Operation Krimhilde-Bewegung

Krimhilde movement

The 'Kriemhilde-Bewegung' was the German evacuation of Generaloberst Erwin Jaenecke’s 17th Army from its Taman peninsula beach-head in the Kuban area on the eastern side of the Strait of Kerch (9 September/9 October 1943).

This lodgement was the last remnant of the most southerly German advance in 'Blau III', when Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein’s 11th Army crossed from Kerch at the eastern tip of Crimea to the Taman peninsula in 'Blücher II' and took Taman and Novorossiysk as the western shoulder of the advance into the Caucasus by Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm List’s Heeresgruppe 'A'.

The final German beach-head had then been created by the compression of the surviving forces of Heeresgruppe 'A' into this region by the successful winter offensive of 1942/43 undertaken by General Ivan V. Tyulenev’s Trans-Caucasus Front, Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Semyon M. Budyonny’s North Caucasus Front and General Polkovnik Andrei I. Eremenko’s Stalingrad Front to eliminate the German forces in the area to the south of the Don river.

Though his generals thought that the retention of this 'Gotenkopf' lodgement was a waste of resources and also dangerously exposed, Adolf Hitler insisted that it be held at all costs as a springboard for his planned renewal of offensives into the Caucasus, whose oil and other resources he still coveted. This ambition was entirely overtaken by the Soviet summer offensive of 1943, which threatened to cut off the German forces in Crimea and Kuban. By this time Heeresgruppe 'A', now commanded by Generalfeldmarschall Ewald von Kleist, comprised only the 17th Army in the Taman peninsula and a static organisation in Crimea.

The 17th Army, which had possessed an initial strength of almost 350,000 men, had been stripped of more than 100,000 men as reinforcements for other armies, but still had 14 German and seven Romanian infantry divisions effectively locked in the 'Gotenkopf'. Commanded since July by Jaenecke in place of Generaloberst Richard Ruoff, the 17th Army was contained by General Polkovnik Ivan Ye. Petrov’s 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 finally agreed to the evacuation of the Kuban bridgehead, initially planned as 'Brunhild', only with the greatest reluctance, and had in fact delayed giving the executive order for nearly a month even after the Soviet 'Donbass Strategic Offensive Operation' on the northern side of the Sea of Azov had swept forward from the lines of the Mius and Don rivers toward the Dniepr river, threatening the German land communications with Crimea and completely outflanking the Kuban peninsula. By this time the 17th Army had pulled back through a series of prepared defensive positions into a beach-head in Kuban via the Taman peninsula in the face of a powerful breakthrough offensive by Petrov’s North Caucasus Front in the 'Novorossiysk-Taman Offensive Operation' and following 'Taman Offensive Operation'.

Accomplished by four large convoys with major Luftwaffe air cover, the 'Krimhilde-Bewegung' withdrawal began only in the second week of September, but was then carried out with great efficiency, although Soviet troops landed from the sea in the 'Novorossiysk Amphibious Operation' behind General Karl Allmendinger’s V Corps and General Rudolf Konrad’s XLIX Gebirgskorps in an attempt to pin them. The Soviet air force was also very active, but Vitse Admiral Lev A. Vladimirsky’s Black Sea Fleet remained essentially inert.

Using the ferry barges of Kapitänleutnant Max Giele’s 1st Landungs-Flottille, Fregattenkapitän Gustav Strempel’s 3rd Landungs-Flottille, Korvettenkapitän Carl Mehler’s 5th Landungs-Flottille and Korvettenkapitän Bernhard Stelter’s 7th Landungs-Flottille, as well as an assortment of Siebel ferries, engineer ferries and tugs, lighters and river tugs, all covered by the boats of Korvettenkapitän Georg-Stuhr Christiansen’s 1st Schnellsboots-Flottille and the minesweepers of Kapitänleutnant Klassmann’s 3rd Räumboots-Flottille, the Germans successfully moved 239,669 troops, 16,311 wounded men, 27,456 civilians, 115,477 tons of equipment and supplies, 21,230 vehicles, 27,741 horse-drawn vehicles, 1,815 pieces of artillery, 74 tanks, 74,657 horses and 6,255 cattle across the Strait of Kerch under the direction of Vizeadmiral Gustav Kieseritzky in his capacity as the Admiral 'Schwarzes Meer' and Kapitän Friedrich Grattenauer in his capacity as the Seekommandant 'Kaukasus'.

Landings made by Soviet light craft on the south coast and by Kontr Admiral Sergei G. Gorshkov’s Azov Flotilla on the north coast were unable to halt the German undertaking. The defence of the Strait of Kerch from attacks by Soviet ships was the responsibility of Korvettenkapitän Georg-Stuhr Christiansen’s 1st Schnellboots-Flottille, Kapitänleutnant Klassmann’s 3rd Räumboots-Flottille, and a miscellany of gunboats. There were many naval engagements with Soviet light forces, such as those of 17, 20 and 24 September. In an attack by the 1st Schnellboots-Flottille on Anapa during 26/27 September, the German craft scored hits on several transports alongside the pier.

On 30 September the Soviet destroyers Sposobnyi, Boikiy and Besposhchadnyi made an unsuccessful sortie against the German evacuation transports off the south coast of Crimea. On 18 September, off the Caucasus coast, Oberleutnant Karl Fleige’s U-18 damaged the 56-ton Soviet SKA-0132 near Tuapse, and on 20 September Kapitänleutnant Clemens Schöler’s U-20 laid mines off Sochi and on 30 September sank a lighter off Anapa.

On 22 September, to the south of Evpatoriya, the Soviet submarine S-33 missed the transport Santa Fe, which was being escorted by the Romanian destroyer Regele Ferdinand. On the same day M-51 mistakenly sank Ochemchiri, which was salvaged on 25 September and re-entered service in 1944.

The Soviets sought to exaggerate the German and Romanian withdrawal into a Soviet victory, claiming the defeat of 10 Axis divisions and the sinking of 140 vessels, but in fact the beach-head force was withdrawn without much loss. The evacuation had been completed by 9 October, but by the end of the same month Soviet troops, closely following the 17th Army, were already crossing the Strait of Kerch and disembarking on Crimea’s eastern tip.