Operation Bagration
German Army Group Central is attacked and destroyed
author Paul Boșcu, December 2016
Operation Bagration was the codename for the Red Army Belorussian Strategic Offensive Operation during World War 2. This operation cleared the German troops from the Belorussian SSR and eastern Poland. The offensive was directed against the German Army Group Centre and resulted in the almost complete destruction of this Army Group.

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Operation Bagration was the codename for the Red Army Belorussian Strategic Offensive Operation during World War 2. This operation cleared the German troops from the Belorussian SSR and eastern Poland. The offensive was directed against the German Army Group Centre and resulted in the almost complete destruction of this Army Group. The Soviet armies involved were the 1st Baltic Front under Ivan Bagramyan, the 3rd Belorussian Front commanded by Ivan Chernyakhovsky, the 1st Belorussian Front commanded by Konstantin Rokossovsky, and the 2nd Belorussian Front commanded by G. F. Zakharov.

The operation was named after 18th–19th century Georgian Prince Pyotr Bagration. He was a general of the Imperial Russian Army who was mortally wounded at the Battle of Borodino during Napoleon’s invasion of Imperial Russia. It was here that the soldiers of Napoleon I marched across the land-bridge between the Duna and Dniepr Rivers toward Moscow, the metropolis of the Czarist empire. During its retreat from Moscow the "Grand Army" perished while crossing the Beresina. Something similar was to take place 132 years later, only this time not in the depths of an icy winter, but during a hot summer.

Belorussia had great, sometimes jungle like, forests interspersed with marshes, fields and villages, small lakes and streams, marshy lowlands, traversed by the northward-flowing Duna and the southward-flowing Dniepr with its many tributaries, among them the Beresina. Among the country's large cities were Vitebsk and Orsha, Mogilev, Bobruisk and, of course, Minsk, the capital city, from where the first Russian highway led through Smolensk to Moscow. In those summer days this entire country was to play an especially tragic role for hundreds of thousands of German soldiers.

The initial campaign against the Soviet Union had also passed through Belorussia. Great battles raged there during Operation Barbarossa until the noise of battle moved more and more toward the East. However, Army Group Center was unable to capture Moscow and the war returned, until following its retreat the army group was able to occupy a new, and this time, so it hoped, permanent front. Six defensive battles were fought along the front in one year, but it held firm.

In this operation the Red Army showed that conducting Blitzkrieg was no German monopoly and that, in spite of the horrendous losses in the earlier fighting, it had both the means and the ability to drive successfully into a German front that had been held and fortified for many months.

Hitler’s strategy of ‘fortified localities’ had to be put into operation immediately at Mogilev, Bobruysk and elsewhere, with the predictable result that the Russians merely bypassed them and left them to be besieged by reserve troops. Although they were exhausted by constant combat over many months, under-equipped, outnumbered and largely unsupported from the air, Army Group Centre might have remained intact had it not been saddled with tactics as illogical and untutored as that of ‘fortified localities’ and other related concepts that Hitler invented.

Had the Führer visited the front more often, he might have seen for himself how Order No. 11, which called for ‘stubbornly defended strong points in the depth of the battlefield in the event of any breakthrough’, was a recipe for denuding the German line yet further, merely permitting further such breakthroughs.

The choice of the third anniversary of Barbarossa for the launch of Bagration was instructive: the destruction of Army Group Centre was in many ways the mirror image of what had happened in the early stages of Barbarossa, with strongpoints being encircled with bewildering speed by swarms of highly mobile opponents.

From Polotsk in the north, where it linked up with Army Group North, the front extended eastward in a great salient around Vitebsk, then between Orsha and Rogatchev in a large bridgehead east of the Dniepr, before running increasingly westward and then straight south from Pinsk to a point near Kovel, where it met Army Group North Ukraine. Thus Army Group Center - at that time the strongest German army group - under its Commander in Chief Feldmarschall Ernst Busch occupied an extended, semi-circular, eastward-facing salient approximately 1,100 kilometers in length and held by four armies.

The northern wing from Polotsk consisted of the Third Panzer Army with IX, LII and VI Army Corps (nine divisions), in the center the Fourth Army with XXVII, XXXIX and XII Corps (nine divisions) and finally the Ninth Army with XXXV, XXXXI and LV Corps (ten divisions).

The southern wing along the Pripyat Marshes was formed by the Second Army with three army corps. There were thus about 500,000 German soldiers (without Second Army), of wich about 400,000 in the actual front area, certainly an imposing number. This figure meant little, however, because most of the infantry divisions, which would have to bear the brunt of the fighting, were far below strength and had only five to seven battalions instead of the usual ten. The entire infantry combat strength of the Third Panzer Army, for example, was only 21,500 men, while the Ninth Army had only 24,000 trench fighters in the main line of resistance.

The entire army group had only six infantry and security divisions and a single panzer division4 in reserve, which it had moved into positions behind the individual armies.The Luftwaffe was so tied down in the West and with the defence of the Reich that the commanding Luftflotte 6 had available only a very few flying units, including a mere 40 fighters. To compound the situation there was a shortage of fuel. The Luftwaffe was scarcely to appear during the coming heavy fighting.

The army group's commanders had another cause to worry. The entire rear zone in the area of forests and swamps between the Dniepr, Beresina and Pripyat Rivers was controlled by partisans as on no other front. Repeated large-scale antipartisan actions were carried out, but were unable to eliminate the nuisance of the partisan bands. Even in periods of relative quiet German forces could only travel the Mogilev-Beresina road in convoy, and movement by smaller units was quite impossible off this major road. The partisans mined roads, ambushed staff vehicles, killed motorcycle messengers, cut telephone lines, and so on.

The army group's overall situation was seen as only marginally stable and therefore the army group command proposed two plans to shorten the front, a move which would save forces and result in better defensive positions. One plan, the so-called "small solution," would have seen the Third Panzer Army abandon the salient around Vitebsk and the Fourth Army evacuate the bridgehead beyond the Dniepr. The "big solution" would have seen all three armies pulled back behind the Beresina.

Although the army group and the armies pushed for weeks for a withdrawal of the front to shorter lines, Hitler rejected any such move, even forbidding further work on positions in the rear and instead ordering the establishment of "fortified places," a concept "invented" by him. Vitebsk, Orsha, Mogilev and Bobruisk were so designated. The army group's Commander in Chief gave in and issued orders that the existing main line of resistance was to be defended no matter what.

As so often before and later, German army intelligence had lots of accurate minor details while getting the big picture completely wrong. A major Soviet offensive against Army Group North Ukraine was anticipated. All reinforcements and much new equipment was sent to this Army Group, which had the additional advantage of now being under the command of Hitler's favorite, Walter Model. Army Group Center lost most of its reserve formations to its southern neighbor and had to put all of its strength up front, an arrangement which fitted perfectly into the plans of the Red Army which wanted to crush the Germans facing them in place.

Whatever the signs beginning to come in at the front, both German military headquarters and the Army Group Center commander Field Marshal von Busch himself were certain there would be no major offensive against the Army Group until the day it started. Busch himself was away and would have to fly back to his crumbling command.

When the Commander in Chief of Army Group Center tried to convince Hitler that everything was pointing toward an imminent, massive Soviet offensive against his army group, the Führer refused to listen. Hitler talked him out of the idea, refused to send further forces and ordered that the present positions be held. Since the OKH was of the same opinion as Hitler, Feldmarschall Busch decided that an offensive against his army group was indeed out of the question. Thus convinced, he even left to go on leave in Germany - three days before the beginning of the enemy offensive.

Even the planting of thousands of mines on the railways and roads behind Army Group Center in the largest partisan operation of the war beginning did not alert the determined sleepers in Army Group Center and higher German headquarters. The Soviets had become masters of deception; false signals, dummy positions, misleading troop movements behind the front lines, and highly skilled camouflage all covered Soviet operational intentions from the prying eyes of German intelligence. Moreover, the lack of Luftwaffe aircraft on the Eastern Front meant that German intelligence received little support from aerial reconnaissance.

German listening posts intercepted enemy orders, new armies appeared on the Soviet radio net, and aerial reconnaissance reported a considerable increase in rail traffic and lively column traffic on the roads. The Soviet buildup intensified day by day. Soviet artillery began ranging in and continuous air attacks were directed at lines of communication in the rear of the German armies and against airfields. Repeated enemy advances were obviously intended to probe the German front for weak spots, provide information and capture jumping-off positions for the offensive.

