Operation Freischütz (iii)

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This was a German small-scale attempt to relieve the forces trapped round Minsk in Belorussia (29 June/4 July 1944).

These forces had been encircled by Soviet advances in the 'Minsk Offensive Operation', itself part of the second phase of the great ‘Bagration’ strategic offensive of the summer of 1944. The role of General Ivan D. Chernyakhovsky’s 3rd Belorussian Front in the first phase of ‘Bagration’ was essentially complete by 28 June, when its cavalry and mechanised units halted on the Berezina river. On this same day the Stavka issued a new order for the front to force a crossing of the Berezina from the march and then develop an offensive toward Minsk and Molodechno, capturing the former in co-operation with General Georgi F. Zakharov’s 2nd Belorussian Front and reaching the latter no later than 8 July. Marshal of Armoured Troops Pavel A. Rotmistrov’s 5th Guards Tank Army was criticised for its slowness in attaining its objectives, however, and ordered to display greater forcefulness under a new commander, General Polkovnik Vasili T. Volsky.

German planning at this time was concerned primarily with damage limitation. The immediate effects of the 'Vitebsk-Orsha Offensive Operation' and 'Bobruysk Offensive Operation' had made it clear that the Soviet forces had the recapture of the city of Minsk as their deeper objective. Authorisation was therefore given on 26 June for General Karl Decker’s 5th Panzerdivision to be shifted from Generaloberst Ferdinand Schörner’s Heeresgruppe ‘Südukraine’ to assist in the city’s defence.

By the time the Soviet operation began, Generaloberst Gotthard Heinrici’s (from 18 July General Friedrich Hossbach’s) entire 4th Army had been bypassed on both its northern and southern flanks but, despite this, was ordered to hold fast. Its central formation, Generalleutnant Dietrich von Saucken’s XXXIX Panzerkorps, had been effectively shattered by Soviet air attacks while trying to reach the Berezina crossings, and had lost its previous commander, Generalleutnant Otto Schünemann, in action.

The German deployment at Minsk by Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model’s Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ was therefore based on von Saucken’s Kampfgruppe ‘von Saucken’ including Decker’s 5th Panzerdivision, SS-Gruppenführer and Generalleutnant der Polizei Curt von Gottberg’s Kampfgruppe ‘von Gottberg’ with a miscellany of security and SS units including SS-Standartenführer Günther Anhalt’s Kampfgruppe ‘Anhalt’ (an extemporised group of police and security units) and Generalleutnant Hermann Flörke’s Kampfgruppe ‘Flörke’ (another extemporised unit combining remnants of Flörke’s own 14th Division with other elements), the encircled forces of the 4th Army under the command of Generalleutnant Vincenz Müller (General Kurt von Tippelskirch’s XII Corps, General Paul Völckers’s XXVII Corps, and remnants of the XXXIX Panzerkorps), the encircled remnants of General Georg Pfeiffer’s VI Corps transferred from Generaloberst Hans-Georg Reinhardt’s 3rd Panzerarmee to Müller’s command, the encircled remnants of General Nikolaus von Vormann’s 9th Army, and Generalleutnant Max Lindig’s Kampfgruppe ‘Lindig’ (Generalmajor Gerhard Müller’s 12th Panzerdivision and Generalleutnant Johann Bergen’s 390th Feldausbildungsdivision).

The 3rd Belorussian Front comprised General Leytenant Kuzma N. Galitsky’s 11th Guards Army, General Leytenant Nikolai I. Krylov’s 5th Army, General Leytenant Vasili V. Glagolev’s 31st Army, General Leytenant Ivan I. Lyudnikov’s 39th Army, Marshal of Tank Troops Pavel A. Rotmistrov’s 5th Guards Tank Army and a cavalry mechanised group supported by General Leytenant Mikhail M. Gromov’s 1st Air Army.

The 2nd Belorussian Front comprised General Leytenant Vasili D. Kryuchenkin’s 33rd Army, General Leytenant Ivan T. Grishin’s 49th Army and General Leytenant Ivan V. Boldin’s 50th Army supported by General Leytenant Konstantin A. Vershinin’s 4th Air Army.

