Vitebsk Offensive Operation

The 'Vitebsk Offensive Operation' was a Soviet undertaking by the West Front and 1st Baltic Front to liberate the area of Vitebsk in Belorussia (3 February/13 March 1944).

Between October and December 1943, the forces of several Soviet fronts attempted to fulfil the orders of the Soviet high command to defeat Generalfeldmarschall Ernst Busch’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' and advance at least as far as the line between Minsk in Belorussia and Vilnius in Lithuania. The Soviet forces managed to inflict local defeats at the operational level in several undertakings including the 'Gorodok Offensive Operation', the 'Nevelsk Offensive Operation' and the 'Gomel-Rechytsa Offensive Operation', but suffered defeats in some undertakings such as the 'Orsha Offensive Operation'. In general, however, these operations could not be developed into any meaningful strategic offensive, and the German defence in the central sector of the Eastern Front proved itself capable of withstanding Soviet onslaughts.

In the Vitebsk area, the defeat of the Germans to the north of Gorodok paved the way for General Hovhannes Kh. Bagramyan’s 1st Baltic Front to cut the railway line linking Polotsk and Vitebsk and to gain a position outflanking the German forces in the Vitebsk area from the north. The Soviet high command then committed General Vasili D. Sokolovsky’s West Front to the operation, transferring to it General Nikolai Ye. Berzarin’s 39th Army from the 1st Baltic Front. As a result of earlier operation’s failure, the Soviet high command on 18 January allocated somewhat reduced tasks. The forces allocated to the offensive were not able to make any full preparation for the undertaking, however, so before the start of the undertaking the West Front went over to the offensive twice as it sought to break through the German defences. The first of these efforts lasted from 23 December 1943 to 6 January 1944 and was aimed at Vitebsk: the front advanced up to 7.5 miles (12 km) and compelled the Germans to abandon their first defensive line, but cost the Soviets 6,692 men killed and 28,904 men wounded. The second of these efforts lasted from 8 to 24 January 1944 and was aimed at Bogushevsk: the front advanced between 1.25 and 2.5 miles (2 and 4 km), but cost the Soviets 5,517 men killed and 19,672 men wounded. Thus for little in the way of substantive territorial gain the Soviets lost heavily in terms of strength, squandering a significant part of the strength they had accumulated.

In the 'Vitebsk Offensive Operation', Bagramyan’s 1st Baltic Front committed General Leytenant Piotr F. Malyshev’s 4th Shock Army, General Leytenant Kuzma N. Galitsky’s 11th Guards Army, General Leytenant Konstantin D. Golubev’s 43rd Army and General Major Mikhail G. Sakhno’s V Tank Corps, with air support provided by General Leytenant Nikolai F. Papivin’s 3rd Air Army; and Sokolovsky’s West Front committed General Leytenant Nikolai I. Krylov’s 5th Army, General Leytenant Vladimir A. Gluzdovsky’s 31st Army, General Polkovnik Vasili N. Gordov’s 33rd Army, Berzarin’s 39th Army (transferred to the 1st Baltic Front during the operation), General Leytenant Ivan T. Grishin’s 49th Army and General Major Aleksei S. Burdeiny’s II Guards Tank Corps, with air support provided by General Leytenant Mikhail M. Gromov’s 1st Air Army.

Facing these Soviet forces as part of Busch’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte', namely Generaloberst Georg-Hans Reinhart’s 3rd Panzerarmee with air support provided by elements of Generaloberst Robert Ritter von Greim’s Luftflotte VI'.

It was on 3 February that the Soviet forces launched the 'Vitebsk Offensive Operation: simultaneously, the West Front advanced to the south of Vitebsk and the 1st Baltic Front on this city from the east to outflank it to the north. Adolf Hitler attached great importance to the German retention of Vitebsk and declared it a Festung (fortress) that was to be held to the last man. The 'Vitebsk Offensive Operation' was only a partial Soviet success: the 1st Baltic Front forced the Germans to abandon their forward defensive line and, in heavy fighting, to withdraw slowly to the west while denting the Soviet momentum with a spate of counterattacks; and the West Front achieved an advance of only 2.5 miles (4 km). On 16 February, the Soviet high command suspended the offensive on a temporary basis after the two fronts' forces had sustained heavy losses.

