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WI: "Northern" Bagration, 1944

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  • WI: "Northern" Bagration, 1944

    Going into the Summer of 1944, it appeared quit evident to OKH (And by extension, Hitler) that the main Soviet thrust for the year would emanate from the Ukraine. This was understandable as it was based on available strategic intelligence as well as reasoning of simple facts. The terrain of Ukraine was far superior for sweeping offensives in contrast to the marshes and forests of Byelorussia, while past Soviet attacks in the area had failed to achieve major results (Notably Operation Mars and the heavy losses at Smolensk in 1943). More importantly, German intelligence was reasonably sure all six Soviet tank armies (They did not know where the three armies used for the Crimea operation went) were present in Ukraine along with six of the eight Soviet strategic bomber air armies. As well, consideration of the last eight months of combat lent further credence to OKH's assumption.

    After Kursk the Soviets had largely cleared out the east bank of the Ukraine in the course of the Belgorod-Kharkov Offensive and after that, following an operational pause to rebuild their forces, began efforts to force a crossing of the Dnieper that culminated in the Second Battle of Kiev. A month of bitter fighting was the result of the aforementioned Battle, but the German counterattacks were hobbled from outset by Hitler's refusal to release the 40th in conjunction with the 48th Panzer Corps for the attack (A reflection of the recent decision to focus on confronting the looming Western Allied invasion of France). Once the fighting around Kiev petered out and the 48th was withdrawn for a refitting, the Soviets resumed their advance in the direction of the Carpathians (Named, rather unimaginatively IMHO, as the Dnieper-Carpathian Offensive). The sum of all these actions was to result in a situation in which the Ukraine had been cleared of the Axis, Army Groups Center and North were now in a "Byelorussian balcony", and finally it appeared the Soviets were poised to be able to achieve one of two possible strategic offensives against the Axis.

    As OKH strategic planning summarized, these were the options open to the Soviets at the time:

    1.) Press into the Balkans -
    With their current stance, the RKKA was in a position to press on into the Hungarian Plains through the Southern Carpathians as well as overrun Romania. Such an operational movement would not only knock out both Hungary and Romania (Excellent for morale and allowing for concrete war gains), it would by extension ensure the long term collapse of the German war economy thanks to the loss of the crucial oil fields in this sector (The Anglo-American strategic bombing campaign had already managed to eliminate 90% of German synthetic oil production by the onset of Spring). The downsides to such a strategy was that it would involve costly fighting in difficult terrain for a mechanized offense, with the German and Romanian forces in the region still showing signs of considerable fighting ability in such actions as the First Jassy-Kishinev Offensive. Further, the attacks long term would mean the Soviets would have to massively shift their strategic focus as operations in the Balkans would not allow for a quick advance on Germany due to terrain and distance. Finally, there was the threat that once the Soviets had struck into the Carpathians and had become engaged in heavy fighting, Army Group North Ukraine could launch a powerful flanking attack into the new rear of the Soviet positions in Ukraine.

    2.) A Northern thrust, between the Carpathians and Pripyat Marshes, into the Polish plains -
    This made the most sense to the Germans, as a Soviet advance through this "gap" would place them on the North European Plain and directly in position to advance on Berlin (As well as the industries in Silesia and threaten those of Bohemia). Expanding upon this operation to punch through to the Baltic coast would also allow for a vast encirclement of Army Groups North and Center in their entirety as well as bring the war to Germany by invading East Prussia. With regards to flank protection, the Pripyat marshes would safeguard their flank with AGC for the most part while the Axis forces within Romania lacked the means for major strategic offensives (Localized were another matter, however). Clearly, the Soviets had much to gain by such.


    Given what option two entailed, the Germans began to massively reinforce Army Group North Ukraine to the detriment of Army Group Center in the belief they had discovered the Red Army's intentions for the year. OKH (And again, Hitler) saw a means of using this to their advantage by attempting to achieve a mass encirclement of the expected Soviet attack. From what I can infer in my readings, the Germans more or less planned to do a massive version of Erich von Manstein's "Backhand blow" strategy. This would, more or less, entail an elastic defense in the initial stages of the Soviet offensive, allowing the Red Army to be further drawn into the attack while gradually subjecting them to attrition while the logistics of the advance gradually become strained as the RKKA gained ground. Once the Soviets had been sufficiently sucked in and exhausted, Army Group North Ukraine would take advantage of this to launch the counter-strike. Advancing southward and then eventually swinging to the West towards the Carpathian mountains, it would be entirely possibly for multiple Soviet armies to be encircled in a fashion similar to what had been done in 1941. Indeed, given the position of the Wehrmacht in Carpathians and along the Pripyat marshes, the whole operation would essentially operation like closing a door in implementation, with the pripyats as the hinge, AGNU as the door and the Carpathians as the frame (And this would be aided by the fact that the Soviets would essentially be funneled in their attack by the terrain). A victory of such magnitude would likely at the very least enforce a long operational pause in the Eastern front, allowing the Wehrmacht to deal with the coming Anglo-American attacks in France as well as the Italian situation. At its greatest extent, it may force Stalin to consider making peace with the Germans, given the massive manpower shortages the RKKA was already facing IOTL 1944.

