Belorussian Strategic Defensive Operation

The 'Belorussian Strategic Defensive Operation', which followed straight on from the 'Smolensk Strategic Defensive Operation', was a series of border battles and counterattacks by the Soviet West Front, with the participation of the Pinsk Naval Flotilla, in the western USSR as a result of the 'Barbarossa' invasion of the USSR by German forces (22 June/9 July 1941).

The main elements of the operation were the 'Białystok-Minsk Defensive Operation' (22/29 June), the 'Brest Fortress Defensive Operation' (22/30 June), the 'Vitebsk Defensive Operation' (6/16 July) and the 'Borisov-Lepel Offensive Operation' (6/9 July).

The overall German plan for the 'Barbarossa' campaign through Belorussia was to break through the Soviet defences near Brest-Litovsk and Suwałki, destroy the main forces of General Dmitri G. Pavlov’s Western Special Military District (from 22 June West Front) near Minsk in Belorussia, seize Smolensk and open the way to Moscow.

According to the Directive No. 3 of the Soviet high command, issued on 22 June, the West Front was instructed to check the German advance on the axis from Warsaw, to launch a powerful counter-offensive with at least two mechanised corps and tactical air formations on the flank and rear of the Germans'
Suwałki grouping, together with the forces of General Polkovnik Fedor I. Kuznetsov’s North-West Front destroy this, and to take the Suwałki area by the end of 24 June.

The task allocated to Generalfeldmarschall Fedor von Bock’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' in the 'Barbarossa' invasion of the USSR was the encirclement and subsequent destruction of the Soviet forces in Belorussia, which is the region bordered by Russia to the north-east, Ukraine to the south, Poland to the west, and Lithuania and Latvia to the north-west. Two deep thrusts were therefore to be made, one in the north from the area of Suwałki in East Prussia and one to the south from the area of Brest-Litovsk along the northern edge of the Pripyet marshes. The northern thrust was to be made by Generaloberst Adolf Strauss’s 9th Army of 12 infantry divisions together with Generaloberst Hermann Hoth’s 3rd Panzergruppe of four Panzer and three motorised infantry divisions. The thrust in the south was to be delivered by Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge’s 4th Army of 21 infantry divisions and Generaloberst Heinz Guderian’s 2nd Panzergruppe of five Panzer divisions, three motorised infantry divisions and one cavalry division. Hoth’s and Guderian’s Panzer groups had two and three Panzer corps respectively, and both groups were under the command of the infantry armies on whose outer flanks they operated.

The task of the two Panzer groups was to drive deep wedges, in the form of pincer arms, into the rear of the Soviet forces, the arms of the pincers then coming together in a double envelopment movement at Minsk, the capital of Belorussia, 250 miles (400 km) inside Soviet territory. Some of the marching infantry divisions were to follow the Panzer groups to Minsk in order to prevent the encircled Soviet forces from escaping, and others were to make two shorter enveloping thrusts to the north and south of the Białystok salient, aimed at a point on the highway linking Białystok and Minsk about 100 miles (160 km) from the Russo/German frontier. The two great pockets enclosing the trapped Soviet forces, one inside the other, were to be destroyed before the German advance was resumed on the Orsha 'land bridge' to Smolensk and thence Moscow. Mobile operations were then to be called to a temporary halt at Smolensk on the front of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' as the Panzer formations were redeployed to the north and south to assist Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb’s Heeresgruppe 'Nord' in the final attack on Leningrad and Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt’s Heeresgruppe 'Sud' in its seizure of Kiev.

Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' was to enjoy the support of the largest of Germany’s air fleets, namely Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring’s Luftflotte II with almost 1,000 warplanes. The three primary elements of Luftflotte II were General Bruno Loerzer’s II Fliegerkorps, General Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen’s VIII Fliegerkorps and Generalleutnant Walter von Axthelm’s I Flakkorps.

von Bock had disagreed with the orders for 'Barbarossa' issued to him at the end of January 1941: he believed that his army group’s first objective should be Smolensk rather than the closer Minsk, and he had pressed Generalfeldmarschall Walther von Brauchitsch, the commander-in-chief of the army, for a change of plan. On 27 March, von Bock recorded that the Oberkommando des Heeres busied itself only with trivial matters and complained that he could still get no definite answer as to whether the 'cauldron' was to be closed at Minsk or Smolensk. This doubt remained even after the 'Barbarossa' campaign had started, and von Bock, Guderian and Hoth were still in ignorance about their objectives on the third day of the campaign.

The initial German attack into Belorussia was to fall on the left flank of General Leytenant Vasili I. Morozov’s 11th Army (two tank and 11 infantry divisions) of General Polkovnik Fedor I. Kuznetsov’s North-West Front, and on the whole of General Dmitri G. Pavlov’s West Front in Belorussia. This latter front had General Leytenant Vasili I. Kuznetsov’s 3rd Army (two tank and 12 infantry divisions) to the east of Suwałki, General Major Konstantin D. Golubev’s 10th Army (two tank and eight infantry divisions) to the west of Białystok, and General Major Aleksandr A. Korobkov’s 4th Army (two tank and six infantry divisions) to the east of Brest-Litovsk. All of these armies were deployed close up to the frontier. Each of these armies had its own mechanised corps, and more mechanised corps and one cavalry corps were held in front reserve (two tank and four infantry divisions within General Leytenant Piotr M. Filatov’s 13th Army).

