Minsk Offensive Operation

This was a Soviet part of the second phase of the ‘Belorussian Strategic Offensive Operation’, commonly known as ‘Bagration’ 1 (29 June/4 July 1944).

General Ivan D. Chernyakhovsky’s 3rd Belorussian Front had essentially completed its task in the first phase of ‘Bagration’ by 28 June, when its cavalry/mechanised units began to halt along the line of the Berezina river. On the same day, however, the Stavka issued a new order for the front to force the Berezina river straight from the march, and 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. General Leytenant Pavel A. Rotmistrov’s 5th Guards Tank Army came in for criticism, however, for its tardiness in reaching its objectives, and was now ordered to display greater decisiveness.

German planning was concerned for the most part with damage limitation. The ‘Vitebsk-Orsha Offensive Operation’ and ‘Bobruysk Offensive Operation’ had made it clear that the Soviets had in mind a ‘deep’ objective in the form of Minsk. Authorisation was therefore given on 26 June to redeploy Generalleutnant Ernst Felix Fäckenstedt’s 5th Panzerdivision from Generaloberst Ferdinand Schörner’s Heeresgruppe ‘Südukraine’ to assist in the city’s defence. By the time the operation started, Generaloberst Gotthard Heinrici’s 4th Army had been bypassed on both its northern and southern flanks but was nonetheless ordered to hold fast. Its central formation, Generalleutnant Dietrich von Saucken’s XXXIX Panzerkorps, had largely disintegrated under Soviet air attack while attempting to reach the Berezina river crossings, having lost two corps commanders in as many days: General Robert Martinek had been succeeded on 28 June by Generalleutnant Otto Schünemann, whose loss meant the arrival of von Saucken on 29 June.

At the start of the 'Minsk Offensive Operation', the Germans could muster, under the command of Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model’s Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, von Saucken’s Gruppe ‘von Saucken’ including the 5th Panzerdivision; SS-Gruppenführer und Generalleutnant der Waffen-SS Curt von Gottberg’s Gruppe ‘von Gottberg’ of security and SS units including the Kampfgruppe ‘Anhalt’ (an extemporised grouping of police and security units) and the Kampfgruppe ‘Flörke’ (an extemporised unit based on remnants of Generalleutnant Hermann Flörke’s 14th Division and other formations); the cut-off forces of the 4th Army under the command of Generalleutnant Vincenz Müller and comprising General Kurt von Tippelskirch’s XII Corps, General Paul Völckers’s XXVII Corps and remnants of von Saucken’s XXXIX Panzerkorps; the cut-off remnants of General Georg Pfeiffer’s VI Corps of Generaloberst Hans-Georg Reinhardt’s 3rd Panzerarmee transferred to Müller’s command; the cut-off remnants of General Nikolaus von Vormann’s 9th Army; and Generalleutnant Max Lindig’s Kampfgruppe ‘Lindig’ (Generalmajor Gerhard Müller’s 12th Panzerdivision and Generalleutnant Hans Bergen’s 390th Feldausbildungsdivision).

On the other side of the front line, the Soviet forces comprised Chernyakhovsky’s 3rd Belorussian Front with General Polkovnik Kuzma N. Galitsky’s 11th Guards Army, General Leytenant Nikolai I. Krylov’s 5th Army, General Leytenant Ivan I. Lyudnikov’s 39th Army, General Major Piotr G. Shafranov’s 31st Army and Rotmistrov’s 5th Guards Tank Army, supported by General Polkovnik Timofei T. Khryukin’s 1st Air Army; and Zakharov’s 2nd Belorussian Front with 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 Polkovnik Konstantin A. Vershinin’s 4th Air Army.

The 'Minsk Offensive Operation' had three main phases, namely the breakthrough of the initial German defences along the Berezina river, the advance of the Soviet motorised exploitation forces, and the encirclement of the 4th Army after the German defensive positions had been overrun.

By 26 June the Oberkommando des Heeres had finally realised that the developing ‘Bagration’ was the main Soviet offensive of the summer of 1944, and that Minsk was its primary objective. As a result, the 5th Panzerdivision was brought back from Heeresgruppe ‘Nordukraine’, as noted above, and reached Minsk on 27 June with the unenviable job of attempting to halt the Soviet advance and preventing the complete collapse of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’. For the German forces, the situation was very acute: in the northern sector of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, the 3rd Panzerarmee had largely disintegrated, with General Friedrich Gallwitzer’s LIII Corps destroyed, Pfeiffer’s VI Corps effectively 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 pounded by artillery and air bombardment.

The 4th Army’s three corps were now ordered to hold fast, despite being bypassed by Soviet forces on their flanks: Adolf Hitler declared Minsk a Festung (fortress) and ordered the remnants of the 9th Army to reinforce its defence. The 5th Panzerdivision, reorganised on 28 June into a Kampfgruppe, took up position near Borisov to the north-east of Minsk on the main road along which elements of the 4th Army were retreating in disarray. The 5th Panzerdivision’s tank regiments which, unlike those of many German armoured units at the time, were at full strength, 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 in the east. There were few local manpower reserves for the Germans to use in bolstering the defence. Some further reinforcements were provided by von Gottberg’s Gruppe ‘von Gottberg’, the rear-area security units of SS-Oberführer Oskar Dirlewanger’s SS-Sturmbrigade ‘Dirlewanger’, and SS-Oberführer Bronislav Kaminski’s SS-Sturmbrigade ‘Kaminski’.

