Vitebsk-Orsha Offensive Operation

This was a Soviet part of the ‘Belorussian Strategic Offensive Operation’, otherwise known as ‘Bagration’, for the liberation of Belorussia (23/28 June 1944).

The first of the 11 elements 1 which altogether constituted the ‘Belorussian Strategic Offensive Operation’, this undertaking was designed firstly to break through the defences of Generaloberst Georg-Hans Reinhardt’s 3rd Panzerarmee to the north and south of Vitebsk and so encircle the city, which lay at the heart of a German salient into the Soviet line; secondly to break through the heavily fortified area around the main road between Moscow and Minsk and liberate the town of Orsha; and thirdly to commit motorised and cavalry exploitation forces through the gap opened once the highway had been cleared, paving the way for a major encirclement of Generaloberst Gotthard Heinrici’s 4th Army in the ‘Minsk Offensive Operation’ (23/28 June 1944), which was the fifth of the elements in the ‘Belorussian Strategic Offensive Operation’.

During the first week of May 1944 the Fremde Heere Ost (enemy armies east) intelligence department of the Oberkommando des Heeres cast its eyes beyond the period of relative quietude then appearing along the Eastern Front, and estimated that the Soviets might be preparing two major offensives: one of these might strike from the line linking Kovel and Lutsk to strike deep behind Generaloberst Georg Lindemann’s Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ and Generalfeldmarschall Ernst Busch’s Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ via Warsaw to the coast of the Baltic Sea, and the other might advance through Romania, Hungary and Slovakia into the Balkans. Not prepared to believe that the Stavka now possessed a level of operational and tactical proficiency to make the first a genuinely practical possibility, the Fremde Heere Ost came to the conclusion that the Soviets would make their main effort in the south part of the eastern theatre in the direction of the Balkans, where they could exploit the parlous state of Germany’s southern allies and hope to create the hegemony in south-eastern Europe which the Soviets had long desired. Thus the Fremde Heere Ost suggested that in the region to the north of the Pripyet marshes the Eastern Front would remain essentially quiet. This intelligence estimate dovetailed nicely with the opinions of the Oberkommando des Heeres and the staffs of the relevant army groups. The single factor which suggested something else was the concern of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ and Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model’s Heeresgruppe ‘Nordukraine’ about the very heavy railway traffic and other signs of a Soviet build-up they had discerned in the area of Kovel and Tarnopol. Generaloberst Kurt Zeitzler, the chief of the Oberkommando des Heeres’s staff, agreed that the Soviet activity off the two army groups’ inner flanks should not be dismissed out of hand, and suggested that formations should be taken from Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ and Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ so that a reserve army could be created for use should a major Soviet offensive materialise in the area.

Early in May, Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ started to strengthen its right-flank corps, General Friedrich Hossbach’s (from 15 June General Johannes Block’s) LVI Panzerkorps with additional tanks, self-propelled assault guns and artillery, and on 12 May the Fremde Heere Ost revised its estimate: it still suggested that the Soviet primary effort would be delivered in the south, between the Carpathian mountains and the Black Sea in the direction of the Balkans, but that a major offensive force was also being grouped between the Carpathian mountains and the Pripyet marshes for an offensive toward Lwów, Lublin and Brest-Litovsk. The prospect of a Soviet secondary offensive in the area between the Carpathian mountains and the Pripyet marshes had for the Germans the advantage, if it could be construed as such, that should the rest of the front held by Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ remain quiet as predicted, the Soviet offensive would take place in an area where the Germans could, for once, bring considerable strength to bear. On 10 May Zeitzler suggested the use of the projected reserve army, of which the LVI Panzerkorps was to be the core, for an attack before the Soviets could get in any blow of their own. The staffs of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ and Heeresgruppe ‘Nordukraine’ were concerned that this might trigger another disaster along the lines of ‘Zitadelle’, however, and therefore responded with a lack of enthusiasm, but the notion nonetheless appealed to Model, who saw in it the opportunity to employ his Schild und Schwert (shield and sword) theory of active defence and, presumably, an opportunity to gain from his less alert colleague, Busch, a considerable part of the strength then being assembled under control of the LVI Panzerkorps.

