North Caucasian Strategic Defensive Operation

A major element of the Battle of the Caucasus, the 'North Caucasian Strategic Defensive Operation' was the Soviet undertaking comprising seven sub-operations for the defence of the north-western area of the Caucasus region against the German 'Edelweiss' offensive within the German summer offensive of 1942 (25 July/31 December 1942).

The seven sub-operations were the 'Tikhoretsk-Stavropol Defensive Operation' (25 July/5 August), the 'Armavir-Maykop Defensive Operation' (6/17 August), the 'Krasnodar Defensive Operation' (7/14 August), the 'Novorossiysk Defensive Operation' (19 August/26 September), the 'Mozdok-Malgobek Defensive Operation' (1/28 September), the 'Tuapse Defensive Operation' (25 September/20 December) and the 'Nalchik-Ordzhonikidze Defensive Operation' (25 October/12 November).

On 25 July, the Germans captured Rostov-na-Donu, near the mouth of the Don river, and thereby opened the way for an advance into the Caucasus region of the southern USSR, and with it the rich oil fields beyond at Maykop, Grozny, and ultimately Baku. Two days earlier, Adolf Hitler had issued a directive to launch such an operation as 'Edelweiss' into the Caucasus region, and the resulting campaign lasted into the winter, when the Soviet launch of the 'Malen’kii Saturn' threatened to cut off the Germans forces.

'Edelweiss' was the German plan to gain control of the Caucasus region and capture the region’s oil fields, especially those of Baku. Authorised by Hitler on 23 July, the operation was based on Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm List’s Heeresgruppe 'A', which comprised Generaloberst Ewald von Kleist’s 1st Panzerarmee, Generaloberst Hermann Hoth’s 4th Panzerarmee, Generaloberst Richard Ruoff’s 17th Army and General de armatā Petre Dumitrescu’s Romanian 3rd Army, with air support by part of Generaloberst Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen’s Luftflotte IV. Heeresgruppe 'A' was supported to the east by Generalfeldmarschall Maximilian Freiherr von Weichs’s Heeresgruppe 'B', and the Axis land forces totalled something in the order of 167,000 men, 1,130 tanks and 4,540 pieces of artillery. Also committed were some 15,000 oil industry workers to bring captured Soviet oil facilities back into production.

Several German oil companies had been awarded an exclusive 99-year lease to exploit the Caucasian oil fields. For this purpose, a large number of pipes, which later proved useful to the Soviet oil industry, were delivered. A special economic inspection organisation, led by Generalleutnant Nidenfuhr, was created, and bombing of the oil fields was forbidden. To prevent the oil fields' destruction Soviet units under the command of Nikolai Baibakov and Marshal Sovetskogo Semyon K. Semyon Budyonny, an SS guard regiment and a Cossack regiment were formed, and the Abwehr intelligence service planned 'Schamil' to land special forces to seize major installations in coup-de-main operations and hold them until relief with the aid of local fifth-column elements.

After neutralising the Soviet counter-offensive (the 'Izyum-Barvenkovo Offensive Operation'), Heeresgruppe 'A' attacked toward the Caucasus. With the fall of Rostov-na-Donu on 23 July, the armoured formations commanded by von Kleist moved toward the Caucasian mountain range. The 'Edelweiss' forward commander, Generalleutnant Hubert Lanz, decided to advance through the river gorges of the Kuban river basin and by crossing the Marukhsky pass near the Maly Zelenchuk river, Teberda and Uchkulan reach the Klukhorsky pass, and simultaneously to advance through the Khotyu-tau pass and block the upper reaches of the Baksan river, and the Donguz-Orun and Becho passes.

Concurrently with the outflanking manoeuvres, the Caucasian mountain range was to be crossed through passes such as Sancharo, Klukhorsky and Marukhsky, for the Axis forces to reach Kutaisi, Zugdidi, Sukhumi and Tbilisi. The units of Generalleutnant Karl Eglseer’s 4th Gebirgsdivision were notably active in this thrust, and succeeded in advancing 18.5 miles (30 km) Sukhumi. To attack from the Kuban region, capture the passes that led to Mt Elbrus, and cover the flank of 'Edelweiss', a vanguard detachment of 150 men commanded by Hauptmann Heinz Groth, was formed:advancing from the Old Karachay through the Khurzuk aul and the Ullu-kam gorge, the detachment reached the Khotyu-tau pass, which had not been defended by the Soviet troops.

The starting point of the operation on the line linking Krasnodar, Pyatigorsk and Maykop was reached on 10 August. On 16 August one battalion made a feint and reached the Kadar river gorge. On 21 August units of troops of Lanz’s 1st Gebirgsdivision planted the German flag on the summit of Mt Elbrus, the highest peak in the Caucasus and Europe.

Key dates in the 'North Caucasian Strategic Defensive Operation' were 3 August when German troops took Stavropol, 10 August when German troops took Maykop, 12 August when German troops took Krasnodar, 25 August when German troops took Mozdok, 11 September when German and Romanian troops took Novorossiysk, and the end of September when the Axis offensive was stopped at Malgobek and Vladikavkaz.