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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.