Operation Bagration – the Soviet destruction of German Army Group Centre – was, arguably, the single most successful military action of the entire war. This vital Soviet offensive was launched just after Allied troops had landed in Normandy, and it is symptomatic of the lack of public knowledge about the war in the East that whilst almost everyone has heard of D-Day, few people other than specialist historians know much about Operation Bagration. Yet the sheer size of Bagration dwarfs that of D-Day.
‘Army Group Centre was really the anchor of that whole German front,’ says Professor Geoffrey Wawro, ‘blocking the shortest path to Berlin; and the Russians annihilated it at the same time as we were landing in D-Day and marching on, liberating Paris and then heading towards Germany. But the scope of the fighting was much bigger [in the East]. You had ten times as many Russians fighting in Bagration as you had Anglo/American/Canadian troops landing on the Normandy beaches. And you had three times as many Germans in action fighting trying to hold up the Russian advance as you had defending the Atlantic Wall. So it’s a perfect encapsulation of the problem [of lack of appreciation of the scale of fighting on the Eastern Front]… I mean, think about it, when D-Day and Bagration jumped off, the allied armies in Normandy and the Russian armies on the Eastern Front were equidistant from Berlin, and in the German view they were sort of equal threats. After Operation Bagration, Russia is seen as being the principal threat because they just kicked down the door altogether and reoccupied all the ground that was lost in 1941. They take most of Poland and they move into East Prussia and they’re at the very gates of Berlin while we’re still slogging our way through Normandy and towards Paris.’
Operation Bagration (named after a Georgian hero in the war against Napoleon 130 years earlier) was not just one of the largest military offensives of the war, it was one of the most sophisticated. On 19 June 1944, Red Army partisan units, operating behind German lines, attacked transport and other Wehrmacht supply lines; two days later the Soviets launched massive air attacks; and then on the 23rd (one day after the third anniversary of the German invasion) the Red Army moved forward under cover of darkness. Their advance caught the Germans by surprise. Once again, the Soviet technique of ‘maskirovka’ (deception) had worked.
The Soviets pushed forward in powerful spearheads leaving enemy units isolated behind them – a tactic that was made all the more effective because of a tactically disastrous decision Hitler had made. The German leader had ordered the soldiers of Army Group Centre to stand firm and inflexible in the face of any Soviet advance. His directive of 8 March 1944 had announced that ‘feste Plaetze’ (fortified places) should be the core of the German defence. The idea was that the Soviets would advance past these fortifications, which would, Hitler said, ‘fulfill the function of fortresses in former historical times.’i
The commander of the German Ninth Army, General Jordan could scarcely believe the nature of the order he had been given. ‘Ninth Army stands on the eve of another great battle,’ he wrote, ‘unpredictable in extent and duration… the Army believes that, even under the present conditions, it would be possible to stop the enemy offensive, but not under the present directives which require an absolutely rigid defence.’ii
‘Hitler’s orders to hold firm were totally disastrous,’ confirms Antony Beevor. ‘He refused to allow his generals any flexibility or leeway which was totally contrary to all the precepts and the teaching of the German general staff… but because Hitler so distrusted his generals he wanted to control everything and that was basically the undoing of the German army.’
‘The German behaviour in their fortified areas was stupid,’ says Veniamin Fyodorov, who participated in the initial Soviet assault in Operation Bagration. ‘Our shelling broke them down. Huge amounts of shells flew towards them and you couldn’t hear anything: only this booming! The fortified areas could be smashed completely. It was death… The Germans held the ground to the last man – they were all doomed to death.’
The Germans trapped inside these ‘feste Plaetze’ experienced a form of Hell on earth. ‘Everywhere dead people were lying,’ says Heinz Fiedler, who fought at the fortified town of Bobruisk, ‘dead bodies, wounded people, people screaming. You didn’t have any feeling for warmth or coldness or light or darkness or thirst…’
Finally, once most of his comrades had been killed, Heinz Fiedler and the few other survivors of Bobruisk were told to try and break out of the encirclement. Only a tiny number made it through the Soviet lines, navigating, Fiedler says, by simply heading towards the ‘setting sun’ in the West.
Operation Bagration was a colossal victory for the Red Army. By 3 July Soviet forces had recaptured Minsk, capital of Belorussia, a city which had been in German hands for three years. And by the end of July the Red Army had pushed into what had been, before the war, Polish territory, and had taken Lwow, the major cultural centre of eastern Poland.
But this advance of Stalin’s troops to territory outside the pre-1939 borders of the Soviet Union suddenly brought political questions into sharp focus. Operation Bagration had allowed the Red Army – for the first time since the German invasion – into territory whose sovereignty was sharply disputed.
Stalin claimed eastern Poland as his own. Under the Nazi/Soviet pact this land had been given to the Soviets. But the Polish government-in-exile, hardly surprisingly, had never accepted this arrangement and now they wanted this territory back. The omens for the future peace of the region were not good. When the Soviets reached Lwow, for example, they disarmed members of the Polish Home Army – the partisan force that had resisted the German occupation. And just a few days later, once the Warsaw uprising began, Stalin would show just how ruthlessly he intended to treat the rest of Poland.
Military successes like Operation Bagration had gained the Soviets a great deal of land. And, Stalin would argue, since this land had been bought with the blood of his soldiers, why should he be asked to relinquish it now?
i Quoted in Paul Adair, Hitler’s Greatest Defeat: The Collapse of Army Group Centre, June 1944, Arms and Armour Press, 1994, p. 66
ii Quoted in Earl Ziemke, Stalingrad to Berlin: The German Defeat in the East, US Army Historical Series, 1987, p. 316
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