Seventy five years ago today, the offensive that led to Nazi Germany’s greatest defeat of the Second World War was unleashed. Deploying 2 million bayonets and nearly 6,000 armored vehicles, it wiped some 28 divisions from the Nazi order of battle, granting the victors the positions from which the invasion of Germany itself could be launched months later.
Yet in the Western world, few people have ever heard of “Operation Bagration.”
The Soviet operation – named after a czarist Russian general – covered 720 kilometers, swept the German Army from Byelorussia, and surged to the gates of Warsaw. To the Germans, it was known starkly as “The Destruction of Army Group Center” – its central military grouping on the territory of the USSR. A quarter of German troops on the Eastern Front were lost in just five weeks.
One reason it is largely unknown in the West is timing.
In coordination with the Western Allies, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin launched Operation Bagration 16 days after “Operation Overlord,” the D-Day invasion, which landed 150,000 men, meaning the offensive unfolded at a time when eyes in the UK and US were focused on the intense fighting raging across Normandy. For Stalin, June 22 had immense symbolic value: That was the day, three years prior, when Axis forces had invaded the Soviet Union.
But there is another, broader, reason Bagration is unknown. To this day, much of the Western public is ignorant about the geographic scale of World War II and the differing contributions made by the main combatants – most critically, the role played by the Soviet Union.
Russia ignored, Putin snubbed
Glancing at international news headlines today, there is virtually no mention of the anniversary of Bagration. Compare and contrast with the wall-to-wall global media coverage that accompanied the 75th D-Day commemorations in the first week of this month.
During those events – held in both the UK and France – the global media spotlights fell on US President Donald Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron, British Prime Minister Theresa May, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and even German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Strikingly absent was Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Of course, Russian troops did not hit the beaches in Operation Overlord in 1944. But during D-Day’s 70th anniversary, Putin had joined US president Barack Obama and the UK’s Queen Elizabeth II in Normandy to celebrate the achievement of all the Allies who wiped Nazism’s murderous scourge from the earth.
But this year, with Russia and the West increasingly at odds, Putin was not invited. The man himself took it on the chin. “As to whether I was invited or not, we also do not invite everyone to every event,” Putin said at the time. “Why do I have to be invited everywhere to some event? Am I a wedding general, or what? I have enough of my own business. This is not a problem at all.”
Some subordinates, however, gave voice to to long-standing Russian grievances.
“The Normandy landings were not a game-changer for the outcome of World War II and the ‘Great Patriotic War,’” said Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova – using the Soviet-era term for the conflict. “The outcome was determined by the Red Army’s victories – mainly, in Stalingrad and Kursk. For three years, the UK and then the US dragged out opening the Second Front.”
Coming from an official spokeswoman, that sounds close to an official position. How firm a foundation is this position built on?
The Eastern Front
While breathless Western media hailed D-Day as a “turning point” in World War II, there had been multiple critical pivots on Soviet soil prior to June 6, 1944.
The exhausted Wehrmacht’s inability to capture Moscow in the face of dogged Soviet resistance in winter 1941 may have sealed Adolf Hitler’s eventual fate. By failing to knock out the USSR, Germany was consigned to a long war she could not win, given the vast manpower and industrial resources deployed against her.
The following winter, the annihilation of the starving German Sixth Army in the frosted rubble of Stalingrad was a trauma from which the German public never recovered. German forces, however, did. At Kharkov in early 1943, well-handled Panzers smashed Red Army units charging westward after Stalingrad. Reinforced, in summer 1943, German forces launched a seismic armored offensive at Kursk.
The failure of that operation, widely considered the biggest armored clash in history, was the real turning point. From that point on – 11 months before D-Day – the Wehrmacht would be on the retreat.
In summer 1944, Bagration swept German troops from Soviet territory and granted the Red Army an assault balcony across the waist of the European continent from which to strike Germany proper. In the final months of the war, it was the Red Army that wrested Eastern Europe from Hitler’s control and the SS extermination camps. (Which, contrary to popular belief, were exclusively in the East – though Western troops would, indeed, liberate numerous concentration camps.)
