Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Siege Of Petersburg & The Attack On Fort Stedman -- March 25th, 1865 "To Stand Still Was Death"

By the early spring of 1865, the Southern Confederacy was on the cusp of extinction. In every theater of the four-year-old Civil War, the gray-clad Rebels were getting the worst of things. In the West, the hard-fighting but poorly led Army of Tennessee had been literally eviscerated by General John Bell Hood’s useless taking of life at the battles of Franklin and Nashville. After the loss of its namesake state, Hood’s army had virtually ceased to exist as a functional military unit.

In the deep South, Maj. Gen. William Sherman’s Union army had cut a relentless swath of destruction 60 miles wide through Georgia, and was now wreaking even more havoc as it marched northward through the Carolinas to unite with General Ulysses S. Grant and the Army of the Potomac somewhere in Virginia. Confederate General Joseph Johnston, commanding the forces opposed to Sherman, admitted in a letter to General Robert E. Lee that he could do no more than “annoy” Sherman’s progress.

In the East, conditions were deteriorating just as rapidly for the Confederates. In January 1865, Fort Fisher, guardian of the port of Wilmington, N.C., fell to a combined Union naval-land assault, effectively closing off the South’s last access to the outside world.

Meanwhile, in the squalid trenches around Petersburg, Va., a key railroad center 20 miles due south of the Confederate capital of Richmond, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and Grant’s Army of the Potomac continued the embrace of death they had started the previous summer at the Battle of the Wilderness. Grimly and gamely the Confederates clung to their defenses, but hunger, disease, and desertion were taking an ever-increasing toll on the army’s strength, if not its continued willingness to fight. Grant’s Army of the Potomac, better fed and equipped, and increasingly confident of victory, tightened its death grip around the enemy. Each passing day brought renewed pressure as the Federals continued to extend their lines west of Petersburg in an effort to cut off the railroads supplying Lee’s nearly destitute Confederates.

The South’s growing desperation and need for manpower led the Confederate Congress in mid-March 1865 to pass a bill that allowed the arming of slaves to fight for the Confederacy. The move, surprisingly, had the grudging support of many Southern officers. One senior officer in Lt. Gen. Jubal Early’s II Corps wrote, “I have the honor to report that the officers and men of this corps are decidedly in favor of the voluntary enlistment of the negroes as soldiers.” The measure, however, was much too little and far too late to appreciably improve the Confederacy’s chances for survival.

For Robert E. Lee, the time had come to make a painful decision. While Lee and the men who remained with him were still full of fight, and Confederate President Jefferson Davis was equally anxious to continue the struggle, military realities told both men that the end could not be far off unless something drastic was done, and quickly. What course of action offered the most promise of success?

For a brief period there was hope that peace with the North might still be negotiated. Francis P. Blair, Sr., a prominent Maryland politician with connections to the Lincoln administration, visited Richmond in January 1865 on his own authority to see if some sort of accommodation could be found that would satisfy both sides. From these discussions evolved an initiative by which a delegation of three Confederate representatives met personally with President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward at Hampton Roads, Va., in February. The Southern delegates, however, were unwilling to accede to Lincoln’s terms for peace—complete military surrender and formal recognition of emancipation for all slaves—and in the end nothing came of the eleventh-hour discussions.

The collapse of the peace talks left Lee with a hellish, unresolved dilemma. What was his duty to the army that was literally falling apart in front of him? In an attempt to resolve this question, Lee turned to his youngest corps commander, Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon. With Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, Lee’s ever-dependable “Old War Horse,” off covering Richmond’s defenses north of the James River, and Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill, Lee’s other senior commander, increasingly indisposed due to illness, there was nowhere else for Lee to turn.

Fort Stedman

Knowing Gordon to be a superior combat commander, Lee also considered him tough-minded as well as courageous. Leading the defense of the Bloody Lane at Antietam, Gordon had been wounded five times, the final wound a bullet to the face. Only the fact that his cap had a bullet hole in it kept him from drowning in his own blood. Gordon had returned from the Shenandoah Valley in December 1864, and Lee’s confidence in the young general grew even stronger as he came to personally know the 32-year-old Georgian.

On a bone-chilling morning in early March, Lee summoned Gordon to his quarters at the Turnbull House in Petersburg to discuss the deteriorating military situation. Before Gordon arrived, Lee had spread across a table all the various reports he had received from the front. These reports accurately described the parlous condition of the Confederate troops and the overwhelming enemy force arrayed against them. Lee asked Gordon to review all the documents and offer an opinion.

After reading the dispiriting documents, Gordon advised Lee that he saw only three options, which he proceeded to list in the order he felt they should be considered: make the best terms with the enemy that could honorably be obtained; abandon Richmond and Petersburg and, by rapid marches, unite with Johnston’s forces in North Carolina and strike Sherman before he and Grant could combine; or strike Grant immediately at Petersburg.

Lee concurred fully with Gordon’s assessments. Since a negotiated peace was no longer possible and the authorities in Richmond were still reluctant to abandon the capital, the only remaining option was to strike at Grant. “To stand still was death,” Lee reasoned. He directed Gordon to devise a plan by which such a blow could be struck.

Gordon and his staff spent the next several days studying the Union entrenchments around Petersburg, seeking a weak spot in the Union line. After surveying the enemy works, Gordon decided that the most promising point for a Southern attack was at Fort Stedman (named after Union Colonel Griffin A. Stedman, who had died of wounds received at the Battle of the Crater in July, 1864). It was about 100 yards from the forward Confederate position known as Colquitt’s Salient, and the picket lines were even closer, a mere 50 yards apart. Gordon was bolstered in his opinion that this was the best place for his attack when, during his survey of the Union trenches, he asked one of his subordinate officers if his forces could hold their position against a Union attack. The officer replied that he didn’t think he could hold off such an attack because of the closeness of the lines. Nevertheless, he added, “I can take their front line any morning before breakfast.”

Gordon’s plan of operation, as he proposed it to Lee, was to conduct an attack in the early-morning darkness, with a quick rush across no-man’s-land between the lines. The Union pickets would be quickly and silently overwhelmed, and 50 handpicked men with keen-edged axes would proceed to cut paths through the chevaux-de-frise, wooden obstructions with sharpened stakes laid out by Union engineers. These 50 men would be followed by three companies of 100 men each who would bypass Fort Stedman, leaving it for other supporting troops to capture, and hurry on to the second line of Union trenches. Each man in these companies would wear a white strip of cloth across his breast to identify him as friendly fire in the darkness.

When the select companies made it into the second line, they would identify themselves as Union troops fleeing a Rebel attack, using the name of a Union officer known to be serving in that sector. They would then overpower the Federals and capture three redoubts believed to be located within the works. This would serve to widen the breach in the Union lines and cause consternation among the Union troops. At this point, if all was successful, Confederate cavalry, waiting in reserve, would charge through the gap thus created and make for the Union supply and railroad lines, destroying as many men and supplies as possible.

The chief benefit of attacking in darkness, a tactic not often used during the war, would be the utter surprise of the enemy. In addition to sowing panic in the Union lines, the predawn attack would leave the Yankees confused as to exactly where and how many Confederate troops were actually involved in the assault. It would also prevent Union artillery from firing on the Confederates for fear of killing their own men.

CSA General John Brown Gordon

It was hoped that the seizure of Fort Stedman and the works in its rear would convince Grant that his army was in imminent danger of being cut in half and would accordingly force him to constrict his lines. This, in turn, would allow Lee to shorten his own lines and release some of his troops to join Johnston’s army in North Carolina.

From the distant vantage of 139 years, Gordon’s plan seems like the height of fantasy, given the disparate resources and manpower of the opposing sides. At the time, however, it was believed that only an act of true desperation would have any realistic chance of success. Lee, for his part, readily approved the plan, and to carry it off he assigned the three divisions of Gordon’s corps (now reduced to about 8,000 men) and added several brigades from other units, including a division of cavalry, to exploit the hoped-for Confederate breakthrough. All told, Gordon would have at his disposal almost half the remaining strength of Lee’s army. As the ground in the rear of Fort Stedman had undoubtedly changed from its pre-siege appearance, Gordon requested that Lee furnish him with knowledgeable guides to lead the three assault companies over the ground. Lee agreed. The date for the attack was set for March 25.

At 4 am on a cold, dark morning, Gordon stood on the Confederate breastworks, a single soldier by his side. The previous night all debris lying in front of the Confederate works was supposed to have been removed so that unobstructed lanes could be used by the assaulting columns. However, as Gordon stood on the breastworks he could see that some debris still remained. He ordered it cleared.

The noise made by this work alerted a nearby Union picket, who called out a peremptory challenge:
 “What are you doing over there, Johnny? Answer quick or I’ll shoot!” Months of living in close proximity had led to an unspoken gentlemen’s agreement whereby pickets would refrain from firing at each other unless it was deemed unavoidable. Gordon hesitated when he heard the challenge, not knowing exactly what to say to allay suspicion. The quick-thinking private at his side met the unforeseen threat by replying: “Never mind, Yank. Lie down and go to sleep. We are just gathering a little corn. You know rations are mighty short over here.” The Union guard answered right away, “All right, Johnny, go ahead and get your corn. I’ll not shoot at you while you are drawing your rations.”

While this exchange was taking place, the last of the debris was cleared from the Confederate front, and the attack was set to commence. Gordon ordered the soldier to fire his musket to signal the assault. A pang of conscience tugged at the veteran—he thought it unfair, even in war, to have lied to a man who would allow him to pick his rations. Gordon, unhampered by such distinctions, repeated the order.

Before firing, however, the soldier called out to his considerate foe, “Hello, Yank! Wake up; we are going to shell the woods. Look out; we are coming.”

With that brief warning, the soldier fired his musket and the offensive began. Rebel pickets, who had crept close to their Union counterparts, overpowered them so quickly that no warning shots could be fired. Some Union reports claimed later that the Confederates had employed the ruse of pretending to be deserters, only to turn on their would-be captors. As soon as the Union pickets were rendered harmless, the 50 axe men leaped over the Rebel breastworks, closely followed by the three 100-man companies, and made haste for the bristling chevaux-de-frise. Clearings were hewn through the wooden obstructions with quick, strong blows from razor-sharp ax heads.

As the three lead companies made their way to the Union rear, the rest of the assault force, following on the heels of the spearhead, rushed Fort Stedman. Fanning out along both sides of the fort, they poured withering fire into the works. Union defenders managed to put up some resistance, firing a few shots of their own at the oncoming Rebels, but the swiftness of the onslaught and the early-morning darkness helped to neutralize any real defense.

The attack was more successful than Gordon could have hoped. Besides Fort Stedman, the Confederates were able to capture three enemy batteries on the north and south sides of the fort. These batteries were unenclosed works housing both cannon and mortars, and quick-thinking cannoneers in the attacking columns turned the guns around and began shelling Federal positions in all directions. In addition to the redoubts and guns, about 500 yards of trench line on both sides of Fort Stedman were taken, as well as some 500 Federal prisoners, including the area commander, Brig. Gen. Napoleon Bonaparte McLauglen.

Success, however was not complete. Battery 9, north of Fort Stedman, put up stout resistance and halted the Confederate advance in that direction. Similar Confederate assaults against Fort Haskell, south of Battery 12, were also repulsed with much bloodshed. Adding to Gordon’s troubles, word soon came back from one of the commanders of the select companies that he was unable to find the redoubt in the Union rear that he had been assigned to capture as his guide had been lost in the attack. The other two companies reported a similar lack of success.

