Operation Bagration

by Chris Bertram on June 11, 2004

Mike Davis, “writing in the Guardian”:http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,3604,1236209,00.html , puts D-Day in perspective.

bq. But what American has ever heard of Operation Bagration? June 1944 signifies Omaha Beach, not the crossing of the Dvina River. Yet the Soviet summer offensive was several times larger than Operation Overlord (the invasion of Normandy), both in the scale of forces engaged and the direct cost to the Germans.

bq. By the end of summer, the Red army had reached the gates of Warsaw as well as the Carpathian passes commanding the entrance to central Europe. Soviet tanks had caught Army Group Centre in steel pincers and destroyed it. The Germans would lose more than 300,000 men in Belorussia alone. Another huge German army had been encircled and would be annihilated along the Baltic coast. The road to Berlin had been opened.

bq. Thank Ivan. It does not disparage the brave men who died in the North African desert or the cold forests around Bastogne to recall that 70% of the Wehrmacht is buried not in French fields but on the Russian steppes. In the struggle against Nazism, approximately 40 “Ivans” died for every “Private Ryan”. Scholars now believe that as many as 27 million Soviet soldiers and citizens perished in the second world war.



Sebastian Holsclaw 06.11.04 at 8:46 am

In perspective. D-Day was the beginning of saving Western Europe. Crushing the NAZIs? A huge portion of that was done by Russia. But without D-Day and the like, the Iron Curtain would have been at the water’s edge. It is wrong to forget that enormous part Russia played in defeating Nazi Germany. Also wrong to forget what France would have looked like under Russian rule–just ask Austria.


bad Jim 06.11.04 at 9:09 am

Talk about imperial overreach! If the soviets had had to deal with France, the evil empire would have lasted half as long as it did. Had they taken Italy as well, they would have been hollowed out within a decade.

It’s not just about a populace that insists on several dozen varieties of cheese or ardent terroirists. The eastern block could not have fed itself in its declining years without subsidized agricultural exports from the EU. Not to mention finance and manufacturing…


Matt McGrattan 06.11.04 at 10:04 am

“Just ask Austria?”

Why Austria? [since it was never under Soviet rule…]

Or is this some kind of reference to the Anschluss? One might argue what the hypothetical Soviet occupation of France might have been like but presumably nothing much like the Anschluss….


Chris Bertram 06.11.04 at 10:13 am

No, you’re mistaken there Matt. From “US state department page”:http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/3165.htm :

bq. At the Moscow conference in 1943, the Allies declared their intention to liberate and reconstitute Austria. In April 1945, both Eastern- and Western-front Allied forces liberated the country. Subsequently, the victorious allies divided Austria into zones of occupation similar to those in Germany with a four-power administration of Vienna. Under the 1945 Potsdam agreements, the Soviets took control of German assets in their zone of occupation. These included 7% of Austria’s manufacturing plants, 95% of its oil resources, and about 80% of its refinery capacity. The properties returned to Austria under the Austrian State Treaty. This treaty, signed in Vienna on May 15, 1955, came into effect on July 27, and, under its provisions, all occupation forces departed by October 25, 1955. Austria became free and independent for the first time since 1938.


Gavin Cameron 06.11.04 at 10:36 am

The Soviet Union didn’t just take control of German assets in Austria during its time as occupying power; it carted a great deal of industrial equipment and anything else back East.

Also, it’s worth noting that the disproportionate ratio of Ivans to Ryans who died is partly due to the differing capital to labour ratios of the two armies. Indeed, much of the Soviet capital stock was supplied by the other allies – not the T34s obviously, but Chrysler trucks etc.

It’s a bit invidious to apportion credit for what was, after all, an allied victory. The Soviets should get their due for sheer determination and courage; the Americans supplied a vast amount of equipment and manpower at the right moment; the Commonwealth troops were great fighters; the quality of the British army was never great (except under Richard O’Connor in the Libyan desert) but the army and navy fought solidly throughout the war. Finally, there couldn’t have been a victory without Fighter Command under Dowding, and the British contribution in terms of heavy bombing was massive (albeit controversial).


