Odessa Defensive Operation

The 'Odessa Defensive Operation' was the Soviet unsuccessful undertaking to hold the Ukrainian port city of Odessa on the north-western coast of the Black Sea (8 August/16 October 1941).

As a result of the determined initial resistance of General Major Matvei V. Zakharov’s 9th Independent Army and General Leytenant Georgi P. Sofronov’s rapidly established Independent Coastal Army, created on the basis of the Coastal Group of the 9th Independent Army, and the Black Sea Fleet forces in Odessa, it took the Romanian army 73 days of siege and four assault attempts before it succeeded in taking the city, during which it suffered almost 93,000 casualties, while the Soviets suffered between 41,000 and 60,000 casualties.

On 27 July 1941 Adolf Hitler wrote to Maresal al Romānia Ion Antonescu, the Conducător of Romania, to request further co-operation by Romanian forces to the east of the Dniestr river, and transferred to Romania the administration of the territory seized between the Dniestr and Bug rivers. Antonescu accepted the charge on 31 July, and in fact General de corp de armatā Petre Dumitrescu’s Romanian 3rd Army had already crossed the Dniestr on 17 July.

General de corp de armatā Nicolae Ciupercă's Romanian 4th Army began its advance over the river on 3 August. General de divizie Aurelian Son’s V Corps, comprising General de divizie Marin Cosma Popescu’s 15th Division and the 1st Cavalry Brigade, forced the crossing between Tighina and Dubăsari. During the night of 5 August, General de brigadā Ioan Sion’s 1st Armoured Division also joined the V Corps. On 8 August, the Romanian general staff issued a directive instructing the 4th Army to defeat the Soviet forces between the Dniestr river and the Tiligulsky Balka, and to occupy Odessa straight from the march. The Romanian high command believed that the city’s greatly outnumbered garrison would surrender quickly.

Odessa was heavily fortified, however, and as a result of the superiority of the Soviet naval forces in the area, namely Vitse Admiral Filipp S. Oktyabrsky’s Black Sea Fleet, could be isolated only on land, and could therefore be reinforced and resupplied from the sea. The Soviet defences were organised on the basis of three lines with trenches, anti-tank ditches, pillboxes and other field fortifications. The first line was 50 miles (80 km) long and situated some 15.5 to 18.5 miles (25 to 30 km) from the city. The second (and in fact main) defence line was about 18.5 miles (30 km) long and situated some 3.75 to 5 miles (6 to 8 km) from the city. The third and last defence line was located within the city. The forces which initially held the defences were the 25th, 95th and 421st Divisions, the 2nd Cavalry Division, the 54th Regiment and an NKVD regiment, with a manpower strength of 34,500 and 240 pieces of artillery. Air support was provided by the 69th Fighter Regiment, two seaplane squadrons and one bomber squadron; other fighters later joined the defence, as did one squadron of the new Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik ground-attack warplane. Bombers from Crimea and Nikolayev were also involved in the battle.

The 4th Army planned a combined manoeuvre: General de divizie Vasile Atanasiu’s III Corps (General de brigadā Ilie Steflea’s 3rd Division, General de brigadā Olymp Stavrat’s 7th Division and General de divisie Nicolae Sova’s 1st Guard Division and the 2nd Tank Regiment) was to make a frontal attack along the axis from Razdelnaya to Odessa, while Son’s V Corps (Popescu’s 15th Division and Sion’s 1st Armoured Division and the 1st Cavalry Brigade) effected a turning manoeuvre in the north toward Katargy and Bolschaya Buzhalyk before wheeling to the south. The 3rd Reconnaissance Group of Steflea’s 3rd Division advanced toward Razdelnaya and reported that this village was in flames and that Soviet troops were in occupation of the railway station. During the evening, the 1st Armoured Division and the 1st Cavalry Brigade encircled Katargy and took prisoner some 200 Soviet soldiers.

The Axis siege of Odessa was undertaken primarily by Nicolae Ciupercă's (from 14 September General de corp de armatā Iosif Iacobici’s) Romanian 4th Army and elements of Generaloberst Erich von Manstein’s German 11th Army of Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt’s Heeresgruppe 'Süd'.

