On 22 June 1944 Stalin launched an all-out offensive against Army Group ‘Centre’. The commander of ‘Centre’, Field-Marshal Busch, had four armies holding a salient which stretched from Vitebsk to Mozyr; the 3rd Panzerarmee under Colonel-General Reinhardt; the 4th Army under General von Tippelskirch; the 9th Army under General Jordan; and the 2nd Army led by Colonel-General Weiss. However, there were only 38 front-line divisions and the majority of these were understrength. There were three Panzer and two infantry divisions in reserve, and three Hungarian and five special service divisions at the rear.
By contrast, the Russians had amassed 14 armies, amounting to nearly 200 divisions, which gave them a numerical superiority of six to one. They also had the advantage in weaponry in a ratio of 10 to one, and overwhelming air superiority. The Germans could not hope to hold an attack of this magnitude.
The 1st Baltic and 3rd Belorussian Fronts opened the offensive with a pincer attack either side of Vitebsk, taking 3rd Panzerarmee completely by surprise. The Russians stormed through, and with the help of the 6th Guards Army closed in on the town. On 23 June, the 2nd and 3rd Belorussian Fronts moved toward Orsha and Mogilev, almost breaking the 4th Army. On the following day, the 1st Belorussian Front smashed into the 9th Army and penetrated its northern and southern boundaries. Busch tried to uphold Hitler’s policy of inflexible defence and fortress-holding. But it was the wrong strategy. By the fifth day of fighting, Army Group ‘Centre’ had used up its reserve forces without stopping the Soviet advance. The fortresses of Vitebsk, Orsha, Mogilev and Bobruysk were soon encircled by pincer movements while the mass of Russian armour swept on westward towards Minsk. Hitler’s ‘fortified locality’ policy had failed. Field-Marshal Busch received all the blame.
On 28 June, Hitler and OKH finally admitted that the Belorussian offensive was more serious than they had previously thought. But they still felt that an attack against Army Group ‘North Ukraine’ was imminent. So Hitler sacked the loyal Busch and appointed Field-Marshal Model to the command of Army Group ‘Centre’, whilst at the same time retaining him as commander of ‘North Ukraine’. It was hoped that this dual command would facilitate troop movement between the two groups. Model was probably the best tactician apart from Rundstedt in active service at the time, and he was still in favour with Hitler after his successful improvisations at Orel, Rzhev and Leningrad. But the task of limiting the disaster facing Army Group ‘Centre’ was surely one of his greatest tests.
Army Group ‘North’, despite being in a desperate position itself, was ordered by Hitler to hand over three divisions to Model. But the new commander-in-chief was unwilling simply to wait for these reinforcements and himself order the transfer of ten divisions, including four Panzer divisions, from Army Group ‘North Ukraine’ to ‘Centre’. On assuming command, Model changed the rigid policies of Busch in favour of a more elastic system of defence. His only hope was to plug the most dangerous holes in his lines, try to re-establish contact with the 4th and 9th Armies and generally stiffen the overstretched front.
But for all this new-found aggression and flexibility, the Russians advanced relentlessly. Perhaps Model’s appointment had been made too late. Whatever the case, his actions were all in vain. He could not hold the Polotsk-Berezina-Slutsk line and by 2 July he admitted that he had lost the bulk of the 4th and 9th Armies, trapped by Russian pincers between Minsk and the Berezina. It was estimated that 100,000 men had been cut off.
Part of the 9th Army managed to escape to the west, but most of the 4th Army was truly trapped in a pocket between the Berezina and the Volma rivers. The latter pocket was split into two groups, one under Lieutenant-General Traut and the other under Lieutenant-General Mueller. Marshall Zhukov ordered a colossal bombardment of the 4th Army with rockets, shells and bombs. German resistance was short-lived, and Mueller surrendered to the 2nd Belorussian front. The 57,000 prisoners were paraded through the streets of Moscow on 17 July. Minsk itself, the Belorussian capital, fell on 3 July to Chernyakhovsky’s and Rokossovsky’s troops. In 12 days, Army Group ‘Centre’ had lost the most part of 25 divisions.
Defeat at Minsk
In order to salvage what he could, Model proposed to halt the enemy along a new front some way behind Minsk, west of the Molodechno-Baranovichi line. This could only be done with new formations plus those Model had obtained from Army Groups ‘North’ and ‘North Ukraine’. He urged OKH to send more reserves from Army Group ‘North’ to defend Molodechno. These were not forthcoming as Army Group ‘North’ was also in a desperate situation. Its right flank was held at Polotsk, another of Hitler’s fortified areas. Between it and the left flank of the 3rd Panzerarmee north-east of Minsk there was a gap of 50 miles. A similar gap opened between the Panzerarmee’s right flank and Molodechno. The Panzerarmee could be pincered at any time the Russians wanted, and the road to Riga would be opened. But Hitler insisted that Army Group ‘North’ continue to hold Polotsk, despite Model calling it a ‘futile experiment’ and urging the Fuehrer to withdraw Army Group ‘North’ to Riga itself. As a result of this policy – and despite the dangers facing the 3rd Panzerarmee – no forces could be released to Model to form a new front.
Defeat at Minsk meant that only the flanks of Army Group ‘Centre’ remained. (According to Guderian the defeat signified the end of Army Group ‘Centre’.) A 200-mile break in the German line opened up the Soviets’ way to the Baltic states and East Prussia.
