The 1939 partition of Poland according to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact established a new western border with no permanent defense installations, and the army deployment within the Front created weak flanks.
At the outbreak of war with Germany, the Western Special Military District was, in accordance with Soviet pre-war planning, immediately converted into the Western Front, under the District's commander, Army General Dmitry Grigorevich Pavlov. The main forces of the Western Front were concentrated forward along the frontier, organized in three armies. To defend the Białystok salient, the front fielded the 10th Army, under Lieutenant General Konstantin Dmitrievich Golubev, supported by the 6th Mechanized Corps and 13th Mechanised Corps, under Major Generals Mikhail Georgievich Khatskilevich and Petr Nikolaevich Akhliustin. On 10th Army's left flank was 4th Army, under Lieutenant General Aleksander Andreevich Korobkov, supported by the 14th Mechanised Corps, under Major General Stepan Ilich Oborin; and on the right the 3rd Army, under Lieutenant General Vasily Ivanovich Kuznetsov supported by the 11th Mechanized Corps, under Major General Dmitry Karpovich Mostovenko. To the rear were 13th Army, under Lieutenant General Petr Mikhailovich Filatov. This army initially existed as a headquarters unit only, with no assigned combat forces.
Among forces of Frontal designation were the 2nd Rifle Corps (100th, 161st Rifle Divisions), 21st Rifle Corps (17th, 24th, 37th Rifle Division), 44th Rifle Corps (64th, 108th Rifle Divisions), 47th Rifle Corps (55th, 121st, 143rd Rifle Divisions), 50th Rifle Division, 4th Airborne Corps (7th, 8th, 214th Airborne Brigades) commanded by Aleksei Semenovich Zhadov at Minsk, and the 58th (Sebezh), 61st (Polotsk), 63rd (Minsk-Slutsky), 64th (Zambrow) and 65th (Mozyr) Fortified Regions. Mechanised forces in reserve included the 20th Mechanized Corps under Major General Andrei Grigorevich Nikitin at Minsk and the 17th Mechanized Corps, under Major General Mikhail Petrovich Petrov, slightly further forward at Slonim. Altogether, on 22 June the Western Special Military District fielded 671,165 men, 14,171 guns and mortars, 2,900 tanks and 1,812 combat aircraft.
The Western Front was on the main axis of attack by the German Army Group Centre, commanded by Field Marshal Fedor von Bock. German plans for Operation Barbarossa called for Army Group Centre's Second Panzer Group, under Colonel General Heinz Guderian, to attack south of Brest, advance through Slonim and Baranovichi, turning north-east towards Minsk where it would be met by Colonel General Hermann Hoth's Third Panzer Group, which would attack Vilnius, to the north of the Białystok salient, and then turn south-east. In addition to the two panzer groups. Army Group Centre also included Field Marshal Günther von Kluge's Fourth Army and Colonel General Adolf Strauss' Ninth Army. Air support was provided by Field Marshal Albert Kesselring's Luftflotte 2 which contained more than half the German aircraft committed to the attack on the Soviet Union.
The war started disastrously for the Western Front with the Battle of Białystok-Minsk. The German Ninth and Fourth Armies of Army Group Centre penetrated the border north and south of the Białystok salient. The Front's tanks and aviation at airfields were annihilated by German air strikes.
Soviet command and control suffered almost complete breakdown, worst hit was 4th Army which failed to establish communications both with headquarters above and below it. Attempts to launch a counter-attack with 10th Army on 23 June were unsuccessful. That same day the German Third Panzer Group captured Vilnius after outflanking 3rd Army. On 24 June Pavlov again attempted to organize a counter-attack, assigning his deputy Lieutenant General Ivan Vasilevich Boldin the command of 6th and 11th Mechanized Corps and 6th Cavalry Corps, commanded by Major General Ivan Semenovich Nikitin. With this mobile force Boldin was to attack northward from the Białystok region towards Grodno to prevent encirclement of Soviet forces in the salient.
