This was the Soviet strategic offensive, more formally known as the ‘Belorussian Strategic Offensive Operation’, of the summer of 1944 by the forces in Belorussia and northern Ukraine and leading to the destruction of Generalfeldmarschall Ernst Busch’s (from 28 June Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model’s and from 16 August Generaloberst Georg-Hans Reinhardt’s) Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ and the expulsion of the German forces westward into the Baltic states and Poland (23 June/29 August 1944).
Schemed by the Stavka (Soviet general staff) under the personal supervision of Premier Iosif Stalin (supreme commander) and Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Georgi K. Zhukov (deputy supreme commander and also the operational commander of the offensive), ‘Bagration’ was co-ordinated by Zhukov and Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Aleksandr M. Vasilevsky, and included in the Soviet order of battle, from north to south, General Hovhannes Kh. Bagramyan’s 1st Baltic Front 1, General Ivan D. Chernyakhovsky’s 3rd Belorussian Front 2, General Polkovnik Georgi F. Zakharov’s 2nd Belorussian Front 3, General Konstantin K. Rokossovsky’s 1st Belorussian Front 4, and Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Ivan S. Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front 5.
‘Bagration’ was fought in three phases and several sub-operations as the breakthrough operations of the first phase, the destruction of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ as the second phase, and the pursuit operations as the third phase. The first phase comprised the 'Vitebsk-Orsha Offensive Operation' (23/28 June), 'Mogilev Offensive Operation' (23/28 June) and 'Bobruysk Offensive Operation' (24/29 June); the second phase comprised the 'Polotsk Offensive Operation' (29 June/4 July) and 'Minsk Offensive Operation' (29 June/4 July); and the third phase comprised the 'Vilnyus Offensive Operation' (5/20 July), 'Šiauliai Offensive Operation' (5/31 July), 'Bialystok Offensive Operation' (5/27 July), 'Lublin-Brest Offensive Operation' (18 July/2 August), 'Kaunas Offensive Operation' (28 July/28 August) and 'Osovets Offensive Operation' (6/14 August).
Numerically strong and materially well equipped, under able leadership and characterised by high morale as a result of success in previous campaigns, the Soviet forces committed to these offensive operations were opposed by fewer, overextended and less capable German forces in the shape of Generaloberst Georg Lindemann’s (from 4 July Generaloberst Johannes Friessner’s) Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ 6 and Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ commanded by Generalfeldmarschall Ernst Busch and then, from 28 June, Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model 7.
Adolf Hitler had ordered Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ and Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ to stand fast in their current positions within a great eastward-facing German salient without thought of any withdrawal to shorter and more defensible lines farther to the west. The spring thaw of 1944 in fact provided the Germans with a last opportunity to re-establish their position on the Eastern Front. The irregular line on which the Soviet winter offensive had finally come to a halt was too long for effective defence by the much diminished forces which was all that the Germans now possessed, and the obvious solution was a strategic withdrawal to a shorter and also stronger line, one suggestion being that between Riga and the Dniestr river via Lwów, which could also be fortified in depth and thereby present the Soviets with a far more formidable obstacle. A strategic withdrawal would have allowed sufficient divisions to be pulled out of the line to create a potent mobile reserve to be stationed in a central position, such as the region around Warsaw, ready for commitment as, where and when required once the Soviets’ primary axis of advance had been established.
Hitler refused even to consider such a concept, however, and instead opted for the designation of certain important communications centres, such as Vitebsk, as ‘fortresses’ to be held to the last man as a means of breaking the momentum of the Soviet advances. Moreover, Hitler continued to refuse all suggestion for the establishment of a fortified zone behind the Eastern Front, and even to consider the recall of any of the otherwise largely inactive divisions garrisoning Norway, Greece and Crete, all of which were areas that the German leader deemed likely, or indeed inevitable, candidates for invasion by the Western Allies.
So far as the Eastern Front was concerned, Hitler seems to have expected that the Soviet forces would concentrate their efforts in the north Ukrainian region between the Pripyet Marshes and the Carpathian mountains, so most of Germany’s available armour was grouped in this south central area.
In fact the Soviet high command had different objectives, especially as the bulging and poorly defended German salient to the north of the Pripyet Marshes in western Belorussia invited an offensive along axes which would later converge on southern Lithuania and East Prussia. The terrain along the axis between Smolensk and Warsaw via Minsk was particularly well suited to mobile warfare, as the Soviets had learned to their great cost from the Germans during ‘Barbarossa’, and the logistic support of an offensive in this part of the front would be comparatively straightforward from the Moscow region.
During the ‘Eureka’ conference at Tehran in Iran during November 1943, the Allies had agreed that the Soviet forces would take the offensive at about the same time that the Western Allies launched their ‘Overlord’ invasion of northern France: the two offensives would thus be mutually supporting. On 6 June British, Canadian and US forces landed in Normandy.
During the night of 22 June, partisan activity erupted throughout the rear areas of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, severing many of its lines of communication, and on the following day the Soviet grand strategic offensive started with the support of massive artillery strength. The organisation and deployment of the Soviet fronts in the northern and western parts of the USSR had undergone some change in the spring of 1944. The Volkhov Front had disappeared, its commander, General Kirill A. Meretskov, having been transferred to assume command of the Karelia Front opposite the Finns. General Leonid A. Govorov’s Leningrad Front was now responsible only for the Narva sector to the north of Lake Peipus. A new 3rd Baltic Front had been formed out of the left wing of the Leningrad Front in April under General Ivan I. Maslennikov to undertake operations in the sector to the south of Lake Peipus. General Markian M. Popov’s (later General Andrei I. Eremenko’s) 2nd Baltic Front remained to the north of Nevel, with the 1st Baltic Front to its south. Chernyakovsky’s new 3rd Belorussian Front had been formed in April in the area of Smolensk from General Vasili D. Sokolovsky’s West Front, Sokolovsky becoming Zhukov’s chief-of-staff at the 1st Ukrainian Front. Rokossovsky’s 1st Belorussian Front was still in the area of Gomel. General Pavel A. Kurochkin’s 2nd Belorussian Front along the edge of the Pripyet Marshes, south of the 1st Belorussian Front, had been disbanded at the beginning of April, after a life of only seven weeks, only to be resuscitated two weeks later, under the command of Zakharov, near Mogilev immediately to the north of the 1st Belorussian Front.