On 15 May, Model asked Adolf Hitler to transfer the LVI Panzerkorps to his command, and thus provide him with the strength with which to attempt an ‘offensive solution’. That the concept would appeal to Hitler and his penchant for the offensive was obvious. Over the next few days days reports from Model’s headquarters prompted a change in the intelligence picture: it suddenly became clear that the offensive to the north of the Carpathian mountains would not fall on any part of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’. On 20 May, Hitler transferred the LVI Panzerkorps to Heeresgruppe ‘Nordukraine’, Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ thereby losing 6% of its front, as well as 15% of its divisions, 88% of its tanks, 23% of its self-propelled assault guns, 50% of its tank destroyers, and 33% of its heavy artillery. Despite a warning from Generaloberst Walter Weiss, commander of the 2nd Army, that Model was trying to get control of the LVI Panzerkorps for his own purposes, Busch yielded the corps without a protest. As if that was not sufficient to reveal the passivity of his command style, on 24 May Busch summoned his army commanders and told them that the primary, in fact the only, object of the meeting was further to impress on them Hitler’s total determination to hold the line of the Eastern Front under any and all circumstances. Busch ordered the armies to undertake a drastic trimming of all work behind the front and therefore to concentrate the totality of their efforts on the main line of resistance. The army group had, in fact, only one major switch position, the ‘Biber-Riegel’ on the Berezina river: this was designated as neither a line nor a position to avoid raising Hitler’s easily aroused suspicion that the armies were looking to the rear rather than the front, and because it actually did not amount to much.

In overall terms, therefore, the Germans played nicely into the hands of the Soviets, whose high command thus had a completely free choice of strategies, had the Germans completely on the defensive, and possessed the forces and matériel for a deployment in overwhelming strength at any point on the Eastern Front.

During the third week of April, therefore, and supposedly on the basis of a State Defence Committee decision that the residual threat posed by the German occupation of Belorussia had to be removed, the Stavka launched both a build-up of the Soviet forces opposite Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ and an elaborate deception to mislead the Germans into assuming the summer offensive would be attempted in the south. The opportunity for such a deception was already available, for during the course of the winter the Soviet offensive deployment, including its tank armies, had been deployed away from the centre of the front toward the northern and southern ends of the Eastern Front. Thus the desired impression was already convincingly established, and all which was now required was the considerable strengthening of the forces in the centre without disturbing German perceptions.

At the very beginning of May, at the same time that the German focus was starting to linger on the area to the south of the Pripyet marshes, the Soviet build-up began opposite Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ in the area between the left flank of Reinhardt’s 3rd Panzerarmee in the area to the east of Polotsk and the right flank of Generaloberst Joseph Harpe’s 9th Army between the Dniepr river and the Berezina river to the south of Zhlobin. During May and the first three weeks in June, General Hovhannes Kh. Bagramyan’s 1st Baltic Front, General Konstantin K. Rokossovsky’s 1st Belorussian Front, General Polkovnik Ivan Ye. Petrov’s 2nd Belorussian Front and General Ivan D. Chernyakhovsky’s 3rd Belorussian Front received strength increases in the order of 60% in their troop, 300% in their tanks and self-propelled guns, 85% in their artillery and mortars, and 62% in their warplanes. Between 1 and 22 June more than 75,000 railway wagon loads of troops, ammunition and supplies were sent to the four fronts. With the build-up completed, the number of Soviet combat troops in the offensive zone, from a position to the west of Vitebsk to a position to the south of Bobruysk, was 1.2 million, and against this Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ could field a fraction more than 700,000 men. In total, the number of Soviet troops available for the offensive, including reserves held back by the Stavka until the operation was in progress, was 2.5 million men, and the availability of 4,000 tanks, 24,400 pieces of artillery and mortars, and 5,300 aircraft gave the Soviet forces armoured, artillery and air superiorities of 10/1 or more at the initial assault points.

The Soviets hid their build-up and deployment skilfully, and as a result the Germans began to detect the activity opposite Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ only on 30 May, when the 9th Army reported a build-up in the area to the north of Rogachev. After this, evidence of the Soviet build-up increased considerably and quickly as the Soviet deployment was accelerated, but were nevertheless insufficient to divert the focus of the Oberkommando des Heeres away from the sector of Heeresgruppe ‘Nordukraine’, where Model was readying his ‘offensive solution’. The Fremde Heere Ost decided that the Soviet activity opposite Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ was nothing more than a deception. Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ noted the Soviet changes in the sectors of the 3rd Panzerarmee, 4th Army and 9th Army, but reacted only minimally. Busch was more concerned about the 2nd Army’s deep right flank and the chances of getting back the LVI Panzerkorps after Model had finished with it.

