Bialystok-Minsk Defensive Operation

The 'Białystok-Minsk Defensive Operation' was the Soviet border defensive undertaking on the central sector of the Eastern Front during the early stages of the German 'Barbarossa' invasion of the USSR (22 June/8 July 1941).

As a result of this major battle, the main Soviet forces of the West Front were surrounded and largely defeated, many men being killed though smaller numbers deserted or filtered their way back to the surviving Soviet forces, some reached and joined partisan groups, and many were taken prisoner. On 28 June, the Germans took Minsk, the main city of Belorussia, and opened the road to Moscow.

The 'Barbarossa' invasion of the USSR was based on three strategic axes: in the north Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb’s Heeresgruppe 'Nord' was to strike from East Prussia to the north-east toward Leningrad, in the south Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt’s Heeresgruppe 'Süd' was to strike from southern Poland and Hungary to the east and south-east toward Kiev, and in the centre Generalfeldmarschall Fedor von Bock’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' was to strike from northern and central Poland to the east toward Moscow. Supported by the 1,700 aircraft of Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring’s Luftflotte II, Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' had a strength of 634,900 men, 810 tanks and 12,500 pieces of artillery in 51 divisions, of which nine were armoured formations, in the equivalent of four armies (two infantry armies and two Panzergruppen).

The centre of von Bock’s army group comprised Generaloberst Adolf Strauss’s 9th Army in the centre north and Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge’s 4th Army in the centre south, flanked to the north and south respectively by Generaloberst Hermann Hoth’s 3rd Panzergruppe (two infantry and motorised corps with four Panzer, three motorised and four infantry divisions) advancing from the Suwałki area, and Generaloberst Heinz Guderian’s 2nd Panzergruppe (one infantry and three motorised corps with five Panzer, three motorised, one cavalry and six infantry divisions as well as one reinforced regiment), advancing from the Brest-Litovsk area.

The German plan was to strike with strong flank groupings and a relatively weak centre. The 2nd Panzergruppe and 3rd Panzergruppe were to drive rapidly at first to the east before wheeling to the north-east and south-east respectively to meet in the area of Minsk and thus encircle and trap in the area to the west of Minsk vast Soviet forces, which were were slower moving than the German armoured forces as they were reliant essentially on foot and horse transport. At the same time, the two infantry armies, with a total of 20 infantry divisions in seven corps, were to attack more slowly to meet to the east of Białystok and then reach the encirclement to consolidate the German hold on the trapped Soviets forces, which would then be destroyed. This double encirclement was the German army’s most favoured operational tactic throughout 'Barbarossa'.

The tasks of Luftflotte II included the total destruction of Soviet air power in the very first days of the war, the winning of total air supremacy, and the provision of 'flying artillery' support for the ground forces in general and the fast-moving armoured forces in particular.

The opposition to Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' was General Dmitri G. Pavlov’s Western Special Military District, which on the outbreak of war became the West Front. This controlled three armies: General Leytenant Vasili I. Kuznetsov’s 3rd Army comprised four infantry divisions and one mechanised corps with two tank and one motorised divisions, and held the defensive line in the Grodno region; General Major Konstantin D. Golubev’s 10th Army was the most potent of the three armies and comprised two infantry and two mechanised corps, one of them at full combat readiness, as well as one cavalry corps and six infantry corps with two cavalry, four tank and two motorised divisions, and held the Białystok salient; and General Major Aleksandr A. Korobkov’s 4th Army comprised four infantry, two tank and one motorised divisions, and held the area of Brest-Litovsk. General Leytenant Piotr M. Filatov’s newly created 13th Army was supposed to occupy and hold the defence zone on the southern face of the Białystok salient, but its headquarters had just begun to advance to the west and was to comprise the II, XXI, XLIV and XLVIII Corps, the 50th Division, the IV Airborne Corps, the XVII and XX Mechanised Corps and six fortified areas. In total, the Soviet forces facing Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' comprised 44 divisions (24 infantry, two cavalry, 12 tank and six motorised divisions) as well as three airborne brigades and nine fortified areas.