These unexpected failures jeopardized the entire operation. Without the capture of the additional works and the guns in them, Gordon would not be able to widen the breach and threaten the Union rear. This would also doom any attempts by the Southern cavalry to further exploit the breakthrough and strike Union supply lines.

As Fort Stedman and the adjoining works were being taken, the alarm was sounded in the Union lines. As luck would have it, Maj. Gen. George Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac, was not immediately available to his men. He was away at City Point conferring with Grant, and the Rebels had cut the telegraph lines between the two points. At this point the Rebels’ luck stopped. Command of the army devolved on Maj. Gen. John G. Parke, a West Point graduate who commanded the IX Corps. Parke, a much-tested veteran of both the eastern and western theaters of the war, kept calm in the face of confused reports from the front. He immediately ordered Brig. Gen. Orlando Willcox to organize a counterattack against the Rebels. Parke also called upon Brig. Gen. John F. Hartranft’s 3rd Division, which was in reserve near the 1st and 2nd Divisions of the IX Corps, to reenforce Willcox.

The Rebels could not have asked for a worse foe than Hartranft. A native Pennsylvanian like Meade and Parke, Hartranft was also a tough, battle-tested veteran. Like Gordon, he had been at Antietam, where he led the 51st Pennsylvania in its famous charge over Burnside Bridge. He also led part of the attack into the Crater the previous July. Hartranft may have been as surprised as anyone at the audacious Confederate attack, but he would not panic and he would not run.

Union General John Hartranft

Hartranft’s division was made up of two brigades of six Pennsylvania regiments. He knew he had enough men, about 6,000 in all, to assist in a counterattack, but he may have had some doubts as to how his men would perform. They were all one-year enlistees who had only recently joined the army, and they were still undergoing training when the Confederates attacked Fort Stedman. Green or not, these troops were all Hartranft had to work with, and events would soon test their mettle.

The immediate problem was how best to contain the Confederate attack. While the Union generals may not have known it at the time, this had already been accomplished by the defenders of Battery 9 and Fort Haskell. Not only had they repulsed the initial Confederate assaults, but their cannon fire was deadly and accurate enough to compel the Rebels to confine their forces to the ground already taken.

Years later Hartranft would comment that “great credit is justly due to the garrison of these two points [Battery 9 and Fort Haskell] for their steadiness in holding them in the confusion and nervousness of a night attack … if they had been lost, the enemy would have had sufficient safe ground on which to recover and form their ranks.”

With his flanks secured, Parke could concentrate on regaining the ground the army had lost. This was the mission he now gave Willcox.

Troop movements were quickly initiated for a Union counterattack. On the left side of the line, near Fort Haskell, Hartranft placed the 208th Pennsylvania. The 100th Pennsylvania and the 3rd Michigan extended the line to the north. Connecting with these troops toward the Prince George’s Court House Road (the road to the rear of Fort Stedman that Gordon likely would have used to penetrate the rear of the Union lines) were the 207th and 205th Pennsylvania.

On the other side of the line, starting from Battery 9, the 17th and 20th Michigan hooked up with the right of the 209th Pennsylvania. Close to the center of the crescent-shaped line was the 200th Pennsylvania, along with the remnants of the 57th Massachusetts, whose camp had been overrun in the initial Confederate attack. Artillery under the command of Brevet Brig. Gen. John C. Tidball was set up behind the Union lines. In conjunction with the guns from Battery 9 and Fort Haskell, these guns began playing havoc on the Rebel troops.

As the Union infantry moved into line, Hartranft conferred with Willcox. They noticed increased musket fire coming from the Rebel lines, an indication that the enemy was again getting ready to advance. Hartranft, taking personal command of the counterattack, immediately ordered the 200th Pennsylvania and 57th Massachusetts to move against the enemy troops now advancing up the Prince George’s Court House Road. The Federals quickly attacked and plowed through the enemy skirmish line, but soon found themselves facing more Rebels in the entrenched works surrounding Fort Stedman.

Confederate musket fire was severe and, supported by the captured guns of Fort Stedman, took a heavy toll on the Pennsylvanians, causing them to retreat a short distance. Hartranft, concerned that the Rebels would try to take advantage of this withdrawal, quickly rallied the men and attacked a second time, gaining and holding the ground for about 20 minutes before retreating to the Union works. The effect of these attacks was to halt any further Confederate advance and allowed the remaining Union troops to come up in support.

The last regiment of Hartranft’s division, the 211th Pennsylvania, now made its first appearance on the field, having rushed from its camp some miles to the rear. With their arrival, Hartranft’s counterattacking force was complete.

211th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry

It was now about 7:30 am, and the morning sun was rising higher in the cold March sky. The Confederate advantages of surprise and darkness had long since disappeared. Parke ordered Hartranft to attack the Rebels again and recapture the lost ground. Hartranft passed the word to his subordinate commanders that the attack would begin in 15 minutes. The signal would be the advance of the 211th. The Southern troops could probably see what was coming, but now they could do nothing to stop it.

At the appointed time, the 600 men of the 211th Pennsylvania rose as one and charged toward the Rebel line. They were met by Confederate cannon and musket fire, but stoutly pushed on. The other regiments took their cue from their Keystone State comrades, and the whole Union line moved forward.

Just as the full attack began, however, Hartranft received orders to halt and await reinforcements from the VI Corps. Hartranft barely hesitated a second before disobeying the order. He was sure the countermanding order would not reach all the troops in time, and he firmly believed that victory was assured. “I saw the enemy had already commenced to waver,” he remembered, “and that success was certain.”

Hartranft’s battlefield judgment would prove correct. Acting not like the green troops they were but like gray-bearded veterans, the Pennsylvanians fought tenaciously and courageously. Despite the intensity of the combat, they soon drove the Confederates out of the recently captured works.
Hartranft later wrote, “The division charged with a will, in the most gallant manner, and in a moment Stedman, Batteries 11 and 12 and the entire line which had been lost, was recaptured with a large number of prisoners, battle-flags and small-arms.”

Gordon was convinced that continued fighting would be futile. He apprised Lee of the worsening situation, and around 8 am Lee gave Gordon permission to withdraw his troops.

It was an order easier to give than to obey. By the time the withdrawal order reached the front, the increasingly confident Federals were pouring a veritable storm of shot and shell over the entire length of the Confederate retreat. The added fire from the Union infantry reoccupying Fort Stedman only made the retreat more difficult. Gordon himself was slightly wounded as he ran back to the Rebel line.

The effectiveness of the Union artillery shell fire was attested to by a Union medical officer, who wrote: “The great majority of the Rebel wounded fell into our hands, and the wounds were all very severe. An unusually large number of shell wounds of the thigh and legs, demanding amputation, were seen.” Confederate Brig. Gen. James A. Walker personally attested to the deadly dangers of the retreat.

“I found myself crossing the storm swept space between us and our works. At first I made progress at a tolerably lively gait, but I wore heavy cavalry boots, the ground was thawing under the warm rays of the sun, and great cakes of mud stuck to my boots; my speed slackened to a slow trot, then into a slow walk, and it seemed as if I were an hour making that seventy-five yards…deadly minie balls were whistling and hurling as thick as hail. Every time I lifted my foot with its heavy weight of mud and boot, I thought my last step was taken. Out of a dozen men who started across that field with me, I saw at least half of them fall, and I do not believe more than one or two got over safely. When I reached our works and clambered over the top, I was so exhausted that I rolled down among the men, and one of them expressed surprise at seeing me by remarking: `Here is General Walker; I thought he was killed.’”

Seeing that death would be their probable fate, many Confederates refused to even try to make it back to their own lines, preferring to surrender where they stood. A large number of skulkers in the Rebel ranks refused to obey their officers on the field, no matter what order or entreaty was made.
One Union major captured earlier when Fort Stedman was overrun commented that “the numbers of stragglers and skulkers was astonishingly large, and I saw several instances where the authority of the officers who urged them on was set at defiance.”

Thus, an attack that had started with such promise ended in abysmal failure. More than 3,500 Confederates were casualties, including some 1,900 who were taken prisoner. Nine stands of colors were also captured. Later that day other Union commanders assaulted the Confederate lines to the southwest. While these attacks were halted short of the main Confederate trenches, a number of fortified picket lines were captured, bringing the Union army that much closer for a final grand assault and costing the Confederates another 2,000 sorely needed men.

Robert E. Lee, who had taken many successful gambles during the war, reluctantly realized that this last throw of the dice had completely failed. As he rode away from the scene of the defeat at Fort Stedman, he knew that the end of the war could not be long in coming. On his way back to the Turnbull House, he encountered his sons Rooney and Rob. Lee, who had always been careful not to outwardly display his emotions, could not hide his manifest disappointment at this latest turn of events. Rob noted all too clearly “the sadness of his face, its careworn expression.”

While brilliant in conception and initial execution, the ultimate failure of the attack on Fort Stedman accomplished nothing except to burnish the already-formidable reputation of Confederate valor and the equally proven stalwartness of their Union foes. It would take two more weeks and much additional bloodshed at Fort Gregg, Sayler’s Creek, and Five Forks for the war in the east finally to end. If Ulysses S. Grant had mounted the breastworks at Fort Stedman that morning and looked over the backs of the retreating Rebels, far off in the distance he might have been able to glimpse the small village of Appomattox Court House and the front parlor of Wilmer McLean’s red brick home.

 Suggested Reading: 

The Petersburg Campaign: The Eastern Front Battles, June - August 1864, Volume 1 By Edwin C. Bearss 

Petersburg Campaign, The: The Western Front Battles, September 1864 – April 1865, Volume 2 By Edwin C. Bearss 

The Last Citadel: Petersburg, June 1864 - April 1865 By Noah Andre Trudeau 

Suggested Viewing: 

Richmond Redeemed: Opportunities Won and Lost in the Siege of Petersburg


Saturday, December 8, 2018

General Washington Crosses The Delaware -- December 25th - 26th, 1776 "A Christmas Miracle"

The grim-faced men waiting to take their places in the boats were already chilled to the bone, the winter winds whipping mercilessly through their makeshift, threadbare uniforms as they silently formed up along the icy Pennsylvania riverbank. Many of them used old cloth to plug up the holes in their careworn shoes. Many a man had no shoes at all and had tied filthy strips of tattered rags around their feet to ward off the frigid elements; others stood barefoot in the snow. But not a single one of them uttered a word of complaint.

It was late in the evening of December 25, 1776. Nearly six months had passed since that sweltering July day in Philadelphia when the gentlemen of the self-styled Continental Congress took it upon themselves to speak for everyone in all of the 13 colonies and proclaimed their separatist intentions to a cynical world in their unilateral Declaration of Independence. Now those lofty words were being answered by the standard British response to rebellion in its far-flung provinces: Brown Bess muskets and cannon balls.

It was amid an atmosphere of high hopes that General George Washington, the wealthy 43-year-old gentleman planter from Virginia and veteran of the French and Indian War, had accepted the appointment as commander-in-chief, and in those heady early days, the ranks of volunteers flocking to the banner of what became known as the Continental Army had swelled to some 20,000 citizen-soldiers. But by that December, all that must have seemed like ancient history.

As the year dwindled down to its last few depressing days, the Patriots were down in the dumps. Since then, Washington had failed to carry the day in a single, solitary engagement against his Imperial adversary. To the British forces arrayed against him, for whom the very notion of American liberty sounded like a ridiculous joke, both he and his army of malcontents and country bumpkins were nothing less than a laughingstock. It was easy to see why.

