SOVIET BLITZKRIEG KNOCKS GERMANS OFF BALANCE

Moscow, Soviet Union June 23, 1944

On this date in 1944 along a 450-mile front some 2.4 mil­lion Soviet front­line and support troops, 5,200 tanks, and 5,300 air­craft smashed through German lines in present-day Bela­rus (White Russia in some earlier sources). Sabo­tage of rail net­works and bridges by guer­rillas several days before June 23 impeded German move­ment of ammu­ni­tion, food, and reinforcements to the German-Soviet front.

The full weight of the Soviet attack came on the third anni­ver­sary of the German inva­sion of the Soviet Union (Opera­tion Barba­rossa), when Germans had poured into Russia, in the words of one Soviet citizen, “marching and singing, whistling and spitting.” Three German armies—Third Pan­zer, Fourth, and Ninth, whose front­line numbers approached a half-million men—each lost a majo­rity of their strength. The ini­tial tar­get of the Soviet blitz­krieg, Minsk, capi­tal of Bela­rus, was cap­tured on July 3. Opera­tion Bagra­tion, named for Gen. Piotr Bagra­tion, a storied gene­ral who had fought Napo­leon in 1812, produced a major crisis for the Wehr­macht (German armed forces) and demon­strated just how much the Soviet army and air force had learned in two years.

German Army Group Center was virtually wiped out, losing over 300,000 men in 22 divi­sions; Army Group North on the Baltic coast was for the most part iso­lated, to be exter­mi­nated later at lei­sure; and the Soviet advance had almost reached East Prus­sia, all within five weeks. German casual­ties for all three Army groups, which included a large propor­tion of Luft­waffe field units, security troops, Hun­ga­rian and Slo­vak divi­sions, and Volks­deutsche (ethnic Germans from the occupied territories), were close to 400,000.

Soviet casualties, which included partisan irregu­lars, were also sub­stan­tial, with roughly 180,000 killed and missing and just under 600,000 wounded. Also lost were nearly 3,000 Soviet tanks, over 2,400 artil­lery pieces, and 822 air­craft. None of the losses deterred the Red Army from massing that sum­mer within sight of Warsaw, Poland, the coun­try where Adolf Hitler had em­barked on his brutal war of con­quest nearly five years before. Col. Gen. Heinz Guderian’s assump­tion of com­mand on the East­ern Front, as well as shifting men and resources to the weakest sectors to sta­bilize German defense lines, did little to stop the rot in Nazi fortunes.





Operation Bagration, June 23 to August 19, 1944

Map, Operation Bagration, 1944

Above: Overview of military operations con­ducted by the Red Army in the Baltic states, Belarus, and Poland during Opera­tion Bagra­tion. Soviet offen­sive opera­tions during the first phase are shown by red arrows ending at the squiggly brown line in the middle of the map, the following phase by burnt orange arrows. German counter­attacks are shown by short black arrows. Geo­graph­i­cally, Bagra­tion dwarfed the West­ern Allies’ cam­paign for Nor­mandy, launched just three weeks earlier. The Soviet blitz­krieg was intended to sup­port Allied opera­tions in France (Opera­tion Over­lord), liber­ate Soviet ter­ritory the Germans had seized in their 1941 assault on the Soviet Union (Opera­tion Barba­rossa), and break the back of the Wehrmacht once and for all. It achieved all three goals.

Belarus partisans, 1944 Destroyed German tank and crew, June 28, 1944

Left: By the time the Soviets launched Opera­tion Bagra­tion, parti­san num­bers in Belarus had swelled to between 143,000 and 374,000. Ger­man anti-partisan opera­tions between Janu­ary and April 1944 had exter­mi­nated entire vil­lages. All told, an esti­mated 1 mil­lion people, including Belarus’ entire Jewish popu­la­tion, had been killed. The Red Army directed parti­san forces, increa­singly well organized behind Ger­man lines, to maxi­mum advan­tage before and after Bagration’s start date.

Right: Dead crew members and two de­stroyed Pan­zer Mark IVs belonging to the German 20th Pan­zer Divi­sion were among the 50,000 troops killed and 20,000 cap­tured by Gen. Kon­stan­tin Rokos­sov­sky’s First Belo­rus­sian Front in the Babrujsk (Bobruisk) sali­ent in Bela­rus by end of June 1944 (above map, lower right). Rokos­sov­sky was the Soviet gene­ral who had accepted the surrender of the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad in early February 1943.

Abandoned vehicles of the German Ninth Army, end of June 1944 German

Left: Abandoned vehicles of the German Ninth Army, Babrujsk, Belarus, late June 1944. A disor­ganized and demor­alized Wehr­macht never recovered from losses of man­power and equip­ment incurred during the Soviet offen­sive. Man­power losses alone were roughly a quarter of its East­ern Front strength, similar to the per­cent­age of Ger­man losses at Stalingrad (November 1942 to January 1943).

Right: German POWs in Moscow, July 1944. Com­pared to other battles, Bagra­tion was by far the greatest Soviet victory in numeri­cal terms. In order to show the out­side world the magni­tude of their vic­tory, the Soviets paraded 50,000 Ger­man pri­soners taken from the encircle­ment east of Minsk through Moscow’s streets. Marching quickly and twenty abreast, the German POWs took 90 minutes to pass the reviewing cameras.

Operation Bagration and the Destruction of German Army Group Center


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