The 'Kerch-Feodosiya Landing Operation' was the Soviet offensive in Crimea, designed to lift the German siege of Sevastopol, launched with an amphibious landing on the Kerch peninsula and otherwise known as the Battle of the Kerch Peninsula (26 December 1941/19 May 1942).
The whole operation began with the Soviet 'Kerch-Feodosiya Landing Operation' and ended with the German and Romanian victory in the 'Trappenjagd' operation. The Soviet offensive pitted General Leytenant Dmitri T. Kozlov’s Crimea Front against Generaloberst Erich von Manstein’s German and Romanian 11th Army, and was undertaken on the Kerch peninsula of Crimea’s east coast, and was intended to lead to a Soviet advance across Crimea to Sevastopol on the west coast. The 'Kerch-Feodosiya Landing Operation' began on 26 December 1941 with a pair of amphibious landing operations by two Soviet armies, which secured a consolidated lodgement were then contained by the Axis forces throughout the winter of 1941/42 with the aid of the interdiction of the Soviet line of communication across the Strait of Kerch by German air attacks. Between January and April 1942, the Crimea Front made repeated offensives against the 11th Army, all of which failed with heavy losses, largely as a result of the Axis forces' superior artillery firepower.
On 8 May, the Axis (primarily German) forces attacked with great strength in the 'Trappenjagd' major counter-offensive, which ended on about 19 May with the destruction of the Soviet forces. von Manstein skilfully exploited the capabilities provided by the Germans' large concentration of air power, well-armed infantry divisions, concentrated artillery bombardments and amphibious assaults to break through the southern part of the Soviet front in just 3 hours 30 minutes before wheeling to the north with Generalleutnant Wilhelm Apell’s 22nd Panzerdivision to encircle General Leytenant Vladimir N. Lvov’s 51st Army on 10 May and annihilate it on 11 May. The Axis forces drove the remnants of General Leytenant Stepan I. Chernyak’s 44th Army and General Major Konstantin S. Kolganov’s 47th Army back to Kerch, where the last pockets of organised Soviet resistance had been destroyed by German air and artillery power by 19 May. The decisive element in the Axis victory was the aerial bombardment campaign against the Crimea Front by Generaloberst Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen’s 800 aircraft-strong VIII Fliegerkorps, which flew an average of 1,500 sorties per day in support of 'Trappenjagd' and constantly attacked Soviet field positions, armoured units, troop columns, medical evacuation ships, airfields and supply lines. The German aircraft dropped as many as 6,000 canisters of SD-2 anti-personnel cluster munitions to kill the massed groups of Soviet infantry as they fled.
The outnumbered 11th Army suffered 7,588 casualties, while the Crimea Front lost 176,566 men, 258 tanks, 1,133 pieces of artillery and 315 aircraft in three armies comprising 21 divisions. The total of Soviet casualties during the five-month campaign reached 570,000 men, while Axis losses were 38,000. 'Trappenjagd' was one of the battles immediately preceding the Germans' great 'Blau' summer offensives, and the success of 'Trappenjagd' made it possible for the Axis forces to concentrate their forces on Sevastopol, which was taken within six weeks. It was from the Kerch peninsula that the Germans launched their own amphibious assault across the Strait of Kerch on 2 September during 'Blücher II', itself a component of the German to take the Caucasus and its oil fields.
On 8 December 1941, the Stavka ordered Kozlov, then commanding the Trans Caucasus Front, to begin the planning of a major operation to cross the Strait of Kerch and effect a junction with General Major Ivan Ye. Petrov’s Separate Coastal Army besieged in Sevastopol, so freeing the whole of Crimea from Axis occupation. The resulting ambitious operation, which was the first major undertaking of this type in Soviet history, was derived from the belief of Iosif Stalin, the Soviet dictator, in the imminent collapse of the German armed forces. The plan was drafted by General Major Fyedor I. Tolbukhin, the Trans Caucasus Front’s chief-of-staff.
As events were to prove, the plan was too complicated for the capabilities currently possessed by the Soviet army and navy, for it was based on a number of small landings at separate locations at different times rather than a single landing. Five transport groups from Kontr Admiral Sergei G. Gorshkov’s Azov Flotilla was to land 7,500 men of the 51st Army’s 224th Division and 302nd Mountain Division on eight separate beaches to the north and south of the port of Kerch, which located at the eastern tip of the eponymous peninsula facing the western coast of the Taman peninsula across the narrow strait. After the Germans had been distracted by this, the 44th Army was to be landed at Feodosiya, to the south-west of Kerch, in the German rear. Naval gunfire support would be provided by the warships of Vitse Admiral Filipp S. Oktyabrsky’s Black Sea Fleet. The Soviet air forces were to provide air cover from the Taman peninsula, across the narrow Strait of Kerch from Crimea. The Soviets had the men and transports needed for thus undertaking, but for lack of real landing craft had to make use of fishing trawlers for the landings. The Soviets also lacked any real experience with large-scale joint operations, and were further hampered by stormy winter weather.
