This was a Soviet component of the ‘Belorussian Strategic Offensive Operation’, otherwise ‘Bagration’ (23/28 June 1944) 1.
The two primary objectives of the ‘Mogilev Offensive Operation’ were the liberation of Mogilev, which was an important communications nexus, and the pinning of the main strength of Generaloberst Gotthard Heinrici’s 4th Army while the parallel ‘Vitebsk-Orsha Offensive Operation’ and ‘Bobruysk Offensive Operation’, to the north and south respectively, set up a major encirclement so that the 4th Army, unable to disengage, would be encircled and trapped.
Possessing four high-grade divisions, General Robert Martinek’s XXXIX Panzerkorps in front of Mogilev was one of the strongest formations within Generalfeldmarschall Ernst Busch’s Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, a fact which reflected the importance attached by the Germans to the road through Mogilev, which provided the main route through the marshes in the region. As with the other German armies involved against ‘Bagration’, however, the 4th Army was unprepared to cope with a major Soviet offensive as the Oberkommando des Heeres expected that the main weight of the Soviet offensive would be launched farther to the south against Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model’s Heeresgruppe ‘Nordukraine’.
In overall terms, therefore, the ‘Mogilev Offensive Operation’ pitted the southern flank of the 4th Army, under the temporary command of General Kurt von Tippelskirch, against General Georgi F. Zakharov’s 2nd Belorussian Front. The city of Mogilev had been designated as the Festung ‘Mogilev’ under the command of Generalmajor Gottfried von Erdmannsdorf, and the formations of the 4th Army in the area were Martinek’s XXXIX Panzerkorps and General Vincenz Müller’s XII Corps, together with Generalmajor Friedrich-Carl von Steinkeller’s Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Feldherrnhalle’ as the local reserve.
Zakharov’s 2nd Belorussian Front had 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.
As with the other Soviet offensives in the first phase of ‘Bagration’, the ‘Mogilev Offensive Operation’ started with a intense artillery barrage against the German defensive lines on the morning of 23 June. To the east of Mogilev itself, Martinek’s XXXIX Panzerkorps, which comprised Oberst Ernst König’s 31st Division, Generalleutnant Rudolf Bamler’s (from 28 June Generalmajor Gerhard Engel’s) 12th Division, Generalleutnant Walter Scheller’s 337th Division and Generalleutnant Eberhard von Kurowski’s 110th Division, attempted to hold its line in the face of a storming assault by Grishin’s 49th Army during which the Soviet formation suffered heavy losses. von Tippelskirch requested that Martinek be allowed to withdraw to the ‘Tiger’ defensive line late on 23 June. This request was refused, but the Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Feldherrnhalle’ was ordered forward out of reserve to take up position on the Dniepr river in preparation for covering a possible withdrawal by the front-line divisions.
The more southerly of the two German corps, Müller’s XII Corps (with Generalleutnant Karl Zutavern’s 18th Panzergrenadierdivision, Generalmajor Adolf Trowitz’s 57th Division and Generalleutnant Otto Drescher’s 267th Division) also began to pull back to the second defensive line.
The 49th Army forced the Dniepr river crossings on the evening of 27 June, and during the night the 290th and 369th Divisions fought their way into Mogilev, while mobile units of the 23rd Guards Tank Brigade enveloped the defence from the north-west. Along with its commandant, von Erdmannsdorf, Mogilev and most of the 12th Division, which had been ordered to defend the town to the last, was captured by the Soviet forces on 28 June. During the day both the XII Corps and the XXXIX Panzerkorps, whose commander, Martinek, was killed that evening near Pagost in an air attack and replaced on a temporary basis by Generalleutnant Otto Schünemann pending the arrival on 29 June by General Dietrich von Saucken, began to fall back toward the Berezina river crossings. As the roads were clogged with fleeing civilians and military units, and were under heavy air attack, progress was slow.
The Soviets estimated that the Germans lost some 33,000 men killed and another 3,250 taken prisoner. The ‘Mogilev Offensive Operation’ had thus fulfilled all its immediate objectives, for Mogilev itself was liberated and most of the 4th Army was prevented from breaking away in time to escape encirclement in the ‘Minsk Offensive Operation’, which immediately followed the ‘Mogilev Offensive Operation’.