In 1941 the Wehrmacht had swept into Soviet Russia with huge encircling thrusts that captured whole sections of the Red Army. The Soviets casualties were appalling and few of the 3 million men taken prisoner that year would survive in captivity. Exactly three years after the Nazi invasion the Soviets launched their largest counter-offensive yet – Operation Bagration.
Now the tables had truly been turned. The overwhelmingly strong Soviet forces smashed into the German Army Group Centre and destroyed it – a series of encircling actions through the remainder of June and July would wreak havoc. German casualties were far in excess of their losses at Stalingrad, the main German forces in the east were effectively broken:
Heinrich Haape describes the death of his regiment:
A new spring and a new summer swept across Europe into Russia and the Red Army launched a mighty offensive against the dogged German Army. On 28 June 1944, 6 Division was encircled near Bobruisk. At their backs flowed the river of Napoleon’s final defeat – the Beresina. And on the other bank, between 6 Division and their homeland, stood the Russians.
The last order was given: ‘Redundant weapons to be destroyed; only iron rations and ammunition to be carried. Code word “Napoleon” – every man for himself.’ The men of Infantry Regiment 18, every man of the proud 6 Division fought like devils. Little Becker fell, so did Oberfeldarzt Schulze. Major Hoke fought and died at the head of his regiment; heavily wounded, he saved his last bullet for himself.
A few crossed the river and slipped through the Russian trap; most died on the banks of the Beresina; a small remnant was captured and marched away into captivity. Perhaps a hundred men, not many more, struggled through the Pripet Marshes and reached their homeland — a hundred from the eighteen thousand men who had marched into Russia under the Bielefeld crest. 6 Division, the heroic Regiment 18, had ceased to exist.
See Heinrich Haape: Moscow Tram Stop, London, 1957
The following day Nikolai Litvin was part of a Soviet assault battalion that reached the northwest suburbs of the city of Bobruisk, along the Minsk highway:
The Germans defending Bobruisk were now caught in a noose. Two kilometers from our positions to the east were two small vil- lages. Inside them were the remnants of surrounded hostile forces that had not yet been destroyed. We expected that under the cover of darkness, these Germans would make an attempt to break through to the west, across the Minsk highway and into the woods beyond.
From our positions, a thin belt of woods separated us from a large rye ﬁeld that stretched to the two villages. We placed our machine gun on a small hillock on the edge of the woods overlooking the highway, so that in case of necessity, we could sweep the high- way with ﬁre in either direction, toward Minsk or toward Bobruisk. In front of our position, a gap in the woods about thirty-ﬁve meters wide gave us a clean ﬁeld of ﬁre toward the rye ﬁeld, across which the Germans would be advancing.
Suddenly a large column of Germans moved from the village toward the Minsk highway, perhaps 10,000 strong. They were marching in column, as if on a parade ground. The column was 100 to 120 meters wide, and perhaps no less than a kilometer long. It was heading to our left.
There were two vehicles in the middle of the column, each one mounting American Oerlikon guns.7 Most likely, these guns had previously been ours, but we had let them slip into German hands. The guns were pouring ﬁre into our positions. The column apparently planned to break through our lines here, cross the Minsk highway, and pass through the woods we were occupying.
As it approached the highway, the column deployed into a human wave and rushed forward. From our position, the left ﬂank of the German line of advancing men was about 1,200 meters away. We opened ﬁre on the Germans, not permitting them to turn in our direction. The Germans were packed so tightly together, and in such a mass, that it was simply impossible to miss.
When our command found out that a German column was attempting to break out here, they rushed an antitank battery to our support. Twelve cannons unlimbered before the column and began to ﬁre at it over open sights. They ﬁred fragmentation shells ﬁrst, and then when the German avalanche had approached within range, switched to case shot.
Once they had expended all their case shot, the guns switched to whatever they had remaining, even armor-piercing rounds. The ﬁghting was desperate and continued until nightfall. Having lost perhaps half their force, most Germans fell back to the village. Per- haps 1,500 Germans managed to break through our lines and escape.
On the ﬁeld of battle remained piles of German corpses and the seriously wounded.
In the morning, we woke up and looked out upon the ﬁeld of carnage. It was quiet. There was no shooting. The rye ﬁeld was a mousy color from all the fallen Germans in their ﬁeld gray uniforms. Their corpses lay piled upon one another. It was another hot day. Our machine gun remained pointed toward the village to where the remnants of the trapped German force had retreated. By 11:00 A.M., a stench began rising into the air.
See Nikolai Litvin: 800 Days on the Eastern Front: A Russian Soldier Remembers World War II. For a review of this memoir see Kansas Press.
Images courtesy Russian War Album