Operation Bagration began on June 22, 1944—three years to the day after the German invasion. The Red Army struck in the initial phase alone with 1.25 million men, more than 4,000 tanks and assault guns, more than 23,000 guns, mortars, and Katyushas, and almost 6,500 aircraft. Army Group Center simply disappeared so completely that it required years and decades to begin piecing together a coherent narrative of events in the first hours and days.
With only a single panzer division immediately available, any notion of a zone defense was illusory. The three panzer divisions transferred in were committed by battalions to stabilize critical situations, if only for a few hours. The army group’s assault guns desperately shifted from sector to sector, fighting by batteries and single vehicles to cover retreats and open escape corridors. Model relieved Busch on June 28. The best he could propose was to construct a new front around Minsk, stabilizing it with new divisions from Germany. But Hitler continued to insist on holding ground, hanging on to “strong points” existing in little more than name, and counterattacking at every opportunity. Some units tried to obey; others dismissed the directives as Soviet deception. At least one division commander committed suicide.
On June 30, Zeitzler, turning at the last like a stepped-on worm, refused to take responsibility for Hitler’s order to hold on in the Baltic despite what was happening to Army Group Center. By his own account at least, Zeitzler concluded by insisting the war was militarily lost and it was time to make an end. In the aftermath of the confrontation he collapsed. Whether from a heart attack or a nervous breakdown, the result was the same: an exacerbation of order-counterorder-disorder. Both the Führer and the High Command believed the “real” Soviet offensive in the Ukraine was yet to come. The fighting in Normandy was absorbing more and more of the Western theater’s mobile forces. Army Group Center was on its own.
Minsk went under on July 3 as the 5th Panzer Division and a Tiger battalion sought vainly to keep open the way west. By July 8, 5th Panzer was down to 18 operational tanks. Vilna’s garrison was authorized to break out only when Adolf Heusinger, who had temporarily replaced Zeitzler, urged Hitler to allow the surrounded men to choose how they wished to die. For two and a half years 3rd Panzer Army had been an armored army virtually without tanks. Now Reinhardt, last of the original panzer chieftains, remembered he had led a division before he became a colonel general. Taking command of elements of 6th Panzer Division, just arrived from reconstitution in Germany, he rode with the leading tanks, cut a 20-mile corridor through the Red Army to Vitebsk and brought out 3,000 survivors.
It was another fine piece of panzer soldiering—in a minor key. The Red Army did even better armored work on a decisive scale. On July 18, 1st Byelorussian Front drove two spearheads deep into Army Group Center’s southern sector, trapped most of 2nd Army, and headed for the Vistula. Driving into a near-vacuum, the Front’s vanguards reached the river on July 25; the first permanent bridgehead was established four days later.
If the frontline emergency was not enough, Heusinger was among those injured in the unsuccessful July 20 attempt on Hitler’s life. His successor as Chief of Staff (officially Acting Chief) was Heinz Guderian. He seems to have been at least aware of the assassination plot, and probably indirectly approved. Certainly Guderian authorized temporarily delaying the movement from Berlin to the Eastern Front of some armored units the conspirators intended to use to take control of the capital after Hitler’s death. On July 20 he took pains to be absolutely elsewhere: hunting by himself on his new estate in East Prussia. Though Guderian was able to sidestep the suspicion that fell on him, there seems to be little doubt that he would have served a new government with the same competence with which he continued to serve Hitler: a combination of ambition, opportunism, and patriotism, marinated in an increasing level of fatalism.
For the record Guderian referred to his appointment as a burden he felt compelled to accept. He briefly underwrote Hitler’s perspective by denouncing proposals for withdrawal as defeatism and pessimism. Whether that behavior reflected opportunistic gratitude for his promotion or lack of information on what was really happening in Russia remains unknown—perhaps even to Guderian himself.
The events of July 20 further complicated responding to a disaster reaching such dimensions that Hitler overlooked Model’s policy of breaking out encircled troops where possible and establishing a new, firm defensive line along the Vistula. Here again the panzers bore the weight of the action. Viking and Totenkopf Divisions were returning from brief stints in the rear after having been taken off the line in the Ukraine. The Skulls were Himmler’s pets because of their concentration camp origins, and he saw to it that the division received a full battalion of Panthers. Viking had no similar patron, but on August 1 it managed to field 64 tanks, two-thirds of them Panthers. Fourth Panzer Division, fresh from a long spell in France and Germany, was one of the only two fully equipped panzer divisions in Russia, with 80 Panzer IVs and the same number of Panthers. The newcomers’ battle groups managed to clear a path for 2nd Army’s more or less orderly retreat. They sustained enough fighting power to play vital roles as well in the second half of Model’s operational plan, a riposte aimed at the Red Army formations drawing up to the Vistula.
