The Eastern Front from winter 1943-44 until late summer 1944.
Ending the siege of Leningrad and Operation Bagration, the destruction of the German Army Group Center.
During the winter of 1943-1944, the Red Army had increased its forces in the bridgehead of Oranienbaum and expected that the German troops of the Army Group North would be pushed back, that the siege of Leningrad would be completely lifted and the north-eastern part of Soviet territory would be reconquered.
Although the complete enclosure of Leningrad had been broken up earlier, supply routes and the city itself were still under constant artillery fire and a fundamental change in the situation there would also have an impact on the countries in Scandinavia.
In contrast to other parts of the Eastern Front, the German authorities had prepared an emergency plan and set up a line of defense that exploited the Narva River from the Baltic Sea to Lake Peipus and Lake Pleskau on the Estonian-Soviet border.
Despite the relocation of German divisions of the Army Group North to the more endangered sections of the Eastern Front in the South and the recall of the Spanish Blue Division, which considerably weakened the German front, the order to retreat to the so-called ‘Panther’ line was not given in time.
This was due to faulty intelligence service of the German 18th Army off Leningrad, which caused its commander to maintain the current positions and the concern at the Fuehrer’s headquarters that a retreat at this part of the front would probably have negative effects on Finland’s attitude.
The result was that the weakened front, which also contained a number of combat-low Luftwaffe field divisions, quickly collapsed under Red Army offensive.
On 14 January, the Red Army launched its major attack from the Oranienbaum bridgehead and south of Leningrad itself, followed by an attack near Novgorod.
These operations were a much more ambitious project than the previous trials to lift the siege. Neither the replacement of the commander of the Army Group North von Kuechler, nor the temporary appointment of Model until his further use in the south of the Eastern Front, nor the takeover by General Lindemann changed anything in the outcome of the battle.
At that time, the German High Command was preparing to transfer the 214th Infantry Division from Norway to the Army Group North in Russia.
As always, the German troops fought skillfully and vigorously, while the Russian leadership was not as self-confident as in the South. Eventually, however, the Germans were forced to withdraw to the ‘Panther’ line.
The German divisions, which arrived in the new positions by the end of March, were badly punished, while the Red Army had won another great victory. Leningrad was now truly and completely liberated.
And although the spring thaw had made the Russians as well as the Germans immobile, the Red Army stood at the Narva Line and had even been able to cross the river during the advance at a place where they now held a small but important bridgehead.
At the Narva line, the German 214th Infantry Division from Norway moved into the front line as reinforcement.
The next major offensive of the Red Army was directly after the invasion of Normandy by the Western Allies against Finland, but was clearly not the ‘great’ Soviet summer offensive.
This first-time Soviet summer offensive was the thoroughly prepared and concentric attack with the aim of destroying an entire German army group and re-conquering the rest of Soviet territory, which was still under German control. This offensive would open the main route from Moscow via Warsaw to Berlin.
This operation, code-named ‘Bagration’, was planned with the utmost care and was coupled with a major deception maneuver that worked very well. The German reconnaissance service under Reinhard Gehlen fell for practically every Russian trick. The commander-in-chief of the Army Group Center, Field Marshal Busch, was not at his post and most of his reserves had been transferred to the neighboring Army Group Northern Ukrainian of Field Marshal Model in the south, where the next Russian attack was expected.
Even the sabotage action by Russian partisans with thousands of explosives under the rail network of the Army Group Center during the night of 19-20 June did not alert anyone in the German staffs or headquarters.
With a delay of a few days due to the provision of the required 1.25 million men and their extensive material and supplies, the Russian summer offensive began in 1944 in the northern section opposite the German army group Center, where Marshal Vasilevsky with the 1st Baltic and 3rd Belorussian Front in a single massive attack broke through the positions of the completely surprised 3rd Panzer army. The next day his troops had trapped 5 German divisions around Vitebsk.
On that day, the Second and First Belorussian fronts, coordinated by Marshal Zhukov, also attacked towards Orsha, Mogilev and Bobruisk. They quickly broke through the lines of the German 4th and 9th Army. In a series of brilliant operations, the Red Army trapped the majority of the German 9th Army and drove the beaten 4th Army over a single, completely congested road and bridge, which was constantly under fire and air raids, back over the Berezina. Panic broke out in the entire area behind the Army Group Center.