On 14 June, Zeitzler summoned the chiefs-of-staff of the Eastern Front army groups and armies to a conference, and before its start told his audience that what was about to be said would concern Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ only peripherally, for of greater concern to the Oberkommando des Heeres was the offensive expected to fall on Heeresgruppe ‘Nordukraine’, even the predicted Balkan operation having become of lesser interest. At the meeting the head of the Fremde Heere Ost warned that simultaneous offensives against Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ and Heeresgruppe ‘Südukraine’ could be expected as preliminaries to the major offensive against Heeresgruppe ‘Nordukraine’.

During the week which followed, however, the threats to the eastern face of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ increased: the armies reported the arrival of new Soviet formations and units in their sectors; the pilot of a downed Soviet warplane confirmed the rumours picked up by agents that Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Georgi K. Zhukov was in overall command; and prisoners stated that the political indoctrination to which they had been subjected emphasised the liberation of Soviet territory as the primary objective. Moreover, on the night of 19/20 June partisans planted more than 5,000 mines on the roads and railways in the rear areas of the 2nd Army and 4th Army. Even so, the reports to the headquarters of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ about these and similar activities raised little more than passing interest: an entry in the army group war diary for 20 June stated that the increase in partisan activity made it seem that an early start of the offensive could not be ruled out. During the afternoon of the same day, Busch travelled by air to Germany, where he planned to speak to Hitler two days later about administrative matters.

A key principle of German general staff doctrine was the avoidance of rigid tactical and operational concepts, but this principle was completely forgotten all along the Eastern Front during June 1944. Thus the effects of Soviet deception were compounded by the German higher commands’ self-created delusions that the main Soviet offensive would fall on Heeresgruppe ‘Nordukraine’ because that was where the Germans were ready to meet it. Under the influence of Busch, the headquarters of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ had become what was in effect little more than a channel for the dissemination of Hitler’s all-important ‘will’, for Busch had no intention of exercising leadership outside the tight bounds of Hitler’s order that the front was to be held where it was.

The final directives for the offensive against Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ were despatched to the relevant front commands on 31 May, and set the strategic objectives as the liberation of Belorussia and an advance to the Vistula river and the border of East Prussia. Zhukov and Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Aleksandr M. Vasilevsky, the deputy commander-in-chief of the Soviet armed forces and the chief of the general staff respectively, were responsible for planning the operation and were each to co-ordinate two fronts: Vasilevsky was to supervise the 1st Baltic Front and 3rd Belorussian Front in the ‘Vitebsk-Orsha Offensive Operation’ 2, which was the northern part of the general offensive, and Zhukov was to supervise the 2nd Belorussian Front and 1st Belorussian Front in the ‘Mogilev Offensive Operation’ and ‘Bobruysk Offensive Operation’, which were together the southern part of the offensive. In overall terms, the offensive was to be delivered along a front, some 300 miles (480 km) wide, from a point to the south of Polotsk to a point to the south of Bobruysk. The object of the first phase was to destroy the German strongpoints and communications hubs at Vitebsk, Orsha, Mogilev and Bobruysk, and after this had been achieved, the forces on the flanks were to close on Minsk from the north-east and south-east, following the convergent roads linking Orsha and Bobruysk with Minsk, and envelop the 4th Army. Strong columns would also drive to the north past Minsk to Molodechno and from Bobruysk via Slutsk to Baranovichi to cut the German escape routes from Minsk, and also to seize control of the passages through the chain of swamps and forests constituting the Pripyet marshes, the Nalibocka forest to the west of Minsk, and the low-lying and swampy area to the north of Molodechno between the Viliya and Dvina rivers.