Soviet losses had been heavy; Soviet organizations had been disrupted by victory; Soviet logistics had been overextended by distance. These are usually cited as the operational reasons the Red Army slowed and stopped east of Warsaw. On the political side it is frequently asserted—and sometimes held as an article of faith—that Stalin ordered the halt in order to leave the Germans free to destroy the Polish Home Army, which rose on August 1 expecting Soviet support, and thereby facilitate Poland’s “liberation” as a Soviet satellite.
Hitler’s panzers also had a good deal to do with that course of events. Taking a chapter from Manstein’s book in the winter of 1942-43, Model pulled three panzer divisions out of the line, sacrificing ground to concentrate force. He added the newly arrived Parachute Panzer Division “Hermann Göring” to the blend, and hit the 2nd Tank Army from four sides at once in the open ground east of the Vistula with about 300 AFVs against 800. Clogged roads and disrupted rail schedules were almost a relief to staff planners able to turn their attention away from the dismal overall prospects. The result was a reduced version of another classic envelopment executed 60 miles north in 1914: the Battle of Tannenberg which destroyed an entire Russian army. Now SS, army, and Luftwaffe tankers fought side by side in a three-day battle that cost 2nd Tank Army two-thirds of its strength and perhaps threw Stavka and Stalin off at least part of their game.
The tragic events in Warsaw, the Wehrmacht’s savage suppression of the rising and the destruction of the city on Hitler’s orders, have understandably overshadowed this event. Soviet accounts are, equally understandably, silent on the subject. German records were lost or scattered. An outstanding piece of archival investigation, one of many by the Militärgeschichtliches Forschungsamt’s Karl-Heinz Frieser, makes the case against categorizing the event as just another rear-guard fight, another meaningless tactical victory for the panzers. In its aftermath, Soviet planning for the central sector shifted, returning to the proven pattern of coordinated frontal attacks.
This was done against Zukhov’s vehement urging to maintain the strategic/operational initiative by driving past Warsaw, toward the Baltic through East Prussia—not least in order to bring the war home to what Russia had long understood as Germany’s heartland. This bold stroke just might have finished the war in the east six months earlier. As it was, 30 German divisions were gone: 400,000 men—over 250,000 of those simply listed as “missing.” Army Group Center had time to stabilize its front—but that front now lay in Poland. And this comprehensive disaster invited others. Army Group North had been not merely outflanked but virtually isolated. Hitler insisted on holding a “Baltic Fortress” under attack by elements of four Soviet fronts, including numbers of new JS-IIs.
Army Group North had a veteran Tiger battalion, the 502nd. Its 30 tanks wreaked company-scale havoc wherever they appeared. In one fight, the first-ever encounter of Tigers and Stalins, the 2nd Company accounted for fifty JS-IIs and T-34s without a single loss. On another occasion, three Tigers knocked out 18 Soviet AFVs in one long summer evening. But the 502nd could not be everywhere at once. The army group’s 200 assault guns were needed to shore up the infantry. Demodernization had progressed so far that in some sectors, Landser took the chance of letting tanks roll over them in order to use satchel charges against their sides and decks—“poor man’s war” with a vengeance.
The result was predictable. On July 31, Red Army vanguards reached the Baltic Sea, the first stage of what became a 75-mile gap between Army Groups North and Center. The German response was also predictable: turn to the panzers. Third Panzer Army received an armored transfusion. Reinhardt had taken over the army group on August 16 when Model was transferred to the Western Front. Reinhardt’s replacement was Raus, no less capable a panzer general. Instead of bits and pieces, he had six divisions, including Grossdeutschland, newly arrived from Romania, plus an improvised task force with 60 tanks. Each one would be needed: as at Stalingrad, Army Group North was too overextended to do more than hold its ground as opposed to participating in a breakout.
What Raus did not possess was a viable plan. Hoping to catch the Russians off balance, the High Command sent in the panzers on such a broad front that mutual support was impossible. Raus and his staff officers were unable to drive forward an advance that opened no more than a narrow, fragile corridor to the trapped army group before grinding to a halt. Then instead of using the hard-won passageway as an escape hatch, Hitler funneled reinforcements through it—including a panzer division whose forlorn- hope assignment demonstrated Hitler’s determination to hold the Baltic to the end. And 3rd Panzer Army’s headquarters was eventually established in Willkischken, just on the Prussian side of the 1939 border with Poland. The Reich was steadily and inexorably receding.