During a reconnaissance flight, a Messerschmitt Bf 110 aeroplane spotted the build-up of Soviet naval forces, and this information was passed to the headquarters of Generalleutnant Hans Graf von Sponeck’s XLII Corps. von Sponeck issued a general alert for amphibious landings on the coast of the Kerch peninsula, but the main strength of the corps had been moved to the west for the assault on Sevastopol. von Sponeck therefore had at his disposal only Generalleutnant Kurt Himer’s 46th Division (Himer had assumed his command only on 17 December), two battalions of coastal artillery equipped with obsolete guns, one combat engineer regiment and one Luftwaffe anti-aircraft battalion. The 46th Division was at almost full strength, but was completely overextended in its task of holding the entire Kerch peninsula. von Sponeck’s only reserve was the Romanian 8th Cavalry Brigade near Alushta.
During the evening of 25 December 1941, the Soviets loaded the 224th Division and the 83rd Naval Infantry Brigade into small craft on the Taman peninsula and began the process of moving them across the Strait of Kerch.
The Soviets' Group 2 came ashore at Cape Khroni to the north-east of Kerch. This group comprised the gunboat Don, the transports Krasny Flot and Pyenay, one tug, two motor barges carrying three T-26 light tanks and a few pieces of artillery, and 16 trawlers. To land the men and equipment, the Soviets employed whalers as they had no landing craft, and this meant that the landings were made at only a snail’s pace: some of the men were drowned, others suffered from hypothermia, and some of the equipment was lost, but a total of 697 men of the 2/160th Regiment had been landed at Cape Khroni by 06.30 on 26 December. Another infantry battalion landed on Cape Khroni later on the same day together with a platoon of T-26 light tanks and some pieces of light artillery.
At Cape Zyuk, 290 troops came ashore in six hours, but a few of their transport vessels foundered on the rocky beach. For lack of adequate numbers of whalers, at Cape Tarhan only 18 men of Group 3’s 1,000 men reached the beach, and at Bulganak Bay, to the west of Cape Khroni, vessels of the Azov Flotilla landed 1,452 men, three T-26 tanks, two 76-mm (3-in) howitzers and two 45m-m anti-tank guns. Two more landings, at Kazantip Point and Yenikale, were aborted as a result of the adverse weather. By 12.00 the Soviets had 3,000 lightly armed men ashore to the north of Kerch in five separate beach-heads.
German resistance was initially weak, but by 10.50 Heinkel He 111 medium bombers and Junkers Ju 87 'Stuka' dive-bombers had arrived overhead to attack the Soviet landing forces. At Cape Tarhan, the cargo ship Voroshilov, carrying 450 troops, was bombed and sunk. One of Group 2’s vessel, carrying 100 soldiers, was bombed and sunk off Cape Zyuk.
Without radio equipment and only lightly armed, the half-frozen Soviet units which had been delivered onto beaches to the north of Kerch moved only about 685 yards (750 m) inland before coming to a halt and entrenching themselves in anticipation of the inevitable German counterattacks. The Soviet regimental commanders, with little or even no communication links to headquarters, decided to wait for the planned arrival of reinforcements: these were, in fact, delayed for three days as a result of unfavourable winter weather, and in fact never arrived to support the units of the initial landings.
On the other side of Kerch, the 302nd Mountain Division landed at Kamysh Burun on the south coast of the Kerch peninsula and soon encountered extremely effective German resistance. Two battalions of Oberst Ernst Maisel’s 42nd Regiment held excellent defensive positions on the higher ground that dominated the landing beaches. The landing at 05.00 was stopped by the fire of the German artillery, mortars and 7.62-mm (0.31-in) MG 34 machine guns, which made it impossible for the whalers and trawlers from closing the shore. The 2/42nd Regiment devastated the Soviet landing at Eltigen. A Soviet naval infantry company landed at Stary Karantin, but was destroyed by a counterattack from Major Karl Kraft’s 1/42nd Regiment. Landing at 07.00, the second Soviet assault wave was also thrown back. Soviet troops seized the docks at Kamysh Burun, allowing the third wave to land and create a foothold by the afternoon. The Luftwaffe sank several ships offshore, and only 2,175 troops out of the 5,200-man Kamysh Burun landing force got ashore.
Himer had been made aware of the Soviet landings by 06.10, but was uncertain where the Soviets' main effort was being made: this was the result of the disunited nature of the Soviet forces. Himer ordered Oberst Friedrich Schmidt’s 72nd Regiment to engage and destroy the Soviet force at Cape Khroni, but this lacked the strength to deal decisively with the Soviet units landed at Bulganak Bay and Cape Zyuk. Himer improvised by ordering a headquarters company, the 3/97th Regiment and one battery of 105-mm (4.13-in) howitzers to eliminate the Cape Zyuk landing, and by 00.00 on 26/27 December, the 97th Regiment had its 1st Bataillon and 3rd Bataillon, as well as two batteries of artillery, in position for a counterattack to be launched on the following day.At 13.50 on 26 December, the 72nd Regiment reported that a captured Soviet officer from Cape Khroni had revealed the extent of the Soviet plan to land 25,000 troops at Kerch. Himer acted decisively and decided to move the 2/9th Regiment from Feodosia, and also to crush the Cape Zyuk force with the 97th Regiment's full strength. At the same time, the 42nd Regiment would contain the Kamysh Burun landing until the northern group of Soviet forces had been destroyed. A mixed infantry, artillery and combat engineer response unit was to deal with the Bulganak Bay landing. von Sponeck requested permission to use the Romanian 8th Cavalry Brigade to reinforce Himer’s division.