The Soviet offensive developed through three main phases: the breakthrough of the initial German defences along the Berezina river; the advance of the Soviet motorised exploitation forces; and finally the encirclement of the 4th Army and part of the 9th Army after the German defensive positions had been overrun.

By 26 June the Oberkommando des Heeres had finally appreciated the fact that the continuing ‘Bagration’ was the primary Soviet offensive of the summer of 1944, and that its most important objectives were Minsk and the clearance of the German forces from Belorussia. This was the reason for the movement of the 5th Panzerdivision to the north from Heeresgruppe ‘Südukraine’ to reach Minsk on 27 June with the unenviable, indeed impossible, task of halting the Soviet advance and preventing the complete collapse of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’.

For the German forces, the military situation was dire: in the army group’s northern sector, the 3rd Panzerarmee had crumbled, with General Friedrich Gallwitzer’s LIII Corps wiped out, Pfeiffer’s VI Corps shattered, and General Rolf Wuthmann’s IX Corps driven steadily to the west. In the south, the 9th Army had lost all cohesion, its remaining troops being devastated by artillery and air bombardment.

The 4th Army’s three corps were now ordered to hold fast, despite the fact that they had already been outflanked to the north and south by the westward-driving Soviet forces. Hitler declared Minsk to be a Festerplatz which was to be held at all costs, and ordered the remnants of the 9th Army to reinforce its defence. The 5th Panzerdivision, which was reorganised on 28 June into a Kampfgruppe though still under von Saucken’s command, took up positions near Borisov on the main road to the north-east of Minsk, along which elements of the 4th Army were fleeing. The division’s Panzer regiments which, unlike those of many other German armoured formations at this time, were at full strength and were concentrated in the north, screening the rail lines being used for evacuation. The road itself was held by a rearguard of infantry, while the 505th schwere Panzerabteilung, equipped with Tiger I heavy tanks, held the railway line at Krupki to the east.

There were few local manpower reserves from which to create a defence. More reinforcements were provided by the Kampfgruppe ‘von Gottberg’, the rear-area security units of SS-Oberführer Oskar Dirlewanger’s SS-Sturmbrigade ‘Dirlewanger’ and SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Boris Kaminski’s SS-Sturmbrigade ‘RONA’, all of which were already notorious for their series of atrocities and war crimes in the course of their ‘anti-partisan’ (in reality racial cleansing) activities.

The crossing points on the Berezina to the south were defended by a number of police and security detachments organised as the Kampfgruppe ‘Anhalt’, and elements of divisions from Müller’s XII Corps, which had fallen back on the town of Berezino.

The 5th Guards Tank Army was now driving toward Minsk from the north-east, General Major Nikolai D. Vedeneyev’s subordinated III Guards Tank Corps initially suffering some losses to the 5th Panzerdivision’s heavy tank battalion at Krupki, while General Major Aleksei S. Burdeiny’s II Guards Tank Corps approached from the east. The bulk of Rotmistrov’s 5th Guards Tank Army, accompanied by the infantry divisions of Galitsky’s 11th Guards Army, attacked straight down the Minsk road, forcing the German infantry back into Borisov by 29 June: a screen of Soviet troops was left on the road to prevent any more elements of the 4th Army from escaping into Minsk.

The 5th Panzerdivision’s engineers blew the bridges over the Berezina on 30 June in an attempt to deny the Soviet forces entry into Borisov. The overstretched main elements of the Kampfgruppe ‘von Saucken’ now attempted to screen Minsk from the north-west, where the 5th Guards Tank Army threatened to sever the railway line. The fall of the city seemed imminent: the 65th Army was approaching from the southern route, the 5th Guards Tank Army was making progress from the north, and the II Guards Tank Corps had crossed the Berezina. In the meantime, the four divisions of the XXXIX Panzerkorps had begun to pull back and make for the crossings at Berezino, to the south of Borisov, in an effort to escape the developing trap. A column of vehicles stretched back for many miles, under constant air attack, as the bridge was repeatedly damaged by bombing. The corps commander, Schünemann, the replacement for General Robert Martinek killed on the previous day, was himself killed on 29 June, and the entire corps began to disintegrate.