The Axis strength was initially 160,000 men soon rising to 340,225 men, while the initial Soviet strength of 34,500 men also increased, although to an unspecified total.

Overall control of the Soviet defence was exercised by Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Semyon M. Budyonny’s (from September Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Semyon K. Timoshenko’s) South-Western Direction using Zakharov’s (from September General Major Fyedor M. Kharitonov’s) 9th Independent Army, soon supplemented by Sofronov’s (from 5 October General Major Ivan Ye. Petrov’s) Independent Coastal Army, and the naval forces of Oktyabrsky’s Black Sea Fleet.

On 9 August, the 4th Regiment drove back the Soviet forces in the Bakalovy area, while the 30th Regiment took the village of Ponyatovka. The 7th Division occupied the railway station at Razdelnaya and an area of higher ground to the south of the station in the face of strong Soviet resistance. On 10 August, in the sector of the III Corps, the main strength of the 7th Division reached Elssas, while the 1st Guard Division moved onto the axis from Strassburg to Petra Evdokievka. In the sector of the V Corps, the 1st Armoured Division advanced rapidly and worsted the Soviet forces at Bolschaya Buzhalyk, thereby breaking through Odessa’s first line of defence. In the evening of the same day this Romanian division reached the second line of defence in the area of Blagodatnaya and Maloye Adzhalyk. The 1st Cavalry Brigade took Severinovka and joined the 1st Armoured Division. At the same time, the 10th Regiment overran the Soviet line at Lozovaya.

Thus the 4th Army was gradually closing the ring round Odessa, but the offensive was halted temporarily on 13 August by Antonescu, who wished to strengthen the line to the west of Hadjibey Balka.

The Romanians returned to the offensive on 16 August as their forces attacked along the entire line, capturing Odessa’s water reservoirs on 17 August. The Soviet forces put up a stubborn resistance, launching repeated counterattacks, and the casualties on each side were heavy. The Romanian air force was notably active in support of the ground forces, and also disrupted Soviet naval traffic to and from Odessa as well as destroying an armoured train on 20 August. During the night of 18 August, two Romanian motor torpedo boats, Viscolul and Vijelia, attacked and damaged a Soviet destroyer in the area to the south of Odessa, and this was one of the few occasions on which the Romanian navy undertook any support for the siege of Odessa.

Despite constant attacks, by 24 August the Romanian advance had been brought to a halt in front of the Soviet main line of defence, and by this time the 4th Army had already suffered 27,307 casualties, including 5,329 men killed in action. Nevertheless, the Soviets were also weakened, and as a result of the capture of Kubanka, Romanian heavy artillery was now in a position to threaten the port of Odessa. Over the next three days, there was a lull in the fighting.

On 28 August the Romanians resumed the offensive after receiving German reinforcement in the form of one assault battalion and 10 battalions of heavy artillery. General de divizie Constantin Sanatescu’s IV Corps, Son’s XI Corps and General de divizie Teodor Ionescu’s I Corps advanced toward Gnileakovo and Vakarzhany, but were driven back in some places by a strong Soviet counterattack on the following day. On 30 August the Romanians regained the operational initiative, but gained very little ground. The Soviets temporarily retook Kubanka but had been driven back by the fall of night. Soviet troops were encircled in Vakarzhany but continued to fight until 3 September, when a combined German and Romanian infantry force stormed the village.

On 3 September Ciupercă reported to Antonescu the poor condition of the Romanian front-line divisions, which were exhausted after nearly a month of continuous fighting. He proposed a reorganisation of the 3rd Division, 6th Division, 7th Division, 14th Division, 21st Division and 1st Guard Division into two corps with the support of eight heavy artillery battalions. These revised formations would then attack at a single point to break through the Soviet line. Ciupercă's suggestion was rejected by both Antonescu and General de brigadā Alexandru Ioaniţiu, the chief of the Romanian general staff, who argued that a heavily concentrated attack on a single axis would leave the rest of the Romanian line too exposed.