This attempted counter-attack was also fruitless. Almost without any interference from Soviet fighters, Fliegerkorps VIII's close support aircraft were able to break the backbone of Western Front's counter-attack at Grodno. 6th Cavalry Corps was so badly mauled by this aerial onslaught against its columns that it was unable to deploy for attack. Jagdgeschwader 53's Hermann Neuhoff recalled:
Of 6th Mechanized Corps' 1212 tanks, only about 200 reached their assembly areas due to air attacks and mechanical breakdowns, and even they ran out of fuel by the end of the day. The same fate awaited the 243 tanks of 11th Mechanized Corps, ordered to attack towards Grodno on 25 June. 6th Cavalry Corps suffered 50% casualties and its commander, Nikitin, was captured. The attempted attack allowed many Soviet forces to escape from the Białystok region towards Minsk, but this brought only temporary relief. With both the German Second and Third Panzer Groups racing towards Minsk on Western Front's southern and northern flanks, a new encirclement threatened.
In the evening of 25 June, the German 47th Panzer Corps cut between Slonim and Vawkavysk, forcing the attempted withdrawal of troops in the salient to avoid encirclement and opening the southern approaches to Minsk.
Pavlov dispatched orders to disengage and withdraw into new defences behind the Shchara River, but the few units receiving the orders were unable to break contact with the enemy. Hounded by constant air attacks, Pavlov's forces fled eastward on foot. The bridges over the Shchara destroyed by air attacks, most of 10th Army was not able to cross the river. Further east 13th Army, which had received orders to assemble various withdrawing forces into the defence of Minsk, had its headquarters ambushed by German spearheads and its defence plans captured. Pavlov then ordered his 20th Mechanized and 4th Airborne Corps, until then held in reserve, to halt the Germans at Slutsk. However 20th Mechanized Corps had only 93 older tanks and 4th Airborne had to deploy on foot from lack of aircraft. Neither proved any threat to the advancing Second Panzer Group.
On 27 June 1941, German Second and Third Panzer Groups striking from south and north linked up near Minsk, surrounding and eventually destroying the Soviet 3rd, 10th and 13th Armies, and portions of the 4th Army, in total about 20 divisions, while the remainder of the 4th Army fell back eastwards toward the Berezina River. On 28 June 1941, the Ninth and Fourth German Armies linked east of Białystok splitting the encircled Soviet forces into two pockets: a larger Białystok pocket containing the Soviet 10th Army and a smaller Navahrudak pocket.
In the first 18 days of the war, Western Front had suffered 417 790 casualties, lost 9 427 guns and mortars, 4 799 tanks and 1 777 combat aircraft, and practically ceased to exist as a military force.
The Front commander, General of the Army Dmitri G. Pavlov, and the Front Staff were recalled to Moscow. There they were accused of intentional disorganization of defense and retreat without battle, sentenced as traitors, and executed. The families of the traitors were repressed according to NKVD Order no. 00486. This order dealt with families of traitors of Motherland. (They were rehabilitated in 1956.)
Furious over the loss of Minsk on 28 June, Stalin replaced the disgraced Pavlov with Colonel General Andrey Ivanovich Yeryomenko as commander of Western Front. Arriving at Front headquarters at Mogilev on morning 29 June, Yeryomenko was faced with the daunting task of restoring order to the Western Front's defences. To accomplish this task he had initially only the remnants of 4th and 13th Armies, of which the former had been reduced to the equivalent of a division in strength. On 1 July he ordered 13th Army to fall back to the Berezina River and defend the sectors between the towns of Kholkolnitza, Borisov and Brodets. Further south 4th Army were to defend the Berezina from Brodets through Svisloch to Bobruisk. To reinforce the Front's defences the elite 1st Moscow Motor Rifle Division was rushed from Moscow Military District to Borisov. This division, commanded by Colonel Yakov Grigorevich Kreizer, was at full strength with two motorized regiments, one tank regiments and 229 tanks. However, by that date Yeryomenko's defense line on the Berezina had already been rendered obsolete by Guderian's Panzer Divisions. on 29 June 3rd Panzer Division captured a bridgehead at Bobruisk from 4th Army's 47th Rifle Corps and on 30 June 4th Panzer Division seized the railroad bridge at Svisloch from 4th Airborne Corps, cutting off one that corps' three brigades and most of the 20th Mechanized Corps.
