Operation Trappenfang

bustard trap

This was the German operation to take the Kerch peninsula at the eastern end of the Crimean peninsula (November 1941/January 1942).

The operation was part of the double offensive by Generaloberst Erich von Manstein’s 11th Army 1 of Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt’s Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ to secure the army group’s right flank, and also paved the way for Adolf Hitler’s intention to use the Kerch peninsula as the launch point from which to land forces in the Caucasus in preparation for the the southern element of the following year’s ‘Blau III’ summer offensive to reach the Caspian Sea and in the process take the oilfields of the area.

Believing that the Soviets would offer stiff resistance during the Crimea campaign, von Manstein ordered a short pause in his army’s initial offensive so that he could redeploy more forces to the front.

Under the command of General Leytenant Dmitri T. Kozlov’s Trans-Caucasus Front, the Soviet forces in Crimea totalled 235,600 men, but only some 50,000 of these were deployed in the Perekop isthmus, which connects Crimea with the mainland and is only 3.1 to 4.3 miles (5 to 7 km) wide. The comparatively small number of defenders was further reduced by pressure from Iosif Stalin, who insisted upon a Soviet attack from the isthmus. This failed, costing the Soviet forces heavy losses and disrupting work on fortifications.

The battle for Crimea had begun on 24 September in the desolate Perekop isthmus. A savage five-day struggle followed, with the Soviets displaying determined resistance in a defensive system 10 miles (16 km) in depth. Following the capture of their initial objectives, von Manstein’s forces were then depleted by urgent requirements elsewhere. The SS Division ‘Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler’ and XLIX Gebirgskorps were reassigned to Generaloberst Ewald von Kleist’s 1st Panzerarmee and most of the Romanian units were also withdrawn, but von Manstein received reinforcement in the form of Generalleutnant Hans Graf von Sponeck’s XLII Corps together with Generalmajor Hans von Tettau’s 24th Division and Generalleutnant Rudolf Sintzenich’s 132nd Division.

The second phase of the battle for Crimea was launched toward Perekop on 18 October. This battle lasted 10 days and was again characterised by bitter fighting. The six remaining German divisions were now attacking Soviet forces totalling eight infantry and four cavalry divisions, many of whom had been shipped in from Odessa (now occupied by the Romanians) on about 16 October. However, even at full strength Soviet divisions had only about half the men of German divisions, and several of the defending divisions were already well below establishment strength as a result of the fighting in the Odessa area. The nature of the terrain forced von Manstein to order a frontal assault on three narrow strips of land, in which the Soviets forces held prepared defensive positions as well as enjoying tank and air superiority. Even so, on 28 October the Soviet defence collapsed and Crimea looked on the verge of falling to the Germans.

The 11th Army proceeded in full pursuit of the retreating Soviet forces despite heavy losses. von Manstein reported that about 100,000 Soviet troops had been captured, along with 700 pieces of artillery, but Soviet sources claim that only 68,200 Soviet soldiers were lost to all causes.

By 16 November Crimea was virtually in German hands, with only the fortress of Sevastopol still in Soviet hands. Thus the 11th Army had forced its way through the Perekop isthmus on 28 October with the object of taking Sevastopol and destroying all Soviet forces in the area, namely General Leytenant Fyedor I. Kuznetsov’s 51st Independent Army of Vitse-Admiral Gordei I. Levchenko’s Crimea Command.

As it pushed into Crimea, the 11th Army found itself having to undertake operations on two diverging axes, one to the south in the direction of Sevastopol and the other to the east against the remnants of the 51st Independent Army retiring toward the Kerch peninsula. von Manstein sensibly allocated priority to the Sevastopol operation, but detached von Sponeck’s newly arrived XLII Corps to push the 51st Independent Army off the Kerch peninsula. von Sponeck had achieved his task by 16 November, when the last units of the 51st Independent Army, now commanded by General Leytenant Pavel I. Batov, were evacuated to Kuban after abandoning all their heavy equipment and weapons.