Antonescu then issued a new directive ordering attacks between Tatarka and Dalnik by the XI Corps, and between Gniliavko and Dalnik by the III Corps. Ioaniţiu informed Generalmajor Arthur Hauffe, the chief of the German military mission to Romania of the Romanian situation outside Odessa and requesting German assistance in the form of aircraft and several pioneer battalions. Although the Romanian air force had gained some success against the Soviet ground and air forces, it was poorly equipped for the anti-ship role and the Soviet forces in Odessa were being steadily reinforced and resupplied by the Black Sea Fleet.

Meanwhile, the Romanian offensive was paused pending the arrival of reinforcements. A German detachment led by Generalleutnant René von Courbier and comprising one infantry regiment, one assault pioneer regiment and two artillery regiments then arrived. Concurrently, the Soviet forces in Odessa also received 15,000 more men and a large quantity of ammunition. On 9 September, Ciupercă was replaced by Iacobici, who was instructed to follow the directives of the general staff without question.

The offensive resumed on 12 September, but was again stopped temporarily on September 14 as both the Romanian and German artillery units were running short of ammunition. Two Romanian battalions from the Vānători area were encircled by Soviet troops near Hadjibey Balka, but were eventually relieved before the Soviets could destroy them.

On the night of 15 September, the Soviet forces broke contact with the I Corps and pulled back to the south-east. On 16 September, the I Corps took the heights to the north-west of Gross-Liebenthal, and Romanian troops also occupied the area to the south of Sukhoy Balka. More than 3,000 Soviet soldiers were captured, but these losses were counterbalanced by the arrival of the 157th Division, with a strength of 12,600 men. Another 18 companies of Soviet troops were also brought in by sea from Novorossiysk.

The Romanian high command expected the forthcoming attack to be the final assault on the Soviet fortress, and both Antonescu and Ioanitiu arrived at the front on 17 September to oversee this supposed final stage of offensive. However, just as these two senior personages arrived at Baden, where the headquarters of the 4th Army were located, Ioanitiu was killed in an accident and replaced on 22 September by Iacobici.

Then the expectations of the Romanian high command proved to be over-optimistic when the offensive was resumed west of Hadjibey Balka. After a 10-minute artillery bombardment, General de divizie Nicolae Dascaclescu’s 21st Division attacked toward Dalnik at 09.00 with a German force (one infantry battalion and one assault pioneer battalion) on its left flank. At 12.00 the 38th Regiment reached the western edge of the village, but the German regiment took heavy fire from its uncovered left flank and, suffering heavy casualties, began to fall back. The situation was re-established by the intervention of the divisional reserve. The III Corps advanced with the 3rd Division and 5th Division, and became involved in fierce fighting on the slopes of the Bolshaya Dalnitskaya hill. The Soviets counterattacked the right flank of the III Corps and the left flank of the XI Corps and pushed back General de brigadā Gheorhe Potopeanu’s Frontier Guard Division about 1.85 miles (3 km). The I Corps took the hill 0.9 mile (1.5 km) to the south-west of Dalnik. To the east of Kuzhalnik Balka, the V Corps attacked with the 13th Division and 15th Division, but ran into determined resistance along the fortifications to the south of the line linking Gildendorf, Korsunty and a point to the east of Fontanka.

Over the next few days, in the XI Corps the German regiment was replaced by the 12/24th Regiment of the 21st Division. The corps then resumed its offensive, but failed to make any advance. The III Corps continued to fight on the slopes of the Bolshaya Dalnitskaya hill, which was fiercely defended by the 3/161st Regiment. Finally this strongpoint was encircled and then crushed by the 3rd Division. The I Corps sought without success to take the hill 0.6 mile (1 km) to the south-east of Dalnik as it tried to encircle the Soviet forces defending the village.

