On June 29, 1941, Minsk was taken by the Germans. The capital of Belarus was a major victory for the Wehrmacht, made all the more remarkable by the circumstances surrounding its capture.
Operation Barbarossa had begun just eight days before, and Army Group Centre had set off with Moscow as its ultimate goal. Field Marshal Fedor von Bock had at his disposal nearly 50 divisions, including 9 Panzer armored divisions. And when the starting gun sounded, they got right to work against Red Army General Dmitry Pavlov’s 45 divisions comprising the Western Front.
Ripping to the east, tank master General Heinz Guderian’s forces and General Hermann Hoth’s forces had, by the 27th, linked up east of Minsk and cut off any Russian escape. In five days, the Panzers had covered an astounding 200 miles and encircled Minsk. Meanwhile, back west, the 4th and 9th German armies linked up east of Bialystok on the 28th. If you go to a map and find the cities of Bialystok and Minsk (like maybe here) and draw a circle around each, you’ll see what the Germans accomplished in six days…pretty incredible.
The Russian Western Front was, in the space of a week, reduced to almost nothing. What had begun as a force of 675,000 men had been chopped by nearly two-thirds…more than 60%. More than 285,000 Red Army soldiers were captured, with the remaining 135,000 or so killed in action. It was a humiliating loss for the Russians, but for General Pavlov, it was worse. As Bialystok was encircled, he was stripped of his command. The day after Minsk fell, Pavlov (along with his staff) was stripped of his life.
Despite the rapid movement, there were already concerns high in the German ranks, whispers that the advance was not quick enough, and the forward elements were being bogged down. But to anyone looking on from the outside, it appeared that a Russian defeat was not only inevitable, it was imminent.
Recommended Reading: The Eastern Front – Day By Day, 1941-45