Here the 51st Army received a new commander, General Leytenant Vladimir N. L’vov and, under control of Kozlov’s Trans-Caucasus Front, was rebuilt and paired with General Major Aleksei N. Pervushin’s 44th Army for the return to Crimea which was being planned. The landings of this 'Kerch-Feodosiya Amphibious Offensive Operation' began on 26 December 1941 when Captain Basisti’s ships of the Azov Flotilla landed 13,000 men of the 51st Army at Kerch to pin Himer’s 46th Division frontally as a means of easing the task of the main force, the 26,000 men of the 44th Army landed near Feodosiya from 29 December in the rear of the German opposition.

von Manstein believed that the 46th Division could contain the Soviet landings, but the Soviets were able to consolidate their beach-heads into a single lodgement and defeated the Romanian brigades which assaulted it. As a result, the commander of the XLII Corps, von Sponeck, decided to withdraw the 46th Division from Kerch through the Parpach narrows so that it would not be encircled and trapped by Soviet forces advancing from the landing zones located at Kerch in the extreme east and Feodosiya in the south-west of the peninsula.

von Sponeck was later relieved of his command, court martialled and given a death sentence which was then transmuted to life imprisonment. von Manstein was forced to break off his operations against Sevastopol to reinforce the XLII Corps with Sintzenich’s (from 11 January 1942 Generalleutnant Fritz Lindemann’s) 132nd Division and Generalleutnant Walter Wittke’s (from 8 January 1942 Generalleutnant Erwin Sander’s) 170th Division of General Maximilian Fretter-Pico’s XXX Corps.

This allowed the establishment of a new front at Feodosiya, and the two Germans corps were thus able to seal the Soviet armies in the Kerch peninsula. The Soviet landings had saved Sevastopol, at least for a time, and had seized a temporary initiative.

The casualties had been high on each side. The Germans had lost 8,595 men between 17 and 31 December, while the Soviets had suffered 7,000 men killed and another 20,000 taken prisoner.

To slow the reinforcement and enlargement of the Soviet lodgement, Generaloberst Alexander Löhr’s Luftflotte IV was transferred into the theatre through the interdiction of the shipping movements on which the Soviet land forces were wholly reliant for resupply and reinforcement, and on 29 January severely damaged the 7,500-ton transport Emba. Even so, German air power could not prevent the transport of 100,000 men and hundreds of pieces of artillery to the Kerch lodgement between 20 January and 11 February, and also the delivery of 680 tons of fuel and 1,720 tons of supplies to Sevastopol. On 13 February, the cruiser Komintern and a destroyer delivered 1,034 soldiers and 200 tons of supplies, and on the following day the cruiser Krasnyi Krym and destroyer Dzerzhinskiy arrived with a further 1,075 men. On the next day, the minesweeper T-410 delivered 650 men and evacuated 152, and on 17 February the transport Belostok delivered 871 men. The warships of Vitse-Admiral Filipp S. Oktyabrsky’ s Black Sea Fleet were also able to make a significant number of gunfire bombardments of German coastal positions.

The Luftwaffe increased its pressure, dispatching the bombers of Oberstleutnant Hans-Henning Freiherr von Beust’s Kampfgeschwader 27, Oberstleutnant Benno Kosch’s KG 55 and Oberstleutnant Heinz von Holleben’s KG 100 to attack the ports at Anapa, Tuapse and Novorossiysk on the north-east coast of the Black Sea, and on 20 February bombers of the KG 100 sank the 1,900-ton transport Kommunist.

von Manstein was not prepared to endure the continued German loss of the operational initiative, and ordered counterattacks which recaptured Feodosiya in January 1942. The 11th Army had insufficient strength to destroy the 44th and 51st Armies in the Kerch peninsula, however, especially after the Stavka had reinforced the Kerch front with nine more divisions and, on 28 January, created the Crimean Front under Kozlov to control Soviet operations in eastern Crimea. Kozlov launched offensives in February, March and April, but all of these were defeated by Hansen’s LIV Corps with heavy Soviet losses. Petrov’s Coastal Army also supported the operations on 26 February, inflicting 1,200 casualties while losing 2,500 men.