Stavka was determined to exploit this opportunity, and so the Russian tank formations moved rapidly westwards from Minsk on a broad front and harried the sparse German forces before the defence could be organised properly.
The Russian strategy was for the 1st Baltic Front under Bagramyan to advance through Dvinsk and on to Lithuania and Latvia after crossing the Dvina river. Chernyakhovsky’s 3rd Belorussian Front was to develop a two-pronged attack, one from Molodechno through Vilnyus to Kaunas in Lithuania, and the second to the border of East Prussia via the River Niemen. The 1st Belorussian Front under Rokossovsky was to push through Baranovichi to the River Bug, north-east of Warsaw. Here he was to meet the 2nd Belorussian Front, which was to arrive by way of Bialystok and Grodno.
Those divisions that Model had managed to scrape together, for example the 14th and 95th Infantry Divisions, were unable to alter the depressing situation. Russian troops were east of Molodechno by 6 July and the way was open to Vilynus. Under the tireless command of Marshal Zhukov, General Batov’s 65th Army reached the rail junction of Baranovichi the following day, and despite resistance by the German 2nd Army, the town was liberated. On the 8th, the town of Lida also fell. The German front joining Baranovichi and Molodechno had vanished.
Model faced a hopeless situation. The Russians for the next 20 days covered 10-15 miles per day, often side-stepping the depleted units which Model threw in to plug his broken lines. Model’s task was now to try to harass the enemy in order that the necessary time might become available for OKH to form a new and continuous line strong enough to turn back the Russian offensive. One significant success he did achieve at this stage was to persuade Hitler to order the evacuation of a whole series of fortified areas which otherwise would have become death-traps to the encapsulated German defenders.
By 8 July, Model reported that the line Vilnyus-Lida-Baranovichi had also been broken. All three towns were taken. Without reinforcements, he could not stop the Russians anywhere, and had no choice but to sacrifice considerable areas of territory.
The implications of the Soviet successes were not confined to the central area. The German retreat enabled the Russian high command to extend operations to the north and south flanks, against the German Army Groups ‘North’, and ‘North Ukraine’ and ‘South Ukraine’ respectively. On 9 July, Model accompanied the new commander of Army Group ‘North’, General Friessner, for an interview with Hitler. They tried to persuade him to withdraw from Estonia and so provide badly needed reinforcements. Hitler refused this suggestion although he did promise to give Model two divisions from Army Group ‘North’. For the next few days, the position of Army Group ‘Centre’ continued to deteriorate as the front drifted west to Kaunas, the Niemen and Bialystok. The divisions which Model expected from Army Group ‘North’ did not arrive, as Friessner was himself threatened with imminent encirclement should the Red Army break through the gap between Army Group ‘Centre’ and Army Group ‘North’, to the Gulf of Riga.
Model’s Army Group ‘North Ukraine’ also retreated westward in the face of Russian pressure. On 14 July, Rokossovsky enveloped Pinsk and then moved on to Kovel and over the River Bug. He took the Polish town of Lublin on 24 July. Part of this force turned toward Brest Litovsk while the remainder pushed on to the Vistula, which they reached on 2 August. On 27 July, the Russians took Lvov, but the Germans retreated safely to the Carpathians and the Vistula. The situation facing Army Group ‘Centre’, and to a lesser extent, Army Group ‘North Ukraine’, began to improve as the tempo of the Russian attack slowed down. Having advanced so far so quickly, the Russians were outreaching their supplies. Their artillery and supply depots were far from the new front lines and the advance guard lacked petrol and munitions. At the same time, Model had managed to obtain reinforcements including 10 new Panzer divisions to bolster the ‘North Ukraine’ front. He also received another six battle-proven armoured divisions, including the ‘Hermann Goering’ Division. Model’s forces were gaining strength and the possibility soon arose of initiating small-scale counterattacks.
By 3 August, Model was able to send Hitler a relatively good situation report. He confirmed that a continuous front had been established from Siauliai in the north to the Vistula at Pulawy in the south. The 420-mile stretch was covered by only about 40 German divisions, but nevertheless it seemed that it could be held for the time being and some room for light offensive manoeuvring made available, particularly the relief of Army Group ‘North’. Model had fulfilled the job of repairing the situation in the East even if the repairs were only temporary. On 16 August, he was appointed to the command of the Western theatre.
Model was one of a new breed of German general, blindly loyal to Hitler, seldom disputing his orders and appearing to have the happy knack of minimising the catastrophic effects of the Fuehrer’s policies. He did not possess the strategic genius of Manstein, but had well-earned his reputation as being a highly competent tactician in defensive situations prior to his appointment to Army Group ‘Centre’. Mellenthin considered that he was too prone to interfere in matters of detail, and tell his corps and army commanders exactly where they should deploy their troops. Even so, in the face of the Russian offensive he clearly adopted the correct tactics and his eye for detail, his efficiency and hard work surely contributed to his military efficacy.
He had little option but to withdraw and one of his successes was to convince Hitler of the futility of defending fortified areas as the Russians would simply bypass them. One of his strengths was his ability to stand up to Hitler. During the withdrawal of Army Group ‘Centre’ his deployment of those forces and reserves at his disposal was of sufficient quality not to tarnish his reputation as the master of flexible defence. He created and stabilised a new Eastern Front and was then whisked away to deal with the crisis in the West.