The final Nazi Gotterdammerung was the Red Army’s doing. Having halted the Wehrmacht’s last, desperate counteroffensive around the Hungarian oil fields in spring 1945, Soviet troops stormed Berlin and drove Hitler to suicide.
So, should the Western Allies’ contributions be dismissed?
The aerial, maritime and Western fronts
No. Hitler’s first serious setback was the Battle of Britain in 1940: Without air cover, he could not launch a cross-Channel invasion. That compelled him to fight the rest of World War II with an enemy at his back.
Subsequently, the ceiling of fortress Europe was smashed by the Western Allies’ bomber offensive. That had collateral impact on the Eastern Front, as the Luftwaffe – whose close-air support had been crucial in early German victories – was pulled back to defend the Reich. Likewise, the 88mm gun, Hitler’s finest anti-aircraft gun – but which was also used as a tank-mounted gun and anti-tank weapon – was increasingly mobilized to defend German skies, rather than to wreck Russian tanks.
At sea, the defeat of Germany’s navy – its heavy units and its U-boat arm – was largely a British achievement. Meanwhile, the massive supply of equipment, notably a fleet of trucks and jeeps, was a hugely important gift from the US to the USSR that made the Red Army more mobile than the Wehrmacht.
And there can be no question that the Allies did, indeed, contribute on land.
The first German ground defeat was El Alamein, and the fall of Tunisia netted 100,000 more German POWs than Stalingrad. Subsequently, the invasion of Sicily compelled Hitler to call off the Kursk operation. And twice in 1944, in Normandy and the Ardennes (“The Battle of the Bulge”), Hitler deployed his favored “fire brigade” units – the top-tier Waffen SS Panzer corps – in the west, not east.
Moreover – until the final week of the war – Moscow was fighting on only one front, while London and Washington were simultaneously battling Tokyo’s forces in the Far East.
Hollywood’s victory, history’s defeat, politics’ loss
Still, the numbers tell their own story. Germany was a continental power, and two-thirds of Berlin’s ground forces were deployed against the Red Army. Between 65% and 80% (sources differ) of total German casualties were incurred on the Eastern Front.
For the Soviet Union, the price of victory was colossal. The western USSR was laid waste, and as many as 27 million Soviets perished. As historians have pointed out, it is highly unlikely that the Western Allies would have been able to take on so much of the fighting burden, and endure such hideous cost, without governments collapsing. It took a dictator – Stalin – to defeat another dictator – Hitler.
Why is the massive Soviet contribution to victory not better known in the Western world?
The blame for ignorance of the Soviet role in World War II can be laid at the doors of mass media – most particularly, Hollywood. The world’s mightiest soft-power arsenal has portrayed World War II as largely an American achievement.
Still, such bias is understandable. Films are entertainment, not history, and US films are produced, primarily, for the US market. More problematically, entertainment overshadows historiography in the public mind – and in every country’s schools, history encompasses national biases.
But while the general public may be uninformed, the specialist is not, for Western history professionals have nothing to be ashamed of. Military historians, such as best-selling Britons Max Hastings and Antony Beevor, have never underplayed the Soviet role; indeed, their works offer generous credit.
That leaves politics.
D-Day is monumentally iconic in Western remembrance of World War II. The celebrations this month will be the largest memorial events until next year’s commemorations of the 75th anniversary of final victory in 1945. After that, living memories of World War II will be extinguished.
With Russia’s president the obvious heir to the Soviet presidency, it seems churlish for Western leaders not to have invited the representative of the nation that both suffered and inflicted the greatest casualties in the war, to the events on June 6.
The politics of today should not besmirch the achievements of yesterday. With so much dividing East from West in the present, it seems a missed opportunity not to have jointly celebrated the just struggle of a shared past.