THE FIGHTING DURING WITHDRAWAL TO POLAND AND LITHUANIA (4 TO 31 JULY)
(a) Model’s Crisis Management
‘A greater crisis [... ] is hard to imagine. When Field Marshal Model arrived, Army Group Centre was nothing but a hole.’ That was how Hitler described Model’s seemingly impossible task. He took over command of Army Group Centre from Busch on 29 June while retaining command of Army Group North Ukraine, and was thus now in charge of more than half of the eastern front. Never before had Hitler placed so much military responsibility in the hands of a single general. Model was a specialist in crisis situations, and had the reputation of a man without nerves whom nothing could faze. Full of energy and with a talent for improvisation, he had time and again saved near hopeless situations. Now, however, he shocked the high command of his new army group with the sober announcement that there was nothing left to save. On the contrary, if the few reserves continued to be deployed to relieve the units trapped east of Minsk, the whole army group would be threatened with destruction. Model saw that the Red Army command was already aiming at deep operational objectives in the area west of Minsk. There, the primeval Naliboki forest formed a difficult-to-penetrate barrier, with the Molodechno and Baranovichi narrows to the north and south. The two passages were of military importance, since they channelled all movement in a westerly direction. Although Hitler was still issuing orders to stand firm and wanted Minsk defended as a ‘fortified place’, Model managed to have the city evacuated on 2 July. The next day the Soviet armoured units were able to take the city without resistance and complete the encirclement of Fourth Army. Meanwhile, 5th and 12th Armoured Divisions, which had also been threatened with encirclement, had pulled back and were available for battle at Molodechno and Baranochi.
After the fall of Minsk the situation looked bleak indeed. The remnant of Third Armoured Army was isolated on the north wing, separated from Army Group North by a gap of 60 kilometres. In the centre, where hardly anything was left of Fourth Army, there was no longer a connected front. On the right wing, the units of the decimated Ninth Army had been assigned to Second Army on 3 July. Second
Army had scarcely come under attack so far, but most of its units were tied down in defence of the long-drawn-out southern flank. There, to the east of Kovel, stood the left wing of 1st Belorussian Front. It was the strongest concentration of troops ranged against Army Group Centre, but had as yet taken hardly any part in the fighting. There had been a gross disproportion between the strengths of the Soviet attackers and German defenders from the very start of the offensive. Now, as a result of Army Group Centre’s enormous losses and the arrival of many new Soviet units, Soviet superiority assumed monstrous dimensions. As Model explained, he had to fight on the breakthrough front with eight mostly depleted divisions against superior forces of 116 rifle divisions, 6 cavalry divisions, 16 motorized rifle brigades, and 42 armoured brigades. In a report dated 6 July, the army group pointed out that ‘155 kilometres of its 430-km-long eastern front were still unmanned’. In its assessment of the situation the Army General Staff also concluded that Army Group Centre was ‘no longer able to pit anything more than regiments and battalions against whole armies’. Yet Field Marshal Model nevertheless managed to stabilize the situation. His recipe for success was very simple: since he was too weak to defend, he chose to attack. He did not even attempt to establish a linear defensive front in accordance with Hitler’s concepts, but deployed his few forces in mobile fashion. Using newly brought-in armoured reserves, he attacked the enemy spearheads by surprise, hitting them in the flanks. After Model took command of Army Group Centre, the Red Army created no more pockets worth mentioning.
How greatly Model’s command of operations contrasted with that of his predecessor Busch (and thus with Hitler’s) is clear from Marshal Zhukov’s memoirs. With reference to the first phase of the operation, Zhukov wrote:
Observing and analysing the behaviour of the German troops and their high command [... ] we were somewhat surprised, frankly speaking, by their gross errors, which boded a catastrophic outcome for the German forces. Instead of withdrawing rapidly to rearward defensive lines and deploying strong covering detachments on the flanks threatened by Soviet shock troops, the German troops let themselves be entangled in protracted frontal battles to the east and north-east of Minsk.123
His judgement of Model’s operational command was quite different. Model:
found the right method in this extremely critical situation. Since the Germans no longer had a continuous defensive front nor the forces necessary to form a new one, the German high command decided to stop our offensive mainly by means of short counter-attacks, under cover of which German troops brought in from Germany and other sectors of the Soviet-German front built up rearward defensive positions.124
Field Marshal Model also differed fundamentally from his predecessor in his behaviour towards Hitler. Whereas Busch had passively carried out orders from the OKW, Model acted independently, repeatedly presenting Hitler with a fait accompli. In this, the high regard in which Hitler held him, and which the Fuhrer accorded to scarcely any other general, stood him in good stead, although he often strained it to the limits of Hitler’s tolerance. Model had already given a sample of his temerity at the Wolf’s Lair on 28 February. Although he should have been grateful to Hitler for his promotion to colonel-general, which had just taken place, and for the award of the oak leaves to his Knight’s Cross, he had the nerve to contradict Hitler vehemently and forbid him to interfere in the command of his army, famously demanding to know: ‘Mein Fuhrer, who commands Ninth Army, you or I?’
Model’s method of ‘defence by attack’ is exemplified by his deployment of 5th Armoured Division, which mostly faced enemy superiority of 20:1 in tanks and 25 : 1 in artillery, with the Soviet air force frequently proving the most dangerous adversary. In such a situation it would have been absurd for the division to seek a frontal engagement or to let itself be tied down in defence in accordance with Hitler’s concepts. Instead, its armoured units flexibly evaded confrontation and exploited every opening in the ranks of the westward advancing Soviet forces to strike a rapid counter-blow and withdraw from contact with the enemy in good time. In the space of a month or so, 5th Armoured Division destroyed a total of 486 tanks, 11 assault guns, 119 anti-tank cannon, and 100 trucks. The German tank commanders repeatedly sought meeting engagements, in which they were able to exploit the weak point of the Soviet front-line officers, that is, their inflexibility in situations of surprise, and take advantage of their own ability to react swiftly in a tactical environment. It has often been asked why the German front did not simply collapse. The answer is to be found in a multitude of individual tactical successes directed flexibly by Model. The field marshal was, nevertheless, unable to do more than disrupt the enemy’s operational command and delay his advance. Given the Red Army’s immense superiority, Model had no chance of bringing the Soviet offensive to a lasting halt. That would have required a large-scale operational solution.
-  Hitlers Lagebesprechungen, 615 (31 Aug. 1944 in the Wolf’s Lair).
-  OB HGr Nord, Ia, No. 90/44 g. Kdos. Chefs., 29 June 1944, to Chef d. Genst. des Heeres,BA-MARH 19 III/15, fo. 110.
-  KTB HGr Mitte, 3 July 1944, BA-MA RH 19-II/198, fo. 30.
-  Ibid., fo. 57. 3 KTB Skl, pt. A, lviii/II. 821 (30 June 1944).
-  123 Zhukov, Erinnerungen (1969 edn.), 5 23. 124 Ibid. 530.
-  See Gorlitz, Model. Der Feldmarschall, 116; Stein, Model, 74—5.
-  Plato, ‘Der Abwehrkampf der 5. Panzerdivision’, 397; Adair, Hitler’s Greatest Defeat, 397.
-  Plato, ‘Der Abwehrkampf der 5. Panzerdivision’, 401.