Guessedworker 06.11.04 at 10:59 am

As a yardstick by which the Invasion of Normandy might be put in perspective the war in the East is sobering but not unproblematic. For one thing, there were few shared circumstances between the Soviet’s war in defence of the homeland and, post Battle of Britain, our less imminently dangerous situation. A different moral imperative, one less accepting of endless sacrifice, applied.

Further, the vast number of Soviet dead speaks as eloquently of the human values and scarcely human military strategies of the Soviet political and military leadership as it does of sacrifice per se. After the experience of the trenches the valuation of individual worth in military life was altered. Allied warfare did not permit of such expenditure again.

This is clearly visible in the area of highest Allied losses: RAF Bomber Command, as it fought on the one offensive front available to us in Europe from Dunkirk to D-Day. Air Staff set the tour of 30 raids, adjusted to 35 for a brief period in 1942, specifically to keep losses at a level sustainable not only operationally but in terms of morale. They predicated a fifty/fifty chance of aircrew survival on a 5% loss rate and strove to maintain it beneath that level. The loss rate averaged a little less, in fact.


Brett Bellmore 06.11.04 at 11:10 am

The USSR doesn’t get any credit, in my opinion, because, first, they fought to enslave Europe, not free it, and second, because they started the war on Hitler’s side, and only switched when he betrayed them.

You can call them allies if you like stretching the meaning of the word, but in truth it was more like two gang leaders getting into a turf war at the same time the police arrive.


john b 06.11.04 at 11:34 am

they started the war on Hitler’s side

It’s possible there’s a gap in my WWII knowledge here – but surely this is a dodgy assertion.

Before 1941, the USSR wasn’t at war with Germany, or indeed anybody; after 1941, it was. Signing a peace treaty with someone you don’t (yet) have the military strength to defeat doesn’t mean you’re on their side.


q 06.11.04 at 11:46 am

The Russian and British empires have not generally been great allies. I would not expect the British to glorify the Russians. Whether or not the rivalry should feed into an education system with a distorted view of history … that is another matter.


pepi 06.11.04 at 11:49 am

It’s a taboo. Just don’t go there. There’s no point. The Soviets were the bad guys, so anything good they did has to be ignored. That’s rule 1 of any WWII commemoration. Only the communists pay tribute to the Red Army.


Gavin Cameron 06.11.04 at 11:54 am

I also don’t think the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact can count as “being on Hitler’s side”. However, the Soviet did take part in the dismemberment of Poland, the invasion of which by the Germans was the cassus belli for WWII after all. It was realpolitik that prevented the Allies from declaring war on the Soviets at that point (after all, they’d have to fight their way through Germany to get to the Soviets anyway!).

And in November 1939, the Soviet Union attacked Finland, and the Allies did seriously consider intervening there and might have done so had the Narvik landings gone differently. However, Britain’s intention was that Narvik was more of a way of drawing Germany into violating Swedish neutrality and controlling the Swedish ore fields than defending Finland. No-one is quite so sure about the French. It’s not inconceivable that they could have ended up fighting the Soviets over Finland if the dreadful Daladier government had had its way.


bob mcmanus 06.11.04 at 12:50 pm

Good news here. That the Holsclaws and Bellmores were so quick to jump in here while they were absent in the torture threads is in part due to the Apotheosis of Reagan Ceremony….

but also probably indicates weakening of GWB’s support within his base.


Matt 06.11.04 at 1:03 pm

I lived in Russia for a few years a few years ago- it was quite interesting to talk w/ people about their different views on the “great patriotic war”. They are quite justified in being annoyed that the US thinks it won the war in Europe when pretty clearly it was mostly won by the Red Army. If the German Army could have reversed the distribution of troop- had as many on the western front as they did on the eastern, it’s very unlikely that the invasion would have worked. I expect there would have been a peace treaty w/ England and No US involvement in Europe w/o the Red Army’s fighting. That said, current Russian knowledge of the US (and Britan’s) role in the war is also pretty bad- few know about the invasion of Italy in ’43, and very few even know that a very significant portion of our forces were fighting in the pacific. But, I’ve met quite a few veterns of the great patriotic war, and to claim that _they_ (as opposed to their government) were fighting “to enslave Europe” is shameful in the extreme


