At the end of the spring of 1944, the Soviet-German front was relatively quiet. The Germans, having suffered significant losses during the winter, were strengthening their defenses, and the Red Army was gathering forces for another strike.
If you look at a map of combat operations, you can see two indentations in the front. One, on the territory of the Ukraine, south of the Pripyat river. The second, pointing far to the East, in Belorussia, bordering Vitebsk, Orsha, Mogilev, Zhlobin. This indentation was named the "Belarussian Balcony". After discussion at the end of April, Stavka of the Supreme Command decided to crush it with the entire might of the Red Army. The liberation of Belarus was codenamed "Operation Bagration".
German commanders did not predict these events. Belarus is covered in swamps and forests, with many lakes and rivers, and had a fairly undeveloped network of roads. It was very difficult to use tanks here, from the point of view of Hitler's generals. The Wehrmacht was ready to deflect a Soviet offensive in the Ukraine, and concentrated most of their forces there. For example, Army Group "North Ukraine" had seven tank divisions, and four heavy tank battalions. Army Group Center only had one tank division, two panzergrenadier divisions, and one heavy tank battalion. In total, Ernst Busch commanded 1.2 million men, 900 tanks and SPGs, 9500 cannons and mortars, and 1350 airplanes of the 6th Air Fleet.
The Germans created a fairly powerful echeloned line of defense in Belarus. Fortifications started being built in 1943, frequently based on natural hazards: rivers, lakes, swamps, heights. Cities that were road hubs were declared fortresses. For example, Orsha, Vitebsk, Mogilev, and others were equipped with pillboxes, bunkers, multiple artillery and machine gun positions.
The plan to destroy enemy forces in Belarus involved elements of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Belarussian Fronts, as well as the 1st Baltic Front. In total, Soviet forces consisted of 2.4 million people, over 5000 tanks, nearly 36 000 cannons and mortars. Air support was provided by the 1st, 3rd, 4th, and 16th air armies (over 5000 aircraft). The Red Army had a significant advantage over the enemy.
In order to ensure secrecy, the Red Army put a great deal of effort into masking their movements and misleading the enemy. Units moved at night, maintaining radio silence. During the day, armies camouflaged themselves in forests. Forces were concentrated in the Kishenev direction as a feint. Units not participating in the operation scouted by combat. Trains were loaded with fake tanks and driven out of Belarus. These preparations were effective, but not completely. Prisoners captured on the 3rd Belorussian Front revealed that the Germans were building up their defenses and expected action from the RKKA. Hoever, the time of the attack and the numbers involved were still unknown to them.
Right before the operation, Belorussian partisans performed numerous diversions, severing German supply lines. Over 40 000 rails were destroyed between July 20th and 23rd. While the Germans were heavily impeded by the partisans, the railroads were not critically damaged, according to I.G. Starinov, an authority on scouting and diversionary affairs.
Operation Bagration was carried out in two stages. The first included the Vitebsk-Orshansk, Mogilyev, Bobruysk, Polotsk, and Minsk operations. The Vitebsk-Orshansk operation was carried out by forces of the 1st Baltic and 3rd Belorussian front. The 1st Baltic forces led by General I. Bagramyan struck with the 6th Guards Army and 43rd Army at the joint between Army Groups North and Center in the Beshenkovichi direction. The 4th Shock Army was to advance on Polotsk.
Colonel I. Chernyahovskiy's 3rd Belorussian Front struck at Bogushevsk and Senno with the forces of the 39th and 5th armies, and at Borisov with the 11th Guards Army and 31st Army. In order to ensure operational success, these units were backed by N. Oslikovskiy's cavalry-mechanized group (3rd Guards Mechanized and 3rd Cavalry Corps) and P. Rotmistrov's 5th Guards Tank Army.
After an artillery barrage on June 23rd, the forces of the fronts began their offensive. During the first day, the 1st Baltic Front penetrated 16 kilometers of enemy defenses, aside from the Polotsk direction, where the 4th Shock Army encountered significant resistance, and could not boast exceptional success. The width of the Soviet breakthrough was about 50 kilometers.
The 3rd Belorussian Front achieved significant success in the Bogushev direction, penetrating a line of defense 50 km wide and capturing three intact bridges over the Luchesa river. The German Vitebsk group was in danger of encirclement. Their commander requested permission to retreat, but since Vitebsk was considered a fortress, the permission was denied.
Through June 24th-26th, Soviet units encircled the forces at Vitebsk and destroyed the division covering the city. Another 4 divisions attempted to break through West, but, aside from several disorganized units, they were unsuccessful. On June 27th, the surrounded Germans surrendered. Over 10 000 German soldiers and officers were captured.
Orsha was also freed on June 27th. Red Army forces broke through to the Orsha-Minsk highway. Lepel was liberated on June 28th. The completion of the first stage of the operation moved the Soviets forward 80-150 km.
The Mogilev operation also began on June 23rd. It was carried out by the 2nd Belorussian Front of General Zakharov. During the first two days, forces moved 30 km forward. After that, the Germans fled across the Dniepr river. They were chased by the 33rd and 50th armies. On June 27th, Soviet forces crossed the Dniepr and freed Mogilev on the 28th. The German 12th Infantry Division that was defending the city was destroyed. Many prisoners and trophies were captured. The Germans were retreating towards Minsk, chased by ground attack aircraft. Soviet forces marched towards the Berezina river.
The Bobruisk operation was carried out by forces of the 1st Belarussian Front (led by General Rokossovskiy). The front commander ordered a strike in the Rogachev and Parichey direction, with a longer term strike at Bobruysk, with the goal of encircling the Germans in the city and destroying them. After Bobruysk was taken, the forces would move to Puhovichi and Slutsk. The attacking forces were supported by about 2000 aircraft.
