Military history

TWENTY-THREE

Operation Bagration

After the complete liberation of Leningrad and the rapid reconquest of the Ukraine, Stalin consulted with his Stavka advisers. They consisted of Zhukov, the deputy supreme commander; Vasilevsky, the chief of the general staff; his deputy, General Antonov;1and General Shtemenko,2 the chief of operations. In late April, the front commanders were allowed to consolidate their positions and go on to the defensive while the operational plan was decided. By the end of April, Stalin had chosen Belorussia for the next major blow. A success there would provide them with an intermediate position ready to strike towards Berlin early the following year.

After the defeated Germans in the south were thrown back into Romania, Grossman was transferred northwards to the eastern border of Belorussia, the last major area of Soviet territory still under Nazi occupation. He found himself close to where he had started the war less than three years before. Eastern Belorussia was now to provide the start line for the most ambitious operation in the Nazi-Soviet conflict.

The Stavka had just been informed by the Americans and British that Operation Overlord would take place at the end of May. Planning to attack the great Belorussian bulge went ahead under conditions of total secrecy. Apart from Stalin, only five men were privy to the plan. They knew that they had to mislead the Germans about the axis of attack. The tank armies in the south were kept there and grouped together to suggest the preparation of another massive blow south of the Pripet marshes. Radio silence was also imposed on the three Ukrainian Fronts to suggest an imminent attack and rumours were spread of a naval landing on the Black Sea coast of Romania. The Germans fell for the diversion. They reinforced the southern sectors, especially around Lvov.

The Soviet plan involving 1,250,000 men was finalised on 20 May. Meanwhile, newly reinforced tank formations were secretly moved to the eastern border of Belorussia. Stalin himself chose the operational code name of ‘Bagration’ in honour of the great Georgian general who had been mortally wounded at Borodino. Rokossovsky, a Pole who been arrested before the war and tortured by Beria’s NKVD, had dared to stand up to Stalin in a furious argument over the first phase, which involved flanking attacks via Vitebsk and Bobruisk on the two flanks of the ‘Belorussian Balcony’ to encircle Minsk. Both Molotov and Malenkov tried to persuade Rokossovsky not to disagree with the vozhd, the boss. ‘Do you know who you are arguing with?’ they said. But Stalin respected Rokossovsky’s courage and accepted his point.

The Western allies landed in Normandy on 6 June, while the Red Army waited impatiently for new equipment and reinforcements to arrive on a severely overtaxed railway system. Grossman noted the reaction to events in Normandy.

On the subject of the Second Front. Great enthusiasm on the first day. Spontaneous meetings, shooting, saluting, then a sharp decrease of interest.

A trait of character: one man said when he was on a train and learned about the attack by the Allies: ‘Well, probably they won’t even detrain us now.’

Few soldiers, or even officers, ever had a chance to discover anything about life beyond their own unit, so an outsider like Grossman was bombarded with questions.

Those most often asked by officers and soldiers are on international matters, and they are very numerous. They include the Second Front, Japan, Turkey, Iran, and hundreds of other issues. Questions about internal affairs are less numerous. Asking their questions, people apparently want to find out about the duration and course of the war.

Grossman joined General Batov’s 65th Army, part of Marshal Rokossovsky’s First Belorussian Front, in time for the great offensive. After several delays, it finally began on 22 June, the third anniversary of the Nazi invasion. Two days later, three of Rokossovsky’s armies – Gorbatov’s 3rd Army, Romanenko’s 48th and Batov’s 65th – emerged from the boggy forests on the northern edge of the Pripet marshes to attack the German Ninth Army round Bobruisk on the River Beresina. On 27 June, the German defenders – some 5,000 men from the 383rd Infantry Division – managed to fight off the first attempt to storm the town. Then they found that they were surrounded. Led by their commander, General Hamann,3 they tried to fight their way out of the north side of the city, but were cut off by Gorbatov’s 3rd Army. Grossman, describing the scenes he encountered in Bobruisk, was unlike most Soviet journalists who concentrated on extolling the collective strength of the Red Army. He was always interested in the individual, even amid the dehumanised carnage of the battlefield.