In the middle of May Zhukov, Vasilevsky and General Aleksei I. Antonov, deputy to the chief of the Stavka, began to develop ‘Bagration’ as a major operation to ensure the envelopment, within 50 days, of the salient occupied by Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, and to penetrate the rear to a depth of 155 miles (250 km). By 20 May a draft plan had been readied for presentation to Stalin and despatch to the fronts concerned. On 22 May Rokossovsky was called to Moscow and a day later Bagramyan and Chernyakhovsky arrived, bringing with them members of their staffs, situation reports and their own outline plans. More detailed work then began both by the Stavka at the defence ministry and by the front staffs at their various front headquarters, the planning proceeding in parallel as heads of supporting arms and services were brought into the planning. Frequent and close contact soon removed difficulties and queries before a final version of the outline directive was authorised by Stalin and confirmed to the fronts on 31 May. Vasilevsky and Zhukov left for their respective groups of fronts on 4 and 5 June to continue more detailed planning in conjunction with front, army and corps commanders and their staffs, General Major Sergei M. Shtemenko, the head of the operations directorate within the Stavka, having been allotted to assist Zhukov. Much of the planning took place at army and corps headquarters and, at Zhukov’s request, General Aleksandr A. Novikov and General Aleksandr Ye. Golovanov arrived to assist in planning the employment of the air support allocated to the operation. The commanders of all corps, divisions and supporting arms then attended what was in effect a central presentation and war game.
The offensive was scheduled to begin along a front no less than 450 miles (725 km) wide and was based on six main assault axes, widely dispersed in a deliberate attempt to compel the Germans to divide and thus dilute their reserve strength.
The first phase of the main attack was to be made in the north by the 1st Baltic and 3rd Belorussian Fronts on Reinhardt’s 3rd Panzerarmee in the area of Vitebsk, while the 1st Belorussian Front attacked Harpe’s 9th Army near Bobruysk. When initial lodgements had been established in these two areas, the 3rd and 1st Belorussian Fronts would envelop Minsk from the north and south, destroying Heinrici’s 4th Army and part of the 9th Army. The 2nd Belorussian Front served as the connecting link between the 1st and 3rd Belorussian Fronts.
In preparation for this huge offensive undertaking, all of these Soviet fronts were significantly reinforced, the greater part of the increased strength being allocated to Rokossovsky and Chernyakhovsky, whose fronts were to play the major roles in the offensive, and by a time early in June the Soviet ground forces had been brought up to a strength of 166 divisions, of which 124 were to be used in the offensive.
Other elements of the numerical equation included, on the Soviet side, more than 2.412 million men, 4,070 armoured fighting vehicles (including 1,355 self-propelled guns), 24,365 pieces of artillery, and 5,325 aircraft. The Soviet quantitative superiority over the Germans in tanks and aircraft was reckoned at 10/1 and 7/1 respectively, but in fact it was much more than this. Five lines of ammunition, 20 refills of vehicle fuel and 30 days of rations were brought up within reach of formations, and aggressive reconnaissance of the whole front line, from Pskov in the north to the Carpathian mountains in the south, was undertaken by fighting patrols or by company- and battalion-level probing attacks.
Vasilevsky and Zhukov had been transferred from Ukraine to Belorussia, Vasilevsky being made responsible for the direction and co-ordination of the 1st Baltic and 3rd Belorussian Fronts (the northern pincer of the Minsk enveloping force), while Zhukov was attached to the 2nd and 1st Belorussian Fronts (the southern pincer) though still retaining responsibility for the 1st Ukrainian Front. Zhukov’s and Vasilevsky’s work was facilitated by the presence of two marshals of aviation, detached from the high command to co-ordinate air support.
In the south Rokossovsky, headquartered just outside Gomel, was responsible for a sector which extended 190 miles (305 km) in a generally west/east direction along the southern edge of the Pripyet Marshes but opened into the partially wooded and drier country near Bobruysk, and the long front along the Pripyet Marshes was covered only by Belov’s 61st Army in a holding role.
Rokossovsky’s main attack was committed on the comparatively narrow 90-mile (145-km) Bobruysk sector to the north-east of the Pripyet Marshes, where Batov’s 65th Army and Luchinsky’s 28th Army were to attack in the south, and Gorbatov’s 3rd Army and Romanenko’s 48th Army in the north, in order to carry out a short tactical double envelopment to encircle Bobruysk.
The northern and southern groups each included a tank and a mechanised cavalry corps, and had the support of craft of the Soviet navy’s Dniepr Flotilla, which was commanded by Captain V. V. Grigoriev and was to move up the Berezina river toward Bobruysk. Having taken Bobruysk, Rokossovsky was to strike west and north-west to envelop Minsk from the south.
Zakharov’s 2nd Belorussian Front, comprising Boldin’s 50th Army, Grishin’s 49th Army and Kryuchenkin’s 33rd Army, had an important yet subsidiary role as the link which connected the two powerful armoured pincers provided by Rokossovsky in the south and Chernyakhovsky in the north. Zakharov’s immediate task was to take Mogilev.
Headquartered near Smolensk, Chernyakhovsky’s 3rd Belorussian Front was the most mobile of all the fronts, with a high proportion of the available armour, as it had four infantry armies (Galitsky’s 11th Guards Army, Lyudnikov’s 39th Army, Krylov’s 5th Army and Glagolev’s 31st Army) together with Rotmistrov’s 5th Guards Tank Army and Oslikovsky’s Cavalry Mechanised Group ‘Oslikovsky’. The task of this front was to envelop Vitebsk in conjunction with its right-hand neighbour, the 1st Baltic Front. Commanded by Bagramyan, this latter comprised Beloborodov’s 43rd Army, Chistyakov’s 6th Guards Army, Malyshev’s 4th Shock Army and an independent tank corps. Having seized Vitebsk, Chernyakhovsky was to envelop Minsk from the north.
The Soviet offensive began slightly more than two weeks after the start of ‘Overlord’, the operation having been scheduled for 22 June as this was the third anniversary of the beginning of the ‘Great Patriotic War’.
The offensive opened in the usual Soviet fashion with the standard probing thrusts by front and army reconnaissance elements to find the centres of German resistance. Where the resistance was found to be light, the infantry divisions immediately took up the attack in earnest, but where the reconnaissance units made little headway a heavy artillery bombardment was called down (the guns being massed in the order of 400 pieces per mile/250 pieces per km), and the attack was resumed under cover of a fast-moving rolling barrage in conjunction with timed artillery concentrations.
The partisan forces in occupied Belorussia had apparently done their work well, tying down the few German reserves and cutting communications, and they claimed to have derailed no fewer than 147 trains in the previous three days.
The result was Soviet success that was no only huge in scale but also gained very rapidly. Intent on enveloping Vitebsk from the north, the 1st Baltic Front had by 23 June penetrated to a depth of 10 miles (16 km) on a 35-mile (55-km) front against the left flank of Reinhardt’s 3rd Panzerarmee in spite of bitter resistance in the area of Shambling and the heavy rain which washed away the roads. Reinhardt’s command had three infantry corps (11 infantry divisions in the form of nine forward and two in reserve), of which four were committed by Hitler’s order to the defence of the general area of Vitebsk. The 3rd Panzerarmee’s only armoured reserve was a tank destroyer battalion of Hornisse vehicles armed with 88-mm (3.465-in) guns, and a brigade of assault guns.
In the area to the north of Vitebsk and around Shumilino, Wuthmann’s IX Corps fought desperately, and Pfeiffer’s VI Corps to the south of Vitebsk was also hard pressed. In spite of adverse flying conditions, Soviet air attacks on the German ground forces also proved devastating.
