On the 22nd June 1941, nearly two years into the Second World War, the German Army launched Operation Barbarossa: the invasion of the Soviet Union. Hitler saw Eastern Europe as a natural area of expansion for the German people – the ‘lebensraum’ for his Aryan Empire. In preparation, the Germans had assembled over three million troops, making it the largest land invasion in military history.
Between June and December of 1941, the German Army Group North had surrounded Leningrad, starving its inhabitants of basic resources, such as food; Army Group Centre had sliced through the heart of the Soviet Union, swallowing the key Soviet cities of Minsk and Smolensk; Army Group South had blitzed through resource-rich Ukraine, taking roughly 700,000 prisoners of war near Kiev.
The Wehrmacht’s mystifying march towards Moscow was halted with the onset of winter, as the divisions approaching the city’s limits had to abandon their vulnerable positions, leaving much of their heavy equipment behind. This would happen again in Operation Bagration, which was not the simple withdrawal of forces from the area, but a catastrophic defeat which the Wehrmacht would never recover from.
When 1941 became 1942, the Wehrmacht had exhausted much of their resources in the initial invasion and did not have the strength to launch an all-out attack on the whole front as they did in the previous year, so the German High Command elected to seize control of the Southern sectors – the oil fields of the Caucasus region near the Caspian Sea, which would provide the Wehrmacht with the fuel necessary to keep the blood pumping around the vital organs of their menacing war machine. Still, as criminally underprepared in 1942 as they were in 1941, the Soviets were unable to repel the German advance on their southern flank.
To isolate the defenders in the Caucasus region, the German 6th Army attempted to cut the supply line pouring resources in from the North, which required the capture of the city of Stalingrad, along the Volga River. If the name sounds familiar, that is because the battle of Stalingrad has been honoured by popular culture (such as in the film ‘Enemy at the Gates’), earning its fame (or infamy, I should say) due to its sheer brutality. After months of brutal winter combat, the battle concluded when Red Army troops, stationed on the periphery of the city, encircled Stalingrad and trapped the German 6th Army.
The Soviet Army then capitalised on the momentum to push towards the Sea of Azov, which adjoins the Black sea to the north, in hope of cutting off the Wehrmacht forces still fighting in the Caucasus, although much of the German units were rescued before the Red Army could close in for the kill. All the gains Germany had made in 1942 were crushed in the blink of an eye, and for the first time in the
war, the Red Army began its gradual push to Berlin.
Amongst the Soviet’s territorial gains was the Kursk salient – a bulge in the frontline – which the German High Command anticipated they could encircle in a Blitzkrieg manoeuvre. However, in the ensuing battle of Kursk in 1943, the Soviets absorbed the attack which destroyed any last hopes of a German offensive on the Eastern front.
When the expulsion of the German Army from Soviet lands became a possibility, Operation Bagration was conceived – the name provided by Stalin who took the name of an inspiring Georgian general who fought in the Napoleonic Wars. A fitting tribute, considering that Operation Bagration absolutely devastated the German army beyond the point of repair, just as Napoleon’s failed invasion of Russia over a hundred years prior set the stage for the downfall of the French Empire.
Scheduled for June 1944, the aim was to obliterate the German Army Group Centre along a 500-mile battlefront in order to reclaim Belorussia.
As with all battles, the key to victory lay in much more than funnelling highly trained combat troops into the battle zone; numerical superiority, the work of partisans, manipulation, as well as a mismatch of priorities by the enemy, were all crucial for ensuring the success of the operation.
Firstly, as the war progressed, the Soviets were able to enlist and replace more soldiers at the frontlines, influenced in part by possessing a far larger population than Germany; they also gained the upper-hand on the home front regarding production, because Soviet industry was able to mass-produce weapons and equipment at a faster rate than the German war effort was capable of (this is why Hitler knew the Soviet Union had to be defeated quickly – before Winter – as Germany would struggle to withstand a battle of attrition). In addition, in line with his reputation, Stalin was as brutal towards the home front population as he was with his front-line soldiers, so output in the collectivised factories completely dwarfed the Wehrmacht’s numbers in the build-up to Operation Bagration.
For example, the Soviets were able to muster over ten times as many tanks and over five times as many aircraft, indicating how much of the Wehrmacht’s strength had been eroded by the friction of war.
In the Second World War, air superiority formed the backbone of success on the battlefield because it provided cover for the troops and tanks on the ground that could easily be destroyed or sent into disarray after a round of accurate bombing by the enemy. In fact, Erwin Rommel (the Desert Fox), who was considered by both warring parties to be an extremely skilled general, had this to say about air superiority:
‘The fact of British air superiority threw to the winds all the tactical rules which we had hitherto applied with such success. In every battle to come, the strength of the Anglo-American air force was to be the deciding factor.’