Sometimes you are so shaken by what you’ve seen, blood rushes from your heart, and you know that the terrible sight that your eyes have just taken in is going to haunt you and lie heavily on your soul all your life. It is strange that when you sit down to write about it, you don’t find enough room for it on paper. You write about a tank corps, about heavy artillery, but suddenly remember how bees were swarming in a burning village, and a barefooted old Belorussian climbed out of a little trench where he was hiding from shells and took the swarm off a branch, how soldiers were looking at him, and, my God, one can read so much in their thoughtful, melancholy eyes. In these little things exists the soul of the people and our war with its suffering and its victories . . .

How [were we] to find our old Stalingrad acquaintances4 amid this dust and smoke, roar of engines, clatter of tank tracks and self-propelled guns and the squeaking of long columns of carts moving west, and a flow of barefooted children and women wearing white kerchiefs, moving east, back home? Some kind people advised us to look for a well-known feature of this division in order to avoid unnecessary stops and enquiries. This was a camel called Kuznechik [Grasshopper] in the supply unit of its artillery regiment. This camel, who came from Kazakhstan, has come all the way from Stalingrad to the Beresina. Liaison officers usually look for Kuznechik in the supply unit and do not need other enquiries to find the headquarters which is on the move day and night. We took this unusual advice as a joke and moved on.

The first thing we see when we return to the dust and thundering of the main road is a brown camel pulling a cart. He is almost bald, having lost his hair. It proves to be the famous Kuznechik. A crowd of captured Germans is moving in the opposite direction. The camel turns his ugly head towards them, his lower lip turned down with a look of disdain. It is probably the unusual colour of the prisoners’ unforms or their unusual smell that have caught his attention. The driver [of the cart] says to the soldiers escorting the prisoners, in a businesslike way: ‘Give these Germans to us here. Kuznechik is going to eat them now!’ And presently we learn this camel’s biography. He hides in craters from shells and bombs if there’s a bombardment. He has already earned three wound-stripes and the medal ‘For the Defence of Stalingrad’. The commander of the artillery regiment, Kapramanyan, has promised the driver a decoration if he reaches Berlin with Kuznechik.5 We followed the route indicated by Kuznechik and found the division.

I didn’t find many of my old acquaintances in Gurtiev’s division, whom I remembered well from our brief encounters. Gurtiev himself was killed in the fighting for Orel when a shell exploded at the observation post. He protected General Gorbatov with his body. Splashes of this soldier-general’s blood were found on Gorbatov’s cap.

When we entered Bobruisk some buildings in it were ablaze and others lay in ruins. To Bobruisk led the road of revenge! With difficulty, our car finds its way amid scorched and distorted German tanks and self-propelled guns. Men are walking over German corpses. Corpses, hundreds and thousands of them, pave the road, lie in ditches, under the pines, in the green barley. In some places, vehicles have to drive over the corpses, so densely they lie upon the ground. People are busy all the time burying them, but they are so many that this work cannot be done in just one day. And the day is exhaustingly hot, still, and people walk and drive pressing handkerchiefs to their noses. A cauldron of death was boiling here, where the revenge was carried out – a ruthless, terrible revenge over those who hadn’t surrendered their arms and tried to break out to the west.

A German soldier wounded in the legs is sitting on a low sandy bank of the Beresina by the route into the burning and destroyed Bobruisk. He raises his head and looks up at the tank columns moving across the bridge, at the artillery. A Red Army soldier comes up to him, takes some water from the river in a tin and gives it to him to drink. I couldn’t help thinking, what would this German have done in the summer of 1941, when panzer columns of their troops were moving east across this bridge, if he had seen one of our soldiers with wounded legs sitting here on the sandy bank.

Grossman was allowed to interview captured German generals. Lieutenant General von Lützov, the commander of XXXV Army Corps, was a fifty-two-year-old Prussian, who had been captured near Bobruisk in another of the encirclements.6 According to most accounts, he had collapsed under the strain of defending an impossible postion while Hitler refused requests to retreat.