Air defence of the most important possible targets within the West Front’s boundaries was the responsibility of the Western Air Defence Zone.

The West Front had under its command in its first echelon Kuznetsov’s 3rd Army with the IV Corps and XI Mechanised Corps; Korobkov’s 4th Army with the XXVIII Corps and XIV Mechanised Corps; Golubev’s 10th Army with the I Corps, V Corps, VI Cavalry Corps, VI Mechanised Corps and XIII Mechanised Corps; and in its second echelon and still under formation Filatov’s 13th Army with the XVII Mechanised Corps, XX Mechanised Corps and IV Airborne Corps.

On 1 June, the Western Special Military District had 4,522 tanks, of which 385 required medium-level repair and 323 required major-level repair. The armour fleet was based on T-26 light tanks of sundry variants and about 600 examples of the BT fast tank family (402 BT-7, 149 BT-5 and 56 BT-2 machines), as well as 479 other armoured vehicles (343 medium and 136 light). There were also newer vehicles in the form of 117 KV heavy tanks and 266 T-34 medium tanks in the VI and XI Mechanised Corps. The figures for Soviet tank strength are much disputed, however, and some sources claim a total of only 2,900 variants of all models.

The Western Special Military District also controlled the 4th and 8th Armoured Train Divisions. By 1938 three more fortified areas were built, and within the Western Special Military District the Polotsk, Minsk, Mozyr and Slutsk fortified areas had 876 permanent defensive structures, while by 1 June 1941 the Grodno, Osovetsky, Zambruvsky and Brest-Litovsk fortified areas had about 200 fully armed permanent defensive structures, 193 protected firing positions (buried MS-1 obsolete light tanks) and 909 field fortifications.

von Bock’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' had under its command as its first-line strength Hoth’s 3rd Panzergruppe with General Rudolf Schmidt’s XXXIX Corps (mot.), General Adolf Kuntzen’s LVII Corps (mot.) and General Otto-Wilhelm Förster’s VI Corps; Generaloberst Adolf Strauss’s 9th Army with General Richard Ruoff’s V Corps, General Walter Heitz’s VIII Corps and General Friedrich Materna’s XX Corps; Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge’s 4th Army with General Wilhelm Fahrmbacher’s VII Corps, General Hermann Geyer’s IX Corps, General Walther Schroth’s XII Corps, General Hans Felber’s XIII Corps and General Gotthard Heinrici’s XLIII Corps; and Guderian’s 2nd Panzergruppe with General Leo Freiherr Geyr von Schweppenburg’s XXIV Corps (mot.), General Heinrich Gottfried von Vietinghoff-Scheel’s XLVI Corps (mot.), General Joachim Lemelsen’s XLVII Corps (mot.), Generalleutnant Friedrich-Wilhelm von Loeper’s 10th Division (mot.) and Generalleutnant Kurt Feldt’s 1st Kavalleriedivision. The army group’s reserve was von Weichs’s 2nd Army with General Rudolf Kämpfe’s Höhere Kommando zbV XXXV, General Walter Kuntze’s XLII Corps, General Karl Weisenberger’s LIII Corps and Generalleutnant Kurt Müller’s 286th Sicherungsdivision.

The German armoured strength is also disputed, with claims varying from 610 to 1,936 tanks: the latter is probably an establishment strength and should be reduced to a lower operational figure reflecting the fact that many vehicles were under repair or maintenance despite the efforts of maintenance personnel to have as many vehicles as possible in a serviceable state. Of the Germans' probable total of 1,936 tanks, 666 were of the PzKpfw 38(t) and PzKpfw III medium tank models armed with a 37-mm main gun, and 630 of the PzKpfw III variant with a 50-mm main gun and PzKpfw IV battle tank model with a 75-mm main gun.

