Posted: 13.06.2024 10:05:09

Operation that shook the world

Operation Bagration — prerequisites and significance for the outcome of the Second World War

The Byelorussian offensive, commonly known as Operation Bagration, marks its 80th anniversary this year. It had no equal in spatial scope during the Great Patriotic War and is rightfully considered an outstanding achievement of the Soviet military art. The defeat of the most powerful Wehrmacht grouping in the shortest possible time — from June 23rd to August 29th, 1944 — enabled the Red Army, with the support of partisans,  not only to liberate Byelorussia from occupation, but also to significantly undermine the enemy’s forces, bringing the collapse of fascism closer and paving the way for total victory.

                                 The President of Belarus, 
                              Aleksandr Lukashenko,

“The offensive operation Bagration is rightfully called the triumph of the Soviet military art. This battle went down in history as the largest defeat of the fascist troops in the Second World War. About 400,000 soldiers, officers, generals of the Wehrmacht and SS were killed and captured. They were shown to the whole world as they were made to walk a march of shame through the Red Square, where the traces of German boots were immediately washed away with water. It would do good for the newly-minted Nazis to review that newsreel footage. They want to forget, but you and I must not let them do it. No one must forget that. We must not forget so that it does not happen again.”

During the wreath and flower laying ceremony at the Mound of Glory memorial complex, on July 3rd, 2023 

Hitler starts and loses

The liberation of Byelorussia after three years of occupation was not an easy task for military experts of that time. Judge for yourself. By the spring of 1944, Soviet troops had already managed to push back the invaders from besieged Leningrad, retake Crimea, almost completely liberate Ukraine and reach the border with Romania. However, the enemy fortified the territory of Byelorussia with special care. The front line had the shape of an east-extending arc with an area of about 250,000 square kilometres, and was deeply wedged into the location of the Soviet troops. It was also called the Byelorussian Balcony, a salient that overhung the Soviet troops in Ukraine and prevented them from developing an offensive in the direction of Minsk, Warsaw, and Berlin. The heavily armed Germany’s Army Group Centre was sitting relatively calmly on that ‘balcony’. Hitler even arrogantly declared Vitebsk, Orsha, Mogilev, Polotsk and Bobruisk ‘fortresses’ and believed that the Soviet troops would not be able to break through the echeloned defence line in difficult terrain. 
Moscow skilfully took advantage of the enemy’s complacency. The mood of the latter was timely and competently assessed by the Soviet command. Having worked out various options for action, the decision was taken to strike at the fascist flanks near Vitebsk from the north, and near Bobruisk from the south, as well as to cut off the enemy’s escape route in the Minsk area. The operation was called Bagration.
Important: the plans of the offensive developed in the spring of 1944 were kept carefully under wraps. A complete radio silence regime was introduced in the Byelorussian direction, the deployment of troops took place away from the front, and the construction of a long-term defence was simulated to divert the enemy’s attention. It was possible to form a decisive numerical superiority over the German grouping, and the Germans were caught off guard! 

Demonstration of capabilities

Battle ongoing on the streets of Polotsk,
In a little over two months of Operation Bagration, the Red Army pushed the once powerful Army Group Centre west by 550-600 kilometres. In addition to the liberation of our republic, a significant part of Lithuania, parts of Latvia and eastern regions of Poland were cleared of the enemy. Also, the conditions were created for the further advance of the Red Army into the German territory. 
For many decades, Western analysts have not ceased to admire the brilliant idea of the Soviet command and the direct participants in Operation Bagration. Thus, British military historian John Erickson in his book The Road to Berlin emphasised that the destruction of Army Group Centre by Soviet troops became ‘a catastrophe of unbelievable proportions, greater than that of Stalingrad’ for the German army. 
The rapid advance of the Red Army was evidence of the growing power of the Soviet Union for the West. Bagration was the first major offensive of the Red Army at a time when the armed forces of the United States and Great Britain had just begun military operations in Western Europe. As further history showed, the allies did not seize the initiative from the USSR, although 70 percent of the Wehrmacht’s ground forces continued to fight specifically on the Soviet-German front. Moreover, the German command transferred large strategic reserves from the west to our lands, which provided favourable conditions for the offensive actions of the allies after their troops landed in Normandy, and waging a coalition war in Europe.
The march of captured Germans held in Moscow on July 17th, 1944, known as the Parade of the Vanquished became one of the evidence of the crushing superiority of the Red Army in Operation Bagration. More than 57,000 German soldiers and officers, most of whom were captured in the summer by the troops of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Byelorussian Fronts, marched through the city centre. This way Soviet citizens were shown the scale of the Wehrmacht’s defeat.