In the months that had followed the proclamation of July 4, the Redcoats had made great sport out of beating the Continentals at every turn, chasing them completely out of Manhattan and Brooklyn, clear across the length of Long Island and the whole of lower New York, only relenting as the winter set in. By that time the British had succeeded in harrying them all the way to the banks of the Delaware River in the frigid precincts of southern Pennsylvania.

Defeat after defeat had taken many of them out of the fight and the fight out of many. Disease, desertion, and death, coupled with limited terms of enlistment, had winnowed their ranks down dramatically by early December. Worse yet, come January 1, when still more enlistments would be up, that dwindling number was poised to drop to fewer than 3,000 weary souls. To keep the infant cause of liberty from dying in its crib, Washington needed to inspire more of his fellow countrymen to answer his call to arms. To achieve that, he needed a fresh approach.

What must have lit up Washington’s brain that freezing December night was the tantalizing fact that on the other side of the river in New Jersey the sleepy little town of Trenton, much to the dismay of nearly all of the townsfolk there, was being forced to provide for the winter quartering of a garrison of paid mercenaries newly arrived from Hesse, a German duchy with family ties to Great Britain’s royal family.

General George Washington

Like hired guns, they had been imported to the American colonies for the express purpose of helping to bring the recalcitrant colonials to heel. But there were fewer than 1,500 of them. Moreover, as far as the defenses went, by all accounts their commander, a colonel by the name of Johann Rall, had apparently neglected to erect any.

Rall was a rather obnoxious officer who had sneeringly referred to the Patriot army as a bunch of provincial clowns. He had declared, with typical Teutonic arrogance, that if any of the country rabble dared to show up, the bayonets of his grenadiers would soon send them scurrying away like frightened mice.

Washington was a proud man, and they had laughed at him, hounded him out of New York all the way out into the snowbound Pennsylvanian wilderness. There, beckoning across the water lay Trenton, less than 10 miles away on the other side of the river.

He had let the men have their Christmas, cold comfort though it must have been, and then, late in the evening on Christmas night, taking the bit into his now celebrated teeth, Washington doubled down, risking it all on one brazen roll of the dice upon the Delaware. Under cover of darkness, he gave the order to assemble, tasking Colonel John Glover, a redoubtable old salt from Marblehead, Massachusetts, and the seasoned New England mariners of his 14th Continental Regiment to ready the Durham boats.

Flat-bottomed and double-ended, these sturdy, 60-foot craft with their large sweeps of steering oars at the back, propelled by three to four pole men on outboard walking planks, were a common sight along the Delaware, hauling heavy commercial loads up and down the river. But on this bone-chilling Christmas night, they would be commandeered to ferry a different breed of cargo altogether.

Cannons were dragged painfully up onto larger ferryboats, as were the officer’s horses. The horses, being sensible animals, resisted being loaded onto the creaking wooden planks of the ferries. Then, the sky opened up and it began to rain, even as the temperature continued to plummet. Before long, the rain became sleet and then it started to snow. The wind turned into a gale as a full-fledged Nor’easter blew in. The river was beginning to freeze over.

With numb fingers and frozen feet, Washington’s weather-beaten men, each equipped with 60 rounds of ammunition and three days of meager rations, shouldered arms, filed in, and took their places in the boats. Glover’s pole men, three to a boat, sank the great wooden shafts of their iron-tipped, 18-foot-long setting poles down deep into the muddy bottom beneath the frigid waters of the river and pushed off from the bank. The password for the operation, chosen by their commander himself, swept through the tightly packed ranks like lightning, revealing much about Washington’s somewhat fatalistic state of mind that night: victory or death.

Washington had miscalculated his logistics badly. Expecting to be in New Jersey by 12 am, he was now at the mercy of a freezing North American river in the dead of winter, trying to navigate his way around numerous chunks of jagged ice bobbing all around the wooden plank boards of his open boats.

All these delays wreaked havoc on Washington’s original order of battle. Half of his men, entrusted to Brig. Gen. James Ewing and the Trenton-born Pennsylvanian, Brig. Gen. John Cadwalader, never managed to make the crossing at all. It was almost 3 am by the time the remaining 2,400 of Washington’s army were finally across and standing on the Jersey side of the river, but their physical trials were far from over. Trenton was still nine freezing, snowdrift-ridden miles away from their landing zone over next to nonexistent country roads, and they would have to manage a near silent march every miserable step of the way there.

Nearing their objective, Washington broke with the standard military doctrine of the day, effectively splitting his command. Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene, a Rhode Islander of Quaker stock, would lead one column into Trenton from the north, neutralizing any Hessian assets deployed along the route into town. Another Washington favorite, the Irish Brig. Gen. John Sullivan, a first generation Yankee from New Hampshire, would enter Trenton from the south and west.

Up and down the length of the column, under the first rays of dawn, rode Washington, accompanying Greene’s division, exhorting his troops on. As for his Hessian counterpart, after spending Christmas night warm and dry in his commandeered quarters, playing cards by the fire and draining a couple of bottles of wine by some accounts, a blissfully unconcerned Oberst Rall had bid his officers a Merry Christmas and padded off to bed.

In those days, Trenton had two main thoroughfares, christened, in less contentious times, King Street and Queen Street. It was at a small copper shop about a mile outside of town on Pennington Road, where the Hessians had set up a small command post that history was made at about 8 am on December 26. Hessian Lieutenant Andreas von Wiederholt stepped out of the front door of the shop just as George Washington came galloping into view at the head of his troops. The young lieutenant shouted a warning to his men, who came pouring out of the shop, bayonets bristling.

In the blink of an eye, the battle was on, with the Hessians somehow managing to prime their muskets and fire off a volley, only to find themselves subjected in return to three withering fusillades from Washington’s infantrymen, who proceeded to cut them down like cordwood. As the musket balls whistled through the air, other Hessian detachments converged on the area, including some elements of the Alt von Lossberg Regiment. and, Regrouping on the high ground on the northern outskirts of Trenton, the Hessians returned fire as von Wiederholt led an organized retreat.

As they fell back on the town, several Hessian Guard Companies quickly entered the fray, providing their retreating kinsmen with covering fire against the deadly accuracy of the Colonial crack shots, who were now picking them off one by one.

The Hessian retreat toward the center of town actually served to effectuate a major component of Washington’s original battle plan, as it left the nearby River Road completely in the hands of the Continentals. Quickly exploiting the situation, Washington, taking up a commanding position atop a small hillside, dispatched an infantry formation to block any attempt the enemy might make to escape toward Princeton. He directed his artillerymen to move with all possible speed and bring their guns into action before the still sleepy Hessians had a chance to check them.

Moments later, Colonel Henry Knox, a portly but daring diehard from Boston, Massachusetts, had his artillerymen wheeling some of their highly prized cannons into position at the end of King and Queen Streets. Among them was a young captain named Alexander Hamilton.

Meanwhile, Sullivan and his column rushed forward from the South, seizing the sole crossing over the Assunpink, the creek that could have provided a way out for the Hessians. In an example of strategic battlefield coordination remarkable for its day, the Irishman paced his march into Trenton, taking pains to make certain that Greene and his column had been given sufficient time to dislodge any Hessians deployed at the northern approaches to the town.

Coming up the River Road, the vanguard of Sullivan’s division stormed its way into Trenton. Almost immediately they ran into a detachment of about a dozen Hessians, part of a company of about 50 Jaegers quartered in and around a private residence. Lieutenant Wilhelm von Grothausen ordered his men into action, but seeing the rest of Sullivan’s column now swarming into Trenton, gave the lieutenant pause. After a somewhat desultory exchange of a single volley of lead, he ordered his men to pull back, whereupon the entire complement turned tail. Several of them joined 18 Redcoats of the Queen’s 16th Light Dragoons stationed nearby on the small bridge over the Assunpink, who upon Sullivan’s arrival had proceeded to dive headlong into this tributary of the Delaware in a frantic effort to escape from the battle zone.

By this time, Greene and his forces, including Brig. Gen. Hugh Mercer’s brigade, were advancing from the north end of town. As the two infantry divisions now pushed forward toward each other, American cannon fire began raining down on the Hessians. This cannonade came from the Pennsylvania side of the river, courtesy of the emboldened Rebels stuck observing the action from the opposite bank.

The Hessians, however, were not ready to pack it in quite yet. By now, Colonel Rall was out of his bed. Having been roused from his sleep by the sudden crackle of all that musket fire, he was appalled when informed that the crossroads at the upper ends of King and Queen Streets, the center of the town, was already in Rebel hands. His instinctive reaction was to immediately counterattack. Answering the call to arms, no less than three regiments of renowned European infantry shook off the morning doldrums and snapped into action, assuming battle formation with clockwork Germanic efficiency.

Lining up at the lower end of Queen Street, the venerable Alt von Lossberg regiment steeled itself for a fight. Simultaneously, the grenadiers of the Rall regiment, so named for its commander, made ready at the lower end of King Street and awaited orders. The Fusiliers of the von Knyphausen Regiment were held in reserve to reinforce the Rall regiment on King Street, if needed.

Rall’s strategy was simple, straightforward, and bloody-minded. With a regiment of prized Hessian infantry now poised on each of the two high streets, and in accordance with the accepted military doctrine of the period, the colonel ordered the cream of his command to march in lock-step up the length of Queen and King Streets.

Rall’s single-minded goal was to drive the Rebels off and take back the center of the town. The problem was that Washington had foreseen this obvious response from his Hessian counterpart  and made sure Knox was in position to thwart it.

Advancing doggedly up King and Queen Streets, the Hessians marched straight into the teeth of the American guns as Knox and his artillerymen opened up on them. At last, after a hellish half year, it was the Continentals who were dishing it out, and the forces of empire were on the receiving end.
Ordered to capture the American cannons, Rall’s grenadiers pressed grimly on, shoulder to shoulder through the acrid, blue-gray haze of gunpowder, trooping forward up King Street through shot and shell. Their uniforms were spattered with the blood and gore of their fallen comrades as bits of brain and splintered bone rent the chill morning air.

As if that were not enough, scores of Mercer’s riflemen had gotten into the houses and shops along the route, taken up concealed positions, and begun firing at will into the tightly packed Hessian formations, turning King Street into a gauntlet of death. Rall tried to get some of his own artillery into the fight, sending a brace of three pounders up the street, but after somehow managing to fire off a dozen jittery salvos, they were blasted out of commission by Knox and his boys at the upper end of the street and Mercer’s men sniping at them from the houses.

On Queen Street, the Hessians fared no better, blasted by Rebel cannons and picked off by an enemy raised on shooting turkeys and not too proud to take cover. There, too, the Rebels fired away with impunity at their hapless opponents.

Military discipline, even the German kind, will eventually give way in the face of such an onslaught and the Hessians began to waver. The sight of the Rebels clambering over their fallen comrades in the Hessian gun crews to capture their cannons and prepare to bombard them with their own artillery was simply too much for the stunned soldiers. All along King and Queen Streets, the Hessians broke ranks and fled, pursued toward the fields on the outskirts of town.

In the fog of war, the Knyphausen Regiment, having been held back in reserve, became separated from the rest of their kinsmen. Still caught in Trenton, many found that their muskets were misfiring because they had let their powder get too damp. Seeing this, Sullivan, unwilling to simply continue blasting away at his helpless foe, sent his men rushing down the street in a howling bayonet charge. He led several of his men in hot pursuit down toward the creek to scotch any hope of a Hessian retreat. There, along the Assunpink, the woefully unlucky Knyphausens dithered for several tense minutes before finally throwing down their useless muskets and raising their hands in surrender.