With their axes of advance converging on Minsk, the fronts were deployed in a sweeping arc. Bagramyan’s 1st Baltic Front, about half of whose sector faced Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’, extended from from a point to the north of Polotsk to Vitebsk with the 4th Shock Army and 6th Guards Army, with the 43rd Army in its second echelon, and faced the northern part of the 3rd Panzerarmee; Chernyakhovsky’s 3rd Belorussian Front extended from Vitebsk to a point to the south of Orsha with the 5th Army, Cavalry-Mechanised Group ‘Oslikovsky’, 11th Guards Army and 31st Army, with the 39th Army and 5th Guards Tank Army in its second echelon, faced the southern part of the 3rd Panzerarmee and northern part of the 4th Army; now commanded by General Georgi F. Zakharov, the 2nd Belorussian Front was deployed on both sides of Mogilev from a point to the south of Orsha to a point to the north of Rogachev with the 33rd Army, 49th Army and 50th Army, faced the southern part of the 4th Army; and Rokossovsky’s 1st Belorussian Front extended from a point to the north of Rogachev to a point to the south of Kovel with the 65th Army, 28th Army, 61st Army, 70th Army and 69th Army, with the Cavalry-Mechanised Group ‘Pliyev’ in its second echelon, and faced the 9th Army and 2nd Army. The 1st Belorussian Front’s sector was wider than those of the other three fronts combined, but only its right flank would be engaged.

Bagramyan’s 1st Baltic Front was to attack to the north-west of Vitebsk with the 6th Guards Army and 43rd Army, cross the Dvina river, and envelop Vitebsk from the west. Then, as the offensive continued to the west, it was to provide flank cover on the north.

Chernyakhovsky’s 3rd Belorussian Front was divided into two assault groups: in the north, the 39th Army and 5th Army were to break through to the south of Vitebsk, complete the envelopment, and then drive to the south-west toward Senno; and in the south, the 11th Guards Army and 31st Army were to attack on each side of the road toward Orsha. After the armies had broken across the Luchesa river, the Cavalry-Mechanised Group ‘Oslikovsky’ was to launch itself into a fast drive straight to the west past Senno. The 3rd Belorussian Front held the 5th Guards Tank Army in reserve for commitment later behind either the northern or southern group depending on the development of the battle. With its main effort to the north of the road linking Orsha and Minsk, the 3rd Belorussian Front was then to advance via Borisov to Minsk and to the north of Minsk to Molodechno.

Zakharov’s 2nd Belorussian Front was to commit its 33rd Army, 49th Army and 50th Army to breaking open the centre of the 4th Army’s bridgehead on the eastern bank of the Dniepr river, take Mogilev, and close the pocket around Minsk from the east. Rokossovsky’s 1st Belorussian Front was to use its 3rd Army and 48th Army in the area to the east of the Berezina river, and its 65th Army, 28th Army and Cavalry-Mechanised Group ‘Pliyev’ in the area to the west of the same river to encircle Bobruysk. After that, the 1st Belorussian Front was to send one grouping to the north-west toward Minsk and another to the west via Slutsk to Baranovichi.

The Soviets accomplished their build-up with the minimum amount of formation and unit redeployment.

In the later part of May, the Germans discovered that Chernyakhovsky’s West Front had been superseded by the 2nd Belorussian Front and 3rd Belorussian Front: this fact should have served to alarm the Germans to the likelihood of major events in the offing, but in fact seemed not to discomfit the complacent Germans. Three new armies were deployed onto the front as the 6th Guards Army, 5th Guards Tank Army and 28th Army, but up to 22 June German intelligence had identified none of these. The increase in troop numbers was not as massive as in previous offensives, and was in fact accomplished mainly by the reinforcement of formations and units already on the front rather than the deployment of fresh formations and units. By this time the Soviet command structure, at all levels, was fully competent in the handling of significantly larger numbers of troops, and the reintroduction of the rifle corps as a basic formation helped by extending the army’s span of control.