The units on the German side right up to the army level realized that a terrible threat was brewing. This was no diversionary buildup, especially since - quite contrary to the beliefs of the German high command - there were no similar indications on the front held by Army Group North Ukraine. However the reports reaching the senior commanders were not taken seriously and were dismissed as unimportant, they simply did not want to admit that they might be true. The prevailing opinion was still that this was a diversionary or containing move and that the main blow would fall upon Army Group North Ukraine.

The intelligence service Foreign Armies East under Colonel Reinhard Gehlen, later the head of the Bundesrepublik’s intelligence services and adviser to the American intelligence agencies on the Soviet Union, predicted that the Red Army’s main efforts would come in the north and south, not against the center. The distribution of panzer divisions on the Eastern Front underlines the success of Soviet deception.

The Soviets gathered their forces. Marshals Zhukov and Vasilevsky each commanded two fronts—the former with five armies, the latter with seven. These tactical preparations caused some disquiet among German frontline units.The Ninth Army in particular became alarmed. But Army Group Center’s commander, Field Marshal Ernst Busch refused to initiate any action not in accord with the Führer’s wishes. So blind was the German high command that even during the first three days of the actual attack, Busch and the OKH failed to recognize the extent of the Soviet offensive and its goals. By then, they were witnessing the complete collapse of Army Group Center.

The plan devised by the Soviet high command (STAVKA) was not as complex as the one expected by the Germans. They intended to launch their offensive in several phases - first they would smash Army Group Center, then advance to the Baltic, cut off Army Group North and finally resume their offensive toward the west through Poland as far as the Vistula. In early 1944 planning and preparation for the first phase of the operation, code-named "Bagration," were proceeding at full speed.

Hitler, and with him the entire High Command, assessed the situation quite differently expected an enemy offensive, but they calculated that it would be directed against Army Group North Ukraine from the area south of Kovel. It was anticipated that in doing so the Soviets would undertake to cut off the salient held by Army Group Center from the rear and then drive in the general direction of the Baltic, causing Army Group North's front to collapse. Thus the German High Command completely misinterpreted the situation and in its operational assessments credited the Soviets with greater capabilities than did they themselves.

The result of prior failure to drive the Army Group Center out of its Belorussian positions, combined with the great winter successes of the Red Army in the south and north, suggested the possibility of an attack on what was now an eastern bulge. This project simultaneously offered the possibility of deceiving the Germans by making it look as if the attacks were to come in the regions of prior success, especially the northern Ukraine. With Stalin personally canvassing the possibilities and opting for this approach, the stage was beginning to be set for one of World War II's most dramatic battles.

Steps were taken to give the impression of a major offensive against the Army Group North Ukraine with a secondary thrust into the Baltic States. Perhaps most important was the insistence in this offensive plan on concentration on one major objective within reach at one time and on putting all the needed resources into it.

The Soviet plans provided for a massive buildup of forces on the central sector with the old Western Front Army Group split into the Second and Third Belorussian Fronts. This was not a mere name change. Here was a portion of a carefully calculated buildup in which, however, reinforcements were for the most part fed into existing units and additional units were transferred from the reserve and from other segments of the front in the last weeks before the attack, and under unusually careful provisions for secrecy.

The attack was supported by no fewer than 400 guns per mile along a 350-mile front connecting Smolensk, Minsk and Warsaw. Bagration was intended utterly to destroy Army Group Centre, thus opening the way to Berlin itself. The Red Army had almost total air superiority, much of the Luftwaffe having been flown off westwards to try to deal with D-Day. Konstantin Rokossovsky achieved surprise when the tanks and guns of his 1st Belorussian Front suddenly appeared out of the swamps of the northern Pripet Marshes, supposedly impassable to heavy vehicles, but which his engineers had diligently prepared with wooden causeways.

The great offensive against Army Group Center was only one of five the STAVKA planned for summer and fall 1944. The larger objective of these campaigns was to push Soviet forces deep into the Balkans and position them for the kill in Central Europe.

During the previous winter the Soviets had launched heavy attacks, especially near Vitebsk, but the Third Panzer Army had stood fast. The Soviets had also failed to achieve the desired success in five "highway battles" on the Minsk-Smolensk highway in the area of the front held by the German Fourth Army. Now, following the end of the heavy winter fighting, a deceptive quiet settled over the front. The partisans in the region acted behind the lines as reconnaissance units and sabotaged the German defensive efforts.

Following the defensive successes of the winter the general mood was one of confidence. When relieved, the German soldiers could rest in the rear areas and soldier's homes, swim in the rivers, there was leave, the supply service was functioning smoothly and the troops took the routine of positional warfare - the sentry duty, harassing fire and occasional enemy advances - in stride. What went on in the rear areas with the partisans interested few, there were security divisions to deal with that.

Prisoners brought in by patrols reported attack forces assembling behind the Soviet front, while agents provided similar information. Surveys by observation battalions identified powerful new artillery units in several sectors. The Headquarters of the Ninth Army reported strong enemy forces massing opposite its front. The army group's reply: “Out of the question!”

The partisan movement had grown substantially in the area still occupied by the Germans, with the Belorussian terrain especially suitable for guerillas. The partisans by late 1943 in fact controlled large areas in the rear, drafted men into their ranks, and made it obvious to the rural population that the power of the Soviet state would soon be coming back in full force.

The German army launched a series of major anti-partisan operations and inflicted considerable casualties. But by this time there were so many partisans that their military effectiveness from the Soviet point of view was not substantially affected. They were to make thousands of line cuts in the railways in the days and nights just before the Soviet offensive started. Their activities helped to paralyze the German transportation system in the critical early days of the Red Army offensive somewhat the way the Allied bombing of the transportation system in France held up the German reaction to the Allied landing in Normandy.

Partisans began a campaign of sabotage against German railroads in the rear areas. 10,500 sections of track were blown, although 3,500 mines were removed from the roadbeds before they went off. As a result of these demolitions, the largest partisan operation to date, almost all German rail traffic was cut for twenty-four hours or more. In addition, communications cables along the highway, which ran to the army group, were destroyed at many locations.

The Red Army was ready. Once again it possessed a tremendous superiority, with which it was about to fall upon the three German armies and their twenty-eight divisions on a 700- kilometer front. The Soviets had assembled four Army Fronts. This made a total of nineteen armies with 138 divisions and 43 armored units, together with 2.5 million troops, 31,000 mortars, guns and rocket launchers, 5,200 tanks and assault guns and more than 5,200 aircraft in five air armies. Sheer weight of numbers ensured success, and the Soviets were certain of victory and confidently looking forward to the end of Army Group Center.

The Soviet High Command had deliberately chosen June 22, 1944, the third anniversary of the beginning of the German offensive against the Soviet Union, as the date for the attack. Now they would demonstrate that their offensive, timed to begin in several phases, and employing tremendous amounts of men and materiel, could run as precisely as clockwork with great speed.

During the night the Soviet Air Force launched massive attacks on every large city in the combat zone. Then the Russians began their great offensive, which in scale and power far exceeded any so far during World War Two.

The Soviet offensive began early in the morning. For several hours the positions of IX Army Corps on the army's left wing were pounded by artillery and close-support aircraft in a devastating bombardment. The Soviets paid special attention to the German artillery positions and some batteries scarcely had a chance to fire. Afterwards they attacked the German positions with tanks and infantry. After a few days of heavy fighting they broke down the German defences.

The Soviet rifle divisions attacked northwest of Vitebsk, supported by large numbers of tanks. East of Obol the 252nd Infantry Division took the brunt of the Soviet attack. Fighting desperately, it held out against the superior enemy forces throughout the day, but already there was a breach in the front eight kilometers wide. In subsequent night attacks the enemy pushed the corps' front back still further.

The Soviets had broken through the rear positions everywhere and in the northern breakthrough area were continuing their advance toward the northwest,west and southwest. Nevertheless, those German units still able to resist did so, throwing themselves against the overpowering enemy. However, with its front again broken during the night VI Corps was in no position to halt the Russians. Outflanked in the north in the area of the highway and in the south near Bagushevskoye, it was forced back.

After fresh massed attacks the Soviet assault waves broke through on a wide front south across the Polotsk-Vitebsk rail line while some of their forces veered southeast. Outflanked on two sides and in some cases already split up into battle groups, the German units fought their way back through heavy rain. In the course of the next morning the corps succeeded in establishing a bridgehead position east of the Düna. Every available alert and construction unit was committed. The individual combat units, under constant attack from the Soviet Air Force, fought their way back, fending off repeated Soviet attacks.

The Soviets broke through the hastily erected Düna position in numerous places and soon had tanks across the river near Beshenkovitchi. Still, in some places the defenders managed to repulse the marauding enemy forces, which were engaged in encircling every German unit they could. An endless column of train units and divisions which had been in positions around Vitebsk streamed back along the Beshenkovitchi-Lepel road, the only one still open, under almost constant attack from enemy fighter-bombers.

