Crimean Strategic Offensive Operation

This was a Soviet offensive by General Fyedor I. Tolbukhin’s 4th Ukrainian Front to liberate Crimea from the occupation of Generaloberst Erwin Jaenecke’s (from 1 May General Karl Allmendinger’s) German 17th Army of Generaloberst Ferdinand Schörner’s Heeresgruppe ‘Südukraine’, which consisted of German and Romanian formations (8 April/12 May 1944).

In the period from late 1943 to early 1944, the Axis forces on the Eastern Front had been driven back along the entire front. In October 1943, to avoid almost total isolation in the Kuban peninsula across the Strait of Kerch from the eastern tip of Crimea, the 17th Army, then part of Generalfeldmarschall Ewald von Kleist’s Heeresgruppe 'A', was forced to evacuate its lodgement across the Strait of Kerch and pull back into Crimea in the ‘Krimhilde-Bewegung’. In the following months the Soviets pushed the Axis forces back to the west through the southern part of Ukraine, eventually cutting the German land link with the 17th Army through the Perekop isthmus in November 1943. Adolf Hitler nonetheless continued to demand that Crimea be held, largely for political and prestige considerations. In this demand Hitler was bolstered by his belief that the task lay well within the operational capabilities of Jaenecke, who had revealed considerable skill in the effective and orderly manner in which he had planned and executed the ‘Krimhilde-Bewegung’.

By April 1944 the 17th Army had nonetheless been reduced in strength to two major formations in the form of General Rudolf Konrad’s XLIX Gebirgskorps and Allmendinger’s V Corps, totalling five German and six Romanian divisions together with one Flak division. The 17th Army thus possessed no armoured formations and only two brigades of assault guns.

The XLIX Gebirgskorps held the northern part of Crimea, including the Perekop isthmus, and the V Corps the Kerch peninsula where it kept in check a small Soviet beach-head. The German military planners estimated that it would need 80 days to organise and implement a systematic and total withdrawal from Crimea, this figure including at least 23 days just to withdraw the 270,000 personnel by ship. Because of Hitler’s order that Crimea was to be held, however, there had been no joint planning of evacuation arrangements between the army and the staff of Vizeadmiral Helmuth Brinkmann, the Admiral bzw Kommandierender Admiral Schwarzes Meer. On their own responsibility, though, Jaenecke and General Paul Deichmann, commander of the I Fliegerkorps supporting the 17th Army, had begun parallel contingency planning in the headquarters of their own formations for the withdrawal to Sevastopol and a possible emergency evacuation.

For some time the 17th Army had been maintained by air and sea without significant Soviet interference, but the army continued to pin its hopes on the reopening of the land link through the Perekop isthmus rather than the forced abandonment of Crimea. The German troops in Crimea had long been conscious of a feeling of isolation and even the simplest soldier was well aware of the vulnerability of the peninsula. After the ‘Krimhilde-Bewegung’ evacuation of the Kuban lodgement during the previous autumn they had fully expected that Crimea would be merely a pause in the process of their withdrawal to link with the rest of the Axis forces in Ukraine.

All the necessary arrangements had been made to withdraw from the Kerch peninsula, and at 18.30 on 29 October 1943 the order was given by the headquarters of the 98th Division for the the start of the withdrawal on the following day, but only a few hours later the divisional commander, Generalleutnant Martin Gareis, was summoned to the V Corps’ headquarters to receive counter orders after Hitler had decreed that Crimea would not be yielded to the Soviets. Thus the V Corps was drawn into the winter fighting as the Soviets reinforced their beach-head about Kerch.

By this time General (from 20 May Generaloberst) Schörner, who at that time enjoyed the Hitler’s fullest confidence, had replaced von Kleist as commander of Heeresgruppe ‘A’. It was known that the Soviets were concentrating their forces in preparation for an attack on Crimea, but after paying a short visit to the 17th Army, Schörner reported to the Oberkommando des Heeres on 7 April that matters were fully in hand in Crimea. Schörner’s chief-of-staff, Generalleutnant Walther Wenck, also took an optimistic view, but these rosy views were not shared by either Jaenecke or the chief-of-staff of the Oberkommando des Heeres, Generaloberst Kurt Zeitzler. By the evening of 9 April, however, Schörner had become altogether more sanguine and, expressing full confidence in the commander of 17th Army, asked that Jaenecke be given the fullest freedom to act as he thought fit, even if this were to result in the evacuation of the Crimea, as the army group commander thought that it would. Hitler refused, but said that he would send Zeitzler to look further into the matter.

