Army Group Centre (German language: Heeresgruppe Mitte) was the name of two distinct German strategic army groups that fought on the Eastern Front in World War II. The first Army Group Centre was created on 22 June 1941, as one of three German Army formations assigned to the invasion of the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa). On 25 January 1945, after it was encircled in the Königsberg pocket, Army Group Centre was renamed Army Group North (Heeresgruppe Nord), and Army Group A (Heeresgruppe A) became Army Group Centre. The latter formation retained its name until the end of the war in Europe.
Commander in chief on formation, June 1941 Fedor von Bock
- Army Group HQ troops
- 537th Signals Regiment
- 537th Signals Regiment (2nd echelon)
Campaign and operational history
On 22 June 1941, Nazi Germany and its Axis allies launched their surprise offensive into Soviet Union. Their armies, totaling over three million men, were to advance in three geographical directions. The Army Group Centre's initial strategic goal was to defeat the Soviet armies in Belarus, including occupation of Smolensk. To accomplish this, the Army Group planned for a rapid advance using Blitzkrieg operational methods for which purpose it commanded two Panzer Groups rather than one. A quick and decisive victory over the Soviet Union was expected by mid-November. The Army Group's other operational missions were to support the Army Groups to its northern and southern flanks, the Army Group boundary for the later being the Pripyat River.
Offensive campaign in Belorussia
Army Group Centre was the strongest of the three German formations. Commanded by Field Marshal Fedor von Bock, it included the 4th and 9th Army, the 2nd and 3rd Panzer Groups and the 2nd Air Fleet. By mid-August 1941 it had crushed Soviet forces in huge encirclement battles: Battle of Białystok-Minsk and Battle of Smolensk. Once they had conquered the territories in the West of the Soviet Union, the Germans began their genocide regime, burning thousands of cities and villages, shooting and deporting hundreds of thousands of civilians. Soviet prisoners of war, 300,000 after the battle of Minsk alone, were either killed in concentration camps, or literally starved to death in prison camps, mostly nothing more than fields surrounded with barbed wire in the open.
3rd Panzer Group, 9th Army, 4th Army, 2nd Panzer Group, z. Vfg. 2nd Army
3rd Panzer Group, 9th Army, 2nd Army, Army Group of Guderian
3rd Panzer Group, 9th Army, 4th Army, 2nd Panzer Group, 2nd Army
Early anti-partisan campaign
In spite of terrible losses, Soviet resistance was fierce and self-sacrificing. A partisan movement disrupted German supply lines. Bitter fighting in the Battle of Smolensk as well as the Lötzen decision delayed the German advance for two months. The advance of Army Group Centre was further delayed as Hitler ordered a postponement of the offensive against Moscow, and to conquer Ukraine first.
The German offensive against Moscow was resumed on 30 September 1941. The delays turned out to be fatal to the German forces fighting their way on the approaches to the Soviet capital. Autumn rains turned roads into mud. In November, an unusually harsh winter set in, catching the Germans ill-equipped for winter warfare. Meanwhile, Soviet resistance grew plainly desperate, as soldiers engaged in infantry combat against German tanks. Suffering tremendous losses, the Soviets finally stopped the German advance in late November 1941, when the advance elements of the German Army had the distant spires of the Moscow Kremlin in sight. The Soviet counter-offensive in the Battle of Moscow, which started on 6 December 1941, would mark the first decisive blow against the German invaders, and the failure of the German Blitzkrieg. Army Group Centre was driven back out of reach of Moscow by April 1942. It did however hold a narrow salient (the Rzhev Salient) which still threatened Moscow and would be the subject of numerous Soviet attacks in the coming year. October 1941
- November 1941
- 9th Army, 3rd Panzer Group, 4th Army, 2nd Panzer Army, 2nd Army
Commanders in chief 19 December 1941 Günther von Kluge
- for short time before Christmas 1941: Günther Blumentritt
Russian defensive campaign
1942 for Army Group Centre opened with continuing attacks from Soviet forces around Rzhev. The German Ninth Army was able to repel these attacks and stabilise its front, despite continuing large-scale partisan activity in its rear areas. Meanwhile the German strategic focus on the Eastern Front shifted to southwestern Russia, with the launching of Operation Blue in June. This operation, aimed at the oilfields in the southwestern Caucasus, involved Army Group South alone, with the other German army groups giving up troops and equipment for the offensive.
Despite the focus on the south, Army Group Centre continued to see fierce fighting throughout the year. While the Soviet attacks in early 1942 had not driven the Germans back, they had resulted in several Red Army units being trapped behind German lines. Eliminating the pockets took until July, the same month in which the Soviets made another attempt to break through the army group's front; the attempt failed, but the front line was pushed back closer to Rzhev. The largest Soviet operation in the army group's sector that year, Operation Mars, took place in November. It was launched concurrently with Operation Uranus, the counteroffensive against the German assault on Stalingrad. The operation was repulsed with very heavy Soviet losses, although it did have the effect of pinning down German units that could have been sent to the fighting around Stalingrad.