The situation for all of IX Corps became increasingly more serious. The 24th and 290th Divisions, which late that morning had been sent by Army Group North to provide some relief, had been forced to withdraw back toward the north in the direction of Polotsk. The corps' two divisions, already badly battered, carried out counterattacks and established blocking positions in an attempt to ward off the continuous enemy pressure and withdraw further to the south and then west.

The situation on the army's right wing, in the southeast where VI Corps was engaged on the land bridge between the Düna and Dniepr Rivers, looked catastrophic. The situation there on the first day of the attack was more than critical. Southeast of Vitebsk the northern attack group of the Third Belorussian Front (18 rifle divisions, 9 tank brigades) achieved deep penetrations in two places. The corps' shattered front was driven back eighteen kilometers. Here, too, the fighting raged on.

Employing far superior forces, supported by heavy fire from heavy infantry weapons, mortars, artillery and multiple rocket launchers, but primarily by tanks and close-support aircraft, the focal point of the enemy attack lay further south, where the Russians broke through to the south on both sides of the Vitebsk-Orsha road. A major part of the available army reserve, the 95th Division, had to be committed. The division launched desperate counterattacks and tried to seal off enemy penetrations. The army had been forced to send the remaining elements of the division to hard-pressed IX Corps.

While LIII Corps around Vitebsk had so far been spared by the enemy, there was already a gap of 45 kilometers between the army's left and right wings (IX and VI Corps), which was expanded further. VI Corps was completely overrun by the Fifth Guards Tank Army following behind the masses of Russian infantry. The commanding general was among those killed. VI Corps and the reserves sent to help it no longer existed.

Its divisions were smashed and dispersed, and all the bravery and willingness of the troops to hold out could not change the outcome. In the following days individual battle groups tried to escape to the west or fight their way through to XXVII Corps in the south. Harried by tanks and pursued by cavalry, the remaining elements were again dispersed and surrounded in several small pockets, such as at Schilki, where they were wiped out.

The Russians had enlarged their breakthroughs on both sides of Vitebsk to such an extent that they achieved freedom of movement with their motorized units in the rear and at the same time turned their inner wings toward Vitebsk, sending spearheads from the northeast and southwest. The threat facing the city and the salient occupied by LIII Corps was obvious. The Third German Army wanted to withdraw their forces. But their superior, General Zeitzler refused because of Hitler’s orders. This decision would prove to be catastrophic to the troops stationed in the Vitebsk area, as the soviets quickly overrun them.

Feldmarschall Busch, who had immediately cut short his leave and returned to his headquarters in Minsk following the beginning of the Soviet offensive, was forced to recognize the threat facing his army group. Nevertheless, the Feldmarschall vigorously rejected the immediate evacuation of the Vitebsk salient ordered by Third Panzer Army.

General Kurt Zeitzler, Chief of the Army General Staff, arrived in Minsk himself. Feldmarschall Busch brought him up to date on the situation and requested the withdrawal of LIII Corps himself. Zeitzler refused, and only authorized a withdrawal by the corps' three divisions as far as the positions on the outskirts of Vitebsk. He was not authorized to do any more. Then the Chief of the General Staff left again by plane.

Vitebsk, the largest city in the region was surrounded. Now the Commander-in-Chief of the Third Panzer Army pressed, not for an evacuation, but for a breakout while there was still time. Zeitzler called General Georg-Hans Reinhard near Berchtesgaden, where Hitler was staying at that time, to see whether the proposed evacuation of Vitebsk was absolutely necessary. Reinhard described the extremely dangerous situation. Orders for the breakout had to be given now. Then another call from Zeitzler: “The Führer has decided that Vitebsk is to be held as a fortified place." The three divisions are to allow themselves to be surrounded.

The battle for the survival of LIII Corps went on. After several radio messages, the already surrounded corps reported: “Situation fundamentally changed. Completely encircled as a result of continuous reinforcement of the enemy. 4th Luftwaffe Division no longer exists. 246th Infantry Division and 6th Luftwaffe Field Division in heavy fighting on several sides. Various enemy penetrations into city. Bitter street fighting there.”

The Third Panzer Army urgently requested permission for LIII Corps to break out, and repeated the request several times. Finally the army received word that Hitler had authorized LIII Corps to fight its way through to the German lines. At the same time, however, he demanded that Vitebsk continue to be held as a "fortified place" by a single division (the 206th Infantry Division) and defended to the last man. The order to withdraw came too late. The Germans were almost completely annihilated.

Now the "command," or more accurately interference, effected by Hitler from thousands of kilometers away took on a terribly grotesque aspect. Namely, he demanded that a general staff officer parachute into the surrounded city to deliver his written orders. Not until Generaloberst Reinhard declared that only he could carry out such an order did Hitler relent.

The commander of the 206th Division, Generall Alfons Hitter, had no thought of defending Vitebsk to the last man. He reached the decision to break out of the burning, smoking city. Hitter's troops set out taking the wounded along in several horse-drawn vehicles and a prime mover. The assault teams leading the way failed to break through. They were intercepted by Russian blocking units and surrounded. A final charge with fixed bayonets failed. In a small wood the survivors were either killed or captured.

The corps reported: “Overall situation makes necessary a breakthrough toward the southwest with all forces. Will commence on the 26th at 0500.” Another radio message arrived, asking for delivery of supplies by air. These were sent during the night. Meanwhile, following the receipt of approval the corps prepared to break out, if the complete confusion which reigned in such situations could be called preparation.

Aerial reconnaissance reported German troops at various locations in the Vitebsk area moving toward the west and southwest. Fighting between small groups of German troops and enemy forces was observed at several lake narrows. Another report came in that there were larger German concentrations in the villages and woods along the road ten to fifteen kilometers southwest of Vitebsk, and that the area was the scene of fighting and enemy air attacks.

LIII Corps began its breakout. A German reconnaissance aircraft reported the leading elements of the corps about ten kilometers southwest of Vitebsk. Feldmarschall Busch sent another radio message to the 206th Division, ordering that all elements still in Vitebsk were to fight and hold out to the last man. It was the last confirmed radio contact with the city.

A radio message from LIII Corps advised that it had broken through several enemy positions in continuing its breakthrough thirteen kilometers southwest of Vitebsk. The troops were suffering heavily from enemy air attacks and ammunition was running low. It was the last radio message from the corps. The desperate battle by the remnants of LIII Corps, individual battle groups and smaller units, ended in the villages and forests fifteen to twenty kilometers southwest of Vitebsk. A few small groups were able to save themselves. Following Long journeys on foot the survivors reached the German lines, where they described the fate which had befallen the rest of the corps.

The Soviet radio announced the end of the German defenders of Vitebsk: 5,000 dead in the city, 20,000 men killed in the desperate defense of Vitebsk and in air attacks, and another 10,000 who obeyed a Soviet demand for surrender. The end came quickly for the rest of the Third Panzer Army. With the loss of two corps the army was left with two completely open deep flanks and only the remains of the hard-pressed divisions of IX Corps and the reserves, which were scarcely worth mentioning. The Soviets continued to advance, overrunning the German positions. After five days of heavy fighting and appalling casualties the Third Panzer Army had ceased to exist.

Feldmarschall Busch issued orders forbidding a further retreat, but it was no use, the enemy was too strong. The 252nd Division now had to pay the price for the army group's refusal to authorize a timely withdrawal beyond the Ulla River. Already badly battered, the division reached the river to find all the bridges gone. The troops were forced to swim across. Many reached the west bank, but a large number drowned. Most of the division was now barefoot, the men having lost their boots crossing the river.

Many of IX Corps' units had already been cut off, surrounded and wiped out. Others fought their way through toward the southwest in the direction of Lepel and further to the Upper Beresina. Here they were picked up by the approaching 112th Infantry Division.

There had long since ceased to be an army front. While on the completely open right flank of the army the enemy continued to advance toward Minsk, enemy forces on the equally open left flank veered toward the northwest. The Third Panzer Army was thus separated from the neighboring Sixteenth Army (Army Group North). An attempted counterattack by Sixteenth Army was smashed at the outset by the Soviet Air Force. There was now a great, gap in the north, which was steadily enlarged and which could not be closed, and which finally led to the isolation of the entire Army Group North.

The first days of the Soviet offensive had seen the army corps and all three armies and their corps rendered virtually helpless. There were no reserves and, worst of all, command was almost impossible. The effects of the lack of communication with the divisions, and even between these and their individual units, were disastrous. The heavy artillery fire and the ongoing air bombardment had destroyed the field telephone lines and much of the radio equipment.