During the evening of 23 June there took place the first of a number of bitter meetings in which Reinhardt demanded that Busch allow an immediate withdrawal from Vitebsk. Busch refused, and would also not allow Reinhardt to draw on Gallwitzer’s uncommitted LIII Corps, located in the Vitebsk area, to reinforce his IX Corps and the VI Corps on the threatened flanks, before he had received Oberkommando des Heeres authorisation. Early in the morning of 24 June General Kurt Zeitzler, chief of the army general staff, arrived in Minsk to be briefed by Busch, and after this Zeitzler travelled by air straight to a meeting with Hitler in Bavaria. At 15.00 Zeitzler telephoned Reinhardt from Obersalzberg, to be told that Vitebsk was in danger of being encircled and that the last opportunity was at hand for the withdrawal of the LIII Corps from the city.
When Zeitzler explained that Hitler was against giving up Vitebsk because of the loss of equipment which would result, the commander of the 3rd Panzerarmee replied bluntly that the loss of five divisions was at stake. Zeitzler discussed the matter once again with Hitler, and after 10 minutes returned to the telephone to say that ‘the Führer has decided that Vitebsk will be held’. A few minutes later a radio message received by the 3rd Panzerarmee from the LIII Corps in Vitebsk told of Soviet threats to the road west from Vitebsk, and this information was forwarded to Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ with the request for permission to withdraw. Within the hour Busch repeated the request to Hitler and was told that Vitebsk was to be held and that, should it be necessary, the road into the town was to be reopened by counterattack. Only two hours later, at 18.30, the 3rd Panzerarmee received from Hitler the order that the LIII Corps should fight its way out of its encirclement in Vitebsk, but that one division should be nominated to remain and hold the ‘fortress’. The 3rd Panzerarmee’s commander could see no sense in the order, since if a corps could not hold the city, then the sacrifice of a division would achieve nothing but, grateful for the opportunity to save any of the encircled troops, he ordered Generalleutnant Alfons Hitter to keep his 206th Division in the town.
During the next day, 25 June, the LIII Corps sought to fight its way out of Vitebsk, but its formations found difficulty in disengaging from the surrounding 39th Army which was in the process of driving its way into the city from several directions. During that afternoon Reinhardt, anxiously watching Gallwitzer’s efforts to break out, was angered to receive an order from the suspicious Hitler that he should have a staff officer parachuted into Vitebsk solely to hand over Hitler’s written order to fight to the end. Reinhardt then told Busch that since the radio order to the LIII Corps had been acknowledged, he refused to waste even one more life in Vitebsk, and within an hour this nonsensical order had been withdrawn.
Over the next few days, however, Busch demanded that repeated orders be sent to the 206th Division telling it to fight to the end. At 09.00 on 27 June a last radio message was received from the III Corps saying that progress was being made in the break-out about 10 miles (16 km) to the south-west of Vitebsk despite its formations’ lack of ammunition and the weight of the Soviet air attacks. Then there was silence, and the LIII Corps and about 35,000 of its men disappeared, only some 10,000 of the latter being taken prisoner.
From the Soviet side the battle was progressing very satisfactorily. Bagramyan’s 1st Baltic Front had enveloped Vitebsk from the north and on 25 June its 43rd Army had linked with Lyudnikov’s 39th Army of the 3rd Belorussian Front to complete the encirclement of Vitebsk.
Chernyakhovsky’s 3rd Belorussian Front had fallen on Reinhardt’s right flank during 23 June, one day after the start of Bagramyan’s advance, and although its right-flank formation, the 39th Army, had made good progress in encircling Vitebsk, its left at first made little headway along the Minsk highway. After three days of heavy fighting the 11th Guards Army broke out, however, and together with the 31st Army took Orsha. Thereafter the battle became considerably more fluid. The tank corps in front reserve had already been committed, the Berezina river was crossed to the north of Borisov on 28 June, and the 5th Guards Tank Army now entered combat, attacking along the axis of the 11th Guards Army through open country along the road to Minsk, in the process separating Reinhardt’s 3rd Panzerarmee from Heinrici’s 4th Army.
Somewhat farther to the south, the 1st Belorussian Front swept forward on 24 June. Adverse weather again made air support problematical, but by the evening the 16th Air Army had flown some 3,200 support sorties and the weather was starting to improve. To the south of Bobruysk the 65th Army made notably rapid progress, committing its tank corps during that same afternoon, and on reaching the open country to the rear of the German line it encountered no serious resistance. To the north of Bobruysk, however, the 3rd and 48th Armies made only slow initial progress until the IX Tank Corps was committed to support them. By 27 June Bobruysk had been encircled, while Mogilev was already under close attack by the forces of the 2nd Belorussian Front.
The vessels of the Dniepr Flotilla on the Berezina river supported the troops by preventing the Germans from using the bridges and by ferrying men, guns, horses and lorries across the waterway. By then Soviet tank and cavalry forces were thrusting deep into the German rear. Reinhardt had lost a second major formation when his VI Corps was shattered, and thus was left with just two of his original 11 divisions.
The larger part of the 9th Army had been encircled near Bobruysk in the south.
In the centre, Heinrici’s 4th Army, under the temporary command of von Tippelskirch, was retiring under pressure from the 2nd Belorussian Front, but was nonetheless threatened with encirclement as Soviet tank columns directed on Minsk advanced from the north-east and south-east.
The steadily worsening situation still did not persuade Hitler to modify his belief that the front not only must but could in fact be firmly held. He now said that he had not given Busch the authority to withdraw from Vitebsk or anywhere else. On 26 June, the day before the destruction of the LIII Corps, Busch travelled to see Hitler and emphasise the increasingly dire nature of his army group’s situation, but received neither encouragement nor even understanding. Orsha and Mogilev had to be held as bastions, Hitler insisted, so two more German divisions were destroyed to no significant effect in these hopeless tasks. During the following day Hitler, possibly realising for the first time that Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ had been ripped apart, switched his focus from the fighting in France and, leaving his Berghof retreat, flew to the Wolfsschanze, his general headquarters in East Prussia. Here, on the same night, Hitler made an attempt to solve the difficulty by drawing a final defensive line which Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ was to hold between Polotsk and the Berezina river via Lepel.
Busch had also apparently started to lose touch with the reality of the situation as he now planned counter-offensives based on formations which were no longer available. Hitler ordered each of the neighbouring army groups to give up one division, although these four divisions, even if they could have been moved rapidly, would not have had any effect on the situation. Hitler reluctantly permitted the withdrawal of the 4th Army and 9th Army to the new line, although by then it was in fact doubtful if they could have disengaged, let alone escaped, from the armoured pincers closing on them.
The three German armies were no longer cohesive formations, and the fighting was now being waged by parts of divisions, engineer and police battalions, rear echelons and baggage men, alarm units and the paramilitary labour organisation.
