Operation Trappenjagd (i)

bustard hunt

This was the German operation, otherwise known as ‘Bussard’, to eliminate the Soviet forces from the Kerch peninsula at the eastern end of Crimea, where they had been since the failure of ‘Trappenfang’, before concentrating on the ‘Störfang’ reduction of Sevastopol (8/18 May 1942).

Generaloberst Erich von Manstein’s 11th Army of Generalfeldmarschall Fedor von Bock’s Heeresgruppe ‘Süd’ had been forced to break off the western half of its ‘Trappenfang’ operation against Sevastopol in December 1941 to assist Generalleutnant Hans Graf von Sponeck’s understrength XLII Corps against landings of the 'Kerch-Feodosiya Amphibious Offensive Operation' in eastern Crimea at Kerch and Feodosiya by General Leytenant Vladimir N. L’vov’s 51st Army and General Major Andrei N. Pervushin’s 44th Army of General Leytenant Dmitri T. Kozlov’s Trans-Caucasus Front (from December 1941 the Caucasus Front and, from 28 January 1942 after its move into the Kerch area, the Crimea Front).

Overall command was exercised very poorly indeed by Commissar 1st Rank Lev Z. Mekhlis, a party appointee sent to the area as the Stavka representative to force better performance on the Soviet forces. Ambitious plans were laid for the main strength of the 44th Army and 51st Army to strike from Dzhanka via Perekop to Chongar with a secondary force attacking toward Simferopol and amphibious forces landing at Yalta, Perekop and Evpatoriya in an effort to contain the 11th Army for destruction.

The Germans landed their own blow first, however, for on 15 January the 11th Army launched a concentrated stroke by a mere three reinforced German divisions at Feodosiya against a Soviet force believed to number some eight divisions. Feodosiya was retaken by the Germans, yielding 10,000 prisoners and 170 pieces of artillery. The 44th Army and 51st Army were forced to retreat, but despite the loss of Feodosiya the Soviets were able to enlarge their forces with movements across the ice from Kuban on the eastern side of the Strait of Kerch. The Soviet plan was then forcibly revised, and Kozlov was ordered to break out toward Karasubazar, some 30 miles (50 km) to the west of Feodosiya, as preparation for a descent on the 11th Army’s rear areas around Sevastopol even as an amphibious assault was undertaken against Sudaka, some 20 miles (32 km) to the south-west of Feodosiya, with the support of the warships of Vitse-Admiral Filipp S. Oktyabrsky’s Black Sea Fleet.

The offensive was planned for 13 February but for a number of reasons was launched only on 27 February. Some progress was made, but von Manstein had known what was afoot and planned accordingly. Severe fighting raged until the middle of March with the Soviets unable to secure their initial objectives despite another major effort on 13 March. von Manstein spoiled the Soviets’ last major effort at Parpach on 20 March with Generalleutnant Wilhelm von Apell’s newly arrived 22nd Panzerdivision, which was nonetheless severely mauled as it advanced into the Soviet formations as these formed for an offensive planned for implementation on 26 March. The Soviets made a last effort on 9 April but were checked by Generalleutnant Hans Sinnhuber’s 28th Division, and then called off their offensive in favour of the establishment of fixed fortifications.

In preparation for ‘Trappenjagd’ (i), the bombers of Generaloberst Alexander Löhr’s Luftflotte IV had successfully applied severe pressure on the supply lines on which the Soviet forces were entirely reliant. By a time late in April 1942 the food and other resources vital to the survival of the Soviet forces on the Kerch peninsula had been almost completely exhausted. Everything, including even firewood, had to be brought in by sea. Luftflotte IV had effectively severed these supply lines, and the Soviet armies on the Kerch peninsula were at the end of their tethers. The Stavka asked Stalin to consider the evacuation of the Kerch region, but the Soviet leader not only refused the requested permission but on 21 April ordered preparations for an offensive to liberate Crimea. On 6 May Stalin changed his mind and ordered all the Crimean forces to assume a defensive posture. He also refused additional reinforcements. Mixed with this essentially defensive order was an instruction for a limited offensive against the German lines to improve the defenders’ tactical positions. So instead of concentrating all their rapidly diminishing efforts on preparations for a defence against the impending German offensive, the Soviets were preparing for an attack.

For the defence of the Kerch peninsula, the Soviets had three major formations in the form of General Leytenant Vladimir N. L’vov’s 51st Army protecting the north with eight infantry divisions, three infantry brigades and two tank brigades, General Major Aleksei N. Pervushin’s 44th Army in the south with five infantry divisions and two tank brigades, and in reserve General Major Konstantin S. Kolganov’s 47th Army with four infantry divisions and one cavalry division. Kozlov did not expect a major attack as he outnumbered the Germans by a ratio of some 2/1 and, moreover, the southern part of his front was characterised by swampy terrain, which rendered it generally unsuitable for offensive operations.