Hoth’s 3rd Panzergruppe attacked from East Prussia into Lithuania in parallel with Generaloberst Erich Hoepner’s 4th Panzergruppe of von Leeb’s Heeresgruppe 'Nord', and both experienced the same difficulties in crossing the heavily wooded and almost trackless sandy terrain. Soviet resistance was more determined than it was farther to the north. Despite the fact that they lacked artillery support, some of the NKVD (internal security) border troops fought to the bitter end, and the Lithuanian corps, which checked the advance of the Panzer group, put up an unexpectedly tough resistance. The few east/west roads were little more than narrow sandy tracks through the area’s forests and woods, and many of them had never before been used by motor vehicles of any sort. Soviet resistance, however light, could not be overcome by deployment off the road and, as a result, German columns were repeatedly halted in areas in which a multitude of forest fires added to the confusion. Any vehicle which became bogged or suffered a mechanical failure completely blocked the route, and the wooden bridges over the mass of streams had to be strengthened before they could be crossed by vehicles. At the insistence of von Brauchitsch, some routes had been allocated to infantry formations, but there were in fact too few routes for either armour or infantry. A marching infantry division allotted the use of a single route occupied 22 miles (35 km) of track and took a whole day to pass any given point, and when in danger of being left too far in the wake of the Panzer formations, horse-drawn infantry transport and guns frequently disobeyed their orders and left the allotted route to join the axes of the Panzer formations, on which they often blocked or slowed motorised movement. Generalleutnant Otto von Knobelsdorff’s 19th Panzerdivision, for instance, was halted for hours by a column of nearly 2,000 Luftwaffe lorries which had ignored the vehicle march table, and Strauss’s 9th Army, ignoring its own orders, began to drive its infantry divisions forward with recommendations that they form mobile detachments by centralising their limited number of motor vehicles. These motorised elements took to the Panzer axes as there were no other fast routes available to them.

Given difficulties of these and other types, the advance of General Rudolf Schmidt’s XXXIX Corps (mot.) and General Adolf Kuntzen’s LVII Corps (mot.) of the 3rd Panzergruppe at first made only slow progress, not reaching the road bridges over the Niemen river, about 30 to 40 miles (50 to 65 km) beyond the East Prussian border, until 12.00 on 23 June. As was their typical practice, Soviet commanders had held back their armoured and mechanised corps for commitment against the flanks of the German thrusts, but could not commit all their mechanised troops in a co-ordinated counter-offensive because of the chaotic operational conditions caused by their own poor communications and the efficiency of the German tactical air offensive. On 23 June, as Generalleutnant Hans Freiherr von Funck’s 7th Panzerdivision was advancing from the bridge by which it had crossed the Niemen river, it met its first serious opposition when it came under attack by Soviet armour emerging from the nearby tank training ground at Varena. These tank units, believed to be of the 5th Tank Division, fell on the German forces with great ferocity, so that Oberst Karl Rothenburg, commander of the 25th Panzerregiment and a veteran of the 'Sichelschnitt' campaign in France, reported that the battle was the most spirited in which he had yet been engaged. Within a matter of hours, however, the Soviet tank units had been destroyed as a result of their inferior training and indifferent leadership skills.

On the Soviet side of the frontier the confusion was at its greatest. The warplanes of Kesselring’s Luftflotte II had cleared the skies of Soviet aircraft, removing the threat of air attacks on the German ground forces and at the same time making it possible for them to savage the Soviet ground forces and positions with almost total impunity. Great masses of refugees, including Soviet civil administrators and military families, were seeking to escape the battle area. Members of the Belorussian and Ukrainian populations became openly and increasingly hostile to what were seen as Soviet 'colonisers' and also the men of the Soviet forces, and the feeling of insecurity and distrust was accentuated by the activity, much of it exaggerated, of the nationalists and German-recruited armed bands which roamed the countryside. Bridges were being demolished to the rear of the Soviet forces by these 'diversionists', and railway lines and telephone wires were cut. Soviet units themselves were often dazed and in many cases leaderless, and many of them took to the woods to avoid the strafing and bombing. The exceptions, however, were the tank and cavalry formations, which were still capable of some offensive action.

The forces of Pavlov’s West Front had been deployed close to the frontier almost wholly in the large Białystok salient, where they were in the greatest danger of rapid envelopment in the double thrusts from Suwałki and Brest-Litovsk. All three armies were forward side-by-side inside the mouth of the German pincer movements, and with the closing of these jaws almost all of Pavlov’s formations were caught and chewed to pieces because the Soviet deployment had been neither offensive nor defensive. The attack of Hoth’s 3rd Panzergruppe had struck due east against Morozov’s 11th Army of the North-West Front, but the thrust was aimed not so much at Morozov’s army but at the rear of Pavlov’s army group in order to encircle the West Front. To the left of Morozov’s army and inside the Białystok salient lay Vasili I. Kuznetsov’s 3rd Army in the area round Grodno, then Golubev’s 10th Army forward of Białystok, and in the south of the salient Korobkov’s 4th Army, each army having its affiliated mechanised corps located forward in its own area. On 22 June, Pavlov had only one mechanised and one cavalry corps in reserve, although his West Front is said to have comprised the VI, XI, XIII, XIV, XVII and XX Mechanised Corps, one cavalry corps and 24 infantry divisions.