The counterattack against the Zyuk beach-head was launched only at 13.00 on 27 December, the assembly of the German force having been delayed by the appalling 'going' along the area’s muddy roads. The beach-head was flat and without plant life, so neither side had cover. The Soviet 2/83rd Naval Infantry Brigade spotted the German deployment and launched an immediate attack with three T-26 tanks and several companies of infantry. The Germans used a 37-mm PaK 36 anti-tank gun to fire 42 rounds that knocked out all three Soviet tanks. Several German bombers arrived to support the German infantry and to help drive the Soviet naval infantry unit back to its beach-head, but the Germans delayed their main attack until the next day. At dawn, the two deployed battalions of the 97th Regiment attacked the Soviet position with the fire support of two 105-mm (4.13-in) howitzers, and a combat engineer company blocked the Soviet escape route to the east.
The Soviet defensive position was hopelessly exposed, and six He 111 bombers and a few Ju 87 dive-bombers attacked the Soviet troops, whose defences were destroyed. By 12.00 the Germans had reached the beach. Some Soviet troops continued to fighter even they were waist-deep in the water, but their resistance had collapsed by the evening. Te Germans had killed about 300 men and captured another 458. The 9th Regiment lost only 40 men killed or wounded in the two days they eliminated the Soviets' Cape Zyuk beach-head. The Soviet beach-head at Cape Khroni was also destroyed by the 72nd Regiment on 28 December, only 12 Soviet men managing to swim to safety. Himer’s division took 1,700 prisoners and only the 1,000-man Soviet force at Bulganak Bay now remained, along with the Kamysh Burun beach-head as well as isolated pockets of Soviet resistance inland.
Feodosiya, a town with a pre-war population of 28,000, was lightly defended by the Germans with two coastal artillery battalions and 800 combat engineers under the command of Oberstleutnant Hans von Ahlfen: these units were currently refitting after their endeavours in the initial assault on Sevastopol. The artillery battalions had 17 obsolete German and Czech 150-mm (5.91-in) and four 100-mm (3.94-in) howitzers, and the engineers had only small arms. A boom at the entrance of Feodosiya’s harbour was supposed to prevent any Soviet incursion, but as a result of negligence had not been closed. The Romanian 3rd Motorised Cavalry Regiment was in reserve near Feodosiya, and single Romanian mountain and cavalry brigades were halfway toward Kerch to crush the Soviet landings there.
For the Feodosiya landings, the 44th Army began loading men and equipment at 13.00 on 28 December into invasion vessels at Novorossiysk. These vessels comprised two light cruisers, eight destroyers, 14 transports and dozens of small craft. At 17.30, the advance guard (cruiser Krasny Kavkaz, destroyers Shaumyan, Zhelezniakov and Nezamozhnik, patrol boats and minesweepers) steamed toward Feodosiya in relatively good weather, which made possible a speed of 16 kt. The destroyer Sposobnyi struck a naval mine and sank with 200 casualties. The Soviet troops were exposed to freezing weather, and in addition to seasickness, suffered from hypothermia. Two Soviet submarines waited on the surface at Feodosiya’s harbour to mark the port entrance with lights.
At 03.50 on 29 December, the destroyers Shaumyan and Zhelezniakov arrived off Feodosiya, fired star shells for illumination, and followed up with a 13-minute barrage on the German defenses. Four 'MO'-type small guard ships carrying 60 naval infantrymen secured the lighthouse at the end of the harbour’s mole. The naval infantry, led by Leytenánt Arkady F. Aydinov, captured two 37-mm anti-tank guns and launched green flares to signal that all was clear for the follow-up forces. The gunners of the German 2/54th Artillerieregiment engaged the Soviet patrol boats without hitting them, and then from 04.26 the destroyer Shaumyan inserted a company of naval infantry into the harbour in a 20-minute period, and the destroyers Zhelezniakov and Nyezamozhnik landed reinforcements soon after this. Shaumyan was damaged by German artillery fire.
At 05.00, the cruiser Krasny Kavkaz started to unload onto the mole some 1,853 men of the 157th Division’s 633rd Regiment. The Germans concentrated their fire on the cruiser, hitting her 17 times and setting her No. 2 gun turret on fire. Krasny Kavkaz responded with her 180-mm (7.1-in) main armament, landed its embarked troops within three hours, and then departed. The Luftwaffe arrived above the battlefield and sank a minesweeper and a patrol boat during the morning, but had missed its opportunity to prevent the main force from landing. By 07.30, the Soviets were in full control of the port and began landing artillery and vehicles. The Soviets fought their way through the town and by 10.00 the Germans pulled back after only a brief fight. In a quickly executed operation, the Soviets landed 4,500 troops in the morning and parts of three divisions were ashore by the end of the day.
