Triumph of Bagration: the 80th anniversary of the liberation of Belarus

by Ilya Rogachev, Ambassador of Russia to South Africa and Igor Bely, Ambassador of Belarus to South Africa

9 July 2024
Soviet 37-mm air defence gun crew 61-K moving the weapon during the battle of Belarus (1944)

In the post-war USSR there was an ideologeme in use: ‘Stalin’s Ten Strikes’ standing for 10 major operations carried out by the Red Army against Wehrmacht (unified armed forces of the Nazi Germany) in 1944, which altogether led to the collapse of the Third Reich.

‘Stalin’s fifth strike’ was the offensive against the Nazis in June-August 1944 in Soviet Belarus, one of the largest operations in the world’s military history. The operation was codenamed ‘Bagration’ after Pyotr Bagration – a famous general of Georgian descent in Mikhail Kutuzov’s army, who played an important role in stopping the Napoleonic invasion of Russia in 1812. 

By the way, Pyotr’s nephew Niko Bagration was among the first volunteers to join the ranks of Boer armies in the second Anglo-Boer War. 


Pyotr (left) and Niko Bagration

Operation ‘Bagration’ was conducted in two stages. The first stage (June 23 - July 4, 1944) resulted in liberation of Eastern and Central parts of Belarus, including its capital city Minsk. During the second stage (July 5 - August 29, 1944) the Soviet troops purged the entire country from the Nazis and reached the Prussian border.

The powerful Nazi Army Group ‘Centre’ was totally annihilated. Moving at the impressive pace of attack of 25-30 km per day, the Red Army advanced westwards by up to 600 km and secured the foothold for further offensives in Western Ukraine, Poland, East Prussia and the Baltics. 

Initially, the Soviet High Command was planning to deliver a powerful attack on the Nazis from a bridgehead on the Dnieper bank in the direction of the city of Bobruisk. But commander of the 1st Belarusian Front general Konstantin Rokossovsky, based on reconnaissance data, argued that two strikes towards Bobruisk and Slutsk would make more sense than a single powerful thrust. He insisted that in an area with plenty of forests, marshes and few roads it would be difficult to rapidly bring in major reserves following the breach of the enemy’s defences. The general managed to convince the Soviet High Command and Supreme Commander-in-Chief Stalin to opt for two strikes approach.

General K.Rokossovsky in the command centre of the First Belarusian Front (February 1944)

Hitler didn’t expect the large-scale Red Army offensive on the Belarusian front, thinking that the Soviets will continue attacking the Nazi troops in Ukraine. The Soviet Command did its best to maintain Hitler’s confidence in giving priority to the Ukrainian front.

On June 22, 1944, the third anniversary of the Nazi invasion of the USSR, the Red Army started combat reconnaissance. Simultaneously, Soviet partisans conducted one of the largest sorties with raids on enemy’s crucial communications, incapacitating Wehrmacht’s command and control of troops.

The all-people resistance to the Nazis which unfolded in Belarus was unparalleled in scale. Over 374,000 partisans and over 70,000 underground fighters struggled against the invaders in the Nazi-occupied territories. By the start of the Red Army offensive 1,255 partisan detachments had been active in Belarus, with 997 of those formed into 213 partisan brigades and divisions and 258 units acting on their own. Hidden partisan reserves amounted to some 400,000 people. 

During the war years in Belarus, partisans eliminated over half a million Nazi invaders and their accomplices, derailed more than 11,000 trains, destroyed over 1,300 tanks and armored vehicles.

Apart from struggle against the Nazis, the Red Army and Belarusian partisans had to fight on another front – against openly hostile Polish nationalist underground who were particularly active in western parts of Belarus and Ukraine. Those lands, dubbed by the Poles ‘the Eastern Frontier’, were seized by Warsaw back in 1921. In September 1939, two weeks after the Nazis invaded Poland, seeing the UK and France were not coming to rescue their Polish ally, whose political and military leadership fled to Romania, the USSR sent troops to those territories to protect fellow Belarusians and Ukrainians, who had been living under oppression.
 
