This was a Soviet part of the ‘Belorussian Strategic Offensive Operation’ (‘Bagration’) in the summer of 1944 (23/29 June 1944).
Within ‘Bagration’, the ‘Bobruysk Offensive Operation’ had the twin objectives of breaking through the defensive positions of General Hans Jordan’s 9th Army and taking Bobruysk, and of committing motorised and cavalry exploitation forces through the gap so created, opening the way for a major encirclement of much of the remainder of Generalfeldmarschall Ernst Busch’s (from 28 June Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model’s) Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ in the Minsk offensive operation.
The headquarters of the 9th Army had argued strongly that a major assault on Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ was imminent, and Jordan had complained about the high command’s refusal to sanction tactical withdrawals, but Busch had brushed these concerns aside. Patrols of Generalleutnant Ernst Philipp’s 134th Division had revealed a build-up in the sector opposite the XXXV and XLI Corps to the extent that each of the German division’s three regiments was faced with a full-strength Soviet infantry division of 7,200 men.
In overall terms the 9th Army comprised lower-quality divisions than General Friedrich Hossbach’s 4th Army to its north, probably reflecting a belief by the Oberkommando des Heeres that the terrain in the 9th Army’s sector was more easily defensible. The German strength in this sector comprised the 9th Army with Generalleutnant Kurt-Jürgen Freiherr von Lützow’s XXXV Corps, Generalleutnant Edmund Hoffmeister’s XLI Panzerkorps and General Friedrich Herrlein’s LV Corps, together with Generalleutnant Mortimer von Kessel’s 20th Panzerdivision and Generalmajor Gustav Gihr’s 707th Division as reserves.
Bobruysk had been designated a Festerplatz (fortified area) under the command of Generalmajor Adolf Hamann.
On the other side of the front line, the Soviet forces co-ordinated by Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Georgi K. Zhukov, the Stavka’s special representative, were based on Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Konstantin K. Rokossovsky’s 1st Belorussian Front with General Leytenant Aleksandr V. Gorbatov’s 3rd Army, General Leytenant Aleksei A. Grechkin’s 28th Army, General Leytenant Nikolai I. Gusev’s 48th Army, General Leytenant Pavel A. Batov’s 65th Army, General Leytenant Issa A. Pliyev’s Cavalry-Mechanised Group (I Mechanised Corps and IV Guards Cavalry Corps), and General Polkovnik Sergei I. Rudenko’s 16th Air Army.
In the southern sector of operations, where the 1st Belorussian Front faced the 9th Army, the main Soviet objective was Bobruysk and the southern crossings of the Berezina river, whose capture would open the route for the southern arm of the main pincer encirclement. (The southern flank of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ was covered by Generaloberst Walter Weiss’s 2nd Army in the Pripyet Marshes, but this area was largely bypassed by the Soviet offensive.)
Rokossovsky had staked his reputation on a plan involving a complex double envelopment of the German forces at Bobruysk, in opposition to Stalin’s preferred plan of a single breakthrough in the sector. The Soviet attack, as with the other initial offensive operations of ‘Bagration’, was preceded by a heavy artillery bombardment. The first Soviet assault on 23 June was driven back and suffered heavy casualties. Rokossovsky ordered further artillery preparation for the following day, which eventually resulted in a collapse of the 134th Division in the north of the sector as the 3rd Army pushed forward. The 20th Panzerdivision counterattacked but was then ordered by Jordan to turn south and confront a new breakthrough by the 65th Army. By 27 June, Soviet forces were converging near Bobruysk, trapping the five divisions of the XXXV Corps, the 9th Army’s most northerly major formation, to the east of the Berezina river. Elements of the XLI Panzerkorps in the centre were also trapped, along with the 20th Panzerdivision.
The disorganised German divisions now launched themselves into a number of desperate attempts to escape from the pocket, which stretched for several miles along the eastern bank of the river: the Soviets reported large fires on 27 June as the Germans destroyed their heavy equipment and attempted to break out, but Soviet air attack and artillery inflicted very heavy losses on the encircled forces.
Adolf Hitler had meanwhile removed Jordan of command on the grounds of his confusing instructions to the 20th Panzerdivision, and installed in his place General Nikolaus von Vormann. The 9th Army was further affected for the worse when its main communications headquarters was destroyed by bombing. On the following day, a limited reinforcement arrived behind the German lines in the form of Generalmajor Gerhard Müller’s 12th Panzerdivision.
Faced with the prospect of the 9th Army’s total collapse, the OKH now authorised a withdrawal. Hamann, the commandant in Bobruysk, was ordered to hold the town with just one formation, namely Generalleutnant Edmund Hoffmeister’s 383rd Division, and many thousands of wounded were abandoned in the citadel as the rest of the 9th Army fell back to the west. The remnants of 20th Panzerdivision, with a handful of tanks and assault guns, were the spearhead of the XLI Panzerkorps’ attempted breakout, which was placed under the command of Hoffmeister, while the 12th Panzerdivision attacked from the Svisloch river to meet the retreating troops. Though a breakout was achieved through positions held by the 356th Division of the 65th Army, the German forces were again subjected to intense artillery bombardment and air attack as they attempted to make their way along the roads to the south of Minsk.
The 65th Army now fought its way into Bobruysk street by street against stiff resistance by the German rearguard. Comprising little more than ruins and with much of its population killed during the German occupation, Bobruysk was liberated on 29 June, as the last elements of the 383rd Division started to pull back shortly before dawn: no further elements of the 9th Army escaped from the area to the east of the Berezina river.
The German breakout had allowed some 12,000 troops, in a very poor state of morale and without their heavier weapons, to escape from the pocket east of Bobruysk, but the Soviets claimed to have taken 20,000 German prisoners, and to have killed some 50,000 Germans. The 9th Army had been totally defeated, and the southern route to Minsk was now open to the Soviets.