The operation was carefully planned. Deception was used to keep the Germans from knowing the point-of-attack. A large army attacked on a wide front. In advance of the assault, German railroad lines were destroyed through aerial attacks. Partisans disrupted German supply and movement. The offense opened early in the morning with large bombardments and air raids. The goals were to re-take conquered territory, destroy German military forces, and advance towards Germany and Berlin.
This was Soviet Union’s Operation Bagration launched in June, 1944, two weeks after D-Day. It was named after General Pyotr Bagration, a hero of the Russian Wars against Napoleon in the 1800’s. Operation Bagration was a mammoth undertaking involving over two million soldiers on a 450 mile front. In comparison, D-Day involved about 150,000 Allied soldiers landing on a fifty mile front. Operation Bagration was an overwhelming success. In two months, Russia pushed Germany back over 300 miles. They inflicted heavy casualties on Germany, by some estimates 400,000 killed, wounded, or captured. The attackers experienced heavy losses, estimated at over 700,000 killed or wounded.
The Russian advance placed their forces on the outskirts of Warsaw by mid-August 1944, leaving them only about 360 miles from Berlin.
Meanwhile, progress was initially slow for the invading Allied D-Day forces. Due to stiff German resistance and challenging terrain, the Allies had only advanced about thirty miles inland from the Normandy beaches in the first six weeks of fighting. Subsequent Allied offensives then broke the German line resulting in the liberation of Paris also in August, 1944.
Casualties on D-Day and the subsequent Normandy campaign were high, although not as heavy as those from Operation Bagration. Each side, German and Allied, suffered 100,000 – 200,000 killed, wounded or captured.
Russia made a significant contribution to winning the war. By D-Day, June 6, 1944, Russia and Germany had been at war for three years. At its furthest extent, Germany’s 1941 invasion of the then Soviet Union reached the outskirts of Moscow, Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) and Stalingrad (now Volgograd). An equivalent assault of the United States would cover the entire East Coast extending inland to Chicago. Stalin strongly lobbied the United States and Britain to start a second front against Germany. While he wanted it in 1943 or even 1942, the Allies deferred until 1944 when their forces would be built up and ready. By that time, Russia had lost millions and inflicted millions of casualties on German Armed Forces.
Estimates vary, but generally place Russian casualties, military and civilian, at over twenty million, over 10% of the pre-war population. In contrast, U.S. casualties in World War II were about 400,000, less than one-fortieth the Soviet total. And significant portions of the country, from Moscow westward to the border, were completely destroyed from battle damage and German demolitions during their retreats. Eisenhower noted, in a 1945 post war visit to Russia, “When we flew into Russia, in 1945, I did not see a house standing between the western borders of the country and the area around Moscow. Through this overrun region, Marshal Zhukov told me, so many numbers of women, children and old men had been killed that the Russian government would never be able to estimate the total.” The United States escaped the war virtually unscathed.
Due to Stalin’s evilness, Russia’s occupation of Eastern Europe, and the subsequent Cold War between East and West, the Russian role in defeating Germany is not widely recognized and acknowledged. In an August, 1944 speech Winston Churchill noted: “It is the Russian armies who have done the main work in tearing the guts out of the Germany army.”
On the 40th anniversary of D-Day, President Reagan gave his famous ‘Pointe du Hoc’ speech. Have some tissues handy if you choose to watch it. In that speech he noted the Russian contribution – “It’s fitting to remember here the great losses also suffered by the Russian people during World War II: 20 million perished, a terrible price that testifies to all the world the necessity of ending war.”
As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of D-Day, we should remember the devastation inflicted on Russia and the heroism of their soldiers that goes unnoticed here.