Meanwhile the Stavka had been preparing a surprise for the 4th Army. At 00.45 on the night of 21/22 September, after a 30-minute artillery preparation from several warships, about 2,000 men of the 3rd Marine Brigade landed at Grigorievka and Chebanka, and advanced toward Staraya Dofinivka and Buldinka, in the rear of the 15th Division. Another landing was attempted to the east, but this was a failure. The 13th Division was holding a 6.2-mile (10-km) front with a mere four battalions, and the Soviet manoeuvre led to the diversion of further troops. Thus, at 06.40, the 157th Division launched a one-regiment attack on the 13th Division along the railway line linking Odessa and Bierezovka, and took the 22nd Regiment completely by surprise. One of the Romanian battalions lost its commanding officer and panicked. Several attempts to check the Soviet regiment failed, and the Romanian regiment retreated to the southern outskirts of the village of Kubanka, bringing about the collapse of the entire situation of the V Corps, which was forced to withdraw the 15th Division in the north-eastern area of the Chornaya valley. The Soviet advance was eventually stopped with the help of the corps' reserves (two battalions) and motorised units rushed in the sector.

Then the Junkers Ju 87 dive-bombers of Hauptmann Helmut Bode’s newly arrived III/Stukageschwader 77 attacked the Soviet warships off Odessa, sinking the destroyer Frunze, a gunboat and a tug, and also damaging the destroyers Bezuprechnyi and Besposhachadnyi. Romanian air units also became involved, flying 71 sorties and dropping 32 tons of bombs on the Soviet ships, and the Heinkel He 111 medium bombers of the 5th Bomber Group reportedly damaged one transport ship.

The 13th Division lost 1,300 men and had to pull back some 3.7 miles (6 km), which meant that the V Corps could no longer use its heavy artillery to bombard Odessa harbour. The Romanians counterattacked in an effort which was supported by a comparatively rare sortie by Romanian destroyers to the south-east of Odessa, from where they bombarded the Grigorievka bridgehead and pulled back without loss before the Soviet coastal artillery, which had been taken by tactical surprise, could start to retaliate.

In the previous 10 days, the 4th Army had taken almost 4,950 Soviet prisoners and made some territorial gains. The offensive had now to be brought to a halt for lack of heavy artillery ammunition and, more importantly, because the exhaustion of the troops, some of whom had been at the front since the beginning of July and were in sore need of rest and reorganisation. Fresh forces, in the shape of the 1st Division, 2nd Division and 18th Division were expected to reach Odessa in the immediate future.

The Romanian air force had also achieved an important success with its destruction of the largest Soviet supply depot at Odessa, which was situated near Tatarka. After the 1st Bomber Group and 2nd Bomber Group had flown several failed attempts to destroy this target, nine Savoia-Marchetti SM.79JR bombers of the 75th Bomber Squadron attacked from an altitude of 9,845 ft (3000 m) and started a series of explosions and fires which burned for several days.

Following the breakthrough of von Manstein’s German 11th Army in Crimea on 29 September, which placed Axis forces deep into the coast of the Black Sea in a region well to the east of Odessa, the Stavka came quickly to appreciate the futility of continued resistance in Odessa and ordered the evacuation of the Soviet forces still holding the area. The final date was set initially for 6 October, but was then postponed to 14 October.

On 2 October the Soviets launched an attack by the 25th and 157th Divisions and the 2nd Cavalry Division in the sector of the Frontier Guard Division and the left of the 6th Division after a powerful artillery bombardment in an undertaking designed to divert Axis attention from the evacuation. The Soviet troops advanced along the road linking Dalnik and Perselenet with the support of 24 tanks and also ground-attack aircraft. At the sight of the Soviet armour, the 8th Machine Gun Battalion retreated, and this triggered the rout of the 36th Machine Gun Battalion and then of the 1/5th Frontier Guard Regiment on the left flank of the division. However, the left of the 6th Division held firm. The Soviet troops advanced on a 2.5-mile (4-km) front, and the guns of the 1st Heavy Artillery Regiment and 54th Artillery Regiment managed to destroy 12 of the tanks with direct fire. This was made possible by the intervention of four IAR-80 fighters of the 8th Fighter Group, which strafed the Soviet infantry, thus leaving the tanks unprotected. Some of the tanks managed to penetrate through the Romanian artillery positions, and the situation became critical until 13.00, when the Soviet advance was halted by the divisional reserve 0.6 mile (1 km) to the south-west of Hutor Dalnitsky.

