Army Group Centre had previously proved tough to counter as the Soviet defeat in Operation Mars had shown. But by June 1944, despite shortening its front line, it had been exposed following the withdrawals of Army Group South in the battles that followed the Battle of Kursk, the Second Battle of Kiev and the Crimean Offensive in the late summer, autumn and winter of 1943–44. Operation Suvorov had seen Army Group Centre itself forced to retreat westwards from Smolensk during the autumn of 1943.
By the middle of June 1944, the Western Allies on the Cotentin Peninsula were just over 1,000 km (620 mi) from Berlin, while the Soviet forces at the Vitebsk Gate were within 1,200 km (750 mi) of the German capital. For the Third Reich, the strategic threats were about the same. Adolf Hitler underestimated the threat posed by Soviet troops facing Army Group Centre, and had redeployed ⅓ of Army Group Centre's artillery, ½ their tank destroyers and 88% of their tanks to the Southern front where the German high command expected the next major Soviet offensive. Army Group Centre only had a total of 580 tanks, tank-destroyers and assault guns. They were opposed by over 9000 Soviet machines. The redeployment of forces from Army Group Center left only 80 men defending every kilometer of the front line.
Bagration, in combination with the neighboring Lvov-Sandomierz Offensive launched a few weeks later in Ukraine, allowed the Soviet Union to recapture Belorussia and Ukraine within its 1941 borders, advance into German East Prussia, but more importantly, the Lvov-Sandomierz operation allowed the Red Army to reach the outskirts of Warsaw after gaining control of Poland east of the Vistula river. The operation enabled the next operation, the Vistula–Oder Offensive, to come within sight of the German capital. The Soviets were initially surprised at their success of the Belorussian operation which had nearly reached Warsaw. The Soviet advance encouraged the Warsaw uprising against the German occupation forces.
The battle has been described as the triumph of the Soviet theory of "the operational art" because of the complete co-ordination of all the Strategic Front movements and signals traffic to fool the enemy about the target of the offensive. The military tactical operations of the Red Army successfully avoided the mobile reserves of the Wehrmacht and continually "wrong-footed" the German forces. Despite the massive forces involved, Soviet front commanders left their adversaries completely confused about the main axis of attack until it was too late.
The Russian word maskirovka is roughly equivalent to the English word camouflage, but it has broader application in military use. During World War II the term was used by Soviet commanders to describe measures to create deception with the goal of inflicting surprise on the Wehrmacht forces.
The Oberkommando des Heeres expected the Soviets to launch a major Eastern Front offensive in the summer of 1944. The Stavka considered a number of options. The timetable of operations between June and August had been decided on by 28 April 1944. The Stavka rejected an offensive in either the L'vov sector or the Yassy-Kishinev sectors owing to the presence of powerful enemy mobile forces equal in strength to the Soviet strategic fronts. Instead they suggested four options: an offensive into Romania and through the Carpathians, a gigantic offensive into the western Ukrainian SSR aimed at the Baltic coast, an attack into the Baltic and an offensive in the Belorussian SSR. The first two options were rejected as being too ambitious and open to flank attack. The third option was rejected on the grounds the enemy was too well prepared. The only safe option was an offensive into Belorussia which would enable subsequent offensives from Ukraine into Poland and Romania.
The Soviet and German High Commands recognised western Ukraine as a staging area for an offensive into Poland. The Soviets, aware that the enemy would anticipate this, engaged in a maskirovka campaign to catch the German armoured forces off guard by creating a crisis in Belorussia that would force the Germans to move their powerful Panzer forces, fresh from their victory in the First Jassy–Kishinev Offensive in April–June 1944, to the central front to support Army Group Centre. This was the primary purpose of Bagration.
In order to maximize the chances of success, the maskirovka was a double bluff. The Soviets left four tank armies in the L'vov-Peremyshl area and allowed the Germans to know it. The attack into Romania in April–June further convinced the Soviets that the Axis forces in Romania needed removing and kept the Germans concerned about their defences there and in southern Poland, while drawing German forces to the L'vov sector. Once the offensive against Army Group Centre, which lacked mobile reserves and support, had been initiated, it would create a crisis in the central sector that would force the German armoured forces north to Belorussia from Poland and Romania, despite the presence of powerful Soviet concentrations threatening German-occupied Poland.