There was then a period of stalemate until the arrival of the spring thaw early in May, when each side prepared for the decisive battle.

Before this, the Luftwaffe had flown in a specialist torpedo bomber unit, Oberst Martin Harlinghausen’s KG 26. On 1/2 March this unit’s aircraft hit the 2,434-ton transport Fabritsius which was damaged so severely that the vessel was written off. The 4,629-ton tanker Kuybyshev was damaged on 3 March in the area to the south of Kerch, and this deprived the defenders of much-needed fuel: the tanker was withdrawn to Novorossiysk, where it was crippled by Junkers Ju 88 bombers of Major Hans-Joachim Ritter’s KG 51 on 13 March. On 18 March, the Ju 88 bombers of the KG 51 sank the 3,689-ton transport Georgiy Dimitrov, and on 23 March there followed further Soviet damage when nine Ju 88 warplanes of the KG 51 sank the minelayers Ostrovskiy and GS-13 as well as a motor torpedo boat in Tuapse harbour. The bombers also damaged the submarines S-33 and D-5. During the evening of the same day, Heinkel He 111 bombers of von Beust’s KG 27 claimed the sinking of one 5,000-ton and two 2,000-ton ships, though Soviet records admitted the loss of only the 2,960-ton steamer V. Chapayev with the loss of 16 crew and 86 soldiers. Bombers of the KG 51 returned to Tuapse on 24 March and sank the transports Yalta and Neva. On 2 April Kuybyshev was intercepted and sunk, and this was so crucial to the operations on the eastern end of Crimea that the Soviet ground forces were ordered to cease all offensive operations and conserve their supplies.

In the eight-week air offensive from a time early in February to the end of March, the Black Sea Transport Fleet had been reduced from 43,200 tons of shipping to just 27,400 tons: six transport vessels had been sunk, and another six had been severely damaged and were under repair. On 17 April, warplanes of Harlinghausen’s KG 26 sank the 4,125-ton steamer Svanetiya as she was trying to bring supplies into Sevastopol, and some 535 men were also lost. Worse was to follow. On 19 April, the tanker I. Stalin and three transport vessels were damaged, and two days later the bombers of the KG 55 damaged the minesweeper Komintern and sank a transport ship. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that by this time the Black Sea Fleet’s ability to supply the Soviet forces in Sevastopol at at Kerch had been severely curtailed.

This was, of course, exactly what von Manstein needed as he planned the 8 May launch of ‘Trappenjagd’ to destroy the Soviet lodgement on the Kerch peninsula so that he could concentrate his forces for the ‘Störfang’ capture of Sevastopol at the western end of Crimea.

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The 11th Army’s order of battle included three major German formations in the form of General Hans von Salmuth’s XXX Corps (Generalleutnant Hans Graf von Sponeck’s [from 10 October Generalmajor Ludwig Wolff’s] 22nd Division, Generalleutnant Philipp Müller-Gebhard’s 72nd Division and SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Joseph Dietrich’s SS Division ‘Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler’), General Ludwig Kübler’s XLIX Gebirgskorps (Generalleutnant Friedrich-Wilhelm von Loeper’s 10th Division, Generalleutnant Hubert Lanz’s 1st Gebirgsdivision and Generalleutnant Karl Eglseer’s 4th Gebirgsdivision), and General Erich Hansen’s LIV Corps (Generalleutnant Kurt Himer’s 46th Division, Generalleutnant Karl Adolf Hollidt’s 50th Division and Generalleutnant Bruno Bieler’s 73rd Division), as well General de brigadâ Gheorghe Avramescu’s Romanian Corpului de Munte (mountain corps) with the 1st to 4th Mountain Brigades.