von Sponeck immediately ordered the Romanian 8th Motorised Cavalry Brigade and 4th Mountain Brigade to turn around and establish defensive positions round the Soviet bridgehead at Feodosiya. von Sponeck also requested permission from von Manstein to withdraw the 46th Division from Kerch and thereby avoid its encirclement, but the 11th Army's commander refused and ordered von Sponeck to drive the Soviets back into the sea with the help of reinforcements in the form of the Gruppe 'Hitzfeld' of Generalleutnant Rudolf von Bünau’s 73rd Division and the whole of Generalleutnant Walter Wittke’s 170th Division, which would crush the entire Soviet landing force at Feodosiya. von Sponeck then disobeyed his orders, broke off contact with the headquarters of the 11th Army, and at 08.30 on 29 December ordered the 46th Division to avoid encirclement by retreating from Kerch to the west. von Sponeck’s order was highly controversial. There were insufficient German forces at Feodosiya to check further Soviet advances, but there were 20,000 Romanian troops in the vicinity and strong German reinforcements were on their way. Two Romanian brigades launched a counterattack on 30 December, but were defeated largely for their inadequate air and artillery support.
The 46th Division fell back some 75 miles (120 km) through a snowstorm on 30/31 December, and in the course of this undertaking many vehicles had to be abandoned for lack of fuel. Moving from Feodosiya, the 63rd Mountain Division had established a roadblock by the morning of 31 December and after a brief fight, the 46th Division detoured across country through a 6-mile (10-km) gap between the leading Soviet units and the Sea of Azov. The 46th Division thus avoided encirclement, but suffered more equipment losses but only comparatively light personnel casualties. The German division then established a new defensive line to the east of Islam Terek. On 31 December, 250 paratroopers jumped from 16 Tupolev TB-3 bombers as the Soviets sought to close the gap between their ground forces and the Sea of Azov. The bombers were unsuitable for airborne operations, however, and the paratroopers were too dispersed for them to complete any decisive action. Even so, this airborne assault caused a degree of worry at the headquarters of the XLII Corps, for the fact of the Soviet effort’s commitment in the dark helped to conceal its very limited size.
von Sponeck was relieved of his command on 29 December for insubordination, and was court-martialled in Germany three weeks later. He was replaced by General Franz Mattenklot, an officer of the reserve who had been succeeded at the head of the 72nd Division by Generalleutnant Philipp Müller-Gebhard on 6 November. Generaloberst Walther von Reichenau, commander of Heeresgruppe 'Süd', ordered that the 46th Division be forfeit of soldierly honour and that the decorations and promotions of all of its men be placed into abeyance.
The 302nd Mountain Division attacked from its Kamysh Burun beach-head to take Kerch on 31 December after the 46th Division's retreat. The 51st Army now had four infantry divisions ashore, and had liberated the eastern part of the Kerch peninsula by 1 January.
By this date the XLII Corps was holding a defensive line 12.5 miles (20 km) to the west of Feodosiya. The Gruppe 'Hitzfeld' arrived with the 213rd Regiment from the 73rd Division, one battalion of artillery, the 173rd Panzerjägerabteilung anti-tank gun battalion, four StuG III assault guns and one anti-aircraft detachment. The 236th Division attacked the Romanian 4th Mountain Brigade and made a limited advance. The Soviets moved forward only 6 miles (10 km) in the three days after its landing at Feodosiya on 29 December. On 1 January the 44th Army had 23,000 men on the Kerch peninsula in the form of three infantry divisions, but this strength was insufficient for sustained offensive operations against von Manstein’s experienced and well-armed forces. A Soviet infantry and armoured attack on the headquarters of the XLII Corps at Islam-Terek failed after 16 T-26 tanks had been destroyed by the guns of the fresh 173rd Panzerjägerabteilung. By 2 January, the pursuit of the Soviet forces landed at Feodosiya had been brought to a halt, and the 44th Army then dissolved into a static defence.
Despite their limited success on the Kerch peninsula, the Soviet landings had prevented the fall of Sevastopol, but had not succeeded in their primary objective of relieving Sevastopol.Th Soviet losses had been high, however, for the losses of the forces landed at Feodosiya between 26 December and 2 January amounted to 41,935 men including 32,453 killed or captured and 9,482 wounded or sick.
It was with very impetus that the 51st Army advanced from Kerch, reaching the Parpach Narrows on 5 January but deploying only two infantry divisions in its forward elements on 12 January. With the exception of minor raids, the army took no offensive action against the 46th Division. The German Axis response was considerably quicker and more forceful. The XLII Corps received Generalleutnant Walter Wittke’s (from 8 January Generalleutnant Erwin Sander’s) 170th Division and Generalleutnant Rudolf Sintzenich’s (from 11 January Generalleutnant Fritz Lindemann’s) 132nd Divisions as reinforcements, together with two battalions of the 72nd Division, about five StuG III assault guns and the Romanian 18th Division. The task allocated to the corps was to hold the line against the 51st Army. At much the same time von Manstein also switched Generalmajor (from 1 February Generalleutnant) Maximilian Fretter-Pico’s XXX Corps from the siege of Sevastopol to to spearhead a counter-offensive based on the use of four Axis divisions, which were ready by 13 January. The objective was the recapture of Feodosiya and the complete unsettling of the 44th Army. Luftwaffe reinforcements also poured into the region to satisfy von Manstein’s demand for massive air support, and a new Crimean air command was created under the command of Generalleutnant Robert Ritter von Greim to supervise operations over the peninsula.
