Novorossiysk Defensive Operation

The 'Novorossiysk Defensive Operation' was the Soviet fourth of the seven sub-operations together constituting the 'North Caucasian Strategic Defensive Operation' (19 August/26 September 1942).

The other 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 'Nalckik-Ordzhonikidze Defensive Operation' (25 October/12 November).

The undertaking involved Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Semyon K. Budyonny’s North Caucasus Front, in co-operation with the forces of the Black Sea Fleet and the Azov Military Flotilla, against forces of Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm List’s Heeresgruppe 'A' in the waning days of the latter’s 'Edelweiss' advance into the Caucasus with the primary object of taking its oil fields.

As the Soviets were thwarting the German plan to take command of the Caucasus region, the Germans decided to seize Novorossiysk, on the north-east coast of the Black Sea in the southern area of the Kuban and then to launch an offensive along the eastern coast of the Black Sea toward Batumi close to the USSR’s border with Turkey. Generaloberst Richard Ruoff’s 17th Army was the formation allocated this task using General Wilhelm Wetzel’s V Cops and one cavalry corps of General de corp de armatâ Petre Dumitrescu’s Romanian 3rd Army, supplemented during the curse of the operation by three infantry divisions of Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein’s 11th Army transferred across the Strait of Kerch at the eastern end of Crimea. At the same time, General Rudolf Konrad’s XLIX Gebirgskorps, also a component of the 17th Army, was to advance from the Cherkessk region farther to the south-west through the passes of the Caucasus mountain range to take Sukhumi on the south-eastern coast of the Black Sea.

In an effort to create a combined but effective land and sea force for the defence of Novorossiysk and Taman, on 17 August the Soviets created the Novorossiysk Defensive Region, which was under the overall command of General Polkovnik Yakov T. Cherevichenko’s Maritime Operational Group of the North Caucasus Front. The Novorossiysk Defensive Region comprised General Major Grigori P. Kotov’s 47th Army, the 216th Division of General Major Aleksandr I. Ryzhov’s 56th Army, the Azov Military Flotilla, the Temryuk, Kerch and Novorossiysk naval bases and a combined air group (237th Air Division and units of the Black Sea Fleet Air Force). This local grouping was under the overall command of Kotov with Kontr Admiral Sergei G. Gorshkov, the commander of the Azov Military Flotilla, as as his deputy for naval matters. The Novorossiysk Defensive Region was tasked with preventing the Axis forces from breaking through to Novorossiysk by either or both land and sea: the land element was to be the responsibility of the 47th Army in conjunction with naval infantry units, while the defence of the bases from the sea was assigned to coastal artillery, warships operating from the naval bases, and air power.

Measures were implemented in an effort to create and improve a solid defensive capability, but by the middle of August the Soviet readiness was assessed as being only 20% of what was required. The forces of the Novorossiysk Defensive Region, which had been weakened in earlier fighting, were outnumbered 7/12 in artillery and mortars, 4/1 in infantry and 2/1 in tanks and aircraft.

On 17 August, as the 17th Army reached Krymsk, halfway between the Kuban area and Novorossiysk, List ordered the implementation of his earlier warning to implement the reorganisation of his army group on the following day. The 17th Army now became responsible for operations in the entire region to the west of Mt Elbrus, the highest point of the Caucasus mountains, and was allocated three interim missions. One was to complete the advance to and seizure of Novorossiysk with its original forces, another was to thrust along the road running to the south-west out of Maykop to Tuapse with the two corps it had just taken over from Generaloberst Ewald von Kleist’s 1st Panzerarmee, and the last was to push General Rudolf Konrad’s XXXIX Gebirgskorps south-westward through the passes on the Caucasus mountains and down the southern slopes of these mountains to Sukhumi on the eastern shore of the Black sea between Novorossiysk and Batumi. The 1st Panzerarmee, which had General Leo Freiherr Geyr von Schweppenburg’s XL Panzerkorps approaching the Terek river and General Eberhard von Mackensen’s III Panzerkorps moving from the north-west, had as its next tasks the crossing of the Terek river, the capture of Ordzhonikidze and Grozny, and the opening of the Grusinian Military Road for German use.

None of the missions looked impossible or even very difficult. The 17th Army had 25 miles (40 km) to cover in order to reach Novorossiysk and about the same distance to advance to reach Tuapse. The approach to Sukhumi depended on which of the numerous passes was used. List and Generaloberst Richard Ruoff, the commander of the 4th Panzerarmee, preferred the Klukhorsky pass, which is about 50 miles (80 km) to the north-east of Sukhumi and required a substantial bend to the east but offered a route that could be used by motor vehicles over most of its length, while the others were usable by only men and pack animals. The 1st Panzerarmee's vanguard was nearing the Terek river, and was thus some 65 miles (105 km) from Ordzhonikidze and 90 miles (145 km) from Grozny.

