The Decimation Of German Army Group Centre: Belarus 1944. Bagration.
German POW captured after Bagration made to march in Moscow in 1944
German soldiers captured at Bobruisk in 1944
Operation Bagration.The Sovjet Army under Stalin began offensive Bagration into Poland; in 6 weeks advanced 500 km to the Vistula. Three years to the day after Germany's 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union, the Red Army launched a massive offensive in Byelorussia. Codenamed 'Operation Bagration', this campaign climaxed five weeks later with the Red Army at the gates of Warsaw. The Wehrmacht's Army Group Centre was routed, a total of 17 Wehrmacht divisions were utterly destroyed, and over 50 other German divisions were shattered. It was the most calamitous defeat of the German armed forces in World War II.
And few in the West has even heard of it considering the fact that D-Day was chicken feed compared to Operation Bagration.
Mute witnesses to a fierce war. A destroyed German Panther in Belarus in 1944.
Among the Bealrus' large cities were Vitebsk and Orsha, Mogilev, Bobruisk and,of course, Minsk, the capital city of White Russia, from where the first Russian highway led through Smolensk to Moscow. In those summer days this entire country was to play an especially tragic role for hundreds of thousands of German soldiers.
Thus Army Group Center - at that time the strongest German army group - under its Commander in Chief Feldmarschall Busch occupied an extended, semi-circular, eastward-facing salient approximately 1,100 kilometers in length and held by four armies.
The northern wing from Polotsk consisted of the Third Panzer Army with IX,LII and VI Army Corps (nine divisions), in the center the Fourth Army with XXVII, XXXIX and XII Corps (nine divisions) and finally the Ninth Army with XXXV, XXXXI and LV Corps (ten divisions). The southern wing along the Pripyat Marshes was formed by the Second Army with three army corps.
Although previous experience tended to indicate that the Soviets would launch their new offensive against the eastward-projecting salient occupied by the Army Group Center, Hitler, and with him the entire High Command, assessed the situation quite differently. They expected an enemy offensive all right, but they calculated that it would be directed against Army Group North Ukraine from the area south of Kovel. It was anticipated that in doing so the Soviets would undertake to cut off the salient held by Army Group Center from the rear and then drive in the general direction of the Baltic, causing Army Group North's front to collapse.Thus the German High Command completely misinterpreted the situation.
Red Army soldiers pull a wounded comrade to safety
During the previous winter the Soviets had launched heavy attacks, especially near Vitebsk, but the Third Panzer Army had stood fast. The Soviets had also failed to achieve the desired success in five "highway battles" on the Minsk-Smolensk highway in the area of the front held by the German Fourth Army. Now, following the end of the heavy winter fighting, quiet settled over the front, a deceptive quiet.
The German troops were pleased - what soldier wouldn't be - their positions had been beefed up in every way possible, and they felt secure. Following the defensive successes of the winter the general mood was one of confidence. When relieved,the soldiers could rest in the rear areas and soldier's homes, swim in the rivers,there was leave, the supply service was functioning smoothly and the troops took the routine of positional warfare - the sentry duty, harassing fire and occasional enemy advances - in stride. What went on in the rear areas with the partisans interested few, there were security divisions to deal with that.
The quiet held, but with his unfailing instinct the front-line soldier sensed that something was up "over there." There was something in the air. Prisoners brought in by patrols reported attack forces assembling behind the Soviet front, while agents provided similar information. Surveys by observation battalions identified powerful new artillery units in several sectors.
Red Army soldiers fires across a Belarus river
By mid-June the Red Army was ready. Once again it possessed a tremendous superiority, with which it was about to fall upon the three German armies and their twenty-eight divisions on a 700- kilometer front.
During the night of June 21/22 the Soviet Air Force launched massive attacks on every large city in the combat zone. At the same time partisans began a campaign of sabotage against German railroads in the rear areas. 10,500 sections of track were blown, although 3,500 mines were removed from the roadbeds before they went off. As a result of these demolitions, the largest partisan operation to date, almost all German rail traffic was cut for twenty-four hours or more. In addition, communications cables along the highway, which ran to the army group,were destroyed at many locations.
Brutal street fighting in Vitebsk in 1944
TRAGEDY AT VIBETSK
Then another call from Zeitzler: The Führer has decided that Vitebsk is to beheld as a "fortified place." The three divisions are to allow themselves to be surrounded.