The staff of Kozlov’s Caucasus Front (previously the Trans Caucasus Front) did not believe that the Axis forces were strong enough to mount an effective counter-offensive, so the front’s two armies were not instructed to dig in. Before his planned main offensive, Kozlov landed 226 soldiers from the destroyer Sposobny some 25 miles (40 km) to the south-west of Feodosiya as a diversion, but this managed to draw off only one company of Panzerjäger tank destroyers as the German action to contain the landed Soviet troops.
On 16 January, Kozlov landed the 226th Regiment behind German lines at Sudak. Supported by the battleship Parizhskaya Kommuna, cruiser Krasny Krym and four destroyers, the Soviets employed naval gunfire and quickly dispersed the town’s small Romanian garrison. After wading ashore, the Soviet regiment did not move forward and simply entrenched itself. von Manstein swiftly appreciated that the operation was merely a distraction and sent only a token force to watch over the Soviet troops. These latter at first checked the counterattacks of two Romanian infantry battalions, so the Germans switched the weight of the undertaking to air and artillery power in a programme designed to reduce the Soviet force through attrition. The 226th Regiment lacked supporting artillery, anti-tank weapons and mortars, and could not fight back with any real chance of success. Kozlov sent more troops to Sudak between 24 and 26 January, raising the local troop total to 4,264. The XXX Corps then deployed more reinforcements to crush the Soviet units, and by 28 January the battle was over after the Soviets had lost 3,000 men killed, and another 876 were taken prisoner and executed; between 350 and 500 Soviets joined partisan groups, and all other survivors took to the wilderness. Fretter-Pico gave the task of mopping up to a Romanian mountain infantry battalion, an undertaking which continued to June.
The 236th Division’s forward security zone was 12.5 miles (20 km) to the west of Feodosiya, and the main line extended along a major ridge 9.3 miles (15 km) from the town. At dawn on 15 January, He 111 medium bombers and Ju 87 dive-bombers started to attack the Soviet positions on the ridge, and were preceded by a quick artillery preparation. German bombers located the headquarters of the 44th Army headquarters, destroyed it and severely wounded its commander. This threw the local Soviet leadership into disorder. Hitzfeld’s 213rd Regiment then attacked with the support of two battalions of the 46th Division and and three StuG III assault guns. The German ground assault achieved complete surprise and swiftly overran the Soviet positions. The StuG III assault guns knocked out two T-26 tanks but lost one of their own number to a Soviet 76-mm (3-in) anti-tank gun. The crest of the ridge top the west of Feodosiya was in German hands by the afternoon of the same day, together with a dominant position over the 44th Army. In the north, the 46th Division and Romanian 8th Cavalry Brigade delivered diversionary attacks against the 51st Army, and so drew away the majority of the Soviet reserves into an irrelevant sector. Fretter-Pico’s XXX Corps lost 500 men killed, wounded and missing in its attack of 15 January against the 236th Division, but on the other side of the peninsula five German battalions backed by potent air support and several assault guns, had crushed a whole Soviet division and established its superiority over the 44th Army.
The German counter-offensive continued on 16 January. Fretter-Pico reinforced Hitzfeld with more battalions as the 63rd Mountain Division and 236th Division lost ground and were pushed into narrow, isolated sectors close to the sea. In the afternoon, the 132nd Division began to ready itself for an attack into Feodosiya as German aircraft continued to bomb the Soviet forces with almost total impunity. The Soviets erred in locating the German main point of effort at Vladislavovka to the north of Feodosita, launched a battalion-sized counterattack with armour and infantry, and were halted by the 190th Sturmgeschützabteilung's StuG III vehicles, which knocked out 16 T-26 tanks. The 32nd Division attacked into Feodosiya at the break of day on 17 January. The Soviet troops in the town resisted in heavy street-by-street combat, but were severely afflicted by constant Stuka attacks in concert with German artillery and machine gun fire. Dense smoke clouds formed above the burning buildings. Because of the constant German air attacks, a Black Sea Fleet evacuation of the trapped 236th Division failed, and this formation was destroyed on 17 January with the loss of many men killed or wounded, and 5,300 taken prisoner. The division’s commander escaped, but three weeks later he was convicted and executed.
XXX Corps' offensive intensified on 19 January as it pushed the remaining two divisions of the 44th Army along the Black Sea coast, exposing the flank of the Soviet forward positions to the north. On 20 January, the XLXXII Corps and XXX Corps reached the Parpach Narrows, greatly shortening the front line. Kozlov was thrown into a panic and foresaw the complete destruction of the Soviet landing force. The Soviets had paid the price for their slow advance to the west from Kerch, and now lacked the reserves to throw back the latest German threat. Soviet generals complained about the impassable roads, although this had not stopped Himer’s 46th Division from completing a rapid movement over the same terrain late in December.
Each side now began to construct defensive positions reinforced by dug-outs, trenches and barbed wire.
The XXX Corps had defeated the 44th Army in a mere five days, in the process throwing two Soviet armies onto the defensive, killing an estimated 6,700 Soviet troops, destroying 85 tanks, and taking 10,000 prisoners and 177 guns for the cost to itself of 995 casualties, of which 243 were killed or missing. After losing 115,630 men in January, the Caucasus Front was too shaken and weakened by von Manstein’s rapid counter-offensive and the Luftwaffe’s anti-shipping campaign to mount large-scale offensive operations for more than a month. What could not be denied, however, was the fact that the Germans lacked the armour and sufficient air strength for a full exploitation of their victory.
