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 and Belo­russia in some earl­ier sources), an area of oper­a­tions roughly half the size of Cali­for­nia. 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 after Adolf Hitler gave his custom­ary “no retreat” orders. The year before comman­ders had used this proven and effec­tive counter­measure to massed Soviet attacks; namely, falling back to second-line posi­tions so that Soviet artil­lery shells fell on emptied loca­tions that sucked Red Army infan­try­men and armor into German killing fields. By mid-1944, how­ever, German units were so hollowed out in terms of man­power and equip­ment that such defensive tactics were out of the question.

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), inca­pable now of defending broad fronts, and demon­strated just how much the Soviet army and air force had learned in two years. The under­strength German Army Group Center, which occu­pied the most stra­te­gically impor­tant and pre­car­ious posi­tion on Germany’s Eastern Front, faced off against four Soviet army fronts (groups) that marshaled 1,670,000 men, 33,000 guns and mortars, and 5,800 tanks and self-propelled howitzers. Army Group Center was severely mauled in the fray, losing over 300,000 men in 22 divi­sions; sur­vi­vors who num­bered in the tens of thou­sands were marched into brutal cap­tiv­ity. Army Group North on the Baltic coast was for the most part iso­lated, to be exter­mi­nated later at lei­sure. The rapid Soviet advance had almost reached East Prus­sia—Germany proper—all this within five weeks!

German casualties for all three Army groups on the Eastern Front, 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 killed, wounded, captured, or missing. Soviet casual­ties, which included par­ti­san irregu­lars, were sub­stan­tial, with roughly 180,000 killed and missing and just under 600,000 wounded—an extremely heavy loss for the vic­to­ri­ous side. 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 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.

Blitzkrieg Soviet Style: Operation Bagration, June 23 to August 19, 1944

Map, Operation Bagration, June–August 1944

Above: Overview of military operations con­ducted by the Red Army in the Baltic states, Belarus, and Poland during Opera­tion Bagra­tion, one of the least-covered cam­paigns of World War II. 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. From the out­set of Oper­a­tion Bagra­tion, the Red Army exhibited excel­lent mobil­ity, method­i­cally main­tained demanding tempos in heavy fighting, and expertly coor­di­nated their forces to envelop, iso­late, and destroy forti­fied German posi­tions. 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. The twin Allied offen­sives in the West and East delivered knock­out blows that signaled the begin­ning of the end of Hitler’s Third Reich.

Operation Bagration: Belarus partisans, 1944Operation Bagration: 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. Indeed, just before Bagra­tion kicked off, parti­sans con­ducted a stunning series of raids on more than a thou­sand German-held trans­por­ta­tion nodes, crippling the ability of the enemy to retreat, resupply, and make lateral troop movements.

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 Polish-born Gen. Kon­stan­tin Rokos­sov­sky’s First Belo­rus­sian Front in the Babrujsk (Bobruisk) sali­ent in Bela­rus by end of June 1944 (above map, lower right), the same month he was ele­vated to Marshal of the Soviet Union. Rokos­sov­sky was the Soviet gene­ral who had accepted the surrender of the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad in early February 1943.

Operation Bagration: Abandoned vehicles of the German Ninth Army, end of June 1944Operation Bagration: German POWs parade through Moscow streets, July 1944

Left: Abandoned vehicles of the German Ninth Army, Babrujsk, Bela­rus, late June 1944. Dozens of escape cor­ri­dors east­ward became veri­ta­ble char­nel houses of bombed-out German equip­ment and smol­dering corpses thanks to pur­suing for­ma­tions of Soviet artil­lery, tanks, and fighter-bombers. A disor­ganized and demor­alized Wehr­macht never recovered from punishing losses of man­power and equip­ment incurred during the remorse­less 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 on parade in Moscow, July 17, 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 over 50,000 German pri­soners taken from the encircle­ment east of Minsk, Belarus, through Moscow’s streets. Marching quickly and twenty abreast, the German POWs took 90 minutes to pass the reviewing cameras. Street sweeper trucks followed the pri­soner column, sym­bol­ically cleansing the ground of the so-called Nazi filth.

Operation Bagration and the Destruction of German Army Group Center (Skip first 30 seconds)