This was the German offensive to clear Crimea of its last Soviet defenders and pave the way for the ‘Störfang’ reduction of Sevastopol (24 September/16 November 1941).
Entrusted to Generalfeldmarschall Fedor von Bock’s Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’, this offensive was a preliminary to the various ‘Blau’ operations in the southern USSR during the summer of 1942. The clearance of the last Soviet forces from Crimea was thus designed to ensure that the right flank of Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ was secure and that Generaloberst Erich von Manstein’s 11th Army could then cross the Strait of Kerch to support Generalfeldmarschall Ewald von Kleist’s 1st Panzerarmee and Generaloberst Hans von Salmuth’s 17th Army in their 'Edelweiss' and 'Attika' offensives along the east coast of the Black Sea and into the Caucasus mountains after the latter two formations had swept across the lower reaches of the Don and Donets rivers.
The Soviet naval base at Sevastopol was one of the world’s strongest fortifications, and its location, on a deeply eroded and bare limestone promontory on Crimea’s south-western tip, made any land approach very difficult, while the high cliffs of Severnaya Bay protected the anchorage and rendered just as difficult any amphibious assault. The Soviet navy had improved these natural defences by modernising the port and installing heavy coastal and artillery defences, protected by armoured turrets in concrete emplacements, which could fire inland as well as out to sea. Sevastopol was nonetheless a tempting target for the Germans, for their possession of it as a naval and air base would enable the Axis forces to undertake far-ranging sea and air operations against Soviet targets into and over the ports and mountains of the Caucasus region.
Indeed, the Soviet air forces had been using Crimea to launch attacks on targets in Romania since the start of ‘Barbarossa’ in June 1941. Since that time, though, Axis planning for the conduct of the war in the east had not really addressed the desirability of Crimea as an objective. German planners had assumed the area would be captured in mop-up operations once the bulk of the Soviet army had been destroyed in the regions to the west of the Dniepr river. But in June attacks by Soviet aircraft from Crimea against Romania’s oil refineries had destroyed 11,000 tons of oil. Adolf Hitler then described the area as a Soviet aircraft carrier and had ordered the conquest of Crimea as well as Ukraine in his Führerweisung Nr 33 of 23 July 1941. Thus the Oberkommando des Heeres had issued instructions that Crimea was to be taken as soon as possible to prevent further attacks on Romanian oil supplies, which were very important if not yet vital to the German military.
Impatient with the pace of the Axis advance in the south, on 12 August Hitler had repeated his desire that Crimea be taken immediately. More than one month later, on 17 September and while the great Battle of Kiev was still being fought, von Manstein had been given command of the 11th Army and, after only one week in command, launched his assault into Crimea and, after severe fighting, defeated several Soviet counter-offensives and destroyed two Soviet armies.
The 11th Army’s first task had been to break through into Crimea. The cities of Perekop and Ishun dominated the Perekop isthmus, the narrow corridor of land linking Crimea with Ukraine. General Erick-Oskar Hansen’s LIV Corps used Generalleutnant Fritz Schlieper’s 45th Division and Generalleutnant Rudolf von Bünau’s 73rd Division to effect a breakthrough at Perekop at the cost of 2,641 casualties in six days of fighting. The Soviets launched a counter-offensive against the 11th Army’s flank at Melitopol, and von Manstein withdrew his other two corps in order to deal with it. The resulting battle ended with the destruction of two attacking Soviet armies. By the time this Soviet threat had been eliminated, the Stavka had rushed in reinforcements and established another defence line at Ishun. Ordered to concentrate on Crimea once more, von Manstein launched the LIV Corps, this time with the support of Generalleutnant Hans Graf von Sponeck’s 22nd Division, into the assault known as ‘Trappenfang’. The Soviets enjoyed local air superiority and significant armoured reserves, and also outnumbered the attacking Germans. Despite this, the 51st Independent Army was driven back, and in 12 days the Germans had inflicted very substantial losses on the Soviets for the loss of 5,376 of their own men. By the end of October the 51st Independent Army had been effectively destroyed as a cohesive formation, and its remnants were in full retreat into Crimea.
