Minsk Offensive

The offensive developed through three main phases: the breakthrough of the initial German defences along the Berezina; the advance of the Soviet motorised exploitation forces; and finally the encirclement of the German Fourth Army after the defensive positions were overrun.

The German defence effort

By 26 June, OKH had finally realised that the developing Operation Bagration was the main Soviet offensive, and that Minsk was its objective. As a result, the 5th Panzer Division was brought back from Army Group North Ukraine, arriving in Minsk on 27 June with the unenviable job of attempting to halt the Soviet advance and preventing the complete collapse of Army Group Centre. For the German forces, the military situation was dire: in the Army Group's northern sector, Third Panzer Army had crumbled, with the LIII Corps wiped out, the VI Corps shattered, and the IX Corps being pushed steadily west. In the south, Ninth Army had lost all cohesion, its remaining troops being pounded by artillery and air bombardment. Fourth Army's three corps were now ordered to hold fast, despite being bypassed by Soviet forces on their flanks: Hitler declared Minsk a Fester Platz and instructed the remnants of Ninth Army to reinforce its defence.

5th Panzer, which was reorganised on 28 June into a combat group under the command of Dietrich von Saucken, took up positions near Borisov on the main road north-east of Minsk, along which elements of Fourth Army were fleeing from the front. 5th Panzer's main tank regiments, which unlike many German armoured units at the time were at full strength, were concentrated to the north, screening the rail lines being used for evacuation. The road itself was held by a rearguard of infantry, while Heavy Tank Battalion 505, equipped with Tiger Is, held the rail lines at Krupki to the east.

There were few manpower reserves in the area from which a defence could be organised. Some further reinforcements were provided by Gruppe von Gottberg, the rear-area security units of the Dirlewanger and Kaminski Brigades (responsible for a series of atrocities and war crimes in the course of their 'anti-partisan' activities). The crossing points on the Berezina southwards were defended by several police and security detachments organised as Gruppe Anhalt, and elements of divisions from Müller's XII Corps, which had fallen back on the town of Berezino.

The re-conquest of Minsk

5th Guards Tank Army was now bearing down on Minsk from the north-east (the subordinate 3rd Guards Tank Corps initially suffering some losses to 5th Panzer's heavy tank battalion at Krupki), while the Soviet 2nd Guards Tank Corps approached from the east. The bulk of 5th Guards Tank Army, accompanied by the rifle divisions of 11th Guards Army, attacked straight down the Minsk road, forcing the German infantry back into Borisov by 29 June: a screen of Soviet troops was left on the road to prevent any more elements of Fourth Army escaping into Minsk. 5th Panzer's engineers blew the bridges over the Berezina on 30 June in an attempt to deny the Soviet forces entry into Borisov. The overstretched main elements of Gruppe von Saucken now attempted to screen Minsk from the north-west, where the 5th Guards Tank Army threatened to sever the railway lines. The fall of the city seemed imminent: 65th Army was approaching from the southern route, the 5th Guards Tank Army was making progress from the north, and 2nd Guards Tank Corps had crossed the Berezina.

In the meantime, the four divisions of XXXIX Panzer Corps had begun to pull back and make for the crossings at Berezino, south of Borisov, in an effort to escape the developing trap. A column of vehicles stretched back for many kilometres, under constant air attack, as the bridge was repeatedly damaged by bombing. The replacement corps commander, Lieutenant-General Otto Schunemann, was himself killed on June 29, and the entire corps began to disintegrate.

The elements of Army Group Centre holding Minsk began to prepare for withdrawal on 1 July, authorisation finally being given on 2 July. Von Saucken and the 5th Panzer Division were ordered to fall back towards Molodechno in the north-west; von Gottberg, after stating the defences of Minsk were collapsing, withdrew his units towards Lida. With substantial elements of Fourth Army still east of the city attempting to withdraw, the 2nd Guards Tank Corps broke through the defences of Minsk in the early hours of 3 July; fighting erupted in the centre of the city at dawn. By the next day, Minsk had been cleared of German rearguard units, while the 65th Army and 5th Guards Tank Army closed the encirclement to the west. The bulk of Fourth Army, and much of the remnant of Ninth Army, were now trapped.

The destruction of Fourth Army

Over the next few days, Fourth Army made several attempts to break out of the encirclement, led by those divisions still retaining a coherent organisational structure. The largest group of encircled forces comprised the divisions of XII Corps, which remained relatively intact, along with those elements of XXVII Corps that had successfully retreated from Orsha and which were now trapped near Pekalin. The corps commanders, Müller and Völckers, decided on 5 July that their forces should break out to the north-west and west respectively, accompanied by the remnants of Martinek's former XXXIX Panzer Corps; they were now as much as 100 km behind Soviet lines.

The 25th Panzergrenadier Division acted as the spearhead for the breakout at midnight on 5 July, but was scattered, with some elements passing north of Minsk to reach German positions. The 57th Infantry Division and Panzergrenadier-Division Feldherrnhalle linked up and attempted to bypass Minsk to the south, but were also dispersed, while the same fate eventually befell the remainder of the 78th Sturm Division (after an initially successful breakout) and most of the other divisional groupings. Some elements of the 14th Infantry Division under their commander, Lieutenant-General Flörke, managed to link up with remnants of the 31st and 12th Infantry Divisions; Kampfgruppe Flörke, after finding Minsk abandoned and burning, was eventually able to escape the pocket and reach the 12th Panzer Division's positions.

Lieutenant-General Müller, who had been placed in command of all the encircled units of Fourth Army, was captured on 8 July after a failed breakout by the 18th Panzergrenadier Division. He immediately issued an order to all encircled troops to surrender, which was broadcast over loudspeakers by Soviet forces and dropped from Soviet aircraft in leaflet form. A large number of German unit commanders and soldiers chose to disregard the order, however, and continue escape attempts: Soviet forces were reporting actions against groups of encircled German soldiers several thousand strong until mid-July, and smaller groups until some time later.
A column of German POWs being marched from the encirclement east of Minsk in early July.

In total, around 100,000 troops from Fourth and Ninth Armies were caught in the encirclement, of whom some 40,000 were killed, most of the remainder being captured. Partisans played an important role in locating and mopping up the encircled forces.

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.