Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
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Minsk, Battle for (27 June–9 July 1941)

Large German encirclement operation on the Eastern Front. Under Adolf Hitler's Führer Directive 21 for the invasion of the Soviet Union, Operation barbarossa, Army Group Center had responsibility for the destruction of Soviet forces in Belorussia. The Germans considered this an essential prerequisite to subsequent drives on Leningrad and Moscow. Toward that end, when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union on 22 June, Field Marshal Fedor von Bock's Army Group Center was the most powerful of the three German army groups. Bock commanded three field armies, along with two of the four available panzer groups. His southern wing, charged with advancing just north of the Pripet Marshes, consisted of Field Marshal Günther von Kluge's Fourth Army of 21 infantry divisions and Colonel General Heinz Guderian's 2nd Panzer Group of one cavalry, five panzer, and three panzergrenadier divisions. In the north, attacking from East Prussia, Colonel General Adolf Strauss's Ninth Army had 12 infantry divisions and Colonel General Hermann Hoth's 3rd Panzer Group had four panzer and four panzergrenadier divisions. In reserve, Bock had Colonel General Maximilian von Weichs's Second Army. To support his ground effort, Bock could rely on the largest German air fleet on the Eastern Front at the time, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring's 1,000-aircraft Second Luftflotte.

Bock's invading German forces were actually matched in terms of numbers and matériel by the Soviet Western Front, consisting of four armies commanded by Colonel General Dimitry G. Pavlov. Unfortunately for the Soviets, three of these armies—the Third, Fourth, and Tenth—were positioned in the westward-protruding Bialystok salient, which turned into a trap for them. The Soviet Thirteenth Army was more to the east, near Minsk.

Pavlov, however, was handicapped not only by manpower dispositions that had been forced on him but by Defense Commissar Marshal Semen Timoshenko's Directive No. 3 that required all fronts, regardless of circumstance, to take the offensive. In the event of a German invasion, the Northwestern and Western Fronts were to launch coordinated attacks from Kaunas and Grodno, respectively. But the front commanders, despite having two mechanized corps each, were unable to mount a coordinated offensive. Still, General Pavlov appointed Lieutenant General Ivan Boldin to form a "shock group" and attack south of Grodno, near Brest. But Boldin soon found promised support unavailable and a German encirclement of his forces a distinct possibility.

Disgusted with Pavlov, Timoshenko replaced him with Lieutenant General Andrei I. Yeremenko. In the meantime, Timoshenko ordered Pavlov to hold Minsk and the Slutsk Fortified District with the Thirteenth Army and his second-echelon mechanized corps.

Pavlov was then ordered to withdraw his armies from the Bialystok salient, where they were now threatened by Hoth's 3rd Panzer Group sweeping around Minsk from the north through Vilno-Molodechno, while Guderian's 2nd Panzer Group drove around the city from the southwest through Baranovichi. On the night of 25–26 June, Pavlov ordered his four armies to withdraw east, but this plan succeeded no better than his earlier offensive. Hoth had torn a 60-mile gap between the retreating Eleventh Army of the Soviet Northwest Front moving to the northeast and the Third Army of the Western Front retreating southeast by attacking along the frontal boundary. Boldin's force, aiding Major General K. D. Golubev's Tenth Army, pleaded for an air drop of fuel and ammunition. By 26 June, it had withdrawn into thick forest south of Minsk. Pavlov had assigned Fourth Army the task of holding Shchara and defending the Slutsk Fortified District in the southwest, only to discover Slutsk had sent all its weapons to Brest.

The Battle for Minsk was joined by 26 June as Pavlov withdrew with his staff to Moghilev, leaving the weak Thirteenth Army to defend Minsk, even as the inner encirclement progressed as part of the "double battle of Bialystok-Minsk." Slutsk fell to the Germans the next day as the German spearheads raced toward the Berezina River. Pavlov's Third and Tenth Armies were withdrawing toward Minsk, hoping to break the inner encirclement despite having little ammunition, but both were cut off by 28 June, along with Thirteenth Army. Pavlov's pride, the VI Mechanized Corps—a unit that began the campaign with more than 1,000 tanks—was shattered, its commander killed.

On 29 June, Yeremenko took command from Pavlov, who was sent to Moscow. Meanwhile, Yeremenko lost the race to the Berezina to the German panzers. The savaged Soviet Western Front was scattered over a 200-mile area, as Minsk had fallen on 29 June. By 9 July, German mopping-up operations ended. In the operation, the Germans claimed to have destroyed five Soviet armies and taken nearly 324,000 prisoners, 1,809 guns, and 3,332 tanks.

The Soviets, led by surviving commanders such as Boldin, took advantage of the spring rains and managed to break out about 300,000 men. Although Josef Stalin's inept decisions had contributed greatly to the Soviet military failures to that point, Pavlov was made the scapegoat for the Minsk disaster and shot, along with Fourth Army commander General A. A. Korobkov and XLI Rifle Corps commander General I. S. Kosobutsky, both of whom had managed to escape the German trap. Smolensk was the next German objective.

Claude R. Sasso and Spencer C. Tucker

Further Reading
Clark, Alan. Barbarossa: The Russian-German Conflict, 1941–1945. New York: Quill, 1965.; Erickson, John. The Road to Stalingrad. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1983.; Yeremenko, A. The Arduous Beginning. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1966.

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