Forces of the Western Special Military District’s second echelon began to move toward the border in the period just before the outbreak of hostilities. The headquarters of the II Corps arrived from its initial location near Minsk to the area of Belsk on the southern face of the Białystok salient, where it was to be subordinated to the headquarters of General Leytenant Piotr M. Filatov’s new 13th Army. The XLIV Corps, comprising single divisions from Smolensk, Vyaz’ma and Mogilev, was transferred to the same army from Smolensk. The XXI Corps of three divisions began to shift from Vitebsk to the area of Lida, where it came under the command of the 3rd Army. The XLVII Corps began to move from Bobruysk to the Obuz-Lesna area where, just before the outbreak of war, the field administration of the Western Special Military District was deployed. In addition, this district started to receive from the Ural Military District General Leytenant Filipp A. Ershakov’s 22th Army, the first three of whose divisions arrived in the area of Polotsk at about the time that the war started, and from the Volga Military District General Leytenant Vasili F. Gerasimenko’s 21st Army. At the beginning of the war the area of Gomel also saw the arrival of a few infantry divisions. These forces did not become involved in the border battles, but came to play a major role in the next stage of the campaign.

In the Białystok salient, as elsewhere along the Eastern Front, the German ground offensive was preceded by powerful air attacks, which in a matter of hours created what was in effect the complete destruction of Soviet air power. Though numerically inferior to those of the Soviet forces, the German air formations and units had all the advantages: they were flying technically superior aircraft flown by pilots and crews who had received better training and possessed superior operational experience, working to tactical and operational concepts which had been better conceived and also thoroughly tested in combat, and supported by better ground personnel.

On the northern face of the Białystok salient, in which were sited from north to south the 3rd Army, 10th Army and 4th Army, Hoth’s 3rd Panzergruppe delivered the main blow in Lithuania with the object of defeating the Soviet forces stationed in that area and then driving into the rear of the West Front’s formations, which were almost all deployed well forward, indeed almost right up against the frontier, without any significant depth, and therefore highly vulnerable to penetration, envelopment and finally destruction. On the very first day, the German armoured corps reached the Niemen river and captured the bridges in Alytus and Merkin, after which they continued their offensive on the river’s eastern bank. The battle for Alytus between the XXXIX Corps (mot.) and the 5th Tank Division became a major engagement and one of the XXXIX Corps (mot.)'s most difficult of the entire war. Strauss’s 9th Army attacked the Kuznetsov’s 3rd Army on the salient’s northern face, swiftly and efficiently defeated it, and on the next day took Grodno after repulsing a counterattack by the XI Mechanised Corps near Grodno.

The 10th Army, on the western face of the salient, faced only German diversionary action designed to pin the Soviet forces and thus prevent either their retirement or their redeployment to the salient’s northern and southern faces.

On the salient’s southern face, three of the five corps within von Kluge’s 4th Army were committed to the infliction of a crushing blow to the north-east in the direction of Belsk: the three Soviet infantry divisions defending the area were completely overwhelmed by the weight of the German attack, driven back and in large part dispersed.

At 12.00 on 22 June, in the area of Bransk, the XIII Mechanised Corps, which was still in the process of formation, was necessarily committed to the fighting. By the end of the day, the Soviet troops had been driven out of Bransk. On the following day there developed a battle outside the town, and after repelling Soviet counterattacks on 24 June German troops continued their offensive and occupied Belsk.

In the area of to the north-west of Brest-Litovsk, the 4th Army was attacked by Guderian’s 2nd Panzergruppe: two of the group’s armoured corps crossed the Bug river to the north and south of Brest-Litovsk, and the three infantry divisions of the 4th Army's XII Corps delivered an attack directly toward the city. Within only a short time, the one tank division and two infantry divisions in Brest-Litovsk itself, together with the city’s fortress and the military towns around it, had been defeated largely nu artillery fire and air attacks rather than direct ground assault. By 07.00 on 22 June, the city of Brest-Litovsk had been taken by the Germans but, in what became known as the 'Brest-Litovsk Defensive Operation', the fortress and the area round the railway station remained in Soviet hands for a week.