The Stavka now strengthened the Caucasus Front with nine infantry divisions. Soviet engineers built an ice road across the frozen Strait of Kerch Strait, and this made possible the movement of 96,618 men, 23,903 horses and 6,519 motor vehicles to reinforce the forces on the Kerch peninsula. The 47th Army was redeployed to the area, initially with only two infantry divisions. The Stavka also created the Crimea Front under the command of Kozlov, on 28 January. The new front had the 44th, 47th and 51st Armies directly subordinated to it, and had operational control of the Separate Coastal Army and the Black Sea Fleet. Kozlov had little command experience above the regimental level, and his staff can most charitably characterised as inept. The Stavka representative, Commissar of the 1st Rank Lev Mekhlis, arrived at the headquarters of the Crimea Front late in January and introduced his own ideas into the planning stage. Stalin and Mekhlis wished to liberate Crimea with an offensive starting on 13 February, but the Soviet forces were unequal to the task as they lacked adequate food and three of their 76-mm (3-in) artillery regiments had no ammunition. The very poor nature of the Kerch peninsula’s road network, the muddy roads and the Luftwaffe’s bombing campaign against ports and Soviet cargo shipping all combined to prevent the creation of a sufficient logistical organisation and thus rendered unrealistic Stalin’s intentions. It was on 27 February that Kozlov finally had the required 93,804 troops, 1,195 guns and mortars, 125 anti-tank guns, 194 tanks and 200 aircraft. These forces were assembled in nine infantry divisions at the front, together with numerous tank brigades containing T-26 light tanks, T-34 medium tanks and 36 KV-1 heavy tanks. Even so, the Crimea Front was far from ready for a major offensive. The armour and aircraft lacked sufficient fuel, many weapons did not work, the artillery had not organised an effective fire system, communications between Kozlov’s headquarters and the Crimea Front’s armies were repeatedly cut, and engineers had not constructed field works of any kind. Under pressure from Stalin, Kozlov started his attack.
The 51st Army planned to surge forward in the northern part of the front on 27 February across a flat plain dotted only by a handful of small villages. The Soviet planners, led by Tolbukhin, failed to account for the warm weather that turned the terrain into a sea of mud.
Knowing that a Soviet offensive was in the offing, the Germans had fortified the villages of Tulumchak, Korpech' and Koi-Asan. The 46th Division and 132nd Division held the XLII Corps' front along with the Romanian 18th Division, and the Gruppe 'Hitzfeld' was in reserve. The Axis defensive preparations were well-conceived and on a substantial basis in accord with the Germans' proved tactical doctrine. Reinforced German strongpoints had all-round defences to neutralise the effects of simultaneous Soviet frontal and flank attacks, and the Germans had created a system of field fortifications covered by a strengthened artillery capability. However, Mattenklott made the mistake of putting the Romanian 18th Dorobanti Regiment Gorj into a difficult and exposed position in a salient on the northern part of the front.
The 51st Army’s offensive began at 06.30 on 27 February with a 230-gun artillery preparation, but most of these pieces were 76-mm (3-in) light guns and only 30 122-mm (4.8-in) heavy guns. The German strongpoints remained largely unharmed by the Soviet light high-explosive rounds. The German artillery responded, and the Soviets lacked the counter-battery capability to suppress them. The open terrain offered no cover for the Soviet troops, who were systematically killed and wounded in great numbers by the inexorable German artillery fire. The KV-1 heavy tanks sank into the mud and could not move forward. Wheeled vehicles also became stuck, and Soviet artillery shells had to be moved up to the front by hand. Soviet soldiers dazed by the German fire became increasingly confused, and not infrequently trampled comrades to death in the mud.
The German strongpoint at Tulumchak was overrun by T-26 tanks and infantry, although seven tanks were lost to German mines. The Romanian 18th Dorobanti Regiment Gorj was routed, and a supporting German artillery battalion lost all 18 of its 105-mm (4.13-in) howitzers and 14 37-mm FlaK guns,. Kozlov’s push was supported by 100 sorties by aircraft of Air Force of the Crimea Front on this first day, but the Luftwaffe was able to fly only three sorties over the area. After a Soviet penetration of 3.1 miles (5 km), Gruppe 'Hitzfeld' sealed off the attack with the fire of artillery, anti-tank guns and machine guns. The strongpoint at Korpech' remained in German hands and subjected the attacking Soviets to withering machine gun and mortar fire. Kozlov committed the 77th Mountain Division into the right-wing attack, and Mattenklott redeployed Hitzfeld’s 213rd Regiment and the 1/105th Regiment to help the Romanians. Hitzfeld attacked on 28 February and took back a part of the lost ground, but the Romanians continued to prove their poor reliability and 100 of them were captured as the 77th Mountain Division made a small penetration and captured the hamlet of Kiet, thereby threatening to outflank the whole of the 11th Army. Hitzfeld counterattacked and retook Kiet to stabilise the German line. The attack on the Romanian unit continued on 1 March until it was stopped by the arrival of the 170th Division, and the rest of the Soviet effort slowed. The 44th Army’s weak attacks failed to tie down all German troops opposite it and could not prevent reinforcements from moving to the threatened north. The Soviets lost 40 tanks in the period from 27 February to 1 March. Soviet naval bombardments of Feodosiya and Yalta achieved little, as did a small landing, quickly withdrawn, at Alushta on 1 March.