The 26th of June, filled with fighting like the day before, began with the rising of the blood-red sun. LIII Corps began its breakout. At 0830 a German reconnaissance aircraft reported the leading elements of the corps about ten kilometers southwest of Vitebsk. At 1210 Feldmarschall Busch sent another radio message to the 206th Division, ordering that all elements still in Vitebsk were to fight and hold out to the last man. It was the last confirmed radio contact with the city. Aerial reconnaissance reported German troops at various locations in the Vitebsk area moving toward the west and southwest. Fighting between small groups of German troops and enemy forces was observed at several lake narrows. Another report came in that there were larger German concentrations in the villages and woods along the road ten to fifteen kilometers southwest of Vitebsk, and that the area was the scene of fighting and enemy air attacks.
The commander of the 206th Division, Generalleutnant Hitter, had no thought of defending Vitebsk to the last man. On the afternoon of the 26th he reached the decision to break out of the burning, smoking city. Hitter's troops set out that evening at 2200, taking the wounded along in several horse-drawn vehicles and a prime mover. The assault teams leading the way failed to break through. They were intercepted by Russian blocking units and surrounded. A final charge with fixed bayonets failed. In a small wood the survivors were either killed or captured.
Late on the morning of the same June 27 a radio message from LIII Corps advised that it had broken through several enemy positions in continuing its breakthrough thirteen kilometers southwest of Vitebsk. The troops were suffering heavily from enemy air attacks and ammunition was running low... It was the last radio message from the corps.
The desperate battle by the remnants of LIII Corps, individual battle groups and smaller units, ended in the villages and forests fifteen to twenty kilometers southwest of Vitebsk. A few small groups were able to save themselves. Following long, arduous journeys on foot the survivors reached the German lines, where they described the fate which had befallen the rest of the corps.
Russian tanks trundle past dead German soldiers. Belarus 1944.
GRAPHIC ACCOUNT OF THE WAR: DECIMATION OF THE THIRD PANZER ARMY
GRAPHIC ACCOUNT OF THE WAR: DECIMATION OF THE THIRD PANZER ARMY
The events of those days were described by an Obergefreiter of the 505th Army Pionier Battalion
"Our battalion was assigned to the 246th Infantry Division and built a spar bridge over the Düna between Polotsk and Vitebsk. The bridge was planned for the supply of the Third Panzer Army. The spars were already standing and the bridge was provisionally passable. The thunder of guns had been heard in the distance from the direction of the front since June 22 and there were many Russian aircraft to be seen in the sky.This did not concern us greatly. Enemy attacks on both sides of Vitebsk were nothing new, this had happened often in the past. The number of enemy aircraft was unusual though.On June 23, before it got dark, the Spieß ordered us to fall in.
The company commander, Oberleutnant Krause, appeared and reported on the situation: During the night we were to dig in at the north end of the half-finished bridge over the Düna, on which we had been working, to guard against its possible seizure by the enemy.I managed to snatch two hours sleep, then we moved out. The battalion staff was ahead of us. The night was filled with the distant sound of fighting, and the horizon was lit by gunfire, bursting shells and fires.
The three companies of our battalion reached the bridge unhindered.
In front of the bridge hastily moved in infantry and Luftwaffe troops were already digging foxholes. We, too, dug in. Out of a sense of urgency the bridgehead was established before midnight. Meanwhile vehicle after vehicle rolled across the bridge heading south. As we crouched in our holes facing north orders came down that the bridgehead and the bridge were to be held until all of the units had passed through and reached safety.Some time later we pioniers were assembled once again. 'To the bridge!' The flow of trucks, guns and horse-drawn supply trains across the bridge the day before and throughout the night had left it in a sad state, especially since it had not quite been completed before the Russian offensive began. It had also already suffered damage from enemy air attacks.
Our job now was to shore up the bridge for the new stresses it was expected to have to bear.The first Russian aircraft appeared with the dawn and soon the first bombs were falling. Then more aircraft came. The Russian Air Force appeared on a scale never before experienced during the war. Bombs hailed down on the bridge, but fortunately most of them landed in the water. Vehicles continued to rumble across the bridge. Enemy forces were already around the bridgehead and these now opened fire with artillery.Vast numbers of troops with their equipment were backed up before the bridge waiting to cross. Officers shouted and brandished their pistols, each wanted his unit to be the first across.
