Nazi Germany's Crimean Downfall

June 13, 2019 Topic: History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: CrimeaWorld War IISoviet UnionNazi GermanyUkraine

Nazi Germany's Crimean Downfall

Things did not go well for Hitler's armies.

Once it was clear that the Seventeenth Army was not going anywhere, Jaenecke put his men to work. The Crimea presented formidable obstacles to an invader, as was borne out in the German conquest of 1941-1942. An attack from the mainland had three possible avenues of advance. The Perekop Isthmus, only four to five miles wide, was the most likely approach. It still contained Soviet defensive works that had been overrun in 1941, and Jaenecke wasted little time in sending engineering units to make them battleworthy again.

Relying On Past Experience For Defense Of Crimea

The other two routes crossed a saline marsh east of Perekop known as the Sivash. Neither had been particularly useful during the 1941 German advance, and Jaenecke doubted that they would be of much use to the Soviets. Even so, the German general sent construction units to erect barricades and strongpoints in the area. The old Soviet forts that had been destroyed during the siege of Sevastopol had lain deserted for more than a year, but Jaenecke also saw to it that work began on repairing those structures.

On the mainland, things became progressively worse for the Germans. By mid-October the Soviets had occupied virtually all of the Donets Basin. This gave them an economic boost with the grain and cattle that were recovered in the area. It also gave the Red Army a new source of replacements for its depleted divisions.

Soviets Conscript New Fodder

As soon as a town or city was reoccupied, the civilian men were immediately given a uniform and a rifle and were sent to the front, where they were expected to quickly master the art of war or die. This method of conscription replaced tens of thousands of casualties that had been suffered in the previous fighting. With that extra force, the Red Army was able to push the Germans west, across the Dneper River.

The Dneper, the second largest river in the Soviet Union, offered one of the best natural defensive positions in European Russia, especially for a defender dug in on the western bank, which was higher than the eastern bank. If the western bank had been adequately fortified, as von Manstein had suggested, the river would have presented a formidable barrier for the attacking Soviets.

Fortunately for Malinovsky and Tolbukhin, Hitler had refused to fortify the area, stating that a strong defensive line in the rear would only give his soldiers a reason not to fight for every inch of the Donets Basin. This peculiar logic spelled disaster for the German forces in southern Russia, just as it would for other German armies all along the Eastern Front.

Soviet Generals Prepare Four-Front Assault

During the first week of October, while Soviet forces were regrouping for an assault across the Dneper, Malinovsky’s Southwest Front and Tolbukhin’s South Front became the 3rd and 4th Ukrainian Fronts. With replacements and equipment, the two generals were almost ready to resume their offensive. Malinovsky’s 3rd Ukrainian Front was charged with crossing the Dneper in the First Panzer Army’s sector, while Tolbukhin’s 4th Ukrainian Front would hit Hollidt’s Sixth Army (now under control of von Kleist’s Heeresgruppe A), which was anchored on the coast of the Sea of Azov.

The Sixth Army did not have the benefit of the Dneper barrier, the great river angles to the southwest just below Zaporozhye, which was in the sector held by the First Panzer Army. To keep the front straight, and to protect the Crimea, Hollidt was forced to hold an area that was nothing more than a desolate steppe with little in the way of cover or natural defenses.

The storm broke on October 9, when more than 400 Soviet artillery batteries brought a rain of deadly steel down upon Hollidt’s Sixth Army. The front was held by 13 German divisions (including two Panzer and two rather unreliable Luftwaffe Field Divisions) and two Romanian divisions. To break the Sixth Army’s back, Tolbukhin had a total of 45 rifle divisions, three tank corps, two guards mechanized corps, and two guards cavalry corps. His 800 tanks outnumbered Hollidt’s 83 panzers and 98 Sturmgeschütze (assault guns) by a ratio of more than four to one.