In the rear areas partisans destroyed the communication cables. With the constant battles of retreat new lines of communication could not be set up, and Russian transmitters interfered with long-range radio communications. Increased use was made of messengers, but these were usually forced to take circuitous routes, and most orders reached the units too late. Often the orders did not arrive at all, because the unit in question had changed positions or the driver had been killed or captured en route.

In the last days of fighting the transmission of orders and the movement of messengers became even more difficult, and the strict command vital in this critical situation became extremely difficult and finally impossible. Practically every corps and division was fighting on its own. In the end unit commanders were left on their own and were forced to make decisions without the requisite knowledge of the enemy's and their own situation and events further afield. No one knew any more where their own troops were, how far the enemy had advanced.

The first day saw only scouting and reconnaissance attacks, which were repelled everywhere. A day later, however, the enemy offensive hit the Fourth Army. The Soviets were concentrating their efforts at two points. One was on the left wing, where the southern group of forces of the Third Belorussian Front attacked north of the highway against XXVII Army Corps in the direction of Orsha. The other was in the center against XXXIX Panzer Corps in the Chausy area, where the Second Belorussian Front advanced in the direction of Mogilev with 16 rifle divisions and 2 tank brigades. The Soviets quickly overrun the German defenders.

The attack was unlike anything experienced before, even by the veteran soldiers. Shells from countless guns of every caliber pounded the German positions. Meter after meter of ground was torn up, giant craters changed the landscape, everywhere there were shell holes and crater after crater. In this howling, crashing, roaring, exploding inferno individual shell bursts could not be distinguished. Obstacles were torn apart, bunkers and dugouts were flattened and buried, whole trenches were levelled, direct hits struck machine-gun and mortar positions.

Those who survived the artillery bombardment cowered in their battered trenches and half-destroyed positions, scarcely aware of what was going on around them. Aircraft bearing the red star roared overhead, dropping sticks of bombs and leaving behind them walls of fire. Then the Soviet rifle divisions attacked. A few German troops stirred, automatically reaching for their weapons. A few guns began to fire, then the defensive fire intensified and grew heavier. Nevertheless, masses of earth-brown Red Army troops, escorted by waves of tanks, broke into the shattered German positions under the cover of smoke.

The surviving defenders fought bitterly and in some places repelled the enemy attacks. Penetrations against XXVII Corps north of Orsha and XXXIX Corps east of Mogilev were initially sealed off. However, the major Soviet penetration against VI Corps on the land bridge between the Düna and Dniepr Rivers grew significantly.

The Soviets drove the 78th Assault Division of XXVII Corps, which was on the far left, back from the highway. The corps was forced to commit the only reserve still available to the army group, the 14th Division, in an effort to head off the enemy assault and at least prevent a breakthrough on the first day. The next day the Soviets sent in their massed tank brigades, the existing gap in the front to Third Panzer Army was quickly expanded to 100 kilometers. Russian armored and motorized units poured west virtually unhindered, advancing north of and along the highway. The elements of the corps already cut off were forced to fight their way back toward the rear positions.

In the center, east of Mogilev, two Soviet armies smashed the 337th Division of XXXIX Corps and achieved a deep penetration on the Rjassna-Mogilev road. Once the first and second German trench lines had been stormed, the T-34s began to roll into the corps' rear areas. The Panzergrenadier Division Feldherrnhalle, which was being held in reserve there, was given the task of closing the gaps which had been torn in the defensive front, but was unable to do so.

A deadly threat which was to spell the end of the Fourth Army began to appear on the evening of the second day of the offensive on the army's left wing. The enemy breakthrough there was especially dangerous for the divisions far to the east on the other side of the Dniepr. A request by the army to immediately withdraw the divisions in the bridgehead back across the river was rejected by Hitler. As if to mock the troops there, Russian aircraft dropped leaflets over the front: “We will get you the same way!”

The Soviets broke through the lines of XXVII Corps in the area of Lake Orechi. The Soviets thus gained a free hand west and north of Orsha, allowing them to move further west and south and thus threaten the entire left flank of the army. Bitter fighting raged day and night. In the area of penetration in the center the Soviets continued to attack in the direction of Shkloff and Mogilev in spite of all German countermeasures.

When, on the third day, contact with the Ninth Army was broken north of Rogachev (XII Corps), leaving the army's right wing isolated, the entire salient east of the Dniepr was ripe for encirclement. General von Tippelskirch now decided on his own authority to evacuate the bridgehead, following Hitler's rejection of the idea. However, this decision by the army's Commander-in-Chief came too late because The leading Soviet elements reached the Dniepr at about the same time as the Germans. The prepared positions there could not be held on account of the hotly pursuing enemy.

The main and secondary roads leading to the Dniepr, many of the latter little more than narrow tracks through marshy areas, were completely crammed with retreating combat trains and units of the various divisions. Enemy infantry and tanks broke into the retreat in several places, scattering units and overrunning rearguards.

With the army group's position worsening by the hour, Feldmarschall Busch flew to Führer Headquarters at Rastenburg, East Prussia, where he reported to Hitler. The latter approved a withdrawal in stages by the Fourth Army toward the Beresina, but insisted that the "fortified places" Orsha and Mogilev be held.

All high-level command in the combat zone had ceased. A radio message came from XII Corps: The troops are to fight their way through to the west - then the corps went silent, there were no more communications. While the retreating units were crossing the Dniepr during the night, the Soviets were crossing the river between Orsha and Mogilev at the same time as XXXIX Corps.

There was no longer any question of the cities of Orsha and Mogilev being held. Orsha, the transportation center, fell into Russian hands that evening, before the Germans could organize a defense. The last transport trains carrying wounded and Wehrmacht materiel just managed to escape before the city was encircled. They did not get far, however. A few kilometers beyond the city 25 were caught by Soviet tanks and shot to pieces. The weak garrison of Mogilev (elements of the 31st Infantry Division) went down to defeat the next day.

The last halfway intact division, the 25th Panzergrenadier Division, which had formed XXVII Corps' rearguard south of Orsha, fell back. By now about half the army had reached the west bank of the Dniepr. The Dniepr position was overrun.

The weight of the Russian attack increased. Red Army armored and motorized units drove west through the wide-open front north of XXVII Corps as far as just east of Borisov on the Upper Beresina. Near Tolotchin the Soviets veered southeast across the highway into Fourth Army's deep, open flank. The army now ordered an accelerated withdrawal to the Beresina.

The battered divisions of XXVII Corps pressed themselves together into a sort of "wandering pocket" in the area south of Orsha. Near Mogilev XXXIX Corps sought to assemble what forces it had left, and the wreckage of XII Corps set itself in motion from the Rogatchev area to the Beresina. However, the general direction of the retreat was already being dictated by the enemy. The Soviets were advancing up both sides of the Lower Beresina and had already reached Osipovichi. Thus the retreat to the Beresina could only lead through Beresino and the major road bridge there on the Mogilev-Minsk road. This position too would be overrun by the Soviets.

The distance to the Beresina was about 200 kilometers. And if there had been no defensive line on the west side of the Dniepr, then surely there would be one behind the Beresina - or so the Generals, officers and men believed, hoped and expected. The mass of troops moved out, with the remnants of the surviving divisions forming the core, followed and accompanied by army and corps units, train units, rear services and countless numbers of men separated from their units.

Soviet tanks with mounted infantry were often faster, overtaking and positioning themselves in the path of the retreat, driving through individual march groups, scattering columns, seeking to cut off and trap them. Soviet close-support aircraft repeatedly strafed the defenceless foot and horse-drawn columns by day and bombed them by night. There were no German aircraft to be seen.

This was no longer an orderly withdrawal, rather a mass of men hysterically fighting their way back through an extended area of forests and swamps, crisscrossed by many rivers and streams whose crossings had already been destroyed, over mostly poor roads, in tremendous heat, without adequate provisions, and threatened from all sides. Soon assailed from the flanks and pursued from the rear, the decimated regiments and battle groups had to hold off well-armed partisan bands and regular troops of the Red Army, cover and protect the main column, and fight their way through Soviet blocking positions.

German-speaking Russians in uniforms taken from captured German officers appeared. These tried to assemble stragglers and send them in the wrong direction or divert the columns so as to weaken the already limited cohesion of the German forces, spread confusion and finally deliver them up to Soviet troops. On many occasions German troops threatened to shoot unfamiliar officers in German uniforms who tried to give them orders, suspecting them to be disguised Russians.

