Ivan Bagramyan - World War II - Belarus

Belarus

With the end of operations in Kursk, the Soviets began a series of offensives on various fronts to push the Germans out of the occupied Soviet republics. In October 1943, Bagramyan's Eleventh Army was transferred to the Second Baltic Front which was concentrated on the retaking of Belarus and namely, the Baltic republics. In November, Stalin offered Bagramyan the position of head commander of the First Baltic Front which had the similar objectives of the Second but was making little headway in its attempts to advance northwards.

Stalin would allow him to retain the Eleventh Army and suggested that Colonel-General N. E. Chibisov, an officer he had served under, assume his position. Bagramyan however commented that he had had a frictional relationship with Chibisov and instead nominated Lieutenant-General K. N. Galitsky. Stalin, belatedly realizing that Bagramyan was implying that the two would be unable to coherently coordinate together due to a conflict of holding the same rank, agreed to Bagramyan's suggestion and promoted him to the rank Army General. He also agreed to have the Second Baltic Front return a tank corps and an infantry division that was taken from the Eleventh Army, thus bolstering the forces under Bagramyan to a total of four armies: the Eleventh, Thirty-ninth, Forty-third Guards and the Fourth Shock.

In the winter of 1943, his forces advanced forward towards the Belarusian city of Vitebsk. One of the key elements to Bagramyan's success was that many of the soldiers were part of veteran units that had been trained in the Arctic regions of Siberia, enabling them to easily push through entrenched defenses the Germans had spent months preparing. Among the key locations imperative to reach Vitebsk was the small town of Gorodok, Russia, serving as a communications hub that the Germans had heavily fortified. Despite the heavy defense preparations, Bagramyan was able to utilize his heavy artillery and air support from the Red Air Force in late December to bombard the town and then launch a three-pronged attack from the ground. The German garrison was overwhelmed, and by December 24, two infantry divisions and one tank division surrendered. In Moscow, the news of the victory at Gorodok prompted a 124 cannon salute in honor of Bagramyan and the First Baltic Front.

On April 2, 1944 Stalin granted Bagramyan's request to relieve the troops of the Front of offensive duties. However, German forces took this to their advantage as they mounted a new offensive against Soviet partisan fighters in Belarus. Bagramyan's senior staff diverted air support and other crucial supplies to aid the partisans, allowing most of them to escape the German encirclement. With the advance of Soviet forces in the Baltic and the Ukraine, German Army Group Center had largely been isolated as STAVKA prepared to eliminate the pocket (consisting of Third Panzer, Second, Fourth, and Ninth Armies). STAVKA's plan, codenamed Operation Bagration was kept secret from all of the involved Front commanders. Bagramyan himself was only informed in May 1944 of his role in the offensive.

Bagration called for the First, Second and Third Belarusian Fronts and the First Baltic to engulf Army Group Center. Bagramyan was tasked with attacking the forces in the pocket, cross the Daugava River and, along with Third Belarusian, clear the surrounding areas of Vitebsk of German forces. Although he felt the plans for the Bagration were sound, he worried about the possibility of a German incursion by Army Group North against his forces from the north. He appealed to his superiors once more, Zhukov and Alexander Vasilevsky, to have the First Baltic Front move westwards to help eliminate the Third Panzer Army, thus splitting Army Group North in two. Zhukov and Vasilevsky accepted his argument, introducing it to Stalin in a meeting on May 23 who formally approved it in a directive on May 31.

Although Bagramyan found it acceptable to sustain heavy casualties (as did all the commanders of the Red Army), he was disturbed with the immense loss of life his forces were sustaining. He, however, attempted to reduce those levels primarily by maintaining the element of surprise in operations. In his preparations for Bagration, he planned for the Forty-third army to move through the more geographically difficult swamps and marshlands to Army Group North's right flank. This maneuver would thus take North by surprise since it expected the Soviet offensive to move through more suitable terrain. He proved correct, as in early June 1944, the Forty-third Army achieved success in its attack. Commander of the Forty-third Army, General A. P. Beloborodov wrote that during the offensive, they apprehended a German general who stated that German forces had been blindsided by the attacking forces.

As Bagramyan pushed towards Vitebsk, his forces were aided by the same Belarusian guerrilla fighters that had escaped the German encirclement in April. They provided vital intelligence, including information on the location of bridges and troop movements, and launched attacks against German logistics lines. On June 22, 1944, Bagration began as Bagramyan proceeded in moving westwards as previously planned. However, a widening gap on the Front's northern flank grew as it advanced while the Second Baltic Front, tasked to help defend that area, took no action. Stalin agreed to send a tank corps to reinforce Bagramyan's forces but ordered him to capture Polatsk, which would sever Army Group North's communication lines and open up a route towards the central Baltic. By July 3, his troops had accomplished the tasks set forth in the directive, destroyed the Third Panzer Army and captured Polatsk. For his achievements, on July 7 he was decorated with the title of Hero of the Soviet Union.

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