This was the German retreat of Generaloberst Erwin Jaenecke’s 17th Army to Sevastopol in Crimea after the Soviet breakthrough at the start of their ‘Crimean Strategic Offensive Operation’ (12/16 April 1944).
At the beginning of April 1944 and the onset of the spring thaw period of mud and flood, the Germans hoped and indeed expected the end of the Soviet winter offensive of General Nikolai F. Vatutin’s (from 1 April Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Georgi K. Zhukov’s) 1st Ukrainian Front, Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Ivan S. Konev’s 2nd Ukrainian Front, General Rodion Ya. Malinovsky’s 3rd Ukrainian Front and General Fyedor I. Tolbukhin’s 4th Ukrainian Front against Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model’s Heeresgruppe ‘Nordukraine’ and General Ferdinand Schörner’s Heeresgruppe ‘Südukraine’.
The Germans were confident in their expectation as the Soviet forces had outstripped the capability of their overextended logistic tails. The German hope was generally fulfilled, although the Soviets did manage to press forward and expunge the German bridgehead on the eastern side of the Dniestr river covering Odessa. General Leytenant Mikhail N. Sharokhin’s 37th Army of the 3rd Ukrainian Front crossed the Tiligul river and on 4 April, having taken Razdelnaya, started to break apart Generaloberst Karl-Adolf Hollidt’s 6th Army, in the process encircling significant German and Romanian troops against the coast of the Black Sea. General Leytenant Vasili I. Chuikov’s 8th Guards Army and General Leytenant Vasili V. Glagolev’s 46th Army began to close on Odessa, which had to be evacuated by the occupying Axis forces. Soviet troops entered this major port city on 10 April, and by this date the German naval support base had been moved to Constanţa in Romania.
Everywhere other than Crimea there now developed a lull in operations along the whole of the Eastern Front, except in those places were the Soviet troops set about establishing and improving bridgeheads in the areas to the south of the Dniestr, Prut and Siret rivers. Model’s Heeresgruppe ‘Nordukraine’ and Generalfeldmarschall Ernst Busch’s Heeresgruppe ‘Mitte’ did mange to achieve a modest number of tactical successes in the foothills of the Carpathian mountains near Kolonia and in counterattacks against General Leytenant Pavel A. Belov’s 61st Army of the 2nd Belorussian Front to the south of the Pripyet marshes. Kurochkin’s 2nd Belorussian Front encircled but could not take Kovel. On 4 April this front was disbanded and its armies were transferred to General Konstantin K. Rokossovsky’s 1st Belorussian Front or the high command reserve.
However, the last of the German reverses in Ukraine was probably the greatest. This final defeat was in the Crimean peninsula, which had been held at the insistence of Adolf Hitler for political and prestige considerations, by the 17th Army, whose commander, Jaenecke, had come to be trusted by the German leader for the capable manner in which he had organised and executed the ‘Krimhilde’ evacuation of the Kuban beach-head to the east of the Strait of Kerch.
By April the 17th Army had been reduced to a pair of major formations, namely General Rudolf Konrad’s XLIX Gebirgskorps and General Karl Allmendinger’s V Corps, comprising five German and six Romanian divisions together with one Flak division, but the army had no armoured formations and only two assault artillery brigades. The XLIX Gebirgskorps held the northern part of the peninsula, including the ‘Tartarenwall’ defences across the Perekop isthmus, and the V Corps was on the Kerch peninsula containing the small Soviet bridgehead of General Andrei I. Eremenko’s Independent Coastal Army.
The German high command reckoned that it would require 80 days to complete any planned withdrawal from Crimea, including a minimum of 23 days to ship out the 270,000 personnel of the 17th Army and various support elements. As a result of Hitler’s order that Crimea was to be held, though, there had been no joint planning of any evacuation with Vizeadmiral Gustav Kieseritzky’s (from 22 November 1943 Vizeadmiral Helmuth Brinkmann’s) Kommandierender Admiral Schwarzes Meer command. However, Jaenecke and General Paul Deichmann, commander of the I Fliegerkorps, had on their own responsibility begun parallel planning for a withdrawal into the Sevastopol area and a possible emergency evacuation.
The 17th Army had for some time been maintained by air and sea without any significant Soviet interference, but nevertheless hoped that a land link could be reopened through the Perekop isthmus. This hope had been effectively dashed as, by December 1943, Soviet land forces reached the coast of the Black Sea between the Perekop isthmus and the line of the Dniepr river between Zaporozhye and Kherson, thereby creating a Soviet land corridor a minimum of 400 miles (645 km) wide between the Perekop isthmus and the nearest German land forces on the western side of the Dniepr river. The German troops in Crimea were now isolated by land, and the vulnerability of the Crimean peninsula was readily evident.