- February 1942
- 3rd Panzer Army, 9th Army, 4th Panzer Army, 4th Army, 2nd Panzer Army
- May 1942
- 9th Army, 3rd Panzer Army, 4th Army, 2nd Panzer Army
Campaign in central Russia
Following the disaster of Stalingrad and poor results of the Voronezh defensive operations, the army high command expected another attack on Army Group Centre in early 1943. However, Hitler had decided to strike first. Before this strike could be launched, Operation Büffel was launched to forestall any possible Soviet spring offensives, by evacuating the Rzhev Salient to shorten the frontline.
- January 1943
- LIX AK, 9th Army, 3rd Panzer Army, 4th Army, 2nd Panzer Army
Commanders in chief 12 October 1943 Ernst Busch
- February 1943
- 3rd Panzer Army, 9th Army, 4th Army, 2nd Panzer Army
Belorussian anti-partisan campaign
From early 1942, there was an intensified movement, by the Soviets, to create armed resistance in the areas occupied by the Germans. This was particularlu true in western Belorussian. This effort was directed by the Stavka headquarters, in Moscow, utilising partisan cells trained before the war, local party officials that escaped the Gestapo, and a considerable number of Red Army troops that evaded massive encirclements of 1941. By early 1943, this movement, though only loosely interrelated within the region, numbered an estimated 250,000 combat and support personnel, with sophisticated bases, long range communication equipment. These cells were increasingly disruptive to rear services and lines of communication of the German army. Combating these partisan groups, and bands, demanded constant security deployment of German troops, desperately required by the increasingly personnel-starved field forces. There was also an increase use of volunteer police personnel, from the occupied territories particularly the Ukraine and Baltic States, alongside special Waffen-SS and army units. The following major anti-partisan operations were conducted in the rear of Army Group Centre, alongside many smaller operations:
- Operation Bamberg: conducted from 26 March 1942 – 6 April 1942 by the 707th Infantry Division supported by a Slovak regiment, south of Bobruisk. At least 5,000 people (including many civilians) were killed and agricultural produce was confiscated.
- Operation Fruhlingsfest: conducted from 17 April 1944 – 12 May 1944 in the area of Polotsk by units of Gruppe von Gottberg. Around 7,000 deaths were recorded at the hands of German forces.
- Operation Kormoran: conducted from 25 May 1944 – 17 June 1944 between Minsk and Borisov by German security units in the rear of Third Panzer Army. Around 7,500 deaths recorded.
Increasing coordination of the partisan activity resulted in the conducting of Operation Concert against the German forces.
In July and August 1943 the Soviets succeeded in stopping the German offensive Operation Citadel into the Kursk Salient and counterattacked towards Orel and Kharkov. In tandem with the offensive into Ukraine another offensive, the Smolensk Operation, was launched against Army Group Centre between August and October 1943. The attacks made slow progress but were successful in recapturing Smolensk and the important rail junction at Nevel, forcing the German line back on a broad front, however the attack foundered on the strong German defensive works in the Vitebsk-Orsha-Mogilev area (the Ostwall defensive line).
- March 1943
- 3rd Panzer Army, 9th Army, 4th Army, 2nd Panzer Army, 2nd Army
- April 1943
- 3rd Panzer Army, 4th Army, 2nd Panzer Army, 2nd Army, z.Vfg. 9th Army
- July 1943
- 3rd Panzer Army, 4th Army, 2nd Panzer Army, 9th Army, 2nd Army
Wotan Line defensive campaign
Further Soviet offensives against Army Group Centre - the Gomel and Orsha Operations in November 1943 and the Vitebsk Operation in February 1944 were unsuccessful against the strong Ostwall defences. However, the Soviets did succeed in almost encircling the heavily fortified town of Vitebsk.
In comparison to the great Soviet victories in Ukraine since Stalingrad, Soviet progress on the central front (roughly the area Minsk - Smolensk - Moscow) in the period early 1942-early 1944 had been disappointing. Soviet planners launched several offensives hoping for a grand encirclement and destruction of Army Group Centre yet had only succeeded in forcing the German line back on a broad front with heavy Soviet casualties. There were several reasons for this comparative lack of success - the terrain here was much more heavily forested and thus favoured the defender, German units in this area had had time to prepare comprehensive fortifications and the German leadership had been good, while Soviet leadership had been uninspired.
- September 1943
- 3rd Panzer Army, 4th Army, 9th Army, 2nd Army
- November 1943
- 3rd Panzer Army, 4th Army, 9th Army, 2nd Army, armed forces commander east country
- January 1944
- 3rd Panzer Army, 4th Army, 9th Army, 2nd Army
Destruction of Army Group Centre
However, all this was to change in summer 1944. In the spring of that year, the STAVKA started concentrating massive forces along the frontline in central Russia for a huge summer offensive against Army Group Centre. The Soviets also carried out a masterful deception campaign to convince the Germans that the main Soviet summer offensive would be launched further south, against Army Group North Ukraine. The German High Command was fooled and armored units were moved south out of Army Group Centre. The massive Soviet buildup opposite Army Group Centre was not detected.