Guderian and the High Command insisted Army Group North be authorized to break out and rejoin Army Group Center. The distance was still short enough, and the terrain sufficiently broken, that lack of armor was less of a handicap than had been the case elsewhere in such operations. As further incentive, a high proportion of the Army Group’s units and men came from the Reich’s eastern provinces and would be fighting for their homes and families. Hitler vetoed every proposal. In September, 15 Soviet armies, 1.5 million men and over 3,000 tanks and assault guns, struck Army Group North all along its line. Schörner, transferred in July to the Baltic and initially committed personally to holding on, nevertheless knew a lost hand when dealt one. He flew to Hitler’s headquarters and in an eloquent quarter of an hour convinced Hitler to allow a retreat. Abandoning Estonia, the army group pulled back into Courland.
On October 5, seven Soviet armies rolled over a 3rd Panzer Army again reduced to one of its titular divisions, driving its remnants westward and reaching the Baltic coast four days later. A series of frontal attacks in the next few weeks drove Army Group North inextricably into the Courland peninsula. They also forced using the available armor in detachments, dooming any unauthorized breakthrough before it started. The eventually renamed Army Group Courland had the 12th and 14th Panzer Divisions and enough assault guns and tank destroyers to field initially around 250 AFVs on a good maintenance day. By November 1, 14th Panzer Division was down to 21 runners. Twelfth Panzer reported 19. A half million soldiers and civilians were trapped against the Baltic Sea. They had no real hope of rescue, even should Hitler change his position that where the German soldier planted his boots, there he remained. Alive or dead made no difference.
Of no less consequence, the panzer divisions vainly expended in the north were unavailable to reinforce a southern sector whose long-expected turn finally came on July 13. Harpe had taken over from Model in command of Army Group North Ukraine. Since Army Group Center’s collapse, seven of his panzer divisions had been ordered north. There remained 1st, 8th, 16th, and 17th Panzer, 20th Panzer Grenadier, and SS Viking: three each in reserve of 1st and 4th Panzer Armies as a counterattack force with a total of around 500 deployable AFVs. First Ukrainian Front, the immediate opposition, had 1,000,000 men, over 2,200 tanks and assault guns, and enough artillery to deploy 400 pieces per mile in the sectors chosen for the initial breakthrough.
The massive discrepancies in force and fighting power negated the concept of a zone defense. Harpe’s armored reserves disappeared in days, absorbed before the full Russian strength developed. Over 40,000 Germans were cut off around Brody. This time there were no miracle escapes. The German commanders on the ground reacted slowly; only fragments were able to fight their way through to panzer battle groups barely able to hold the line, much less counterattack with any effect. By July 18, 4th Panzer Army was down to 20 tanks and around 160 assault guns—the latter, as in the northern sector, fully absorbed in keeping the hard-pressed infantry formations from being entirely scattered by what seemed endless numbers of T-34s. The battalions had been renamed brigades, but initially without any increase in strength.3 Batteries and individual crews ran up their scores into three figures. But the front kept moving back.
Even against determined resistance, the Russians moved fast. Lublin fell on July 24 after a breakthrough attempt by 17th Panzer Division failed—though nobody in authority seemed to ask what the prospects for success were in the first place for a worn-down division pitted against an entire army. Against Hitler’s orders, Harpe ordered a general retreat to the Vistula. The key regional transport and communications center of Lvov fell on July 27. On July 29, a Soviet tank army crossed the Vistula in force at Sandomierz. By the end of the month the Army Group’s front was over 120 miles farther west, into Galicia and the Carpathian foothills. Its losses approached 100,000, but its line was intact, the worst of the gaps plugged, and Harpe expressed a hope of hanging on until reinforcements arrived from somewhere—anywhere.
Instead the High Command ordered a full- scale counterattack against the Sandomierz bridgehead. The job was given to Balck, who took over 4th Panzer Army on August 5 for an attack that began on August 10—another example of what had become a pattern of expecting senior panzer officers to substitute energy and willpower for the careful planning required of the weaker party. The III Panzer Corps achieved initial success through surprise, but was stopped within a few days. A second local counterattack by four panzer divisions on August 28 was canceled after three days; a third was called off when Balck and his staff failed to bring the exhausted panzers on line in time.