The intent of the Soviets to strike their main blow towards the Vistula can be seen in the Red Army's (albeit fragmented) order of battle. The Soviet General Staff Studies of both the Belorussian and L'vov-Sandomierz operations reveal that the L'vov-Przemyśl operation received the overwhelming number of tank and mechanized corps. Six guards tank corps and six tank corps along with three guards mechanized and two mechanized corps were committed to the L'vov operation. This totaled twelve tank and five mechanized corps. In contrast, Operation Bagration's Baltic and Belorussian Fronts were allocated just eight tank and two mechanized corps. The 1st Belorussian Front (an important part of the L'vov-Peremshyl operation) is not mentioned on the Soviet battle order for the offensive. It contained a further six armies and was to protect the flank of the Lublin–Brest Offensive as well as engage in offensive operations in that area.
The bulk of tactical resources, in particular anti-tank artillery, was allocated to the 1st Ukrainian Front, the spearhead of the Vistula, L'vov-Premyshl operation. 38 of the 54 anti-tank regiments allocated to the Belorussian-Baltic-Ukrainian operations were given to the 1st Ukrainian Front. This demonstrates that the Soviet plans for the L'vov operation were a major consideration and whoever planned the offensive was determined to hold the recently captured territory. The target for this operation was the Vistula Bridgehead and the enormous anti-tank artillery forces helped repulse big counter-attacks by German armoured formations in August–October 1944. One American author suggests that these Soviet innovations were enabled, in part, by the provision of over 220,000 Dodge and Studebaker trucks by the United States to motorize the Soviet infantry. t Most of the aviation units, fighter aircraft and assault aviation (strike aircraft) were given to the L'vov operation and the protection of the 1st Ukrainian Front. Of the 78 fighter and assault aviation divisions committed to Bagration, 32 were allocated to the L'vov operation, nearly fifty percent of the aviation groups committed to Bagration and contained more than was committed to the Belorussian operation. This concentration of aviation was to protect the Vistula bridgeheads against air attack and to assault German counter offensives from the air.
Towards the beginning of June 1944 the German High Command, Army Group Center and the Army Commands had identified a large part of the concentration against Army Group Centre, although they still considered that the main operation would be against Army Group North Ukraine. On 14 June the Chief of Staff of Army Group Centre told General Kurt Zeitzler, the Chief of the Army General Staff, that "...the Russian concentration here [in front of 9th Army] and at the Autobahn clearly indicates that the enemy attack will be aimed at the wings of the Army Group". On 10 June the Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH) adopted the opinion of Army Group Centre in its estimate of the enemy situation:
When it is still to be considered that the attack against Army Group Centre will be a secondary operation in the framework of the global Soviet offensive operations, it must be taken into account that the enemy will also be capable in front of Army Group Centre to build concentrations of which the force of penetration cannot be underestimated in view of the ratio of forces between the two sides.
On 19 June Army Group Centre noted in its estimate of the enemy situation that the concentration of enemy air forces had become greater (4,500 out of 11,000) and that this left new doubts regarding OKH's estimate. OKH saw no ground for this supposition. Shortly before the beginning of the Soviet offensive, the army commands had detected some enemy forces near the front and had identified the places where the main Soviet attacks would take place, with the exception of 6th Guards Army near Vitebsk. The Soviet strategic reserves were not detected.
The start of Operation Bagration involved many partisan formations in the Belorussian SSR, which were instructed to resume their attacks on railways and communications. From 19 June large numbers of explosive charges were placed on rail tracks and though many were cleared, they had a significant disruptive effect. The partisans were also used to mop up encircled German forces once the breakthrough and exploitation phases of the operation were completed.
The Stavka had committed approximately 1,700,000 combat and support troopers, approximately 24,000 artillery pieces and mortars, 4,080 tanks and assault guns and 6,334 aircraft. German strength was approximately 800,000 combat and support troopers and 9,500 artillery pieces but only 553 tanks and assault guns and 839 aircraft. Army Group Centre was seriously short of mobile reserves: the demotorized 14th Infantry Division was the only substantial reserve formation, though the 20th Panzer Division was positioned in the south near Bobruisk and the understrength Feldherrnhalle Panzergrenadier Division was also held in reserve. The relatively static lines in Belorussia had enabled the Germans to construct extensive field fortifications, with multiple trench lines to a depth of several kilometres and heavily mined defensive belts.