On 28 June it was apparent that Soviet tanks were already over the Berezina river and to the west of Lepel, and there inevitably followed the crisis reshuffling of commanders. Busch was replaced by Model, who also remained commander of the neighbouring Heeresgruppe ‘Nordukraine’. Hitler was no more satisfied with the performance of Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ which, under pressure from the 1st Baltic Front and fearful of the developments on its southern flank, desperately needed to pull back its southern wing.
Supporting this request and trying to meet the demand for new formations, Zeitzler was courageous enough to suggest the evacuation of Estonia and the withdrawal of Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ to the line between Riga and Daugavpils (Dünaburg in German), but Hitler ordered Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ both to hold Polotsk and to attack to the south-east in support of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’. Lindemann, commanding Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’, was unable to do so and was therefore summarily replaced by Friessner, commander of the Armeeabteilung ‘Narwa’.
Unwilling to await the arrival of the divisions promised by Hitler, Model began to move Panzer divisions from Heeresgruppe ‘Nordukraine’ to Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, and the loss of this reserve was to be felt acutely when Heeresgruppe ‘Nordukraine’ itself came under heavy attack a few weeks later in the Soviet 'Lwów-Sandomierz Offensive Operation'. By the end of the month Model had realised that the Soviet objectives lay far deeper into the German rear than had hitherto been imagined, and included the land-bridge gaps carrying road and railway links through the Nalibocka forest belt and marsh area near Molodechno and Baranovichi. It was obviously impossible to hold the Hitler-ordained line between Polotsk and Slutsk via Lepel and the Berezina river. On 2 July Model faced the reality of the fact that he could not hold Minsk or save many of the encircled troops of the 4th Army and 9th Army, and accordingly informed the Oberkommando des Heeres that he must have more formations to bring the Soviet forces to a halt in the area to the west of Molodechno and Baranovichi.
Vilnyus itself appeared to be threatened, and Model joined forces with Zeitzler in advising Hitler to permit the withdrawal of Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ to the area lying to the west of Riga. The committal of the few German reserves had little or indeed in many cases no impact whatsoever on the Soviet advance. Generalleutnant Herman Flörke’s 14th Division, Generalmajor Herbert Michaelis’s 95th Division, Generalmajor Hans-Adolf von Arenstorff’s 60th Panzergrenadierdivision and General Mortimer von Kessel’s 20th Panzerdivision were all committed, and Kessel was soon removed from his command as his division could not transform the nature of the battle. The German motorised formations were in no position to undertake lengthy road movements because of their lack of fuel, and railway communications were both slow and difficult because of activities of the Soviet air forces and partisans.
The 4th Army’s three corps, engaged frontally by the 2nd Belorussian Front, fell back but at the same time tried to protect the army’s flanks and keep its lines of communications open. Motorised and horse-drawn columns crept back toward the Berezina bridge. There were only a few German aircraft available, and unhampered and therefore continuous Soviet air attacks caused many casualties, including the deaths of three German generals, and then the Berezina bridge was damaged. While the German engineers tried to repair the bridge, very substantial numbers of men and vehicles of all types remained halted on the eastern bank under heavy air attack.
On 1 July the 5th Guards Tank Army crossed the Berezina farther to the north at Borisov and three days later, in company with elements of the 11th Guards and 31st Armies, took Minsk. Most of the 4th Army and a large part of the 9th Army, totalling perhaps 100,000 men, had been cut off in a great pocket to the east of Minsk, and between 5 and 11 July the Soviet forces destroyed these forces without halting the rapid movement of their tank formations to the west.
The 4th Army’s pocket lay between the Volma and Berezina rivers, and was split into two main segments, one under Generalleutnant Hans Traut, commander of the 78th Division, and the other under Müller, commander of the XII Corps. The Belorussian events of 1941 were now repeated in reverse. Zhukov reported enormous destruction, with artillery and rocket launchers deluging German-held areas as waves of bombers dropped their loads. The German resistance was not protracted: on 8 July Müller surrendered with his surviving men, and nine days later the 57,000 prisoners were paraded through the streets of Moscow.
Part of the 9th Army succeeded in escaping westward to Baranovichi as a result of the valiant efforts of a Panzer division which fought its way eastward to meet it. Of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, only the flanking formations now remained. The 2nd Army was still in the south behind the Pripyet Marshes and the 3rd Panzerarmee’s remnant was in the north. Some 28 divisions of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ had been lost as fighting formations, and the total casualties were put as high as 300,000 men.
A gap some 250 miles (400 km) wide had by now been torn in the German front and, as the route to the Baltic states and East Prussia seemed to be open, border guards and training regiments from East Prussia were rushed to the battle area. For Germany the defeat was of dimensions as great as, if indeed not more devastating than, that of Stalingrad.
By this time the Soviet high command had come to appreciate that it now had within its grasp the opportunity to exploit the situation by clearing the German forces completely out of Belorussia and entering both the Baltic states and Poland before the Germans could plug the breaches in their lines. The 1st Baltic Front on the northern flank was to move on Daugavpils and the area to the north of Vilnyus, while the 3rd Belorussian Front immediately to its south was to take Vilnyus and the area to its south, and the 2nd Belorussian Front on the far southern flank was to attack toward Brest-Litovsk. This new series of advances developed rapidly, the 1st Baltic Front reaching the railway line linking Daugavpils (Dvinsk) and Vilnyus without problem, although German resistance stiffened from this point on. The road linking Daugavpils and Kaunas was also cut, but the 6th Guards Army was unable to take Daugavpils itself. The 3rd Belorussian Front advanced to Vilnyus, where the 3rd Panzerarmee had collected a miscellany of its own units and stragglers. The 5th Guards Tank Army and 5th Army took the town on 13 July, and then fought off a number of German counterattacks.
Rotmistrov’s armoured thrust began to drive the shattered 3rd Panzerarmee north-west into Lithuania, and thus a great gap had already appeared between Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ and Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’.
Farther to the south, Zakharov’s 2nd Belorussian Front had advanced 160 miles (255 km) in just 10 days, having crossed the Niemen river to the south of Grodno, and was less than 50 miles (80 km) from the East Prussian border, while Rokossovsky’s 1st Belorussian Front advanced more than 100 miles (160 km) in 12 days, taking Baranovichi and outflanking Pinsk as it moved toward Brest-Litovsk.
On 9 July Model, commander of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ for just 12 days, and Friessner, commander of Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ for a mere five days, flew to Hitler’s headquarters in an effort to persuade the German leader to give up Estonia and so provide the formations needed to plug the many gaps in the German front farther to the south. Inevitably, the two commanders' request was refused, partly because of the effect that this would have on the Finns and partly because the German navy opposed it.
During the next few days the position of Model’s and Friessner’s army groups worsened steadily. On 10 July Eremenko’s 2nd Baltic Front attacked the 16th Army, and drove west toward Rezekne, and one week later Maslennikov’s 3rd Baltic Front farther to the north started a westward drive in the area to the south of Lake Peipus. On the Narva river a further offensive was expected daily from Govorov’s Leningrad Front, and this 'Narva Offensive Operation' in fact debouched on the Germans during 24 July.