Leutnant-General [sic] Lützov does not praise our army particularly highly. The soldiers are devoid of initiative. When they have no leader on the battlefield they do not know what to do. The artillery is strong. The [Soviet] air force drops bombs with no aim whatsoever.

Lützov was complaining about his total lack of freedom of action. For example, he needed permission from army headquarters to leave a position, the army needed permission from the headquarters of the army group, and the army group needed that of the general staff headquarters.7 Lützov received permission to retreat with XXXV Army Corps only when the ring of encirclement had already been closed.

SS [sic] General Heyne about himself: ‘I’m a Frontschwein.’8

Most of the German generals, officers and soldiers captured during Operation Bagration were forced to march through Moscow in a victory parade on 17 July. Soviet propaganda had been so exaggerated that many Russian children had expected to see ravening beasts, not defeated soldiers. In any case, it underlined the importance of this massive German defeat in which the Wehrmacht lost around a third of a million men, an even greater loss than at Stalingrad.

Soviet intelligence officers evidently briefed Grossman on what they had found among the captured papers and on other interrogations of prisoners.

A German map had been captured. The data marked was absolutely identical to the map compiled by our intelligence department, not only divisions, but also the reserves, forming-up points, etc., were identical.

A captured German officer says that German officers are constantly discussing possible attacks by the Russians.

Few believed they’d manage to hold the line. More often, they speak about the gigantic ‘Belorussian’ mousetrap.

[Before the Soviet attack] Feldmarschall Bush went round the front units to ‘inspire cheerfulness and perseverance’. Germans have already withdrawn some units from the front and are pulling them far inland, probably in connection with the invasion by the Allies.

For the advance against Minsk to the north-west, Grossman rejoined General Batov’s 65th Army. In just over a week, the defence lines of Army Group Centre had been destroyed. The Germans had lost 200,000 men and 900 tanks, but Soviet casualties had also been terrifying in many sectors. Even Red Army generals hardened to the slaughter were shaken. Yet the battle had only just begun. Hitler and the German high command had still not realised that the Soviet strategy was aimed at two sets of pincers, an inner encirclement of Minsk, and an outer encirclement to trap the whole of Army Group Centre.

On 3 July, Soviet tanks entered the suburbs of Minsk. Another 100,000 German soldiers were trapped, and nearly half of them were killed. Grossman’s notes at this stage are random, including past atrocities, revenge and descriptions. Italian soldiers, who had already suffered in Russia for the fascist cause which most of them did not believe in, then found themselves after the armistice as prisoners and slave labourers of the Germans. Grossman even heard of some being killed by former Red Army soldiers serving the Wehrmacht in some capacity.

Italians executed by Vlasov men.9 Mass killing of [Red Army] prisoners of war on the 12/13 February 1944. In the morning the whole length of Sovyetskaya Street was piled with many thousands of bodies.

Fire in the districts close to the river: hundreds of thousands of people who have lost all their possessions in the fire are sitting on their bundles. Armchairs, paintings, deer’s heads with horns; girls holding kittens.

[German] Prisoners are walking on their own; they are sulky. One of them straightens his uniform whenever he sees a vehicle, and salutes it.

Another version of this description suggests that the German prisoner in question was probably suffering from battle-shock.

Revenge killings were unsurprising after the appalling anti-partisan war waged in Belorussia by the Germans and their auxiliaries, whom the Red Army often referred to generically as Vlasovtsy.

A partisan, a small man, has killed two Germans with a stake. He had pleaded with the guards of the column to give him these Germans. He had convinced himself that they were the ones who had killed his daughter Olya and his sons, his two boys. He broke all their bones, and smashed their skulls, and while he was beating them, he was crying and shouting: ‘Here you are – for Olya! Here you are – for Kolya!’ When they were dead, he propped the bodies up against a tree stump and continued to beat them.

Vlasovtsy are being killed. People are killing their compatriots, a man from Orel kills a man from the Orel region, an Uzbek kills an Uzbek.

