By the beginning of 1944, the Red Army clearly held the initiative on the Eastern Front. The campaign opened in January with offensives at Leningrad and the Ukraine. The Leningrad offensive broke the German siege and ended with Soviet forces on the Estonian border. The Ukrainian offensive ended after nearly all of the Ukraine had been regained and after a southern salient had been created that nearly reached L'viv (Lvov), with the Red Army threatening the borders of Poland and Czechoslovakia. In the process, these offensives destroyed five German armies, causing well over a million German casualties and untold equipment losses, and put pressure on Finland and Romania, Germany's allies.
Because of these successes, particularly in the Ukraine, German leader Adolf Hitler believed the Soviet summer offensive would continue from the Ukraine. The Soviets needed favorable terrain for mechanized operations, and two options seemed the most advantageous for them. First, they could push west from Ukraine and then south, removing Romania and its resources from German reach. Second and most likely they could push west and then north toward the Baltic to cut off both Army Group Center in the Belorussian "bulge" and Army Group North along the Baltic coast. A direct thrust in the north seemed possible but provided less strategic advantage, and an attack into Belorussia against Army Group Center seemed least likely because of the poor road network and the restrictive terrain in the forests and the Pripet marshes.
The Soviets considered roughly the same options and chose the Belorussian thrust primarily because the others would leave large German forces on the Soviet flanks and because an assault straight into Belorussia would free the Soviet territory that remained occupied. In many respects, Operation bagration was the reverse of Operation barbarossa, fought over many of the same battlefields.
Arrayed against Field Marshal Ernst Busch's Army Group Center were four Soviet fronts (army group equivalents). From north to south were the 1st Baltic Front and the 3rd, 2nd, and 1st Belorussian Fronts, commanded by Generals Ivan Bagramyan, Ivan Chernyakhovsky, Georgii Zakharov, and Konstantin Rokossovsky, respectively. In addition, Soviet leader Josef Stalin appointed two veteran commanders as Stavka (Soviet High Command) special representatives—Marshal Georgii Zhukov overseeing the 1st and 2nd Belorussian Fronts and Marshal Aleksandr Vasilevsky coordinating operations of the 1st Baltic and 3rd Belorussian Fronts. The Soviet fronts counted 168 divisions, plus a large Belorussian partisan movement. Army Group Center numbered only 54 divisions.
German intelligence keyed on identifying main thrusts by the location of Soviet tank armies, of which there were six in 1944. However, Soviet air supremacy and their own shortage of assets denied the Germans long-range aerial reconnaissance. German military intelligence was forced to rely on signals intercepts, and Soviet deception focused on disguising heavy reinforcements moving into Belorussia and tank concentrations behind the front lines.
Operation bagration began on 22 June with Soviet battalion- and company-sized infantry raids along the front probing for weaknesses while several divisions conducted major attacks to seize openings in the line. Between 23 and 28 June, the Red Army broke through German lines in six places and encircled large German forces at Vitebsk and Bobruisk, taking 20,000 prisoners. On 3 July, the Soviets, striking from two directions, entered Minsk, the Belorussian capital, capturing nearly 100,000 Germans east of the city.
After five weeks, the Red Army had advanced almost 360 miles while destroying Army Group Center. The operation ended inside Poland on the Vistula River. Between 23 June to 29 August 1944, along a more than 600-mile-wide front, the Soviets defeated Army Group Center and advanced from 300 to 360 miles. In the process, the Soviets destroyed 17 German divisions and 3 brigades; 50 German divisions lost over half their strength. The German army High Command's official figure of losses was about 300,000 men, or 44 percent of those engaged, but this number may be low. Soviet losses were also high, with more than 178,000 dead and missing (8 percent of the total force involved) and more than 587,000 sick and wounded.
The advance into Belorussia led to advances in other sectors of the front, the Ukraine, and Estonia and Latvia where Army Group North's link to other German forces was temporarily cut. Operation bagration was one of the greatest Soviet victories of the war and one from which German forces could never recover.
Arthur T. Frame
Connor, William M. "Analysis of Deep Attack Operations: Operation Bagration, Belorussia, 22 June–29 August 1944." Report, Combat Studies Institute, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, KS, March 1987.; Glantz, David M., and Harold S. Orenstein, eds. Belorussia, 1944: The Soviet General Staff Study. London: Cass, 2001.; Werth, Alexander. Russia at War, 1941–1945. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1964.; Zaloga, Steven. Bagration 1944: The Destruction of Army Group Centre. London: Osprey Books, 1996.