Polotsk Offensive Operation

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

The two objectives of the Polotsk operation were the liberation of the city of Polotsk, and the protection of the northern flank of forces engaged in the parallel ‘Minsk Offensive Operation’, thereby preventing a possible counterattack by Generaloberst Georg Lindemann’s Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’.

The German forces involved in the operation were the surviving elements of Generaloberst Georg-Hans Reinhardt’s 3rd Panzerarmee (General Rolf Wuthmann’s IX Corps and the remnants of General Georg Pfeiffer’s VI Corps, with a reserve in the form of Generalleutnant Alfred Jacobi’s 201st Sicherungsdivision and Generalleutnant Bogislav von Schwerin’s 221st Sicherungsdivision) and elements of General Friedrich-Jobst Volckmar von Kirchensittenbach’s 16th Army of Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’, all under the command of Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model’s Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’. On the other side of the front line was General Hovhannes Kh. Bagramyan’s 1st Baltic Front (General Leytenant Piotr F. Malyshev’s 4th Shock Army, General Polkovnik Ivan M. Chistyakov’s 6th Guards Army, General Leytenant Afanasi P. Beloborodov’s 43rd Army, one tank corps and General Leytenant Nikolai F. Papivin’s 3rd Air Army).

The 1st Baltic Front continued to extend its offensive to the west from 30 June, pushing the shattered remnants of the 3rd Panzerarmee’s IX Corps back toward Polotsk. The XXIII and General Major Ivan F. Fediunkin’s CIII Corps of the 6th Guards Army had advanced some 11.25 miles (18 km) by the end of the day in the face of German counterattacks, while the 4th Shock Army had reached the Sosnitsa river. The front’s tank corps, in the meantime, cut the railway line linking Molodechno and Polotsk despite advancing a smaller distance than planned as a result of checks at the Ulla river crossings.

With the IX Corps crippled by heavy losses, General Friedrich Gallwitzer’s LIII Corps effectively destroyed in the encirclement of Vitebsk a few days earlier, and the VI Corps largely destroyed in the area to the south and east of Vitebsk, Reinhardt had no alternative but to bring his rear-area security divisions into the line and, in response to a request from Model, Generalmajor Rudolf Goltzsch’s 290th Division and Generalmajor Dr Ernst Meiners’s 81st Division were hurriedly shifted from Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ to bolster the collapsing defences on the approaches to Polotsk. In the south of the sector, the remnants of Wuthmann’s IX Corps (Generalleutnant Melzer’s 252nd Division and Generalleutnant Eugen Wössner’s Korpsabteilung ‘D’) and the remnants of the VI Corps (mainly Generalmajor Herbert Michaelis’s 95th Division) continued to offer weak resistance, but the Soviet advance continued at a fast rate.

Bagramyan’s planning had foreseen the launch of a final offensive against Polotsk, an important communications and transport centre, on 1 July to liberate the city by the end of the day. The attack was launched during the morning of that day by General Major Denis V. Mikhailov’s C Corps and General Major Nikolai L. Soldatov’s LXXXIII Corps of Malyshev’s 4th Shock Army in co-ordination with elements of Chistiakov’s 6th Guards Army. German resistance was strong, and Soviet units were able to penetrate the town’s defences only on the following day. On 2 July Soviet forces were involved in fierce fighting to capture the main railway bridge over the Dvina river, which formed the primary communications link between the German forces in the north and south of the city: the bridge was eventually taken by the 156th Guards Rifle Regiment. There were intense street battles until the evening of 4 July, after which the surviving German forces withdrew. Soviet estimates of the German losses were 37,000 men killed and 7,000 taken prisoner.

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In total, ‘Bagration’ comprised the ‘Vitebsk-Orsha Offensive Operation’ (23/28 June), ‘Mogilev Offensive Operation’ (23/28 June), ‘Bobruysk Offensive Operation’ (24/29 June), ‘Polotsk Offensive Operation’, ‘Minsk Offensive Operation’ (29 June/4 July), ‘Vilnyus Offensive Operation’ (5/20 July), ‘Šiauliai Offensive Operation’ (5/31 July), ‘Bialystok 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).