On 22 June 1944, the third anniversary of the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the Red Army launched Operation BAGRATION, a massive offensive to drive German forces from western Belorussia. By mid-1944, the German army was only a shell of what it had been in 1941, whereas the Soviets had superior numbers of artillery pieces, tanks, trucks, and aircraft as well as a four-to-one manpower advantage on the Eastern Front. The Soviets had also developed new tactical doctrines that took advantage of their greatly improved mobility.
The great Soviet offensive involved 11 fronts (army groups) and stretched from the Baltic in the north to the Black Sea in the south. Within two months, the Red Army had liberated Byelorussia and destroyed German Army Group Center, but even before the conclusion of BAGRATION, Soviet leader Josef Stalin issued new orders through Stavka for the liberation of the Baltic States and Poland and a drive on Berlin. From north to south, this effort involved the 1st Baltic and 3rd, 2nd, and 1st Byelorussian Fronts.
On 20 July 1944, units of the 1st Byelorussian Front crossed the Bug River in three places and captured Lublin. There the Soviets established their own Polish government and army and declared open season on the London government’s anti- Communist Polish Home Army. On July 25, the Red Army reached the Vistula. The great city of Brest, encircled, fell on 28 July after a single day of fighting. Meanwhile, Lvov, capital of Galicia, capitulated on 27 July as the other fronts, north and south, achieved their objectives against varying degrees of resistance. Some German army units, cut off and isolated against the Baltic, did not surrender until the end of the war. German Colonel General Joseph Harpe, commander of Army Group A (the redesignated Army Group North), could do little more than delay the inevitable. Indeed, Hitler’s call for “no retreat,” when obeyed, resulted in the destruction of many German units in untenable positions, and static defense also brought the destruction of the few remaining German maneuver elements. Adding to Harpe’s difficulties later was Hitler’s decision to withdraw units to prepare for the Ardennes Offensive (the Battle of the Bulge) in the west.
At the end of July, Stavka ordered the 1st and 2nd Byelorussian Fronts to drive to the Narew River and Warsaw. The 2nd Byelorussian Front was to advance to Ostrołę and Łiomža. The 1st Byelorussian Front drove on the Warsaw suburb of Praga, along the way seizing crossing points over the Narew and Vistula Rivers. Although these objectives were secured, the Red Army offensive had lost momentum. In the drive, the Soviets destroyed 28 German divisions, inflicting 350,000 casualties, but logistical problems, in consequence of the rapid advance and two months of solid fighting, forced a pause.
On 29 August, Stalin ordered that all Red Army fronts were to dig in generally along the line of the Vistula and Narew Rivers. Although the 1st and 2nd Byelorussian Fronts continued limited attacks to strengthen their hold across the Narew, Soviet forces made no effort to cross the Vistula River and move into Warsaw. This decision produced one of the most controversial episodes of the entire war, the Warsaw Rising of 1 August to 2 October 1944.
With the rapid Soviet advance, Polish Home Army commander General Tadeusz Bór-Komorowski ordered a general uprising in Warsaw, which brought quick German army reaction. The Soviets made only half-hearted efforts to assist the Home Army in the form of air-dropped supplies. Although it is true that the Red Army suffered from genuine logistical problems, it is also quite true that Stalin was delighted to see the Germans eliminate the anti-Communist Home Army forces, whose existence he correctly believed would hinder his own postwar control of Poland. The Soviets not only refused to help the Poles in any meaningful way, but they also obstructed efforts by the western Allies to air-drop supplies to the Polish fighters. The fighting brought the destruction of 90 percent of the buildings of Warsaw, but it also claimed 10,000 Germans casualties—tribute to the ferocity of the two-month-long Home Army resistance.
Stavka, meanwhile, laid plans for the final control of Poland in an offensive that would carry from the Vistula to the Oder. The massive offensive involved Marshal Georgii Zhukov’s 1st Byelorussian Front, Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky’s 2nd Byelorussian Front, General of the Armies Ivan Chernyakovsky’s 3rd Byelorussian Front, and Marshal Ivan S. Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front, all of which were on the Narew-Vistula Line. Meanwhile, General Ivan Petrov’s 4th Ukrainian Front occupied positions along the San River line in southern Poland and Galicia.
Stalin’s orders were to destroy Army Group A, with the secondary objective of drawing off German reserves in response to western appeals during the German Ardennes Offensive (Battle of the Bulge). Under Stavka’s plan, the 1st Byelorussian Front was to take Poznan and destroy forces cut off in the Warsaw area. The 2nd Byelorussian Front would assist in surrounding Warsaw and also take Marienburg. The 1st Ukrainian Front, with five combined-arms armies, two tank armies, and four tank/mechanized corps, would carry the brunt of the offensive, breaking out of the Sandomierz bridgehead and driving to Breslau. The 4th Ukrainian Front would drive on Kraków. The Soviet offensive was massive. The 1st Ukrainian and 1st Byelorussian Fronts together contained 2.2 million ground troops (a six-to-one advantage over the defending Germans) in 163 divisions supported by more than 32,000 artillery pieces and almost 4,800 aircraft.
The second half of the offensive to clear Poland began on 12 January 1945. Radom fell on 16 January. By 17 January, Zhukov’s 1st Byelorussian Front and the Soviet-controlled Polish First Army had liberated Warsaw. Within the next week, the 1st Byelorussian and 1st Ukraininan Fronts had punched a 310-mile hole in the German lines and driven 100 miles. There was little Harpe and the German forces could do to arrest the Soviet advance. Kraków and Poznan were taken in late January, and on 22 January, Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front bridged the Oder. Zhukov also reached the river and got his troops across, although it took three weeks to close the 70- mile gap separating these two Red Army fronts. On 28 January, forces of the 1st Byelorussian Front entered German Pomerania, where they were met by the hastily formed Army Group Vistula, commanded by the inept Heinrich Himmler. Königsberg was surrounded and taken on 9 April. Meanwhile, the 1st Ukrainian Front eliminated pockets of German forces in south-western Poland.
Soviet forces had once again outrun their logistical support and were forced to halt. Nevertheless, the Red Army was now poised to begin its final offensive: the drive on Berlin to end the war.
References Borowiec, Andrew. Destroy Warsaw! Hitler’s Punishment, Stalin’s Revenge. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2001. Erickson, John. The Road to Berlin. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1983. Glantz, David, and Jonathan House. When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995. Seaton, Albert. The Russo-German War, 1941–45. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1970. Ziemke, Earl F. Stalingrad to Berlin: The German Defeat in the East. Washington, DC: U.S. Army, Center of Military History, 1966.