After ‘Krimhilde’ in October 1943, most of the 17th Army’s men had expected orders for the evacuation of Crimea, and indeed all preparations required for the for a withdrawal from the Kerch peninsula had been made. At 18.30 on 29 October the headquarters of Generalleutnant Martin Gareis’s 98th Division had ordered the start of its withdrawal on the following day, but a few hours later the divisional commander had been called to V Corps to have this order rescinded on the grounds that Hitler had ordered that Crimea be held. Thus V Corps was drawn into winter fighting as the Soviets reinforced their beach-head about Kerch.
At the time enjoying Hitler’s confidence as a senior commander who was both loyal and capable, Schörner had replaced Generalfeldmarschall Ewald von Kleist at the head of Heeresgruppe ‘A’, now renamed Heeresgruppe ‘Südukraine’. By a time late in the winter of 1943/44 it was evident that the Soviets were concentrating their strength for an offensive to retake Crimea but, after paying the 17th Army a short visit, Schörner reported to the Oberkommando des Heeres on 7 April that within the peninsula all was in the best of order. Generalleutnant Walther Wenck, the chief-of-staff of Heeresgruppe ‘Südukraine’, was also optimistic, but both Jaenecke and Generaloberst Kurt Zeitzler, the chief-of-staff of the Oberkommando des Heeres, were altogether more sanguine. Only two days later, on 9 April, Schörner had changed his opinion and while expressing full confidence Jaenecke, requested that the commander of the 17th Army be given the authority to act as he thought fit, even if this led, as Schörner clearly believed, to the evacuation of Crimea. Hitler refused.
During the afternoon of the following day Schörner reported that Jaenecke had already on his own responsibility ordered the V Corps to fall back some distance from eastern Crimea to the ‘narrows’, the isthmus separating the Kerch area from the rest of Crimea, and Schörner fully supported this decision. Hitler had to acquiesce, but ordered that the XLIX Corps remain on the Perekop isthmus. On the same day, 10 April, Schörner pressed again for the evacuation of Crimea.
Storms in the Sea of Azov and the delay in the capture of the port of Odessa slowed the full implementation of the planned Soviet offensive against Crimea, but the main attack had started on 8 April as, from the north, the 4th Ukrainian Front launched General Polkovnik Georgi F. Zakharov’s 2nd Guards Army in the west along the Perekop isthmus and General Leytenant Ya. G. Kreizer’s 51st Army in the east across and Lazy Sea bridgehead, while the Independent Coastal Army drove to the west from the Strait of Kerch lodgement.
Higher command co-ordination of operations was entrusted to Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Aleksandr M. Vasilevsky and General Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Kliment Ye. Voroshilov, the Soviet chief of the general staff and Stavka representative respectively. The Soviet forces totalled little short of 500,000 men and comprised the equivalent of 32 divisions with 560 armoured fighting vehicles (tanks and self-propelled guns) and 1,200 warplanes. The main Soviet thrust was delivered not from Perekop but from the Syvash coast farther to the east against a Romanian division, which soon broke under the attack of the 51st Army. General Leytenant Ivan D. Vasilev’s XIX Tank Corps was committed on 11 April and, reaching open country in north-east Crimea, moved across the steppe toward Simferopol.
Still forbidding any withdrawal in the north, Hitler later authorised the V Corps to withdraw a few miles to the west in the area of the isthmus just to the east of Feodosiya. An effective withdrawal cannot, of course, be effected with any real success on the basis of uninformed decisions at higher command levels, for a decision given too late almost invariably results in the loss of heavy equipment and artillery, and also to the dispersal or routing of combat troops who, without artillery support, ammunition or anti-tank guns, break in the face of an armoured assault. This was certainly true of the Axis forces in Crimea during April 1944, all the more so as the use of the designations division, regiment and battalion for formations and units on the Eastern Front was merely a form of self-delusion: the 290th Grenadierregiment of the 98th Division, for example, had only 200 men capable of combat, a total only about 10% of what it had been in 1941. Experienced infantrymen had become a rarity, and many of the German troops manning the forward positions were not infantry either by arm of service or by training.
Before these men could be allowed break contact, moreover, the Hiwis (local auxiliaries), wounded, Romanians, baggage, Flak and every other non-essential unit had to be given the time to pull out.
When the 98th Division finally received its orders to retreat that night, all the horses, without which none of its equipment could be moved, were still 20 miles (32 km) to the rear. In the absence of any but the most limited motor transport the division had perforce to retreat on foot while being pursued by armoured and motorised forces. At 19.00 the regimental artillery and heavy weapons companies therefore had no option but to destroy their infantry guns, anti-tank guns and mortars as they lacked the means to move them. Soon after this, units disappeared from contact as they were routed and destroyed. On 13 April, for example, the 1/290th Grenadierregiment had just 30 of its own men together with about the same numbers of stragglers from other units.