German forces had to capture crossing sites on the Drut River so that bridges could be built. On the evening of the following day the Osslik was reached, and as the bridges there had already been destroyed, it had to be forded. When Russian tanks advanced on Borisov they were slowed down and halted briefly by the 5th Panzer Division, which had just detrained there. The division was then sent to a bridgehead on the highway near Borisov to temporarily hold the area east of Minsk. The 12th Panzer Division of the Ninth Army also arrived. Attacking from the area southeast of Minsk it achieved limited success.

At the end of June, General Flörke, on orders from the army command, established a blocking position east of Minsk with the scraped-together remains of various units. The position was held for a few days. Flörke and his troops were unable to prevent the encirclement of the army, which was imminent, but they did allow Minsk and its hospitals to be evacuated. Then the Russians arrived. They entered the undefended capital city of Belorussia. Battle Group Flörke, which was still trying to escape south of Minsk, was caught by the enemy and dispersed, and most of the rearguards were killed.

28,000 wounded Germans left the city. Three hospital and forty-three evacuation trains carried about 12,000 rear echelon Wehrmacht personnel, including a large number of female auxiliaries, to the west.

After the Soviets captured Minsk, Army Group Center expected them to halt, given that the advance had carried spearhead units over 200 km. However, the Soviet logistic system, now comprising large numbers of Chevrolet, Ford, and Dodge trucks received through Lend-Lease, could finally support what Soviet theorists of the 1930s had only dreamed about: the conduct of deep operations—offensive movements that could paralyze the enemy by striking deeply into his rear areas. The tempo of the Soviet advance did not abate.

While some units completed destruction of the Minsk pocket, others were already on the road to Vilnius and Baranovichi, thus opening up a route through the heavily wooded and swampy areas of western Belorussia. Such was the speed of the Soviet advance that the Germans had little prospect of halting it until their opponent’s logistical system could no longer support the forces far down the dusty roads of Belorussia. Soviet spearheads had surrounded Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, although the city would not fall until after a few days of fighting.

Already caught between the enemy spearheads from north and south, the only direction left to the main body of the Fourth Army was toward Beresino. German troops were in fact holding a bridgehead east of the river. The columns which had managed to fight their way back to the bridgehead streamed in from different directions, lining up one behind the other to cross the long bridge over the Beresina. Although a second span and a foot bridge for the infantry had been built, it took days for the accumulated mass to get across. While the pursuing enemy came ever closer, and began to attack from the south, the Soviet Air Force mounted continuous attacks on the Germans.

From time to time the bridge was hit by bombs and rendered unusable until repaired by the pioneers. The scenes there were indescribable. Officers drove their troops, trying to get the decimated units across the bridge as quickly as possible, motor vehicles pushed forward recklessly, horse-drawn vehicles became inextricably entangled, drivers shouted, teams of horses bolted. There were burning trucks everywhere, as well as tanks and guns which had been blown up, bleeding and dying men and the bodies of horses. It was complete chaos and the overriding sentiment was: save yourself if you can!

About 13 kilometers north of Beresino, near Zhukovets, the 110th Division had built its own bridge, over which crossed elements of XXVII Corps. The main bridge near Beresino was blown after the last rearguards had fought their way back from the bridgehead. Further stragglers and small groups of troops arrived the next day and were ferried across by pioneers.

Those who had made it across the river now experienced their next bitter disappointment. There was no defensive line there, no prepared positions occupied by German troops. Even the hopes that they would be beyond the grasp of the Soviets on the west side were dashed. As the last elements were crossing the river, to the north near Borisov the 5th Panzer Division was being forced back. Approaching from the south, where the 12th Panzer Division had also been forced to withdraw.

The end of the Fourth Army was fast approaching. The remains of the army tried to continue their march. The leading elements ran into powerful enemy forces about ten kilometers northwest of Tscherwen, still thirty kilometers southeast of Minsk. The Soviet forces barred the way to the west. The first attempts to break through were unsuccessful, and the attackers suffered heavy casualties. A pocket quickly began to form in the Pekalin area in a triangle between the Minsk highway and Tscherwen. The Germans tried a desperate breakout attempt but only a few managed to escape. About 60,000 men, including 13 Generals, had been killed, captured or had gone missing.

The situation very quickly became hopeless. The Russians poured heavy fire into the pocket. Squeezed together inside the pocket, which was twelve kilometers wide and five kilometers deep, were the jumbled elements of eleven divisions, security units, army and corps units, trains, etc, including about four to five thousand wounded.

The majority of the surrounded troops initiated the breakout toward the west, intending to bypass enemy-occupied Minsk to the south. The units encountered heavy defensive fire and soon split up into individual battle groups and other small groups. Overrun Soviet units in the path of the breakout soon regrouped and were reinforced by motorized troops. The Soviets then began to pursue the fleeing groups of German troops and encircle them.

There were twenty to thirty enemy aircraft overhead at all times, and the forces in the pocket were under continuous air attack. Losses mounted. The last artillery rounds were used up in futile local attempts to break out. The infantry were also almost out of ammunition. In places the infantry had to leave their foxholes and attack with fixed bayonets in order to repel enemy attacks. The last hand grenades were used up. There was no more food, ammunition or fuel.

Several divisions had launched a breakout attempt across the highway intending to bypass Minsk to the north. The final breakout attempts ended after 4 days of heavy fighting. The German forces trying to escape suffered further heavy losses, especially at the hands of the Soviet Air Force.

The Commanding Generals of XXVII and XII Corps (General Völckers and General Müller) called all of the Generals in the pocket together for a conference. The result was a decision for an immediate breakout. The short time available was insufficient to restore order and assemble the various units forced together in the pocket. General Völckers dissolved his corps and issued orders by radio for the units to break through on their own toward the west with the general objective of reaching Baranovichi. But Baranovichi was 170 kilometers away.

According to Soviet reports General Müller ordered all resistance to cease near Tschalin, after the ability to resist of the units and stragglers with him had almost ended and there was no hope of reaching the distant German lines. Many groups of troops, large and small, nevertheless continued to try and make their way to the German lines. Only a few men succeeded, however. Most were killed in hopeless battles, were murdered by partisans, starved to death in the forests or went into Soviet captivity.

The Soviet offensive against this army followed a similar pattern to those against the Third Panzer and Fourth Armies. Probing and preparatory attacks had been beaten off. Then, however, it was the same as at Vitebsk, Orsha and Mogilev, only this time the destructive fire began at night and was concentrated on the army's left wing in XXXV Corps' sector near Rogatchev. At first light formations of close-support aircraft dove on the still-smoking forward positions. Then the enemy came - two tightly-massed armies of the First Belorussian Front attacked. The German defenders were overrun here also.

For three-quarters of an hour shells of every caliber rained down on trenches, strong points, artillery positions and command posts. Scarcely a square meter of ground was left untouched. The grenadiers in their battered positions dared not raise their heads and the gun crews could not run to their guns. Field telephone lines were blasted and most of the radio equipment was knocked out - no more communications. Then the enemy fire abruptly shifted to the rear.

The remaining German infantry crouched behind their guns could scarcely believe their eyes. They had felt themselves relatively secure with the natural obstacles of the Drut River and nearby swampy terrain between them and the enemy. But now masses of Russian infantry came storming across the stream on numerous footbridges and Soviet tanks, which had crossed the Drut over underwater bridges, were rolling through the swamp over log roads.

Close-quarters fighting with the shouting Red Army troops broke out. The first enemy assault was repulsed, but the second broke into the German positions. Those who were still able fought back with determination. An example of this determination was provided by 3rd Battalion, 446th Grenadier Regiment (134th Division), which destroyed thirty Soviet tanks by midday. The other units also accounted for a large number of enemy tanks. There were successes here and there, but they were too little in the face of the enemy's overwhelming numerical superiority.

The Russians made their first penetrations against the 134th and 296th Divisions, precisely at the boundary between the Fourth and Ninth Armies. Strong enemy forces began to take hold of the wooded area west of the Drut. Against this dangerous penetration east of Bobruisk the army command committed the only panzer division it had in reserve (20th Panzer Division). The panzers attacked that evening and achieved some success.

The area east of Bobruisk was not the only focal point of the Soviet offensive. A second lay south of Bobruisk, near Paritschi, where a second group of forces with two armies had attacked XXXXI Corps following a heavy bombardment and had achieved a major penetration against the 36th Division.

As the situation here seemed to be worsening, orders were issued for the 20th Panzer Division to launch a counterattack to the south. The division had to drive more than 100 kilometers over poor roads into XXXXI Corps' area. The division had not had sufficient time to have much effect with XXXV Corps, and now it was too late to help XXXXI Corps. The breakthrough near Paritschi was already forty kilometers wide, and the 20th Panzer Division was unable to prevent it, even though it destroyed sixty Soviet tanks.