A hasty and inadequately prepared attempt to outflank the German forces in the Vitebsk area to the south, from the area of Orsha, also proved fruitless between 22 and 25 February.

On 29 February, the Soviet forces resumed their offensive against Vitebsk. Heavy fighting again resulted, and again failed to provide the Soviet forces with the turning point they desired. However, the steady weight of the Soviet forces forced Busch to expend almost all of his reserves. A critical situation then emerged, and at this juncture Bush had difficulty obtaining Hitler’s authorisation to withdraw his forces to the outer defences of Vitebsk. The 1st Baltic Front outflanked Vitebsk deeply from the north as its armies secured positions to the north-west of the city and both threatening Reinhart’s lines of communication and creating the possibility of a deep encirclement. To the south-west of Vitebsk, the offensive was again limited to a penetration of the German defences to a depth of between 1.25 and 3.75 miles (2 and 6 km). Another attempt at a Soviet drive toward Vitebsk from the Orsha region was made between 5 and 9 March, but again came to an end without any significant progress.

The 'Vitebsk Offensive Operation' ended at this point, and the Soviet forces went over to the defensive.

Thus the Soviet forces failed to achieve the main results for which the operation had been designed. The Soviet forces were unable to break through to Minsk, but also to capture Vitebsk. Nevertheless, the 3rd Panzerarmee suffered heavy losses and was forced to commit all its reserves. The 1st Baltic Front did manage to create a deep outflanking position to the north of Vitebsk, and this created the conditions in which the Germans were defeated in the subsequent 'Vitebsk-Orsha Offensive Operation' of 23/28 June 1944. The West Front’s operation was deemed unsuccessful. The Soviet losses were very great: 27,639 men killed or missing and 107,373 men wounded or taken ill for total losses amounting to 135,012 men.

The failure of the West Front in this and the previous Orsha operations led the Soviet high command to create a five-man investigatory commission headed by Georgi M. Malenkov, a member of the State Committee for Defence. This commission submitted to Iosif Stalin a report that in which the West Front’s command was subjected to devastating criticism. Sokolovsky was blamed for planning the operation of operation without taking into account lessons already learned in the course of earlier operations (the breakthrough of German defences by individual armies fighting independently of each other and on narrow fronts, the introduction straight into the German defence zone of of tank forces, and the insufficient preparation of operations), the inability to attack successfully even with a significant superiority, the ill-conceived use of artillery, poor reconnaissance preparation, inadequate co-operation between arms, and repeated attempts to launch unprepared and hasty attacks on the same axes. A number of other commanders were also criticised, primarily Gordov in his capacity as commander of the 33rd Army.

The West Front was swiftly reorganised: Sokolovsky, General Polkovnik Ivan P. Kamera (commanding the front’s artillery) and the head of the front’s reconnaissance element were all relieved, and several other more junior commanders were reprimanded and punished.

At the same time, it should not be ignored that part of the blame for the operation’s failure and heavy losses was attributable to Stalin and the Stavka’s staff. These had opted for operations to penetrate deep into the German defences to achieve far-reaching goals, but had not provided adequate strengths in the front line or reserves, and had failed to provide for adequate reinforcement and supply. The Soviet infantry and armoured formations and units had suffered heavy losses in previous battles, but almost never received sufficient replacements. The troops were also exhausted after earlier fighting, and little or no time was allocated for the training of the troops.

The operation of each Soviet front was not co-ordinated with that of the other, and the operation of each army was also co-ordinated inadequately during the battles despite the fact that there was only a single goal. The tactically and operationally astute Germans were thus able to exploit the unco-ordinated actions of the Soviet forces to their own benefit, skilfully manoeuvring the limited forces available to them.

However, the right conclusions were drawn from the unsuccessful Soviet operations in the central sector of the Eastern Front during the winter of 1943/44 and these were taken into account in the preparation of the 'Belorussian Strategic Offensive Operation' (otherwise 'Bagration') in the summer of 1944, which ended with the complete defeat of Heeresgruppe 'Mitte'.