Fortunately for the Soviets, by the end of October 1941 General Major Ivan Ye. Petrov’s 32,000-man Independent Coastal Army had reached Sevastopol by sea from Odessa, farther to the west on the north-west coast of the Black Sea, after being routed in heavy fighting. Petrov quickly set about fortifying the inland approaches to Sevastopol with the object of halting any Axis attempt to take the port city by creating three lines of defences, the outermost of them an arc 10 miles (16 km) from the port itself. Soviet forces, including General Major Fyedor I. Kuznetsov’s 51st Independent Army and elements of Vitse Admiral Filipp S. Oktyabrsky’s Black Sea Fleet, were defeated in Crimea in October and were evacuated in December, leaving Petrov’s Independent Coastal Army to hold Sevastopol.
The situation in the air also changed as the arrival of reinforcements gave Germany total air superiority. On 22/23 October, the aircraft of Oberstleutnant Günther Lützow’s Jagdgeschwader 3, Major Wilhelm Lessmann’s JG 52 and Major Gotthard Handrick’s JG 77 crippled Soviet air strength in Crimea when, during these two days, they destroyed 33 Soviet aircraft for the loss of only one of their own number. In the six days between 18 and 24 October, the Soviets lost 140 aircraft, 124 of them to German fighters. This left the Heinkel He 111 medium bombers of Oberst Martin Harlinghausen’s Kampfgeschwader 26 and Oberst Paul Koester’s KG 51, and the Junkers Ju 87 dive-bombers of Major Graf Clemens von Schönborn-Wiesentheid’s Stukageschwader 77 free to attack Soviet ground positions, and this made a signal contribution to the collapse of the Soviet front in Crimea on 27 October.
It was in the aftermath of this that Oktyabrsky assumed command of Sevastopol on 4 November. The city currently had a population of 111,000 persons, most of these being despatched to work on the three defence lines around the port. Only the 7th and 8th Naval Infantry Brigades were available for combat in the port, though more naval infantry units were being formed from the crews of naval ships in the harbour. The 8th Naval Infantry Brigade was sent to guard the north-eastern approach near the Mamaschai-Belbek line. The 5,200 men of the 7th Naval Infantry Brigade were deployed in the centre, near Mekenzyya. With only 20,000 troops available to him, Oktyabrsky relied heavily on the guns of the 12 coastal batteries to slow the Axis advance. The 62nd Fighter Brigade contributed 61 fighters, which were able to achieve only temporary air superiority. On 30 October, the Soviet defences detected the spearhead of Generalleutnant Rudolf Sintzenich’s 132nd Division and shelled it at 12.30 on 1 November using Battery 30’s 12-in (305-mm) coastal guns. This fort would later become known to the Germans as Fort Maxim Gorky I. At this time von Manstein lacked the air support, mobile and tank forces to force a decision, and instead ordered Hansen’s LIV Corps to head east down the rail line linking Sevastopol and Simferopol and toward Yalta, while the 72nd Division made for Balaclava in movements which effectively encircled Sevastopol. Once there, the 72nd Division was to attack Sevastopol from the east. The 132nd Division made reasonable progress, but was stopped on 2 November by the 8th Naval Infantry Brigade, the Germans suffering 428 casualties. von Manstein ordered a one-week halt to allow him to bring up the army’s reserves.