The Russians reached the rail line south of Bobruisk. More forces followed and motorized units advanced west and northwest on a broad front. Soviet spearheads were as far as Osipovichi. East of the Beresina XXXXI Corps and its battered divisions were forced to conduct a fighting withdrawal toward the north toward the Beresina bridges leading to Bobruisk.

The enemy had already cut the major Mogilev-Bobruisk road, sent a strong force of tanks to Titovka from the northeast and blocked the bridge over the Beresina there. The army once again requested permission for XXXV Corps to withdraw toward the north, while there still might be time for some units to escape. The army group's answer, based on an order from Hitler:” Permission to withdraw is absolutely out of the question”. The enemy was too strong, however, and events now began to develop like an avalanche.

In the north the Russians had forced a breakthrough against XXXV Corps and then continued their attack toward the northwest and west with undiminished strength. Already they were threatening the roads leading to Bobruisk from the east. An attempt by the 707th Security Division to close the gap to Fourth Army failed. The Soviets broke through the corps several more times, and major German elements streamed back in the direction of Bobruisk.

On the east side of the Beresina, XXXXI Corps, which was withdrawing, sent the 20th Panzer Division ahead to seize the bridges leading to Bobruisk. The division was unable, however, to reach the bridges against the powerful enemy forces around Titovka. Nevertheless, most of the foot elements were able to get across to the west side of the Beresina and into the city. This was no longer possible for the mass of XXXV Corps. Withdrawing from the east, its path to the river crossing had already been blocked near Titovka. An enemy spearhead from the north grew stronger on the 26th and began to surround the corps.

The increasingly surrounded, attacked and the pressured corps defended itself on all sides, while other columns and elements of various divisions streaming in from the east strove to escape across the remaining rail bridge to Bobruisk, under heavy air attack the whole time. The area east of Titovka held by units of XXXV and XXXXI Corps was reduced considerably and the confusion in the forming pocket was great.

The corps command was unable to restore order to and lead the partially-smashed, scattered units. There was no other course of action but to break out through the enemy ring toward the northwest, as there appeared to be no way west across the Beresina. Appropriate orders were issued and the first still-cohesive units and battle groups set out against initially weak opposition.

The same terrible scenes were played out over and over again. Because of the swampy terrain on both sides of the road on the east bank of the Beresina there was no possibility of seeking cover to the right or left. The units and trains of about six divisions, corps units and so on, assembled, waited, marched, then halted again. All the while they were subjected to hours of air attacks against which there was no cover or defence. The situation worsened as wrecked vehicles added to the congestion on the road. Losses were extremely heavy.

The Soviets moved in tanks and strong infantry forces, broke up the columns and largely smashed them. The fate of one battle group, which included the corps' Commanding General, was typical. It was formed from remnants of the 296th Division. The group succeeded in crossing the Mogilev-Bobruisk highway without interference. It spent a day in the area between the highway and the road which branched off to Podretschje. That evening, as it moved out across the road toward the north, the battle group came under fire from a battery of 122mm artillery. No trace was ever found of Generalleutnant von Lützow.

The remains of the units attempting to break out now assembled into small groups and tried to escape to the northwest. During the next few days most were captured or wiped out. A few small groups reached the Beresina north of Bobruisk. These tried to swim the river, believing that they would be free from the Russians. on the other side. In some places, however, the Russians were already waiting on the west bank. Only a few individuals managed to make their way back to German units.

The entire XXXV Corps had been wiped out within five days. But there was still Bobruisk and XXXXI Corps. The Russians were already 3 km southwest of the city, and it was enveloped from the south, west and north. The Soviets had been able to completely surround the city so quickly because an undefended road bridge fifteen kilometers north of the city had fallen into their hands. Only a small bridgehead around the rail bridge remained in German hands on the east bank. For the mass of the cut-off XXXV Corps it was of little significance. Another order from the army group command came: “Fortified place Bobruisk is to be held with one division no matter what.”

It was the same as before at Vitebsk, Orsha and Mogilev: there was no 'fortified place' - no appropriate fortifications, no stockpiles of supplies, no powerful, cohesive garrison - nothing but a massive aggregation of men. Named fortress commandant, General Hamann, who was later hanged by the Russians, had nothing with which to conduct an effective defence. The Commander-in-Chief of the Ninth Army requested a breakout to the west by all the surrounded units. Feldmarschall Busch refused and gave orders for Bobruisk to be defended to the last round.

The first powerful attacks from the south and west failed in the face of defensive fire from the 383rd Division, the 20th Panzer Division, assault guns and security units. During the day and the coming night thousands of soldiers, mostly stragglers from the east and from the army's rear area to the west of the city, streamed into Bobruisk, most of them without weapons, however.

Russian infantry gradually reduced the outer positions and pressed toward the city limits. General Edmund Hoffmeister, the commander of XXXXI Corps, who had moved with his staff to Bobruisk, radioed to Ninth Army: “383rd Infantry Division is engaged in fighting for Bobruisk. In the city are the commanders of the 36th and 45th Infantry Divisions and the 707th Security Division. Commander of the 134th Division has shot himself. Since dark on the previous day elements of every division have been streaming into Bobruisk in disorder, some without weapons and after destroying their heavy weapons. Flow across the rail bridge continues. No radio contact with XXXV Corps, which ordered all guns blown up. Request complete freedom of action.”

Finally, after heavy and hopeless fighting, word arrived from the army group: “On orders of the Führer the 'fortified place' Bobruisk is to be abandoned, surrounded units are to break out toward the north along the Beresina.” As the Germans assembled in the Northern area,in preparation for the breakout, the Russians started bombing the city, reducing it to a pile of burning rubble.

By this time, those in the OKW had already written off the men of the Ninth Army. This is reflected in an extract from Army Group Center's war diary:” June 28: This morning's reports of the catastrophe involving the main body of the Ninth Army surrounded in the area around Bobruisk leave no doubt that the unit has no more fighting value, even if the intended breakout battles could be successfully carried out. An entry in the war diary of the Ninth Army the same day read: “ The enemy ring around Bobruisk has closed. For practical purposes the army has ceased to exist as a fighting unit.”

In the overcrowded city, hell began to open up. Ammunition and food were running low, there was no water. A supply drop was made, but most of the canisters landed among the Russians. The wounded from the individual dressing stations were taken into the unprepared casemates of the citadel, a relatively safe location, which eventually held 5,000 wounded. They remained there with first aid personnel, as it was impossible to evacuate them.

While most of the attacks were being repulsed and individual penetrations were being cleared up by counterattacks, the Soviets began to lay down an increasing weight of fire on the entire city area with artillery and rocket launchers, including numbers of phosphorous shells. Waves of Soviet aircraft dropped their bomb loads on the city. Groups of houses caught fire, supply dumps burned.

The Russians used a surviving telephone line to demand that the commandant surrender. In great haste the defenders tried to organize a breakout, which was to take place in three waves. The breakout was ordered to begin at night and was to be made on the west side of the Beresina in a general northerly direction.

As the masses of men and machines were trying to achieve some sort of order, an almost impossible undertaking, the enemy artillery fire intensified. Whole areas of the city were in flames, black swaths of smoke stood out against the blood-red night sky, thick smoke filled the streets, roof frameworks collapsed in showers of sparks and walls crashed to the ground. Over a city sinking into an orgy of rubble and ash roared the Russian bombers.

A stream of men fled into the northern quarter of the city, from where the breakout was to take place. Column after column gathered on the broad arterial road until it was completely filled. Among those waiting to break out were large numbers of men separated from their units, Wehrmacht personnel and lines of Russian civilians trying to flee the Red Army. Those wounded who could still walk joined the columns.

Rumors spread in the terrible confusion and in some places there were outbreaks of panic. With great difficulty the first wave, with its combat units and spearhead, an armored group from the 20th Panzer Division, which still had several tanks and twelve armored personnel carriers, assembled for the breakout. Supporting this force were several self-propelled guns and ten assault guns.

As so often before the breakout order had come one or two days too late. From the mass of the German soldiers assembled in the city only 15,000 would manage to reach the German lines, out of 70.000. This was the final fate of the German 9th Army.

The advance units of the first wave began to move. After four kilometers, however, came the first Russian blocking position. Rifle fire cracked from the German ranks. With wild determination they overran an anti-tank position. After further enemy resistance had been overcome other march groups, often clustered into small groups, followed along the bank of the Beresina. Then it began to get light in the east and soon the Russian close-support aircraft were there, roaring over the columns at low altitude, firing their cannon and machineguns into the columns. The columns split up and sought cover.