The offensive, code-named Operation Bagration, was launched on 22 June 1944, the third anniversary of the German invasion and the beginning of the German-Soviet War in 1941 (this was actually a coincidence, the attack had been unexpectedly delayed several days). 185 Soviet divisions comprising 2.3 million soldiers and 4,000 tanks and assault guns smashed into the German positions on a frontline of 200 km. The 800,000-strong Army Group Centre was crushed. Up to 400,000 Germans became casualties. The Soviet forces raced forward, liberating Minsk on 3 July, the rest of Belorussia by mid-July, and reaching the Vistula and the Baltic States by early August. In terms of casualties this was the greatest German defeat of the entire war.
Commanders in chief 28 June 1944 Walter Model
- July 1944
- 3rd Panzer Army, 4th Army, 2nd Army, z.Vfg. 9th Army
Commanders in chief 16 August 1944 Georg Hans Reinhardt
- August 1944
- 3rd Panzer Army, 4th Army, 2nd Army, IV SS Panzer Corps
Defensive campaign in Poland and Slovakia
Discussion of the army group's situation in January 1945 should note that the army groups in the east changed names later that month. The force known as "Army Group Centre" at the start of the Soviet Vistula-Oder Offensive on 12 January 1945 was renamed "Army Group North" less than two weeks after the offensive commenced. At the start of the Vistula-Oder Offensive, the Soviet forces facing Army Group Centre outnumbered the Germans on average by 2:1 in troops, 3:1 in artillery, and 5.5:1 in tanks and self-propelled artillery. The Soviet superiority in troop strength grows to almost 3:1 if 200,000 Volkssturm militia are not included in German personnel strength totals.
Defence of the Reich campaign
Defence of Slovakia
Defence of Moravia
Defence of Bohemia
Battle of Berlin
The last Soviet campaign of the war in the European theater, which led to the fall of Berlin and the end of the war in Europe with the surrender of all German forces to the Allies. The three Soviet Fronts involved in the campaign had altogether 2.5 million men, 6,250 tanks, 7,500 aircraft, 41,600 artillery pieces and mortars, 3,255 truck-mounted "Katyusha" rocket launchers (nicknamed 'Stalin Organs' by the Germans), and 95,383 motor vehicles. The campaign started with the battle of Oder-Neisse. Army Group Centre commanded by Ferdinand Schörner had a front that included the river Neisse. Before dawn on the morning of 16 April 1945 the 1st Ukrainian Front under the command of General Konev started the attack over the river Neisse with a short but massive bombardment by tens of thousands of artillery pieces.
Commanders in chief 17 January 1945 Ferdinand Schörner
- January 1945
- 3rd Panzer Army, 4th Army, 2nd Army
- May 1945
- 7th Army, 4th Panzer Army, 17th Army, 1st Panzer Army
- Army Group Ostmark
Battle of Prague
Some of Army Group Centre continued to resist until 11 May, by which time the overwhelming force of the Soviet Armies sent to occupy Czechoslovakia in the Prague Offensive gave them no option but to surrender or be killed.
- May 1945
- 7th Army, 4th Panzer Army, 17th Army
- Army Group Ostmark
On 7 May, the day that German Chief-of-Staff General Alfred Jodl was negotiating surrender of all German forces at SHAEF, the last that the German Armed Forces High Command (AFHC) had heard from Schörner was on 2 May. He had reported that he intended to fight his way west and surrender his army group to the Americans. On 8 May, a colonel on the (AFHC), was escorted through the American lines to see Schörner. The colonel reported that Schörner had ordered the men under his operational command to observe the surrender but that he could not guarantee that he would be obeyed everywhere. Later that day Schörner deserted his command and flew to Austria where on the 18 May he was arrested by the Americans.
Notes and references
- Gerlach, p. 885
- Ustinov, p. 114.
- Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg / hrsg. vom Militärgeschichtlichen Forschungsamt ; Bd. 8; Die Ostfront : 1943/44 ; der Krieg im Osten und an den Nebenfronten / mit Beitr. von Karl-Heinz Frieser, Bernd Wegner u.a., 1.Auflage, München 2007.
- Gerlach, C. Kalkulierte Morde. Hamburg Edition, 2000
- Ustinov, Dmitriy. Geschichte des Zweiten Welt Krieges, Volume 10. Berlin: Militärverlag der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik, 1982
- Hoth H. Panzer-Operationen. Heidelberg, Kurt Vowinckel Verlag, 1956
Ian Kershaw, The End: The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler's Germany, 1944-1945, (New York: Penguin Press, 2011). ISBN 978-1-101-56550-6.
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