During the evening of 22 June, the commanders of the West Front, and those of the North-West Front and South-West Front flanking the West Front, received Directive No. 3 signed by the People’s Commissar of Defence, Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Semyon K. Timoshenko, the chief of the general Staff, General Georgi K. Zhukov, and a member of the Supreme Military Council, Georgi M. Malenkov, and this directive ordered the launch of a powerful counter-offensive to destroy the advancing German forces and by 24 June to occupy the Polish cities of Suwałki and Lublin.

On 23 June, the headquarters of the West Front received a visit from three very high-ranking officers of the Soviet supreme command, namely Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Boris M. Shaposhnikov, Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Grigori I. Kulik and Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Kliment E. Voroshilov.

On the same day elements of the 4th Army’s XIV Mechanised Corps and XXVIII Corps counterattacked in the areas of Brest-Litovsk but were driven back without much troubling the Germans. The German armoured corps meanwhile continued their offensive toward Baranovichi and Pinsk, and took Pruzhany, Ruzhany and Kobrin. On 24 June the Soviets counterattacked in the area of Grodno, using the newly formed Cavalry Mechanized Group 'Boldin' of General Leytenant Ivan V. Boldin, the West Front’s deputy commander. With something in the order of 1,000 tanks, General Major Mikhail G. Khatskilevich’s VI Mechanised Corps spearheaded the attack, which also included the VI Cavalry Corps. The Germans promptly brought this attack to a halt, whose failure can be attributed to German air superiority, the counterattack’s poor planning and organisation, the error of falling onto a well-prepared and experienced anti-tank defence, and the failure of the Soviet rear services to provide the necessary support.

However, in a separate undertaking the 3rd Army’s XI Mechanised Corps managed to reach the suburb of Grodno where, for a short time, the XX Corps had to go over to the defensive.

On 24 June, Generaloberst Franz Halder, the chief of the Oberkommando des Heeres’s general staff, noted that that it had now become clear that the Soviets had no thoughts of retreat, but were committing all that they had at their disposal to meet the German forces which had driven into their positions. At the same time, the Soviet supreme command apparently played no active part in the leadership of front-line operations, and that the reasons for such inaction were unclear. The complete absence of major operational reserves completely deprived the Soviet command of the ability to exert an effective influence the course of hostilities. The presence of significantly large reserves in the border zone indicated that the Soviets planned, right from the very beginning, to conduct a stubborn defence of the border zone and for this purpose had created supply bases in these areas.

During this early period of the campaign, the other formations of the 9th Amy, namely the V Corps, VI Corps and VIII Corps, continued to press and pin the main Soviet forces within the Białystok salient. As a result of the Soviet counterattack’s failure and the beginning of the encirclement by 20.00 on 25 June, Boldin ordered his cavalry mechanised group to halt its offensive effort and start to retreat.

The Białystok salient was shaped like a bottle lying on its side with its neck to the east, and the Soviet forces within the salient were wholly reliant on a single road, that linking Białystok and Slonim, for their continued survival. Adding to the Soviet woes in the salient was the fact that the headquarters of all the 10th Army’s formations were located in or to the west of Białystok: these headquarters were those of the I Corps in Vizna, V Corps in Zambrow, VI Mechanised Corps in Białystok, XIII Mechanised Corps in Belsk and VI Cavalry Corps in Lomza.

By 25 June it had become clear that the German penetration into and movement round the Soviet forces in the Białystok salient threatened the West Front with complete encirclement. At 12.00 on 25 June, the 3rd Army and 10th Army were therefore ordered to begin an immediate retreat, the 3rd Army toward Novogrudok and the 10th Army toward Slonim. Two days later the Soviet forces left Białystok and, in order to preserve their line of retreat, were compelled to fight the Germans in the area of Volkovysk and Zelva. On 28 June. the Germans occupied Volkovysk, and the Białystok was thus cut in two. The Germans surrounded part of the 10th Army in the area to the east of Białystok but still in the the western part of the pocket, and in the eastern part, in the area of Novogrudok, were formations of the 3rd Army and 13th Army.