Matt McGrattan 06.11.04 at 1:07 pm

I consider myself fully chastened re: Austria :-)



Richard 06.11.04 at 1:08 pm

Mike Davis’ fundamental point is, of course, entirely correct, but to claim the Red Army as a hotbed of revolutionary sentiment? I raised an eyebrow at that one…


jamie 06.11.04 at 1:17 pm

“The USSR doesn’t get any credit, in my opinion, because, first, they fought to enslave Europe, not free it, and second, because they started the war on Hitler’s side, and only switched when he betrayed them.”

I see the mean spirit is alive, well and contradicting itself. So that’s why the Russians defended Stalingrad and Moscow. it was all part of a cunning scheme to enslave Europe. The Soviet Union entered the war in Europe when Hitler invaded. The US entered the war in Europe because Hitler declared war against it. There’s no moral difference here.

The fact that the Soviet Union killed about 75% of the German troops who died in the war certainly made the invasion from the West easier, and might well have been what made it possible in the first place. It’s not an endorsement of Communism to recognise this.


asg 06.11.04 at 1:29 pm

I don’t understand how the Soviets can be understood *not* to have been on Hitler’s side after the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Aside from military cooperation (in the invasion and dismemberment of Poland) the Pact provided for greater economic ties, particularly the transfer of oil to Germany in exchange for heavy machinery, and also entailed some diplomatic concessions by both sides. When two countries cooperate in invading another country, and swap essential war materiel, surely they are on “the same side” at least at that point.


Matt 06.11.04 at 2:09 pm

I don’t have a firm opinion as to whether it’s right to say that the Soviet Union was “on Hitler’s Side” in ’40 or not. But, I did mean to mention in my remark above that there is still an unfortunate ignorance about the subject in Russia today- a passage from one highschool textbook I looked at said something along the lines of, “In 1940, the Fascists invaded western Poland and in response the Soviet Union extended its shpere of influence into the eastern part.” Maybe we should start saying that we have just “extended our sphere of influence” in to Iraq, rather than invading it. It sounds so nice. I don’t mean to cast special shame on Russia here- the text isn’t much worse than what most Americans think about the Cuban Missle Crisis, for example, (or thinking we won the war of 1812), but it is pretty typical. Both sides largely believe their own propoganda.


Robert Lyman 06.11.04 at 2:16 pm

I’ve met quite a few veterns of the great patriotic war, and to claim that they (as opposed to their government) were fighting “to enslave Europe” is shameful in the extreme

Well, I’ve met a couple of veterans of the German side of that war. While it is undenialbe that they were “fighting to enslave Europe” in a strategic sense, that’s not the same as saying that individual soldiers were all motivated by a wish to exterminate Jews.

It’s worth dividing soldiers from their leadership here. The Red Army was fighting, in part, to “extend the sphere of influence,” and made strategic decisions (such as the storming of Berlin) which were nonsensical except for their propaganda/sphere of influence value (and which were part of the huge loss of Russian life). That doesn’t mean we should heap scorn on the privates and seargents who did as they were ordered.

Ditto for German soldiers, or for Confederate soldiers in the US Civil War.


Robert Lyman 06.11.04 at 2:26 pm

One more thing: the “Private Ryan” who is the subject of the movie didn’t die!

His 4 brothers, presumably also privates Ryan, did, of course.


Guessedworker 06.11.04 at 3:07 pm

“The fact that the Soviet Union killed about 75% of the German troops who died in the war certainly made the invasion from the West easier, and might well have been what made it possible in the first place.”

The invasion would have been delayed, nothing more, until such time as its prospects were suitably encouraging.

It is fashionable to write off the heavy bomber offensive in toto because Area Bombing failed, at great cost in life and treasure, to achieve its two broadcast initiatives: the weakening of the German capacity to wage war and the disillusionment of the German public with its government. But the return to the oil offensive by Spaatz, the establishment of Allied air supremacy and the development by Bomber Command of techniques of genuine precision bombing and blind bombing set a course for the German war machine from which it could not hope to recover.