The German strongpoint at Koi-Asan, held by the 42nd Regiment and 72nd Regiment on the junction between the XLII Corps and XXX Corps, was the cornerstone of von Manstein’s defence, and its retention allowed the Germans to feed reserves into the north with little difficulty. Kozlov ordered two infantry divisions, three tank brigades and one tank battalion to take the village on 2 March, but the German obstacles round the strongpoint were able to slow the Soviet tanks, making them easy targets for German artillery and anti-tank units. The Luftwaffe now began to make its presence felt as 40 Ju 87 sorties targeted the overcrowded Soviet tank masses: the Soviets admitted to losing 93 tanks in one day. The Soviet gains were comparatively minor: four Czech-made German howitzers were destroyed and Soviet aircraft destroyed a 23-ton ammunition dump at Vladislavovka.
The Soviets ended their attack on 3 March, and thus Kozlov’s major effort failed. From 27 February he had suffered very heavy infantry and tank losses, the latter including 28 KV-1 machines. Kozlov had gained an exposed salient, but could hold this only with light forces for lack of cover.
Kozlov laid the blame for the failure on the weather, while Mekhlis decided that the fault lay with the inadequate planning by Tolbukhin, who was dismissed from his post. Stalin ordered the launch of a second offensive in 10 days. The Soviet planning staffs saw Koi-Asan as the highest-priority target, and decided to mass the 51st Army’s power against it while the 44th Army was to begin a significant feint attack on the 132nd Division along the coast. For this second offensive, Kozlov had 224 tanks but, on the recommendation of Mekhlis, decided to divide them along the infantry divisions rather than massing them in a concentrated and possibly decisive force. Stalin ordered the reinforcement of the Air Force of the Crimea Front to 581 aircraft by a time early in March, but the reinforcement comprised mostly obsolete machines. The Germans laid 2,000 Teller anti-tank mines near the Koi-Asan position, and von Manstein concentrated most of his assault guns for this strongpoint’s defence.
The Soviet forces attacked at 09.00 on 13 March with three infantry divisions that were quickly shattered in the boggy terrain. Their supporting tanks were easily destroyed by StuG III assault guns and anti-tank guns. The Soviet tank losses were large: in three days, 157 tanks were destroyed, 88 of them on the strength of the 56th Tank Brigade. The Soviet attempt to take the Koi-Asan strongpoint failed yet again, but the fighting was bitter. Himer’s 46th Division drive back at least 10 attacks during the three-day Soviet offensive. On 24 March, the Korpech' strongpoint fell to the 51st Army after the Soviet infantry had sustained heavy losses. The Crimea Front had fired most of its artillery ammunition and could not proceed further despite its limited success. The arrival of the fighters of Major Anton Mader’s II/Jagdgeschwader 77 after refitting immediately began to weaken the Soviets' local air superiority. Even so, the 60-ton ammunition dump at Vladislavovka was again blown up by Soviet bombers.
von Apell’s 22nd Panzerdivision was a fresh German formation and was tasked by von Manstein with the recapture of Korpech'. The division was not yet fully equipped with its supporting elements, and its tanks were mostly obsolete Czechoslovak-built PzKpfw 38(t) machines. Its attack at 06.00 on 20 March in dense fog, ran straight into an offensive build-up of Soviet armour and went badly wrong. One of the division’s battalions had to halt after encountering a minefield, while another lost cohesion in the fog. The Soviet 55th Tank Brigade blocked the road to Korpech' with one battalion of T-26 and four KV-1 machines. One battalion of the 204th Panzerregiment lost 40% of its tanks destroyed or damaged after running into a concentration of Soviet 45-mm anti-tank guns. After three hours the German attack was terminated. The 22nd Panzerdivision had lost 32 of 142 tanks destroyed or damaged, this figure including 17 PzKpfw 38(t), nine PzKpfw II and six PzKpfw IV machines. von Manstein conceded he had committed an inexperienced and only half-deployed division prematurely into an all-out assault, but pointed out that an immediate counterattack was necessary as his army was in danger of losing critical defensive positions. The division did succeed, however, in disrupting the Soviet preparations for further attack.
Kozlov’s third drive on Koi-Asan began after a one-week programme of replacement, resupply and reinforcement. This third Soviet offensive was a smaller operation conducted by the 390th Division and 143rd Brigade of the 51st Army, supported by two T-26 companies, six KV tanks and three T-34 tanks of the 39th and 40th Tank Brigades and the 229th Separate Tank Battalion. The offensive failed on its first day after heavy losses and quickly became static. In these operations, the 51st Army suffered losses of 9,852 men killed, 4,959 men missing and 23,799 men wounded for a total of more than 39,000 losses between 10 and 31 March.
