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 from 1 January and 4 February 1943 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 to the south of the Don river.

The Gotenkopfstellung (Goth’s head fortress) was otherwise known as the Kuban-Brückenkopf (Kuban bridgehead), and was the German position on the Taman peninsula between the Sea of Azov in the north and the Black Sea in the south. Existing from January to October 1943, the bridgehead came into existence after the Germans were driven out of the Caucasus. The creation of this heavily fortified position was demanded by Adolf Hitler in place of the strategically more sensible withdrawal behind the Don river to be available to the German army and air force as a staging area for Hitler’s intention for a renewed offensive toward the oilfields of the Caucasus. The bridgehead was finally abandoned only after the Soviets had breached the 'Panther–Wotan-Linie', forcing an evacuation of the German forces across the Strait of Kerch Strait to Crimea.

Launched 28 June 1942, 'Blau' saw the division of Generalfeldmarschall Fedor von Bock’s Heeresgruppe 'Süd' into Heeresgruppe 'A' and Heeresgruppe 'B', of which the former was committed to the offensive into the Battle of the Caucasus. Throughout the operation the German situation, especially that of Heeresgruppe 'B' centred on Stalingrad, began to deteriorate. As Heeresgruppe 'B' started to collapse in the north, Heeresgruppe 'A' rapidly found itself at risk of being flanked. The army group was compelled to abandon its assigned task of securing the oilfields of the Caspian region, and began to pull back along the Terek river toward the Taman peninsula.

Following the encirclement of Genersalberst (soon Generalfeldmarschall) Friedrich Paulus’s 6th Army at Stalingrad, Heeresgruppe 'A' withdrew toward the Black Sea and Crimea. The 17th Army, commanded by Generaloberst Richard Ruoff and from June Erwin Jaenecke, constructed a defensive position across the Kuban river delta in the Taman peninsula, and this was completed in January 1943. The first, and indeed the main, defense line began near Novorossiysk on the coast of the Black Sea and extended primarily to the north all the way across the peninsula. Consisting of five defense lines, the total depth of the defensive zone was up to 37.25 miles (60 km). German forces, moving from positions along the Terek river, fully occupied the new defensive network in February 1943 while under constant Soviet attack. Originally intended to provide a staging area for future attempts to gain control of the Caspian oilfields, the bridgehead was retasked on 3 September 1943 as the German situation on the Eastern Front continued to deteriorate.], and thus came to serve for the evacuation of German forces as the withdrawal of Heeresgruppe 'Süd' to the line of the Dniepr river became inevitable.

In the Soviet 'Novorossiysk-Taman Offensive Operation', forces of the North Caucasus Front breached the first defences of the Kuban bridgehead on 15/16 September in the area of Novorossiysk, and the Taman peninsula had been completely cleared of German and Romanian troops by 9 October 1943.

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 Heeresgruppe 'Süd'. Even so, the 17th Army still totalled 14 German and seven Romanian infantry divisions, and held the bridgehead whose retention had been ordered by Hitler 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 in Kuban with nothing but an uninhabitable desert.

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.