North Caucasian Strategic Offensive Operation

The 'North Caucasian Strategic Offensive Operation' was the Soviet successor to the 'North Caucasian Strategic Defensive Operation' and was designed to drive the Germans and their allies from the regions they had taken in the course of 'Edelweiss' (1 January/4 February 1943).

This strategic offensive took the form of four sub-operations, namely the 'Salsk-Rostov Offensive Operation' (1 January/4 February), the 'Mozdok-Stavropol Offensive Operation' (1/24 January), the 'Novorossiysk-Maykop Offensive Operation (11 January/4 February) and the 'Tikhoretsk-Eisk Offensive Operation' (24 January/4 February).

Key dates in this Soviet campaign were 3 January when the Soviets retook Mozdok, 21 January when the Soviets retook Stavropol, 23 January when the Soviets retook Armavir, 29 January when the Soviets retook Maykop, 4 February when Soviet marines repelled a German attempt to land at Malaya Zemlya, an island fort that controlled access to the port at Novorossiysk, 12 February when the Soviets retook Krasnodar, and 16 February when the Soviets retook Rostov-na-Donu.

On 1 January, the ground forces of General Ivan V. Tyulenev’s Trans-Caucasus Front comprised the 9th Army, 18th Army, 37th Army, 44th Army, 46th Army, 47th Army, 56th Army, 58th Army, IV Kuban Cossack Guards Cavalry Corps and V Don Cossack Guards Cavalry Corps, and air support for these forces was provided by the 4th Air Army and 5th Air Army. The armies were divided into General (from 30 January General Polkovnik Ivan I. Maslennikov’s Northern Group of Forces in the area of Grozny and Ordzhonikidze, and General Leytenant Ivan Ye. Petrov’s Black Sea Group of Forces along the Soviet-held eastern coast of the Black Sea to point ending just short of Novorossiysk. On 24 January, the Northern Group of Forces was transformed into the North Caucasus Front under Maslennikov’s command, and on 6 February the Black Sea Group of Forces was integrated into the North Caucasus Front, after which the 45th Army, XIII Corps, XV Cavalry Corps and 75th Division remained to the Transcaucasus Front.

To the north of these force was General Polkovnik Andrei I. Eremenko’s South Front, which on 1 January comprised the 28th Army, 51st Army, 5th Shock Army and 2nd Guards Army, and air support for these forces was provided by the 8th Air Army.

Maslennikov’s North Caucasus Front, which was commanded from 13 May by Petrov, who had been its chief-of-staff from 16 March, had been formed, as noted above, on 24 January from the Northern Group of Forces. The front had under its command the 9th Army, 37th Army, 44th Army, IV Kuban Cossack Guards Cavalry Corps, V Don Cossack Guards Cavalry Corps and the 4th Air Army, but on 6 February the 44th Army was transferred to the South Front.

Naval power was important in the western area of the Caucasus region bordering on the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, where the important ports of Novorossiysk and Yeysk were in German hands. The maritime and naval infantry forces of the area were under the command of Vitse Admiral Filipp S. Oktyabrsky’s Black Sea Fleet, and included Kontr Admiral Sergei G. Gorshkov’s Azov Naval Flotilla. The Black Sea Fleet at this time comprised one battleship, four cruisers, one flotilla leader, seven destroyers, 29 submarines, 69 motor torpedo boats, and a number of other small craft. The supporting Air Force of the Black Sea Fleet included 248 aircraft.

Facing these Soviet forces and seeking to maintain their hold on the Caucasus were the German-led forces of Generalfeldmarschall Ewald von Kleist’s Heeresgruppe 'A', namely Generaloberst Richard Ruoff’s 17th Army in the west and Generaloberst Eberhard von Mackensen’s 1st Panzerarmee in the east. These two armies had a total strength of 32 infantry, three Panzer and three motorised divisions, and air support was the task of Generaloberst Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen’s Luftflotte IV, which included 900 aircraft. On 1 February 1943 the 1st Panzerarmee had avoided encirclement and left the Kuban region to the south of the Sea of Azov to become part of Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein’s Heeresgruppe 'Don' farther to the north, and no longer took part in the battles for Kuban.

The combined German, Romanian and Italian naval forces in the Black Sea comprised one auxiliary cruiser, seven destroyers and torpedo boats, 12 submarines, 18 motor torpedo boats and a significant number of smaller craft.

By the beginning of 1943, the strategic situation in the Caucasian sector of the Eastern Front was deemed by the Soviets to be favourable for the encirclement and complete destruction of a major German grouping in the northern Caucasus. The South Front, which up to 1 January had been the Stalingrad Front, as a consequence of the situation in Stalingrad, where Generaloberst Friedrich Paulus’s 6th Army was now trapped and facing annihilation, by the beginning of 1943 had reached the line between Loznoy and Priyutnoye. Here the Soviet front posed a very real threat to the rear of the German forces in the Caucasus and, appreciating this unfortunate fact, Adolf Hitler was forced to allow Heeresgruppe 'A' to prepare for a withdrawal on the condition that in so doing it did not weaken its ability to resist further Soviet advance. The concept now developed by the Soviet high command was to dismember and destroy the main forces of Heeresgruppe 'A' by a pair of co-ordinated attacks by the South Front to the west into northern Kuban, and by the Trans-Caucasus Front to the north-west into Kuban to prevent the formations of Heeresgruppe 'A' from any withdrawal from the northern Caucasus.

On 1 January, the South Front launched its part of the 'North Caucasian Strategic Offensive Operation' to the west and south-west in the direction of Rostov-na-Donu at the mouth of Don river on the Sea of Azov, and Salsk just to the south of the Manych river. Seeking to avoid encirclement, the 1st Panzerarmee, under the cover of strong rear guards, began to withdraw to the north-west, along the line of the railway linking Mozdok and points farther to the south-east, and Armavir and Rostov-na-Donu, in the direction of Nevinomyssk, on the Kuban river, and Stavropol.