Increasing Luftwaffe air superiority began to make its weight felt as the port of Kerch came under heavy and sustained air attack. This limited the build-up of Soviet armour and artillery, but despite this Mekhlis demanded that massed tank attacks be made against the unbroken German lines. von Manstein received more reinforcements in the form of Generalleutnant Johann Sinnhuber’s 28th Jägerdivision, which was equipped with the new sPzB 41 28-mm light anti-tank gun, which has a low silhouette and was therefore easily concealed. von Manstein estimated the Soviet attack strength as six to eight infantry divisions and 160 tanks. After three days of heavy losses, Kozlov called off his fourth and final offensive, and by 15 April the Soviets had withdrawn to their February starting positions. The Crimea Front was now heavily weighted toward the 51st Army on its right flank, leaving the 44th Army on the left depleted and the 47th Army in reserve a ghost command.
Between 27 February and 11 April, all four of Kozlov’s major offensives had been defeated by elements of von Manstein’s 11th Army with heavy Soviet losses. From 1 January to 30 April, Kozlov’s Crimea Front, including the forces at Sevastopol, lost 352,000 men, 236,370 of them between February and April in the fighting as the Soviet forces attempted to pass to the west through the Parpach Narrows. The Crimea Front’s losses were the second-heaviest of any Soviet front during the period. The offensives cost the Crimea Front 40% of its manpower, 52% of its tanks and 25% of its artillery. The 11th Army's casualties from January to April 1942 were far fewer at 24,120 men. The result was an unbalanced loss ratio of 14/1. Insufficient artillery and air support, together with ignorance of the German defences, were emphasised by Soviet critics as the causes of the failure. The Crimea Front had been all but destroyed as a combat-effective formation, and was to be totalled expelled from the Kerch peninsula in May. Over a period of four months, von Manstein had conducted the successful defences of two fronts simultaneous.
The spring thaw arrived early in May, and both sides readied themselves for the battle which would decide the campaign.
To slow the Soviet build-up, Generaloberst Alexander Löhr’s Luftflotte IV was sent to the region to interdict any and all Soviet shipping. The 7,500-ton transport Emba was severely damaged on 29 January, but the Luftwaffe failed to prevent the delivery of 100,000 men and hundreds of artillery pieces to the Kerch peninsula between 20 January and 11 February. On the west coast of Crimea, the port of Sevastopol witnessed the arrival of 764 tons of fuel and 1,700 tons of supplies. On 13 February, the cruiser Komintern and destroyer Shaumyan brought in 1,034 soldiers and 200 tons of supplies. The cruiser Krasny Krym and destroyer Dzerzhinsky delivered another 1,075 men on 14 February, and on 15 February the minesweeper T-410 delivered 650 men before extracting 152 men. On 17 February, the transport Byelostok brought in 871 men. The Black Sea Fleet regularly shelled German positions on the coast. The Luftwaffe increased its pressure, dispatching Oberst Hans-Henning Freiherr von Beust’s Kampfgeschwader 27, Oberstleutnant Benno Kosch’s Kampfgeschwader 55 and the Kampfgeschwader 100 to bomb the ports at Anapa, Tuapse and Novorossiysk on the Caucasian coast of the Black Sea, and on 20 February aircraft of KG 100 sank the 1,900-ton transport Kommunist.
Meanwhile, the Luftwaffe had flown in a specialist torpedo bomber unit in the form of Oberst Martin Harlinghausen’s Kampfgeschwader 26. On 1/2 March, aircraft of this unit damaged the 2,434-ton steamer Fabritsius so severely that she was written off. The 4,629-ton oil tanker Kuybyshev was damaged on 3 March to the south of Kerch, depriving the Soviets on the peninsula of much fuel. The damaged tanker managed to reach Novorossiysk, where it was crippled by Junkers Ju 88 bombers of KG 51 on 13 March. On 18 March, Ju 88 bombers of KG 51 sank the 3,689-ton transport Georgi Dimitrov. Further damage was done on 23 March when nine of KG 51's Ju 88 bombers sank the minelayers Ostrovsky and GS-13, as well as a motor torpedo boat, in Tuapse harbour. They also damaged the submarines S-33 and D-5. In the evening of the same day, He 111 bombers of KG 27 claimed one 5,000-ton and two 2,000-ton ships sunk: Soviet records accepted the sinking of the 2,960-ton steamer V. Chapayev, with the loss of 16 crew and 86 soldiers. KG 51 returned to Tuapse on 24 March and sank the transports Yalta and Neva. On 2 April, the Kuybyshev was intercepted and sunk. So great was the loss of shipping that Soviet land forces were ordered to cease all offensive operations and thereby conserve supplies.
In the eight-week air offensive from early in February to the end of March, the Black Sea Transport Fleet had been reduced from 43,200 tons of shipping to 27,400 tons. Six transports had been lost and six were under repair. On 17 April, the 4,125-ton steamer Svanetiya was sunk by aircraft of KG 26 while attempting to supply Sevastopol. Some 535 men were lost. On 19 April, the tanker I. Stalin was damaged, together with three other transports. On 21 April, KG 55's bombers damaged the minesweeper Komintern and sank a transport ship. By this time the Black Sea Fleet’s ability to supply the Soviet forces in Sevastopol had been severely curtailed.
All this paved the way for the German 'Trappenjagd' offensive, which began on 8 May.