But Colonel Rall was not through yet. Incapable of accepting defeat, he re-grouped what was left of his command in a field just outside of Trenton, ordered his regimental fifes and drums to play a tune, and ordered his grenadiers forward in a futile attempt to retake Trenton. Despite being shot at from three sides, Ralls’ infantrymen stubbornly advanced back into town and up the length of King Street, through artillery bombardment and a merciless fusillade, and succeeded in retaking some of their cannons. But Knox would have none of it and after a brief but tenacious struggle soon drove them off again, once more training the cannons back onto the advancing Hessian columns.

At that point, some of the townsfolk rushed from their homes and joined the Rebel army in fending off their uninvited guests’ attempted counterthrust. Hessian unit cohesion again began to falter. Rall was many things, but he was no coward. He was there, in the midst of the melee, shouting himself hoarse, still desperately attempting to rally his men forward and press the attack when a clutch of Rebel musket balls suddenly slammed into his medal-bedecked chest. He fell to the ground and died later that day. An unheeded Loyalist message, possibly unread, warning ominously of a dangerous number of Rebels being spotted recently in the vicinity was later found on his lifeless body.

Deprived of their commander, the Hessians suddenly seemed to be at a complete loss as to what to do. Seeing this, Washington spurred his mount and galloped down from his hilltop position, rallying his men, leading them forward in a final charge that drove the broken Hessians back out of town into an orchard. Surrounded by the very men they had once derided as clownish buffoons and stung by the humiliating taunts of several of the jeering citizens of Trenton, what remained of the proud Hessian regiments, more than 900 souls in all, gave up at last, lowered their colors, and meekly surrendered.

The battle for Trenton had lasted scarcely half an hour. When the fighting was over, 22 Hessians were dead. Another 92 of their wounded comrades lay writhing in agony up and down the streets of the quaint little Colonial town. Washington had not lost a single man during the attack. He had scored his victory at a cost of a mere five wounded.

The Continentals had taken Trenton but they could not hold it. The forces of the British Crown would certainly seek to return this insult with a vengeance, and Washington knew that if British reinforcements should suddenly appear in strength, the Continentals would fare no better than the Hessians. Because of the threat of enemy reinforcements, Washington decided return to the relative safety of the Pennsylvania pines. But news travels fast, and on December 30, buoyed by his success, Washington returned to New Jersey with a rejuvenated army. This time, Ewing and Cadwalader managed to make the trip.

At this moment, in the British bastion of New York City, General Lord Charles Cornwallis was appalled when he was informed that his leave was summarily cancelled. Washington’s little triumph had just cost him his passage home to England to see the wife. On New Year’s Day 1777, a furious Cornwallis was galloping the 50 miles to Princeton, New Jersey. Barely a day later, he was at the head of an army speeding south to punish Washington for his audacity.

Meanwhile, Washington had been working feverishly to capitalize on the propaganda value of his victory at Trenton to gather more fresh recruits and strive to retain the veterans whose one-year enlistments were up, exhorting them to keep faith with him for a further six weeks, and throwing in a ten dollar bounty to sweeten the bargain. His efforts bore fruit, and by January 2 Washington could boast more than 5,000 men in the ranks, though most of them were barely trained. Ready or not, they were about to receive their baptism of fire. That very evening, Cornwallis and his army arrived.

With night falling, British advance units probing the woods in the vicinity of the Assunpink traded shots with Rebel pickets along the creek, culminating in a textbook British move to seize the little bridge. But the Rebels, emboldened by their Lilliputian victory over the Hessians, defiantly stood their ground, successfully fending off attempts to push them off the bridge as darkness descended.

Cornwallis remained calm and collected. Owing to the lateness of the hour, his apparently fatigued Lordship halted the bulk of his columns about a half mile outside of Trenton and made camp. With the frozen Delaware still seemingly impassable, Cornwallis considered his foe to be neatly bottled up there on the banks. Indeed, his scouts reported that Washington and his Rebel army were camped beside the ice bound river.

Pointing a languid finger toward the lights of the Rebels’ campfires, clearly visible in the dark wintry night, Cornwallis cheerily reassured his officers that after a six-month chase across three of the 13 colonies, the wily Washington was truly trapped at last. Washington would be just as dead come morning when, by the light of day, they would march over and wipe out his paltry command after a good night’s sleep.

By dawn, Cornwallis must have wanted to kick himself in the pants. At about 1 am, even as the Rebel campfires continued to flicker and beckon, stoked, it turned out, by 500 conspicuously merrymaking men tasked with this purpose to complete the deception, a canny Washington had his men wrapping rags around their cannon and wagon wheels, and even around the hooves of their officers’ horses as they made a stealthy getaway under Cornwallis’ nose.

Arriving at Trenton early that morning, January 3, at the head of his mighty host, Cornwallis was dumbfounded to discover that his nemesis was nowhere to be found. While the British slept, Washington and his men had circled around their entire army in the dead of night and escaped the deadly trap. Marching north in silence through the frozen dark, come sun up they were a scant two miles from Cornwallis’ original starting point at Princeton.

Princeton, which had previously been chock full of British Regulars, was now only lightly defended, garrisoned by about 1,200 Redcoats under the command of Lt. Col. Charles Mawhood, whom Cornwallis had left behind before setting off to confront Washington at Trenton.

Urging his men northward through the wooded pathways, Washington reached Stony Brook, a small stream, which the Continentals followed for a full mile to the point where it abutted the Post Road, the vital commercial artery running north and south between Princeton and Trenton.

Loath to be caught out in the open in broad daylight, Washington quickly sent his men scurrying over and across the nearby fields of William Clark’s farm, which lay just to the right of the road. To Washington’s great good luck, there was another unmarked pathway of sorts running through Farmer Clark’s fields that not only led straight into town but could not be seen from the nearby Post Road. It was also completely undefended.

Undetected, Washington was now only about a mile and a half away from Princeton, his command all but invisible as his men quietly formed up on the dirt track that the farmers used to bring their vegetables to market. But by this time, it was already 7:30. He knew that back in Trenton, Cornwallis was surely standing beside the Delaware by now, seeing red and shaking his fist.

Washington knew he had to act fast. He turned to his old friend and comrade from the French and Indian War, the Scotsman Mercer, whose martial talents had proved so invaluable at Trenton. Once the regimental surgeon to Bonnie Prince Charlie during Scotland’s own abortive rebellion, Mercer had fled to the colonies and made a new life for himself in Fredericksburg, Virginia. The 51-year-old clergyman’s son received orders to take 350 men back to the wooden bridge over Stony Brook, deny the enemy its potential use, and buy Washington some badly needed time.

Still unaware that he was about to be attacked, Mawhood was dutifully following Cornwallis’ previously issued orders to tip the scales, dispatching two additional regiments, the 17th and the 55th Regiments of Foot, to reinforce his lordship at Trenton that morning, leaving a single regiment, the men of the 40th to safeguard Princeton in their absence.

By 8 am Mawhood and his men were on the move. They had only just left Princeton, making for the bridge at Stony Brook. But as the Redcoats marching through the Jersey pines crested the top of a small hill just to the south, they spotted the Continentals below. Mawhood immediately wheeled his infantrymen around and made a mad scramble back toward the garrison.

Mercer’s reaction was equally swift. Seeing Mawhood on the move, he hastened to cut him off and protect Washington’s main force by attacking Mawhood’s columns from the rear. By now, the attack on Princeton was already on, with Sullivan and his entire division, two brigades of hardy diehards in the van, charging down the dirt track from Clark’s Farm, followed close behind by two more brigades, the first of these under the command of Cadwalader, absent at Trenton, now getting in on the action at last. The other was a brigade of Rhode Islanders led by an attorney from Massachusetts named Colonel Daniel Hitchcock.

As for Mawhood, Mercer, and their deadly chase, exactly which one was the fox and which, the hound, was in doubt. Mercer, despairing of catching and cutting off Mawhood’s Redcoats short of Princeton, peeled off to join Sullivan’s forces in the main attack. Mawhood had become aware that a Rebel column had been coming up behind him in close pursuit, but seeing them suddenly breaking off the chase and making a beeline toward Clark Farm must have struck him like lightning. Everybody in Princeton knew about the path through the farmer’s fields.

Sending the main body of his infantry forward to reinforce the Princeton garrison, Mawhood now turned the tables, siphoning off the 17th of Foot and elements of the 55th, a brace of artillery pieces, and about 50 cavalrymen, and sent them chasing after Mercer.

They caught up with him in Farmer Clark’s orchard and unleashed a volley, but the notoriously inaccurate Brown Bess muskets missed their marks, sending their leaden payloads flying high over the Rebels’ heads. Mercer shouted to his men to get into proper battle formation and advance on the Redcoats before they could reload, but as the Rebels looked on in horror, still more scarlet-clad infantrymen arrived, backed up by the gleaming bronze cannons of the Royal Artillery.

Taking cover behind a nearby fence, Mercer ordered his riflemen to open fire. The British responded with another volley of their own, and back and forth it went. For eight murderous minutes the two sides traded lead with each other. But Mercer’s rifles, though more accurate, took longer to reload than the British muskets, and there were so many more of them.

The Redcoats, trained to withstand the brutal psychology of such encounters, soon had the upper hand. Some of the Rebels did not even have a bayonet at the end of their muskets. Barely trained farm boys fumbling their weapons with trembling hands, they seemed close to panic. Seeing this, Mawhood contemptuously ordered a bayonet charge.

The Rebels broke and fled, all except Mercer and his loyal second, Colonel John Haslet of the 1st Delaware Continentals. There in the orchard, the stubborn Scot stood his ground. Haslet, at his general’s side, implored the fleeing men to stand fast. He received a musket ball in the head for his trouble and was dead before he hit the ground.

Calling mercer a damned Rebel, the British shouted at him to surrender. Mercer spat at the idea and, asking for no quarter, none was given. The Redcoats who ran him through with their bayonets were ecstatic. They thought they had just killed Washington.

Out for blood, the Redcoats were close on the heels of the fleeing survivors when Rebel and Redcoat alike literally ran straight into Cadwalader’s Pennsylvania militiamen as they came blundering out of the nearby woods.

For several moments, chaos reigned on the battlefield. Mawhood quickly regrouped and got his infantrymen into a proper battle line. Cadwalader attempted to do the same, but his men were so completely unnerved by the sight of British steel and the spectacle of so many of their comrades running past them down the hill that they started to turn tail and follow them.

The battle for Princeton was quickly devolving into a pandemonium. At this moment, Sullivan’s assault force which was directly attacking the Princeton garrison was also starting to lose momentum, bogged down by a determined effort by elements of the 55th of Foot, now rushing to the aid of the town’s defenders, the 40th.

Just then Washington came galloping up over the hill, into the very midst of Cadwalader’s unraveling, stampeding command. Following in his wake were the veteran Virginia Continentals and the deadly riflemen of Colonel Edward Hand, a 32-year-old, Irish-born physician turned revolutionary.

Washington immediately directed Hands’ riflemen and his fellow Virginians onto the high ground to their right. Then, gripping the reins, he galloped out in front between the enemy and his own tentatively advancing troops, heading off the human wave of demoralized yeomen farmers like a cattleman corralling his flock.

Waving his hat like a field marshal’s baton, Washington got them in line. There were so many musket balls whizzing past him, his own horse hesitated to take another step. With less than 90 feet between the two sides, Washington gave the order to fire.

It was as if both armies jumped to his stern command as a deadly blizzard of cannon fire and musket balls erupted from both sides. Lead flew in every direction. The entire battlefield was engulfed in a thick cloud of sulfurous smoke.