The assault was through difficult swamped forests, crossed by many rivers. Soldiers had to be trained to use swamp shoes, cross water hazards using any available means, and build log roads. On June 24th, after a powerful artillery barrage, Soviet units went on the offensive, and penetrated 5-6 km of enemy defenses by mid-day. With the aid of mechanized units, the penetration at individual points reached as far as 20 km.
By June 27th, the Bobruisk group was completely surrounded. 40 000 German soldiers and officers were encircled. Leaving a portion of its forces to deal with the enemy, the front advanced to Slutsk and Osipovichi. The surrounded forces attempted to break out to the north. Near Titovka, a brutal battle took place, during which the Germans, disregarding losses, attempted to penetrate the Soviet lines. Bombers were called in to repel the assault. Over 500 planes bombed the concentration of German forces for an hour and a half. The enemy abandoned heavy machinery and attempted to break through to Bobruisk, but had no luck. On June 28th, the remainder surrendered.
Bobruisk was taken on June 29th.
By this time, Army Group Center realized its catastrophic situation. German forces took massive losses in both manpower and vehicles. Soviet forces moved up 80-150 kilometers. Army Group Center was in danger of encirclement. On June 28th, Ernst Busch was removed from command, and replaced with Field Marshall Walther Model.
The Minsk operation began on June 28th.
Forces of the 3rd Belorussian Front approached the Berezina river. Orders from Stavka instructed them to cross the river, go around pockets of resistance, and make a swift attack on Minsk.
On June 29th, advance forces of the RKKA captured landings on the western shore and penetrated 5-10 km into enemy defenses. On June 30th, main forces of the front crossed the river. On the night of July 1st, the 11th Guards Army, entered Borisov from the south and south-west, and liberated it by 15:00. On the same day, Begoml and Pleshenitsy were also liberated.
By July 2nd, most avenues of retreat were cut off for the enemy. Vileyka, Zhodino, Logoisk, Smolevichi, and Krasnoye were liberated. The Germans were cut off from their supply lines.
On the night of July 3rd, 1944, the commander of the 3rd Belorussian Front, General Chernyahovskiy, ordered the commander of the 5th Guards Tank Army (Rotmistrov) to take the 31st Army and the 2nd Guards Tatsin Tank Corps, attack Minsk from the north and north-west direction, and take it by the end of July 3rd.
At 9 am on July 3rd, Soviet units entered Minsk. 71st and 36th infantry corps of the 31st Army, the 5th Guards Tank Army and the Guards Tatsin Corps tankers joined the battle. Elements of the 1st Don Tank Corps of the 1st Belorussian Front supported the offensive from the south and south-east. Minsk was liberated at 13:00.
As was mentioned above, the biggest hurdle for the Soviet offensive was Polotsk. The Germans turned it into a powerful defensive position, and garrisoned 6 infantry divisions in it. The 1st Baltic Front tasked the forces of the 6th Guards Army and 4th Shock Army with moving in from the south and north-east, and destroying the Germans.
The Polotsk operation began on June 29th. By the evening of July 1st, Soviet units captured the flanks of the German forces, and reached the outskirts of the city. Fierce urban battles lasted until July 4th. That is the day when the city was liberated. Forces of the left flank, pursuing the retreating Germans, traveled 110 km, arriving at the border with Lithuania.
The first stage of Operation Bagration was catastrophic for Army Group Center. The Red Army advanced 225-280 km in 12 days. The German defensive lines had a 400 km wide breach, and nothing to cover it with. Nevertheless, the Germans attempted to stabilize the situation by striking in key directions. Model was building a new line of defense, using up divisions transferred from other parts of the front. However, even the 46 divisions thrown into the catastrophe did not have a significant effect.
On July 5th, the Vilnus operation by the 3rd Belarussian Front began. On July 7th, elements of the 5th Guards Tank Army and 3rd Guards Mechanized Corps reached the city, and began to encircle it. On July 8th, the Germans brought in reinforcements. 150 tanks and SPGs were brought in to break the encirclement. The attempt failed, in no small part thanks to the 1st Air Army, relentlessly bombing the German forces. Vilnus was taken on July 13th, and the surrounded forces were eliminated.
The 2nd Belarussian Front was developing an offensive at Belostok. In order to strengthen the front, General Gorbatov's 3rd Army was sent in. Over 5 days, the Soviet forces moved up 150 kilometers, liberating Novogrudok on July 8th. The Germans gathered forces at Grodno, and the Red Army had to withstand a series of counterattacks. By July 16th, this city was also cleared of Germans. On July 27th, the Red Army liberated Belostok and reached the pre-war borders of the USSR.
The 1st Belarussian Front was tasked with moving around the Brest fortified region, destroying the enemy at Brest and Lublin, and reaching the river Vistula. On July 6th, the Red Army took Kovel, and broke through the defensive lines at Sedltse. Soviet forces traveled over 70 km by July 20th, crossed Western Bug, and reached Poland. Brest was encircled on July 25th, but all enemies were not destroyed there, a portion of them managed to break through. By the beginning of August, the Red Army occupied Lublin and possessed several landings on the west shore of Vistula.
Operation Bagration was a colossal victory for the Soviets. Over two months, all of Belarus, and parts of Poland and the Baltics were liberated. The Germans lost about 400 000 dead, injured, and captured. 22 generals were captured, and 10 more died. Army Group Center was destroyed.
Original article available here.