On 24 June there began a two-day Soviet armoured and cavalry counter-offensive made by part of the VI and XI Mechanised Corps, under General Leytenant Ivan V. Boldin, the first deputy commander-in-chief of the West Front, from the area of Grodno to the north-east of Białystok, against those infantry divisions of the 9th Army which were moving to the south-east in the short envelopment movement. This Soviet effort lacked any air or artillery support, and in the 'Battle of Grodno' was beaten off with ease by German infantry and anti-tank elements, which inflicted grievously heavy losses on the Soviet forces.

Meanwhile Hoth’s 3es Panzergruppe began to make more rapid progress to the east and north-east, Vilna falling to Funck’s 7th Panzerdivision on 24 June.

It was at this juncture that Pavlov made the decision which made inevitable the destruction of the West Front when, realising that the forward elements of his 3rd Army and 10th Army in the Białystok salient threatened by the shorter double envelopment movement of the German infantry divisions and presumably unaware that armoured thrust of Hoth’s and Guderian’s Panzergruppen were to close deep in his rear in the longer double envelopment, he ordered all his front and army reserves to move forward. This left a vacuum in the vital Minsk area and in fact facilitated the German task by despatching his remaining troops west into what was to become the Nowogródek pocket.

To the south of the Białystok salient, von Kluge’s 4th Army and Guderian’s 2nd Panzergruppe, as the two arms of the southern pincer, had been making steady progress against the 4th Army. In the early morning of 22 June an infantry corps of the 4th Army had attacked into the town of Brest-Litovsk while General Leo Freiherr Geyr von Schweppenburg’s XXIV Corps (mot.) crossed the Bug river to the south of the town, and General Joachim Lemelsen’s XLVII Corps (mot.) to the also crossed to the north of the city: some of the German tanks forded the river, only some 13 ft (4 m) deep, by underwater wading. The fighting inside Brest-Litovsk was particularly severe, the NKVD border guards and parts of of the 6th and 42nd Divisions in the area of the citadel holding out until 29 June and causing heavy casualties to the assault elements of Generalleutnant Fritz Schlieper’s 45th Division. Elsewhere the German advance proceeded largely as planned, the only serious resistance it met being that of the XIV Mechanised Corps, the armoured reserve of the 4th Army, which engaged Generalleutnant Walther Nehring’s 18th Panzerdivision of the left-flanking XLVII Corps (mot.) in an armoured battle near Pruzhany. The difficult terrain, of woods and swamp along the edge of the Pripyet marshes on the extreme right flank was covered by the advance of Generalleutnant Kurt Feldt’s 1st Kavalleriedivision, the German army’s sole mounted formation. Except in this sector characterised by marshes, the terrain was better suited to armoured warfare than that used by the 3rd Panzergruppe and 4th Panzergruppe, and Guderian’s rate of advance in the first few days was spectacular. By 26 June Slutsk, about 60 miles (100 km) due south of Minsk, had been taken by the right-hand XXIV Corps (mot.), but the left flank of the Panzer group was coming under repeated attack by Soviet formations trying to break out to the south from the Białystok and Nowogródek areas as they attempted to escape from the encirclement.

After the first few days of 'Barbarossa', despite their enormous losses the Soviet air forces became active once again, causing numerous casualties to the horses of the 1st Kavalleriedivision. Operating as mounted infantry rather than as cavalry, this division moved through the marshlands to Kobryn and Pinsk, in the process skirmishing and advancing 300 miles (485 km) in seven days at a cost of fewer than 500 casualties. It was surprised at the excellence of the Soviet artillery and at the poor quality of the Soviet infantry which, instead of defending the close country and causing the Germans heavy casualties as was being done in the Baltic and Ukrainian theatres, counterattacked repeatedly in waves without any co-ordination of covering fire, losing very heavily as it did so. In its diary, the German division recorded that the Soviet infantry as being poorly trained and of low morale, and the fact that it could be cajoled into the attack indicated the firm hold exercised by officers and commissars over their troops, a fast that was in itself surprising at a time so early in the war. The German cavalry suffered from a lack of artillery ammunition and the difficulty, in the close country of the Pripyet marshes, of finding suitable artillery observation posts. The presence of Low cloud and the greater importance of operations to the north deprived the 1st Kavalleriedivision of air support, so the battle might have gone badly for it, had not the Soviets made themselves easy targets for the cavalry’s carbines and machine guns.

By 12.00 on 26 June Hoth’s 3rd Panzergruppe was only 18 miles (27 km) to the north of Minsk, and in the afternoon of the same day Guderian, whose Panzer group was driving to the east, was ordered by Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' to turn the greater part of his group to the north and close the Soviet pocket by linking with Hoth’s Panzer group in Minsk. However, Guderian’s right-flanking XXIV Corps (mot.) was authorised to continue its advance to the east in the direction of Bobruysk on the Berezina river and toward Rogachev on the Dniepr river. Guderian and Hoth complied only with reluctance as both opposed the order and wanted to penetrate 200 miles (320 km) deeper into the Soviet rear and close the northern and southern pincers near Smolensk.