One of Washington’s officers buried his head in his hat, convinced he had just seen his fearless commander blown to bits. But as the billows of spent gunpowder wafted away in the wintry New Jersey breeze, there was Washington, miraculously unharmed, urging his troops onward with a majestic sweep of his arm.

Answering the call, a battle line of Hitchcock’s flint-hard New England militiamen went forward, moving to outflank the British right, while Edward Hand used his sharp-shooting riflemen to deadly effect, creating great, gory gaps in their formations until the thin red line of British infantrymen was up to their knees in the blood of their fallen comrades. Then the Continental cannons unleashed salvos of grapeshot, bombarding the British with a deadly hail of hot metal. The British line began to buckle. The New Englanders surged forward.

It was the Redcoats’ turn to give ground as more and more of the now emboldened Continentals came charging across the field. In danger of being overwhelmed, Mawhood reluctantly ordered a fighting retreat toward the Post Road. Washington had been right to worry about the little bridge over Stony Brook. After fixing bayonets, Mawhood led a wild charge that broke past startled Rebel pickets. Screaming like banshees, they scampered over the wooden planks to the other side, leaving a company of Dragoons behind to cover their timely escape.

As for the rest of Mawhood’s command, their position deteriorated rapidly as Sullivan’s Continentals began a renewed effort to capture their prize. The British 40th redeployed to a stronger defensive position on the northern crest of a small hillside just outside of the town. The 55th formed a defensive line to their immediate left. But as defensive positions go, the slope made for paltry high ground, and Sullivan’s men had no difficulty in charging straight up it.

Attacking in force, they kept coming on, leaving the Redcoats with no choice but to retire and make their final stand behind the breastworks they had thrown up in front of the town. But the Continentals, undaunted by volleys of musketry, all but hurled themselves at the barricade, overrunning the breastworks as if it were so many matchsticks. Their position untenable, the British withdrew into the town and, losing any semblance of unit cohesion began to scatter.

Most of them tried to get clear of the town, hoping to rejoin the rest of Cornwallis’ army and live to fight another day. Approximately 300 of them simply went to ground, hiding anywhere they could. Several locked themselves inside Nassau Hall at the College of New Jersey. They were eventually coaxed out by a group of artillerymen led by Alexander Hamilton, who had only recently applied to the college.

Denied entry because he had asked to be allowed the privilege of studying at his own pace, Hamilton now found himself in the unique position of being able to lob cannon balls at the college that had rejected him. After a brief bombardment, white flags appeared at the upper windows, and the officers inside agreed to come out and surrender. In less than an hour, the Battle of Princeton was fought and won.

Having secured a second victory, Washington considered making a run on New Brunswick and the 70,000 pounds sterling in the British Army pay chest there, but wisely decided to put some distance between himself and his nemesis as the worsening weather set in. He simply was not strong enough to face off against the soon to return Cornwallis, at least at that point in the war. Washington would spend most of the next four years eluding his grasp, making a habit of vexing his aristocratic adversary and avoiding a direct showdown until he was ready, with the help of the French, at Yorktown in 1781.

Suggested Reading: 

Washington's Crossing By David Hackett Fischer 

George Washington's Surprise Attack: A New Look at the Battle That Decided the Fate of America By Phillip Thomas Tucker 

The Winter Soldiers By Richard M. Ketchum 

 Suggested Viewing: 

 The Crossing


Friday, November 30, 2018

Operation Bagration -- June 22nd - August 19th "Breaking The Back Of Army Group Center"

While it dwarfed all other operations, it lacked a dramatic and popular focal point like Normandy, Stalingrad, or Leningrad––which have been written about more extensively. It took place at a time when the Western Allies were still engaged in Operation Overlord––the fighting in Normandy’s hedgerow country inland from the beaches––the landings in southern France, the dash across France, and the ongoing struggle in Italy. These have received the preponderance of attention while the near destruction of three German army groups on the Eastern Front has been relegated to a few paragraphs or pages in the more popular accounts of the war in the East. But Bagration was too large and important to ignore or minimize.

The political scene for the Soviet 1944 Summer Offensive was set at the meeting between Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin at Tehran in December 1943. Many subjects of great importance were covered at this conference, the most important being their agreement to orchestrate future operations against Germany in 1944. Churchill and Roosevelt informed Stalin that they intended to open the long-awaited second front by landing in France in May 1944. In turn, Stalin promised to support this operation by launching a massive strategic offensive of his own.

Planning for the Belorussian Offensive, as Bagration is also known, began in the spring of 1944. Knowledge of the operation was severely limited to the five or six officers working on the plan. It was decided to launch the offensive on June 22. While this had symbolic importance since it marked––to the day––the three-year anniversary of the German invasion (Operation Barbarossa), it can be safely assumed that the practical Stalin had other reasons for delaying his offensive for a month after the announced date for the Allied landings in France.

The Soviet armies involved in bloody fighting during the winter and early spring had made spectacular advances, particularly in the south. They had also driven the Germans away from the immediate area around Leningrad. The armies needed time to reorganize and resupply before undertaking another major effort. Stalin was also skeptical about the planned American-British landings in France. By delaying his own strategic offensive, it gave him a chance to see how that operation developed before beginning his own offensive in Belorussia.

Developing The Offensive Around Orsha

If the Normandy landings were successful, they might draw off German forces from the East and the delay would thus benefit the Soviets. However, after the landings, the Western Allies were still almost 1,100 kilometers from Berlin and the eastern bulge of Germany’s Army Group Center was 1,200 kilometers from Berlin. The distance from the rail-junction city of Orsha––still in German hands––to Moscow was roughly 400 kilometers.

While the German Army in 1944 was only a shadow of what it was in 1940-41 in terms of troop quality and leadership, it was still a potent force. If the landings in France ended in a fiasco, Stalin had to assume that the Germans would move the bulk of their 50 infantry and 10 armored divisions then in France and the Low Countries to the Eastern Front; a resurgent Wehrmacht with a major victory under its belt would be tough to deal with. The prospect of having to cope basically alone with Germany for another year or two must have given Stalin pause.

Such redeployment would also alter the space/force ratio, an often-overlooked element that increasingly plagued the Germans. As the German armies in the East were bled white from 1941 to 1944, the space/force ratio increasingly swung to the advantage of the Soviets, and that could only change by a significant increase of German forces or a withdrawal to shorter defensive lines. As the Germans were forced back to Poland and the German border, the Soviet planners were no doubt aware that the space/force ratio would change to the advantage of the Germans.

The Soviets had 12 fronts (army groups) facing the Germans and their allies along a 3,200 kilometer front. The strength of the Soviet Army on the Eastern Front in the spring of 1944 stood at 6,077,000. The Germans had four army groups and an independent army with a total strength of 2,250,000 facing these fronts.

Army Group Center was commanded by Field Marshal Ernst Busch, not a particularly capable commander. His appointment was due primarily to his unquestioned loyalty and obedience to Hitler. His forces occupied a huge bulge extending eastward north of the Pripet Marshes close to the headwaters of the Dvina and Dniper Rivers east of Vitebsk––the historic Russian invasion gate. Both sides referred to this bulge as the “Belorussian Balcony.”

This salient developed as a result of the misfortunes of the neighboring German army groups, particularly the disastrous events that occurred in the southern sector in the wake of Stalingrad, Kursk, and the withdrawal from the Caucasus. The Soviets had advanced to the border of Romania and past Kovel near the Polish border in northwestern Ukraine, while Army Group North was driven away from Leningrad to Lake Peipus.

While numerically the strongest army group on the Eastern Front––slightly over 700,000 troops in 51 divisions, including reserves and rear security divisions––it held the longest front by far: about 780 kilometers. It was, therefore, a thinly held line that its four armies occupied––Second, Ninth, Fourth, and Third Panzer. By comparison, Army Group North Ukraine occupied a front of 350 kilometers with 45 divisions (including 10 Hungarian). The space/force ratio was therefore much greater in the Army Group Center area.

The air support resources were also out of balance between Army Group Center and Army Group North Ukraine. The Sixth Air Fleet which supported Army Group Center had 775 aircraft, but 405 of these were long-range bombers of limited value in support of defensive operations. The Fourth Air Fleet supporting Army Group North Ukraine had a total of 845 aircraft, of which 670 were fighters or ground support aircraft.

General Kurt von Tippelskirch -- Commanding General 4th Panzer Army

The air situation was actually worse than depicted by raw numbers. According to Fourth Army commander General Kurt von Tippelskirch, there were only 40 German fighter aircraft flyable in the Sixth Air Fleet on June 22, and there was insufficient gasoline to keep them in the air.

STAVKA (Soviet High Command) had not settled on striking at the Balcony without considering other options. One option studied was a strike into the Balkans, a continuation of the successful drive earlier in the year that brought the Soviets into northeast Romania. This option was rejected because it would leave much of western Russia in German hands and dangerously expose the northern flank.

A second considered option called for a northwest strike from northern Ukraine across Poland to the Baltic Sea. This was promising as it could result in trapping both Army Group Center and Army Group North. But it was ultimately rejected because it was a long and perilous drive with dangerously open flanks and viewed as beyond the Soviet Army’s logistic and maneuvering capabilities.
In April 1944 STAVKA settled on attacking the Balcony with the strategic objective of destroying Army Group Center. Success would bring the Soviets to the border of Poland and East Prussia—an ideal position for future operations. Pressure, meantime, would be maintained on other fronts.

The Eastern Intelligence Branch of the OKH (German Army High Command) made its own examination in early May of Soviet options. One was almost identical to the second option considered by the Soviets––a drive from Kovel in a north-northwest direction. The OKH rejected it for much the same reasons as the Soviets. The second option given serious consideration by OKH involved a Soviet offensive through Romania and Hungary into the Balkans.

While the Soviet and German appraisals were similar, they differed in their all-important conclusion. The Germans concluded that the offensive would be launched against Army Group North Ukraine, commanded by Field Marshal Walter Model. Model was a very capable and energetic officer––one of Hitler’s favorite troubleshooters––with an offensive spirit. He certainly was not timid, as was Field Marshal Busch. The German intelligence estimate concluded that Army Group Center’s area north of the Pripet Marches would remain quiet.

Having settled on a strategic objective, the Soviets resorted to a vast strategic and tactical deception program. First, STAVKA ordered the entire Soviet Army to assume a defensive posture on April 19. This by itself was not sufficient to fool the Germans because they were well aware of Soviet superiority and it was inconceivable that this superiority would not be employed somewhere, at some time. The Soviet main deception effort thus became one of making the Germans believe that the resumption of the strategic offensive would come in July against the southwestern part of the front.

This was further refined so that the indicators pointed to the area of Army Group North Ukraine as the location of the main effort. The Soviets apparently knew that the Germans expected the strategic offensive to take place in Ukraine, not Belorussia, and it therefore became the task of the deception effort to reinforce existing enemy beliefs.

The Soviets had to achieve surprise while undertaking a massive redeployment of forces. They assembled 1,200,000 frontline troops to throw against Army Group Center. These were backed up by a further 1,200,000 troops farther to the rear under STAVKA control, to be used as the offensive began to roll.

The buildup of forces opposite Army Group Center began in early May and gathered steam as time passed. In just the first three weeks of June, 75,000 railroad carloads of troops and supplies were brought into the area opposite Army Group Center. The Soviets concealed their buildup with great skill and it was not until the end of May that the Germans began to detect an increase in the Soviet force level in the Army Group Center sector.

The four fronts opposite Army Group Center received an increase in personnel of 60 percent during May and June. In addition, there was a 300 percent increase in tanks and assault guns, an 85 percent increase in artillery and mortars, and a 62 percent increase in air strength.