At the same time, Hitler appointed Model as commander-in-chief of the Army Group Center alongside his former Army Group Northern Ukrainian, which simplified the transfer of reserves but did not stop the advancing Red Army.
On July 3, the Russians had liberated Minsk and only a few scattered divisions made it back to the new and thin German lines, which Model desperately tried to form from his few reserves and remnants of the Army Group Center, which could retreat, as well as scattered and laggards.
Within only 12 days, 25 German divisions with at least 300,000 men had disappeared from the German orders of battle. The Red Army had demonstrated that it had learned the German ‘Blitzkrieg’ and that, despite terrible losses in recent years, it had both the resources and now the ability to successfully break through a German front which was held for many months and strengthened with positions.
The new lines of defense in the center of the Eastern Front actually only existed on the maps of Model and Hitler, because the commanders of the Red Army, who simply did not recognize them, simply drove through and over the fleeing German troops.
An intended German attack from the north never came about because the Army Group North lacked the necessary Panzer divisions and the Red Army pushed into Lithuania and eastern Poland.
Just as the Allies in the West had hoped that fierce fighting on the Eastern Front would prevent the transfer of German troops from the East to France, so the Red Army now also successfully relied on the Allied bridgehead in Normandy to prevent the strengthening of the German Eastern Front.
The Allied conquest of Rome also prevented the transfer of troops from Central Italy.
By mid-July, the Red Army had advanced more than 205 miles (330 km) in the central section of the Eastern Front and had to stop to bring up supplies and repair the destroyed road and rail network.
While the Red Army advanced Warsaw in the middle, the First Belorussian Front of Rokossovsky and Konjev’s First Ukrainian Front smashed Model’s Northern Ukrainian Army Group.
By this time a number of divisions, which Model had previously provided as reserves, had been transferred to the collapsing Army Group Center. The withdrawal of the line which Hitler had approved before the new Russian offensive did not bring much help.
In a series of massive blows, which started on July 13th, when Model just retreated to the new line, the spearheads of the Red Army, which were now much more effective than before, broke through the 4th Panzer Army, the 17th Army and the 1st Panzer Army – or better what was left of them – and pushed the German troops within 6 weeks to the Carpathians.
In these fights on July 28, 1944, a relative of the author, who had just received the Iron Cross, was fatally wounded by grenade splinters while serving as a machinegunner on the outskirts of Kalusz.
During the same period, the First Belorussian Front and most of the First Ukrainian Front flowed across several rivers towards the Vistula and crossed the river in some places to form bridgeheads on the western bank. This resulted in a trapped German corps of 30,000 men, of which only 5,000 escaped.
The leadership of the new Russian tank and mechanized corps became better and better and almost reached the effectiveness of the German Panzer troops in offensive actions. Additional, the Red Air Force clearly dominated the skies above the Eastern Front at that time, and the Russian artillery was able to compensate for the fact that the Russians, after their enormous loss of life to date, had to be much more cautious with their mass attacks of infantry.
The Eastern Front now ran practically from the German border in East Prussia along the Narew to Warsaw, then from the Vistula to the Carpathians and the Black Sea.
In the meantime, the 214th Infantry Division had been brought in from Estonia to reinforce the Army Group Center in Poland on the Vistula, where another defensive front could be erected, which could be hold in the large Vistula angle until the battle in January 1945.
Previous page: On the Russian Front 1944
Next page: Battle at the Vistula 1945
References and literature
Der 2. Weltkrieg (C. Bertelsmann Verlag)
Zweiter Weltkrieg in Bildern (Mathias Färber)
Der Grosse Atlas zum II. Weltkrieg (Peter Young)
Historical Atlas of World War Two – The Geography of Conflict (Ronald Story)
Krieg der Panzer (Piekalkiewicz)
Chronology of World War II (Christopher Argyle)
A World at Arms – A Global History of World War II (Gerhard L. Weinberg)