At Hitler’s headquarters at Rastenburg in East Prussia, there was increasing disagreement between the German leader, the Oberkommando des Heeres and Heeresgruppe 'Mitte'. The original order issued by the Oberkommando des Heeres on 31 January was clear that the Panzer formations' double envelopment in depth should be directed at Minsk. von Bock, however, had always favoured the much deeper envelopment on Smolensk and again, on 23 June, had again tried, again without success, to have his orders varied. Hitler, on the other hand, was fearful that the Panzer groups might overreach themselves by thrusting too deeply to the east, and was concerned lest the huge numbers of Soviet troops, estimated at 20 divisions, about to be trapped in the Białystok and Nowogródek pockets, break out of the encirclement. On 25 June Hitler’s military aide, Oberst Rudolf Schmundt, arrived at the headquarters of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' on the order of Hitler, who was nervously suggesting that the 'cauldron' be closed much short of Minsk at Nowogródek, with this suggestion, which von Bock resisted strongly. On 26 June Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' was told that Guderian must continue to drive eastward to the Berezina river at Bobruysk, but at the same time should move the greater part of his force to the north in order to close the gaps in the pocket between Baranovichi and Minsk. Three days later Generaloberst Franz Halder the chief of the Oberkommando des Heeres’s staff, complained that as a result of Hitler’s nervousness and interference, von Brauchitsch was forced to forbid a bold thrust farther to the east, and for this reason the probe on Bobruysk could be regarded only as a reconnaissance in force. Halder expressed the hope that Guderian would do the correct thing and cross the Dniepr river at Mogilev and Rogachev in spite of the lack of orders which the Oberkommando des Heeres dared not issue for fear of incurring Hitler’s wrath.

This unusual command 'method' sowed confusion and distrust among the more senior German commanders. Hoth and Guderian were convinced that their primary task was the seizure of the triangle bounded by Vitebsk, Orsha and Smolensk together with the 'land bridge', and the prevention of any Soviet creation of a defence line on the Dniepr river. An officer skilled in strategic rather than operational matters, von Bock was a man notably difficult to both superior and inferior officers, and agreed with Hoth and Guderian. After his telephone conversation of 23 June with von Brauchitsch, who was ordering one thing but hoping that von Bock would implement another, von Bock demanded that in the future that the Oberkommando des Heeres should give him his orders in written form.

On the first day of the German invasion, Iosif Stalin had sent General Georgi K. Zhukov, the chief of the general staff, as the Stavka representative to General Polkovnik Mikhail P. Kirponos, commander-in-chief of the South-West Front, while two of the four marshals of USSR, namely Boris M. Shaposhnikov and Grigori I. Kulik, were despatched on a similar mission to Pavlov’s West Front. Like Kliment Ye. Voroshilov and Semyon M. Budyonny, who were the other two marshals, Kulik had been promoted to this highest rank because of Stalin’s favour rather than any real military ability. Shaposhnikov soon became ill once more under the strain of war, and after visiting Boldin, Kulik departed to reach the 3rd Army but then disappeared for nearly a week. Meanwhile Stalin fretted, and on 26 June despatched a message to Zhukov in Galicia to the effect that Shaposhnikov was sick, Kulik was lost and that it was absolutely incomprehensible what Pavlov was doing. Zhukov was ordered to return to Moscow.

Inside the great 'cauldron' between Białystok and Minsk, something more than 20 Soviet divisions were almost encircled. Some Soviet accounts blame Pavlov for his second major error when he delayed, until after 25 June, the order to the 3rd Army and the 10th Army for a general withdrawal, since by then there was only a single corridor, fewer than 40 miles (65 km) wide, through which they could retire, the very few routes being under artillery and air attack. During the evening of 25 June the principal and shortest route from Białystok to the east was cut by Lemelsen’s XLVII Corps (mot.) between Wolkowysk and Slonim. Pavlov had been allocated an additional formation, Filatov’s 13th Army, with which to hold the Minsk area and to assist in the extraction of the 3rd Army and 10th Army from the pocket, and it was on this army that the double blows of Guderian’s 2nd Panzergruppe and Hoth’s 3rd Panzergruppe fell when they linked near Minsk on 27 June as one arrived from south and the other from the north. Three of the 13th Army’s four infantry divisions were themselves also trapped in the pocket. By the fall of night on 28 June, the infantry of Strauss’s 9th Army and von Kluge’s 4th Army had also met as the shorter pincers closed and thereby completely isolated the Białystok pocket from the larger Nowogródek pocket to the east.