In the most massive buildup of the war, the Soviets assembled some 4,000 tanks, 24,400 pieces of indirect-fire weapons, and 5,300 aircraft, giving them armor, artillery, and air superiorities of 10:1 at the assault points. The Soviet air force had full air superiority, bordering on dominance, and kept German reconnaissance aircraft at a distance except in areas they wanted the Germans to observe.
Reports of a Soviet buildup in the Army Group Center area increased rapidly in June but OKH viewed the buildup as a Soviet deception. Field Marshal Busch failed to react except for an increased concern for the curved flank of General Walter Weiss’s Second Army on his right flank. The Germans had already played directly into Soviet hands in May when much of Army Group Center’s strength was given to Model’s Army Group North Ukraine.

Both Army Group Center and Army Group North Ukraine had become concerned in early May about signs of buildup in the Kovel-Ternopol area on the border between the two army groups. The OKH Intelligence Branch also raised the specter of a possible Soviet secondary offensive south of the Pripet Marches, in the border area between Army Group Center and Army Group North Ukraine. This estimate was later amended to project that the secondary offensive would miss Army Group Center which had begun reinforcing its right flank corps, LVI Panzer Corps, with tanks, assault guns, and artillery.

General Kurt Zeitzler -- OKH Chief Of Staff

General Kurt Zeitzler, OKH chief of staff, proposed the formation of a reserve army in the area, drawing on units from Army Group Center and Army Group North. He recommended using the proposed reserve army, with LVI Panzer Corps as its nucleus, to launch a spoiling offensive. Model saw in this proposal a chance to conduct an active defense and also acquire substantial additional forces for his army group. (It should be noted that, although Zeitzler was never considered a brilliant military leader, he was chosen by Hitler to replace General Franz Halder in September 1942. Hitler probably did not select him because he sported a short, Hitler-like mustache but because he was far more pliable than Halder. His deficiencies would soon become glaringly apparent.)

Model proposed to Hitler that he be assigned the LVI Panzer Corps for offensive operations, knowing that this would sit well with Hitler, who much preferred offense to defense. Thus, LVI Panzer Corps was transferred to Army Group North Ukraine on May 20; Field Marshal Busch did not protest Hitler’s order. The movement of the boundary resulted in a 47 kilometer reduction in Army Group Center’s sector, but this miniscule reduction came at a high price. As already noted, Army Group Center had reinforced LVI Panzer Corps heavily and these reinforcements were all lost with the transfer of the corps. Army Group Center lost 15 percent of its divisions, 23 percent of its assault guns, and a staggering 50 and 88 percent, respectively, of its artillery and tank strength.

Signs of looming troubles multiplied in June in Army Group Center’s sector. New Soviet units were identified and rumors that Marshal Georgi K. Zhukov, the architect of the successful defense of Leningrad and Moscow and the hero of Stalingrad, was in command of the forces being assembled were confirmed from prisoner interrogations as were the general objectives of the forthcoming offensive. These increasing signs of trouble, however, received only cursory interest at Army Group Center.

General Zeitzler convened a high-level meeting on the morning of June 14, 1944—a week after the combined U.S.-British invasion of Normandy—at OKH in Rastenburg in East Prussia. The meeting involved the chiefs of staff of the army groups and armies. They were to receive Hitler and OKH’s assessment (one and the same) of the situation and told what to expect during the summer of 1944. Zeitzler was somewhat apologetic for having brought the chiefs of staff of Army Group Center and its armies to the meeting since the subject would not be of particular concern to them––announcing that OKH had concluded that the Soviets would continue their offensive against the southern army groups, with Army Group North Ukraine absorbing the brunt of the Soviet offensive.

Zeitzler’s conclusion ranks as one of the most calamitous misreadings of enemy intentions in World War II. It was based mostly on preconceived ideas that brushed aside all indications to the contrary. In all fairness, it should be pointed out that most group and army commanders shared Zeitzler’s conclusion, at least until some disturbing signs became obvious in June. Through their excellent deception plan the Soviets had achieved one of the first requirements of a successful campaign––to get into the head of the opposing commander.

Army Group Center under Busch had become a place devoid of proper operational conceptions and served only as a transmittal station for Hitler’s orders. The Germans continued to believe blindly that the main offensive would take place against Army Group North Ukraine.

Busch flew to meet Hitler at the Berghof on the morning of June 22––Bagration’s D-day. Except for trying to get LVI Panzer Corps back, the meeting was apparently called to deal with routine matters.

The final Soviet operational directive was provided to the front commanders on May 31; the offensive was to be launched on a 480-kilometer front from just south of Polotsk, on the boundary between Army Group Center and Army Group North, to Rogatchev, near the boundary between the Fourth and Ninth Armies. Stalin had assigned the code-name “Bagration” to the operation. Pyotr (Peter) Bagration was a fellow Georgian, a general who was mortally wounded in the Battle of Borodino against Napoleon in September 1812.

Marshals Zhukov and Alesandr M. Vasilevskiy were each responsible for operational planning, coordination, and direction of two fronts. Zhukov was assigned the two southern fronts, 2nd and 1st Belorussian, while Vasilevskiy had the two northern fronts, 1st Baltic and 3rd Belorussian.

Unlike many operational plans, the Soviet plan worked so well that it is not necessary to discuss it in detail as it unfolded as planned in the described operations. The initial tasks of the four fronts were to isolate and reduce four communications centers to the rear of the German lines: Vitebsk, Orsha, Mogilev, and Bobruysk. The operations against Vitebsk were primarily the responsibility of the 1st Baltic Front under General Ivan K. Bagramyan.

The 3rd Belorussian Front, under General Ivan Chernyakhovskiy, would assist by enveloping Vitebsk from the south with 5th and 39th Armies before heading toward Senno. Another assault group from the 3rd Belorussian Front, consisting of the 11th Guards and 31st Armies, would attack toward Orsha. Cavalry-Mechanized Group Oslikovskiy would undertake a rapid advance west past Senno. The 3rd Belorussian Front had the 5th Guards Tank Army in reserve.

The 2nd Belorussian Front, consisting of the 33rd, 49th, and 50th Armies under the command of General Georgiy F. Zakharov, would hit the center of 4th Army and eliminate the German bridgehead east of the Dniper River. These forces would then take Mogilev.

General Konstantin Rokossovskiy’s 1st Belorussian Front was to use two armies (3rd and 48th) east of the Beresina River and two armies (65th and 28th) and a Cavalry-Mechanized Group west of the Beresina. These forces would encircle Bobruysk.

The breakthroughs were to be achieved by massive infantry-led attacks with heavy artillery and air support against the German lines on narrow fronts. It is estimated that 250 pieces of indirect-fire weapons per kilometer were used at each of the breakthrough points. When holes had been punched in the German lines, armored spearheads would rush through and encircle the communications centers by double envelopments.

The second phase of the Soviet operation involved deep armor-led drives against Minsk from both the northeast and southeast designed to isolate the 4th German Army. Strong forces (3rd Belorussian Front) would bypass Minsk on the north and head for Molodechno, while equally strong forces (1st Belorussian Front) would head for Baranovichi to the southwest of Minsk. These drives would not only isolate 4th Army but would block the escape routes from Minsk which were restricted by vast areas of forests and swamps.

On the German side, the far left flank was held by General Hasso-Eccard von Manteuffel’s Third Panzer Army from both sides of Vitebsk to near Polotsk where it tied into Hansen’s Sixteenth Army of Army Group North. On its right, Third Panzer tied into Fourth Army north of Orsha. Fourth Army, which held a 40-kilometer deep and 130-kilometer wide bridgehead east of the Dniper River, tied into Ninth Army north of Rogatchev. Ninth Army held a front that curved southwestward along the Prut and Dniper Rivers to the area south of Zhlobin where it bent westward over the Bersina River to the lower Pitch and Pripet. Second Army held the longest sector along the Pripet River to where it tied into the left flank of Army Group North Ukraine north of Kovel.

An avalanche of Soviet forces struck Army Group Center in the morning of June 22, although there are some arguments about the start date. The first Soviet communiqué mentioned June 23 as the start date and most Soviet accounts use this date. It seems, however, that the Germans should be aware of when all hell broke loose and we have therefore used June 22 as the start date. It may be, as Chris Bellamy suggests, that some of the attacks began on June 22 but that the full fury was not unleashed until the 23rd. Field Marshal Busch, who was still in Germany to see Hitler, hurried back to his headquarters in Minsk.

As in Normandy, partisan forces were of great help to the attackers. The estimated 143,000 partisans in Belorussia had begun attacks against Army Group Center’s lines of communication on June 20 but paused when the Soviets launched diversionary attacks in the south. The reinforcements that the Germans sent south were allowed to proceed unmolested. When the reserves were turned around and sent north after the main blow fell on Army Group Center, the partisans went into action and virtually paralyzed traffic in the German rear area.

The main Soviet attacks proceeded according to plans. The 1st Baltic and 3rd Belorussian fronts quickly pierced the pulverized German front lines on both sides of the city of Vitebsk and proceeded with its envelopment. Third Panzer Army, on the left flank of Army Group Center, was caught completely by surprise by the Soviet 6th Guards Army and its front was torn open. In this phase of the operation the Soviets employed their vast air superiority primarily against German artillery, which was established in open positions near the front so that the guns could be used in a direct-fire role. This left the German guns very vulnerable to air attack.

On the second day of the operation, the Soviets again overwhelmed 3rd Panzer Army’s front north of Vitebsk and proceeded to encircle the city from the north, trapping five German divisions. Hitler’s (and Busch’s) fixation on a rigid defense and holding on to areas designated as “fortified places” began playing havoc with any efforts by the armies to mount a coherent defense.

The 3rd and 2nd Belorussian Fronts were tearing through the Fourth Army’s front lines and heading for Orsha and Mogilev. A message from Busch reported that he saw no way of restoring the front of Third Panzer Army without giving up Vitebsk or receiving reinforcements; Hitler was not willing to give up Vitebsk. And OKH was not willing to bring units north from Army Group North Ukraine because they still expected the main attack to fall there. Busch himself was not willing to take units from Weiss’s Second Army for the same reason. Decision-making had become paralyzed.

On June 24, 4th Army’s left flank corps was beginning to disintegrate under powerful attacks, and the 1st Belorussian Front penetrated the 9th Army’s lines near its northern boundary. The Soviets reached Senno in the 3rd Panzer Army sector where they turned south behind 4th Army’s left flank. Hitler finally gave permission to withdraw four of the five divisions trapped at Vitebsk, but it was too late.
General Tippelskirch, commander of Fourth Army, requested permission to abandon the bridgehead east of the Dniper River but Busch refused. The following day Tippelskirch took matters into his own hands and ordered the withdrawal. On June 25, Ninth Army, in danger of having its main force trapped between the Dniper and Beresina Rivers, also requested permission to withdraw before it was destroyed. Busch, set on a rigid forward defense, again refused.

By the morning of June 26, Army Group Center appeared to be falling apart. It had committed all its reserves without stopping the Soviet advances. Vitebsk was encircled and the forces there were lost. Third Panzer Army was driven back on the Dvina and Ulla Rivers, 80 kilometers west of Vitebsk. The right flank corps of 3rd Panzer Army—badly mauled remnants of five divisions—was in full flight west and south of Senno and had lost contact with the rest of the army.

