When Allied forces stormed the beaches at Normandy in June of 1944, they did so with the goal of capturing beaches that would create serve as a “supply offload” point. Of course, ultimate goal was to head east, free western Europe from Germany’s vise grip, and destroy Adolf Hitler’s regime. What many of the boys running ashore that gray morning may not have known was that, hundreds and hundreds of miles to the east, the Red Army was planning a storm of its own, a complimentary assault to the west. And it was scheduled to begin on June 22, 1944, exactly 3 years after the Germans began their conquest of Russia.
Much had changed on the Eastern Front in 3 years. Moscow had been saved early on. Stalingrad had been saved by a brilliant counteroffensive against General Paulus’ entrenched Sixth Army. And Leningrad, after two-and-a-half years of siege, starvation, and suffering, was now back in Russian hands.
The Wehrmacht had been pushed back everywhere in the east, feeling the increasingly crushing weight of the vast Red Army that had finally gotten its act together, coupled with the overwhelming production capability possessed by the Soviet Union. And the Wehrmacht was going to feel it again.
In the east, Germany fielded Army Group Centre with 1.2 million men in 63 divisions. But in his book Absolute War, Chris Bellamy gives the real score, and while it’s just a bunch of numbers, they boggle the mind. “Facing them, the Russians assembled nearly 2.4 million in 168 divisions, 12 ‘corps’ – the tank formations equating to divisions – and 20 brigades. For the first time they also had the newly formed First Polish Army – 4 divisions and 2 brigades. The balance of forces was overwhelmingly in the Russians’ favour: 36,400 guns and mortars against 9,500; 5,200 tanks against 900; and 5,300 aircraft against 1,350.”
The Russians called it Operation Bagration. It was the largest Allied land operation of the Second World War, and it began just two weeks after Operation Overlord and just one week after the largest ocean operation of the war (Operation Forager).
And just like Overlord (scheduled for June 5th), Bagration ended up being delayed a day. But when the coiled spring was released, it let loose with the roar. At 5:00am, the first shots of this massive counteroffensive were fired. Every artillery piece along the front had been alloted roughly six tons of ammunition, and the rolling barrage they offered up to their German enemy was devastating. It was followed up Katyusha rocket attacks, to which the Germans had been introduced at Stalingrad, and were terrifying in their randomness. Probing attacks the previous day by company- and brigade-sized forces allowed the Russians to seek out German weaknesses. In addition, an excellent deception campaign (much like the one waged on the Normandy coasts) had caused a lot of German armor to be moved away from the main attack.
So when the tanks of the Red Army smashed into the 450-mile front, they did so with a massive 7-to-1 advantage. German resistance could do little but melt before the onslaught. When Bagration ran its course in mid August (less than 8 weeks later), Army Group Centre had largely ceased to exist. Total German losses are still unknown. And the Russians had advanced more than 300 miles to Poland’s door.
After more than 3 years of occupation and brutal butchery, the Germans had been largely evicted from Red Army territory.