The Wehrmacht's forces were based on logistic lines of communications and centres, which on Hitler's orders were declared Feste Plätze (fortified towns to be held at all costs) by OKH. General Jordan of 9th Army was very worried at how vulnerable this immobility made the Army, correctly predicting that "if a Soviet offensive breaks out the Army will either have to go over to a mobile defence or see its front smashed". However, because the initial offensive in Belarus was thought to be a feint, the Feste Plätze spanned the entire length of the Eastern Front. North to south these Feste Plätze were designated as follows.
Army Group North had Feste Plätze at Reval (Tallinn), Rakvere, Jõhvi, Dorpat (Tartu), Pleskau (Pskov), Ostrov, Opochka, Rēzekne.
Army Group Centre had Feste Plätze at Polotsk, Vitebsk, Orsha, Mogilev, Baranovichi, Borisov, Minsk, Babruysk, Slutsk, Luninets, Pinsk, Kovel, Vilnius.
Army Group Northern Ukraine had Feste Plätze at Brody, Tarnopol, Proskurov, Zhmerynka.
Army Group Southern Ukraine had Feste Plätze at Vinnitsa, Uman, Novoukrainka, Pervomaisk, Voznesensk, Nikolayev.
Operation Bagration began on 22 June 1944, the same calendar day on which the Germans had previously invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, with probing attacks throughout the German lines. The main offensive began in the early morning of 23 June, with an artillery bombardment of unprecedented scale against the defensive works. Within hours, some sectors of the German defenses were in danger of being breached.
The first phase of Soviet deep operations, the "deep battle" envisaged breaking through the tactical zones and forward German defences. Once these tactical offensives had been successful, fresh operational reserves exploited the breakthrough and the operational depths of the enemy front using powerful mechanized and armoured formations to encircle enemy concentrations on an Army Group Scale.
The operation was conducted by the 1st Baltic Front and 3rd Belorussian Front against the positions of the Third Panzer Army, and the northern flank of the Fourth Army.
In the north, the 1st Baltic Front pushed the IX corps over the Dvina, while encircling the LIII Corps in the city of Vitebsk by 25 June. To the south, the 3rd Belorussian Front drove through the VI Corps, shattering it. Vitebsk was taken by 27 June, the entire LIII Corps of 30,000 men being destroyed.
The 3rd Belorussian Front simultaneously opened operations against Fourth Army's XXVII Corps holding Orsha and the main Moscow-Minsk road. Despite a tenacious German defense, Orsha was liberated by 26 June, and the 3rd Belorussian Front's mechanized forces were able to penetrate far into the German rear, reaching the Berezina River by 28 June.
The primary aim of the Mogilev Offensive, and of the 2nd Belorussian Front, was to pin down the majority of Fourth Army while the developing Vitebsk-Orsha and Bobruysk Offensives encircled it. The 2nd Belorussian Front's units attacked on 23 June, aiming to force crossings of the Dnepr against two of Army Group Centre's strongest corps, the XXXIX Panzer Corps and XII Corps.
The Dnepr was crossed by the 49th Army by 27 June, and by 28 June it had encircled and taken the town of Mogilev. The XXXIX Panzer Corps and XII Corps began to fall back towards the Berezina River under heavy air attack, but were retreating into a trap.
The Bobruysk Offensive, against Ninth Army on the southern flank of Army Group Centre, was opened by the 1st Belorussian Front on 23 June, but suffered heavy losses attempting to penetrate the German defenses. Rokossovsky ordered additional bombing and artillery preparation, and launched further attacks the next day.
The 3rd Army broke through in the north of the sector, trapping the German XXXV Corps against the Berezina. The 65th Army then broke through the XXXXI Panzer Corps to the south; by 27 June, the two German corps were encircled in a pocket east of Bobruysk under constant aerial bombardment.
Some elements of Ninth Army managed to break out of Bobruysk on 28 June, but up to 70,000 soldiers were killed or taken prisoner. The 1st Belorussian Front's forces liberated Bobruysk on 29 June after intense street fighting.
The second phase of Operation Bagration involved the entire operation's most significant single objective: the retaking of Minsk, capital of the Belorussian SSR. It would also complete the large-scale encirclement and destruction, set up by the first phase, of much of Army Group Centre.