Farther to the south, on 3 January the 44th Army, 9th Army, 37th Army, IV Guards Kuban Cossack Cavalry Corps, V Guards Don Cossack Cavalry Corps and 4th Air Army of the Northern Group of Forces went over to the offensive. Completing a small but useful pincer movement, the 58th Army from the south-west and the 48th Army from the south-east captured Mozdok and, together with the other formations of the Northern Group of Forces, began to pursue the Germans along the entire 200-mile (320-km) width of the front with the two guards cavalry corps on the right in the more open terrain between the Terek and Kuma rivers, and the infantry armies of the left to cross the Terek river farther upstream and advance on Pyatigorsk. However, the German formations were able to employ their greater experience and still-superior tactical skills to effect a relatively clean break from the Soviet troops. This was facilitated by the fact that the Soviet pursuit began only after a two-day delay and was then prosecuted without any great determination and with poor co-ordination: the latter meant that co-operation was disrupted, and many units became intermingled to the detriment of command and control. In three days, the Northern Group of Forces advanced only between 15.5 and 37.25 miles (25 and 60 km) in some sectors. Developing their pursuit, the formations of the Northern Group of Forces, benefitting from improved support by the 4th Air Army, had liberated Georgiyevsk, Mineralnye Vody, Pyatigorsk and Kislovodsk by the middle of January .

Largely as a result of the relatively poor performance of the Soviet forces in the 'North Caucasian Strategic Offensive Operation', the Germans completed a well-organised retreat to their fortified defensive line along the Kuma and Zolka rivers, where from 8 to 10 January the Northern Group of Forces had no alternative to the conduct of stubborn combat, and it was only on 21 January that the 44th Army, with the support of partisans, liberated Stavropol. On 23 January, a mechanised cavalry group reached the area of Salsk after a dash of 125 miles (200 km), and linked with elements of the South Front’s 28th Army advancing from the east. On 24 January, the Northern Group of Forces was redesignated as the North Caucasian Front and was allotted a slightly revised task: the right-wing forces (44th Army, 58th Army and the mechanised cavalry group) were to develop an attack toward Tikhoretsk and Kushchevskaya, bring to battle and defeat the retreating elements of the 1st Panzerarmee and, in co-operation with formations of the South Front, capture Bataysk (across the Don river from Rostov-na-Donu), Rostov-na-Donu and the south-eastern coast of the Sea of Azov as far to the west as Yeysk.

Seeking to avoid the encirclement of their forces, the Germans threw parts of Generaloberst Hermann Hoth’s 4th Panzerarmee of Heeresgruppe 'Don' against the South Front, which lacked the strength to overcome the stronger German resistance and complete the task of encircling substantial German forces.

Meanwhile, the North Caucasus Front’s 37th Army, had advanced from an area just to the north-east of Mt Elbruz and, overcoming stubborn German resistance, began to outflank Ust Labinsk and Krasnodar from the north-west after reaching Kropotkin eve and these two towns were being pressed from the south by the Black Sea Group of Forces' 56th Army, 18th Army and 46th Army, and by 4 February had reached a line some 18.67 and 25 miles (30 and 40 km) to the north-east of Krasnodar in the areas of Razdolnaya and Voronezh. Element of the North Caucasus Front also closed on the south-eastern coast of the Sea of ​​Azov in the areas of Novobataysk, Yeysk and Yasenka.

The Black Sea Group of Forces (46th Army, 18th Army, 47th Army, 56th Army and 5th Air Force) had earlier failed to regroup in time to go over to the offensive against the 17th Army as scheduled on 11/12 January 12 in the area to the north and south of Tuapse on the Black Sea coast. On the Black Sea Group of Forces' southern flank, the 46th Army and 18th Army belatedly launched strike groups toward Maykop and Ust Labinsk, but the 17th Army was initially able to repel these attacks. Farther to the north-west, the 56th Army’s offensive developed more successfully: in seven days it broke through the German defences in the area of Goryachy Klyuch and, having advanced 18.67 miles (30 km), reached the near approaches to Krasnodar.

In order to prevent the evacuation of German troops from Kuban across the Strait of Kerch to Crimea, the Soviet supreme command ordered the Black Sea Group of Forces to seize Novorossiysk with its main forces as part of the liberation of the Taman peninsula, and to advance into the Krasnodar region with its right-flank formations. Maykop was liberated on on 29 January, and by 4 February elements of the Black Sea Group of Forces had reached the line of the Kuban river and the area of Ust Labinsk.

The 'North Caucasian Strategic Offensive Operation' is deemed to have ended at this point. In overall terms, the Germans had succeeded in avoiding encirclement as they retreated into the western part of the Krasnodar region and the area to the north of Rostov-na-Donu. Despite this, however, the result of the 'North Caucasian Strategic Offensive Operation' was of great strategic significance for the Soviets as it had forced the Germans not only to yield large parts of the Caucasus, but also to forget the thinking of the German high command about any further offensive undertakings in the Caucasus.

The end of the 'North Caucasian Strategic Operation' was followed by the 'Krasnodar Offensive Operation' (9 February/24 May 1943), the 'Kuban Air Offensive Operation' (April/June 1943), the 'Novorossiysk Landing Operation' (10/16 September 1943) and the 'Novorossiysk-Taman Strategic Offensive Operation' (9 September/9 October 1943) before the Germans finally abandoned their efforts to hold the Caucasus and Kuban with the 'Krimhilde' evacuation of the 217th Army to Crimea.