Our company and the other companies of the battalion worked under fire. I was assigned to be company messenger and had to take the company's requests for material to the south bank, where the command post was located.I can't remember how many times I crossed the bridge under enemy fire, perhaps ten times over and back. Dead pioneers lay where they had been hit, an axe, a saw or a hammer still beside them. I sought cover behind them. Several times I lay there for half an hour or longer, unable to rise, while shell fragments splintered the beams and hits tore apart the superstructure. When the firing abated medics ran onto the bridge to the screaming wounded, and I ran to the command post or to the work detail.
Late in the morning the Russians attacked with tanks. They were beaten off and were unable to break into the bridgehead. But from then on the T-34s stayed within sight of the bridge and kept it under direct fire.On top of it all it was a clear day with its roasting summer heat.Still a continuous flow of men and trucks and horses raced across the bridge. Whatever was hit by enemy fire was tipped over the side.That evening the bridgehead was still holding but the bridge itself had become impassable for motor and horse-drawn vehicles.
Under the enemy fire the bridge was being swept away from the pioniers piece by piece. Dead men and horses floated among the beams and posts, while wounded clung to pieces of wood.'Pioniers fall in!' came the order. There were not many left to assemble. Those still alive took their rifles and disappeared to the south bank of the Düna. Hand over hand we crossed the battered bridge, which was hanging into the water and under continuous enemy fire. Now and again someone fell into the water or was wounded.After us came the troops who had been defending the bridgehead.The rearguards stayed behind, however, and were shot or captured
Great quantities of war materiel, horses, vehicles and ammunition had to be left behind. We could see it lying and standing on the north bank of the river, mostly intact and fully useable by the enemy.Beyond the south bank we ran across an open field, pursued by enemy close-support aircraft. The enemy stood all along the north bank firing at us. The wounded were tended to but were no longer taken along.Save yourself if you can was the new watchword. The Russians were said to have crossed the Düna somewhere else and were already ahead of us. My friend Feichtinger and I found a motorcycle and sidecar and drove off across the dry, open plain.The first Russian soldiers appeared, there was only a few of them.But the enemy had in fact crossed the river already.
We drove several more kilometers and spotted more Russians, about two battalions or more, ahead of us and to the sides. Their tanks swarmed out of the evening horizon everywhere, including to the west of us.There was an outburst of rifle fire and our machine was hit. We left the motorcycle where it was, having no time to destroy it, and ran off on foot. Like rabbits before the hunt we raced across the field as bullets chirped all around us. There were many other soldiers with us. The enemy fire so intensified that one could not hear the individual shots above the whistling, there was just a rising and falling buzzing and whirring. When it became too bad I threw myself to the ground. There were plenty of others on the ground, but many of them did not get up
When we were out of the heaviest rifle fire there followed mortar and artillery fire. Despite all the losses more and more followed.Everyone who could get away did so.Then several air attacks. Squadron after squadron raced over the ground at low level, fighters and close-support aircraft. They attacked with fragmentation bombs and machine-guns. I lost sight of my friend Feichtinger. I didn't know where he was, and didn't see him fall.We escaped the enemy fire in the twilight, and the damned aircraft,too, left us in peace. Everyone was feeling the effects of hunger and terrible thirst, and the many stuck and abandoned vehicles were scoured for food and drink.We assembled in a wood. Orders passed among the cluster of troops to had got this far. Numbers of units were called out. In this way I made contact my the company, or at least what was left of it. There were barely ten men from the battalion's other two companies. The battalion staff no longer existed.Our company commander was still there, though, as was the Spieß
I'm not exactly sure how many there were, perhaps thirty or forty men.I searched in vain for my friend Feichtinger.A large number of troops had assembled in the dark wood, at least several thousand men. There were also some soldiers from the divisions which had broken out from Vitebsk, some of whom had reached safety over our bridge. There were also many vehicles there and several tanks and assault guns, but they were almost out of ammunition.
A General came with several officers and informed us that we were surrounded. The Russians had crossed the Düna northwest of us while we were still holding the bridge. They had also come from the southeast over the land bridge between the Düna and Dniepr. The word was that at dawn we would attack in order to force a breakout to the west. Every soldier was to fight as an infantryman, no matter which branch of the service he belonged to. The infantry attack would have to smash a breach in the enemy lines, then the tanks and assault guns would follow up to complete the breakthrough.
Our chances were good, said the General. It was expected that we would meet only light security forces. Everything not needed for the breakthrough was to be destroyed.Before midnight the Russians began to lay harassing fire from artillery and Stalin Organs on the wood. It was impossible to sleep. I sought cover behind tree trunks, but had to constantly change positions,listening for the howling of incoming shells before leaping behind the nearest thick tree or into a depression in the ground. Wounded screamed.