The elements of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ holding Minsk began to prepare for withdrawal on 1 July, authorisation finally being given on 2 July. von Saucken and the 5th Panzerdivision were ordered to fall back toward Molodechno in the north-west; von Gottberg, after stating the defences of Minsk were collapsing, withdrew his units toward Lida. With substantial elements of 4th Army still east of the city attempting to withdraw, the II Guards Tank Corps broke through the defences of Minsk in the early hours of 3 July, and there was fighting in the centre of the city by dawn. By the next day, Minsk had been cleared of German rearguard units, while the 65th Army and 5th Guards Tank Army closed the encirclement in the west. The bulk of the 4th Army and much of the remnant of the 9th Army were now trapped between the Volma river and the Berezina river. The encircled German forces were divided into two main segments commanded by Traut and Müller. Over the next few days the 4th Army made several attempts to break out of the encirclement, led by those divisions still retaining a coherent organisational structure. The largest group of encircled forces comprised the divisions of the XII Corps, which remained relatively intact, along with those elements of the XXVII Corps which had successfully retreated from Orsha and were now trapped near Pekalin.

The corps commanders, Müller and Völckers respectively, decided on 5 July that their formations should break out to the north-west and west respectively, accompanied by the remnants of the former XXXIX Panzerkorps, even though they were now as much as 60 miles (100 km) behind the Soviet front. Spearheaded by Generalleutnant Paul Schürmann’s 25th Panzergrenadierdivision, the break-out began at midnight on 5 July, but was scattered, with some elements passing to the north of Minsk to reach German positions. Generalmajor Adolf Trowitz’s 57th Division and Generalmajor Friedrich-Carl von Steinkeller’s (from 8 July Generalmajor Günther Pape’s) Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Feldherrnhalle’ linked and attempted to bypass Minsk to the south, but were also dispersed, while the same fate eventually befell the remainder of Generalleutnant Herbert von Larisch’s (from 12 July General Siegfried Rasp’s) 78th Division after an initially successful breakout, and also most of the other divisional groupings. Some elements of the 14th Division under Flörke managed to link with remnants of Oberst Hans-Joachim von Stolzmann’s 31st Division and Generalmajor Gerhard Engel’s 12th Division.

After finding Minsk abandoned and burning, the Kampfgruppe ‘Flörke’ was eventually able to escape the pocket and reach Baranovichi and the positions of the 12th Panzerdivision, which had made a valiant effort in ‘Freischütz’ (iii) to attack to the west and so aid the escape. Müller, who had been placed in command of all the 4th Army’s encircled units, was captured on 8 July after Generalleutnant Karl Zutavern’s 18th Panzergrenadierdivision failed to break out. He immediately issued an order to all encircled troops to surrender, which was broadcast over loudspeakers by Soviet forces and dropped from Soviet aircraft in leaflet form. A large number of German unit commanders and soldiers chose to disregard the order, however, and continued their escape attempts: Soviet forces were reporting actions against groups of encircled German soldiers several thousand strong until mid-July, and smaller groups until some time later.

In total some 100,000 troops of the 4th Army and 9th Army were caught in the encirclement, of whom some 40,000 were killed, most of the remainder being captured.

Partisans played an important role in locating and mopping up the encircled forces. Within the broader strategic framework of ‘Bagration’, the ‘Minsk Offensive Operation’ was a complete success as Minsk, the capital of the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, was liberated after three years of Nazi occupation, and the forces of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ were almost completely shattered within a matter of days in a victory of unprecedented scale. In particular, nearly the entire 4th Army, as well as many of the formations of the 9th Army which had only recently escaped from the ‘Bobruysk Offensive Operation’, were destroyed.