The Red Army no longer buckled when faced with the unexpected—particularly on the defensive. Flexibility was still not a major characteristic of Soviet armored formations, but solidity is also a military virtue. The Soviet tankers who held their ground around Sandomierz were motivated by more than fear of NKVD firing squads. They knew that support was on hand, and that support would arrive in a force the Germans could no longer match.
At company and batallion levels, Red Army tankers were taking the measure of their German opponents. The 501st Heavy Tank Battalion was the first to take Tiger Bs into action on August 11. In three days, 14 of 30 were lost to an approximately equal number of T-34s and JS-IIs. The Soviets shifted quickly from attack formations to ambush positions, taking full advantage of the Stalins’ cross-country capacity to strike the Tigers’ vulnerable sides and rears. The 122mm guns cracked open the Tiger B like a coconut. And when they evaluated the three undamaged tanks they captured, Red Army experts were unimpressed by its technology.
By the end of August, North Ukraine’s front was relatively quiet—less from anything Harpe and his commanders did than because of the Soviet decision to reinforce a more spectacular victory to the south. Schörner had used the time after the abortive Russian spring offensive and before his transfer to replace equipment and train men. Army Group South Ukraine’s divisions were at full operational strength; its front was stable. The army group’s chief of staff even boasted that troops could be made available to other fronts if necessary.
In the first three weeks of July, South Ukraine paid an initial installment on the bluster with five panzer divisions and two battalions of assault guns. The Romanian government and high command, already badly shaken, was anything but reassured. Nor was Schörner’s replacement a particularly inspired—or inspiring—choice. At best, Johannes Friessner was what Napoleon called “a good ordinary general,” with no experience of the kind of war waged in the open ground of the southeast. The first thing he learned was that his staff considered the available reserves—two panzer and a panzer grenadier division—insufficient to block a Soviet offensive. The second thing he learned was that Hitler would allow no front adjustments. The third was that his staff was right.
Second and 3rd Ukrainian Fronts were commanded by two of the best Russian wartime marshals: Rodion Malinovsky and Fyodor Tolbukhin. Stavka had rebuilt their combined force to over 900,000 men and 1,400 AFVs. Eighteen hundred planes guaranteed near-supremacy in the air. The hammer fell on August 20 in the Pruth valley. The sector was held by a mix of German infantry and Romanians already looking over their shoulders. Successful local counterattacks by panzer battle groups could do nothing to restore a situation that, by August 24, saw Russian spearheads meet near Leovo and cut off the German 6th Army. A Bagration-scale disaster was in sight, and Friessner was not the man to convince the Romanians otherwise. On August 23, Romanian King Michael dismissed Prime Minister Ion Antonescu. Within days the new government took Romania out of the war, then in again—against Hungary and Germany. Bulgaria, which had supported the Axis without declaring war on the USSR, declared war on Germany three days after Tolbukhin’s tankers crossed its border on August 5.
For a while everybody was shooting at everybody else. The Luftwaffe bombed Bucharest. The Romanians took about 50,000 German prisoners. The Russians finished off 6th Army for the second time during the war and drove toward Hungary and the Balkans. Not only did 600,000 men and 26 divisions suddenly find themselves on enemy territory; as Red Army spearheads entered Yugoslavia, the entire German force in the southern Balkans was threatened with envelopment.
The transformation of occupied Yugoslavia from a strategic backwater to the key to the Eastern Front’s right half, the successful evacuation of Greece and Albania, and the stabilization—again temporary—of what remained of the Reich’s Balkan sector, is a story of its own. It has little to do with the panzers. Apart from a few pawn pieces like the self-propelled antitank guns organic to some infantry divisions and a few of the ubiquitous assault guns, a vital sector fought a vital campaign on a technical level little advanced from that of 1918. The 2nd Panzer Army, sent south in August 1943 and commanded eventually by an artilleryman, spent most of its time disarming Italians and fighting partisans with no tanks at all under command. It was a far cry from the days of 1940-41 for those of Guderian’s former staff officers who remained at their posts.
Romania’s change of sides left Army Group South Ukraine no option but to save what could be saved and fall back on the Carpathians. The new line was formed by divisions officially designated as “remnants.” They included 13th and 20th Panzer, who covered the retreat until they had almost nothing left. By August 29, 20th Panzer Division was down to 1,300 men and no tanks: a “panzer battle group” by designation and courtesy. A similar fate overtook most of the assault gun battalions: guns lost, vehicles destroyed, survivors escaping on foot in small groups.