General de corp de armatâ Petre Dumitrescu’s Romanian 3rd Army and von Manstein’s 11th Army now prepared for an attack on Sevastopol. The 11th Army was the weakest of all the German armies on the Eastern Front, with an initial strength of only seven divisions. The Romanians contributed to this in numerical terms, but were poorly trained, indifferently led and lightly equipped. The weather turned against the Axis forces in mid-October and torrential downpours delayed their build-up, this affording the time needed by Oktyabrsky to ship in men and ammunition from Novorossiysk. During this time, therefore, Oktyabrsky was able to use his fleet to bring in a further 23,000 men from the Caucasus. On 9 November, Petrov’s Independent Coastal Army also arrived, bringing 19,894 soldiers, 10 T-26 tanks, 152 pieces of artillery and 200 mortars. The Soviets now had 52,000 troops in Sevastopol. The German air strength was now considered weak, as the preponderance of German air power had by this time been committed to the Battle of Moscow, so the Soviet navy retained the heavy cruiser Krasnyi Kavkaz, light cruisers Krasnyi Krym and Chervona Ukraina, and seven destroyers to enhance the protection of the port. The German air force did what it could to disrupt the Soviet defences. On 31 October the destroyer Bodryi shelled German positions along the coast, and was attacked by Ju 87 dive-bombers of the StG 77, which wounded 50 of its crew with machine gun fire. On 2 November Junkers Ju 88 bombers of the KG 51 scored several hits on the cruiser Voroshilov, and put her out of action for months. On 7 November He 111 bombers of the KG 26 sank the passenger ship Armeniya evacuating soldiers and civilians from Sevastopol, a mere eight of the 5,000 passengers surviving. On 12 November dive-bombers of StG 77 sank the light cruiser Chervona Ukraina and level bombers of the KG 26 damaged the destroyers Sovershennyi and Besposhchadnyi. But with the German bomber units being dispatched to other sectors and theatres, the Soviets were then again able to achieve air superiority with 59 aircraft, of which only 39 were serviceable.
von Manstein wanted to launch his attack on Sevastopol as soon as possible, but was severely constrained by the complete inadequacy of his lines of communication, which made effective logistics all but impossible. Wanting to avoid the strong Soviet forces, including the 95th Division, protecting the north of the port, von Manstein chose to make his effort against the central and southern sectors of the Soviet defences, and thus ordered Generalleutnant Karl Adolf Hollidt’s 50th Division to probe the centre of the Soviet line east of the Chernaya river. The 132nd Division supported the probe and was able to push to a point within 2.5 miles (4 km) of Severnaya Bay before the Soviets moved in the 72nd Division to halt the attack with the aid of the coastal batteries’ fire. The 72nd Division continued toward Balaclava. The 22nd Division now joined the assault. Assisted by the shelling of two light cruisers and the battleship Parizhskaya Kommuna, the Soviets halted the attack and von Manstein called off the offensive on 21 November after the 11th Army had lost 2,000 men.
Even so, by 16 November von Manstein had cleared the bulk of Crimea, his forces having taken Simferopol, its capital, on 1 November, and the capture of Kerch on 16 November leaving only Sevastopol in Soviet hands.
By 17 December the weather had cleared sufficiently for the Axis forces to begin a major offensive. von Manstein now appreciated that his army could not take the port quickly, and that he would therefore have to organise a set-piece offensive. With German offensive operations on all other parts of the Eastern Front effectively suspended in December, von Manstein found himself the only commander on the Eastern Front with an offensive mission. He would not be ready to carry out his attack until the 17 December. In the meantime, Oktyabrsky used the interval to use his ships to bring sail in 11,000 men of the 388th Division between 7 and 13 December. Soviet engineers also used the lull to begin laying extensive minefields and erecting belts of barbed wire. By the time of the Axis attack, Petrov’s force held a fairly strong defensive position, with the naval commanders demanding that the coast along the northern flank of Sevastopol on the Belbek river be held in order to retain Coastal Battery 10, a complex near Mamaschai. The Germans were in a somewhat worse position as the LIV Corps had only 15,551 men in its 22nd Division, 24th Division, 50th Division and 132nd Division, all of which were also exhausted. The 11th Army currently had more than 7,000 men on the sick list, and was also short of heavy artillery and all calibres of artillery ammunition. So that he could commit as many men as possible to the battle, von Manstein left General Bruno Bieler’s very weak XLII Corps, currently comprising just Generalleutnant Kurt Himer’s 46th Division and two Romanian brigades, to hold the rest of the front from Yalta to Kerch.