Secondly, the work of Soviet Partisans in Nazi-occupied territory dealt considerable damage to infrastructure. To counteract this, the Germans undertook extremely repressive measures to quell these acts of resistance, leading to the levelling of entire towns, with over one million Soviet Citizens murdered since the start of Belorussia’s occupation. However, rather counterproductively, this caused partisans numbers to swell; now receiving orders from the Soviets themselves, Partisan forces actively disrupted transport links to prevent the resupply of troops and munitions once the assault began.
Thirdly, despite the comical stereotype of the Red Army defeating Nazi Germany solely by having more men than the enemy had bullets, the Soviets employed the tactic of Maskirovka (the Russian word for ‘masking’) to great effect. To confuse German reconnaissance pilots, the Soviets deliberately shifted the location of troops and equipment, including several tank regiments, towards their southern flank.
In combination with the Southern front providing a path to the Romanian oil fields, this led the German High Command to conclude that an attack would be launched here. The Wehrmacht had already lost the upper hand in military strength, so to exacerbate the crisis, they had also lost the battle of wits – their mistake led to the severe undersupply of Army Group Centre.
Lastly, the German High Command were underprepared for Operation Bagration because they miscalculated the importance as well as the vulnerability of occupied Belorussia compared with other sections of the front. As June 1944 rolled around, an allied invasion of Western Europe became imminent which meant that the top Axis priority was preventing the Western Allies from forming a beachhead and pouring their army onto the mainland. As a result, a large Wehrmacht force was stationed along the ‘Atlantic Wall’, so there were no reserves left which could be deployed to reinforce the deteriorating condition on the Eastern Front. The stage was set for Germany’s disastrous defeat.
Symbolically, Operation Bagration was launched on the third-year anniversary of Operation Barbarossa; on the 22nd June 1944, the Germans were now being chased out of Belorussia as quickly as they had originally captured it. Now, victory was only a distant memory of the dying German Army.
The offensive began similar to how battles were raged in the First World War: With the intense shelling of enemy positions. After this was completed on the first day, the Red Army moved in for the kill by dealing heavy fire on weak points along the German front line, to then secure this captured territory with tanks. Four Red Army groups attacked simultaneously across the entire Belorussian front, which was enough to completely overwhelm Army Group Centre, who were pushed back 100 miles within the first week.
Reminiscent of their assault on Moscow in Winter 1941, the Germans had to abandon much of their heavy equipment in the retreat, except this time, there would be no chance to make up for lost ground.
In another echo to the past (although this time the roles were reversed), Hitler ordered that his troops stationed in the ‘fortress’ cities along the collapsing front that they were to not retreat under any circumstances, which allowed the advancing Red Army to encircle them. Within these German-controlled exclaves, the Red Army quickly choked the pocket, inflicting high casualties upon the defenders who had nowhere to run and only diminishing supplies to fend off the vengeful Soviets. One such fallen fortress, Bobruisk (some remains of which are pictured above), was said to have become a slaughterhouse.
By the end of the offensive – in as little as five weeks – the Soviets had advanced over 500 miles, entering the outskirts of Warsaw, Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia and East Prussia – the Third Reich itself. This marked the point where the Eastern Front would be primarily fought outside of the Soviet Union’s borders; a point where the Red Army would be bearing down on Nazi Germany and hastily devouring its greatest foe alive. In August 1944, Army Group North found itself isolated in the Baltic, whereas the situation in the Balkans turned to despair with Romania and Bulgaria soon backstabbing Hitler to join the Allies as soon as defeat for the Axis powers materialised on the horizon.
However, this priceless victory was paid at a steep cost; roughly 200,000 Red Army troops were killed, with over 500,000 wounded. Nevertheless, it was the defeated Germans who faced a greater loss of life, with nearly twice as many troops slain.
Operation Bagration would eclipse the German losses at Stalingrad, with twenty divisions destroyed, as well as over fifty being badly mauled by the Red Army.
The objective was fulfilled: Army Group Centre was obliterated.
The summer of 1944 became the most cataclysmic season for the Nazi regime; the Western Allies had – against the odds – successfully landed in Normandy, liberated France, then proceed to chase the Wehrmacht out of Belgium, pushing them behind the Rhine River line situated on the German border.
Meanwhile, as stated before, the Red Army was on the enemy’s doorstep, with an invasion, along with the total collapse of the Third Reich, becoming not a question of if – but when. For the allies, the war had been won.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
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