At this time Pavlov was unaware of the disaster which had befallen his armies. On 30 June Stalin and Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Semyon K. Timoshenko, the people’s commissar for defence, first came to hear of the encirclement from German radio transmissions, and when Zhukov communicated with Pavlov on the same day it was to ask whether or not there was any truth in the German claim that two armies had been encircled in the area to the east of Białystok Pavlov replied that he thought there was much truth in it. Pavlov, his chief-of-staff General Major Vladimir Ye. Klimovskikh and some of his principal staff and branch advisers were recalled to Moscow on this same day, arrested, tried for treason, condemned and shot. Only Corps Commissar Aleksandr Ya. Fominykh, the political member of the front’s military council, escaped punishment. Pavlov had commanded the West Front for a mere six days of the war, and in the circumstances there was little that he or any other Soviet commander could have done as most of his strength was deployed right forward in the Białystok pocket, already partially encircled by the Germans even before 'Barbarossa' started. The complete and rapid German victory was due firstly to the overwhelming concentration and superiority of the Luftwaffe in Belorussia, and secondly to the German achievement of complete strategic and tactical surprise. A third reason was the decisive superiority of German tactical leadership, training and battle experience, both on the ground and in the air. The battle revealed, for the first of many times during the war, that the destruction of large enemy forces usually rested on the double envelopment in depth by encircling the enemy with two flanking pincers which met deep in the enemy’s rear. A single flanking pincer would have been inadequate for the purpose, as it would have been slow, and the enemy usually contrived to escape it. The opening stage of the Belorussian campaign was a resounding German success, while the thrusts into the Baltic states and Ukraine, each based on the pinning of the Soviet forces against the sea by a single enveloping arm, failed in their strategic objectives.

Hitler had always planned that the deep encirclement should be directed at Minsk. von Bock, Hoth and Guderian wished to close on Smolensk about 400 miles (650 km) from their start lines, and in this they obviously had some support from von Brauchitsch and Haider. Whether they were right and Hitler wrong was of no great moment to the outcome of the 1941 campaign, since a Smolensk encirclement would in all probability have added only General Leytenant Ivan S. Konev’s 19th Army and General Leytenant Fedor N. Remezov’s 20th Army (currently in the Vitebsk and Orsha areas) to the formations already encircled. The German marching infantry would inevitably have been left still farther behind the German mobile forces, and it is very doubtful whether Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' possessed sufficient strength to seal so huge a pocket. As it was, a number of Soviet troops escaped from the small Białystok pocket into the larger Nowogródek pocket and then, using the cover of woods and darkness, fell back to the Dniepr river. Only when the encircled Soviet formations had been sufficiently shattered did Hitler agree to the continuation of the offensive toward the Dniepr river and Smolensk.

Even as the great pockets were created, the relationship between the German generals worsened steadily when at the end of June, after only eight days of war, von Kluge’s new 4th Panzerarmee was created out of the headquarters of the 4th Army to take the 2nd Panzergruppe and 3rd Panzergruppe under command. (The headquarters of Generaloberst Maximilian Reichsfreiherr von Weichs’s 2nd Army, which had been without formations and held in reserve, at this stage assumed command of the 4th Army's infantry divisions.) An energetic commander whose was intolerant of half measures or compromise, von Kluge soon came into conflict with the two Panzergruppe commanders, and in particular Guderian, because of the slow removal of Panzer formations from the Nowogródek pocket for boost the pursuit to the Dniepr river. Guderian blamed the problem on the clash of personalities, for which Guderian saw von Kluge as the principal culprit, but Hoth was more objective and more accurate when he later condemned the high command for undertaking a war too lightly, without written plans on the basic strategy, and all moves made as a result of daily conversations between Hitler and his staff.

The newly operational 2nd Army and the 9th Army now co-operated in the destruction and clearance of the encircled Soviet troops. By 3 July the Soviet formations in the Białystok area had surrendered and by 8 July the count of prisoners was 290,000, including several corps and divisional commanders, 2,500 tanks destroyed or captured, and 1,500 pieces of artillery destroyed or captured. The Germans estimated that 22 infantry divisions and the equivalent of seven tank divisions and six mechanised brigades had been destroyed. The Soviet forces caught in the 'cauldrons' were the 3rd and 10th Armies, some elements of the flanking 4th and 11th Armies, and the bulk of the reinforcing 13th Army.

The first of the battles in Belorussia, concluded in a mere fortnight, was by any standards a remarkable German victory. The Soviet troops had been well equipped, were in numerical terms as strong as the Germans, and in matériel terms numerically superior but qualitatively inferior in armour and aircraft.

von Kluge’s 4th Panzerarmee, supported by Strauss’s 9th Army on the left, now resumed its progress to the east in the direction of the upper reaches of the Dvina and Dniepr rivers with the 2nd Panzergruppe and 3rd Panzergruppe, both of which had left some of their divisions to cordon the Minsk pocket. The new command arrangement was not good as both Panzergruppe commanders were in still uncertain about the higher intention: Hoth and Guderian each believed that, once the river line had been taken, the next strategic objective would be Moscow; and neither of them appears to have been ordered directly to make a double envelopment on Smolensk in order to encompass and envelopment and destruction of the Soviet troops by then pouring into the area between Orsha and Smolensk. There was also continued friction between von Kluge and his two subordinates, and yet the control exercised by von Kluge appears to have been loose. As he had received no other orders, Guderian assumed that his objective remained the Dniepr river and the general area bounded by Smolensk, Yelnya and Roslavl, so he advanced to the east with all three Panzer corps forward on a wide front and, as he was highly concerned about his open flank to the south, steadily extended to his right. With only two Panzer corps, Hoth had to direct Kuntzen’s LVII Corps (mot.) far to the north toward Polotsk and Nevel as a result of Hitler’s preoccupation with the Soviet growing strength in the area of Nevel and Velikiye Luki on the boundary between Heeresgruppe 'Nord' and Heeresgruppe 'Mitte': this was the same concentration which had caused him to transfer von Leeb’s infantry to the flank. Schmidt’s XXXIX Corps (mot.) moved on Vitebsk. Thus the five Panzer corps of the 4th Panzerarmee moved forward on an extended frontage of more than 200 miles (320 km) with nothing in reserve: accordingly, the Panzer corps' thrusts lacked momentum or, as Hoth put it, like the fingers of an outspread hand rather than a clenched fist. An error was also made in exerting pressure on the Orsha-Smolensk axis, since this merely drove the Soviet forces eastward. Heavy summer rain had begun to fall and the area’s roads and tracks turned almost immediately from deep sand and dust to what were in effect bottomless rivers of mud, and in consequence the German armoured columns both slowed and became extended. The Soviet resistance in the ground was steadily stiffening, moreover, the Soviet air forces were becoming more active once more, and the engineers had the time to destroy all the bridges.

