The Western Front was a Front (military subdivision) of the Soviet Army, one of the Soviet Army Fronts during the Second World War. This sense of the term is not identical with the more general usage of military front which indicates a geographic area in wartime, although a Soviet Front usually operates within designated boundaries.
It is likely that the Western Front still exists in some form within the Headquarters of the present Moscow Military District of the Russian Ground Forces.
The Western Front was created on June 22, 1941 from the Western Special Military District (which before July 1940 was known as Belorussian Special Military District). The first Front Commander was Dmitry Pavlov (continuing from his position as District Commander since June 1940).
The western boundary of the Front in June 1941 was 470 km long, from the southern border of Lithuania to the Pripyat River and the town of Vlodava. It connected with the adjacent North-Western Front, which extended from the Lithuanian border to the Baltic Sea, and the Southwestern Front in the Ukraine.
Defeat on the Frontiers
The Western Front was on the main axis of attack by the German Army Group Centre
during Operation Barbarossa
. At the outbreak of war with Germany, the front included the Soviet Third Army
, Soviet 4th Army
, and 10th Army
along the frontier. The 13th Army
initially existed as a headquarters unit only, with no assigned forces. The Front's tanks and aviation at airfields were annihilated by German air strikes. The 1939 partition of Poland according to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact
established a new western border with no permanent defense installations, and the army deployment within the Front created weak flanks. The major forces of the Soviet Western Front were concentrated in the Białystok salient
. The German Ninth and Fourth Armies of Army Group Centre
penetrated the border north and south of this salient. In the evening of 25 June, the German 47th Panzer Corps cut between Slonim
, forcing the attempted withdrawal of troops in the salient to avoid encirclement and opening the southern approaches to Minsk.
On 27 June 1941, German Panzergruppe 2 and Panzergruppe 3 striking from south and north linked up near Minsk, surrounding and eventually destroying the 3rd Soviet Army and 10th Soviet Army, 13th Soviet Army, and portions of the 4th Soviet Army Soviet Armies, in total about 20 divisions, while the remainder of the Fourth Army fell back eastwards towards the Berezina River.
On 28 June 1941, the Ninth and Fourth German Armies linked east of Białystok splitting the encircled Soviet forces into two pockets: a larger Białystok pocket containing the 10th Army and a smaller Novogrudok pocket. Ultimately, in 17 days the Soviet Western Front lost 420,000 personnel from a total of 625,000.
The Front commander, General of the Army Dmitri G. Pavlov, and the Front Staff were recalled to Moscow. There they were accused of intentional disorganization of defense and retreat without battle, sentenced as traitors, and executed. The families of the traitors were repressed according to NKVD Order no. 00486. This order dealt with families of traitors of Motherland. (They were rehabilitated in 1956.)
Assault on Moscow
The command was transferred to Acting Commander Andrei Yeremenko
, and later to Marshal Semyon Timoshenko
in July 1941, briefly before newly promoted Colonel General Ivan Konev
took over in September. The Front took part in the fierce Battle of Smolensk (1941)
, which managed to disrupt the German blitzkrieg
for two months.
When Zhukov took over on 10 October, the Soviet Reserve Front
had just been disbanded and its forces incorporated into Western Front, but given the pounding that Soviet forces had suffered, the force numbered only 90,000 men. 16th Soviet Army under Konstantin Rokossovsky
held at Volokolamsk
, and General L.A. Govorov had 5th Soviet Army
, recently raised from 1st Guards Rifle Corps, and soon to include the Soviet 32nd Rifle Division
. The 43rd Soviet Army was under General K.D. Golubev at Maloyaroslavets, and the 49th Soviet Army
was near Kaluga under General I.G. Zakharin. Meanwhile 33rd Army
was forming at Naro-Fominsk
under General Lieutenant M.G. Yefremov, and was to be assigned to Zhukov's command. The Soviets just managed to halt the German advance in the Battle of Moscow
, leading to further furious fighting in the Battles of Rzhev
just to the west.
The Front appears to have controlled the three armies - the Fifth Army, 33rd Army, and 10th Guards Army- which formed the assault force in the Battle of Smolensk (1943).
On 24 April, 1944, the Front was divided into the 2nd Belorussian Front and 3rd Belorussian Front.
The Russian Ground Troops continue the Soviet Army's organizational arrangement of having Military Districts that have both a wartime territorial administration role and the capability to generate formation headquarters (HQs) to command Fronts. This was emphasized by reports of a Moscow Military District exercise in April 2001, when the district's units were to be divided into two groups, ‘one operating for the western front and the other for the wartime military district’.
It appears likely that the Western Front is still an active formation held within the Headquarters of the Moscow Military District. Plans probably call for it to be mobilised as part of the Russia-Belarus Regional Grouping of Troops (Forces).
Commanders During World War II
- Dr Steven J. Main 'The Belarusian Armed Forces: a Military-Political Analysis 1991-2003', G126, Conflict Studies Research Centre, October 2003, available via CSRC website