The Axis assault began at 06.10 on 17 December. The 22nd Division attacked the 8th Naval Infantry Brigade on the Belbek river, driving to the west in the direction of the coast, while the 50th Division and 132nd Division fixed the Soviet centre. The 22nd Division manage to roll up the flank of the 8th Naval Naval Brigade after five days of fighting, whereupon Oktyabrsky ordered it to pull back south toward Sevastopol, abandoning Mamaschai and forming a new front to the north of the town of Belbek and Belbek river. In the south, General Hans von Salmuth’s XXX Corps failed to break through with Generalmajor Curt Souchay’s 72nd Division and Generalleutnant Walter Wittke’s 170th Division. The corps achieved only minor gains against the 172nd Division, even with the support of the Romanian 1st Mountain Brigade. The Soviets brought in the 79th Naval Infantry Brigade and 345th Division as reinforcements by sea, exploiting the long winter nights and their naval supremacy. Meanwhile the battleship Parizhskaya Kommuna shelled German forces whenever they threatened a breakthrough.
Then von Manstein was forced to bring his offensive to a premature end as Soviet forces began the ‘Kerch Landing Operation’ on 26 December, following on 30 December with the ‘Feodosiya Landing Operation’, using General Leytenant Stepan I. Chernyak’s 44th Army and General Leytenant Vladimir N. L’vov’s 51st Army. This ‘Kerch-Feodosiya Amphibious Operation’, as the two smaller undertakings were collectively known, was intended to pave the way to an advance to the west right across Crimea for the relief of Sevastopol. The 46th Division was the only Axis formation in a position to attempt to check the Soviet advance. von Manstein believed it could contain the landing, but the Soviets secured their beach-heads and defeated the Romanian brigades that were the Axis first line of defence, and von Sponeck, now commanding the XLII Corps, opted to withdrawn his formation from Kerch through the Parpach neck to avoid being trapped and encircled by Soviet forces advancing from their beach-heads at Kerch in the extreme east and Feodosiya in the west of the Kerch peninsula. von Manstein diverted the XXX Corps to support the XLII Corps, forming a new front at Feodosiya and thereby managing to hold the two Soviet armies in the Kerch peninsula.
Even so, the Soviet landings had saved Sevastopol and seized the initiative. The casualty totals on each side were high: the Germans lost 8,595 men between 17 and 31 December, and the Soviets 7,000 men killed and 20,000 taken prisoner.
In an effort to slow the Soviet build-up, Generaloberst Alexander Löhr’s Luftflotte IV was sent to the region to interdict shipping, and damaged the 7,500-ton transport Emba on 29 January. But German air power was unable to prevent the delivery of 100,000 men and hundreds of pieces of artillery to Kerch between 20 January and 11 February. Some 680 tons of fuel and 1,520 tons of supplies were also delivered to Sevastopol. On 13 February, the cruiser Komintern and destroyer Shaumyan arrived with 1,034 soldiers and 200 tons of supplies. The cruiser Krasnyi Krym and destroyer Dzerzhinskiy arrived with 1,075 men on 14 February. On the following day the minesweeper T-410 brought in 650 men and evacuated 152. On 17 February the transport Belostok delivered 871 men. Ships of Oktyabrsky’s Black Seas Fleet also undertook regular bombardments of German positions on the coast.
The Luftwaffe increased its pressure, dispatching the bombers of Oberst Hans-Henning Freiherr von Beust’s KG 27, Oberstleutnant Benno Kosch’s KG 55 and Oberstleutnant Heinz von Holleben’s KG 100 to raid the ports of Anapa, Tuapse and Novorossiysk on the Caucasian coast of the Black Sea, and on 20 February bombers of KG 100 sank the 1,900-ton transport Kommunist.