The Declaration of the People's Assembly of Western Belarus on the accession of Western Belarus to the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic, adopted unanimously at the Assembly's session on 29 October 1939

In order to promote the narrative of ‘equal responsibility’ of Germany and the USSR for unleashing World War II, Western propaganda tries to paint this episode as a proof of an alleged ‘conspiracy between Stalin and Hitler’ alongside the much-touted Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, or the myth of a ‘Soviet-German joint parade’ in Brest (debunking of these lies is a theme for a separate article). In reality, liberation of those territories by the Soviet Union was a move to complete the unification of the Belarusian and Ukrainian nations and save them from possible Nazi rule. It was also needed to buy time in the face of the coming aggression from the Third Reich (by moving the USSR’s border as far westwards as possible).

Getting back to 1944, the Soviet leadership presumed western parts of Belarus and Ukraine (‘the Eastern Frontier’) belonged to the Belarusian and Ukrainian peoples who had decided their fate accordingly after liberation in 1939. Polish nationalists, by contrast, thought those lands, along with the region of Cieszyn Silesia which Warsaw annexed from Czechoslovakia in 1938, must form parts of post-war Poland. This stance and open animosity towards the USSR led to direct clashes between the Poles and Soviet partisans.

Operation ‘Bagration’ was a major success and earned Konstantin Rokossovsky the rank of Marshal. The offensive involved 2.4 million Soviet soldiers. In fierce fighting, the Red Army completely wiped out 17 divisions and 3 brigades of the Wehrmacht. Over 50 Nazi divisions were halved, with more than 500,000 enemy soldiers killed and wounded in total.

On July 3, 1944, the Belarusian capital city Minsk was liberated. On July 28, 1944, the Red Army freed Brest and Bialystok and reached the USSR’s pre-war border.

 
Soviet partisans going to a parade in liberated Minsk (July 1944)

The results of the offensive on the Belarusian front were so significant that they cannot be ignored in any intellectual environment, no matter how hard some Western authors may try to downgrade the significance of operation ‘Bagration’. 

To this effect, in particular, some unscrupulous historians and politicians advocate the idea that in summer 1944 the crucial battles of World War II were fought not on the Soviet-German front, but in Western Europe after the landing of Anglo-American troops in French Normandy. The reality was quite the opposite. During the 1944 winter-spring campaign the Red Army decimated 172 Nazi divisions and 7 brigades. 30 Wehrmacht divisions and 6 brigades ceased to exist. The common enemy couldn’t replenish such losses by the beginning of the summer campaign. Those victories by the Soviet people created exceptionally favourable conditions for the US-UK forces to at last launch the invasion of France. 

But even after the opening of the second (Western) front against Nazi Germany the main Wehrmacht forces fought on the Soviet front. For instance, in early June 1944, the Red Army was opposed by 4.3 million-strong enemy formation, while the Western allies in France, Belgium and Holland faced only 526,000 Wehrmacht soldiers. In the East the Nazis engaged some 3,200 warplanes against the Soviet air force, in the West the Reich had only 160 warplanes against the combined US and UK forces.

Moreover, the Red Army’s powerful attacks in Eastern Europe had been constantly compelling Hitler to reinforce the Eastern front with troops from Germany and its satellite states. In July-August 1944, 31 Nazi divisions arrived to the Soviet front, in September 1944 – another 28 divisions, with only 4 divisions withdrawn for replenishment during those 3 months.

The historical truth is that it was the Soviet Union and its heroic people who played the key role in defeating Nazism, securing the freedom and independence of many nations across the globe. 

Without doubt, operation ‘Bagration’ was an important milestone on the path to victory over the inhumane Nazi regime in Europe. It fully liberated Belarus from the foreign occupation and also dealt a devastating blow to the German military machine.

Memorial complex 'Operation Bagration' in Rakovichi, Belarus, unveiled in 2014

The history of operation ‘Bagration’ shall not be forgotten. Nor shall the feat by valiant Red Army soldiers, Soviet partisans and underground fighters ever be besmirched by the ungrateful descendants of the World War II heroes. For if we allow it by our negligence, we risk facing the revival of the Nazi ideology in Europe and across the globe.


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