    So what happened? Well, what German intelligence didn't pick up was that all those Soviet tank armies in Ukraine were utterly exhausted by months of near continuous assaults and they were badly in need of rebuilding (Which would occur between the end of the Dnieper-Carpathian offensive and the resumption of the advance into Romania in August). Waiting to rebuild the forces thus for a major offensive from this strategic center would mean conceding most of the year at a time when the Western Allies were preparing to invade, which could possibly mean forgoing possible war gains (Stalin was already considering the Post-War era at this point). While the Soviets were indeed well aware and cautious of the terrain and German defenses of Byelorussia, they also took into account it would be strategically unexpected by the Germans (True) while they also had a large partisan network able to be used there that could act as a force multiplier for a campaign (Also true). It is unknown if the Soviets were aware of the German planning, as both sides largely decided upon strategies at about the same time; Stalin agreed to Bagration in April, while OKH and Hitler were already considering Ukraine as the likely area about the same time but didn't solidify on such presumptions until in May. It is clear, however, the Soviets used such presumptions to their advantage by doing everything possible to encourage a buildup among Army Group North Ukraine and thus help thin AGC's defenses. Ultimately, as we all as know, OKH's stripping of AGC proved detrimental. By the time Bagration launched, the AGC was largely an infantry force without any meaningful reserve and down to 44 fighters. Further, artillery munition shortages were at play as another result of the West's strategic bombing (one fourth of shell production was for AA purposes by 1944). The results of all of this coming together are well known.

    Now, with all of that said, let's say the Soviets do launch a "Northern" Bagration as the Germans expected. The PoD for such probably would entail Hitler refusing to release both the 40th and 48th for use around Kiev in November of 1943, and such is plausible, given the strategic focus officially placed on the Western Front in that same month (And resulted in the shifting of seven Panzer divisions to the aforementioned front by the time of Bagration). This would probably allow the Soviets to bring forward the Dnieper-Carpathian Offensive by a month, thanks to the lack of costly German counterattacks over the course of November. Long term however, the spring thaw, the need to remove German forces in their rear at places like Crimea, and stiffening Axis resistance as the Soviets outpace their logistics as their forces are gradually exhausted mean the offensive still probably comes to a halt at the same extent it did IOTL around the same time (Maybe it halts a bit sooner, perhaps March?). Now Stalin faces a major choice, in that the RKKA still stands in the same position it did IOTL but is nowhere near as depleted and it would take about the same amount of time (~8 weeks) to build up for a thrust against AGC as it would to rebuild the armies in Ukraine. As I mentioned earlier the majority of Soviet offensive abilities in OTL were already stationed here anyway, including most of the armies that would do Bagration, so from a logistical standpoint any movements to the north would go against the fact of the Soviet strategic center already being focused in Ukraine. Plus, the merits of the "Northern" option would appear quite obvious to the Soviets. Given such, I think it's fair to say Stalin takes the option and orders an offensive about the same time as Bagration was done historically (Mid-June).

    So tl;dr the Soviets decide to thrust from Ukraine and likely (IMHO) suffer a major defeat that will remind many of the disasters of 1941 in a time where the Soviets can't really afford it. Given such, what are the effects and if you disagree with my analysis of such, for what reasons do you think the Germans would fail to achieve this?

    (I recently got a copy of Steven Zaloga's Operation Bagration cover in the Osprey Campaign series, which provided me the inspiration for this and most of the facts contained within this come directly from it. It's an extremely well written book, and highly recommend it for insight into the Eastern Front of 1944 as its also wrote in a manner that is very helpful for creating PoDs for that time. Also, this might be my longest post to date as an aside.)
    Last edited by Epic History; 01-21-2017, 09:27 AM.

  • #2
    I wonder how internally secure was Stalin's position at this point. From what I recall, the further the war dragged on, the more Stalin ceded direct control to his generals. Knowing just how brutal and unforgiving a master Stalin was, what would be there to stop a military coup where a few generals, knowing that they would lose their heads if caught, attempt to execute an assassination attempt, and take control of USSR?

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