On 28 June, command of the West Front had been assumed by General Leytenant Andrei I. Eremenko in succession to the executed Pavlov, and 2 July Timoshenko assumed command of the West Front with Eremenko and Budyonny as his deputies. Budyonny’s Reserve Front, which had comprised the 19th, 20th, 21st and 22nd Armies and had been creating field fortifications on the line of the upper reaches of the Dvina and Dniepr rivers, was incorporated into Timoshenko’s command. The West Front still had nearly 1,000 tanks at its disposal, although these were almost entirely of obsolete types, and under Timoshenko’s direction there was to be a further stiffening of Soviet resistance. Nehring’s 18th Panzerdivision, part of Guderian’s left flank, advanced along the main road linking Orsha and Smolensk against the 20th Army and the remnants of the 13th Army, and came under fierce counterattacks near the banks of the Berezina river by elements of the Borisov tank school under Corps Commissar Ivan Z. Susaikov, the commandant of the tank school, and General Major Yakov G. Kreizer’s 1st Motorised Division equipped with the new and highly capable T-34 medium tank. On 6 July, Kuntzen’s LVII Corps (mot.) of the 3rd Panzergruppe bridged the Dvina river at Disna in the face of air attack, but came under pressure from General Leytenant Filipp A. Ershakov’s 22nd Army, while Schmidt’s XXXIX Corps (mot.) on the right was checked in front of Vitebsk on 5/6 July by the heavy attacks on its flank by General Leytenant Pavel A. Kurochkin’s 20th Army together with the V Corps and VII Mechanised Corps. Already in flames as a result of artillery and air bombardment, Vitebsk fell on 9 July after encirclement from the north by Generalleutnant Horst Stumpff’s 20th Panzerdivision, but fierce fighting continued until 10 July near Syenno, to the south-west of Vitebsk, in an area held by Soviet mechanised forces.

Timoshenko’s West Front, which on 10 July became the Western Theatre (or Western Direction), at this time consisted of seven armies. From north to south, these were Ershakov’s 22nd Army to the north of Vitebsk, Konev’s 19th Army in reserve to the east of Vitebsk, Kurochkin’s 20th Army near Orsha, Remezov’s 13th Army on the Dniepr river in the Mogilev area, General Leytenant Vasili F. Gerasimenko’s (from 25 August Vasili I. Kuznetsov’s) 21st Army on the southern wing, with General Leytenant Mikhail F. Lukin’s 16th Army in reserve and the 4th Army still retreating before the German thrust in the south through Bobruysk. The strength of the West Front deployed forward on the Orsha triangle and on the Dniepr river was said to total only 24 divisions, many of the armies being little stronger than corps. Although the troop dispositions lacked depth and, after the fighting in the area of Vitebsk and Orsha, the tank fighting strength was said to have fallen below 200 vehicles, the Soviet resources here were still far greater than the Germans imagined them to be. Further reinforcements were arriving daily and another group of Soviet armies was being formed in the rear, in the area to the east of Smolensk. The Soviet position on this front was critical and was indeed to grow still worse, particularly as Soviet morale had been shattered, at least on a temporary basis, and considerable numbers of its men were deserting.

In July, General Major Aleksandr V. Gorbatov was the deputy commander of the XXV Corps, which had arrived near Vitebsk from the area of Kiev with Konev’s 19th Army. The corps had been deployed piecemeal as it arrived, and had hurriedly dug a defensive position. As soon as a few scattered shells dropped among the forward elements of the corps' 162nd Division, its leading regiment, which had a strength in he order of 1,500 men, together with its officers and commissars, bolted. Through personal example, Gorbatov managed to rally the men and re-form the regiment and, as it was impossible to return it to its earlier line, ordered it to entrench itself in a new position to the rear. Later that day, as the earthworks of these new localities began to come under German artillery fire, he observed with satisfaction that the lack of stragglers indicated that the regiment appeared to have regained its nerve and was sitting out the bombardment. When he went forward to congratulate and encourage the regiment, however, Gorbatov found that the position had been deserted some time earlier. Only the regimental commander remained with his small headquarters, and this officer reported that the regiment had fled with the onset of the bombardment, and made excuses to the effect that he had not been able to force his regiment to obey his orders. Gorbatov left him where he was and set off in pursuit of the fleeing men. He had no difficulty in following the trail, because the men had left a broad flattened track through the thick, tall grass as they ran. He reached groups of the men heading to the east for the villages of Lesno and Rudnya. Others were sitting round fires drying their socks. Some had abandoned their weapons. Gorbatov stopped the men, shamed and cursed them, and having ordered them to return, watched as they unwillingly set off, until they were out of sight. He then went on to catch the next group.