Then on 2 July Stalin appointed Semyon Konstantinovich Timoshenko, Marshal of the Soviet Union and People's Commissar for Defence, to command the Western Front, with Yeryomenko and Marshal Semyon Budyonny as his deputies. At the same time Stalin transferred four armies, 19th Army, 20th Army, 21st Army and 22nd Army, from Marshal Budyonny's Group of Reserve Armies to Western Front. After a telephone conversation with Timoshenko, Stalin added a fifth reserve army, the weak 16th Army, as well.
Timoshenko's orders were to defend the Western Dvina River-Dniepr River line. To this end the front deployed on its northern flank 22nd Army, under Lieutenant General Filipp Afansasevich Ershakov, to defend the sector from Sebezh southward to the Western Dvina and then south along that river from north of Polotsk to Beshenkovichi. South of 22nd Army the 20th Army, under Lieutenant General Pavel Alekseyevich Kurochkin, was to defend the gap between the rivers from Beshenkovichi on the Western Dvina to Shklov on the Dnepr, supported by 5th Mechanized Corps, under Major General Ilia Prokofevich, and 7th Mechanized Corps, under Major General Vasilii Ivanovich Vinogradov. 19th Army, under Lieutenant General Ivan Stepanovich Konev, that time regrouping northward from the Kiev region, was to defend the Vitebsk region to the rear of 22nd and 20th Armies. 19th Army included 23rd Mechanized Corps under Major General Mikhail Akimovich Miasnikov. On the front's southern flank 21st Army, under Lieutnenant General Vasilii Filippovich Gerasimenko, including 25th Mechanized Corps under Major General Semen Moiseevich Krivoshein, was to defend the sector from Rogachev to Rechitsa. The remnants of 4th and 13th Armies were to fall back and regroup at the Sozh River in 21st Army's rear. In early July Stalin relieved Korobkov, the commander of 4th Army, and had him executed for treason. He was replaced by Colonel Leonid Mikhaylovich Sandalov Finally the 16th Army, under Lieutenant General Mikhail Fedorovich Lukin, was kept in reserve in the Smolensk region.
The Western Front had been given a brief respite to erect new defences while the Germans reduced the pockets created during the Białystok-Minsk battles. With the Minsk pocket nearly digested, the German Panzer Groups resumed their offensive against Western Front on 2 July. On the Front's northern flank the advance of Hoth's forces were hampered by poor weather. LVII Motorised Corps made the best progress, but encountered heavy resistance from Soviet 22nd Army's 62nd Rifle Corps on the approaches to Polotsk, which led the German corps commander, Adolf-Friedrich Kuntzen, to reroute his 19th Panzer Division northward to Disna on the southern bank of the Western Dvina. XXXIX Motorised Corps, hindered by poor road conditions and resistance from Soviet 20th Army and 5th and 7th Mechanized Corps, in two days only advanced as far as Lepel. Further south Borisov, defended by the remnants of 13th Army and the Borisov Tank School, fell to 18th Panzer Division of 2nd Panzer Group's XXXXVII Motorised Corps on 2 July, the Germans capturing the road bridge intact despite Yeryomenko's personal instructions that it be destroyed. Timoshenko was instructed by the Stavka (the Soviet High Command) to restore the situation with Kreizer's 1st Moscow Motor Rifle Division. XXXXVI Motorised Corps also captured a bridgehead across the Berezina on 2 July when the SS Motorized Division Das Reich captured Pogost, but were then for two days hindered by 13th Army and 4th Army's 4th Airborne and 20th Mechanized Corps. On the southern flank the remnants of 4th Army's Rifle Divisions were only able to offer light resistance to the German XXIV Motorised Corps, instead the attackers were repeatedly halted by destroyed bridges at the Berezina, Ola, Dobosna and Drut Rivers.
