Few people can have missed the recent media coverage of the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings. Setting aside the hyperbole of the assembled phalanx of world leaders, it was impossible not to be moved by the testimony of the veterans who, as young servicemen and women and Resistance fighters took part in the D-Day operation. In western history, it was a key moment as the push back against the forces of Nazism in Europe began.
It was interesting to note the media comment regarding Vladimir Putin’s attendance at the commemorations due to recent events in the Ukraine. There is no small irony here as this month will also see the 70th anniversary of Operation Bagration, a major Soviet offensive of the second World War. Sunday (June 22nd) will mark the anniversary of the opening of Operation Bagration in 1944.
The operation was timed by the Soviets to start on the anniversary of the invasion of Russia by Germany in 1941 and was named after Gen Pyotr Bagration, who had been killed at the battle of Borodino in 1812 fighting the invading armies of Napoleon. The Soviet army of 1944 knew how to commemorate significant events.
The D-Day operation was, without doubt, a major operation of huge complexity but the size and scope of Bagration was mind-boggling. Conservative estimates put the Soviet strength at more than 1.6 million men (against over 486,000 Germans) and Russian commanders had access to more than 5,800 tanks and 5,300 aircraft. The offensive was co-ordinated by one of the forgotten generals of the second World War, Georgy Zhukov, and it ran in phases along several hundreds of kilometres of the frontline; actions took place in the region of Estonia and stretched southwards towards Romania and Hungary.
From the wider Allied perspective, the timing of the Soviet offensive was also crucial. As the Allies found fighting out of the Normandy beach-heads extremely difficult, the huge Soviet offensive in the east ensured that German forces were not diverted westwards to bolster the defences in France. The statistics are telling – in Normandy, the Germans deployed 11 divisions against the initial D-Day landings. In the east, the Germans had 228 divisions deployed. None of these were sent westward to oppose the Allied forces.
By August 1944, the Soviets had succeeded in their objective of destroying the German Army Group Centre while retaking Belorussia ( now Belarus) and also advancing into eastern Poland. Bagration, and another offensive in the Ukraine, had succeeded in putting the Soviet army within striking distance of Warsaw and later Berlin.
The casualties of this operation were equally staggering. The German historian Karl-Heinz Freiser has calculated German casualties at more than 399,000 killed, wounded, missing and POW. A conservative estimate of Russian casualties is more than 180,000. Total Russian wartime deaths still remain unclear with estimates ranging from 18 to 24 million, both military and civilian. The worst damage inflicted on the Germans occurred on the eastern front but at a huge cost to the Russians. The Bagration campaign also saw a further hardening of the attitudes between the combatants on the eastern front. The scene was set for the merciless campaigns of 1945, culminating in the brutal battle of Berlin.
In Europe, our history of the second World War is largely driven by a western-orientated narrative. This is perhaps understandable as relatively few western scholars and writers have examined Russia’s second World War history. Prof Geoff Roberts of UCC is a notable exception to this rule. Over the coming week, there will be commemorations in Russia at some of the key sites of the Bagration operation and a new memorial will be unveiled in Belarus. Russian veterans of that operation, a key one in the second World War, will be in attendance. It would appear that no major western leader will be attending these commemorations.
Next year will mark the anniversary of the end of the second World War. How will this be handled, given all its associated horrors and especially in light of more recent international tensions? Dr David Murphy lectures with the Centre for Military History and Strategic Studies at NUI Maynooth