On the German side, and especially in Heeresgruppe 'Mitte', there was complete confidence, most particularly in the marching infantry formations. Success at this time was measured by stamina and marching ability. Generalmajor Dr Lothar Rendulic’s 52nd Division, following on the heels of Guderian’s armoured formations, chanced upon an organised and armed grouping of several thousand Soviet troops, together with its headquarters, hidden in the woods near Bobruysk: taking good care not to disturb it, the division hurried forward to the Dniepr river. As the long marching days stretched into weeks, the German troops moved as much as 30 miles (48 km) per day and in fact became harder, fitter and less tired. This was not the case with the horses on which the marching infantry was much reliant, and they began to lose condition as a result of the paucity of rest days. The infantry marched through thick clouds of dust which hung over the roads and tracks, whose flanking woods and forests trapped the clouds as there was no wind to move them. The men’s faces and clothing were covered with layers of sweat-soaked dust, and there was no time or opportunity for washing. The infantry, but not its transport, welcomed any occasional thunderstorm and torrential rain as reliefs from the heat and all-pervading dust.

The crews the German tanks, who had been in continuous action since 22 June and whose efficiency and lives were linked with their vehicles, felt somewhat differently. When Schmundt, Hitler’s aide, visited Hoth near Vitebsk on 13 July, the latter said that the casualties suffered by his Panzer group were in no way heavier than those suffered by the formation during the French campaign of May and June 1940, but that the terrain and climate were far more wearing on tanks and men than they had been in the west, and that the nature of the Soviets and the monotony of the landscape exercised a depressing effect on the men. The hate and bitterness of the average Soviet soldier were also factors which had not been taken into account. Hoth was little impressed Soviet leadership in the field.

The situation on Timoshenko’s West Front continued to deteriorate. On the extreme right flank, Ershakov’s 22nd Army, which had for some time been a thorn in the German side, was in an isolated and exposed position as it was coming under attack by elements of both Heeresgruppe 'Nord' and Heeresgruppe 'Mitte'. Polotsk and Nevel were taken by Kuntzen’s Panzer corps, which was to advance as far as Velikiye Luki. The cornerstone of both the North-West Front and the West Front was thus taken out of the tactical equation, and on the southern flank Guderian’s 2nd Panzergruppe, which had already closed up to the Dniepr river, crossed this waterway on 10/11 July, secured bridgeheads to the south of Orsha and to the north of Novy Bykhov, and started advancing with speed to the east in the direction of Smolensk and Krichev, in the process driving Remezov’s 13th Army before it, encircling four rifle divisions and part of the XX Mechanised Corps near Mogilev. A Soviet counter-offensive by Gerasimenko’s 21st Army against Guderian’s south flank in the area of Bobruysk made little headway.

Using Schmidt’s XXXIX Corps (mot.), which was the only corps available to him since Kuntzen’s LVII Corps (mot.) had been diverted to Velikiye Luki, Hoth continued to move to the east from Vitebsk and encircled Smolensk from the north. Hoth’s spearhead arrived near Yartsevo, to the east of the town, on 15 July. On the next day, in Guderian’s formation, Generalmajor Walter von Boltenstern’s 29th Division (mot.) took Smolensk from the south, and a huge pocket of Soviet troops was therefore almost encircled between Orsha and Smolensk. Between Yartsevo and Smolensk, however, there was a gap to the south of the main highway to Moscow, a gap which Guderian could not close, in spite of Hoth’s urging, because the bulk of his troops were spread far to the south and coming under counterattacks which were particularly heavy in the Yelnya salient. von Kluge appears to have exerted little influence as a co-ordinator of these operations.

Most of Lukin’s 16th Army and Kurochkin’s 20th Army, estimated by German sources as totalling between 10 and 15 divisions as well as large numbers of detachments and stragglers, were trapped in the Smolensk pocket. Vehicles lay four deep along the main Smolensk road, all of them facing to the east, while officers and commissars sought to marshal men and form units. There were several counterattacks against Hoth’s Panzer group to the north, but these lacked co-ordination and were repulsed with little difficulty. The Soviet high command then made desperate and simultaneous attempts to relieve its encircled troops and to cover the approaches to Moscow. On 14 July steps had already been taken to create another reserve front to cover the line from Lake Ilmen in the north to Bryansk in the south: under the new Reserve Front’s commander, General Leytenant Ivan A. Bogdanov, this comprised the new 29th, 30th, 24th, 28th and 31st Armies. Behind these, another front covering Moscow was created on the basis of the 32nd, 33rd and 34th Armies as the Moscow Reserve Front under General Leytenant Pavel A. Artemev, commander of the Moscow Military District.

To lighten the responsibilities weighing down Timoshenko, and to facilitate his concentration on the relief of the encircled troops, the southern wing, in the form of the 13th and 21st Armies, was detached from the West Front and formed into a new Central Front under the command F. I. Kuznetsov, former commander of the North-West Front. A total of 16 infantry and four tank divisions were sent forward from Bogdanov’s Reserve Front and formed into temporary tactical formations known as groups, one of which was commanded by General Major Konstantin K. Rokossovsky, and these counterattacked in the direction of Smolensk from Bely, Yartsevo and Roslavl in order to break into the encirclement. Other attacks were made by the 30th, 19th and 24th Armies of the West Front to the north of Smolensk and on Yelnya to divert the Germans' attention. Constituting part of what became known in the USSR as the 'Battle of Smolensk', these counterattacks lasted throughout July and August.