On 15 July General Leytenant Porfiri G. Chanchibadze’s 2nd Guards Army and General Leytenant Yakov G. Kreizer’s 51st Army, both from Crimea, had joined Bagramyan’s 1st Baltic Front from the high command reserve, and within a matter of days joined the offensive, thrusting north-east into the gap between Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ and Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ through Lithuania into Latvia.
On 18 July Model and Friessner returned once more to Hitler, Model begging that the Lithuanian gap be closed and as he himself had not the troops to do it and suggesting, to Friessner’s anger, that Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ might find the necessary forces. Friessner, too, had his difficulties. The threatened separation from Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ would result in encirclement if the Soviet armies should break through to the Gulf of Riga, but the extension of his southern frontage and the growing Soviet pressure in the east meant that Friessner needed every man to prevent his army group from being driven into the Baltic. Friessner had taken over his army group with energy and enthusiasm, being determined to mount a rapid counter-offensive to the south-east in support of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ in accordance with Hitler’s directions, but just a few days of the realities of command had persuaded him that the views expressed by Lindemann, his predecessor, had been all too accurate. Friessner, too, had asked Hitler for freedom to use his initiative or, failing that, for dismissal.
A further Soviet blow was about to fall farther to the south in Galicia and southern Poland. Vatutin had been mortally wounded and was replaced, temporarily, at the head of the 1st Ukrainian Front by Zhukov. At the conclusion of the successful Ukraine operation, Zhukov had reverted to the task of co-ordinating Zakharov’s 2nd and Rokossovsky’s 1st Belorussian Fronts during the offensive against Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’. Zhukov was succeeded in command of the 1st Ukrainian Front early in May by Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Ivan S. Konev, who came from the 2nd Ukrainian Front and was succeeded by Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Rodion Ya. Malinovsky from the 3rd Ukrainian Front, who was himself succeeded by Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Fyedor I. Tolbukhin from the 4th Ukrainian Front which, after its Crimean victory, was withdrawn temporarily into high command reserve.
The second Soviet offensive was to be made against Heeresgruppe ‘Nordukraine’, and the main attacks were entrusted to Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front and the reinforced left wing of Rokossovsky’s 1st Belorussian Front. Konev was to launch what was to become known as the 'Lwów-Sandomierz Operation' against Heeresgruppe ‘Nordukraine’, in order to overrun Galicia and southern Poland. Rokossovsky was to drive through the left flank of Heeresgruppe ‘Nordukraine’ into central Poland toward Lublin and Warsaw. Model still commanded both Heeresgruppe ‘Nordukraine’ and Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, and showed considerable energy, but also left a measure of disorder as he travelled through his area of responsibility.
Heeresgruppe ‘Nordukraine’, under the deputised command of Generaloberst Johannes Harpe, comprised General Walther Nehring’s 4th Panzerarmee and Generaloberst Gotthard Heinrici’s 1st Panzerarmee as well as Altábornagy Károlyi Beregfy’s Hungarian 1st Army on the southern flank in the Carpathian foothills, and was spread over southern Poland and part of Czechoslovakia and Galicia. The army group had 31 German divisions, including four Panzer divisions, and 12 Hungarian light divisions or brigades. The Hungarian 1st Army was grouped with the 1st Panzerarmee to form the Armeegruppe ‘Raus’, General Erhard Raus having been transferred from the 4th Panzerarmee to the 1st Panzerarmee in April on the death of Generaloberst Hans-Valentin Hube in an air crash. Raus in his turn had been replaced at the head of the 4th Panzerarmee by Harpe from the 9th Army, but at the beginning of July Harpe was also acting as army group deputy commander. Finally, at the start of August, General Hermann Balck, formerly commander of the XLVIII Panzerkorps, became commander of the 4th Panzerarmee.
At the time of Konev’s next offensive, however, both Heeresgruppe ‘Nordukraine’ and the 4th Panzerarmee were controlled by absent commanders.
No action was taken to concentrate the Soviet assault forces for the North Ukrainian operation until after the start of the Belorussian offensive farther to the north, but between 24 June and 7 July half of the infantry divisions and all three of the tank armies had been assembled, the troops having to travel mainly by night distances of up to 250 miles (400 km) to their concentration areas: the tank formations were delivered by rail and the artillery and infantry formations by road.
In all, the 1st Ukrainian Front had a front-line strength of six infantry armies backed by one infantry army, three tank armies and several independent tank, cavalry and infantry corps. The force totalled 80 divisions (including six cavalry divisions), 10 tank or mechanised corps, and a number of brigades with slightly more than 1 million men, 1,980 armoured fighting vehicles, 11,265 pieces of artillery, and 2,800 aircraft.
Against this huge Soviet total the Germans could pit a front-line strength of just 886,500 men, 900 armoured fighting vehicles, 6,300 pieces of artillery, and 600 aircraft.
The front was ready by 12 July, and the offensive developed in what was now the well-established Soviet pattern. One infantry army and all the tank and cavalry formations were held back in depth, ready to be committed as soon as the six infantry armies in the first echelon had achieved their initial penetrations. On the night of 12 July there were strong fighting reconnaissance and probing attacks at up to battalion strength: any Axis weakness was exploited by the infantry divisions without artillery preparation, but strong resistance elicited heavy air and artillery bombardment.
The offensive by the whole front had been fully launched by 14 July. The Germans were not taken by surprise, but were nonetheless stunned by the weight of the attacks by the Soviet air forces, which for the first time secured and maintained absolute air supremacy over the battlefield.
The 4th Panzerarmee had ordered the withdrawal of its forward elements to escape the Soviet artillery deluge and, as soon as this movement was observed, Gordov’s 3rd Guards Army and Pukhov’s 13th Army on the right flank of the 1st Ukrainian Front immediately took up the attack. By evening they had penetrated to a depth of 10 miles (16 km) in places, and by the morning of the following day had reached the second Axis defensive zone. General Hermann Recknagel’s XLII Corps and Generalleutnant Fritz Becker’s (from 20 July General Smilo Freiherr von Lüttwitz’s) XLVI Panzerkorps started to fall back, although Generalmajor Hans-Ulrich Back’s 16th Panzerdivision and Generalleutnant Walter Schilling’s (from 21 July Generalleutnant Karl-Friedrich von der Meden’s) 17th Panzerdivision counterattacked repeatedly and the Luftwaffe did manage to make some sorties over the area.
By the evening of 15 July the Soviet penetration had increased farther, enveloping the left flank of General Arthur Hauffe’s XIII Corps, and a Soviet cavalry/mechanised group was thrusting into the German rear, in the process dispersing Generalleutnant Georg Jauer’s (soon Generalmajor Arnold Scholz’s) 20th Panzergrenadierdivision and reaching the Bug river near Kamenka-Strumilovskaya, about 25 miles (40 km) from Lwów, where Heeresgruppe ‘Nordukraine’ had its headquarters. The progress of this thrust was, however, still uncertain and hesitant.