Except for the lengthening of its right flank along the Pripyet river, the front held by Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ front had seen no major change since a time late in 1943. On the left, Reinhardt’s 3rd Panzerarmee held a sector on each side of Vitebsk tying into the right flank of Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ near Polotsk: this army comprised General Rolf Wuthmann’s IX Corps, General Friedrich Gollwitzer’s LIII Corps and General Georg Pfeiffer’s VI Corps. The 4th Army, which was now commanded by General Kurt von Tippelskirch, linked in the north with the right flank of the 3rd Panzerarmee to the north of Orsha and with the left flank of the 9th Army to the north of Rogachev, and held a major bridgehead, measuring some 25 by 80 miles (40 by 130 km) in extent, to the east of the Dniepr river. On its left Harpe’s 9th Army covered the region around Bobruysk and to the south-west on a line which followed the Prut and Dniepr river to the area lying to the south of Zhlobin, and then veered to the south-west across the Berezina river to the lower part of the Ptich river and the Pripyet river. The front of Weiss’s 2nd Army followed the Pripyet river upstream and met the left flank of Heeresgruppe ‘Nordukraine’ to the north of Kovel. The German reserves were Generalleutnant Hermann Flörke’s 14th Division and Generalleutnant Hans Oschmann’s 286th Sicherungsdivision.

Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ had 38 divisions, one of them Hungarian, along the front, three Panzer or Panzergrenadier divisions and two infantry divisions in reserve, and three Hungarian and five Sicherungs (security) divisions in its rear area. Though still the strongest of the German army groups in purely numerical terms, this army group also held by far the greatest extent of front, with a length of some 490 miles (785 km). By comparison, Heeresgruppe ‘Nordukraine’ comprised 35 German and 10 Hungarian divisions, including eight Panzer divisions, and held a front of some 215 miles (350 km). Heeresgruppe ‘Nordukraine’ and Heeresgruppe ‘Südukraine together had 18 Panzer or Panzergrenadier divisions (a figure including single Hungarian and Romanian armoured divisions) as against the three such divisions allocated to Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’.

The cities of Vitebsk and Orsha had been declared Festungen (fortified towns to be held at all costs) under the command of Gollwitzer in Vitebsk and Generalleutnant Hans Traut, commander of the 78th Sturmdivision of General Paul Völckers’s XXVII Corps, in Orsha.

The distribution of air support was similarly out of balance. Of the 2,085 combat aircraft on the Eastern Front, Generaloberst Robert Ritter von Greim’s Luftflotte VI, supporting Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’, had 775 warplanes and Generaloberst Otto Dessloch’s Luftflotte IV, supporting Heeresgruppe ‘Nordukraine’ and Heeresgruppe ‘Südukraine’, had 845 warplanes, but Luftflotte VI’s strength included 405 long-range bombers and reconnaissance aircraft optimised for strategic missions. Luftflotte IV had 670 fighters and ground-support warplanes, while Luftflotte VI had just 275 such aircraft.

Soviet intelligence had revealed the depth of the German defences on the road linking Moscow and Minsk in the area of Orsha. As a result, the attack of Galitsky’s 11th Guards Army in this sector was to be preceded by specialised engineer units, with PT-34 mine-rolling tanks of the 116th Separate Engineering Tank Regiment committed along with assault engineer companies and assault gun regiments in several waves against the fortified and heavily-mined positions of von Larisch’s 78th Sturmdivision.

The northern flank of Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ was held by Reinhardt’s 3rd Panzerarmee, and it was this which faced the ‘Vitebsk-Orsha Offensive Operation’, which began on 22 June. The front line ran through marshy terrain in the north, through a salient round the city of Vitebsk, to a sector north of the main road linking Moscow and Minsk, held by the 4th Army. Bagramyan’s 1st Baltic Front and Chernyakhovsky’s 3rd Belorussian Front had the task of breaking through the defences to the north and south of Vitebsk and pinching out the German salient.

It was in this sector that the Soviet forces made their greatest initial gains. The 43rd Army broke the defences of Wuthmann’s IX Corps, to the north of Vitebsk, within just a few hours, and pushed forward in the direction of the Dvina river. To the south of the city, Generalleutnant Ralph Graf von Oriola’s 299th Division and Generalmajor Hans Hahne’s 197th Division of Pfeiffer’s VI Corps simply disappeared beneath a Soviet assault in overwhelming strength, with a particularly effective breakthrough by the 5th Army taking place at the junction of the 299th Division and Generalleutnant Albrecht Wüstenhagen’s 256th Division. By 24 June the German position in Vitebsk itself, held by Gollwitzer’s centrally placed LIII Corps of four divisions, was already serious, as Soviet forces were clearly intending to encircle the city, but no reserves were available to shore up the collapsing defences, and requests to withdraw German troops to the second defence line, the ‘Tiger-Linie’, were denied by the Oberkommando des Heeres.