Kreizer launched his counter-attack against the German bridgehead at Borisov on 3 July, but the defenders had been forewarned by radio intercepts and air reconnaissance, and with their superior tactics beat back this isolated Soviet attack. Defeated, Kreizer accordingly withdrew behind the Nacha River and fought a fighting withdrawal towards Orsha where it was aided by the arrival of 20th Army. Also on 3 July the spearheads of XXIV Motorised Corps reached the rain swollen Dniepr, with the 3rd Panzer Division arriving at the river north of Rogachev and 4th Panzer Division advancing to Bykhov. By nightfall Western Front could report that remnants of 4th and 13th Armies had been able to retreat across the Dniepr, however hardly anything of 3rd and 10th Armies remained. Moreover, parts of 13th Army and 17th Mechanized Corps were still west of the Dniepr. Accordingly, Timoshenko ordered his 21st Army to shore up its defences along the river and help the withdrawal by sending out forces to spoil the German advance. On 4 July 19 Panzer Division seized a bridgehead across the Western Dvina at Disna from the defending 51st Rifle Corps of Soviet 22nd Army, where it was reinforced by the German 18th Motorised Division.
The Front took part in the fierce Battle of Smolensk (1941), which managed to disrupt the German blitzkrieg for two months. The Germans successfully encircled and destroyed large parts of Soviet 16th, 19th, and 20th Armies.
During July the Western Front's area of responsibility was reduced by the formation of the new Central and Reserve Fronts.
Stiffening Soviet resistance in the centre, convinced Hitler to put a temporary halt to the advance towards Moscow and divert Army Group Centre's armour towards Leningrad and Kiev.
On 17 August Western Front launched an offensive towards Dukhovshchina as part of a larger Soviet attempt to counter-attack. However, despite some local successes, the offensive failed to breach the German defenses and the offensive was called off 10 September.
Newly promoted Colonel General Ivan Konev took over command in September when Timoshenko was transferred south to restore the situation in the then ongoing Battle of Kiev.
On 2 October German forces resumed their advance on Moscow with the launch of Operation Typhoon. The Western Front again suffered immense losses when large parts of its forces were encircled near Vyazma.
When Zhukov took over on 10 October, the Soviet Reserve Front had just been disbanded and its forces incorporated into Western Front, but given the pounding that Soviet forces had suffered, the force numbered only 90,000 men. 16th Army (Soviet Union) under Konstantin Rokossovsky held at Volokolamsk, and General L.A. Govorov had 5th Army, recently raised from 1st Guards Rifle Corps, and soon to include the 32nd Rifle Division at Mozhaisk. The 43rd Army was under General K.D. Golubev at Maloyaroslavets, and the 49th Army was near Kaluga under General I.G. Zakharin. 49th Army had been formed in August 1941 and initially assigned to Reserve Front. On 1 September 1941, 49th Army comprised 194th, 220th, and 248th Rifle Divisions, and 4th Division of People's Militia. Meanwhile, 33rd Army was forming at Naro-Fominsk under General Lieutenant M.G. Yefremov, and was to be assigned to Zhukov's command.
The Soviets just managed to halt the German advance in the Battle of Moscow, leading to further furious fighting in the Battles of Rzhev just to the west. In May 1942 the Front's air forces became the 1st Air Army.
The Front appears to have controlled the three armies - the 5th Army, 33rd Army, and 10th Guards Army- which formed the assault force in the Battle of Smolensk (1943). On 1 August 1943 the 70th Rifle Corps was listed on the Soviet order of battle, as a headquarters with no troops assigned, directly subordinate to the front.
On 24 April 1944, the Front was divided into the 2nd Belorussian Front and 3rd Belorussian Front.
The Russian Ground Troops continue the Soviet Army's organizational arrangement of having Military Districts that have both a wartime territorial administration role and the capability to generate formation headquarters (HQs) to command Fronts. This was emphasized by reports of a Moscow Military District exercise in April 2001, when the district's units were to be divided into two groups, ‘one operating for the western front and the other for the wartime military district’.
It appears likely that the Western Front is still an active formation held within the Headquarters of the Moscow Military District. Plans probably call for it to be mobilised as part of the Russia-Belarus Regional Grouping of Troops (Forces).General of the Army Dmitri G. Pavlov (June 1941: executed)
Marshal Semyon K. Timoshenko (July 1941-September 1941)
Lt. General Ivan S. Konev [promoted to Colonel General in September 1941] (September 1941-October 1941; August 1942-February 1943)
General Georgy K. Zhukov (October 1941-August 1942)
Colonel General V.D. Sokolovsky [promoted to full General in August 1943] (February 1943-April 1944)