Army Group Centre's northern flank was defended by the Third Panzer Army under the command of Georg-Hans Reinhardt; the lines ran through marshy terrain in the north, through a salient round the city of Vitebsk, to a sector north of the main Moscow–Minsk road, held by the Fourth Army. It was opposed by the 1st Baltic Front of Hovhannes Bagramyan, and Chernyakhovsky's 3rd Belorussian Front, who were given the task of breaking through the defences to the north and south of Vitebsk and cutting off the salient.
It was in this sector that Soviet forces had their greatest initial gains. The Soviet 43rd Army broke the defences of the German IX Corps, to the north of Vitebsk, within hours, pushing towards the Dvina river. South of the city, the VI Corps' 299th and 197th Infantry Divisions simply disappeared beneath an overwhelming Soviet assault, with a particularly effective breakthrough by the 5th Army at the junction of the 299th and 256th Infantry Divisions' sectors. By June 24, the German position in Vitebsk itself, held by the central LIII Corps of four divisions, was already serious, as Soviet forces were clearly intending to encircle the city, but no reserves were available to shore up the collapsing defences, and requests to withdraw German troops to the second defense lines, the 'Tiger' line, were denied by the Oberkommando des Heeres.
By June 25, Third Panzer Army was disintegrating. In the north, IX Corps had been broken and pushed over the Dvina, blowing the bridges during its retreat. In the south much of the VI Corps had been annihilated, and its southernmost divisions (the 299th and 256th Infantry Divisions) had become separated from the remainder of Third Panzer Army by heavy attacks around Bogushevsk, where they attempted to make a final stand in the 'Hessen' line, the third defence zone. The Soviet 43rd and 39th Armies were now converging behind Vitebsk, trapping the entire LIII Corps. LIII Corps' commander, Friedrich Gollwitzer, had transferred the 4th Luftwaffe Field Division south-west of the city in order to spearhead a breakout, while the 246th Infantry Division attempted to hold open the Dvina crossings. OKH however, denied all requests for complete evacuation: the 206th Infantry Division was ordered to stay in the city and fight to the last man.
Soviet plans in this sector met with overwhelming success. The 4th Luftwaffe Field Division was cut off and destroyed by the 39th Army on the evening of the 25 June, and by the next day the 246th Infantry and 6th Luftwaffe Field Divisions, fighting their way along the road from Vitebsk, had also been encircled. Hitler insisted that a staff officer be parachuted into Vitebsk to remind Gollwitzer that the trapped 206th Infantry Division should not withdraw; Third Panzer Army's commander, Reinhardt, was only able to get this decision reversed by insisting on being parachuted in himself if Hitler continued to order it. By the evening Soviet forces were fighting their way into the city and Gollwitzer finally ordered the garrison to withdraw too, in defiance of OKH orders.
Soviet soldiers on the heights above Vitebsk, where the German 206th Infantry Division was encircled in late June.
By 27 June LIII Corps had been dispersed, its 30,000 men being almost all killed or taken prisoner; a group of several thousand from the 4th Luftwaffe Field Division initially managed to break out, but was liquidated in the forests west of Vitebsk. The remnants of IX Corps were retreating to the west, falling back on Polotsk with the 6th Guards Army in pursuit: VI Corps was also largely destroyed. Third Panzer Army had been effectively shattered within days, and Vitebsk liberated: even more significantly, a huge gap had been torn in the German lines to the north of Fourth Army in the former VI Corps sector.
The central sector of Soviet operations was against the long front of Fourth Army, which was under the overall command of Kurt von Tippelskirch. Soviet plans envisaged the bulk of it, the XXXIX Panzer Corps and XII Corps, being encircled while pinned down by attacks from the 2nd Belorussian Front in the parallel Mogilev Offensive Operation. By far the most important Soviet objective, however, was immediately to the north: the main Moscow–Minsk road and the town of Orsha, which the southern wing of Chernyakhovsky's 3rd Belorussian Front was ordered to take. A breakthrough in this area, against General Paul Völckers' XXVII Corps, would form the northern 'pincer' of the encirclement aimed at destroying Fourth Army. The Minsk road was protected by extensive defensive works manned by the 78th Sturm Division, a specially reinforced unit with extra artillery and assault gun support. Orsha itself had been designated a Fester Platz or strongpoint under 78th Sturm Division's commander, with the 25th Panzergrenadier Division holding the lines to the south. As a result of the strong defenses in this sector, Soviet plans included the commitment of heavily-armed engineer units to assist in a breakthrough.
Galitsky's 11th Guards Army attacked towards Orsha on 23 June but initially made little headway. By the next day, the Soviet 1st Guards Rifle Division was able to break through the German lines in a marshy, thinly-held area to the north of the 78th Sturm Division, which was ordered back to the 'Hessen' line, the third defence zone. It was now struggling to maintain contact with the 25th Panzergrenadier Division to the south. Chernyakhovsky, encouraged by the 1st Guards Rifle Division's progress, pushed a mixed cavalry / mechanised exploitation force into the breach in the German lines. On 25 June, the German defences began to rupture; a counter-attack at Orekhovsk failed.
Völckers' position was further threatened by the near-collapse of the Third Panzer Army's VI Corps, immediately to the north. At 11:20 on 25 June the VI Corps, which had been cut off from its parent formation, was reassigned to Fourth Army. Part of its reserve, the 14th Infantry Division was brought up to try and slow the Soviet advance north of Orsha. By midnight, however, the 11th Guards Army had shattered the remnant of VI Corps in the 'Hessen' line, and the 78th Sturm Division's situation was becoming untenable: 26 June saw the German forces in retreat. Soviet tank forces of the 2nd Guards Tank Corps were able to push up the road towards Minsk at speed, with a subsidiary force breaking off to encircle Orsha, which was liberated on the evening of 26 June. The main exploitation force, Pavel Rotmistrov's 5th Guards Tank Army, was then committed through the gap torn in the German lines. VI Corps finally crumbled completely, its rear elements falling back towards Borisov in disarray: its commander, General Georg Pfeiffer, was killed on 28 June after losing contact with his divisions. Völckers was ordered to hold fast, but lacked the necessary resources despite shifting his 260th Infantry Division northwards and moving the 286th Security Division into the lines.
The operation effectively ceased with the arrival of 5th Guards Tank Army's forward units at the Berezina on 28 June.
On June 22, 1944, the Soviets launched their main summer offensive (Operation Bagration) in Belarus. Involving 2.5 million soldiers and over 6,000 tanks, the offensive sought to destroy Army Group Center while also preventing the Germans from diverting troops to combat the Allied landings in France. In the ensuing battle, the Wehrmacht suffered one its worst defeats of the war as Army Group Center was shattered and Minsk liberated.
BBC - History: World War Two