On the west bank of the Beresina the situation was no different than on the east bank. For unknown reasons the second wave did not leave Bobruisk until around midday and was surrounded after five kilometers. Few escaped. The last wave, which included elements of the 383rd Division, whose task it was to hold off the pursuing enemy, as well as many wounded and survivors from the second wave, was supposed to follow on the evening. Its breakout got nowhere, as the Russians had meanwhile completely blocked any escape to the north and west. Only a few small groups and individuals managed to get through.

T-34 tanks appeared ahead and the few remaining German tanks and assault guns took up the uneven battle. Soon they lay shot-up and burning at the side of the road. Nevertheless, the first wave fought on and advanced thirty-five kilometers toward the northwest, even though partisans in German uniforms tried to sow confusion among the columns and battle groups.

The wounded suffered a particularly tragic fate. Many of the ambulatory wounded left the hospitals and joined the breakout waves, others hobbled on crutches or even crawled in order to avoid capture. About 5,000 wounded, mostly serious cases, remained behind in Bobruisk, as did many stragglers and the city commandant.

The escaping Germans were completely scattered by a strong Russian force coming from the east across the Beresina. The Commanding General of XXXXI Corps and the commanders of the 36th and 45th Divisions were captured. The remaining small groups of German soldiers continued toward the northwest. Most of them succeeded by various means in reaching the Swisslotsch area. Here they were picked up by the 12th Panzer Division, which was advancing toward them from the area of Marina Gorka.

Frantic and scattered, the remains of XXXV and XXXXI Corps stumbled about for days between the Drut, Beresina and Swisslotsch. Only about 15,000 men had reached the lines of the 12th Panzer Division. The division was forced to withdraw again south of Minsk. Those who had escaped were loaded aboard trains in Marina Gorka and transported to the west. Further losses were suffered in the overloaded rail cars through partisan demolitions and air attacks.

The LV Army Corps and its two divisions were cut off during the Soviet breakthrough near Paritschi, as was XXXXI Corps' 129th Division. The army group placed these units under the command of the Second Army, which was not attacked. The three divisions were the only ones of the entire army group to escape. The 129th Division was forced to find its way through the difficult, partisan controlled Pripyat Marshes. For 14 days, the division fought its way through swamps, moors, rivers and forests, marching great distances under the hot sun with little to eat, often over log roads and bridges built by the pioneers.

After the defeat the Germans set out from Vitebsk, from Bobruisk and from the large pocket southeast of Minsk. Their numbers dwindled rapidly, and in the following days and weeks the majority were wiped out. Many were not equal to the increased hardships and fell behind from exhaustion, many were surrounded again and most were killed by Russian search parties or partisans. The survivors, the later "Rückkämpfer" sought to make their way through the once again Soviet-occupied territory of Belarus to Poland or Lithuania. Those who could not go any further, could not endure or were wounded were left behind and died alone and abandoned.

An order by the Soviet dictator Stalin, decreeing that all fleeing German soldiers were guerillas who had to be liquidated, contributed to this state of affairs.

The soldier on the run the longest was Unteroffizier A. Anzhofer of the 246th Infantry Division. He reached the German lines in the vicinity of Schaulen (Lithuania) with two other soldiers on September 2, sixty-nine days after beginning his trek. The trio had covered approximately 600-800 kilometers (400 kilometers in a straight line). Ten men had been left behind along the way.

The Soviets did everything in their power to catch the scattered and fleeing German soldiers. They sent mounted Cossacks to pursue them, set up blocking positions and intensified their aerial reconnaissance. U-2 biplanes flew search patterns by day and occasionally dropped leaflets. These urged German soldiers to report at once to the nearest Russian command and made the usual promises about good rations, fair treatment and an early return home. The German troops paid little attention to these promises, they knew differently from experience and had seen and experienced too much to trust the Russians.

The most determined and fearless among the "Rückkämpfer", wandered on through the enemy rear in ever smaller groups and finally in pairs or even alone. Most hid during the day and travelled only by night, some still carrying their weapons, some unarmed. They occasionally ran into comrades, exchanged experiences and stories, travelled together for a time and then separated again to improve their chances of getting through. They avoided roads and footpaths, making their way instead through almost impenetrable forests, wading large swampy areas, sneaking through cornfields and thickets by night, slipping past villages.

These desperate, hunted men lived off whatever they could find along the way: green berries from the forest, ripening grain from the rye fields and half-rotten potatoes left over from the previous year. They ate wild plants and stole chickens, sheep and calves from secluded houses at the fringes of villages. Sometimes they received milk, eggs and bread from sympathetic villagers. They drank unboiled water from brooks, moors and pools. Things were somewhat better in Polish or Lithuanian territory, but the inhabitants were too frightened of the Russians to offer much help.

The most difficult part of the long journey, with its almost unimaginable hardships and deprivation, was passing through the Russian lines to the German front. A large percentage of the fugitive German soldiers failed to negotiate this last obstacle and died with their goal in sight. Those who did finally succeed in reaching their own lines, bearded, completely dishevelled, often dressed partly in civilian clothes and scarcely recognizable as German soldiers, were received with comradeship.

The survivors were sent to Schloßberg in East Prussia, where they were all assembled. Often little more than human skeletons, covered with sores and completely exhausted, they received the best possible care. There were representatives from many divisions and many ranks. The most senior was a Major, a wearer of the Knight's Cross, who had made his way back alone, walking barefoot at the end. The higher ranking officers had failed to get through, mainly on account of their age. Only a very few men, travelling alone or in twos or threes or small groups, survived the weeks of hardship and made their way through hundreds of kilometers of enemy territory.

By the time the Russian offensive began to peter out, even the expectations of the Soviet High Command had been exceeded. Spearheads of the Red Army reached the Baltic in the north and had cut off all of Army Group North, which from then on was isolated in the Courland. The Baltic states were also captured by the Soviets later that year, and Finland surrendered.

The bulk of Army Group Center lay behind the onrushing Russian troops. All of the Third Panzer Army, the Fourth Army and a large part of the Ninth Army had been lost. In a battle lasting barely fourteen days the Germans had lost 7 of 9 army corps. The remnants which managed to escape were of little military value.

The destruction of Army Group Center had immediate repercussions for the northern segment of the front as the Red Army drove into the open gap. Between Army Group North and the remnants of Model's forces. Model proposed to Hitler that efforts to restore contact between the two Army Groups by offensives from both were not feasible and that Army Group North, which might easily be cut off by a Soviet thrust to the Baltic Sea, be pulled back to the river Dvina. In rejecting this concept then and later, Hitler referred to the critical objections of Admiral Dönitz, the Commander-in-Chief of the navy, which needed control of the Baltic to train U-Boat crews.

In the north, after the Soviets forced the Finnish to sue for peace, the German 2oth Army began a slow withdrawal, at first trying to hold on to the Petsamo nickel mines but then pulling back into Norway as the need for the nickel turned out to be less than anticipated and the Red Army joined the Finnish in pressuring the German retreat. In the winter, the 20th Army joined the other forces stationed in Norway and except for some units transferred to the main fronts on the continent remained there until the 1945 surrender. In northern Finland and the northernmost province of Norway, they had laid waste everything and burned every building to prevent any pursuit.

Hitler stressed Germany's need for steel from Sweden, nickel from Finland, and oil from Estonian oil shale. But the Red Army was not impressed by all this, continued to roll forward, and drove to the Baltic just west of Riga. In the most desperate fighting, the Germans reopened a corridor along the coast to Army Group North. But because the Soviet offensive had driven the Germans out of their best defensive line from the Gulf of Finland south they could not hold Estonia forever.

Within a month, the Red Army, with its tremendous superiority, had advanced into the Kuvno-Brest Litovsk area, in eastern Poland. A week later the Russians were on the Vistula. With Galicia now under Soviet control, the Red Army stood practically on the border of Hungary and Slovakia at about the same time as it had reached the German border of East Prussia on the northern flank of the great offensive.

New defensive lines in the center existed mainly in the imagination of Model and Hitler. The Red Army commanders, who could not know of these theoretical halt lines, simply drove on into the open or into the fleeing Germans. A project to push into the advancing Soviet forces from the north never got started because Army Group North lacked the needed Panzer divisions, and the Red Army drove into Lithuania and eastern Poland.

The Red Army was able to cross the pre-war borders of Poland and recapture Kaunas, Minsk, Białystok and Lublin, and by August they had crossed the River Bug. They stopped on the Vistula, outside Warsaw, because Model managed to check Rokossovsky’s 1st Belorussian Front to the east of the Polish capital. It is often assumed that the Russians stopped on the Vistula for entirely political reasons, in order to allow the Germans to crush the Warsaw Uprising. But from a military point of view they had a good excuse to do so, for their 725 km advance had stretched their supplies and lines of communication to the limits.