By this time the Axis resistance had disintegrated and Jaenecke ordered a general withdrawal to Sevastopol, an order which Hitler tried to countermand. Hitler ordered the dismissal of Konrad, but this was ignored and Konrad continued in his effort to rally his broken V Corps. On 12 April Hitler finally agreed to the withdrawal to Sevastopol, and even to the maritime evacuation of ‘tail’ elements. Sevastopol was to be held ‘for the time being’, however. Even so, Zeitzler warned Schörner that Soviet armour might reach Sevastopol before the 17th Army. Thus there developed a race to Sevastopol, and vessels of the German navy ferried elements of the V Corps to bolster the western defences.
Of the three Soviet armies, the 2nd Guards Army drove to the south through the Perekop isthmus and through western Crimea, the 51st Army through central Crimea to take Simferopol on 13 April, and the Independent Coastal Army south-west through eastern Crimea, linking with the 51st Army at Karasubazar on 14 April.
The Germans found it impossible to rely on the Romanians, and the five German divisions were entirely disorganised and lacked heavy weapons. By 16 April the Soviets had taken most of Crimea’s strategic points, including Yalta and Sudak on the south-east coast. Two days later the Independent Coastal Army was absorbed into the 4th Ukrainian Front as General Leytenant Kondrat S. Melnik’s Coastal Army.
On 21 April Schörner felt compelled to fly to Germany and ask Hitler for authorisation for the abandonment of Crimea, but instead was ordered to hold Sevastopol for eight weeks until the forces of the Western Allies had made their attempt to land in North-West Europe and the strategic situation had thereby been clarified. In any case, Hitler averred, the retention of Sevastopol was of strategic significance in German efforts to keep Turkey out of the war, since the Turks were already submitting to the pressure of the Western Allies to end the export of chrome to Germany. There were also, of course, the usual Hitlerian empty promises of equipment and reinforcements.
In response to a request by Maresal al România Ion Antonescu, the Conducător of Romania, Hitler was obliged to start the evacuation of Romanian troops from Crimea. In Sevastopol the disorganised remnants of the 17th Army had been set to work on the defences. Morale was surprisingly good, even optimistic, for the majority of the German troops believed that when the German naval, air force and administrative organisation had been evacuated after the Romanians, their turn would come, and in 14 days they would have left Sevastopol. The German soldiers were not unduly worried about the possibility of Soviet air and naval interference with the evacuation, for they were confident that the their own air and naval forces could defeat any such Soviet attempts.
Then, on 24 April, the remnants of the five German divisions were told that Hitler had ordered that Sevastopol be held to the last. On the same day Jaenecke flew once again to meet Hitler, with whom he had two painful and stormy meetings. Hitler sacked Jaenecke and promoted Allmendinger to command of the 17th Army.
The Soviet air forces had become very active by this time, and before the final offensive had dropped 2,000 tons of bombs on the fortress. On 5 May the 2nd Guards Army began an attack to draw the defenders off to the north, while the 51st Army and Coastal Army made the main thrust in the south on Sapun Hill. On the evening of 7 May the Soviets took this feature, and on the next day penetrated into the city.
The German troops now echoed what the Soviets had done two years earlier in the face of the German ‘Störfang’, and streamed to the rear under cover of rearguards toward the open Kersonese peninsula to make a last stand in the hope of being picked up from the sea.
On 9 May Hitler yet again changed his mind and ordered the evacuation of the last German forces, but by this time the task was impossible. On 10 May the last German fighters took off and headed across the Black Sea toward territory still in German hands. A rumour that a Luftwaffe group and a great fleet of ships were being sent to their rescue was soon revealed to be untrue. In the final days very few men got away from the Kersonese peninsula and the losses to Axis shipping from Soviet air attack were heavy.
As quiet settled over the battlefield, 29,000 German and 7,000 Romanian troops went into captivity. On 12 April the 17th Army’s ration strength had been 230,000 men: 130,000 had been evacuated by sea and 21,000 by air, and thus there remained 77,500, either dead or missing: the majority of these were German. In Sevastopol on 3 May the strength had been 64,700, of which 10,000 wounded and 16,700 unwounded were withdrawn. The fate of the other 38,000 was unknown. In overall terms, out of a strength of 462,400 men at the start of the campaign, the Axis forces had lost 17,754 killed and missing and 67,065 wounded, while the Soviets had lost 97,000 men killed, wounded and missing. The Axis matériel losses were altogether greater than those of the Soviets, though, and were essentially irreplaceable.