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Operation Bagration
Written By: Peter Ayers Wimbrow III
*Click images below to view larger versions.
Operation Bagration
57,000 German prisoners march through Moscow after defeat at Belarus during Operation Bagration 17, July 1944.
Operation Bagration
Marshal Alexsandr Vasilevsky wearing two Hero of the Soviet Union stars on left chest.
Operation Bagration
Marshal Zhukov wearing three Hero of the Soviet Union stars.
Operation Bagration
Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky wearing two stars of the Hero of the Soviet Union.
 
This week, 70 years ago, the Red Army launched Operation Bagration.  With more than 2.3 million men, 70,000 trucks (most of them Studebakers from the U.S.), 10,563 heavy artillery pieces, 2,715 tanks, 2,318 fighters, 2,306 Katyusha rocket launchers, 1,744 Ilyushin Shturmovik ground attack planes, 1,662 medium bombers, 1,355 assault guns and 431 night bombers, plus approximately 250,000 partisans operating in the German rear, it was the largest offensive since Operation Barbarossa, making it the second largest offensive in the history of the world. It was named for General Prince Pyotr Bagration, a member of the Georgian royal family, and a general in the Imperial Russian Army, who was mortally wounded fighting the Emperor Napoleon’s invaders at the Battle of Borodino, in September 1812, who is buried on that battlefield. Georgia had been a part of the Russian Empire since its annexation in 1801.
The Soviet forces were spread between the following Fronts, or army groups, from north to south: First Baltic, commanded by Ivan Bagramyan, from Armenia; Third Byelorussian, commanded by the youngest, and only Jewish, Front commander in the Red Army, Ivan Chernyakhovsky, from the Ukraine; Second Byelorussian, commanded by General Georgiy Zakharov, from Russia; First Byelorussian, commanded by the half-Polish Konstantin Rokossovsky. Because of the size of the attacking force, it was overseen by Marshals Georgy Zhukov and Alexsandr Vasilevsky. Marshal Zhukov commanded General Bagramyan’s First Baltic Front and General Chernyakhovsky’s Third Byelorussian Front, while  Marshal Vasilevsky oversaw the other two.
On June 22, 1944, the third anniversary of Operation Barbarossa, the Soviet sledgehammer landed on Army Group Center, commanded by Field Marshal Ernst Busch, who owed his baton more to his blind loyalty to his Führer and Nazi idealogy, than ability. The Armeegruppe´s 900,000 men, 9500 artillery pieces, 839 aircraft and 553 tanks were organized into 2nd Army, 3rd Panzerarmee, 4th Army and 9th Army, commanded by, respectively, Walter Weiss, Georg-Hans Reinhardt, Kurt von Tippelskirch and Hans Jordan. Army Group Center occupied most of what is now Belarus.
The Germans were completely surprised when, early on the morning of June 22, the Soviets opened the greatest artillery barrage in history. The barrage, after hitting the front lines, rolled forward to catch the retreating Germans. Although the Germans had expected a Soviet offensive, they hadn’t expected it here. The Soviet deception - maskirovka - had been complete! Of course, there had been signs of the Soviet build-up, which Field Marshal Busch had reported to der Führer in a presentation on May 29, 1944, in Berlin. Hitler merely emphasized the need to hold at all costs.
General  Bagramyan’s First Baltic Front crossed the Dvina River on June 25. The 900 year-old city of Orsha, which, prior to the war, had a population of 37,000, was liberated, the next day, by General Chernyakhovsky’s Third Byelorussian Front. That day, Field Marshal Busch and General Jordan flew to der Führer’s headquarters and begged him to modify his “no retreat policy,” lest the Armeegruppe be destroyed. Instead, both were replaced! The Wehrmacht’s youngest Field Marshal, Walter Model, was given command of the Armeegruppe while Nikolaus von Vormann assumed command of the 9th Army.