They faced the worst fate of all. Anyone who could not walk had to be left behind.The morning of July 26 came and we assembled for the assault.There was no artillery to prepare our attack, as the guns and ammunition had already been blown up. We were told that we were to break through the Russian line of security in a surprise attack. All we had left was light machine-guns and our small arms. I still had my rifle with about forty rounds, as well my steel helmet and light pack.
Silently the soldiers, among them members of the Luftwaffe and Luftwaffe field divisions, walked into the starting position at the forest edge. Behind them were the Russian volunteer auxiliaries, men and women. What faced them if we failed to get through would be worse than death.No medics followed the assault groups, there was no longer any sense. The badly wounded could not be taken along. Those with minor wounds were helped by their nearest comrades, but the more seriously wounded had to be left behind. Many of the decimated units went to the attack without officers, there were none left.
Our company commander, Oberleutnant Krause, was still with us, however.As it became light we left the cover of the wood and worked our way forward, creeping and crawling. On a rise we could see the heaps of dirt belonging to a Russian position. Those at the front leapt to their feet and charged the position with loud shouts. Everywhere behind them figures in field gray, blue-gray and camouflage uniforms stood up.Enemy fire began to whip toward us. Shouts of hurray mingled with the screams of the wounded. The heaps of earth were like a fire-spitting wall.
The first assault wave fell, the second hesitated and went to ground.The surprise attack had failed.We worked our way forward in stages under enemy fire. Nearly every man who stood up was hit. The Russians were firing into our attack with rifles, machine-guns, mortars, anti-tank guns and, soon, artillery.These were no weak pickets. The enemy had obviously been expecting our breakout and had fortified the area during the night. A shell fragment ripped up the company commander's back. Luckily I was able to drag him to a small, shallow ravine without being hit myself. A comrade tossed me a packet dressing. I dressed the chief's wound, as I had done to so many others before. When the fire had abated somewhat, two of us pulled him behind a bush and from there back to the cover of the wood.
The Oberleutnant had been badly wounded and did not recognize me.I don't know if he survived his wounds and captivity. I saw him for the last time in the wood. He was a good officer. We left him with the other seriously wounded.A Major I did not know appeared and got us moving again. My friend and I went back to the forest's edge, ran from its cover and threw ourselves down in one of the ragged skirmishing lines, in which living and dead, wounded and unwounded lay side by side. A new attack was ordered. A young Leutnant tried to lead the way. 'Let's go men, only another fifty meters! Everyone follow me!' A number of men jumped up to follow him - and fell with him.Individual soldiers repeatedly made attempts to work their way toward the hill. They were shot down or forced to take cover. Some tried to approach the enemy positions with hands raised, but they, too, were shot. Our assault guns did not leave the cover of the forest, probably because they had no ammunition.Another charge, again murderous fire, more losses.
We were forced to take cover again at once. No one made it to the top of the rise. All of those still alive pressed themselves into the ground and tried to find cover. Finally the enemy fire was so heavy that it drowned out the cries of the wounded. The Soviets were now firing on the slope with everything they had, even though there was no one left standing.I lay among the dead, living and wounded under the blazing sun, not moving and almost without any sensory perception. I no longer felt my thirst or the heat. To stand up meant certain death. I lay there until afternoon, when the firing and bursting shells began to abate. The Russians probably realized that they were not going to be attacked again,because they had already eliminated most of us. Finally the firing stopped.
A little later I saw several soldiers to my right get up without being fired upon. Then I stood up, too feeble and shaky to still be afraid of surrendering.I saw hundreds of dead comrades lying on the long slope. There were few complaints from the wounded, because most of them had been hit more than once, often a third or fourth time ..."
The optimist. A German soldier gives a Jagdpanther a fresh coat of paint. Belarus June 1944.
A Soviet ISU-152 self-propelled gun move past dead German soldiers in Polotsk
Russian warplanes attack a German column in Belarus. With the Luftwaffe virtually absent from Russian skies, Soviet planes had a free run.
German soldiers. The Wehrmacht was in a similar situation after Operation Bagration in 1944.
Destroyed German war material strewn on the side of the Vitebsk highway.
A destroyed German gun and a German grave in Belarus.
Questioning captured German officers
Red Army soldiers move into Polotsk.
Interrogation of a captured German officer.