In Ninth Army’s sector, the Soviet armies were pushing toward Bobruysk and fanned out on both sides of the city. The lead Soviet elements in the south were only five kilometers from the city on June 26. Repeated requests by Ninth Army to be allowed to withdraw to Bobruysk and the Beresina River were denied until the morning of June 27. But, before the army could react to this approval and thereby establish contact with the Fourth Army, new orders arrived forbidding any withdrawal.
OKH and Busch changed their minds again in the afternoon. General Hans Jordan, commander of Ninth Army, was given permission for a breakout to the north, but the permission was accompanied by an order to hold Bobruysk.

The speed of events had by now overtaken the vacillating attitude of the army group and OKH. Bobruysk was encircled by 10 Soviet divisions, trapping two German corps of about 70,000 men in or east of the city. Panic broke out among the thousands of leaderless German troops in Bobruysk as they milled around in confusion. Ninth Army Headquarters, located outside the pocket, transferred its one remaining operational corps to the Fourth Army and withdrew to Marina Gorka where it tried to hold open an avenue of escape for the Fourth Army using parts of the 12th Panzer Division. The Ninth was the first German army to be ground to pieces in the Soviet offensive.

Things were not going much better for the other armies. General Rokossovskiy’s 1st Belorussian Front was also driving toward Minsk and the city of Slutsk to its south. Zakharov’s 2nd Belorussian Front forced a crossing of the Dniper north of Mogilev on June 26 and General Tippelskirch was forced to consider a withdrawal of his army by a single road through the swamps and forests between the Prut and Beresina Rivers. There was only one bridge across the Beresina, but intercepted Soviet radio messages to their tank spearheads revealed that they had orders to secure the crossing.

Tippelskirch sent a blunt message to Busch on June 27 which basically asked if the army group wanted Fourth Army to fight its way west or be encircled. Tippelskirch was told that if Fourth Army had to fall back, it was to establish a line on the Prut River but the “fortified places” of Mogilev and Orsha were to be held at all costs. By the time he received this message, the Soviets were already in Orsha. Tippelskirch ordered a withdrawal when the Soviets began enveloping his southern flank.

Fourth Army Headquarters moved from Belynichi to Beresino on June 28 over the same road the army would have to use––a road that was clogged by burning vehicles and dead horses from Soviet air strikes; it took nine hours to cover the 30-mile distance.

When Tippelskirch reached Beresino, he found a message from Busch ordering him to quickly get behind the Beresina River. An order from OKH (Hitler) gave permission to withdraw from Mogilev. That place had not been heard from since the previous day and had already fallen to the Soviets.
In his report to General Zeitzler on June 28, Busch noted that Jordan’s Ninth Army had collapsed, the Fourth was retreating, and Third Panzer had only one corps left of the original three. Despite this disastrous situation, Busch promised to fully implement an order that had come in from Hitler during the night to hold a line in the vicinity of Beresino––despite the fact that the remnants of Third Panzer and Ninth Armies were already west of the line.

It was finally dawning on OKH that the offensive against Army Group Center was on a greater scale than expected, with Minsk as a probable objective, but still they clung to the belief that another, more powerful offensive would strike Army Group North Ukraine. OKH proposed to pull Army Group North back to a line running from Dvisk to Riga in order to shorten the front and gain divisions to use in the Army Group Center area.

Hitler ignored the proposal and instead sacked Busch and appointed Field Marshal Model to command both Army Group Center and Army Group North Ukraine. The new command structure pleased the commanders and staffs of Army Group Center. Model was held in high esteem, and with him in command of both army groups, it would make it easier to shift forces between them. However, it did nothing to correct the space/force ratio, which the OKH proposal would have done.
Soviet aircraft knocked out the only bridge across the Beresina River on June 29 while the 1st and 3rd Belorussian Fronts were outflanking what was left of Germany’s Fourth Army from the north and south; the Soviets captured both Borisov and Slutsk.

The fate of Fourth Army was sealed on June 30 when Soviet tanks and artillery came within range of the bridge over the Beresina. Model was desperately trying to get some divisions from Army Group North, which could only spare these forces by a pullback, especially of its right flank, and this was something Hitler would not contemplate. He simply ignored Model’s request.

The past Slutsk and Borisov toward Baranovichi and Molodechno. This caused Jordan’s Ninth Army headquarters to leave Marina Gorka and head for Stolbtsy, halfway between Baranovichi and Minsk. It hoped to hold a crossing over the Neman River, the last escape route from Minsk where a panicky situation already existed. Trying to organize a force of stragglers to defend the town proved impossible. The 5th Guards Tank Army was getting perilously close in the north. Jordan directed his only remaining panzer division against Stolbtsy from Marina Gorka but the Soviets had already captured the town.

With the exception of a rear guard, Tippelskirch’s Fourth Army was across the Beresina River while his headquarters hurried to Molodechno to try to hold the railroad line running west from that town. Troops from the 1st and 3rd Belorussian Fronts took Minsk on July 3.

Ninth Army tried unsuccessfully to open the bridge at Stolbtsy while the Soviets drove toward Baranovichi the following day. After that, the only German troops to escape were individuals and small groups that made their way through the dense Nalibocka Forest. Ninth Army managed to hold the pocket around Minsk open long enough for perhaps 10,000-15,000 of its troops to escape. Jordan’s headquarters had ceased to function by the time it reached Baranovichi and could no longer exercise control of the divisions arriving from Second Army. The headquarters was moved to the rear to reorganize and re-equip.

There are no other words to describe the state of Army Group Center after 12 days of combat than that it was shattered. Fourth Army’s strength at the beginning of the operation was 165,000 men. It had lost 130,000 of these by the time Minsk fell. Third Panzer Army lost 10 divisions. In all, Army Group Center lost 25 divisions.

Past experience led the Germans to believe that the Soviets would pause to resupply and reorganize. The Soviets had advanced 200 kilometers since the start of the offensive and this was farther than they had moved in one leap on previous occasions.

Field Marshal Model hoped to establish a defensive line between the cities of Baranovichi and Molodechno. To do so, he needed additional forces to close two gaps on his left flank. An 80-kilometer-wide gap had developed between the right flank of Sixteenth Army of Army Group North at Polotsk and the left flank of Third Panzer Army. A gap of similar size had opened between the troops of Fourth Army trying to establish a line at Molodechno and the right flank of Third Panzer. There was an acute danger that the Soviets could encircle and destroy what was left of Third Panzer Army. This would open the road to Riga and East Prussia and pin Army Group North against the Baltic.

General Georg Lindemann, commander of Army Group North, had no troops to spare to help Model seal the gaps as long as he was forced to hold Polotsk. On July 3, Lindemann was given permission to fall back a short distance from Polotsk and ordered to attack southwestward to establish contact with Army Group Center. Lindemann replied that with the few troops made available by the short withdrawal he could still not attack; he was promptly relieved by Hitler who appointed General Johannes Friessner to take command. Friessner set about to stretch his front westward, thereby narrowing the gap between Army Group North and Army Group Center to about 30 kilometers.

Friessner intended to close this gap with a southward attack by three divisions. The attack never materialized.

Nor did the pause in the Soviet offensive that the Germans had expected occur. STAVKA ordered the offensive to continue without cessation on a broad front. The 1st Baltic Front was ordered to advance toward Dvinsk; the 3rd Belorussian Front was aimed at Mododechno and the Neman River; the 1st Belorussian Front advanced on Baranovichi and then on to the city of Brest; and the 2nd Belorussian Front remained behind in the Minsk area to conduct mopping-up operations.

The rapid Soviet advance on a wide front nullified Model’s plans to establish a defensive line from Mododechno to Baranovichi. On July 6, the 3rd Belorussian Front had penetrated the narrows south and east of Mododechno and the road to Vilnius was wide open. Weiss’s Second Army was able to hold Baranovichi for only a couple of days before it fell to the Soviets on July 8.

General Friessner’s attack from the north ran into the 4th Shock and 6th Guards Armies from the 1st Baltic Front advancing toward Dvinsk. Friessner now proposed that Sixteenth Army be allowed to withdraw to the Lithuania position, from Kraslava to Ostrov. Hitler relented but his solution––withdrawal halfway to the Lithuania position––only made things worse.

With no prospects of stopping the Soviets anywhere, Model requested a meeting with Hitler on July 9. Hitler was adamant about not withdrawing Army Group North. Instead, he promised to immediately make available to Model a panzer division from Germany and two divisions from Army Group North, followed by two more divisions later. With these reinforcements, Third Panzer Army was to attack northward to close the gap between it and Army Group North.

Nothing came of this plan. General Friessner informed Hitler on July 12 that he intended to attack south toward Third Panzer Army but emphasized that the effort would be useless since the 1st Baltic Front under General Bagramyan would continue its westward drive. He pointed out that his own front was unstable and he urged a withdrawal of Army Group North to a line running from Riga to Kaunas. If his proposal was not acted upon, Friessner asked to be relieved of his command. Hitler rejected Friessner’s proposal and countered with a plan to assemble five panzer divisions behind Kaunas to drive north to close the gap between the two army groups.

Soviet Troops Of The 4th Shock Army Attacking Towards Dvinsk

The following day, Model informed OKH that he would try to stop the Russians along a line from Kaunas along the Neman River to Brest, but to do so he needed the panzer divisions that Hitler had planned for the northward drive. Even counting the new units arriving, he would have only 16 divisions near full strength to counter 160 Soviet divisions and brigades. At a conference at Rastenburg on July 14, Hitler agreed to let Model have the divisions to first stop the Soviet offensive and then use them offensively to plug the gap between the two army groups. The logical solution of withdrawing Army Group North was again rejected.

The Germans managed to restore some semblance of order in the Army Group Center area after the middle of July. The Fourth Army and Third Panzer Army were able to establish a line from Ukmerge through Kaunus and along the Neman River south of Grondo while the Second Army continued to pivot its left flank as it withdrew toward Bialystok. Ninth Army was still in the rear reorganizing and preparing defensive works to protect East Prussia. The Germans were helped immeasurably by the fact that the Soviets, after advancing more than 320 kilometers, were outrunning their supplies. Railroads, bridges, and roads had to be rebuilt or repaired in the area devastated by the offensive before another sustained drive could be undertaken.

On July 17, the Soviets paraded 57,000 German prisoners through Moscow to underscore the extent of their victories. It also served to refute German claims that they had conducted a planned withdrawal from Belorussia. Finally, it provided evidence to counter claims in Western newspapers that the Soviet offensive was made easy because of the large number of German troops tied down in France. In fact, it was not until July 18 that the Americans captured St. Lo, just 30 kilometers from Omaha Beach. The Soviet offensive had covered over 320 kilometers by July 18, while the U.S. 1st Army and British 2nd Army––with about one million men ashore––had become bogged down in the treacherous hedgerows of Normandy.

Two days after the Americans captured St. Lo, the famous unsuccessful attempt on Hitler’s life was made at Rastenburg by an anti-Hitler conspiracy within the Army. The conspiracy was quickly shattered and resulted in a number of new officers being placed in key posts, mostly on the Western Front. The only changes that affected the Eastern Front were not a result of the attempt. On July 21, General Heinz Guderian was appointed successor to Zeitzler, who had reported sick three days earlier. Two days later, General Ferdinand Schoerner, commander of Army Group South Ukraine, and General Friessner exchanged assignments.

Army Group Center radio monitors intercepted a Soviet order to their tank units north of Vilnius which raised the distinct possibility of another and greater catastrophe on the Eastern Front. The messages instructed the Soviet units to attack in the gap between Army Groups Center and North. This actually initiated the next phase of the Soviet offensive––pressure against the flanks as the advance in the center began to lose momentum as a result of supply problems. Model told OKH that he could not assemble an attack force in time to stop the Soviet drive and that Army Group North had to manage on its own.

