Stalin had long been asking that his Western allies open the second front in Europe so that the humongous pressures on the Red Army slackened somewhat. Finally, with the Allies landing in Normandy on June 6, 1944 the European front materialised.
Scarcely any episode of the Second World War has received as much attention – and adoration – as Operation Overlord. After all, it marked the Allies’ getting a foothold on the continental mainland, and Berlin, the capital of Hitler’s Third Reich, was just about 1,200 km from the beachhead via a road that ran through Paris. And the mystique surrounding the largest seaborne invasion in history gives Overlord the heft to be called ‘D-Day’, the day on which the gigantic Nazi war machine apparently began to unravel.
But barely two weeks later, on June 22, 1944 began what turned out to be the largest Allied operation of World War II, a campaign that dwarfed not only Overlord but even the epic battle of Stalingrad, widely believed to have been the War’s turning point.
Indeed, in the scale of its operations, Bagration (pronounced baag-raat-see-ohn)– the Red Army’s counteroffensive through Byelorussia – towers over every other engagement of the War (with the possible exception of Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June, 1941) – including those in Moscow, Leningrad, Kursk, the Ardennes and Berlin. In under two months, Operation Bagration wiped out about a quarter (roughly 500,000 troops) of Germany’s Eastern Front manpower.
Of the four armies comprising the vaunted Army Group Centre, one, the 4th, was decimated and two other – the 9th and the 3rd Panzer – very nearly so. Thirty one of the 47 German divisional or corps commanders (of the rank of General) involved in the battle were either killed or captured. The Wehrmacht’s back was broken.
Bagration also restored the Soviet Union to her pre-1939 borders by throwing the Germans out of Soviet territory, and launched the Red Army on a crushing offensive that was to culminate in the battle of Berlin and the dissolution of the Third Reich.
In comparison, D-Day looks almost like a side-show: German deployment here added up to only 11 divisions (the Eastern Front had 228), and Germany lost no more than 9,000 troops here. The Allied forces were mired on the beachhead far longer than they had anticipated, progress inland was painfully slow, and the port city of Caen, a major objective only about 50 kms from the Omaha beach, was not captured before July 21, or a full 45 days after D-Day.
Bagration, on the other hand, took a little over ten days to punch a hole 400-km wide and 160-km deep in the German frontline. By the middle of August, the Red Army was knocking at Warsaw’s doors, less than 600 km shy of Berlin.
And yet, in most histories of the Second World War, Operation Bagration gets mentioned only in passing. It is only in recent years that critical attention has begun to be directed at this important episode of the War.
The 76th anniversary of Bagration is as good a time as any to go over the ground it covered and recapitulate how it panned out in those crucial two months.
In Yalta in December 1943, Britain, the US and the Soviet Union had agreed to orchestrate the Allies’ future campaigns against the Axis. Churchill and Roosevelt informed Stalin that the Allies planned to open the second front by landing in France in May the following year. In turn, Stalin promised to support that operation by launching a massive strategic offensive around the same time. Bagration – named after the Georgian general of the Tsarist army who died fighting Napoleon’s troops in Borodino near Moscow in 1812 – was the result of that commitment.
The Soviet armies involved in bloody fighting in the winter and early spring of 1943-44 had made spectacular advances, particularly in the south, in Ukraine and the Caucasus. They had also managed to lift the crippling siege of Leningrad (now St Petersburg) that had lasted nearly 900 days. At that point in the war’s eastern theatre, the Soviets had over 6.5 million troops spread over 12 fronts (or army groups) aligned along a 3,200-km front facing four German army groups and an independent army, which together numbered 2.25 million men. Of the 12 Soviet army groups, four, namely the First Baltic, and the Third, the Second and the First Byelorussian, would come into play in the operation.
Of the four German army groups, the one directly in front of these Red Army formations was the famed Army Group Centre commanded by Field Marshal Ernst Busch, not a particularly capable commander, but a favourite of Hitler’s because of Busch’s obsequiousness to the Fuehrer.
Numerically the strongest army group on the Eastern Front – it had around 700,000 troops in 51 divisions – Busch’s group had two major weaknesses other than being led by an unenterprising leader. Spread over a 780-km front, its was a thinly-held line; and its forces occupied a somewhat awkward salient: a bulge extending substantially eastwards north of the inaccessible Pripyat Marshes close to the headwaters of the Dvina and Dnieper rivers east of Vitebsk (please see map), making the flanks vulnerable to spirited enemy attacks. STAVKA (the Soviet High Command) now settled on striking at Army Group Centre in a series of surprise ‘deep operations’ manoeuvres that would destroy this jewel in Hitler’s crown.
But the Soviet decision had not been made with an eye on Marshal Busch’s vulnerabilities, personal or strategic. STAVKA had determined that the demolition of Army Group Centre would bring the Red Army to the borders of Poland and East Prussia and facilitate future operations hugely. Equally importantly, the best – and perhaps shortest – road to Berlin from the East ran through Warsaw, which sat on a straight line from General Rokossovsky’s First Byelorussian Front through the deep defences of Army Group Centre.
Besides, other options open to the Red Army at that point had been considered and dropped: for example, a strike into the Balkans by one or more of the northern spearheads (viz., the Third Baltic and Leningrad fronts) – rejected because it would still leave much of western Russia in German hands; or the option of a northwest strike from northern Ukraine across Poland to the Baltic Sea – not pursued because it would mean a long and perilous drive with dangerously open flanks.
