June 22, 2014 will be the 70th anniversary of the beginning of Operation Bagration, when the Russians broke the back of the mighty Wehrmacht, the German army. It’s not very well known in the West, partly due to the drama of D-Day, partly because of the Cold War and perhaps mainly because until perestroika the records of the Red Army were inaccessible to historians outside the USSR. But it’s well known to Germans. More of them were left there than on any other field with the possible exception of the Stalingrad campaign. Bagration was the most massive defeat ever inflicted on the Wehrmacht, the most massive success ever achieved by Russia’s Red Army, and probably the most underappreciated war changing event of WW2.
Military history isn’t easy to understand. It’s complicated, the terminology difficult, the concepts counter-intuitive. Plus people get killed. Sometimes lots and lots of people, and you can see why that bothers the average reader. So basically it’s difficult to comprehend for the vast majority of people because there’s no way to visualize it without being confused or grossed out. So let’s picture it this way. The Soviet Union and Nazi Germany are teams in the National Football League. It’s been a rough game. The Germans blitzed the Russians in the first quarter. The Russians held their own in the second and scored big as the clock ran out. The third quarter was a brutal slugfest but the Russians wound up dominating the field. In the fourth, after the kickoff the two teams met at the fifty yard line. The Nazis misread the Russian signals, the ball was snapped, there was a cloud of dust, and the only German players left standing were running for their lives towards their own end zone. That play was Operation Bagration.
The Russians managed a surprise attack along a front of several hundred miles–the entire central portion of the Russian Front, what the Germans had designated as their Army Group Center–and blitzed through with remarkable speed. The Red Army achieved massive superiority wherever they attacked (ten Russian tanks to every one German tank, for example) and the German army units facing them were annihilated. Many divisions were completely destroyed. Nearly all the rest were reduced to remnants. Vehicles–from Tiger tanks to trucks to horse carts–were destroyed or abandoned. There are stunning photos of roads littered with equipment that had been left pell mell as the retreating columns were overrun by Russian tanks and blown apart by waves of Russian aircraft, like negatives of photographs taken on the same roads in 1941.
Indeed by 1944 the Russians had such control of the skies on the Russian Front that German units could move only by night, and in June the darkness lasted only a few hours, leaving the retreating Germans visible for twenty hours a day. The Russian air force was merciless. Tank busting Sturmovik ground attack aircraft destroyed German vehicles by the hundreds. And then behind German lines in the woods and marshes were hundreds of thousands of partisans, organized, well armed and devastatingly effective. Between the Red Army, Red Air Force and the partisans, the Germans were under assault by Russian forces on all sides, front, flank, rear, from above and even from inside, where partisans popped up out nowhere.
Some of the German forces took refuge in towns and cities, giving them some respite from tanks, planes and partisans, but trapping them far behind the advancing Russian armies. They either surrendered–fifty thousand were taken at Minsk–or were destroyed by Russian infantry and artillery in vicious urban conflict. Among the units making their escape west, the renowned German military discipline often disintegrated, turning a thorough defeat into a panicky rout. The degree of the collapse is borne out by the losses among general officers–never before had so many German generals–thirty one of Army Group Center’s forty seven division and corps commanders–been killed or captured in one campaign. Three weeks into the offensive a triumphant Stalin had those fifty thousand German prisoners from Minsk paraded, twenty abreast, through Red Square. The humiliation must have been total, even surreal. Afterward the streets where they’d marched were washed down, an insult if there ever was one.
Those prisoners were but a fraction, though, of the German losses throughout the offensive. In a two month period, from June 22 though August, a half million German soldiers of Army Group Center were lost–killed, captured, wounded. That is a loss of fifty percent. And the damage went deep. When divisions surrendered en masse, and when Russian tanks overran rear areas, officers, non-coms, specialists, skilled mechanics, logistics experts, administrators, instructors, and medical personnel were killed or captured. The bones and sinew of a military machine, lost forever. You can’t replace those people with 17 year old conscripts. Conscripts don’t know anything, and the people who would have taught them were dead or being paraded through Red Square.
The Russian offensive ran out of steam two months later outside Warsaw, hundreds of miles west of where it started. Russian casualties (as always) had been high, the soldiers were exhausted, tanks worn out, supply lines over reached. The Red Army units settled down on the eastern bank of the Vistula river to regroup and rest and rearm. It had reconquered all of Belarus–left utterly ruined by the Nazi administration and the retreating Wehrmacht, evoking promises of revenge by the Red Army–and half of Poland. That’s a lot of Lebensraum. To the south the Balkan front caved in throughout autumn all the way to Hungary. And in the west, the Allied forces at last broke into the open and virtually annihilated another German army, the survivors running till they reached the German border and dug in. Meanwhile in Prussia an attempt was made on Hitler’s life (Operation Valkyrie they called it) by Wehrmacht officers who could read the writing on the wall. It failed. Retribution was savage. And in Warsaw Stalin let the Nazis put down the rebellion by the Polish Home Army. The Russians watched it all from across the Vistula. It would have been so easy to intervene, but Stalin had no use for the Poles in charge. He had his own plans for Poland. The Germans leveled Warsaw block by block, adding it to the long list of cities utterly destroyed during Operation Bagration. Nazi nihilism and Soviet realpolitik came together that summer on the banks of the Vistula. But Warsaw, like Valkyrie, was only a sideshow.