Favorable terrain, Soviet overextension, and increased commitment by a Hungarian army fighting on its doorstep with German guns at its back, enabled the establishment of something like a stable front covering Budapest and the oil fields of Lake Balaton, which were now more vital than ever with their Romanian counterparts gone. Initially it seemed more of a speed bump than a battle line. On October 6, Malinovsky broke through a Hungarian sector on a 60-mile front around Debrecen. That was only 130 miles from Budapest, most of it open ground: the only question apparently was which of the front’s elements would arrive first.
The Germans had stationed large forces in Hungary since March. When Regent Miklós Horthy attempted negotiations with Stalin, he was deposed on October 16 and replaced by a fascist puppet government. In the aftermath of the coup, the German High Command had been moving reserves into Hungary for a counterattack of its own. Operation Gypsy Baron, a nice reference to the Strauss operetta, was ambitiously expected to recover the Carpathian passes. Instead its forces were thrown in to block the Red Army: 227 tanks and assault guns, German and Hungarian, against almost 800. In a near-classic encounter battle, the 1st, 13th, and 23rd Panzer Divisions up and encircled part of the Soviet vanguard. But taking a page from their enemies’ playbook, the Russians managed to break out despite losing over half their armor.
Malinovsky proposed to regroup and rebuild his tired front. Stalin ordered him forward. The offensive resumed on October 29. When it stalled, Stavka authorized heavy reinforcements, including 200 tanks, and ordered Tolbukhin to close up on Malinovsky’s right. Through November and into December, the Russians fought their way forward on both sides of Budapest, cutting the rail line to Vienna on December 23 and beginning the siege of a city neither German nor Hungarian generals believed could be defended.
The panzers’ direct role in this process was limited. They had shot their bolt at Debrecen. Battle groups of a thousand men and a few dozen AFVs were merely drops of water on a hot stove. The men and the tanks that could have made up some of the autumn’s losses had instead been sent west to the Ardennes. In the face of Hitler’s insistence that Budapest be held to a finish, panzer commanders on the spot risked no more than minor movements.
There was a sidebar to the campaigns of 1944. On September 10 the 1st Byelorussian Front, resupplied and reinforced, mounted a major offensive north of Warsaw, aimed northwest at the Narew River. It was stopped by Viking and Totenkopf, who thereby played a crucial role in the Warsaw Uprising’s defeat; but on October 10 it resumed, extended on the left by the 3rd Byelorussian Front. By October 21, the Red Army had captured an undamaged bridge across the Angerapp River, in the heart of East Prussia. Nothing seemed to stand in the way of the T-34s until Friedrich Hossbach was given most of the armor in the sector and ordered to counterattack.
This was the same Hossbach who, as Hitler’s adjutant in 1937, kept the records that became the Hossbach Memorandum. An infantryman by branch, he had commanded 4th Army since mid-July. Now he had a worn-down 5th Panzer Division, the similarly attenuated Hermann Göring, and the newly organized Führer Grenadier Brigade. Together they amounted to around 100 tanks and assault guns. Not much seems to have been expected, but Hossbach was able to hit both flanks of the breakthrough simultaneously. Fifth Panzer went in from the north on October 21 with 22 tanks. Two days later they made contact with the Führer Grenadiers advancing from the south. The Soviets panicked, abandoning tanks and equipment in a rush to the rear the Germans lacked the strength to stop. Third Byelorussian Front, shut down for the winter. So did the campaign against East Prussia. But the future prospects of Army Group Center, were inescapably grim.
Just how grim was suggested at the East Prussian village of Nemmersdorf—the site of the Angerapp crossing of October 21. Elements of the 2nd Guards Tank Corps held the bridgehead against counterattacks for about four hours, then withdrew. When German troops entered two days later, they found a scene that German propaganda described as a massacre, with hundreds of civilians raped, shot, and butchered. The actual events remain subjects of debate, with allegations of photos doctored, corpses brought in from elsewhere, numbers exaggerated. One recent scholarly investigation reports fewer than 30 verifiable murders, with lesser atrocities on the same limited scale.
These numbers have in turn been challenged. What is certain is that Goebbels and East Prussian Gauleiter Eric Koch used Nemmersdorf to inspire a spirit of resistance locally and nationally. What is also certain is that the Landser, foot- marchers or panzermen, had a winter to think about the story—and perhaps to remember other villages at other times, when the situation had been reversed. The victory rings on a Tiger’s gun barrel might move steadily toward the muzzle. An assault gun battalion might note its thousandth confirmed kill. But when Ivan came again, the fight would be to the finish.