Army Group Centre (German: 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.
- Active – 1941-45
- Disbanded – 25 January 1945
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The commander in chief of the formation of the Army Group Centre on 22 June 1941 was Fedor von Bock.
On 22 June 1941, Nazi Germany and its Axis allies launched their surprise offensive into the Soviet Union. Their armies, totaling over three million men, were to advance in three geographical directions. Army Group Centre’s initial strategic goal was to defeat the Soviet armies in Belarus and occupy 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 on its northern and southern flanks, the army group boundary for the later being the Pripyat River.
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 in order to conquer Ukraine first.
The German strategic offensive, named Operation Typhoon (German: Unternehmen Taifun), called for two pincer offensives, one to the north of Moscow against the Kalinin Front by the 3rd and 4th Panzer Armies, simultaneously severing the Moscow–Leningrad railway, and another to the south of Moscow Oblast against the Western Front south of Tula, by the 2nd Panzer Army, while the 4th Army advanced directly towards Moscow from the west. According to Andrew Roberts, Hitler’s offensive towards the Soviet capital was nothing less than an ‘all-out attack’: “It is no exaggeration to state that the outcome of the Second World War hung in the balance during this massive attack”.
Initially, the Soviet forces conducted a strategic defense of the Moscow Oblast by constructing three defensive belts, deploying newly raised reserve armies, and bringing troops from the Siberian and Far Eastern Military Districts. As the German offensives were halted, a Soviet strategic counter-offensive and smaller-scale offensive operations forced the German armies back to the positions around the cities of Oryol, Vyazma, and Vitebsk, and nearly surrounded three German armies. It was a major setback for the Germans, the end of the idea of a fast German victory in the USSR. Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch was excused as commander of OKH, with Hitler appointing himself as Germany’s supreme military commander.
The beginning of 1942 Army Group Centre suffered continuing attacks from Soviet forces around Rzhev. The German Ninth Army was able to repel these attacks and stabilize 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.
The 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.
Belarussian Anti-Partisan Campaign
The following major anti-partisan operations were conducted in the rear of Army Group Centre, alongside many smaller operations:
- Operation Bamberg: conducted 26 March 1942 – 6 April 1942 by the 707th Infantry Division supported by a Slovakian regiment, south of Bobruisk. At least 5,000 possible partisans were killed and agricultural produce was confiscated.
- Operation Fruhlingsfest: conducted 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 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 were recorded against the partisans.
Increasing coordination of the partisan activity resulted in the conducting of Operation Concert against the German forces.
Armeegruppe Center participated in Operation Citadel then the Wotan Line Defensive Campaign.
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