight after the attempt to take Moscow had failed. The main German offensives of the next two years were in southern Russia and Ukraine, resulting in the massive bloodbaths of Stalingrad and Kursk. The Soviets had to devote equal attention to these battles; when they weren’t preoccupied in Ukraine, Crimea, and Stalingrad, they devoted their major resources to breaking Army Group North’s stranglehold on Leningrad, where the German siege would eventually claim a million lives. Throughout 1942 and 1943, the center of the German-Soviet front – and Army Group Center itself – was definitely last on everyone’s priority list.
Last, but not forgotten. Ever since that terrible winter, Army Group Center had held its advanced position in the heart of Russia, “like a dagger pointing at Moscow” as Stalin described it. The Germans retained their forward positions in the great pine forests and swamps of Belorussia because of Hitler’s insistence on retaining every inch of conquered territory, and because it would serve as a jumping-off point when the attack on Moscow would be resumed. (Spoiler: it was never resumed.) Even if it was not the first priority, the Soviets did make major attacks on Army Group Center in 1942 and 1943, attacks that would have been counted as enormous battles anywhere else – but compared to Leningrad, Stalingrad, Kursk, or the massive tank battles in Ukraine, they were decidedly a sideshow.
The result was that by 1944, Army Groups North and South had been pushed back, leaving Army Group Center protruding to the east and in danger of losing contact with its fellows. A huge German force of almost 900,000 men held advanced positions deep in Soviet territory. This number was deceptive. The German soldiers had to cover such a large front that they were very thinly spread; at one point, the German 9th Army had only 143 soldiers per kilometer of front.
The constant pressure on other German armies – Army Group South especially – meant that throughout 1942 and 1943, Army Group Center was stripped of almost all its tank units and half of its artillery. By June 1944, virtually every full-strength panzer division in the Wehrmacht was either in the Ukraine fighting the seemingly unending Soviet attack there, or being shuttled west as fast as possible to hold off the Allied force that had landed on D-Day and was making slow, steady ground in Normandy. These fronts also got first call for reinforcements, replacements, and supplies.
The result was that the German army in Belorussia and central Russia was in a fragile position. It had almost no reserves, and most of the reserves it did have were nearly immobile, propelled by hoof and boot rather than tire or engine. The continuing attrition of the German war effort had crippled its motor pool, and the steady hell of combat and the terrible living conditions had reduced Army Group Center to a medieval state of living. To see a German trench, except for the helmets and rifles, you could be forgiven for thinking that you saw peasants living in a hole.
The Soviets had been doing their best to draw all the mobile German forces into the south, and now that D-Day had taken place they believed – correctly - that the Germans would focus all of their attention in Normandy or Ukraine. They decided in early 1944 that their major offensive would be into Belorussia: its objective would be the destruction of Army Group Center.
The Red Army had come a long, long way from its catastrophe of 1941 or even from the Stalingrad days of 1942. They had perfected their own doctrine, their answer to the German blitzkrieg. It was called “deep operations.” Blitzkrieg emphasized the important of a single, overwhelming strike on a narrow front, and the surrounding and destruction of an enemy in battle. Deep operations, on the other hand, emphasized the need for multiple breakthroughs and rapid exploitation. Deep operations struck into the enemy’s logistic and command nerve centers, avoiding battle when necessary to make a deeper penetration. By 1944, the Soviet generals had turned deep operations into an art. Operation Bagration would be the first masterpiece.
The Soviets assembled a massive force to smash Army Group Center. Over 1,600,000 men, 32,000 artillery pieces, almost 6,000 tanks and almost 8,000 aircraft were designated for the battle. This gave them a superiority of 10 to 1 in artillery and aircraft and almost 20 to 1 in tanks. This could never have been achieved, though, if the Germans hadn’t been completely deceived – they had no idea the attack was coming.
The Soviets were by now masters of “maskirovka,” which is roughly equivalent to English’s “camouflage” but has broader meanings as a military term – it refers to deception on a large scale. The Soviets purposely left their major tank units in Ukraine, even as they transferred many of the tanks and crews themselves to Belorussia. These units hid by day and moved by night, concealing their shift from German aircraft. The Russians used fake radio transmissions and allowed the Germans to capture prisoners – actually agents – who convinced them that no attack was imminent. Other attacks along the line were timed to work as diversions. The result was that the Nazi high command underestimated Soviet forces in their front by almost 300%. The Germans would be more completely fooled on the first day of Operation Bagration than they were about the date of D-Day.
The commander of Army Group Center was Field Marshal Ernst Busch, a mediocre, overweight officer chosen more for his devotion to Nazi ideology and loyalty to Hitler than his skill in commanding troops. By 1944, Hitler was choosing his subordinates based more on loyalty than ability (remind you of someone?) and Busch was despised by other German generals. He was completely out of touch with the situation at the front.
The Soviets were coordinated by their two great generals, Marshal Georgy Zhukov and Marshal Alexander Vasilevsky – the team that had triumphed at Stalingrad and Kursk. Among their chief subordinates was the Polish-born Konstantin Rokossovsky, who still wore dentures to hide that his teeth had been pulled out under torture from Beria’s NKVD. He had served two years in the Gulag before being hauled out and given command again when the Germans invaded – but Beria’s eyes were always on him.
Rokossovsky, commanding one of several armies in the plan, proposed to make his major attack through the Pripyat Marshes, considered by most generals on both sides to be impassable. This would take careful planning and coordination, and might result in a fiasco – but the Germans would never expect it, and an attack through the Marshes might achieve complete surprise. During a planning conference in May, Rokossovsky fiercely defended his plan over even Stalin’s objections – a dangerous move when you’d already been tortured and imprisoned by the secret police – but his determination caused even Stalin to agree.