From 28 June, the main exploitation units of the 3rd Belorussian Front (the 5th Guards Tank Army and an attached cavalry-mechanised group) began to push on to secure crossings of the Berezina, followed by the 11th Guards Army. In the south, exploitation forces of the 1st Belorussian Front began to close the lower pincer of the trap developing around the German Fourth Army. The Germans rushed the 5th Panzer Division into Belorussia to cover the approaches to Minsk, while the units of Fourth Army began to withdraw over the Berezina crossings, where they were pounded by heavy air bombardment. After forcing crossings of the Berezina, Soviet forces closed in on Minsk. The 2nd Guards Tank Corps was the first to break into the city in the early hours of 3 July; fighting erupted in the centre, which was finally cleared of German rearguards by the following day. The 5th Guards Tank Army and 65th Army closed the encirclement to the west of Minsk, trapping the entire German Fourth Army, and much of the remnants of Ninth Army.
Over the next few days, the pocket east of Minsk was reduced: only a fraction of the 100,000 soldiers in it escaped. Minsk had been liberated, and Army Group Centre utterly destroyed, in possibly the greatest single defeat suffered by the Wehrmacht in the whole war. Between 22 June and 4 July 1944, Army Group Centre lost 25 divisions and 300,000 men. In the few subsequent weeks, the Germans lost another 100,000 men.
The Polotsk Offensive had the dual objective of taking Polotsk itself, and of screening the northern flank of the main Minsk Offensive against a possible German counter-offensive from Army Group North.
The 1st Baltic Front successfully pursued the retreating remnants of Third Panzer Army back towards Polotsk, which was reached by 1 July. German forces attempted to organise a defense using rear-area support units and several divisions hurriedly transferred from Army Group North.
Units of the 1st Baltic Front's 4th Shock Army and 6th Guards Army fought their way into the city over the next few days, and successfully cleared it of German forces by 4 July.
As German resistance had almost completely collapsed, Soviet forces were ordered to push on as far as possible beyond the original objective of Minsk, and new objectives were issued by the Stavka. This resulted in a third phase of offensive operations, which should be regarded as a further part of Operation Bagration.
Feldmarshal Walter Model, who had taken over command of Army Group Centre on 28 June when Ernst Busch was sacked, hoped to reestablish a defensive line running through Lida using what was left of Third Panzer, Fourth and Ninth Armies along with new reinforcements.b
The Šiauliai Offensive covered the operations of the 1st Baltic Front between 5 and 31 July against the remnants of Third Panzer Army; its main objective was the Lithuanian city of Šiauliai (Russian: Shyaulyai; German: Schaulen).
The 43rd, 51st, and 2nd Guards Armies attacked towards Riga on the Baltic coast with 3rd Guards Mechanised Corps attached. By 31 July, the coast on the Gulf of Riga had been reached. 6th Guards Army covered Riga and the extended flank of the penetration towards the north.
A hurriedly organised German counter-attack managed to restore the severed connection between the remnants of Army Group Centre and Army Group North. In August, the Germans attempted to retake Šiauliai in Operation Doppelkopf and Operation Cäsar, but they failed.
The Vilnius Offensive was conducted by units of the 3rd Belorussian Front subsequent to their completion of the Minsk Offensive; they were opposed by the remnants of Third Panzer and Fourth Armies.
Units of Fourth Army, principally the 5th Panzer Division, attempted to hold the key rail junction of Molodechno, but it was taken by units of the 11th Guards Army, 5th Guards Tank Army and 3rd Guards Cavalry Corps on 5 July. German forces continued a precipitate retreat, and Soviet forces reached Vilnius (Russian: Vilna; Polish: Wilno), held by units of the Third Panzer Army, by 7 July.
By 8 July, the city had been encircled, trapping the garrison, who were ordered to hold fast at all costs. Soviet forces then fought their way into the city in intense street-by-street fighting (alongside an Armia Krajowa uprising, Operation Ostra Brama). On 12 July, 6th Panzer Division counter-attacked and temporarily opened an escape corridor for the besieged troops, but the majority of them were lost when the city finally fell on 13 July (this phase of the operation is commonly known as the Battle of Vilnius). On 23 July, the Fourth Army commander, Hoßbach, in agreement with Model, committed the newly arrived 19th Panzer Division into a counter-attack with the intention of cutting off the Soviet spearheads in the Augustow Forest. This failed.