By that time the German front extended in a great salient from Stary Bykhov in the south to Roslavl, jutting out at Yelnya and Bely, and then back in the north near Velikiye Luki. The two Panzergruppen and part of Strauss’s 9th Army had to withstand the attacks of Timoshenko’s West Front and at the same time prevent the encircled Soviet forces from breaking out. Especially in the area to the east of Smolensk, Soviet pressure was great in some places, but the outcome was not in doubt as soon as the German infantry formations began to arrive. The thrust by Kachalov’s 28th Army in the south from the important communication nexus of Roslavl made some progress until it was countered by a grouping of Geyr von Schweppenburg’s XXIV Corps (mot.) and General Wilhelm Fahrmbacher’s VII Corps under Guderian, who succeeded in encircling the Soviet forces attempting the relief of the pocket. On 5 August the last Soviet resistance inside the Smolensk pocket came to an end with a total loss of about 300,000 men taken prisoner and more than 3,000 tanks destroyed or captured. Three days later the Roslavl pocket, consisting mainly of there 28th Army, was cleared by Guderian’s forces with the capture of a further 38,000 prisoners and 200 tanks. The XXIV Corps (mot.) was then redeployed farther to the south against the rear of F. I. Kuznetsov’s new Central Front in the area to the west and north of Gomel. These attacks by the XXIV Corps (mot.) on Klintsy from the north, and by von Weichs’s 2nd Army to the east from Bobruysk, virtually destroyed the Central Front, and by 24 August had cost the Soviets another 78,000 men taken prisoner. In all, from the conclusion of the Minsk battle on 8 July to the beginning of September, when the West Front’s attacks died down, the Soviets had lost to Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' something in the order of 400,000 prisoners and more than 3,300 tanks destroyed or captured. Soviet accounts maintained quite inaccurately that the Operational Group 'Rokossovsky' broke into the Smolensk pocket on 4 and 5 August, enabling the main part of the encircled Soviet troops to escape.

Thus Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' had completed the mission with which it had been entrusted, and had destroyed most of the Soviet forces in Belorussia, in the process taking about 600,000 prisoners and destroying or capturing more than 5,000 tanks. It had advanced more than 500 miles (800 km) to Smolensk, well beyond the line of the Dvina and Dniepr rivers, and was about 250 miles (400 km) from Moscow. On 3 July Haider had noted with satisfaction in his diary that the campaign against the USSR was almost won; and yet in September elements of no fewer than 27 Soviet armies were still deployed against the Germans in the forward areas between Leningrad in the north and the coast of the Black Sea in the south.

Many German generals were later critical of Hitler’s tactical direction and interference. Hitler had favoured deep thrusts to the east, but was disinclined to accept the risks involved, and wanted security and firm cordons round the Soviet pockets. The Panzer group commanders were, on the other hand, concerned primarily with the bold seizure of deep tactical or strategic objectives such as Smolensk and Moscow rather than with the destruction of the Soviet forces. Guderian’s logic in particular was based on the assumption that boldness always returned a handsome dividend and it might be considered that his advocacy of daring thrusts represented a concept of mobility which, despite the fact that it gave quick and spectacular returns, was unrelated to a strategic master plan. Guderian blamed Hitler and the Oberkommando des Heeres for the selection of Minsk rather than Smolensk as the objective of the first double envelopment, and for holding back his Panzer group during the establishment of the cordon round the Nowogródek pocket. As events proved, Hitler’s caution probably brought a much larger haul of prisoners as fewer Soviets escaped from the Białystok and Nowogródek pockets, while in the meantime five new Soviet armies were drawn forward to the line connecting Vitebsk and Mogilev. Many of these Soviet troops were destroyed in the second series of envelopments. Guderian tended to be uncompromising and narrow in his views and, at this time and like many of his fellow commanders, was unaware of the wider aspects of the campaign.

On the Soviet side there was an attempt after the end of the war to elevate the Smolensk battle to the proportions of a victory. The Soviet political and military leaderships were sure that the seizure of Moscow was the Germans' immediate and primary objective, and they were astonished when Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' did not attempt to purge forward beyond Smolensk. Thus Soviet leaderships construed their own version of events, for which there is no supporting evidence. In the USSR it was said that the resistance of Soviet troops before Smolensk was the decisive factor in forcing Hitler and the Germans to alter their original plans and cancel the attack on Moscow. Although the Soviet counterattacks were at times desperate, and although in the main the Soviets fought with determination, their strength could never have held the German offensive had it not been for Hitler’s intention to advance directly on Moscow. No more true was the the Soviet post-war claim that Hitler ended the attack on Moscow because of the danger of Soviet attacks on the flanks of the thrust from the north and south. In accordance with Hitler’s orders, the 'Barbarossa' directive (Führerweisung Nr 21) and the subsequent military plans were based on the premise that after Smolensk had been reached, the German main effort would be switched to Leningrad and possibly to Ukraine.