There are already next to no German airfields left on our territory. Our fighters are already flying over their land. It won’t be long now before their country is ablaze.

Harmonicas. Everyone has got hold of a German harmonica. It is a soldier’s musical instrument, because it is the only one which can be played, even quite easily, when sitting on a jolting cart or a vehicle.

There are fourteen nationalities in the division.10

It’s so hard to find any paper to make cigarettes that there are cases of men using their wound certificates and other documents.

Signaller Skvortsov is small, plain. He has three fiancées. One of them has sent him a photo, but this wasn’t her photo. The second one has made a suit for him, size 48, while he wears 46. He shouts to the girls from the political department: ‘We’re all in the reserve here. Why are you chasing stars and shoulder-boards? When the war ends, you’ll be left with nothing.’

A gun-layer, Guards Sergeant Konkov, was the only one to survive. He forced forty captured Germans, threatening them with his submachine gun, to manhandle the howitzer, and fired point-blank.

Grossman had great admiration for General Batov, the commander of the 65th Army, who had been ordered by Rokossovsky to head west for Warsaw.

Batov is not prone to Russian optimism. Routine is harmful even in victorious actions.

And like the best commanders at Stalingrad, such as Gurtiev who had made his men dig trenches, then ‘steamed’ them with tanks, Batov believed in realistic exercises.

Training before an offensive. ‘If there’s a swamp with water up to one’s chest, one must train in the swamp. If there’s a gully – then lie down in the gully.’

Conversation with the chief of staff of artillery. Russian artillery. Russian guns. The masterpiece of Russian artillery is the 152mm howitzer. It is a cannon and howitzer at the same time.

Artillery suits the spirit of the Russian people. An artillery spotter is an infantryman, he brings to the gun the richness and enterprise of his character. Strength of firepower. The Germans, having started with [an emphasis on] technology at the beginning of the war, are now turning to infantry, while we, having started with infantry, are finding more and more support in technology.

German reconnaissance is poor. They fire on an area. They [also] abandon guns easily. They flee [even] before the infantry does, while our infantry usually starts running away before the artillerists.

Although the German artillery’s bag-charge of nitroglycerine is more powerful than our pyroxylin, German cannon is fragile and does not last long.

On 13 July, another blow was launched at the Germans. The 1st Ukrainian Front, now commanded by Marshal Konev, attacked Lvov, the operation the Germans had been expecting before Operation Bagration. It was the first stage of a charge which would take Konev’s armies right through to the Vistula, where, just over two weeks after crossing the start line, they seized the Sandomierz bridgehead on the western bank less than two hundred kilometres south of Warsaw. Meanwhile, Rokossovsky’s 1st Belorussian Front charged westwards towards the Vistula north and south of Warsaw.

As the 65th Army stormed on to Polish territory, Soviet troops had mixed, if not deeply confused, feelings about the local population. This must have been especially true of those who knew how the Soviet Union had behaved towards Poland in 1939, stabbing it in the back as part of the Molotov–Ribbentrop pact. The Poles were their traditional enemy, they were largely anti-communist and reactionary in Soviet eyes, yet they were ferociously anti-German and had resisted bravely. Now they suffered looting and rape at the hands of their supposed liberators. Grossman, no doubt conscious of the Poles’ reputation for anti-Semitism, may have felt ambivalent himself as he scribbled a note to prompt him later. ‘About Poles. Belief in God. Platoons of believers. Platoons of non-believers. Catholic priests. Hierarchy.’

He wrote an article celebrating the liberation of Poland. Grossman had no idea of how appallingly the people of eastern Poland had been treated after the Red Army invasion of 1939, when the country was divided up between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Many of the poorer peasants looked forward to the land reform promised by the Polish Communist puppet government set up in Lublin. The more educated, however, had good cause to fear that the Stalinists would again continue their policy of eradicating all those who might attempt to challenge communist hegemony.