After Operation Bagration Hitler no longer had any way to prevent the Russians from conquering Germany. It was simply a matter of time. So it’s a lucky thing for the western allies that we did land on June 6. Luckier still that we broke out of Normandy when we did and in such spectacular fashion. We’d been bogged down in the hedgerows while the Russians were moving twenty miles a day through the German armies. It is said–you heard it over and over this past June 6–that D-Day was the beginning of the end of the Third Reich. It wasn’t. The beginning of the end was June 22 in Belarus. We helped. Operation Overlord was hard fought, costly, and in the long run, a decisive Allied victory and complete humiliation for the German Army in France. But in terms of scale, Operation Bagration, like everything on the Russian Front, was much larger, the fighting more violent, the destruction more total, the losses much larger. It was war on a scale that matched all the other theatres of WW2 put together. When two giant totalitarian civilizations fight to the death, everything else pales. And with Operation Bagration the Soviets delivered the mortal wound. The Reich would survive ten more months, and would even manage one last offensive in the west, the Battle of the Bulge, and attempt one disastrously around Budapest, but they were the thrashings of a dying animal.
I say it was lucky for the Allies that we landed when we did because I think the real significance of the Normandy invasion was that it put the western democracies back on the continent. And just in time. After Bagration the Third Reich was effectively over, it was just a matter of when. It still functioned as a state, the Final Solution roared full blast, and it kept churning out cannon fodder (another million of whom died, mostly in Poland and the eastern provinces of Germany), but there was absolutely nothing the Germans could do that would keep the Red Army from rolling all the way to the Rhine. Even if Overlord had never happened and all the panzer divisions and Waffen SS and veteran infantry units in France had been transferred east, the Russians would only have been delayed. Perhaps the remnants of Army Group North trapped on Latvia’s Courland Peninsula till the end of the war would have managed to escape before the Red Army reached the Baltic and cut them off. Perhaps East Prussia and Silesia could have held out a little longer. Perhaps.
But at most that would have delayed the Russians two or three months. The remaining German armies in the East–full of old men and Hitler Youth armed with rifles captured from the Belgians and French and Dutch and whomever–were just stopgaps. In January of 1945 the Red Army rolled from Warsaw to the outskirts of Berlin, annihilating another German army group. In April they attacked again, taking Berlin and stopping only when they came into contact with the Western Allies—the American, British, French, and Canadian armies pushing east as fast as the autobahns could carry them. It was only then that Germany surrendered. But Germany would not have surrendered after the fall of Berlin had the western allies not been on the continent, or more realistically had we invaded later in the summer or early autumn and still been fighting in France. Hitler would not have shot himself in the Fuhrerbunker, not with all his wonder weapons and fantasies and SS and Hitler Youth fanatics. He would have had Himmler and Goebbels and Goering and Bormann and all the rest with him, he would have had Speer to keep the last factories running, and V-2 rockets and ME262 jet fighters, and some excellent generals. They would have put together one last rag tag line west of Berlin to defend the string of bombed out cities, concentration camps, frightened people, slave laborers, and Nazi officials that made up the Third Reich. And then the Russians would have utterly destroyed that line in the middle of summer and pushed on to the Rhine. All of Germany would have been under Stalin’s control, one big German Democratic Republic. That is something to wonder about. East Germany went from Nazism to Stalinism almost instantly…it proved a far easier transition than denazification and democracy. Would it have been the same though out a united Germany under Soviet control? We had to build up West Germany’s institutions from the ground up. In East Germany all they did was change the name on the door.
Seventy years later all that remains of Hitler’s empire in the east are the dead. The Russian dead fill graveyards by the millions, soldiers, civilians, entire populations of Jews. There are also hundreds of thousands of German soldiers buried in cemeteries in the former Soviet Union. That’s remarkably decent of the Russians, considering. Belarus hasn’t been quite so forgiving. Nazi rule was especially brutal there. A quarter, maybe even a third of the population died. Virtually all the Jews were murdered. Nearly half of the population forced from their homes. Nine thousand villages reduced to scorched earth. If you had to pick one land where the Third Reich reached its zenith of barbarity, that place would be Belarus (with Poland a close second). Even so, hundreds of thousands of German soldiers’ remains have been located and disinterred and reburied. Some go home. Some go to cemeteries established in Russia just for German war dead. And they find another forty thousand a year. It’s all done quietly, no parades, no speeches. The authorities in Minsk say they know the whereabouts of another hundred thousand or so German remains. The vast majority would have died during Operation Bagration. Belarus must be thick with them. They must litter the forest, those German bones. I suppose they must be buried. Loose bones seem to make us nervous, no matter what side they were once on.