June 22nd, 1944 marked the third anniversary of the Operation Barbarossa, the devastating German attack on the Soviet Union. USSR came to the brink of destruction but managed to pull through. Three years later, the tables have been turned and it was Soviets’ turn to spring a massive assault against the Germans. 1.2 million soldiers, 4,000 tanks, 34,000 artillery pieces and 4,800 aircraft were poised for attack, waiting to be unleashed against an unsuspecting enemy. Just to put things into perspective, according to Glantz, German forces gathered for Operation Barbarossa in 1941 had 3,350 tanks and 2,770 aircraft.
Not only did Soviets achieve almost 2:1 advantage in human forces, they completely outnumbered Germans in every other aspect. On the day of the attack, German Army Group Center, a main target of the Operation Bagration, had 495 tanks, some 2,500 artillery pieces, and 602 aircraft. The formation was a mere shadow of its former glory, with a majority of its tanks sent south to counter an offensive German command was expecting, due to Soviet “maskirovka.” It was a term denoting Russian military deception and in Operation Bagration it worked flawlessly, completely deceiving German High Command, preoccupied with the Soviet offensive against Finland and Allied invasion of Normandy. It wasn’t until the third day of the Soviet deception that Hitler and his generals understood the full scope of the operation. By then, it was too late to save Army Group Center and it soon ceased to exist as a fighting force.
A massive artillery strike on an undocumented scale, including Katyusha rocket launchers nicknamed Stalin’s Organs by the German soldiers, preceded the infantry and armored units assault at thin German lines on a 200 km front. It was a textbook example of the Soviet deep battle doctrine, which envisioned a constant forward movement, as wave upon wave of fresh troops were being thrown at the enemy positions. For Stalin and Soviet generals, who cared little about the lives of their soldiers, it was a perfect strategy, the one that allowed them to keep constant pressure on retreating German troops and not allowing them to set up a strong defensive position. Hitler’s insistence on defending until the last man and the last bullet only complicated the already hopeless situation, forcing German commanders to give up mobile defenses, perhaps the only tactic that offered at least some hope of slowing down the Soviet steamroller.
By June 28, component units of Army Group Center, Fourth, Ninth, and Third Panzer Army were either destroyed or encircled. Hitler replaced the Army group commander Field marshal Ernst Busch with Walter Model, but the change in command didn’t help German troops in the field. The second phase of Operation Bagration begun on June 29th and resulted in the liberation of Minks and Polotsk. By the first week of July, the entire German front has collapsed and Model was struggling to establish a new defensive line near Lida with whatever troops managed to survive the Soviet onslaught. These forces were destroyed by the third phase of the Operation Bagration, which saw Soviets advance to Vistula River, Baltic republics, and East Prussia. A huge chunk of Soviet land and population were recovered from under German control.
Officially, Operation Bagration ended on August 19th, 1944. It was one of the biggest battles of World War 2. Germans suffered between 300,000 – 550,000 casualties, including some 100,000 to 150,000 prisoners of war. It was the single worst defeat in terms of losses Nazis have sustained on the Eastern front. About one-quarter of the entire Eastern Front personal was lost. A fact that out of 47 divisional and corps commanders 31 were lost testifies to the magnitude of the German defeat. To make things worse, at the same time on the Western Front Allies managed to encircle and destroy Falaise Pocket, eliminating 60,000 German soldiers and 500 tanks.
Soviet suffered even worse losses. Some historians claim that there were as much as 800,000 Soviet casualties, with almost 3,000 tanks destroyed and more than 800 aircraft lost. The difference is that German losses were irreplaceable, both in terms of manpower and equipment. On the other hand, Soviet replaced their casualties in time for the next round of operations, which brought them at the gates of Berlin.