Having thus decided on the broad contours of the offensive, the Red Army set about filling in the tactical and operational details, a project of astonishing ingenuity and skill, the like of which has been seen only rarely in the history of modern warfare.
First, the Soviets launched an elaborate tactical programme of deception – maskirovka in Russian. In April, the entire Soviet army assumed a defensive posture, and kept up the appearances with great verve, so that German intelligence was inclined to discount the possibility of an imminent, large-scale operation. But more importantly, the Red Army build-up managed to deflect attention to the south-western part of the front, to Ukraine, giving out clever and seemingly bona-fide signals, which the Germans picked up with alacrity, of an impending operation against Field Marshal Walter Model’s Army Group North Ukraine.
Somehow, the Germans had also persuaded themselves that a Ukrainian offensive would best serve the Red Army’s operational objectives, and when reports of a large Soviet build-up in the front opposite Army Group Centre started to come in beginning early June, the German High Command viewed that build-up as a deception, thus playing fully into Soviet hands.
The deception was so complete that the Germans, incredibly, started shifting a lot of their fire-power, and a whole Panzer corps, from Busch’s command to Model’s. Thus, as the Red Army was rearing to go, Army Group Centre lost 15% of its divisions, 23% of its assault guns, and a staggering 50-88% respectively of its artillery and tank strength.
And the Soviet build-up on the eve of Bagration was the War’s most massive – 4,000 tanks, 5,300 aircraft, and over 25,000 pieces of mortars, assault guns and other indirect-fire weapons gave the Red Army armour, artillery and air superiority of 10:1 at the assault point, even as two million troops faced off with about 500,000 German combatants.
This build-up necessitated reinforcements to the extents of 300%, 85% and 62% respectively in tank, artillery and aircraft strengths. Marshal Zhukov, one of Bagration’s heroes, recalls that the front needed to be supplied with 400,000 tonnes of ammunition, 300,000 tonnes of fuel and lubricants, and 500,000 tonnes of food and fodder before the battle.
It is a tribute to the Red Army’s organisational virtuosity that it managed to amass these enormous quantities of fire-power, accessories and provisions without giving their game away. Battle-hardened veterans Marshal Georgiy Zhukov and Marshal Alexander Vasilevskiy were made responsible for planning, coordinating and directing two fronts each: Zhukov for the two southern fronts (2nd and 1st Byelorussian) and Vasilevskiy for the two northern fronts (1st Baltic and 3rd Byelorussian). The front commanders were Generals Bagramyan (1st Baltic), Chernyakhovskiy (3rd Byelorussian), Zakharov (2nd Byelorussian) and Rokossovskiy (1st Byelorussian, the largest formation, also tasked with covering the most ground).
A vital component of the Soviet plan was parallel partisan warfare. By this phase of the War, Byelorussian partisans, numbering close to 150,000, were a formidable force, capable of paralysing German supply lines virtually at will and demolishing bridges, highways and railway installations whenever required. The wooded and often boggy terrain made parts of Byelorussia ideal partisan country. Now well-armed and well-provisioned by the Soviets, partisans set and carried out their operational objectives in coordination with the Red Army. In the days leading up to Bagration, they stepped up sabotage and demolition very significantly, waylaying all supplies meant for Army Group Centre but taking care to let supplies in the reverse direction pass unmolested.
The Soviets’ ‘deep operations’ – a concept borrowed from the ‘Deep Battle’ military theory first formulated by Mikhail Tukhachevsky and Alexander Svechin – worked with deadly effect in Bagration. Breakthroughs were achieved at several points in the enemy line by massive infantry-led attacks with heavy artillery and air support.
When holes had been punched in the German lines, armoured spearheads rushed through them and encircled the communications and supply centres by double envelopments. Waves of such attacks would follow in rapid succession, each spearhead delving deeper than the one before it, overtaking, overwhelming and encircling enemy formations at blinding speed, and keeping the enemy continually guessing which direction the next attack would come from.
All in all, Bagration was to cover a front stretching for more than 1,200 km from Lake Neshcherdo to the Pripyat, and 600 kms deep – from the Dnieper to the Vistula and the Narew. The first avalanche of attacks began on June 22, 1944 and by the morning of the 26th, Army Group Centre appeared to be falling apart. One after another, all the major town and cities occupied by Germany since 1941 were wrested from her control – Vitebsk, Bobruysk, Minsk, Slutsk, Mogilev, Borisov, Stolbtsy, Marina Gorka, Lublin….. All Byelorussia was freed, followed by large parts of East Poland and Lithuania and, in the second leg of the operation, those parts of the Ukraine which were still in German occupation. By 25 July, the Red Army had reached the Vistula.
On the way, it had stumbled upon the Majdanek death camp – the first concentration camp to be discovered – where the Nazis had murdered at least 80,000 people in cold blood. On July 28, the Red Army liberated the historic Brest fortress. Fully, 50 German divisions had been routed, 30 of them destroyed. In the operation’s second leg, after the 1st Ukrainian Front had joined the offensive, the Wehrmacht lost another 30 divisions, eight of which were wiped out.
The virtual destruction of the Army Group Centre was Germany’s most calamitous defeat in the War. The Soviets could now sit calmly on the Vistula, reorganising and resupplying their forces, confident of their ability to drive to the Oder, the Neisse, and then on to Berlin.
The demoralised Germans, on the other hand – now obliged to fight on two full fronts – could only mount a weak defence along the Vistula. In an irony of history, Operation Bagration, which had begun on the third anniversary of Hitler’s most ambitious military campaign, had now sealed the Fuehrer’s fate.
Anjan Basu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org