By 1945 Bomber Command and the 8th USAAF had the basic tools to achieve what it set out to with the Air Ministry order of 14th February 1942 that originated the Area offensive. That it came too late for Harris and Bomber Command to redeem themselves in the eyes of their post-war detractors is in no small measure due to the great Soviet offensive. Had there never been a war in the East Bomber Command might be remembered with unequivocal pride now and the veterans would have their Campaign Medals.


q 06.11.04 at 3:22 pm

On the subject of “their own propoganda” we studied the Crusades at school, we were never told the reason that they stopped, just that we “lost interest” – a bit like the way that Hitler “lost interest in Russia” I suppose!


Doug Muir 06.11.04 at 3:42 pm

I have no problem with thanking Ivan.

The fact that Red Army soldiers were fighting under a loathsome tyranny doesn’t negate their courage and sacrifice. And in the end, they were fighting to end a regime that was even more horrible and dangerous. To give just the most obvious example, the Red Army freed far more concentration camp survivors than the western Allies did.

That said, there are some interesting points to be made about the differences in remembrance.

The Russians have not yet really come to grips with their WWII history. The combination of nationalist mythology, the tradition of secrecy, and reluctance on the part of historians and journalists to be seen as “unpatriotic” has made it very difficult to build a coherent picture of what actually happened. There are honorable exceptions to this, but they’re just that — exceptions.

Soviet commemorative ceremonies tended to be highly stylized, and altogether unaccompanied by any substantive discussion of — say — what mistakes were made, and what might be learned from them. Post-Soviet Russian commemorations have seamlessly carried on this tradition. In fact, in recent years, the ceremonies have become even less about history, and even more about Russian nationalism and a constructed glorious past.

This raises a number of interesting issues. Unfortunately, a blog comment thread is probably not a good place to discuss them.

So, thanks Ivan — and let’s hope your great-grandchildren never have to face anything like.

Doug M.


Doug Muir 06.11.04 at 3:44 pm

Oh, BTW Chris — how’d you end up voting in the Euro elections?

Doug M.


John Davies 06.11.04 at 5:08 pm

So what’s stopping the Russians and the Poles from throwing a celebration in honor of Operation Bagration? Is there something wrong with us honoring our war dead or is there some kind of equal time law?


Mario 06.11.04 at 5:20 pm

Given that the US had nuclear weapons by 1945, I think the the Soviet Union should be given credit for saving German lives.


Anarch 06.11.04 at 5:54 pm

The Russians have not yet really come to grips with their WWII history.

Heh. Take it up with the Japanese while you’re at it…

“There we were, peacefully minding our own business, when all of a sudden these Big Bad Americans came and dropped an atomic bomb on our heads! Oh, the war crimes! Oh, the humanity!”

Sticks in my craw like almost nothing else.


Anarch 06.11.04 at 6:03 pm

Given that the US had nuclear weapons by 1945, I think the the Soviet Union should be given credit for saving German lives.

Oh, I really really really doubt that. Read up on the Soviet march to Berlin some time; summarized, they were exacting revenge for the 20+ million dead over the previous four years. It’s one of the most gruesome military campaigns I know in modern times.


Guessedworker 06.11.04 at 6:47 pm


Nuclear weapons were used in Japan only because of the fear of national suicide. Nothing so extreme obtained in Germany. There was no case for using them.

I recall a passage (I think) in Aiden Crawley’s history of West Germany in which he reported a conversation between senior a British Army a Red Army officer. The British officer asked why the lower ranks of the invading Red Army had behaved with such complete bestiality towards German women and young girls. “This is not the Red Army,” the Soviet officer replied, “The Red Army Army died at Leningrad. These are the the hordes of the East whom we have whipped into battle.”


Sebastian Holsclaw 06.11.04 at 7:15 pm

I haven’t been present in the torture threads? Sure I have, and there are all sorts of references too it on my site as well.

