(June 25, 2021) This week, 80 years ago, Minsk, the capital of Belarus, fell to the onrushing German Wehrmacht. When hostilities opened, Minsk had a population of 300,000. By the time the Red Army liberated the city in 1944, its population had shrunk to 50,000. Today it has a population of more than six times its prewar size.
Minsk was the immediate target of Armeegruppe Center, commanded by Field Marshal Fedor von Bock. Field Marshal von Bock’s Armeegruppe Center numbered more than 750,000 soldiers spread among: Second, Fourth and Ninth Armies commanded by Col.-Gen. Baron Maximilian von Weichs; Field Marshal Günther von Kluge and Col.-Gen. Adolph Strauß; Panzerguppes Two and Three, commanded by Gens. Heinz Guderian and Herman Hoth, and supported by Luftflotte 2, commanded by Field Marshal Albert Kesselring.
Opposing Field Marshal von Bock’s Armeegruppe Center was the Western Front commanded by Gen. Dmitri Pavlov, and numbering 675,000 soldiers. A “Front” in Soviet parlance was roughly the equivalent of an armeegruppe.
The Western Front included the Third, Fourth and Tenth Armies commanded by Gens.Vasily Ivanovich Kuznetsov, Aleksandr Andeevich Khorobkov and Konstantin Dmitrievich Golubev. Thirteenth Army, commanded by Pyotr Filato,v was held in reserve. Gen. Filatov would die of wounds received during the battle.
Field Marshal von Bock’s Armeegruppe Center launched its assault on the Soviet Union from Poland, aiming toward Moscow. The Germans sent the two Panzergruppes around each side of Gen. Pavlov’s Western Front as the infantry smashed through the center. By the time the Soviets knew what had hit them, the Luftwaffe had destroyed the Voyenno-Vozdushnye Sily (VVS) — Soviet Air Force — on the ground, while Special German Forces had parachuted, or infiltrated, into the Soviet rear areas, cutting telephone lines, seizing bridges, and generally causing problems for the Red Army.
Communication with Moscow was almost nonexistent, so that the Soviet general staff, Stavka, had no understanding of the terrible situation at the front. Stavka continued to issue orders that reflected its misunderstanding.
Gen. Hoth’s Panzergruppe 3 crossed the Nieman River, in the north, on June 23, while Gen. Guderian’s Panzergruppe 2 crossed the River Bug, in the south. Three days later Gen. Hoth’s Panzers were 18 miles north of Minsk, with 7th Panzerdivision, commanded by Baron Hans von Funck, cutting the highway to Moscow.
That afternoon Field Marshal von Bock ordered Gen. Guderian to turn his Panzers toward Gen. Hoth to close the pincers. That same day, Gen. Pavlov warned Moscow that, “... up to 1,000 tanks are enveloping Minsk from the northwest. There is no way to oppose them.”
Any attempted counterattacks by the Red Army were destroyed by the Luftwaffe. By June 27, the Panzers had crossed the Berezina River, meaning they had covered 400 miles in six days! Second and Third Panzergruppes closed the trap on June 27, bagging Third, Tenth, Thirteenth and part of the Fourth Soviet Armies and surrounding Minsk. Two days later, the 900-year-old Belorussian capital fell.
In this battle, not only was Minsk captured, but 417,000 Soviet soldiers were either captured or killed. In addition to the soldiers that were captured, 3,332 Soviet tanks and 1,809 artillery pieces were taken or destroyed. Gens. Pavlov and Khorobkov, and their staffs, were relieved of command, arrested, and transported to Moscow where they were tried, convicted, sentenced to death, and executed on July 22, 1941. Their property was confiscated and their bodies were burned in a landfill near Moscow.
This had been a stunning German success, leading them to believe that the war would end shortly in their favor. The Panzer Ccommanders, especially Guderian, were chaffing at the bit, because they were ordered not to advance until the pocket was eliminated, thereby giving the Red Army time to recover and establish additional defenses.
Finally, on July 3, resistance inside the pocket was ended. German Army Commander-in-Chief, Franz Halder wrote in his diary, that, “...the objective to shatter the bulk of the Russian Army this side of the Dvina and Dniepr Rivers has been accomplished. East of these rivers, we will encounter nothing more than partial forces. It is probably no overstatement to say that the Russian Campaign has been won in the space of two weeks.” (Emphasis supplied).
However, trouble was looming for the Germans. Gen. Günther Blumentritt, Chief-of-Staff of Field Marshal von Kluge’s Fourth Army, observed that, “...the conduct of the Russian troops, even in this first battle, was in striking contrast to the behavior of the Poles and the Western Allies in defeat. Even when encircled, the Russians stood their ground and fought.”
Most of the Soviet soldiers captured during this campaign did not survive German “hospitality.” Even if they did, they would find an unpleasant welcome on their return to the Soviet State. Stalin did not look kindly on soldiers who surrendered, considering them traitors. Many were imprisoned — or worse.
In order to facilitate a more conservative attitude on the part of the Panzer commanders, the two Panzergruppes, on July 3, were placed under the command of Field Marshal von Kluge, and were finally ordered to resume their advance. Gen. Guderian’s Panzergruppe 2 headed toward Yelnya on the Desna River, and Gen. Hoth’s Panzergruppe 3 headed north of Smolensk. In all, the German Armor had waited six days while the encircled Soviet soldiers were brought to heel.
During that time, Hero of the Soviet Union, Marshal Semyon Timoshenko was moved from Commissar of Defense to the field to command the reeling Red Army in front of Field Marshal von Bock’s Armeegruppe Center and used that time to stiffen Soviet resistence. Mines were laid, trenches were dug, antitank obstacles were installed.
Behind the Wehrmacht came the Einsatzgruppen. Einsatzgruppe B, commanded by Arthur Nebe, was attached to Field Marshal von Bock’s Armeegruppe Center, with its headquarters, first at Minsk, and, after August 5, at Smolensk. Its mission was to kill Jews, Gypsies, Communists, and undesirable Slavs.
As they did in most captured large eastern cities, the Germans, on July 20, 1941, established a Jewish Ghetto, into which more than 100,000 Jews were crammed, most of whom were eventually murdered. In November the Ghetto was subdivided into three sections: 1) the main Ghetto for unskilled Jews; 2) a section for skilled workers; and 3) a section housing the German, Austrian and Czech Jews — about 35,000 — that had been shipped there. By July 3, 1944, when the Red Army liberated the city, there were few Jews left.
Belarus lost between 25 and 40 percent of its prewar population -— between 2.2 million and 3.65 million — and did not reach its prewar level until 1971. One million buildings and 85 percent of its industry were destroyed.
The Presidium of the Supreme Soviet designated Minsk a “Hero City” on June 26, 1974. Russian President Vladimir Putin conferred the status of “City of Military Glory” on Yelnya, on Oct. 8, 2007.
Next week: Finland and Hungary Join the Attack
Mr. Wimbrow writes from Ocean City, Maryland, where he practices law representing those persons accused of criminal and traffic offenses, and those persons who have suffered a personal injury through no fault of their own. He can be contacted at: email@example.com.