During the afternoon of the next day Schörner reported that Jaenecke had already on his own responsibility ordered the V Corps to fall back some distance to the neck of land separating the Kerch peninsula from the main part of Crimea, a decision which he supported completely. Hitler was obliged to accept this withdrawal as a fait accompli, but ordered that the XLIX Corps was to remain on the Perekop isthmus under any and all circumstances. On the same day Schörner was pressing for the evacuation of Crimea.

Stormy weather in the Sea of Azov and a delay in the capture of the port of Odessa, well to the north-west of Crimea, slowed the mounting of the Soviet offensive to retake Crimea, but on 8 April the main attack began. This was mounted from the north by Fyedor I. Tolbukhin’s 4th Ukrainian Front with General Leytenant Georgi F. Zakharov’s 2nd Guards Army and General Leytenant Yakov G. Kreizer’s 51st Armies across the Perekop isthmus and Lazy Sea beach-head, while General Leytenant Andrei I. Eremenko’s Independent Coastal Army thrust to the east from the western side of the Strait of Kerch, where it had established a breach-head in the ‘Kerch-Eltigen Operation’.

Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Aleksandr M. Vasilevsky and Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Kliment Ye. Voroshilov were entrusted with the co-ordination of the operations on two fronts.

The Soviet force comprised some 462,400 men and included the equivalent of 32 divisions with 560 tanks and self-propelled guns, and 1,200 aircraft. The main thrust was made not from Perekop but from the Siwash coast against a Romanian division, which soon broke under the 51st Army’s attack. The XIX Tank Corps was committed to the battle on 11 April and, reaching wider and more open country, headed across the steppe toward Simferopol.

Meanwhile Hitler, from his distant retreat in the Berghof, was still forbidding any withdrawal in the north, but as a concession eventually authorised the V Corps in the east to withdraw a few miles to the Theodosiya narrows. This decidedly belated decision led to great confusion, the loss of artillery and heavy equipment, and the dispersal or routing of the fighting troops who, without artillery support, ammunition or anti-tank guns, broke and ran under Soviet tank attack.

Moreover, to call the German formations on the Eastern Front at this time divisions, regiments and battalions was simply self-deceptive. The 290th Grenadierregiment of Generalleutnant Alfred Reinhardt’s 98th Division, for example, had a mere 200 men in the line, a figure scarcely one-tenth of what it had in 1941. Experienced German infantrymen were becoming increasingly scarce, and many of the German troops manning the forward positions were not infantrymen by arm of service or by training, but men drafted from other branches.

Before these fighting men could break contact, the Hiwis (local volunteers), wounded, Romanians, baggage and Flak had to be pulled back, together with every other unit not vital to the forward area, and when on 10 April the 98th Division was ordered, without any warning, to withdraw during the coming night, its horses, without which nothing could be moved, were still 19 km (30 km) to the rear. Since there was little motor transport, the division was to move back on foot and would be closely pursued by tanks and fully motorised infantry. At 19.00 the regimental artillery and heavy weapons companies destroyed their infantry and anti-tank guns and mortars, since they lacked the means to move them. Shortly after this many units and sub-units lost contact as many of them were routed and broken up.

On 13 April the 1/290th Grenadierregiment had fewer than 30 men, to whom another 30 stragglers from other units had attached themselves, and the regimental heavy support company had only one heavy and three light machine guns.

By this time the forward edge of the German defence had effectively disintegrated, and Jaenecke had no option but to order a general withdrawal to Sevastopol, an order which Hitler tried to countermand, saying that Jaenecke had lost his nerve. Konrad, commander of the XLIX Gebirgskorps, was dismissed, but disregarded this and continued his attempts to rally his broken troops.

On 12 April Hitler finally agreed to the withdrawal to Sevastopol and even to the shipping away of those elements not required for battle, though he added that Sevastopol was to be held ‘for the time being’. Zeitzler openly announced his belief that Sevastopol could not be held, and warned Schörner that Soviet armour might reach Sevastopol before the 17th Army.

In the Crimea Hitler’s agreement was no longer relevant to the position of the Axis troops, which were racing to get to Sevastopol before the Soviets, and the German navy used some of its ship to ferry back some elements of the V Corps. No reliance could be place on the Romanians, and the five German divisions were entirely disorganised and without heavy weapons.