After two days of precision bombing, and numerous attacks by partisan and guerrilla forces throughout Belorussia to cut radio lines, blow up bridges and wreck railroads, the sledgehammer fell. On June 23, 1944, the Soviet assault crashed into the German line along 373 miles of front from Polotsk in the north to Bobruisk in the south. It began with heavy artillery fire all along the front, with each Soviet howitzer firing about 160 rounds – 6 tons of ammunition – at its foes. Two hours of bombardment crushed the German forward trenches, with each gun firing at the technical limit of its endurance. Katyushas – multiple rocket launchers on the backs of trucks – fired their screaming missiles in massive barrages. To the Germans in the trenches, it must have seemed like the world was ending.
Then came the Soviet infantry. By 1944, the costly mass attacks of 1941 were gone. Shock forces of infantry emerged from cover and raked the German trenches with heavy weapons, avoiding strong points and flooding through weak ones. They were followed by companies of tanks that, like the infantry, avoided antitank hard points and flowed into the gaps. Even though the Soviets didn’t actually have the overwhelming numbers the Germans believed they did, it must have seemed like it; they behaved like a flood, avoiding resistance and cracking through weak points. Soon the German lines all over the front were inundated.
In a matter of hours, most of the German armies were on the point of collapse. They streamed towards the cities to their rear. Hitler had designated most of Belorussia’s urban centers as “fortress cities,” to be defended at any cost. Hitler was micromanaging the war in many places, especially on the Eastern Front, to the point where even a junior officer needed approval from Fuhrer headquarters to retreat before his force was overrun. Many of the German formations were ordered to remain in the “fortress cities” of Vitebsk, Orsha, and Minsk, where they were surrounded and annihilated by the Soviet flood tide.
By the end of the first day of Soviet fighting, the German high command still did not believe that Operation Bagration was the main Soviet effort; by the time they woke up to the danger, it was too late. The “fortress cities” were encircled, but the Soviets didn’t waste time trying to besiege and reduce them; they kept pounding west. They were blasting through defensive lines faster than Field Marshal Ernst Busch could string them together from his meager reserves. The few panzer forces that came into contact with Soviet forces were engaged and quickly bypassed; they soon had to retreat not because they were defeated, but because they were in danger of being encircled. That was deep operations: avoid resistance, find the weak point, encircle and keep driving.
Even Rokossovsky’s attack succeeded enormously. The swampy terrain slowed his assault on the first day, but by the second his preparations paid off. Soviet cavalry and light tanks could travel through marshes that the heavy German vehicles would drown in, and it seemed like the Nazi soldiers had stepped through a time machine when masses of Cossack cavalry emerged from the wood line, hacking and slashing with swords or shooting their carbines. The rupture from the Pripyet Marshes cut off the retreat of many Germans frantically fleeing west.
The Germans became desperate, blowing up bridges before the Soviets could capture them – even when there were still German troops on the other side of the river. Soon the individual German soldier was not fighting to win, but to escape the onrushing tide. Vast columns of men pushed west to escape the onslaught before they were surrounded and destroyed. Soviet tanks with infantry riding on top would emerge from the woods or come pounding down the road, shooting up the columns, or partisans would emerge from the swamp to ambush German troops out of revenge for the deaths of their families. This was revenge – sweet, terrible revenge – for the surprise attack three years before, and the three years of torture and atrocity that had passed.
Hitler’s intransigence and insistence that no German unit retreat played right into Soviet hands: staying put was the worst thing a German unit could do. Even as the panzer divisions finally began to shift north to confront what they finally realized as the real threat, Army Group Center’s fate was sealed. Even the arrival of a battalion of Tiger tanks could only create another point of resistance to be swept over and encircled; by the end of the campaign, the unit had lost every Tiger.
Field Marshal Busch flew to Hitler’s headquarters to protest the “hold fast” policy, but on June 28 he was sacked. As he passed through the operations room, he looked at the map. Seeing what had happened to his army group, he covered his face in his hands, fell on the table, and screamed through his fingers. He was replaced by Field Marshal Walther Model, perhaps Germany’s best general by 1944 – referred to as the “Fuhrer’s Fireman” because he was always sent to patch up the trouble spots in the line.
Even Model, though, could not fix the gaping hole in the center for many weeks. The Soviets took the German collapse in the center, and their transfer of most of their forces there, as an opportunity everywhere else in the line. Soon they were attacking in Ukraine, Lithuania, and Estonia, to be followed in September by the destruction of German armies in Romania and Hungary. Even though Operation Bagration itself came to a close on August 19, 1944, it had permanently ruptured the German forces facing the Soviet Union. There could be no turning back.
The Red Army had annihilated Army Group Center in the single largest blow dealt, then or later, to Hitler’s Reich. They had wiped 450,000 troops out of the German order of battle, taking 57,000 prisoners. This was double the number of German casualties at Stalingrad, or in Normandy in the same timeframe. Even as Patton was crowing about his destruction of the German armies in Normandy in August 1944, the Soviets had bagged twice as many. An indication of the completeness of the Soviet victory was that they killed or captured 31 out of 52 German generals in Army Group Center. A third of the German Army in the east had been *written off.*
The end of Operation Bagration coincided with the destruction of German forces in Normandy by the British and Americans. After these shattering victories, there was no hope for German triumph in World War II. What was more, the Soviets had finally driven the Germans out of their homeland once and for all. By August 1944, the first Soviet troops touched German soil – and there would be hell to pay.
Book Recommendation: As always, the best book to understand the Eastern Front of World War II is David M. Glantz and Jonathan M. House, When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1995).