On 13 July the 60th Army and 38th Army had taken up the attack in the centre to the south of the XIII Corps, and after two days of fighting had pushed forward only 10 miles (16 km) in the face of counterattacks by two Panzer divisions, the armoured reserve of the XLVIII Panzerkorps.
On 15 July Rybalko’s 3rd Guards Tank Army and Lelyushenko’s 4th Tank Army were committed to support the 60th and 38th Armies, with orders to punch their own way through the Axis defences, and the next day near Koltov they drove through a narrow corridor less than 3 miles (5 km) wide and 10 miles (16 km) long. Through this poured a column of men and vehicles as the two tank armies emerged into the open. Part of the 3rd Guards Tank Army turned to the north to link with the mechanised cavalry group south of Kamenka-Strumilovskaya, so encircling the XIII Corps near Brody.
Meanwhile the remainder of the Soviet forces, together with the 4th Tank Army, neared Lwów on 18 July, the same day that Rokossovsky’s 1st Belorussian Front attacked from Kovel toward Lublin. Inside the Brody pocket the XIII Corps 8 totalled only about 40,000 men. The SS division had been formed from Galician Ukrainians who, although well armed and equipped, were very poorly trained and had never before been in action. Like the other so-called Korpsabteilungen (corps formations), Lange’s formation possessed a combat strength equivalent to that of a single full-strength infantry division: the retention of all the divisional titles within the formation was in part a deception measure to give the Soviet high command the impression of a larger number of divisions in the German order of battle. The XIII Corps had only very recently been reallocated from the 4th Panzerarmee to the 1st Panzerarmee.
The decision and orders to break out and join the XLVIII Panzerkorps to the south were not given until the afternoon of 18 July, it being understood that Oberst Werner Marcks’s 1st Panzerdivision and Generalmajor Werner Friebe’s (from 21 July Generalmajor Gottfried Frölich’s) 8th Panzerdivision would attack northward to meet the formations of the XIII Corps as they broke out to the south, and attempted to cross the Zapadnyi Bug river and traverse some 15 to 20 miles, some of it swamp and much of its wooded, of Soviet-held territory.
The XIII Corps could expect to be attacked from the front and on both sides as it moved to the south, and for this reason one German division was put on each flank. Lange’s and Lasch’s formations were both entrusted with the breakout while the SS division brought up the rear. The pocket was already becoming compressed, and vehicles and baggage lay everywhere, blocking the tracks and exits and adding to the chaos. With Lange’s and Lasch’s troops at their head, the pocket started to move with its wounded, transport and baggage on its hazardous breakout.
The Soviet reaction was both immediate and determined, and heavy tank and infantry attacks fell on the German corps’ moving flanks. Lange had formed an armoured infantry group from his assault gun brigade and a company of captured T-34 medium tanks, on which he mounted all the remaining sappers of his engineer battalions as supporting infantry. Together with the marching infantry, this made slow but steady progress, knocking out some Soviet tanks and capturing intact some US Lend-Lease tank destroyers, which were added to the armoured group’s strength. No contact was made, however, with the XLVIII Panzerkorps, which as a result of Soviet air attacks and a series of accidents had made but little progress. Finally, and in part as a result of the difficult broken ground and traffic chaos, all radio communication between the XIII Corps and XLVIII Panzerkorps failed, as it also did between Hauffe’s headquarters and the divisional units. Losses and the poor going soon reduced the armoured group’s vehicle strength, but at 12.00 on 21 July the men of the group, by then on foot, together with elements of the 217th Divisionsgruppe, had fought their way to the south and found the 1st Panzerdivision.
Because of the failure of communications none of this was known to Lange, or apparently to Hauffe and the remainder of the encircled corps. The Soviet attacks on the pocket were becoming so heavy that the perimeter was becoming more compressed, and immediate action was required to complete the break-out. Having that same afternoon found a mood of depression at the headquarters of the XIII Corps, Lange issued orders for his command to break out toward the south after the fall of night. Lange and Lasch, with much of Korpsabteilung ‘C’ and the 349th Division, forced their way through to the south and over the embankment of the railway line linking Lwów and Tarnopol.
The remainder of the pocket was now effectively lost. During the afternoon Soviet warplanes attacked constantly, and a deluge of shells, bombs and rockets poured in from all sides. The German artillery had been long silent and no German aircraft were to be seen. The end of the day revealed the death of the XIII Corps: about 25,000 Germans had been killed and 17,000 others, including Nedtwig and Lindemann, had been taken prisoner.
Meanwhile the advance of the Soviet armoured forces continued to the west despite the protracted German resistance in Lwów, which had tied down both the 3rd Guards Army and 4th Tank Army. Katukov’s 1st Guards Tank Army then took up the pursuit with General Leytenant Viktor K. Baranov’s cavalry mechanised group (I Guards Cavalry Corps), moving to the south-west in the direction of Yaroslav at a rate of about 20 miles (32 km) per day in company with the 3rd Guards Army and the 13th Army, which moved directly to the west, General Leytenant Sergei V. Sokolov’s cavalry mechanised group (VI Guards Cavalry Corps) keeping contact between them. The heavy rain and the poor state of the roads made supply almost impossible, however, and the Soviet thrusts were losing momentum as the front expanded.
Although the Soviet forces had reached the San river on 23 July, the Germans still fighting in Lwów many miles to the east started to evacuate their forces from the city on 24 July and marched to the south-west without undue difficulty to reach Sambor. Not until 27 July did the Soviets occupy Lwów, the same day that the Germans yielded Stanislaw about 80 miles (130 km) to the south-east.
The third and final stage of the summer campaign was to be made by the left wing of Rokossovsky’s 1st Belorussian Front, starting five days later than Konev’s offensive just to its south. Rokossovsky’s long flank along the edge of the Pripyet Marshes had been covered only lightly by the 61st Army during the Belorussian offensive, but a strong force had subsequently been assembled, much of it comprising formations previously held in reserve, on the extreme western tip of his front south of the marshes near Kovel. This force comprised Chuikov’s 8th Guards Army, Gusev’s 47th Army, Kolpakchy’s 69th Army, Popov’s 70th Army, General Leytenant Zygmunt Berling’s Polish 1st Army and Bogdanov’s 2nd Tank Army. The movement of this powerful force to surround the small German salient lying to the east of Kovel split Rokossovsky’s front into areas north and south of the Pripyet Marshes, but the concentration appeared to come as a surprise to the Germans when, on 18 July and only a few days after the 1st Ukrainian Front had attacked to its south, Rokossovsky’s left wing supported by some 1,400 aircraft of the 16th Air Army attacked to the west on a broad front, crossing the Bug at three places as it drove into Poland and crushed the left flank of the 4th Panzerarmee.