I’m a bit confused about the rhetoric around here. How can people label the non-colony holding U.S. an empire which has to expand to increase its economic wealth while they also say that if the Soviet Union (an actual empire) had taken over the rest of Europe it would have been economically worse off? I know I’m not as subtle as some in the misuse of the word “empire”, but couldn’t we keep obvious contradictions to a minimum?


Scott 06.11.04 at 7:29 pm

“The USSR doesn’t get any credit, in my opinion, because, first, they fought to enslave Europe, not free it, and second, because they started the war on Hitler’s side, and only switched when he betrayed them.”

“Bzzzt! Wrong answer, but we have a lovely parting gift for you. Tell him what he’s won, Don Pardo!”

“He’s won a year’s supply of Rice-a-roni, the San Francisco Treat!”

They did not fight the war to enslave Europe. It was a war of desperation for two years, until 1943, and even then, they had their head’s handed to them on a platter, even at Kursk.

Hell, Zhukov lost millions of men due to his simple strategy of throwing thousands of unarmed, drunken peasants into the withering German fire. Look up Operation: Saturn, some time — this is the previously-unknown major operation during December 1942 up north; it got whitewashed due to the severe losses and the success of Stalingrad.

The USSR won the European war, with Wallied (Western Allied) assistance. There were no grand plans on enslaving Europe, at least not until the 1943 meetings with his allies.


Hektor Bim 06.11.04 at 8:59 pm

The Soviet Union did fight to enslave Finland, the Baltic states, and Poland, while an ally of Nazi Germany. (How many Polish officers were killed at Katyn, for example?)

There is strong evidence to suggest that Stalin planned to invade German-occupied Poland, but Hitler invaded before he got a chance to.

The fact that large numbers of people died on both sides does not automatically make the cause just, nor does the defeat of a loathsome regime by one slightly less loathsome that went on to forcibly oppress the people it claimed to liberate mean that we should be pleased.

One can delight in the defeat of Nazi Germany without celebrating the victory of the Soviet Union. I thank Ivan for not preventing the collapse of the Soviet Union.


derrida derider 06.12.04 at 2:35 pm

Nuclear weapons were used in Japan only because of the fear of national suicide. Nothing so extreme obtained in Germany. There was no case for using them. – guessedworker

Do you really think Truman would have preferred a huge land invasion against an unweakened Wehrmacht rather than let Curtis LeMay unleash nukes on Germany? And anyway I always understood it was the fear of half a millon US casualties from invading Japan, rather than fear of Japanese suicides, that (along with the useful demonstration effect on Stalin) led Truman to use them.

Oppenheimer had it right – give the generals a shiny new weapon and they’ll generally find a reason to use them.


Nicholas Weininger 06.12.04 at 8:38 pm

Those interested in WWII mythology in Russia, and its use by the Soviet government, really should read Nina Tumarkin’s excellent _The Living and the Dead_. A fascinating and deeply moving book.


J. Michael Neal 06.12.04 at 11:13 pm

Look up Operation: Saturn, some time — this is the previously-unknown major operation during December 1942 up north; it got whitewashed due to the severe losses and the success of Stalingrad.

This is Operation: Mars. Saturn was the stillborn followup to Uranus (the encirclement of Stalingrad) in the south.


Donald Johnson 06.13.04 at 3:31 am

Anybody know if the Soviet casualty figures are firmly nailed down? The NYT carried a piece by Benjamin Schwarz a few weeks ago which made the extraordinary claim that 50 million Soviet citizens died (military and civilian), which is about twice the usual figure. I have a bit of trouble believing this–it sounds to me like the not uncommon tendency to take already huge death statistics and inflate them might be at work. But maybe I’m wrong.


ru 06.13.04 at 6:47 pm

LOL people. Most of you love to harp about the Molotov-Ribentrop pact, while conveniently trying to ommit earlier pact of non-agression and cooperation between Poland and Germany. Somehow you also forget to mention the USSR and Japan had signed pact for non-agression too, after the USSR crushed the japs Kwantung army in 1939 in Halkin Gol, because the Japan were trying to invade the USSR. The USSR defeatet “the undefeatable” japs in a week of intence fighting twice, 1939 and 1945, a good consitency record :D

But most of all, you brits forget that it’s you who give Hitler substantial bust to his war production, by selling your Czeks “allies” “to pacify” him, and all the neighbourin countries including Poland participated in the grab of the Czeks lands. Shame.