By 25 June the 3rd Panzerarmee was disintegrating. In the north, the IX Corps had been broken and pushed back across the Dvina river, blowing the bridges during its retreat. In the south much of the VI Corps had been annihilated, and its southernmost formations (the 299th Division and 256th Division) had become separated from the remainder of 3rd Panzerarmee by heavy attacks around Bogushevsk, where they attempted to make a final stand in the ‘Hessen-Linie’, the third defence zone.

The 43rd and 39th Armies were now converging behind Vitebsk, trapping the entire LIII Corps, whose commander, Gollwitzer, had transferred Generalleutnant Pistorius’s 4th Felddivision (L) to the south-west of the city in order to spearhead a planned break-out, while Generalmajor Claus Müller-Bülow’s 246th Division attempted to hold open the Dvina crossings. But the Oberkommando des Heeres steadfastly refused all requests to allow a complete evacuation: Generalleutnant Alfons Hitter’s 206th Division was ordered to remain in the city and fight to the last man.

The Soviet plans in this sector thus met with overwhelming success. The 4th Felddivision (L) was cut off and destroyed by the 39th Army on the evening of 25 June, and by the next day the 246th Division and Generalleutnant Rudolf Peschel’s 6th Felddivision (L), fighting their way along the road from Vitebsk, had also been encircled. Hitler insisted that a staff officer be parachuted into Vitebsk to remind Gollwitzer that the trapped 206th Division must under no circumstances withdraw, and in his capacity as commander of the 3rd Panzerarmee, Reinhardt was able to get this decision reversed only by insisting that it should be he who was dropped into the city should Hitler continue to order its retention. By the evening Soviet forces were fighting their way into the city and Gollwitzer finally ordered the garrison to withdraw in defiance of the orders of the Oberkommando des Heeres. By 27 June the LIII Corps had been destroyed, almost all of its 30,000 men being killed or taken prisoner. A group of several thousand men of the 4th Felddivision (L) initially managed to break out, but this moving pocket was destroyed in the forests to the west of Vitebsk.

The remnants of the IX Corps were retreating to the west, falling back on Polotsk with the 6th Guards Army in pursuit, and the VI Corps had also been largely destroyed. Thus the 3rd Panzerarmee had been substantially destroyed in just a few days of savage fighting, and Vitebsk had been liberated. Even more importantly, however, a major gap had been torn in the German lines to the north of the 4th Army in the sector of the former VI Corps.

The central sector of the Soviet operation was directed against the long front of the 4th Army, and here the Soviets planned that the main strength of this army, in the form of Generalleutnant Otto Schünemann’s (from 29 June General Dietrich von Saucken’s) XXXIX Panzerkorps and von Tippelskirsch’s own XII Corps, should be encircled while pinned by attacks from the 2nd Belorussian Front in the parallel ‘Mogilev Offensive Operation’. By far the most important Soviet objectives, however, were immediately to the north, namely the road linking Moscow and Minsk, and the town of Orsha, which the southern wing of Chernyakhovsky’s 3rd Belorussian Front was to liberate. A breakthrough in this area, against Völckers’s XXVII Corps, would constitute the northern pincer of the encirclement aimed at the complete destruction of the 4th Army.

The Minsk road was protected by extensive defensive works manned by von Larisch’s 78th Sturmdivision, a specially reinforced formation with additional artillery and assault gun support. (It had been at the beginning of 1943 that the 78th Division had been reorganised as the 78th Sturmdivision with additional adjustments to its strength and organisation over the next several months, each of its three infantry regiments being redesignated as a Sturmregiment. The designation Sturm [assault] reflected the division’s increased strength, which eventually included subordinate Sturmgeschütz (assault gun), heavy mortar and Nebelwerfer multiple rocket-launcher battalions as well as a tank-destroyer unit equipped with Marder II vehicles, and extra regimental artillery support.) As noted above, Orsha itself had been designated as a Festung, and Generalleutnant Paul Schürmann’s 25th Panzergrenadierdivision held the line in the south.