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

The 5th Guards Tank Army was now nearing Minsk from the north-east, its III Guards Tank Corps, under the command of General Major Ivan A. Vovchenko, initially suffering some losses to the 5th Panzerdivision’s heavy tank battalion at Krupki, while General Major Aleksei S. Burdeinyi’s II Guards Tank Corps approached from the east. The bulk of 5th Guards Tank Army, accompanied by the infantry divisions of 11th Guards Army, attacked straight down the Minsk road, forcing the German infantry back into Borisov by 29 June, and a screen of Soviet troops was left on the road to prevent any other elements of the 4th Army escaping into Minsk.

The 5th Panzerdivision’s engineers blew the bridges over the Berezina river on 30 June in an attempt to deny the Soviet forces entry into Borisov. The overstretched main elements of the Gruppe ‘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 as the 65th Army was approaching along the southern route, the 5th Guards Tank Army was making progress from the north, and the II Guards Tank Corps had crossed the Berezina river. Meanwhile 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 envelopment. A column of vehicles stretched back for a considerable distance under constant air attack as the bridge was repeatedly damaged by bombing. The replacement corps commander, Schünemann, was himself killed on June 29, and the corps almost immediately started to disintegrate.

The elements of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ holding Minsk began to prepare for withdrawal on 1 July, authorisation finally being given on the following day. von Saucken and the 5th Panzerdivision were ordered to fall back in the direction of Molodechno to the north-west. As the defence of Minsk collapsed, von Gottberg pulled his units back toward Lida. With substantial elements of the 4th Army still to the east of the city and attempting to withdraw, the II Guards Tank Corps broke through the defences of Minsk in the early hours of 3 July, and fighting erupted in the centre of the city at 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 on the west. The bulk of the 4th Army and much of the remnants of 9th Army were now trapped.

During the following few days the 4th Army made several attempts to break out of the encirclement, led by those divisions still retaining a coherent organisation. 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. Müller and Völckers, the commanders of the two corps, decided on 5 July that their forces should break out to the north-west and west respectively, accompanied by the remnants of Martinek’s former XXXIX Panzerkorps as they were now as much as 60 miles (100 km) behind Soviet front line. Generalleutnant Paul Schürmann’s 25th Panzergrenadierdivision spearheaded the break-out at 24.00 on 5 July, but was scattered, with some elements able to pass to the north of Minsk and reach the German positions. Generalmajor Adolf Trowitz’s 57th Division and Generalmajor Friedrich-Carl von Steinkeller’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 78th Sturmdivision after it had made an initially successful break-out, and also most of the other divisional groupings.

Some elements of the 14th Division under Flörke managed to join remnants of Oberst Ernst König’s (from 1 July Oberst Hans-Joachim von Stolzmann’s) 31st Division and Generalmajor Gerhard Engel’s 12th Division; after finding Minsk abandoned, with much of the city in flames, the Kampfgruppe ‘Flörke’ was eventually able to escape the pocket and reach the positions of Generalmajor Gerhard Müller’s 12th Panzerdivision.

Commanding all the 4th Army’s cut-off units, Müller was captured on 8 July after a failed break-out attempt by Generalleutnant Karl Zutavern’s 18th Panzergrenadierdivision. Müller immediately ordered all the encircled German forces to surrender, an instruction 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 to continue 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.

The Soviets estimated that the Germans lost 22,570 men killed and 13,256 taken prisoner as the Soviet forces crossed the Berezina river, and some 100,000 men of the 4th Army and 9th Army were then caught in the encirclement. Of these latter, about 40,000 were killed and most of the others were captured. Partisans played an important role in locating and mopping up the encircled forces.

In overall terms, therefore, the Minsk operation was, within the strategic framework of ‘Bagration’, a total success inasmuch as Minsk, the capital of Belorussia, had been liberated after several years of German occupation, and the forces of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ had been almost totally shattered within a matter of days in a victory of unprecedented scale. In particular, nearly the whole of the 4th Army, as well as much of the rump of the 9th Army which had escaped from the Bobruysk offensive, were destroyed.

The 3rd and 2nd Belorussian Fronts were subsequently committed to the third or pursuit phase of the strategic offensive in the Vilnyus and Białystok operations respectively.

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Lasting from 23 June to 29 August, the 'Belorussian Strategic Offensive Operation' incorporated as it sub-operations the 'Vitebsk-Orsha Offensive Operation' (23/28 June), 'Mogilev Offensive Operation (23/28 June). 'Bobruysk Offensive Operation (24/29 June), 'Polotsk Offensive Operation' (29 June/4 July), 'Minsk Offensive Operation', 'Vilnius Offensive Operation' (5/20 July), 'Šiauliai Offensive Operation' (5/31 July), 'Białystok Offensive Operation' (5/27 July), 'Lublin-Brest Offensive Operation' (18 July/2 August), 'Kaunas Offensive Operation' (28 July/28 August) and 'Osovets Offensive Operation' (6/14 August).