In its push into Poland, the Red Army reached Majdanek, the easternmost and first of the larger death camps established by the Germans. The labor and extermination camp was the only one in the immediate vicinity of a large city, Lublin, and had served for years as a central site for forced labor and mass killing of Jews and of other people primarily from Poland and the Soviet Union. Over 300,000 had been murdered there. Here pictures could first be taken and circulated around the world of huge piles of shoes, enormous quantities of human hair, and grinding machines for crushing bones into fertilizer.

By mid-July, the Red Army had advanced more than 320 km on the Central front and had to pause for bringing up supplies and repairs on the road and railway system. At the end of August the front in the north quieted down temporarily as the Red Army regrouped, but there were clearly great dangers ahead for the exposed northern flank which the Soviet Union could exploit when the next offensive was launched.

As the Red Army was advancing on Warsaw on the Central front, the First Belorussian Front of Rokossovsky and Konev's First Ukrainian Front smashed into Model's Army Group North Ukraine. By this time, a number of the divisions which Model had amassed earlier had been written off by being sent to reinforce the crumbling front of Army Group Center. The withdrawals Hitler had allowed Model to make before the new Soviet offensive did not provide much relief. In a series of massive attacks the Red Army spearheads, broke the German front and sent the 4th Panzer Army, 17th Army, and 1st Panzer Army—or rather what was left of them—reeling back.

In six weeks of battle the First Ukrainian Front, part of it reorganized as the Fourth Ukrainian Front in the meantime (with the staff from the Crimea where it was no longer needed), drove the Germans back to the Carpathian mountains.

The Soviet victory over Army Group South Ukraine included an encirclement of a corps of about 30,000 men of whom only 5000 escaped. The Soviet leadership at the army and the newly reintroduced corps level had learned much about offensive warfare in the age of armor and now applied this effectively to the Germans. The fact that by this time the Soviet Air Force controlled the skies over most of the front helped. Soviet artillery could compensate by very heavy firing for the fact that, after their earlier great losses, the Russians now had to be very careful with their infantry in the assault.

There were a few scrawny scraps of comfort for Hitler. With the Red Army only 24 kms from the borders of East Prussia, Model – outnumbered and outgunned, especially in the air – had nonetheless managed severely to maul the Second Tank Army and force the Soviets back 48 kms. Model’s victory, though relatively small-scale in the context of the overall situation, nonetheless earned him his Führer’s encomium as ‘the saviour of the Eastern Front’.

Hitler said at a conference: ‘I really think one can’t imagine a worse crisis than the one we had in the East this year. When Field Marshal Model came, the Army Group Centre was nothing but a hole.’ Yet rather than giving him greater responsibilities there, or even perhaps command over the entire front, Hitler moved Model onto the Western Front, and there was yet another change of army group commanders.

After the Soviet breakthroughs of late June in the East and the American rupture of the Normandy front at the end of July there were clear signs of panic in the rear areas on both fronts. Among the units at the front, most fought very hard at first, and some continued with desperate resistance even after the front had been pierced, but there were now mass surrenders alongside instances of garrisons fighting to the bitter end.

All the prisoners were loaded aboard trains and taken to Moscow. A great victory parade on the occasion of the smashing of the German Army Group Center took place in Moscow. 57,600 German prisoners, in blocks twenty men wide, led by a group of Generals and escorted by Red Army troops with fixed bayonets and mounted Cossacks with slung submachine-guns, were marched down the wide Leningrad Road and Gorki Street toward Red Square in the city's center. Only a very few would ever see their homeland again, and then only after many years of captivity. The population of Moscow lined the streets to watch this spectacle.

The German military machine still had lots of fight in it, but there were now omens of disaster which could not be obliterated either by enthusiasm and hope on the one hand or fear of the enemy or one's own judicial terror machine on the other. The new army Chief-of-Staff, General Guderian, could vent his resentment on commanders like von Kluge who had crossed him in prior years, and he could call on all officers to listen to lectures on National Socialist ideology, but beyond that he hardly made a major difference.

At the celebrations in Moscow soon afterwards, and the German POWs were paraded through Red Square, with many of the twenty-five captured generals at their head, the war correspondent Alexander Werth reported: “The Moscow people looked on quietly without booing and hissing, and only a few youngsters could be heard shouting, ‘Hey, look at the Fritzes with their ugly snouts,’ but most people only exchanged remarks in soft voices. I heard a little girl sitting on her mother’s shoulders say: ‘Mummy, are these the people who killed Daddy?’ And the mother hugged the child and wept.” The Germans had finally arrived in Moscow.

Bagration lasted for sixty-eight days, and saw average German casualties of more than 11,000 per day. In the course of this vast cauldron battle, the Russians punched the Wehrmacht in its solar plexus, regained Belorussia and opened the way to attack East Prussia and the Baltic States.

Hitler came to attribute the disaster of Army Group Center and the large-scale surrenders on both fronts to treason among the military, but the roots of defeat lay elsewhere. The fear of another Stalingrad hung over German soldiers in the East. They had lost heavily in the battles of the preceding years. To the ordinary soldier the prospects looked grimmer and grimmer. To the officers, the sacrifice of their men in holding on to some obscure French or Russian town for a few more days looked ever more dubious as a sound operation of war.

Churchill used the occasion of the destruction of Army Group Centre to make another quip at Hitler’s expense in the House of Commons, saying ‘It may well be that the Russian success has been somewhat aided by the strategy of Herr Hitler – of Corporal Hitler. Even military idiots find it difficult not to see some faults in some of his actions… Altogether, I think it is much better to let officers rise up in the proper way.’

After only ten days this battle, probably the largest single one in history, was over. The German Army Group Center was no more. The three armies which had been attacked possessed no cohesive and combat capable units worthy of mention. A section of the German front almost 350 kilometers wide had been completely destroyed. Once again Hitler needed a scapegoat. It was none other than the Commander in-Chief of the army group, Feldmarschall Busch, the very man who had followed Hitler's rigid defensive concept. Busch was relieved of his post and replaced by Feldmarschall Model, who was also in command of Army Group North Ukraine.

Model could not change what was taking place or save the army group. All he could do was try and slow down the enemy advance with the few new divisions he was sent. A new German defensive front was finally established 400 kilometers further to the west. Model was desperately trying to put together out of minimal reserves, remnants of Army Group Center which had been pulled back, and rounded up stragglers streaming back terrified and broken.

The many partisans in the German rear vigorously supported the regular Red Army. They interrupted overland traffic, attacked whole units and columns from ambush positions, on occasion intervened openly in the fighting and generally made the German retreat significantly more difficult.

The Soviets tremendous superiority in troops, guns, tanks and aircraft permitted a style of attack which the German soldiers, in spite of their determination and will to hold out, could not withstand. Battered by masses of men and materiel, entire sectors of the German front were smashed and destroyed. Additional forces immediately poured through the holes and gaps in the front, expanding them into ever larger breakthroughs. Powerful armored and motorized forces streamed west, northwest and southwest without regard to their open flanks, driving into German units trying to fall back and cutting all communications, before turning back to complete the encirclements.

The Soviet Air Force, which completely ruled the skies, played a special role. Appearing in numbers never before seen, its bombers and close-support aircraft flew almost without interruption. They blasted mine fields and barbed-wire obstacles, bombed defensive positions and artillery, destroyed bridges and crossings with precision attacks and harried the retreating columns without mercy, sowing chaos and confusion.

German losses have been placed at about 350,000 men, including 150,000 captured by the Soviets. Further losses, including those shot on the way to the assembly camps, deaths during transport to Russia in overcrowded rail cars and from starvation and disease in the prisoner of war camps are estimated at 75,000 - giving a total of 275,000 dead German soldiers. The exact numbers will never be known.

The shattered and isolated divisions and corps were squeezed together by continued pincer attacks until surrounded. The inflexible orders to hold on and the panic and disorder in the trains and rear-echelon units caused by the enemy threat made an orderly, mobile conduct of the battle impossible. The few unmanned blocking and security positions in the rear were also soon overrun.

Many divisions had been so completely destroyed that scarcely a man returned, and in some cases not until after years in Russian captivity. For example, the OKH center in Rudolstadt, Thuringia, declared the entire East Prussian 206th Infantry Division, which numbered about 12,000 men, killed or missing. Army Group Center lost virtually all of its war materiel. Its total collapse was the worst catastrophe in the history of the German Army, and the greatest in German military history.