|This article's lead section may not adequately summarize key points of its contents. (October 2008)|
|Part of Operation Bagration|
|Nazi Germany||Soviet Union|
|Commanders and leaders|
| Georg-Hans Reinhardt
(Third Panzer Army)
Kurt von Tippelskirch
| Hovhannes Bagramyan
(1st Baltic Front),
(3rd Belorussian Front)
|Casualties and losses|
The Vitebsk–Orsha Offensive (Russian: Витебско-Оршанская наступательная операция) was part of the Belorussian Strategic Offensive of the Red Army in summer 1944, commonly known as Operation Bagration. During the offensive, Soviet troops captured Vitebsk and Orsha. A Soviet breakthrough during the offensive helped achieve the encirclement of German troops in the subsequent Minsk Offensive.
The immediate goals of the Soviet offensive were:
- Break through the defences of 3rd Panzer Army to the north and south of Vitebsk and encircle the city, which occupied a salient in the German lines.
- Break through the heavily fortified area around the main Moscow-Minsk highway and liberate the town of Orsha.
- Commit motorised / cavalry exploitation forces through the gap opened once the highway had been cleared, opening the way for a major encirclement of the German Fourth Army in the Minsk Offensive Operation.
Soviet intelligence had revealed the depth of the German defences on the Moscow - Minsk highway near Orsha. As a result, the attack of Galitsky's 11th Guards Army in this sector was to be preceded by specialised engineer units; mine rolling PT-34 tanks of the 116th Separate Engineering Tank Regiment were committed along with assault engineer companies and assault gun regiments in several waves against the fortified and heavily mined positions of the 78th Sturm Division.
- Third Panzer Army (Colonel-General Georg-Hans Reinhardt)
- Northern flank of Fourth Army (General Kurt von Tippelskirch)
- Reserve: 14th Infantry Division, 286th Security Division
The cities of Vitebsk and Orsha had been declared Fester Platz - fortified towns to be held at all costs - under the command of Gollwitzer (Vitebsk) and General Traut of the XXVII Corps' 78th Sturm Division (Orsha).
- 1st Baltic Front (General Hovhannes Bagramyan)
- 3rd Belorussian Front (General Ivan Chernyakhovsky)
Marshal Aleksandr Vasilevsky was appointed to coordinate the operations of the two Fronts involved.
Army Group Centre's northern flank was defended by the Third Panzer Army under the command of Georg-Hans Reinhardt; the lines ran through marshy terrain in the north, through a salient round the city of Vitebsk, to a sector north of the main Moscow–Minsk road, held by the Fourth Army. It was opposed by the 1st Baltic Front of Hovhannes Bagramyan, and Chernyakhovsky's 3rd Belorussian Front, who were given the task of breaking through the defences to the north and south of Vitebsk and cutting off the salient.
It was in this sector that Soviet forces had their greatest initial gains. The Soviet 43rd Army broke the defences of the German IX Corps, to the north of Vitebsk, within hours, pushing towards the Dvina river. South of the city, the VI Corps' 299th and 197th Infantry Divisions simply disappeared beneath an overwhelming Soviet assault, with a particularly effective breakthrough by the 5th Army at the junction of the 299th and 256th Infantry Divisions' sectors. By June 24, the German position in Vitebsk itself, held by the central LIII Corps of four divisions, was already serious, as Soviet forces were clearly intending to encircle the city, but no reserves were available to shore up the collapsing defences, and requests to withdraw German troops to the second defense lines, the 'Tiger' line, were denied by the Oberkommando des Heeres.
By June 25, Third Panzer Army was disintegrating. In the north, IX Corps had been broken and pushed over the Dvina, blowing the bridges during its retreat. In the south much of the VI Corps had been annihilated, and its southernmost divisions (the 299th and 256th Infantry Divisions) had become separated from the remainder of Third Panzer Army by heavy attacks around Bogushevsk, where they attempted to make a final stand in the 'Hessen' line, the third defence zone. The Soviet 43rd and 39th Armies were now converging behind Vitebsk, trapping the entire LIII Corps. LIII Corps' commander, Friedrich Gollwitzer, had transferred the 4th Luftwaffe Field Division south-west of the city in order to spearhead a breakout, while the 246th Infantry Division attempted to hold open the Dvina crossings. OKH however, denied all requests for complete evacuation: the 206th Infantry Division was ordered to stay in the city and fight to the last man.
Soviet plans in this sector met with overwhelming success. The 4th Luftwaffe Field Division was cut off and destroyed by the 39th Army on the evening of the 25 June, and by the next day the 246th Infantry and 6th Luftwaffe Field Divisions, fighting their way along the road from Vitebsk, had also been encircled. Hitler insisted that a staff officer be parachuted into Vitebsk to remind Gollwitzer that the trapped 206th Infantry Division should not withdraw; Third Panzer Army's commander, Reinhardt, was only able to get this decision reversed by insisting on being parachuted in himself if Hitler continued to order it. By the evening Soviet forces were fighting their way into the city and Gollwitzer finally ordered the garrison to withdraw too, in defiance of Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH) orders.