Many here love to overestimate the significance of the Land-Lease. The funny thing, it works bad to the brave brits, because the UK got THREE TIMES more help from the US, than the USSR (33 billion vs 13 billion) and did virtually nothing to fight the nazi. Even the D-Day had been posponded many times due to the permanent Churchil whine that the allied soldiers are too “green”, till Rosebelt finally thup his crippled leg and Churchil caved :p

Regarding the Italy, the allies were unable to take it for TWO YEARS after the Sicily dessant. The Italians surrendered Sep.6.1943 but the strategicly significant industrial part of North Italy had been under German control till Aug.08.1945. To add an insult to the pain, the nazi even succeeded to liberate Mussoliny from the allied custody and put him to rule the North Italy at the time.


v 06.13.04 at 10:42 pm

Not to forget that the British used troops from their colonies (India) to do a lot of their fighting from Burma to El Alamein. There are graves of Indian soldiers in Greece even. It is churlish and insulting also to claim that the Soviets do not really deserve credit because “they fought to colonize”. I guess they had their country raped and pillaged for the same reason.

The simple fact is that Hitler got as far as he did because the British and the French let him, by making compromises with his government. Munich Anyone? Stalin did not do very differently with the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. I don’t even want to go into the way that all the western bastions of freedom used to barter territories and peoples in their colonies earlier in the century. I guess that when the same sort of bartering began in Europe, people like Churchill began to kick up a fuss about it. Hitler was the extreme form of an imperialist, and he got away with things like Munich because he dealt with other imperialists who were used to bartering lands and peoples.


David Tiley 06.14.04 at 4:53 am

Interesting to speculate about the use of the A-bomb on Germany. It was used in Japan I think because there was no risk of shooting the bombers down; in Germany the Lufwaffe would have been more active if the Russian effort had been less.

Mind you, if the war in the West had stalled longer – if the second front had not happened in ’44 – then the Germans might have seen Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I wonder what they would have done then?


johnnya 06.15.04 at 10:43 pm

From the many history books of the Second World War that I have read, I recall in one of them that when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour in December 1941 their economy was one-sixth the size of America’s. US President Roosevelt and his advisors knew they could defeat Japan in time. Roosevelt was more interested in getting America involved in the European theatre of conflicts. Secondly, in one of the books on the Manhatten Project on the development of the atomic bomb, the objective was to drop the bomb on Berlin and not Hiroshima or Nagasaki.After the collapse of the German Army in March and April of 1945, the American military tested the atomic bomb successfully for the first time in the second half of July 1945 and President Truman had a list of about 10 Japanese cities to choose from. Tokyo had already been firebombed with a huge loss of life and was not on that list.
Thirdly,for the American soldiers who were advancing inland from the beaches of Normandy, I believe they were happy that they were facing only nine German divisions and not fourty. Another advantage for the Western Allies was the virtually complete air superiorty they had over the skies of Western Europe. Reichmarschall Hermann Goering made all kind of empty promises to Hitler that the Luftwaffe could defend Nazi Germany from the American and British bomber and fighter attacks.
Long before the invasion of Poland
on September 1st, 1939, Hitler knew he could not win a war on two fronts. The German economy was simply not large or strong enough. Instead,for a variety of reasons, he ended up with a war on five fronts: Eastern, Western, North Africa, Italy and Norway.


Sean 06.16.04 at 5:38 am

Is Mike Davis a tool? If he was really interested to know “What American has ever heard of Operation Bagration?” he might have tried asking a few! But that would risk his “Stupid American” bias. While it’s true that the Russians bore the brunt against Germany we shouldn’t forget that they had allies to take off some of (maybe critical) the pressure. Contrast this to the British postion from mid’40 to mid’41. All alone – and not bleating about it. In the end, America would have won anyway – “the bomb” would have have done the job eventually.

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