22 June – 3 July 1944

The Russians in the Second World War were masters in the art of strategic deception. So important was this tactic that it was known in planning by a special term, maskirovka, meaning ‘camouflaging of intentions’. From the successful defeat of Axis forces in November 1942, when deception had been critical in the strategy to surround Stalingrad, misleading the enemy as to strength and intentions was central to the revival of Soviet military fortunes. In late spring 1944, the head of German Army Intelligence in the east, General Reinhard Gehlen, told Army Group Centre, the major element in Germany’s front line, to expect a ‘calm summer’. Three weeks later the Soviets launched their biggest assault to date, destroying the resistance of Army Group Centre in Belorussia in one of the biggest battles of the war. They gained almost complete surprise against an enemy on its guard against surprises.

Red Army troops and guns cross a river on the approach to the city of Lvov during the Operation Bagration campaign in July 1944. The Soviet forces were adept at using topography to their advantage, and movement through marshland and water proved no barrier.

The most important element in a deception is to work out what the enemy expects and to play on those assumptions, as the Western Allies did for the invasion of France. On the Eastern Front, the main effort of the Red Army in the winter and early spring of 1943–44 had been in Ukraine and southern Russia, where the geography favoured the rapid movement of mobile armies. The Germans assumed that this momentum would be maintained in the same area during the summer of 1944, and concentrated their armoured forces against the threat. Army Group Centre in Belorussia was the largest army group, dug in behind solid defences and protected, so it was thought, by the swampy, wooded Pripet Marshes to the south, where mobile warfare would be difficult. Any threat in the centre was expected to be a feint, to mask the real campaign from the direction of Ukraine.

In Moscow, these assumptions were exploited in the Red Army’s planning. Every effort was made to make it appear as if the southern front were the main axis, while in complete secrecy massive forces were deployed into the area facing the centre. The result would confuse German planning and make a Russian success possible in both sectors – in Belorussia and Ukraine. Security began right at the top. Only five people knew of the plan – Stalin, his deputy Marshal Georgy Zhukov, the chief-of-staff Marshal Alexander Vasilevski, his deputy, General Alexei Antonov, and the chief of operations, General Sergei Shtemenko.

They imposed on themselves a ban against mentioning the operation by telephone, telegraph or letter. They deliberately set no date. Officers from the central front had to report only two or three at a time and in person. No-one was told more than he needed to know for his small part of the preparations. Only in a state as habitually paranoid as Stalin’s the Soviet Union could such a shroud of secrecy be woven with any hope of success. In Belorussia the Red Army was ordered to make a show of digging in for the summer, creating a defensive line along the central front. Complete radio silence was imposed and all the main Soviet radio stations on the front closed down.

Further south towards Ukraine, however, an entire dummy force was set up, with fake tanks and gun parks protected by real anti-aircraft fire to enhance the subterfuge. A second dummy force was constructed further north, on the Baltic front. German air reconnaissance was difficult in 1944, given the Red Air Force’s overwhelming superiority, but the Soviet side allowed German aircraft to fly over and photograph the fake forces.

The Germans had previously relied on information from Russian informers or spies, but these sources dried up as the Red Army advanced, victorious and vindictive. Gehlen and his intelligence department swallowed the bait. Additional armour was sent south to strengthen front opposite Ukraine. Army Group Centre had only 553 tanks and self-propelled guns against a Soviet force of over 5,000, and only 775 aircraft against 5,300.

With the odds so heavily in its favour, the Red Army might not have needed deception at all. But the purpose of the campaign was to annihilate Army Group Centre swiftly, without mistakes or delays. Deception made the task on the battlefield much more straightforward. So it was that 1 million tons of supplies and 300,000 tons of oil were moved surreptitiously into place behind the four army groups designated for the operation. Train drivers were not told their destination, only the number of the train they were to drive.On the way to the front, soldiers and workers had to remain on the train at stations under guard, so they would not know where they were. The most elaborate preparations took place in the ‘impassable’ Pripet Marshes, where Soviet engineers, as noiselessly as possible, set up long wooden causeways strong enough to hold Soviet tanks as they passed across the swampy ground.

Like the German penetration of the Ardennes Forest in May 1940, which unhinged French resistance, the sudden emergence of large units of Soviet tanks from out of the marshes would break German morale at a critical moment. The Soviet battle line was drawn up in June. The operation was given the codename ‘Bagration’ after the Georgian prince Pyotr Bagration, who was killed defending Moscow from Napoleon. The date was finally fixed for 22 June 1944, two weeks after the Allied landing in Normandy. On the German side, Field Marshal Ernst Busch, with headquarters at Minsk, had only 792,000 men in 51 divisions. Facing him were four army groups, two commanded by Zhukov, two by Vasilevski, with a total of 2.6 million troops. On the eve of the assault, the German side received the first clues: partisans systematically targeted German rail links in the region, while Soviet bombers pounded German bases and supplies. Surprise was nevertheless almost complete. On 22 June, by chance the anniversary of the start of the Barbarossa campaign of 1941, armed forays were made into the German defensive line, and the following day the tidal wave of Soviet armoured forces struck the hapless defenders.

While struggling to cope with this onrush, the Germans were then suddenly presented with the armour of Marshal Rokossovsky’s First Belorussian Front rushing at them out of the marshy land to the south. The battle was over quickly. Four major towns, designated special ‘fortified zones’ by Hitler’s headquarters, were encircled and captured by 29 June. The leaders in Moscow lost no time in contrasting the speed and completeness of Soviet success with the slow progress of the Allies in Normandy, which were kept bottled up by a German force far smaller than Army Group Centre. On 3 July, Minsk was captured along with the whole of the German Fourth Army, and the battle was all but won. Some 300,000 German soldiers were killed or captured.

The Red Army pursued the fleeing Germans to the River Vistula in Poland, campaigning across almost 500 kilometres (300 miles) in just six weeks. German reinforcement was impossible, not only because of the battle in France but because on 13 July, the Soviet southern front unleashed its campaign towards Lvov, the gateway to central Europe. On 17 July, the Red Army marched 57,000 German prisoners through the streets of Moscow, including 19 generals. After they had left, cleaning lorries passed along the same streets symbolically spraying disinfectant. Bagration was one of the greatest battles of the Second World War and an annihilating victory for the Red Army. The deception was key to making sure that the victory was sure and swift, as it had been for the Germans three years before. It could hardly have tasted sweeter.