Tuesday, March 17, 2015


The Bagration Operation was a Soviet code name for a multifront strategic offensive operation (23 June– 29 August 1944) during World War II on the eastern front that shattered the German Army Group Center. Named after Peter Bagration, a tsarist general of Georgian heritage who fell at Borodino in 1812, and also known as the Byelorussian Operation, it was perhaps the most important of the ‘‘ten destructive blows’’ during 1944 that marked all-out Soviet pursuit of the strategic initiative against Adolf Hitler’s Wehrmacht. Despite the recent Allied landing at Normandy, the German army retained over 235 divisions in the East, in comparison with roughly 85 in the West. Even as the Allies slugged their way through French hedgerows, the Bagration Operation initially yielded 57,000 German prisoners for a minor victory parade in Moscow, while continuing to roll back German army defenses in the East by several hundred additional kilometers.

With Leningrad relieved in January 1944, and with nearly half of Ukraine now liberated, Joseph Stalin and his high command began planning in mid-April for a new series of offensive operations that was to ripple across the eastern front from north to south. The intent was to keep Hitler and his generals off-balance, to wrest the remaining occupied Soviet territory from German hands, to exact heavy losses on the Wehrmacht, and to position the Soviet Union favorably in east-central Europe for the closing stages of World War II against Germany. With the opening of a second front in the west now imminent, Stalin resolved to press the advance not only for political purposes, but also to prevent the Germans from shifting troops westward to counter an allied assault on France. Despite unfavorable terrain for mobile operations, the German salient in Byelorussia represented a significant strategic objective, both because of its central location and because of its importance as a military springboard into the heart of Europe.

Although Field Marshal Ernst Busch’s Army Group Center lacked significant mobile formations, it occupied defenses in depth that relied heavily on prepared positions and Byelorussia’s dense, swampy terrain. Against Busch’s (after 28 June, Field Marshal Walter Model’s) Third Panzer Army and three field armies, the Soviet intent was to break through German defenses in six sectors, then transform tactical success into operational success. The concept was to pin in the center while destroying German forces on the flanks with encirclement operations at Vitebsk (north) and Bobruysk (south). While these pockets were being reduced and without pause, Soviet armored and mechanized spearheads from both flanks were to close a larger encirclement in the vicinity of Minsk, thereby trapping Army Group Center’s main forces east of that city. With assistance from supplementary offensives against German Army Groups North and Northern Ukraine, subsequent Soviet objectives extended to the Vistula, Narew, and Bug Rivers. The plan relied on Soviet air superiority and incorporated extensive partisan attacks against German communications and rear area objectives. To coordinate the entire complex of front- (army group-) level operations, Stavka, the Headquarters of the Supreme High Command, assigned Marshals Alexander Vasilevsky and Georgy Zhukov to oversee planning and execution.

Soviet preparations were elaborate and highly secret. With Soviet tanks and artillery reserves scattered among many fronts, these and supporting assets had to be concentrated without giving away the plan. Accordingly, the Soviets employed extensive deception and operational security measures, including radio silence, night movements, and rigid camouflage discipline. In consequence, the Soviet high command covertly marshaled against Army Group Center twenty combined arms armies, two tank armies, and five air armies. Altogether, the Soviets counted 2.4 million troops in 172 divisions, 12 corps, 7 fortified regions, and 22 brigades of various types. Their armaments and equipment included 36,400 guns and mortars, 5,200 tanks and self-propelled guns, and 5,300 aircraft. For operational direction, the major front-level command instances were (north to south) the 1st Baltic (Ivan Bagramian), 3rd Byelorussian (Ivan Chernyakhovsky), 2nd Byelorussian (Georgy Zakharov), and the 1st Byelorussian (Konstantin Rokossovsky).

The actual execution of Operation Bagration unfolded over two stages. The first, 23 June– 4 July 1944, began with breakthrough attacks rippling across the front from north to south. By 27 June, the 1st Baltic and 3rd Byelorussian Fronts had encircled and annihilated five German divisions at Vitebsk. Meanwhile, the 2nd Byelorussian Front had crossed the Dniester to seize Mogilev on 28 June. Almost simultaneously, the right wing of the 1st Byelorussian Front had encircled and destroyed six German divisions at Bobruysk. On 3 July, advancing mobile groups from the north and south flanking Soviet fronts occupied Minsk, encircling to the east the German Fourth and Ninth Armies (100,000 troops). As Soviet forward detachments pressed ever westward, they managed over the first twelve days of Bagration to reach penetrating depths of 225 to 280 kilometers (140 to 175 miles). These depths, together with the 400-kilometer-wide (250-milewide) breach in German defenses, signaled liberation for the majority of Byelorussia. The German defenders, meanwhile, hampered by Hitler’s injunction against retreat, by partisan sabotage against railroads, and by the piecemeal commitment of reinforcements, utterly failed to reverse their disintegrating situation.

The second stage of Bagration (5 July– 29 August 1944) involved pursuit and liquidation of resisting German pockets. Between 5 and 12 July, the German forces trapped east of Minsk attempted a breakout, but were either destroyed or captured. As the Soviet offensive rolled to the west, the German high command threw in units drawn from the west and other parts of the eastern front, but to no avail. Later coordinated offensives in the north by the 2nd Baltic Front and in the south by the 1st Ukrainian Front only added to German woes. By the end of August, the Red Army had established crossings on the Vistula and the Narew, and had overrun Vilnius and reached the border of East Prussia. German Army Group North was now isolated. But Soviet offensive momentum stopped short of Warsaw, where Stalin apparently chose consciously not to support a rebellion against the German occupiers by Polish patriots beyond his control.

Bagration had enormous military and political-military consequences. It liquidated German Army Group Center and inflicted punishing losses on neighboring groups. It destroyed two thousand German aircraft and twelve German divisions and brigades, while reducing to one-half the strength of an additional fifty divisions. Meanwhile, it opened the way for further Soviet offensives into central Europe and the clearing of the Baltics. The cost to the Soviets was more than 178,000 dead and another half-million wounded. In the realm of military art, Bagration represented a further refinement of breakthrough and encirclement operations and of the ability to insert, after such operations and without pause, mobile groups into the operational depths of enemy defenses.

BIBLIOGRAPHY Chaney, Otto Preston. Zhukov. Rev. ed.Norman, Okla., 1996. Erickson, John. The Road to Berlin. London, 1983. Reprint, London, 2003. Glantz, David M., and Jonathan M. House. When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler. Lawrence, Kans., 1995. Niepold, Gerd. The Battle for White Russia: The Destruction of Army Group Centre, June 1944. Translated by Richard Simpkin. London, 1987. Vasilevsky, A. M. A Lifelong Cause. Translated by Jim Riordan. Moscow, 1981. Ziemke, Earl F. Stalingrad to Berlin: The German Defeat in the East. Washington, D.C., 1968.

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