The tempo of the German advances was changing, however: by 18 August, the days of 35-mile (55-km) advances were long gone, and 5 miles (8 km) per day, or less, was now typical; and thereafter, local gains of 1 or 2 miles (1.6 or 3.2 km) per day were starting to seem significant, most especially in the area of the 17th Army.

The V Corps had reached Krymsk on 17 January and was still fighting there on 20 August. General Friedrich Kirchner’s LVII Panzerkorps and General Friedrich-Wilhelm Müller’s XXXIV Corps were completely tied down in evenly matched battles in the Caucasus mountains to the south and west of Maykop. Konrad’s XLIX Gebirgskorps was in the Sancharo pass to the north-east of Sukhumi and through the Klukhorsky pass, but its progress was slowing. The 1st Panzerarmee, which was suffering from a constant shortage of fuel, reached Mozdok on the northern bank of the Terek river on 24 August and was then faced with the need to cross the fast-flowing river which, the Germans appreciated, would be held strongly by the Soviets as it was the last natural line forward of Grozny and Makhachkala.

Although they were to some extent still retreating everywhere, the Soviet forces were beginning to benefit from being pushed into shorter lines, especially as these crossed area which were almost ideal for defensive purposes. The North Caucasus Front had the 47th Army and 56th Army around Novorossiysk, and the 12th Army and 18th Army to the north and east of Tuapse. The Northern Operational Group of General Ivan V. Tyulenev’s Trans-Caucasus Front had the 37th Army, 9th Army and 44th Army along the line of the Terek river and the 58th Army was being raised at Makhachkala.

On the other side of the front, however, Heeresgruppe 'A' was steadily being reduced to the status of an also-ran. As General Franz Haider, chief of the Oberkommando des Heeres’s staff, noted in his diary, 'the ''tempo'' of the army group’s operations was having to be permitted to decline to cope with demands in other sectors.' Generalleutnant Walter Hörnlein’s Infanteriedivision 'Grossdeutschland' and Generalleutnant Wilhelm von Apell’s 22nd Panzerdivision had been withdrawn from Heeresgruppe 'A' in the second week of August, the former for redeployment to the western theatre via a short time with Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge’s Heeresgruppe 'Mitte' and the latter to join General Friedrich Paulus’s 6th Army. By the time these two divisions had departed, the army group had also been warned that it was also to lose one Flak division and two rocket-launcher regiments. Generale di Corpo d’Armata Gabriele Nasci’s Corpo d’Armata Alpino, with Generale di Brigata Luigi Reverberi’s 2a Divisione alpina 'Tridentina', Generale di Divisione Emilio Battisti’s 4a Divisione alpina 'Cuneense' and Generale di Brigata Umberto Ricagno’s 3a Divisione alpina 'Julia' made a brief appearance in the area of Heeresgruppe 'A' in the middle of the month being being diverted to Generale d’Armata Italo Garibaldi’s Italian 8th Army before ever reaching the front line. Generaloberst Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen, commander of Luftflotte IV providing air support for Heeresgruppe 'A' and Heeresgruppe 'B', informed List on 20 August that he had been instructed to switch all but a very few of his warplanes to the attack on Stalingrad: this was admittedly 'regrettable', von Richthofen added, but the order had come from Adolf Hitler and he believed that the warplanes could be back in 'six to ten days'. Two days later, Hitler, who had become concerned that the Soviets were grouping a major force to the west of Astrakhan, ordered List to place Generalleutnant Sigfrid Henrici’s 16th Division (mot.) at Elista on the extreme left flank of the 1st Panzerarmee: to provide the fuel for the movement of this division the distance of 150 miles (240 km) from Voroshilovsk to Elista, von Kleist had to order the drainage of one Panzer division’s tanks.

On 24 August, List travelled to Armavir to discuss the current state of affairs with Ruoff, Konrad and Generalmajor Ernst-Felix Faeckenstedt, who was von Kleist’s chief-of-staff. List later submitted a summary to the Oberkommando des Heeres, in this saying that his army group’s operations had 'lost their fluidity' and that the Germans forces' shortage of fuel and their losses in manpower and air support had provided the Soviets with the opportunity to dig in and bring up reserves. Thus, List continued. the 'whole progress of the fighting' was being retarded, which in view of the long distances and advanced season was 'a cause for serious thought'. The extent of this slowing became clearer on the following day, when the 1st Panzerarmee had to abandon its attempt to reach Grozny by way of Ordzhonikidze 'because it did not have enough fuel for the tanks', and thus had to start regrouping for a frontal attack across the Terek river via Mozdok.