The conditions in Army Group North were dire. It was trying to get into the Lithuania positions but these positions were already beginning to crack. Friessner had no reserves left. He warned that the front was about to collapse.

The dangerous situation resulted in a meeting between Hitler, Hermann Göring (commander of the Luftwaffe), General Zeitzler, Field Marshal Model, and General Friessner. The only forces Hitler had to offer were two assault gun brigades intended for Finland. This was one of those rare occasions where Göring spoke up against Hitler’s strategy. He observed that the only way to generate sufficient forces and keep Army Group North from being encircled was to withdraw behind the Dvina River and establish a line between Riga and Kaunas. Hitler agreed that this was the simplest solution but noted that this would cost Germany the Latvian oil, Swedish iron ore, and Finnish nickel. As it turned out, all these would be lost within a month. Hitler insisted that Army Group North stay in place by every possible means. Zeitzler thereupon offered his resignation. When this offer was refused, he reported sick.

The Soviet pressures against the northern flank of Army Group Center took the form of a drive into the gap between that army group and Army Group North with Riga as the objective. General Bagramyan’s 1st Baltic Front was given two fresh armies––2nd Guards and 51st––just brought in from the Crimea.

The pressure on the southern flank, opposite Army Group North Ukraine, was delivered by Marshal Ivan S. Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front with 10 armies, three of them tank armies. Rokossovskiy’s 1st Belorussian Front, on Konev’s right, had been reinforced by a Guards army and a tank army as well as the 1st Polish Army, a force of four divisions. The armies of these two fronts were positioned for a three-pronged drive: to Brest and Lublin in the north; to Lwow in the center; and Stanislav in the south.

The offensive against Army Group North Ukraine began on July 13 (the Lwow-Sandomierz Offensive) and resulted in weeks of bloody fighting. Converging tank columns reached the Bug River 50 kilometers west of Lwow on July 18, catching six German divisions of XIII Corps in a pocket east of Lwow. An attempt to break out to the south was made on July 22; only 5,000 managed to escape. First Panzer Army still held Lwow and its front to the south but was in danger of being encircled.

Army Group North Ukraine withdrew under pressure to the Bug River because of the breakthrough in the south and because the neighboring Second Army on its north was in retreat toward Brest, where it went into defensive positions on July 22. The Soviets forced the Bug and created a bridgehead on the west bank at Chelm, Poland, on July 20. From this crossing, the Soviets drove on to Lublin 70 kilometers to the west. They bypassed that town and headed northwestward in the morning of July 23rd.

2nd Guards Army Soldiers Capturing Germans of the 3rd Panzer Army

In the north, Third Panzer Army was hard pressed around Kaunas. Between July 18 and 21, the 1st Baltic Front had created several bridgeheads across the Neman River while other forces were pushing the left flank of Third Panzer Army south. The division on the left flank began to disintegrate under continual attacks by six divisions of 2nd Guards Army. A 60-kilometer gap was formed on the left flank of Third Panzer Army, and 2nd Guards Army poured through it on July 22, its spearheads reaching a point 70 kilometers behind Third Panzer by evening. Third Panzer was virtually ineffective, its frontline strength having fallen to 13,850 men.

Hansen’s Sixteenth Army, on the right flank of Army Group North, had withdrawn to the Lithuania position on July 19 but it could not hold, so Friessner ordered a further 15-kilometer withdrawal on July 22. Friessner warned OKH that further withdrawals would be necessary to save the army group from destruction.

Serious gaps had formed in the German front in the Army Group North Ukraine sector. First Panzer Army was still holding at Lwow but Soviet forces had pressed the Fourth Panzer Army to the vicinity of the San and Vistula Rivers. There was no longer a continuous front. The armies requested permission to withdraw behind the Vistula and San Rivers without delay to avoid encirclement and destruction. Model agreed with these requests and he wanted to bring both army groups (Center and North Ukraine) behind the Vistula since the Soviets were moving rapidly north between the Vistula and Bug toward Siedlce, threatening to cut off Second Army and because the 1st Baltic Front had thrust past Kaunas and Third Panzer Army in the north.

Guderian and Hitler did not agree. A directive prepared for Hitler’s signature on July 23 ordered Model’s two army groups to halt where they were while Army Group Center was to create a solid front on a line from Kaunas via Bialystok to Brest while assembling strong forces on both flanks. These “strong” flank forces were to strike north and south and reestablish contact with the neighboring groups. All army groups were promised reinforcements.

In the last week of July, the Soviet armies were still rolling west through a German front that was more or less shattered from the Baltic to the Carpathians. On July 24, several crack Soviet armies were closing on the San River 80 kilometers west of Lwow between Jaroslaw and Przemysl, which the 4th Soviet Tank Army crossed on July 25, forcing First Panzer Army to withdraw from Lwow toward the Carpathians on July 27. The Fourth Panzer Army of the same army group retreated behind the Wieprz River southeast of Lublin, but the Soviets had torn open the German front for a distance of over 100 kilometers in the south and almost as much in the north. Fourth Panzer Army was given permission to retire behind the Vistula River.

Second Army of Army Group Center was trying to establish a defense at Brest but the 2nd Soviet Tank Army was racing north toward Siedlce in its rear on July 24 while two Soviet armies hit its southern flank. Headquarters, Ninth German Army, was again sent to the front to try to defend Siedlce and the approaches to Warsaw. It was given four divisions but three of these were still in transit.

Rokossovskiy’s armored columns easily penetrated the thin screening line established by Ninth Army and reached the east bank of the Vistula at Deblin and Pulaway. Motorized Soviet columns were pouring west from Panevezhis behind Manteuffel’s Third Panzer Army. On July 25, Second Army reported that it could no longer hold Brest but OKH prevaricated so long in giving permission to retire that it was virtually encircled. Ninth Army, with all the forces it could muster, tried to defend Warsaw and hold Siedlce long enough for the divisions coming from Brest to escape.

Bagramyan’s motorized columns, which had passed Third Panzer Army’s left flank, turned north and, in an 80-kilometer night dash, captured Jelgava and cut the last rail link to Army Group North. Third Panzer Army, itself in trouble, did not have adequate forces to halt the Soviet advance. Nine rifle divisions and two Guards tank corps fell on the right flank of Third Panzer Army south of Kaunas on July 29. On the same day, Rokossovskiy’s tanks drove north past Warsaw. Soviet forces were within 11 kilometers of the city in the southeast and had captured Wolomin, 13 kilometers to the northeast.

Third Panzer Army’s flank collapsed on July 30 and the Soviets advanced to Mariampol, only 30 kilometers from the East Prussian border. General Georg-Hans Reinhardt, the Army commander, sought permission to withdraw from Kaunas where two of his divisions were being encircled and pulverized. Model said he could not grant that permission and it was useless asking OKH. Taking matters into his own hands, Reinhardt withdrew his troops during the night behind the Nevayazha River, 15 kilometers to the west.

On July 31, Soviet mechanized forces reached the Gulf of Riga, trapping Army Group North. In the Warsaw area, the 8th Guards Army seized a bridgehead near Magnuszew while 1st Tank Army began ferrying troops and tanks across the Vistula at Baranow.

On the positive side for the Germans, there were signs that the Soviet offensive was running out of steam. They did not try to expand on their breakthrough to the Baltic, the tanks in the Warsaw area ground to a halt––apparently short of gasoline––and Chernyakovskiy’s 3rd Belorussian Front did not move against East Prussia through the gap between Mariampol and Kaunas, although it captured Vilkavishkis, 15 kilometers from the border. The Soviets, having advanced in some places more than 240 kilometers since the capture of Minsk and about 560 kilometers in all, had finally outrun their supplies. Logistics had dammed the flood.

The energetic Model took advantage of the Soviet slow-down. He managed to seal their bridgeheads across the Vistula and establish a continuous front from around Shaulyay to the Vistula near Pulawy. But the 670-kilometer front was thinly manned––just 39 German divisions and brigades faced one-third of the Soviet strength on the Eastern Front.

Model sent Hitler a somewhat optimistic report on August 3. After completing a number of containment operations and counterattacks with newly arrived units by August 15, he would assemble sufficient forces to attack and reestablish contact with Army Group North.

The most urgent issue on the Eastern Front in early August was to keep Army Group North from collapsing. General Ferdinand Schoerner told Hitler on August 6 that his group would hold until contact with Army Group Center was restored––as long as that happened soon, since his exhausted troops were under relentless pressure. He told Guderian that if the relief did not come quickly, he would pull back to a line from Riga to Kaunas––if that were still possible.

August 16 was an eventful day. The 3rd Belorussian Front threw three armies against the right flank of Third Panzer Army just as Model began his relief attack from Shaulyay toward Army Group North with two under-strength panzer corps. Then Model was ordered to take over as commander on the Western Front. General Reinhardt, as senior army commander, took over the army group.

Two panzer brigades from Manteuffel’s Third Panzer Army captured Tukums on the Gulf of Riga on August 20 and the encirclement of Army Group North was broken; the corridor to Army Group North along the gulf coast was widened to 30 kilometers over the next few days. A suggestion by Reinhardt to withdraw Army Group North was supported by Guderian but refused by Hitler.

As August ended, it was evident in the zones of Army Groups North, Center, and North Ukraine that the Soviet armies had taken up a defensive posture, thereby bringing the offensive to a close. The Soviets had a large bridgehead on the Vistula at Baranow and smaller ones at Magnuszew, Serock, and Rozan.

The Soviets let the uprising in Warsaw burn itself out after an unprecedented level of viciousness without offering any meaningful assistance and without allowing the use of Soviet airfields for long-range U.S. aircraft flying supply missions for the insurgents until September 10, when it was too late. The insurgents in the shattered city finally capitulated to the Germans on October 2.

It is difficult to establish accurate casualty figures for Bagration––they vary from account to account. Some include all three army groups (North, Center, and North Ukraine) while others do not. Most accounts seem to agree that Bagration cost the German Army about a quarter of its Eastern Front manpower. Estimates for German losses range as high as 300,000 killed or missing, 120,000 captured, and 250,000 wounded.

The Soviet losses were also substantial––possibly as high as 178,000 killed or missing (some sources report all casualty categories as high as 750,000)––although other estimates place the number of killed and missing at around 70,000. Both sides lost substantial quantities of equipment, but it was by far more injurious for the Germans.

Some of the debacle can be traced to Hitler’s intransigence in not making military decisions dictated by logic. He repeatedly disregarded entreaties from his commanders to make withdrawals and adjustments that would have improved his armies’ chances to counter the Soviet offensive. In his quest for loyalty, he had failed to appoint the best officers to key posts and kept shifting commanders between commands, most often to the detriment of the units.

The German Army never recovered from the disaster between Vitebsk and Warsaw. The virtual destruction of three armies of Army Group Center was the most calamitous defeat suffered by the Germans in World War II, and the loss of experienced officers and noncommissioned officers could not be made good at this stage of the war. The Soviets could sit calmly on the Vistula, reorganizing and resupplying their forces, supremely confident of their ability to drive to the Oder and Neisse Rivers and Berlin. The demoralized Germans––now coping with a full-fledged two-front war––could only mount a weak defense along the Vistula. Operation Bagration had sealed their fate.

 Suggested Reading:

 Operation Bagration, 23 June-29 August 1944: The Rout Of The German Forces In Belorussia By Richard W. Harrison

Operation Bagration: The Destruction of Army Group Centre June-July 1944 By Ian Baxter

East Front Drama 1944 By Rolf Hinze