The next day, General  Bagramyan’s First Baltic Front captured the 1000 year-old city of Vitebsk, along with most of the German LIII Corps, commanded by Friedrich Gollwitzer. The city had a pre-war population of 66,000 and today is the fourth-largest city in Belarus, with a population of 340,000. The same day, the 49th Army, commanded by Ivan T. Grishin, of General Zakharov’s Second Byelorussian Front, crossed the Dniepr River. The following day, it captured the 700 year-old city of Mogilev, which today has a population of 360,000. By then, both the First and Third Byelorussian Fronts had reached the Berezina River. The next day, Bobruisk was liberated by General Rokossovsky’s First Byelorussian Front, and he was named a Marshal of the Soviet Union. In the first week of the offensive, his Front had killed 50,000 Germans and captured another 20,000, and destroyed some 3000 tanks, vehicles and guns.
This was quite an achievement for a man who was imprisoned for three years, under threat of execution and had his teeth kicked out and ribs broken during “interrogation.” Not only was he now a Soviet Marshal, but after the war, he would also be named a Marshal of Poland and Polish Defense Minister, as well. Stalin once said, “I have no Suvorov [Russian Field Marshal who never lost a battle], but Rokossovsky is my Bagration.”
By July 4, the 1100 year-old city of Polotsk and the Byelorussian capital of Minsk had been liberated. General von Tippelskirch’s Fourth Army was destroyed after being surrounded by the Fifth Guards Tank and 65th Armies, commanded by Generals Pavel Alexeyevich Rotmistrov and Pavel Batov. German losses to that date numbered 300,000. Minsk was named a “Hero City” on June 26, 1974.
The 600-year-old city of Maladzyechna and the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius were liberated by General Chernyakhovsky’s Third Byelorussian Front on July 5 and July 13, respectively. Three days later, the 800-year-old city of Grodno fell to General Zakharov’s Second Byelorussian Front.
On July 17, 57,000 German POWs, including 31 generals and 1200 officers of lesser rank, were marched through Moscow’s Red Square, as the city’s citizens vented their wrath by cursing and spitting on them. It took 90 minutes to move them, 20 abreast, through the Square.
By July 21, Marshal Rokossovsky’s First Byelorussian Front had reached the Bug River. Four days later, it liberated the 1400-year-old Polish city of Lublin, which, pre-war, had a population of 122,000 and now is three times that. The following day, Marshal Rokossovsky’s Front reached the Vistula River.
The Polish city of Białystok, with a pre-war population of 107,000, was captured on July 27, by General Zakharov’s Second Byelorussian Front’s 3rd Army, commanded by Aleksandr Vasilevich Gorbatov. Marshal Rokossovsky’s First Byelorussian Front recaptured Brest on July 28. It was designated a “Hero-Fortress” on May 8, 1965.
On August 1, General Chernyakhovsky’s Third Byelorussian Front captured Lithuania’s second city of Kaunas, which today has a population of 315,000. The following day, Marshal Rokossovsky’s First Byelorussian Front crossed the Vistula River.
Operation Bagration completely destroyed Army Group Center. It was the worst defeat suffered by German arms in all of history. The numbers - 350,000 killed or captured (including 31 generals), more than 1300 guns and hundreds of tanks. Lost, by capture or death, were 31 of 47 divisional or corps commanders. Worse was the strategic situation. The Red Army reached the Baltic Sea, isolating Army Group North, tearing a gaping hole in the German lines and entering German territory in East Prussia. The Red Army had covered the 400 miles west, faster than the Wehrmacht had covered the same distance, in the opposite direction, three years earlier, and now, it was a mere 350 miles from the German capital.
But the Red Army had paid dearly for its smashing victory: 765,000 killed, wounded and missing; 2,857 tanks and assault guns and 2,447 guns lost.
 
NEXT WEEK: CAEN
Mr. Wimbrow writes from Ocean City, Maryland, where he practices law representing those persons accused of criminal and traffic offenses, and those persons who have suffered a personal injury through no fault of their own.  Mr. Wimbrow can be contacted at wimbrowlaw@gmail.com.
 
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