Heeresgruppe ‘Nordukraine’ was already fully extended by the 1st Ukrainian Front’s offensive to the south, and had lost its reserve Panzer divisions when Model transferred them to Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’. The 2nd Tank Army was then committed in the sector of the 8th Guards Army and drove forward, taking Lublin on 23 July. Hitler had forbidden the withdrawal of the 4th Panzerarmee to the Vistula, but the course of events made his orders of no consequence when the 2nd Tank Army reached the Vistula near Demblin on 25 July, being joined by the Polish 1st Army two days later. Located to the east of the Vistula, Heeresgruppe ‘Nordukraine’ had been separated by these Soviet thrusts from Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, and the right flank of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ was in serious danger. Rokossovsky had already left the Pripyet Marshes behind him and his 1st Belorussian Front was no longer covering an enormous frontage divided by a belt of swamp.
In the area of Brest-Litovsk and Kobryn, Weiss’s 2nd Army was threatened on three sides by the 70th Army from the south, the 61st Army from the Pripyet Marshes in the east, and the 65th and 28th Armies which had advanced west along the northern edge of the Pripyet swamp belt. The Germans attempted a stand at Brest-Litovsk, but this city fell on 28 July. Under the temporary command of General Major Aleksei I. Radzievsky, who had replaced the wounded Bogdanov, the 2nd Tank Army moved on Warsaw, reaching the Praga suburbs on the eastern bank of the Vistula on the last day of the month.
Away to the north, on the same day Bagramyan’s 1st Baltic Front broke through to the Baltic coast a few miles to the west of Riga and cut off Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ from Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’.
On 20 July Oberst Claus Graf von Stauffenberg, the chief-of-staff designate of Generaloberst Friedrich Fromm’s Ersatzheer (replacement army) within Germany, made his attempt to kill Hitler with a bomb at Hitler’s East Prussian headquarters at Rastenburg, and there followed the plotters’ abortive attempt to take over the government in Berlin. The ramifications of this failed attempt were enormous, and included a wholesale revision of the German army high command. Politically, the bomb attack confirmed to Germany’s allies what they already knew, that the defeat of Germany was now inevitable. The assassination attempt and the purge which followed it shook the German army to its foundations. The army hierarchy lost much of the respect and confidence of the German public and the formations in the field. Rumours of treachery, which had already become widespread since the disastrous defeat of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, became more widespread and were generally accepted. Within the army there was often friction and mistrust between military leaders and their Nazi ‘guidance officers’, who henceforth were on their mettle to maintain a rigorously paranoid watch over their commanders. Thus Germany’s high command and military organisation were partially crippled from the inside at what was the greatest moment of crisis in the war when the German armies in France were already defeated and the whole of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ on the Eastern Front was collapsing.
In addition Hitler had dismissed Zeitzler, who was not apparently implicated in the conspiracy but in Hitler’s mind bore a primary responsibility for the guilt of the Oberkommando des Heeres and general staff. For some time past Zeitzler had been sick, and he left in disgrace, making way for Generaloberst Heinz Guderian, formerly the Inspekteur der Panzertruppen (Inspector General of Mobile Troops), who was in fact no more fitted than Zeitzler for the responsibilities inherent in the office of the chief of the general staff.
Differences immediately arose between Guderian on the one hand and Model and Friessner on the other. Friessner was still pressing to evacuate Estonia, and Model wanted to cover his open southern flank offensively by pulling back Weiss’s 2nd Army from the area of Brest-Litovsk and concentrating the reserves behind the Vistula. Guderian entered Hitler’s unreal world when he professed to believe that the situation would be restored by two or three divisions removed from Romania.
On 24 July Hitler ordered Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ and Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ to stand where they were, and instructed Friessner, now promoted to Generaloberst, to exchange places with Generaloberst Ferdinand Schörner, commanding Heeresgruppe ‘Südukraine’ and a firm favourite of Hitler’s regime.
At this stage the Soviet high command ordered Rokossovsky’s 1st Belorussian Front and Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front to advance to the west and cross the Vistula river on a front 130 miles (210 km) wide from a point south of Warsaw to the mouth of the Visloka river. Although about 200 yards (185 m) wide, the Vistula in places has a maximum depth of 6 ft (1.8 m) and was only a minor obstacle compared with many of the great Russian rivers which the Soviet army had already crossed.
On 28/29 July, the 3rd Guards Army, 13th Army and 1st Guards Tank Army of the 1st Ukrainian Front closed up to the Vistula and began to cross, using 50-ton ferries in addition to the normal 16-ton pontoons. The 1st Ukrainian Front initially made good progress against light opposition, consolidating a bridgehead west of the river to a depth of nearly 25 miles (40 km), but on 10 August Balck’s 4th Panzerarmee, reinforced with three Panzer divisions from the 1st Panzerarmee farther to the south-east, counterattacked the bridgehead and, driving the Soviet forces back several miles, brought the situation temporarily under control. By then Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front had outrun its strength and the ability of the Soviet logistic apparatus to support it.
Farther to the north the 2nd Tank Army was still in the Praga suburbs of Warsaw and had already attempted to cross the railway bridge into the city when the ‘Burza’ operation (the Warsaw uprising) began on 1 August.
During July and August the Soviet high command attempted to improve its position in the Carpathians and the Baltic, preparatory to launching a new offensive into the Balkans. Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front had been brought to a standstill in its bridgehead beyond the Vistula in the Sandomierz-Baranów area, a bridgehead which threatened German Upper Silesia. Konev was left, however, with a long and exposed southern flank along the line of the Carpathians, and in order to relieve him of its protection so that he might concentrate on his next mission, the resumption of the eastward advance, a new 4th Ukrainian Front under General Ivan Ye. Petrov was allocated to the area from the high command reserve from 5 August.
Petrov arrived in Stanislaw to take command of Konev’s left wing, Grechko’s 1st Guards Army and Zhuravlev’s 18th Army thus passing to the 4th Ukrainian Front. Petrov’s task was to clear the industrial area of Drogobych and, taking the Carpathian passes, to move into the plain of the Danube river.
In the area of the Baltic, Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ remained cut off from Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ just to the west of Riga, where Bagramyan’s 1st Baltic Front had reached the shore of the Baltic. In command of Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’, Schörner was faring no better than his predecessors Friessner and Lindemann, and like them soon advised the immediate evacuation of Estonia. Hitler continued to insist that every inch of Baltic territory was to be held, in spite of the fact that Finland was about to leave the war.
Schörner was at this time under heavy attack from Govorov’s Leningrad Front across the Narva river and from Maslennikov’s 3rd Baltic Front which was thrusting stronly from the area to the south of Lake Peipus toward Dorpat (Tartu) and Valga with the obvious intent of reaching the Gulf of Riga and cutting Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ into two parts. To the south of Riga, Bagramyan’s 1st Baltic Front seemed to be on the verge of attacking the 16th Army’s positions to the south of the Dvina in order to widen its hold on the tongue of land separating Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ and Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’.
