Posts Tagged ‘Minsk’

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

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The German invasion of the Soviet Union in June of 1941 came as a surprise to almost no one…except Joseph Stalin.  Hoping against hope that his pact with Hitler would hold up, he ignored numerous warnings from the British, the Americans, and his own spy agencies.

So it probably goes without saying that Stalin’s armies were largely caught flat-footed in when the steamroller of the German Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe started flattening Soviet ground- and air-space.  Within 5 days, the German Panzers of Army Group Centre had taken Minsk, an advance of nearly 200 miles.

The next major target for the Germans was Smolensk.  Located almost exactly in the middle of the 440 miles that separates Minsk from Moscow, it was a logical target for the German Army because of the roads that lay beyond…roads that led directly to Moscow and certain victory.

The Russians had been decimated in Minsk, losing three complete armies, and fought even more desperately to hold Smolensk.  A massive Soviet tank attack west of Smolensk that began on July 6th was smashed almost to oblivion by German air-power.  Semyon Timoshenko, the hero of the Winter War, struggled to slow the enemy, but the Germans were moving so quickly that the Soviets couldn’t retreat fast enough to build any kind of defensive line.

The battle for Smolensk began on July 10th and, by the 15th, the city was almost completely surrounded by Wehrmacht tanks and soldiers, threatening yet another 3 Soviet armies with encirclement.  Ferocious Soviet counterattacks held off the German armies long enough for a massive escape to take place.  And then the pocket closed and Smolensk was trapped.  On August 5, 1941, the organized fighting would end and Smolensk was in German hands.

But the Germans were exhausted from nearly 7 weeks of constant fighting over 400 miles of territory.  Equipment was broken, supplies were low, and ammunition was in short supply.  So Army Group Centre was halted, and here a couple of decisions were made would later have a huge effect on the campaign.  First, the halt ended up lasting 2 months, which meant the final drive on Moscow would not start until October.  Second, Hitler redirected an entire Panzer Army to the north towards Leningrad.

Germany was now starting to experience the factors that would eventually cost them the war:  extremely long supply lines, fighting along way too big a front, and the inability to destroy the Soviet armies after trapping them.  But there was also Adolf Hitler, who began scattering his forces against numerous objectives, rather than focusing on the one major target he needed.  Moscow.

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