Two days later, List revisited the subjects he had raised with the Oberkommando des Heeres. When it crossed the Kuban river, he said, the army group had anticipated that the 17th Army would control of the Black Sea coast and the 1st Panzerarmee would be on the shore of the Caspian Sea by the end of September but, for the reasons given earlier, operations so far had taken more than the time 'justifiably allotted to them'. Consequently, unless they could still reach the objectives, which would take substantial reinforcement and air support, the army group would soon have to be permitted to take up winter positions. 'Unfortunately,' List added, the time for doing that was almost at hand as far as the XLIX Gebirgskorps was concerned as there had already been several severe falls of snow at higher altitude, and the decision could not be delayed past 15 September.

List’s words did have an effect, but not in the way he had intended. He did not receive any hint about reinforcement, and when Generalleutnant Hans von Greiffenberg, the army group’s chief-of-staff, sought to establish when the army group could expect the restoration of air support, he was told the aircraft would return 'when Stalingrad is taken or given up as impossible'. In his situation conference on 29 August, however, Hitler made 'very irritated remarks' about the conduct of operations by Heeresgruppe 'A' and then told List to report in person. The problem, Hitler insisted, lay not with the original plan but with the fact that List had not regrouped when he saw difficulties developing. Halder later told List that Hitler had also raised several specific complaints including, for example, that he had heard through the air force that the terrain to the north of Novorossiysk was 'comparable to the Grunewald', which was a park-like wood outside Berlin, and therefore believed that a 'vigorous attack' ought to take it easily. He also thought that General der Artillerie Maximilian de Angelis’s XLIV Corps had failed to concentrate its forces sufficiently for the attack on Tuapse, and that Konrad’s XLIX Gebirgskorps ought not to have gone into the eastern mountain crossings, the Sancharo and Klukhorsky passes, but should have confined itself to those farther to the west.

When List arrived at Hitler’s headquarters on 31 August, his reception was altogether different from that which he had been led to expect. The 17th Army had recently made some progress toward Novorossiysk, and List had begun to strengthen the forces on the approaches to Novorossiysk. Hitler’s mood was so good and the atmosphere so relaxed that later it was difficult to determine what, if anything, had been decided. Hitler told List he really had no objections to the manner in which Heeresgruppe 'A' had deployed its forces, though he would 'rather have had the Gebirgskorps somewhat closer to the Tuapse road.' Hitler apparently believed that List, who had brought with him aerial photographs from which to show why the mountain corps ought to be brought to a halt, had undertaken to keep the corps going and to shift its main effort to the west. List, on the other hand, apparently believed Hitler had agreed to let the mountain corps' future operations be contingent on whether or not the army group could find an airfield allowing air supply operations. The Oberkommando der Wehrmacht records did establish the meeting’s one decisive result, namely that Hitler authorised 'Blücher II', the amphibious attack across the Strait of Kerch into the Kuban area as this would eliminate a pocket of Soviet troops holding out against the Romanian 3rd Army on the Taman peninsula and would bring across from Crimea one German infantry division and one Romanian mountain division. Blücher II' was executed on 2 September, and clearly Hitler believed that he had diverted sufficient aircraft from Stalingrad to support the landing and ward off the Soviet Black Sea Fleet. On the same day the 1st Panzerarmee established a bridgehead across the Trek river at Mozdok, and on 6 September the 17th Army broke into Novorossiysk, taking the city’s centre and the naval base. List then wanted to concentrate on the effort against Tuapse and commit the whole of the XLIX Gebirgskorps, less light forces left as security in the mountains, for this task, but Hitler insisted on the continuance of advances both toward Tuapse and through the western passes toward Sukhumi.

On 7 September General Alfred Jodl, the chief of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht’s operations staff and an officer ho seldom left Hitler’s headquarters unless the German leader did so, went to the command post of Heeresgruppe 'A' at Stalino on an urgent request from List. With Konrad, the commander of the XLIX Gebirgskorps, present, List used aerial photographs and captured Soviet maps to show Halder what continuing the mountain corps' operation in the manner ordained by Hitler, would entail a long march over a single mountain trail, the need to transport all supplies by pack animals of which the corps had 1,900 fewer than was necessary, and exposure to attacks on both flanks. Jodi returned to Hitler’s headquarters with a 'unanimous' recommendation against continuing the mountain corps' operation.

