Operation Gotenkopf

Goth's head

This was the German lodgement of General Erwin Jaenecke’s 17th Army in the Kuban peninsula across the Strait of Kerch from Crimea (late March/9 October 1943).

The lodgement had resulted from the compression of Generalfeldmarschall Ewald von Kleist’s Heeresgruppe ‘A’ forces into this region, after the failure of the previous year’s 'Blau II' ('Dampfhammer') and 'Edelweiss', by the success of the 'North Caucasian Strategic Offensive Operation' undertaken in the winter of 1942/43 by the Soviet forces of General Ivan V. Tyulenev’s Trans-Caucasus Front, General Polkovnik Ivan Ye. Petrov’s North Caucasus Front and General Polkovnik Andrei I. Eremenko’s Stalingrad Front (from February 1943 General Polkovnik Rodion Ya. Malinovsky’s and from March 1943 General Polkovnik Fyedor I. Tolbukhin’s South Front) to eliminate the German forces south of the Don river.

Originally possessing a strength of some 350,000 men, the 17th Army had been whittled down to about 250,000 men as it was used as a source of reinforcements and replacements for German formations harder pressed in sectors farther to the north on the Eastern Front, most notably Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein’s Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’. Even so, the 17th Army still totalled 14 German and seven Romanian infantry divisions, and held the beach-head which Adolf Hitler insisted be held at all costs as a springboard for renewed offensives into the Caucasus and its alluring oilfields.

The German leader’s ambitions, or rather pipe-dreams, were entirely negated by the Soviet summer offensive of 1943, which threatened to cut off the German forces in Crimea and the Kuban. The 17th Army came under increasing pressure from 9 September by the offensive of the North Caucasus Front, comprising General Leytenant Aleksei A. Grechkin’s 9th Army, General Leytenant Konstantin N. Leselidze’s 18th Army and General Leytenant Andrei A. Grechko’s 56th Army. Hitler had at last been persuaded of the military sense of withdrawing from the Kuban peninsula westward across the Strait of Kerch into eastern Crimea, but nonetheless vacillated for almost one month before finally ordering, on 3 September, the withdrawal at the urging of von Kleist: Hitler ordered that civilians be removed fort, and that the Soviets be left nothing but an uninhabitable desert in Kuban.

The resulting ‘Krimhilde-Bewegung’ withdrawal was effected with the Germans’ now customary skill in waterborne evacuations, despite the fact that the Soviets made landing in the rear of General Karl Allmendinger’s V Corps and General Rudolf Konrad’s XLIX Gebirgskorps in an effort to pin these formations.

And while the Soviet air forces proved themselves a major thorn in the side of the retreating Axis forces, the Soviet navy made little effort (and no surface attacks at all) to intercept the seaborne route by which the Axis forces crossed back into Crimea. The Soviets sought to exaggerate the scale of their success in ‘expelling’ the Axis forces from the Kuban peninsula, claiming the destruction of 10 divisions and the sinking of 140 vessels, but in fact the Axis forces were evacuated with few losses. The operation had been completed by 9 October, but the fact that the Soviets now had the strategic and operational initiatives on he Eastern Front is indicated by the fact that their forces had started to cross the Strait of Kerch in eastern Crimea, in steady pursuit of the 17th Army, by the end of the same month.