The Belostock Offensive covered the operations of 2nd Belorussian Front between 5 and 27 July, with the objective of the Polish city of Białystok.
The 40th and 41st Rifle Corps of 3rd Army, on the front's left wing, took Białystok by storm on 27 July, after two days of fighting.
The Lublin-Brest Offensive was carried out by Marshal Rokossovsky's 1st Belorussian Front between 18 July and 2 August, and developed the initial gains of Operation Bagration toward eastern Poland and the Vistula. The 47th and 8th Guards Armies reached the Bug River by 21 July, and the latter reached the eastern bank of the Vistula by 25 July. Lublin was taken on 24 July; the 2nd Tank Army was ordered to turn north, towards Warsaw, to cut off the retreat of forces from Army Group Centre in the Brest area. Brest was taken on 28 July and the Front's left wing seized bridgeheads over the Vistula by 2 August. This effectively completed the operation, the remainder of the summer being given over to defensive efforts against a series of German counter-attacks on the bridgeheads. The Operation ended with the defeat of German Army Group North Ukraine and Soviet bridgeheads over the Vistula river west of Sandomierz.
The Kaunas Offensive covered the operations of Chernyakhovsky's 3rd Belorussian Front from 28 July to 28 August, towards the Lithuanian city of Kaunas, subsequent to their completion of the offensive against Vilnius. By 30 July all Wehrmacht resistance on the approaches to the Neman River had retreated or been annihilated. Two days later the city of Kaunas was under Soviet control.
This offensive covered the operations of 2nd Belorussian Front from 6–14 August, after their completion of the Belostock Offensive, with the objective of the fortified area at Osowiec on one of the tributaries of the Narew River. The very large fortress complex there secured the approaches to East Prussia through the region's marshes.
German forces were able to stabilise their line of defense along the Narew, which they held until the East Prussian Offensive of January 1945.
Compared to other battles, this was by far the greatest Soviet victory in numerical terms. The Red Army liberated a vast amount of Soviet territory whose population had suffered greatly under the German occupation. The advancing Soviets found cities destroyed, villages depopulated, and much of the population killed, or deported by the occupiers. In order to show the outside world the magnitude of the victory, some 50,000 German prisoners, taken from the encirclement east of Minsk, were paraded through Moscow: even marching quickly and twenty abreast, they took 90 minutes to pass.
The German army never recovered from the materiel and manpower losses sustained during this time, having lost about a quarter of its Eastern Front manpower, similar to the percentage of loss at Stalingrad (about 17 full divisions). These losses included many experienced soldiers, NCOs and commissioned officers, which at this stage of the war the Wehrmacht could not replace. An indication of the completeness of the Soviet victory is that 31 of the 47 German divisional or corps commanders involved were killed or captured. Of the German generals lost, nine were killed, including two corps commanders; 22 captured, including four corps commanders; Major-General Hahne, commander of 197th Infantry Division disappeared on 24 June, while Lieutenant-Generals Zutavern and Philipp of the 18th Panzergrenadier and 134th Infantry Divisions committed suicide.
Overall, the near-total destruction of Army Group Centre was very costly for the Germans. Exact German losses are unknown, but newer research indicates around 400,000 overall casualties. Soviet losses were also substantial, with 180,040 killed and missing, 590,848 wounded and sick, together with 2,957 tanks, 2,447 artillery pieces, and 822 aircraft also lost.
The offensive cut off Army Group North and Army Group North Ukraine from each other, and weakened them as resources were diverted to the central sector. This forced both Army Groups to withdraw from Soviet territory much more quickly when faced with the following Soviet offensives in their sectors.
The end of Operation Bagration coincided with the destruction of many of the strongest units of the German Army engaged against the Allies on the Western Front in the Falaise Pocket in Normandy, during Operation Overlord. After these stunning victories, on both eastern and western fronts, supply problems rather than German resistance slowed the subsequent rapid Allied advance, and it eventually ground to a temporary halt. However, the Germans were able to transfer armoured units from the Italian front, where they could afford to give ground, to resist the Soviet advance near Warsaw.