Hitler issued no new orders to List, confining himself to the opinion that if List was convinced he could not get the mountain corps through to the coast, then he should 'leave it go'.

During the afternoon of 9 September, Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel, the chief of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht’s staff, obeyed Hitler’s instruction and called on Halder to inform him that List ought to resign his command and to 'imply' changes in other high positions, including those of Halder and Jodi. Keitel later told Jodl’s deputy, General Walter Warlimont, whose status also was in doubt, that he too expected to be relieved. The morning after he talked to Halder, Keitel had a meeting with List at the latter’s headquarters, and List thereupon resigned his position.

As far as can be told from the records of Heeresgruppe 'A', the whole unfortunate matter was the result of how best to deploy a single mountain corps. Warlimont recalled later that Hitler had also accused List of having consistently not followed orders while Jodl, who would have been responsible for detecting any such lapses, had maintained that List had executed all of the orders given to him most scrupulously. According to Warlimont, Jodl believed and regretted that he had placed Hitler in the position of either doing what he did or of taking the blame himself for the errors imputed to List.

The atmosphere of the situation conference at Hitler’s headquarters on 11 September was, as Halder described it, 'icy'. Generally the man who generally did most of the talking, Hitler on this occasion said barely a word. For the next two weeks, the German leader transacted very little business through either the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht or the Oberkommando des Heeres. Moreover, Hitler did not name a successor to List. Instead, he ordered Ruoff and von Kleist to submit to him, every other day, situation reports and maps detailed down to battalion level, and that tactical proposals and requests be sent to him by telegraph through the Oberkommando des Heeres. In effect, therefore, Hitler had assumed personal command of the armies and left the headquarters of Heeresgruppe 'A' in the position merely of housekeeper.

Meanwhile, the problems of combat in the Caucasus had also resulted in command changes on the Soviet side, though these were not of the same significance as Hitler’s root and branch revisions. On 1 September, as the Germans were approaching Novorossiysk, Budyonny, had been relieved as commander of the North Caucasus Front, which was disestablished. Budyonny’s replacement was Cherevichenko, took over the deleted front’s staff and armies as head of the Black Sea Group of the Trans-Caucasus Front.

For the first time in the summer of 1942, it seemed that the balance at the southern end of the Eastern Front was evenly balanced, but the stakes were still far from even. Hitler had come to the point of having to contemplate at least a major disappointment and possibly even a massive failure. What confronted the USSR, however, was no less than a national catastrophe. On 6 September, Moscow Radio broadcasted the following appeal from Stalin to the forces of the southern flank:
'The enemy is slowly advancing toward the ancient Russian river, the Volga, and the riches of the Caucasus. Our existence depends on the outcomes of the battles now being fought. Not a step back! Stand to the death! This is the summons of our country. The fate of the Fatherland, the future of our families, and the destinies of our children lie in our hands.'

Heeresgruppe 'B' published the appeal to the men of the 6th Army and 4th Panzerarmee as evidence of that the Soviets were desperate, but Heeresgruppe 'A' let Stalin’s exhortation pass in silence, possibly because it considered the interpretation of Stalin’s words by von Kleist’s and Ruoff’s troops to be uncertain. On 11 September, the slowly advancing 17th Army came to a halt at the wall of a cement factory on the Novorossiysk’s southern outskirts: the front was to remain in this exact spot for the next 360 days until the Germans withdrew entirely from the Kuban area. During the morning of 14 September, the X Guards Corps struck at the 1st Panzerarmee's exposed left flank in the area to the north of the Terek river and came close to cutting off the German bridgehead at Mozdok.

In the middle of September, the 1st Panzerarmee and 17th Army each needed either to complete their missions as rapidly as possible or to find positions in which they could survive the winter, and both the armies were at a standstill. The 1st Panzerarmee had to secure its flank and clear the Soviets from the the bend of the Terek river in the area to the west of Mozdok in order to give itself a solid hold on the river before heading toward Ordzhonikidze and Grozny. Hitler was sending SS-Obergruppenführer Felix Steiner’s SS Division 'Wiking' from the 17th Army to give the 1st Panzerarmee some additional strength when von Kleist began to move once more. The 17th Army was bringing two mountain regiments to the west out of the Caucasus mountain passes and preparing to pour its main effort into an advance on Tuapse when, and indeed if, it could be assured of sufficient air support to start.