By 16 April the Soviets had occupied most of the strategic points including Yalta and Sudak, and two days later the Independent Coastal Army under a new commander, General Leytenant Kondrat S. Melnik, was incorporated into the 4th Ukrainian Front. On 21 April Schörner took what was becoming a well-trodden and unhappy path when he flew to the Berghof in an attempt to persuade Hitler that Crimea should be evacuated, but was put off with the persuasive charm reserved for newcomers to high command who were temporarily in favour. Hitler insisted that Sevastopol had to be held for eight weeks until the Anglo-Americans had made their attempt to land in Europe. In any case the retention of Sevastopol was of paramount importance in keeping Turkey out of the war, since the Turks were already submitting to Western pressure to cut off German supplies of chrome. There followed Hitler’s usual empty promises of equipment and reinforcements, and Schörner returned to his headquarters empty-handed.

In response to a request from Maresal al România Ion Antonescu, the Conducător of Romania, Hitler was forced to allow the start of the evacuation of Romanian troops from Crimea. In Sevastopol the shattered remnants of the routed divisions were set to work on the defences and, contrary to what might have been expected, morale was good as the soldiers were sure that when the German naval, air and administrative organisations had been evacuated in the wake of the Romanians it would be their turn. All expected that within two weeks the complete evacuation would have been completed successfully. The troops were not concerned about Soviet interference by sea or air as they remained confident in the ability of the Kriegsmarine and Luftwaffe to see off any such threats and thus secure the continuance of the evacuation.

Then, on 24 April, the men of the 17th Army were informed of Hitler’s order that Sevastopol was to be held to the last, and all of them knew that they now faced what was essentially a death sentence. On the same day Jaenecke, wholly unwilling to see the sacrifice his troops, flew to see Hitler, with whom he had two painful and stormy meetings, and a furious Hitler finally removed Jaenecke from his command in favour of Allmendinger.

The Soviet attack was not long delayed. The Soviet air forces had by now become very active and aggressive, and before the launch of the final offensive had dropped 2,000 tons of bombs on Sevastopol. On 5 May Zakharov’s 2nd Guards Army began the attack to draw the defenders off to the north, while Kreizer’s 51st Army and Melnik’s Coastal Army made the main thrust in the south on the Sapun Hill. During the evening of 7 May the Soviets took the Sapun Hill, and on the following day the Soviets penetrated into Sevastopol proper.

The remaining German troops did what the Soviet defenders had done two years earlier in the last stage of ‘Störfang’, and in their tens of thousands withdrew, covered by rearguards, to the open Khersones peninsula to make a last stand in the hope of being picked up from the sea.

On 9 May Hitler changed his mind, once again, and ordered the German troops to be evacuated, but by then it was too late. On 10 May a dozen Luftwaffe fighters took off for the last time and disappeared towards the mainland. On the same day an exaggerated version of Hitler’s latest order reached the disorganised survivors on the beaches, and a rumour that a Luftwaffe group and a great fleet of ships were being sent to their rescue soon gained currency. In the final days very few men got away from the Khersones peninsula, and the losses in Axis shipping to Soviet air attacks had been heavy.

Some 29,000 German and 7,000 Romanian troops went into captivity, although the total Axis losses were very much higher, in the order of almost 80,000 men. On 12 April the strength of the 17th Army had been 230,000 men: 130,000 were evacuated by sea and 21,000 by air, and 77,500 remained, dead or missing, most of them German. In Sevastopol on 3 May the strength had stood at 64,700, of which 10,000 wounded and 16,700 unwounded were withdrawn. It is likely, therefore, that the Germans lost 31,700 killed and missing, and 33,400 wounded for a total of 65,100; and that the Romanians lost 25,800 killed and missing, and 5,800 wounded for a total of 31,600: the total Axis losses were therefore something in the order of 96,700 represented by 57,500 killed or missing and 39,200 wounded. The Axis forces also lost or abandoned essentially all of their vehicles, heavier weapons and equipment.

The figures for the German and Romanian losses are uncertain, and some estimates put them at 57,500 killed or missing, 39,200 wounded and 61,580 taken prisoner.

The Soviets are thought to have lost 17,754 men killed or missing and 67,065 wounded for a total of 84,819, and also lost 171 armoured fighting vehicles, 521 pieces of artillery and 179 aircraft.