Lightning-fast operation

Operation Bagration kicked off several days ahead of schedule — it was necessary to support the partisans who suffered from violent actions of punitive and regular units of Nazi occupiers. On June 22nd, 1944 — exactly on the third anniversary of the German attack on the USSR — Soviet troops conducted reconnaissance by fire, and as soon as on June 23rd the main strike groups of the Red Army went on the offensive.
During the first stage of Operation Bagration, five front-line operations were carried out: Vitebsk-Orsha, Mogilev, Bobruisk, Polotsk and Minsk. The enemy’s defence was breached throughout the entire tactical depth, which was accompanied by the breakthrough expanded to the flanks and the defeat of the nearest operational reserves. The Soviet troops were moving at breakneck speed for the Germans — an average of 20-25 kilometres per day! During the first 12 days of the offensive, the main forces of Army Group Centre were shattered. On July 3rd, a long-awaited event for all Byelorussians took place — the capital of the republic was liberated. In the districts of Vitebsk, Bobruisk and Minsk, a total of about 30 German divisions were surrounded and annihilated. The enemy’s front in the central direction was crushed.
The second stage of the largest offensive campaign included five more front-line operations: Šiauliai, Vilnius, Kaunas, Białystok and Lublin-Brest. The Soviet troops were tasked with developing success in depth, breaking through the enemy’s intermediate defensive lines, destroying its main operational reserves and occupying critical bridgeheads on the Vistula River. The goals set for the fronts were fully achieved. As a result, the general offensive front of the Soviet troops expanded from the Baltic Sea to the Carpathians. On July 17th-18th, Red Army units crossed the state border of the Soviet Union with Poland, and by August 29th reached a new strategic frontier — Jelgava, Dobele, Augustów, the Narew and Vistula Rivers.
Caught off guard by the sudden start of Operation Bagration, the vaunted German army did not recover from the shock either a day, a week, or a month after the launch of the offensive. One of the confirmations of this is the events that were taking place near Minsk in July 1944. Dozens of German divisions were trapped in a giant pocket there. There was a huge gap in the German defence, which the Wehrmacht command had nothing to close with. Moreover, the enemy had no idea where the Red Army would strike another painful blow. Therefore, the Hitlerite military command could not transfer a single division to block the bridgehead of the Western allies of the Soviet Union, who opened the second front in Normandy only on June 6th, 1944.

The feat of the people will live through centuries!

The events of the 1941-1945 Great Patriotic War have forever remained in the memory of Belarusians, and Operation Bagration became one of the key milestones in the modern history of our country. It is for a good reason that at the nationwide referendum on November 24th, 1996, our fellow citizens overwhelmingly supported the celebration of the Independence Day of the Republic of Belarus (Day of the Republic) on July 3rd — the Day of Belarus’ Liberation from Nazi invaders.

Our country, where every third person perished during the Great Patriotic War, has sites of memory dedicated to the events of those fiery years in every city and every district. About 10,000 monuments and graves are included in military-historical routes and excursions as places for reverence of the deceased and an eternal reminder about the priceless value of peace. However, there are in fact many more such sites of memory. 
Dozens of museums and hundreds of expositions glorifying the heroism of the victorious Soviet people and revealing the atrocities committed by the Nazis in the occupied land have been opened across the country. Nevertheless, even after almost eight decades, there are still quite a few gaps in the chronicle of the Great Patriotic War. Historians, students, volunteers, and just non-indifferent people are trying to eliminate them.
One of the manifestations of national memory is the unique Internet project Partisans of Belarus ( designed and developed by the Belarus Segodnya Publishing House in liaison with the National Archive of the Republic of Belarus. To date, it has been possible to collect on one virtual platform award sheets, fighting qualities and other documents of almost 220,000 partisans and underground movement members who contributed to the liberation of our republic. New names and archival documents are added to the historical record almost every day.