By April the Soviets were totally exhausted, and von Manstein felt that it was time for a major effort to expel the Crimea Front so that the 11th Army could complete its operations against Sevastopol. von Manstein thus removed as many German formations as possible from the siege of Sevastopol, which was left to General Erik Hansen’s LIV Corps and General de corp de armatâ Gheorghe Avramescu’s Romanian Corpului de Munte (mountain corps), and concentrated General Maximilian Fretter-Pico’s XXX Corps and General Franz Mattenklott’s XLII Corps against the forces of Kozlov’s Crimea Front. von Manstein thus had six German divisions and three Romanian divisions for ‘Trappenjagd’ (i), and was supported by Generaloberst Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen’s VIII Fliegerkorps, the Luftwaffe’s best equipped and most experienced attack and close support formation, of Löhr’s Luftflotte IV, but was still outnumbered heavily by the Soviets’ 17 infantry divisions, three infantry brigades, two cavalry divisions and four tank brigades. The German air forces now available for Crimean operations totalled 11 bomber, three Stuka and seven fighter Gruppen after the VIII Fliegerkorps had been specially reinforced with the medium bombers of Oberstleutnant Benno Kosch’s Kampfgeschwader 55.

von Manstein had no geographical and terrain option but a head-on attack, and opted for a risky plan in which, after a diversion in the north, his motorised forces in the south would drive straight for Kerch through Soviet defences lacking in depth, relying on the VIII Fliegerkorps for tactical support and a number of assault boat landings on his flanks to disrupt any Soviet attempts to take his main thrust in flank.

‘Trappenjagd’ (i) began at 04.15 on 8 May as the VIII Fliegerkorps began operations against the Soviet lines of communication and airfields. Within hours, Junkers Ju 87 five-bombers of Oberst Günther Schwartzkopff’s (from 15 May Major Graf Clemens von Schönborn-Wiesentheid’s Stukageschwader 77 had destroyed most of the 44th Army’s communications. The Soviet airfields were also almost totally destroyed and 57 of the 401 Soviet aircraft in the area were shot down in just 2,100 sorties. With the 44th Army’s headquarters rendered impotent, the Soviets could not organise a counter-offensive and the 44th Army collapsed into a retreat when von Manstein launched the ground attack on a narrow 3.1-mile (5-km) front.

von Manstein had five infantry divisions, the 22nd Panzerdivision, and two and a half Romanian divisions against 19 Soviet divisions and four armoured brigades at Kerch. von Manstein committed his formations in the south against the 44th Army. The 902nd Assault Boat Command of the 436th Regiment, part of of Generalleutnant Konrad Haase’s 132nd Division, landed behind the Soviet lines and helped to destroy the cohesion of the Soviet second line.

The artillery bombardment lasted only 10 minutes, and within three and a half hours of the assault being launched the 44th Army collapsed. On the first day the XXX Corps (28th Division, Generalleutnant Friedrich Schmidt’s 50th Division and the 132nd Division) had broken through in the south and, for the loss of only 104 men killed and 284 wounded, captured 4,514 Soviet soldiers. Kozlov did not appreciate the significance of the German breakthrough and failed to release reserves for a counterattack.

On 9 May, von Manstein committed the 22nd Panzerdivision, which swung to the north and trapped the eight divisions of the 51st Army against the Sea of Azov. Soviet morale and organisation collapsed, and a stampede to the rear areas began. Once this happened, the eight divisions of the 51st Army surrendered, releasing the XXX Corps to pursue the fragments of retreating Soviet forces to Marfovka, barely 8 miles (13 km) from Kerch.

The speed of the German advance was very rapid, and the Germans reached the outskirts of Kerch on 15 May. In this dash the 132nd Division overran several airfields, capturing 30 Soviet aircraft on the ground. On 10 May the VIII Fliegerkorps committed the Heinkel He 111 bombers of Oberstleutnant Benno Kosch’s KG 55 against the Soviet forces. Comparatively large and slow, the bombers were simple targets for ground fire, and eight of them were lost. However, the 4.4-lb (2-kg) SD-2 anti-personnel bomblets the aircraft dropped devastated Soviet infantry caught in the open.

German bombers also attacked shipping evacuating personnel from Kerch. The 1,048-ton Chernomorets was sunk on this day. By this time, the Luftwaffe had completely won the air battle. Despite the withdrawal of some Geschwadern to support Generaloberst Friedrich Paulus’s 6th Army in the 2nd Battle of Kharkov, the Luftwaffe had destroyed Soviet aerial opposition and enabled the German ground forces to make deep penetrations, capturing 29,000 Soviet soldiers, 220 guns and about 170 tanks. In 12 days the air units supporting the Crimea Front lost 417 aircraft. The Luftwaffe assisted the final defeat of Soviet ground forces on 20 May, when Kerch finally fell. Though 116,045 Soviet soldiers were evacuated by sea to the Taman peninsula on the eastern side of the Strait of Kerch, no fewer than 162,282 were left behind, killed or captured. Other Soviet losses were 3,500 pieces of artillery (including 1,100 captured), 350 tanks, 3,800 vehicles and 300 aircraft.

The Germans claimed to have taken 170,000 prisoners, but this number included a large number of civilians.

The German losses were only 3,397 men (including 600 dead) in the XXX Corps and XLII Corps, and the 11th Army had expended 5,650 tons of ammunition and in matériel terms had lost just nine pieces of artillery, three assault guns and eight tanks. In exchange, von Manstein had destroyed three Soviet armies.

Although forced to return some Luftwaffe units and the 22nd Panzerdivision for the ‘Blau’ campaign, von Manstein could now concentrate his forces for the ‘Störfang’ reduction of Sevastopol, whose garrison had remained wholly inert during ‘Trappenjagd’ (i).

This lightning German blow and telling Soviet defeat once again demonstrated the effect of concentrated air power and the continued superiority of German arms when good weather had restored their mobility. The Soviet account of the battle admits the total destruction of the Crimea Front and the loss of all the heavy equipment, much of which was then used against the defenders of Sevastopol. As was the custom, the senior Soviet commanders were removed from the theatre of operations in order that they might personally answer for their failure. Kozlov and two army commanders, Chernyak and Kolganov, were degraded in rank, as too were many other commanders. Mekhlis, the Stavka representative with the Crimea Front, was demoted to the rank of corps commissar.