By 27 June LIII Corps had been dispersed, its 30,000 men being almost all killed or taken prisoner; a group of several thousand from the 4th Luftwaffe Field Division initially managed to break out, but was liquidated in the forests west of Vitebsk. The remnants of IX Corps were retreating to the west, falling back on Polotsk with the 6th Guards Army in pursuit: VI Corps was also largely destroyed. Third Panzer Army had been effectively shattered within days, and Vitebsk liberated: even more significantly, a huge gap had been torn in the German lines to the north of Fourth Army in the former VI Corps sector.
The central sector of Soviet operations was against the long front of Fourth Army, which was under the overall command of Kurt von Tippelskirch. Soviet plans envisaged the bulk of it, the XXXIX Panzer Corps and XII Corps, being encircled while pinned down by attacks from the 2nd Belorussian Front in the parallel Mogilev Offensive Operation. By far the most important Soviet objective, however, was immediately to the north: the main Moscow–Minsk road and the town of Orsha, which the southern wing of Chernyakhovsky's 3rd Belorussian Front was ordered to take. A breakthrough in this area, against General Paul Völckers' XXVII Corps, would form the northern 'pincer' of the encirclement aimed at destroying Fourth Army. The Minsk road was protected by extensive defensive works manned by the 78th Sturm Division, a specially reinforced unit with extra artillery and assault gun support. Orsha itself had been designated a Fester Platz or strongpoint under 78th Sturm Division's commander, with the 25th Panzergrenadier Division holding the lines to the south. As a result of the strong defenses in this sector, Soviet plans included the commitment of heavily armed engineer units to assist in a breakthrough.
Galitsky's 11th Guards Army attacked towards Orsha on 23 June but initially made little headway. By the next day, the Soviet 1st Guards Rifle Division was able to break through the German lines in a marshy, thinly-held area to the north of the 78th Sturm Division, which was ordered back to the 'Hessen' line, the third defence zone. It was now struggling to maintain contact with the 25th Panzergrenadier Division to the south. Chernyakhovsky, encouraged by the 1st Guards Rifle Division's progress, pushed a mixed cavalry / mechanised exploitation force into the breach in the German lines. On 25 June, the German defences began to rupture; a counter-attack at Orekhovsk failed.
Völckers' position was further threatened by the near-collapse of the Third Panzer Army's VI Corps, immediately to the north. At 11:20 on 25 June the VI Corps, which had been cut off from its parent formation, was reassigned to Fourth Army. Part of its reserve, the 14th Infantry Division was brought up to try and slow the Soviet advance north of Orsha. By midnight, however, the 11th Guards Army had shattered the remnant of VI Corps in the 'Hessen' line, and the 78th Sturm Division's situation was becoming untenable: 26 June saw the German forces in retreat. Soviet tank forces of the 2nd Guards Tank Corps were able to push up the road towards Minsk at speed, with a subsidiary force breaking off to encircle Orsha, which was liberated on the evening of 26 June. The main exploitation force, Pavel Rotmistrov's 5th Guards Tank Army, was then committed through the gap torn in the German lines. VI Corps finally crumbled completely, its rear elements falling back towards Borisov in disarray: its commander, General Georg Pfeiffer, was killed on 28 June after losing contact with his divisions. Völckers was ordered to hold fast, but lacked the necessary resources despite shifting his 260th Infantry Division northwards and moving the 286th Security Division into the lines.
The operation effectively ceased with the arrival of 5th Guards Tank Army's forward units at the Berezina on 28 June.
In terms of its objectives within the broader structure of Operation Bagration, the offensive was a complete success:
- The two key cities and communication / transport centres of Vitebsk and Orsha were captured.
- Heavy damage was inflicted on German forces, with the LIII Corps of Third Panzer Army being almost completely eliminated and other corps suffering high levels of casualties and loss of equipment.
- The breakthrough of exploitation forces at Orsha, in combination with a similar breakthrough in the south in the parallel Bobruysk Offensive Operation, set up the planned encirclement of the bulk of the German Fourth Army in the following Minsk Offensive Operation.
- Dunn, W. Soviet Blitzkrieg: The Battle for White Russia, 1944, Lynne Riener, 2000, ISBN 978-1-55587-880-1
- Glantz, D.M. Byelorussia 1944—The Soviet General Staff Study
- Mitcham, S. German Defeat in the East, 1944-5, Stackpole, 2007.
- Niepold, G., translated by Simpkin, R., Battle for White Russia: The destruction of Army Group Centre June 1944, Brassey's, London, 1987, ISBN 0-08-033606-X
- Zaloga, S. Bagration 1944: The Destruction of Army Group Centre, Osprey Publishing, 1996, ISBN 978-1-85532-478-7
- Dunn, pp. 1-2
- Zaloga, p.52
- Mitcham, p.24
- The Soviet record, given in Glantz, p.85, states that this group was first intercepted by the 179th Rifle Division at Lake Sarro on 26 June, and was eventually destroyed near Iakubovschina on 27 June.
- Zaloga, pp.56-57
- Dunn, p.149
- Dunn, pp.149-50