Some German divisions went instructed to go over to the defensive and create a reverse front along the line linking Slonim, Zelva and Ruzhany to prevent a major Soviet exodus to the east.

Thus the escape routes needed by the 3rd Army and 13th Army had been severed, and the Soviet forces which had managed to withdraw from the Białystok salient were now surrounded in several pockets between Bolshaya Berestovitsa, Volkovysk, Mosty, Slonim and Ruzhany, where the fighting reached a crescendo on 29/30 June.

According to Halder, the fighting in these days tied down the entire centre and part of the right wing of the 4th Army, which had to be significantly reinforced. In his diary, Halder wrote that the stubborn resistance of the Soviets compelled the Germans to fight in strict accord with the rules laid down in German manuals. In Poland and in the west, the Germans could afford certain liberties and deviations from established principles, but that this was now unacceptable. The Soviets everywhere fought to the last man. Only in places did they surrender, primarily where there was a high proportion of Mongolian peoples in the troops facing the 9th Army. When batteries of artillery were captured, only a few men surrendered. Some of the Soviets fought until they were killed, others fled, discarding their uniforms and trying to escape the encirclement disguised as peasants. Completely intermingled, the German divisions made every effort not to let any Soviet troops out of the encirclement’s inner perimeter as they attempted to break out in all directions.

On 1 July, elements of the 4th Army met units of the 9th Army, so thus completed the encirclement of the Soviet forces trying to retreat out of the Białystok salient. Two days later, command of the 4th Army's infantry divisions was assumed by the 2nd Army, and from this time onward the destruction of the encircled Soviet forces was shared between von Weichs and Strauss as von Kluge, to whom the 2nd Panzergruppe and 3rd Panzergruppe were operationally subordinate, continued the offensive to the east.

Fighting continued in the fortress of Brest-Litovsk until the end of June. On 29 June, German bombers dropped two 1,102-lb (500-kg) bombs and one 3,968-lb (1800-kg) bomb on the eastern part of the fortress, which was the last centre of Soviet resistance, and in the morning of the following day the headquarters of Generalleutnant Fritz Schlieper’s 45th Division reported the complete capture of the Brest-Litovsk fortress. The division also reported the capture of 7,000 prisoners and its own losses as 482 men killed and more than 1,000 men wounded, which was more than 5% of the total number of Germans killed on the entire Eastern Front by 30 June.

As this was happening in the western part of the Białystok salient, the German armoured corps advancing to the east on 24 June encountered the forces of the West Front’s second echelon. In the south, the 2nd Panzergruppe's XLVII Corps (mot.) collided with three Soviet divisions in the area of Slonim, which delayed the German advance for a day, and in the north the 3rd Panzergruppe's LVII Corps (mot.) collided with the XXI Corps in the area of Lida.

At this time, the XXXIX Corps (mot.), advancing into what was in effect an operational vacuum, on 26 June reached the approaches to Minsk. Generalleutnant Hans Freiherr von Funck’s 7th Panzerdivision, Generalleutnant Josef Harpe’s 12th Panzerdivision and Generalleutnant Horst Stumpff’s 20th Panzerdivision now broke through to the capital of Belorussia with some 700 tanks, and on the following day were supplemented by Generalleutnant Hans Zorn’s 20th Division (mot.).

On 26 June the German forces occupied Molodechno, Volozhin and Radoshkovichi. The 7th Panzerdivision passed round Minsk in the north and headed toward Borisov, and on the night of 27 June the division’s advance detachment occupied Smolevichi on the main road linking Minsk and Moscow.

Minsk was defended by General Major Vasili A. Yushkevich’s XLIV Corps occupying the positions of the Minsk Fortified Area, as well as General Major Arkadi N. Ermakov’s II Corps. In total, the area of Minsk was held by four Soviet infantry divisions. On 27 June, command over the troops defending Minsk was assumed by the headquarters of Filatov’s 13th Army, only just emerging from the attack in the Molodechno area. At this time Timoshenko, chairman of the Soviet supreme command, ordered that Minsk was to be held regardless of cost, even if its defenders were completely encircled. On the same day, the 100th Division launched a counterattack on Ostroshitsky Gorodok, to the north of Minsk, but this was repulsed.