Meanwhile Hitler had carried out yet another reorganisation and reshuffling of many of his senior commanders. In France the German front had collapsed and Model was therefore transferred to the Western Front, command of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ being assumed on 16 August by Reinhardt, who was succeeded at the head of the 3rd Panzerarmee by Raus, in turn replaced as commander of the 1st Panzerarmee by Heinrici, formerly of the 4th Army. Early in September Harpe was confirmed in his position as commander of Heeresgruppe ‘Nordukraine’.
At this point Hitler launched a new counterattack, devised by himself, to be made by two Panzer corps of the 3rd Panzerarmee with one Panzergrenadier and four Panzer divisions, two of which were still on their way from Romania, where they had provided the last reserves available to Heeresgruppe ‘Südukraine’. This force was to attack to the north-east after concentrating in western Lithuania to restore the land link between Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ and Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’. In conjunction with the infantry divisions of Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’, it was then to strike out to the south-east toward Kaunas across the rear of the 1st Baltic and 3rd Belorussian Fronts.
The ‘Doppelkopf’ offensive began on 16 August, but after some initial success quickly came to a halt in the area of Šiauliai (Schaulen). It did however have some small benefit for the Germans inasmuch as it halted the 1st Baltic Front’s attack on the German forces to the south of the Dvina river, since these Soviet forces had to be turned round to face Raus’s 3rd Panzerarmee in their rear. On 21 August, with the aid of naval forces, German troops managed to drive a narrow corridor to Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ along the Baltic coast, this offering Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ a last chance to undertake a land retreat from the northern Baltic states. Hitler had found a substitute for Finland in his catalogue of specious geopolitical rationales, however, and now maintained that any such evacuation would have a disastrous effect on the attitude of neutral Sweden, and moved a further two divisions from Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ to Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’.
By this time the offensive power of the Soviet army was synonymous with tank armies, tank corps and mechanised corps. Where tank and mechanised forces were concentrated, together with the means to keep them supplied, the Soviet high command could be sure of at least some success. Soviet army infantry formations had suffered so severely in casualties and their infantry were often so poorly trained that they possessed only a limited offensive capability.
The same applied to some extent to the German troops on the Eastern Front. Panzer and Panzergrenadier divisions were the most effective counter to Soviet tank formations, and German infantry divisions were only a shadow of their former selves. Reduced by casualties below the size of regiments, their training and performance, superior though it might have been to that of their Soviet army counterpart, was hardly to be compared with that of German infantry of 1941/42. Much of the benefit of the increase in armament and equipment brought about by Albert Speer’s reorganisation of the German armaments industry had been lost in the great encirclements in Ukraine, in Belorussia and now also in France. Yet the industrial and economic power of Germany and the potential of the German army remained formidable and, allowed time for reorganisation and given good strategic and higher tactical leadership, it might have fought on for a long time to come.
During the winter of 1943/44 and the spring of 1944 German strength on the Eastern Front had declined as a consequence of the transfer of formations and reinforcements to the western and Mediterranean theatres. On 1 June 1944, at a time merely days before the start of ‘Overlord’ and the fall of Rome, there were the equivalent of 164 army, Waffen-SS and Luftwaffe field divisions on the Eastern Front, some of which were hardly more than regiments, as against 121 German divisions in the west and Mediterranean. The Panzer strength in France, Belgium and the Netherlands, which in December 1943 numbered only 650 tanks and 220 assault guns, by June 1944 had increased to 1,550 tanks and 300 assault guns.
Commenting on the German failures in 1943 and 1944, Zhukov laid part of the blame on the German high command and on the army group commanders, since the quality of the leadership had, he believed, suffered a marked decline. In contrast with the first period of the war the German command had lost its resourcefulness, particularly when it encountered difficulties, and there was a marked ignorance of the true appreciation of its own capabilities and that of its opponents. Hitler’s generals, who later tried to blame their own deficiencies on Hitler, also came in for some criticism by Zhukov who, while conceding that Hitler was in part responsible for the catastrophes, felt that the main reason for the defeats was German failure to understand the very real improvement in the performance of the Soviet armed forces.
On the other hand, Zhukov professed surprise at the German conduct of the battle in Belorussia. He argued that as soon as defeat threatened, Busch should have acted as the Soviet army would have done, and thus retired rapidly to a defence line in the rear while using his mobile formations to engage the flanks of the attacking force, but instead he contracted his line and tried to hold the area to the east of Minsk. Zhukov’s criticism was apposite, yet there was little cause for surprise and Zhukov must have known why Busch acted as he did. He should have remembered, too, that the Soviet army in 1941/42 had also been ordered by a menacing dictator to hold its ground and had suffered grievously in consequence.
On 25 August the Allied forces on the Western Front were in Paris and advancing rapidly on the direction of Germany’s western frontier. Hitler then came to the conclusion that the main war effort should be made on the Western Front in the shorter term, and decided to collect within the Reich a striking force which would deal the Western Allies a crippling blow west of Germany’s frontier. Only then would he turn his focus once again to the east to face the oncoming Soviet army.
Meanwhile Hitler ignored Guderian’s pleadings to evacuate the Balkans, Norway and part of Italy, all of which were in fact the responsibility of Generaloberst Alfred Jodl’s Oberkommando der Wehrmacht organisation. Guderian himself had turned his energies toward the raising of home defence units to protect the German frontier areas in the east. The building of fortifications began around Königsberg, Danzig, Glogau and Breslau, these being centred largely on earthworks and built by volunteers, women, children and old men, by now the only readily available labour source. Guderian ordered the raising of 100 battalions of infantry and the same number of artillery batteries from convalescents and low medical category soldiers to protect the eastern frontier, but most of these, Guderian complained, were seized by Jodl and dispatched to the Western Front, followed by the reserve of guns and heavy equipment which Guderian had hoped to deploy on the Eastern Front.
Even the last drafts of combat troops produced by the Ersatzheer, now commanded by Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, were destined not for defensive tasks on the Eastern Front but for offensive tasks centred on the ‘Wacht am Rhein’ and ‘Nordwind’ (iii) offensives on the Western Front. The responsibility for the raising of German volunteer part-time citizen units for regional defence was now shifted to the Nazi party organisation. The measures taken were dilatory and ill-considered, but eventually the Volkssturm was born, though without sufficient leaders, instructors or arms to make it in any way an effective force.
The results of ‘Bagration’ proper were therefore enormous, and a disaster almost beyond calculation for the Germans. It is estimated that Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ had lost 25 of its 33 divisions cut off and annihilated in pockets at places such as Vitebsk, Minsk, Bobruysk, Vilnyus and Brest-Litovsk. The Soviets claimed 381,000 German dead and 158,000 captured, together with 2,000 tanks, 10,000 pieces of artillery and 57,000 motor vehicles destroyed or captured, and admitted their own losses of 180,040 men killed and 590,850 wounded, 2,955 tanks and assault guns, 2,445 pieces of artillery, and 820 aircraft.