Germans Fail To Hold Melitopol

Taking Melitopol was Tolbukhin’s first order of business. His 51st Army, supported by the 28th Army, attacked on a 20-mile front. In savage hand-to-hand fighting, the 51st gained a foothold on the southern edge of the city on October 12. Hollidt, knowing the importance of the city, ordered that Melitopol be held at all costs, and it was not until October 23 that the area was cleared of German troops.

Since the middle of October, von Kleist and Jaenecke had watched the Soviet offensive with growing apprehension. In messages to the Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH—Army High Command), von Kleist had bluntly warned that the Seventeenth Army was in danger of being cut off and that it was time to evacuate the entire Crimean Peninsula. The replies that he received from Army Chief of Staff Col. Gen. Kurt Zeitzler showed von Kleist the irrational atmosphere that had permeated to the highest levels of the German Army. Simply put, Zeitzler said that evacuation was impossible because Hitler “would not allow the word ‘Crimea’ to be mentioned in his presence.”

The Relentless Soviet Advance

On October 25, the 51st and 28th Armies burst out of Melitopol, scattering German and Romanian forces before them. Their objective was twofold: split the Sixth Army in half and cut off the Seventeenth Army in the Crimea. The Soviets moved purposefully, brushing aside the enemy and driving relentlessly toward their goals.

Von Kleist sent another brutally honest message to OKH on October 26. He told Zeitzler that the situation in the Sixth Army’s sector could not be rectified and that he was going to start evacuating units on the Kerch Peninsula that very evening, in preparation for a general withdrawal from the Crimea. This time, he was expressly forbidden to make any such move by Hitler himself, which seemed to make a serious impression on the general.

Von Kleist was not the only person pleading for the evacuation of the Crimea. Marshal Ion Antonescu, the leader of Romania, told Hitler that the loss of the seven Romanian divisions stationed there might have serious repercussions within his country. Hitler brushed Antonescu’s concerns aside, falling back on his old arguments about the Crimea being used by the Red Air Force to bomb Romanian oil wells, and the Red Army using the peninsula as a staging area for amphibious landings along the southern coasts of Bulgaria and Romania.

“You Are To Defend the Crimea!”

Meanwhile, the Soviet offensive continued unabated. Jaenecke made a final attempt to save his army on the night of October 28. The telephone conversation between Jaenecke and von Kleist reveals the conflict of emotions that tore at the two men in this time of crisis.

Von Kleist: You are to defend the Crimea!

Jaene>K: So, collusion, conspiracy to disobey an order! If you cannot, someone else will command the army!

J: I report again that in the light of my responsibility for the army I cannot execute the order.

K: … This attitude only undermines the confidence of the troops. If I get one more division [for you] everything will be all right.

J: That is building castles in the air. One must deal with realities here.

K: The [Seventeenth] Army has not yet been attacked. A little reinforcement on the [Perekop] isthmus, and everything will be in order….

J: The Crimea must be defended on its entire perimeter. If the Russians attack, the catastrophe is at hand. I must recall once more the example of Generalfeldmarschall Paulus at Stalingrad.

K: The details of events there are not known…. If the commanding general, 17th Armée, does not execute the order [to defend the Crimea] he will break every rule of soldierly deportment. Will you execute the order or not?

Too Late For the Seventeenth Army

Jaenecke then asked for time to think about what von Kleist had said. After considering the options, especially of turning over his army to someone who was not fully aware of his troop dispositions and their strengths and weaknesses, Jaenecke gave in. He would try to defend the Crimea as best he could, but in any case, it was already too late for the Seventeenth Army. By the end of the month, Tolbukhin’s armies had already achieved their objective. The Crimea was now cut off from the German forces on the mainland.

When the gate to the Perekop Isthmus was slammed shut by the 4th Ukrainian Front, the Seventeenth Army consisted of three regular German Infantry Divisions (50th, 98th, 336th) and the 153rd Training Division. There were also three Romanian mountain divisions (1st, 2nd, 3rd), two Romanian cavalry divisions (6th and 9th), two Romanian infantry divisions (6th and 19th) and the 1st Slovakian Division. The mix of divisions would change somewhat during the next few months, but it would always be an army dominated by Romanian divisions.