Meanwhile, on 26 June, the XLVII Corps (mot.) of the 2nd Panzergruppe occupied Baranovichi as it approached Minsk from the south. On the next day the corps took Stolbtsy, and on the day after that seized Dzerzhinsk.

At about 17.00 on 28 June, units of the 20th Panzerdivision broke into Minsk from the north-west. Two divisions of the XLIV Corps remained to hold positions to the west of Minsk, while the II Corps withdrew to the east of Minsk in the direction of the Volma river.

As the 2nd Panzergruppe and 3rd Panzergruppe met at Nalibokskaya Pushcha to the east of Minsk, the remnants of the 3rd Army and 10th Army, as well as parts of the 13th Army and 4th Army, were surrounded, and by 8 July the fighting in the Minsk pocket was over.

During the part of their offensive to Minsk, the Germans achieved huge operational successes: they inflicted a heavy defeat on the West Front, captured a significant part of Belorussia and advanced to a depth of more than 185 miles (300 km). Only the Soviet concentration of their second strategic echelon along the Zapadny Dvina and Dniepr rivers allowed them to delay the German advance to Moscow in the Battle of Smolensk.

Within the 3rd Army, the IV Corps and XI Mechanised Corps had been totally defeated, while the 10th Army had been totally destroyed. In total, 11 infantry, two cavalry, six tank and four motorised divisions had been eliminated from the Soviet order of battle in the Białystok and Minsk pockets, three corps and two divisional commanders had been killed, two corps commanders and six divisional commanders had been taken prisoner, and one corps and two divisional commanders had disappeared.

On 11 July, a German high command summary listed the results of the two 'cauldron' (pocket) battles fought up to this time by Heeresgruppe 'Mitte': 324,000 men had been taken prisoner, and 3,332 tanks and 1,809 pieces of artillery had been captured.

The Soviet official data on the losses of the West Front take into account all the losses between 22 June to 9 July, including the counterattacks in the Borisov and Lepel areas, but did not take into account the losses of border troops, NKVD troops and other services not related to the Soviet People’s Commissariat of Defence. The figures comprised 341,021 men killed, missing or taken prisoner, and 76,717 men wounded or taken ill for a total of 417,729 men

The defeat at Minsk had a strongly adverse psychological impact on the Soviet leadership, and the Soviet Information Bureau did not report the surrender of Minsk.

On 4 July, Pavlov and some other generals were arrested. After a short investigation, Pavlov was convicted by the Military Collegium of the Soviet Supreme Court, stripped of his military rank and all awards, and sentenced to death. Together with him, the front’s chief-of-staff, General Major Vladimir Ye. Klimovskikh, and the front’s chief of communications, General Major Andrei T. Grigoriev, were also convicted and shot on 22 July.

The head of the front’s artillery, General Leytenant Nikolai A. Klich, and the commander of the XIV Mechanised Corps, General Major Stepan I. Oborin, were arrested on 8 July and subsequently shot.

Korobkov, the commander of the 4th Army, was removed on 8 July, arrested on the following day and shot on 22 July along with Pavlov, Klimovskikh and Grigoriev. General Major Andrei I. Tayursky, the deputy commander of the Air Force of the West Front, was arrested and shot on 23 February 1942. The same fate would probably have been meted out to the commander of the Air Force of the West Front, General Major Ivan I. Kopets, but after learning of the air force losses during the first days of the war, he shot himself on 23 July. The commander of the 9th Mixed Aviation Division, which lost 347 out of 409 aircraft on the first day of the war, was General Major Sergei A. Chernykh, who was arrested on 8 July and soon shot.

After the death of Iosif Stalin in March 1953, all the executed military leaders were rehabilitated and posthumously reinstated in military ranks.