As a result of the strong defences in this sector, Soviet plans included the commitment of heavily armed engineer units to assist in the initial breakthrough. Galitsky’s 11th Guards Army attacked toward Orsha on 23 June, but initially made little headway. By the next day, the 1st Guards Division was able to break through the German line in a marshy and therefore thinly held area to the north of the 78th Sturmdivision, which was ordered back to the ‘Hessen-Linie’ third defence zone. The 78th Sturmdivision was now finding it almost impossible to maintain contact with the 25th Panzergrenadierdivision to its south. Encouraged by the 1st Guards Division’s progress, Chernyakhovsky pushed the Cavalry-Mechanised Group ‘Oslikovsky’ as a fast-moving exploitation force into the breach through the German line. On 25 June the German defences began to rupture, and a counterattack at Orekhovsk failed. Völckers’s position was additionally threatened by the near-collapse of the 3rd Panzerarmee’s VI Corps immediately to its north. At 11.20 on 25 June the VI Corps, which had been cut off from its parent formation, was reassigned to the 4th Army, and part of its reserve, Flörke’s 14th Division, was brought up in an effort to slow the Soviet advance in the area to the north of Orsha. By 24.00, however, the 11th Guards Army had shattered the remnant of VI Corps in the ‘Hessen-Linie’ defences, and the 78th Sturmdivision’s situation continued to become increasingly untenable.

By 26 June the German forces were in full in retreat. Formations of the II Guards Tank Corps were able to push up the road toward Minsk at speed, with a subsidiary force breaking off to encircle Orsha, which was liberated on the evening of 26 June. The main exploitation force, Rotmistrov’s 5th Guards Tank Army, was then committed through the gap torn in the German lines. At this point the VI Corps disintegrated as a combat entity, its rear elements falling back toward Borisov in disarray: the divisional commander, Pfeiffer, was killed on 28 June after losing contact with his divisions. Völckers’s XXVII Corps was nevertheless instructed to hold fast, but lacked the necessary resources despite shifting Generalmajor Günther Klamm’s 260th Division to the north and moving Oschmann’s 286th Sicherungsdivision into the line.

The Soviet operation effectively ceased with the arrival of 5th Guards Tank Army’s forward units on the Berezina river during 28 June. In terms of its objectives within the broader structure of ‘Bagration’, the Soviet offensive was a complete success inasmuch as Vitebsk and Osha, two key communication and transport centres, had been liberated; heavy manpower and matériel losses had been inflicted on German forces, with the LIII Corps of the 3rd Panzerarmee almost completely eliminated and other corps suffering high levels of casualties and loss of equipment; and through the breakthrough of exploitation forces at Orsha, in combination with a similar breakthrough in the south in the parallel ‘Bobruysk Offensive Operation’, the completion of the first stage for the planned encirclement of the bulk of the 4th Army in the following ‘Minsk Offensive Operation’.

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These elements were the 'Vitebsk-Orsha Offensive Operation', 'Mogilev Offensive Operation' (23/28 June), 'Bobruysk Offensive Operation' (24/29 June), 'Polotsk Offensive Operation' (29 June/4 July), 'Minsk Offensive Operation' (29 June/4 July). 'Vilnyus 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).
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The Soviet forces involved in the ‘Vitebsk-Orsha Offensive Operation’, co-ordinated by Vasilevsky, comprised Bagramyan’s 1st Baltic Front with General Leytenant Piotr F. Malyshev’s 4th Shock Army, General Leytenant 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; and Chernyakhovsky’s 3rd Belorussian Front with General Leytenant Kuzma N. Galitsky’s 11th Guards Army, General Polkovnik Nikolai I. Krylov’s 5th Army, General Leytenant Nikolai Ye. Berzarin’s (later General Polkovnik Ivan I. Lyudnikov’s) 39th Army, General Polkovnik Vasili V. Glagolev’s 31st Army, General Pavel A. Rotmistrov’s (later General Polkovnik Vasili T. Volsky’s) 5th Guards Tank Army, one tank corps, General Leytenant Nikolai S. Oslikovsky’s Cavalry-Mechanised Group ‘Oslikovsky’ and General Polkovnik Mikhail M. Gromov’s (later General Polkovnik Timofei T. Khryukin’s) 1st Air Army.