In a report to Hitler on 16 September, via the Oberkommando des Heeres, von Kleist said that 'in the gigantic fields of sunflowers and corn and in the ravines and the nooks and crannies of the mountains', the infantry he had would be only barely sufficient' to keep on fighting until the SS division arrived. Two days later, however, General Eugen Ott’s LII Corps made a limited push against the west face of the Mozdok bridgehead and found itself passing through the lines of Soviet fortifications. The next eight days were almost like those of the time early in August, for along the valleys and on the ridges inside the bend of the Terek river at every point the Germans attacked the Soviets gave way. On 21 September, von Kleist decided to commit the SS Division 'Wiking' immediately after its arrival and then to strike to the south toward Ordzhonikidze with Generalleutnant Hermann Balck’s 13th Panzerdivision pushing along the western bank of the Terek river through the Elkhotovo 'gate' and the SS Division 'Wiking' and Generalleutnant Hermann Recknagel’s 111th Division advancing toward Malgobek and to the south along the northern extension of the Grusinian Military Road.

The SS division crossed the Terek river after dark on 26 September and moved into the line to the north of Malgobek during the same night. To Steiner, von Kleist sent the message that 'All eyes are on your division. The whole operation depends on its being unsparingly committed.' The SS division went into action in the course of the next morning and 36 hours had advanced to within 1 mile (1.6 km) of Malgobek, when came to a halt before reaching the heights to the south from which it might have achieved a breakthrough. By that time, the 13th Panzerdivision had reached Elkhotovo and also stopped. von Kleist believed the SS division had the strength, in men and weapons, to have covered the 35 miles (55 km) to Ordzhonikidze but lacked adequate internal cohesion as it possessed almost 2,000 non-German troops, half of them Dutch and the other half Belgian as well as a leavening of a few Swiss and Scandinavian men.

On 3 October, through the Oberkommando des Heeres, von Kleist asked 'to be informed when and in what strength the army can expect to get reinforcements to continue the advance to Makhachkala via Ordzhonikidze and Grozny'. One week later, after repeated inconclusive responses from the Oberkommando des Heeres, Hitler answered that depending on developments at Stalingrad, the army would get either one or two mobile divisions later in the month, and up to that time the 1st Panzerarmee's task was to 'create the best possible conditions for an advance after the reinforcements arrive'.

While 1st Panzerarmee was manoeuvring in the bend of the Terek river, the 17th Army started its advance on Tuapse along the road linking Maykop and Tuapse on 23 September with Kirchner’s LVII Panzerkorps, and two days later with Müller 's XXXIV Corps. The offensive had a straight-line distance of about 30 miles (50 km) to cover, but on the ground, across the western end of the main Caucasus mountain range, the distance was somewhat longer. Some 20 miles (32 km) from Tuapse, Shaumyan was the Germans' first objective, and from there the advance would be more downhill than uphill. The mountain regiments Generalmajor Hubert Lanz’s 1st Gebirgsdivision were on the Germans' eastern flank, where the distance to be covered was greater and the terrain the the most difficult. von Richthofen provided air support that was adequate though not lavish: Ruoff had insisted that he could not start without this air support. The Soviet main force opposing the Germans in this effort was General Leytenant Fyedor V. Kamkov’s 18th Army.

The advance on Tuapse was slow from its very beginning. Without the benefit of Soviet lapses such as had occurred in the Terek river bridgehead, momentum was hard to generate and lost rapidly. The Soviets forces were dug in everywhere, and squad and platoon actions were the rule. The weather was appalling: it was late in the summer, and in the valleys there were very heavy downpours of rain and in the mountains near-winter conditions. On the sixth day, Ruoff reported that the experienced troops, having been on the march for more than two months, were either casualties or had been exhausted, and that the replacements were undertrained and not sufficiently seasoned. 'What is missing,' he said, 'is the old, battle-tested private first class whom nothing can shake.' After another 10 days, the battle was approaching Shaumyan, and Ruoff thought the defence might be weakening as there had been no Soviet counterattacks in the past couple of days despite the fact that Shaumyan was now under direct threat.

On 10 October, at the same time that he told von Kleist to await reinforcement, Hitler ordered Ruoff to 'drive toward Tuapse forthwith' after taking Shaumyan. On 11 October, the Stavka replaced Cherevichenko as commander of the Black Sea Group with Petrov. Ruoff said he proposed to do as Hitler had ordered, but reminded Heeresgruppe 'A' and the Oberkommando des Heeres that the Tuapse operation had cost him 10,000 casualties by this date.