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256 CHAPTER THIRTEEN Operation Bagration The Death of Army Group Center STRATEGIC PLANNING In March 1944, the State Defense Committee and Soviet General Staff began an exhaustive analysis of the entire front, examining each area to find opportunities for the next round of offensive action. In doing so, the planners had to select a course of action that would accomplish the most in both military and political terms. The Western Allies had finally promised an invasion of France to commence in May; future Soviet operations needed to take this into account, projecting the most likely outcome of the war in terms of which ally would conquer which portions of the continent and especially who would take Berlin. The most obvious option for the main summer offensive—and the one the German commanders expected—was to continue in the south, advancing into southern Poland and the Balkans and driving several Axis satellites out of the war. Yet, this option might overextend Red forces, committing them to the difficult terrain of the Balkans at the end of ever-lengthening supply chains while leaving large portions of the Soviet Union unredeemed. A second option was to thrust from the Ukraine northwestward through Poland to the Baltic Sea. However, the three previous general offensives had taught Joseph Stalin that such a grandiose plan was beyond Soviet capabilities , especially in the realms of command, control, and logistics. The Wehrmacht was still far too strong to succumb to a single attack; the previous Soviet offensives had validated painfully the prewar concept of successive offensive operations. A third possibility was to focus the main effort in the north, with the objective of defeating Finland and completing the reconquest of the Baltic States. From the Soviet perspective, it was past time to eliminate the Finnish threat to both Leningrad and the Murmansk supply line, but by itself, such an offensive would occupy only a fraction of the available resources. Moreover, completing the advance westward into the Baltics risked a prolonged frontal battle against strong German defenses, a battle that, even if successful, would lead to a strategic dead end against the Baltic coast. Finally, the Red Army could attack Army Group Center, its old nemesis, which was concentrated in the “Belorussian balcony” that jutted eastward Operation Bagration 257 north of the Pripiat’ Marshes. If it succeeded, such an attack would decimate the few German field armies that were still relatively intact and cut off Army Group North from its lines of supply and retreat. A Belorussian offensive would also complete the liberation of Soviet territory and place the Red Army in Poland, poised along the most direct route to Berlin. Moreover, success in Belorussia might condition subsequent Soviet success along other strategic axes by destroying remaining German reserves.1 The disadvantage of this choice was the strength of German strongpoints such as Vitebsk, Orsha , Mogilev, and Rogachev, whose stout defense had frustrated a major Red Army offensive into the region the previous fall and winter. But, thought the Stavka, this could be remedied by employing a stronger tank force in the offensive. In retrospect, the decision to make the main effort in Belorussia appears almost self-evident. In fact, this offensive, which Stalin named Operation Bagration after a hero of 1812, was only the centerpiece of five offensives planned for the summer of 1944. Knowledge of the true scope of the plan was restricted to a handful of men—Stalin, his deputy Zhukov, Chief of the General Staff Vasilevsky, and operations chief Antonov. Furthermore, for logistical and operational reasons, these five offensives were staggered, beginning in the north and working successively toward the south. The five offensives involved the following geographic locales and starting dates: Karelian Isthmus in Finland, 10 June 1944; Belorussia (code-named Bagration), 23 June; L’vov-Sandomierz, 13 July; Lublin-Brest, 18 July; and Iasi-Kishinev, 20 August . For similar reasons, even within Operation Bagration the actual attacks began at the northern flank and rippled southward (see Map 21). EXIT FINLAND While preparations for the main Soviet offensive continued apace, Generals Govorov (Leningrad Front) and Meretskov (Karelian Front) lifted the curtain for the summer campaign by striking against Finland. That front had stabilized in late 1941, when the German advance on Leningrad had failed, and Finnish forces remained inactive after reoccupying the territories the Soviets had seized in 1940. Major Soviet bombing raids during February and March 1944 had forced the Finns to open diplomatic negotiations, but they rejected Soviet demands for more...


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