Despite his manpower and logistical problems, von Manstein remained steadfastly unwilling to surrender the initiative, and in January 1942 ordered counterattacks which recaptured Feodosiya. The 11th Army lacked the strength to destroy the 44th and 51st Armies in the Kerch peninsula, however, and the Stavka reinforced the front with nine divisions, and on 28 January created the Crimean Front under General Leytenant Dmitri T. Kozlov to co-ordinate operations. Kozlov began a series of Soviet offensives in February, March and April, but these were defeated by the LIV Corps and suffered heavy losses. Petrov’s Independent Coastal Army also supported the operations on 26 February, inflicting 1,200 casualties while losing 2,500 in return.
There followed a period of stalemate until the arrival of the spring thaw early in May, and during this lull each side prepared itself for the battle that would decide the campaign. Meanwhile, the Luftwaffe had once again flown in Harlinghausen’s KG 26, a specialist torpedo bomber unit which, on 1/2 March, damaged the 2,434-ton steamer Fabritsius so badly that the vessel had to be written off. The 4,629-ton tanker Kuybyshev was damaged on 3 March to the south of Kerch, and this deprived the defenders of much fuel as the she ship had to be withdrawn the port of Novorossiysk, where it was crippled by the attacks of the KG 51’s Junkers Ju 88 bombers on 13 March. On 18 March, Ju 88 bombers of the KG 51 sank the 3,689-ton transport Georgiy Dimitrov. Further damage followed on 23 March when nine of the KG51’s bombers sank the minelayers Ostrovskiy and GS-13, together with a motor torpedo boat, in Tuapse harbour. They also damaged the submarine S-33 and D-5. During the evening of the same day He 111 bombers of KG 27 claimed one 5,000-ton and two 2,000-ton ships sunk. Soviet records recorded the loss of the 2,960-ton steamer V. Chapayev, with the loss of 16 crew and 86 soldiers. KG 51’s bombers returned to Tuapse on 24 March and sank the transports Yalta and Neva. On 2 April, Kuybyshev was sunk.
So great was the loss of the ship that Soviet land forces were ordered to cease all offensive operations and conserve their supplies. In the eight-week air offensive between a time early in February and the end of March, the Black Sea Transport Fleet had been reduced from 43,200 to 27,400 tons of shipping, with six transports lost and six under repair. On 17 April the bombers of KG 26 sank the 4,125-ton steamer Svanetiya as she tried to deliver supplies to Sevastopol; some 535 men were lost. Worse was to follow. On 19 April, the tanker Iosif Stalin and three transports were damaged. On 21 April the KG 55’s bombers damaged the minesweeper Komintern and sank a transport. By this time the Black Sea Fleet’s ability to supply the Soviet forces in Sevastopol was severely strained.
Thus while by mid-December 1941 the Germans had taken all of Crimea except Sevastopol, which the 11th Army had reached and invested on 30 October 1941, the Kerch peninsula then being cleared in ‘Trappenfang’, during their great winter offensive of 1941/42 the Soviets had pushed elements of across the Strait of Kerch to retake the Kerch peninsula from the relatively weak forces of the XLII Corps as far to the east as the Kamenskoye isthmus and the port of Feodosiya. von Manstein had been forced to abandon his operations against Sevastopol and come to the aid of the XLII Corps with the XXX Corps, commanded since 27 December by General Maximilian Fretter-Pico, just as Generalleutnant Kurt Himer’s 46th Division evacuated the Kerch peninsula to avoid being cut off by Soviet forces landed at Feodosiya. The arrival of von Manstein and reinforcements remedied the situation, though the forces of the Crimean Front launched renewed offensives on 27 February, 13 March, 26 March and 9 April before halting their efforts only through complete exhaustion. von Manstein could now concentrate his attention on ‘Störfang’ to take Sevastopol.