Kerch-Eltigen Operation

This was the Soviet amphibious landing on the eastern end of the Crimean peninsula paving the way for the 'Crimean Offensive Operation' (1 November/4 December 1943).

Following the defeat of the German and Romanian troops and their subsequent ‘Krimhilde-Bewegung’ evacuation from the Taman peninsula, on the eastern side of the Strait of Kerch separating Crimea from Kuban, the Soviet high command decided to exploit this success with a pair of amphibious landings on the east coast of Crimea as a prelude to the liberation of Crimea. The southern assault, intended as a diversion, was planned for the small town of Eltigen and the northern assault, intended as the main effort, was schemed for Ganikale, near the city of Kerch itself.

Soviet successes to the north of Crimea, such as the 'Lower Dniepr Offensive Operation', had succeeded in effecting the overland isolation of Generaloberst Erwin Jaenecke’s 17th Army in Crimea, although this formation could still be supplied by sea. The 17th Army controlled General Karl Allmendinger’s V Corps in the north, General Rudolf Konrad’s XLIX Gebirgskorps defending the Perekop isthmus, and General de divizie Hugo Schwab’s Romanian Mountain Corps in the southern and south-eastern parts of Crimea. The Germans also had anti-aircraft artillery troops and 45 assault guns to bolster their defence.

For the landings, General Fyedor I. Tolbukhin’s 4th Ukrainian Front controlled General Polkovnik Konstantin N. Leselidze’s 18th Army and General Leytenant Kondrat S. Melnik’s 56th Army, Vitse Admiral Lev A. Vladimirsky’s Black Sea Fleet, and Kontr Admiral Sergei G. Gorshkov’s Azov Flotilla, with Petrov and Vladimirsky in tactical command of the land and naval forces respectively.

Despite the combination of poor weather and rough seas, which caused a postponement, the Soviets succeeded in landing Polkovnik Vasili F. Gladkov’s 318th Division of the 18th Army and the 386th Naval Battalion at Eltigen on 1 November 1943. The landing was characterised by ad hoc use of naval craft of all kinds and the loss of order as a result of bad weather and darkness. Even so, the Soviets forced their way ashore, pushed back the Romanian defenders and established a small beach-head.

Two days later, at Ganikale, more than 4,400 men of the 56th Army’s 2nd Guards Division, 55th Guards Division and 32nd Division enjoyed the tactical benefits of massed artillery support from positions on the Taman peninsula and established a firm beach-head which the V Corps and General de brigadâ Leonard Mociulschi’s Romanian 3rd Mountain Division were unable to eliminate. By 11 November, the Soviets had landed 27,700 men in the Ganikale beach-head. Among the reinforcing units was the 383rd Division, which landed on 7 November. Although the Soviets managed to land the 117th Guards Regiment to reinforce the Eltigen beach-head, they were unable to push farther than 1.25 miles (2 km) inland, a situation worsened when the Germans managed to establish a naval blockade around the landings with minesweepers and other light craft of Korvettenkapitän Dr Emil Kieffer’s 3rd Minensuch-Flottille operating out of Kerch, Kamysch-Burun and Feodosiya.

The Soviets countered with nocturnal attempts to maintain the delivery of supplies into the beach-head, and this resulted in close-range naval encounters and a completely inadequate success rate in the delivery of supplies to the beach-head, and at the same time Soviet attempts to supply their forces by air were interdicted by the Luftwaffe.

The Axis forces besieged the beach-head for five weeks before attacking on 6 December 1943. During the attack, cavalry of General de brigadâ Gheorghe R. Gheorghiu’s Romanian 6th Division made diversionary attacks from the south while Romanian mountain troops, supported by assault guns, attacked from the west. By 7 December the beach-head had collapsed and the Romanians took 1,570 prisoners and counted 1,200 Soviet dead at a cost of 886 of their own men. The Romanians also captured 25 anti-tank guns and 38 tanks.

As the Eltigen beach-head collapsed, some 820 Soviet troops managed to break out to the north in an attempt to reach Ganikale, occupying Mt Mithridates and defeating German artillery positions there. This alarmed Jaenecke as the attack had the potential of puncturing the German front facing the Ganikale beach-head. Jaenecke used the Romanian 3rd Mountain Division for a counterattack against the Soviet troops, and by 11 December the Romanians had recaptured Mt Mithridates. An unknown number of these Soviet troops were subsequently evacuated to Opasnaya in the Ganikale beach-head by Gorshkov’s Azov Flotilla.

In the face of strong German reinforcement, the Soviets now contented themselves with reinforcing the Ganikale beach-head. By 4 December, the Soviets had landed 75,000 men, 582 guns, 187 mortars, 128 tanks, 764 trucks, and more than 10,000 tons of munitions and matériel at Ganikale, where the beach-head was driven some 5.6 miles (9 km) inland to reach the outskirts of Kerch. Although the Germans succeeded in initially defending Crimea against the Soviet landings, the successful landing near Kerch placed the Soviets in the position from which they could retake the entire Crimea, an operation they successfully concluded in May 1944.