The III Corps used Dascaclescu’s 21st Division to block the road linking Dalnik and Perselenet, and to attack the Soviets' northern flank. The XI Corps attacked with the 7th Division on the left flank, and the Romanian counterattack on the night of 3/4 October and on 4 October re-established the situation. The Soviets had nonetheless achieved their object, for it this period the Black Sea Fleet had managed to evacuate 86,000 men.

At 22.00 on 8 October the 19th Regiment of the 11th Division launched a surprise attack and captured the village of Anchestovo and, before the break of day, the first pillboxes of the Soviets' main defence line in the area of the Gnilaya valley, Dalnik and Tatarka, thus dislocating the entire Soviet position in the Gnilaya valley. Exploiting this initial success, the 11th Division broke the main Soviet defence line to the north-east of Gniliakovo on a 3.7-mile (6-km) front despite the stiff Soviet resistance and counterattacks by infantry and armour. Several Soviet units were surrounded, and some 400 prisoners were later taken. The 10th Division also attacked toward Tatarka. Elements of the 33rd Regiment entered the village, but the Soviets counterattacked with the support of armour, and managed to surround parts of the unit, eventually taking 500 prisoners.

By this time Odessa’s defences were being compressed on three sides by, from west to east, the XI Corps, IV Corps, I Corps, III Corps, VI Corps and V Corps.

On 12 October Iacobici ordered the next stage of the offensive. The V Corps (1st Division, 4th Division and 13th Division) were to advance on Blagodatnoye, capture the Solanoe Priysky and Kryzhanovka heights, take the Uznovka valley and then enter Odessa from the north-east. The VI Corps (1st Guard Division and 3rd Mixed Fortification Brigade), which had just reached Odessa, was to strike between the Hadjibey Balky and Khzhalnitzky Balky and take the Poselok heights. From there the VI Corps could either support the advance of the V Corps or enter the city from the north. The I Corps (2nd Division, 3rd Division and 11th Division) was to push in the direction of the Gniliavko-Kuzhalik heights and take the heights between Odessa and Usatovo. The XI Corps (6th Division, 10th Division and 21st Division) was to push toward Marienthal and take the heights to the west and north-west of Tatarka. From there it was to use most of its strength in an advance toward Opatnoye Pole and Svanka, and then enter Odessa. The IV Corps (7th Division, 14th Division and Frontier Guard Division, 7th Cavalry Brigade and 'Eftimiu' Detachment) was to attack between Tatarka and the Sukhoy lake, take the Svanka area and enter the city from the south. Finally, the III Corps (5th Division and 18th Division) was to provide flank support for the attack of the I Corps and XI Corps, and to take Dalnik. In reserve, the 4th Army had the 8th Division.

From 14 October, when Soviet ships shelled the positions of the V Corps, the Romanian high command noticed a major intensification of Soviet naval activity. During the night of 14/15 October and during 15 October the Romanians launched a number of powerful reconnaissance raids which, should the Soviets retreat, were to be pushed forward aggressively and right on the heels of the retreating Soviets. The Romanian raids were met with heavy fire, and as a result the Romanian pursuit was hurried. At 10.30 on 16 October patrols of the 7th Division entered Odessa, and at 16.00 the 'Eftimiu' Detachment) captured the port. By evening the last Soviet strongpoints had been destroyed.

On the night of 14/15 October, however, ships of the Black Sea Fleet had removed the last major elements of the garrison to Sevastopol as part of a very successful evacuation of 350,000 soldiers and civilians.

Their capture of Odessa had cost the Axis forces 17,729 men killed, 63,345 men wounded and 11,470 men missing; the Soviets had lost at least 16,580 men killed or missing, and 24,690 men wounded. The Axis forces had also lost 19 tanks, 90 pieces of artillery and 20 aircraft, whereas the Soviets had lost an unknown number of tanks and guns, and 151 aircraft.

As they evacuated their forces, the Soviets left behind a specially created clandestine resistance to terrorise all the German, Romanian and Italian forces stationed in or transiting though the city during its occupation of the city, which ended in April 1944 when Soviet forces liberated Odessa, which had been the only major Soviet city captured by a German ally without massive German assistance.