From deciduous forests, from marshes overgrown with bright and thick grass, thousands of Polish peasants are drifting, by foot and in carts, along the deep sandy surfaces of country roads. They are carrying back to their villages the belongings that they hid from the Germans. They are driving cows, calves and horses. These crowds of peasants in felt hats and jackets, walking barefoot, these peasant women in headkerchiefs and aprons, loaded with winter clothes, pillows, blankets, mirrors, home-woven carpets, walking towards our front tank, infantry and cavalry units, are, in fact, expressing inexhaustibly the friendship and trust Polish people have for the Red Army. This countermarch of the Polish peasants driving livestock from the forests and carrying their belongings back to their houses among the thunder of Soviet artillery expresses the Polish peasants’ understanding of the moral and political honour of our troops.

I asked whether people had looked forward to the Red Army’s arrival. Several people said the words which I had heard before:

‘We waited for it like for God!’

There’s only one kind of complaint and lament that I didn’t hear in Poland, only one kind of tears that I didn’t see: those of Jews. There are no Jews in Poland. They have all been suffocated, killed, from elders to newly-born babies. Their dead bodies have been burned in furnaces. And in Lublin, the Polish city with the biggest Jewish population, where more than 40,000 Jews had been living before the war, I haven’t seen a single child, a single woman, a single old man who could speak the language that my grandparents spoke.

Yet, as Grossman would soon find out for himself when he continued to investigate the operation of the Holocaust in Central Europe, the Poles, despite their anti-communism, were quite unlike the Ukrainians. Very few had collaborated with the Nazis.

1 General Aleksei I. Antonov (1896–1962) was regarded as the most competent staff officer produced by the Red Army during the war, and became chief of the general staff in 1945.

2 General Sergei M. Shtemenko (1907–1976) was chief of the operations directorate and took over from Antonov when he was promoted in 1945. Shtemenko did not suffer when Stalin purged, sidelined and threatened other senior Soviet generals in the immediate post-war years. He became chief of the general staff in 1948.

3 Lieutenant General Hamann was captured. He was later executed in 1945 for war crimes.

4 This is presumably the former 308th Rifle Division, commanded at Stalingrad by General Gurtiev, which became the 120th Guards Rifle Division in September 1943. This mainly Siberian formation had defended the Barrikady factory in Stalingrad. During Operation Bagration it formed part of the 3rd Army.

5 Kuznechik, the camel, became even more famous less than a year later when he did reach Berlin and was led across the city by his driver to spit at the Reichstag.

6 Generalleutnant Kurt-Jürgen Freiherr Henning von Lützov, who had been born in 1892 near Marienwerder, was sentenced in Moscow on 29 June 1950 to twenty-five years’ imprisonment for war crimes (a sentence handed out to many German generals as the Cold War intensified). He was released and repatriated in January 1956.

7 OKH (Oberkommando des Heeres), the army general staff, had responsibility for all operations on the eastern front. The OKW (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht) was responsible for all operations everywhere else.

8 Lieutenant General Hans-Walter Heyne, commander of the 6th Infantry Division, was also captured in the area of Bobruisk. Heyne was not a member of the SS, a term which many Soviet accounts use with abandon. ‘Frontschwein’ was presumably Heyne’s heavy joke. The usual phrase was ‘Fronthase’, or ‘front hare’. Heyne, a fifty-year-old from Hanover, was sentenced to twenty-five years, and served most of his sentence in Vorkuta. He was released and repatriated in December 1955.

9 It is most unlikely that they would have been members of General Vlasov’s Russian Liberation Army (ROA), as he states. ROA units had been transferred to the Western Front. The term ‘Vlasov men’ was inaccurately used by the Red Army for any ‘former Soviet citizen’ in Wehrmacht uniform, even Hiwis, or Hilfsfreiwillige, the most reluctant form of recruit from prison camps used for heavy labour.

10 It is not clear whether Grossman was still with the 120th Guards Rifle Division at this stage. Nationalities refer to different state identities within the Soviet Union – Russian, Ukrainian, Kazakh, etc. Even Soviet Jews were classified in many Red Army documents and tables of statistics as a separate nationality.

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