A forgotten anniversary: Ian McGibbon recalls a battle that sealed Nazi Germany's fate 75 years ago.

AuthorMcGibbon, Ian

On 5 and 6 June we witnessed the commemoration of one of the greatest military operations in history--Operation Overlord, the dramatic landing on the French coast 75 years ago. Among the world leaders and aging veterans gathered for the occasion was our governor-general, Dame Patsy Reddy. Her presence was fitting in view of the roughly 10,000 New Zealand airmen and seamen who took part in operations related to the landings.

Conspicuous by their absence in the ceremonies at both Portsmouth and Normandy were the Russians--the all-important ally in the defeat of Nazi Germany. Their efforts did not rate a mention at the British gathering at Portsmouth. Given the strained Anglo-Russian relations over the Skripal poisoning, it is perhaps not surprising that President Putin was not present.

But Putin's absence from the Normandy commemoration next day is more surprising. He was apparently not invited. To be sure, no Russian soldiers took part in the D-Day operations, but they were indispensable to its success since most German forces were deployed against them in the east. Putin had been a guest at the 70th anniversary ceremony in the same place.

The Russian absence was matched by a seeming obliviousness to the actual state of the war in June 1944. Referring to the consequences of a failure of the Normandy invasion, commentators almost invariably suggested that the war would have gone on for years as the Allies prepared another attempt to land. Few seemed to comprehend the true significance of the Normandy landings, which above all ensured that Western Europe would not fall under Soviet domination.

On 23 June there was another 75th anniversary of a battle, one of greater importance than D-Day in determining the outcome of the war. In the early hours of that day in 1944, east of the Soviet city of Minsk, a bombardment unequalled in history fell upon the hapless German defenders of the central sector of Germany's Eastern Front. As searchlights blinded the dazed survivors, Soviet tanks and troops surged forward. Operation Bagration had begun.

More than a million and a half Soviet troops--more than the population of New Zealand at the time--were set in motion in this colossal onslaught, which was remarkable in the sophistication of its conception and implementation. It came almost to the day three years after Hitler had unleashed his legions against the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa, beginning a conflict unrivalled for both its scale and its...

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