Stark Class Divisions Within Romanian Army
There was no doubt that the Romanian soldier was a brave fighter, as was shown during the 1942 conquest of the Crimea. The problem lay in leadership, class distinction, and equipment. Many of the officers, some of whom performed very well, came from nobility, while most of the soldiers were peasants or workers from the cities. Officers ate better than their subordinates, and an enlisted man was constantly reminded of his “place” in the army pecking order.
Rifles and machine guns were outdated, and most artillery units were based around the 75mm gun or howitzer, although some units had a few 100mm and 105mm weapons. The Romanian Army might have been able to hold its own against the Red Army of 1941, but against Soviet forces in late 1943 it was hopelessly outmatched.
Even though the Seventeenth Army was cut off from the mainland, the Kriegsmarine (German Navy) kept the Crimea supplied. Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz guaranteed that his forces in the Black Sea would deliver at least 50,000 tons of supplies a month. Supply convoys made the trip on a regular basis, escorted by German E-boats and Romanian destroyers. The Soviet Black Sea Fleet was nowhere to be seen, its heavy ships being kept safely in Caucasian ports for fear of being attacked by the Stuka dive-bombers of Lt. Gen. Paul Deichmann’s I Fliegerkorps. Without control of the air over the Crimea, the Soviets were virtually helpless in interdicting the naval lifeline of the Seventeenth Army.
Resupplied German Army Manages To Hold On
As the war on the mainland moved steadily westward, Tolbukhin was forced to leave two armies to keep the Crimea sealed. Another Soviet army was also stationed on the Taman Peninsula. In November, the Soviets attacked German and Romanian positions at Perekop, while the army in the Taman made a sea landing in the Kerch area. Although advances were made in the Sivash and a beachhead was established in the Kerch area, both penetrations were sealed off by Jaenecke’s divisions.
Supplies continued to arrive from the port of Odessa and, to a lesser extent, from the Romanian port of Constanta, and the Luftwaffe was able to bring in reinforcements and evacuate the wounded by using the huge six-engined Me-323 Gigant transport planes. These aircraft could carry 60-80 troops or 39,600 pounds of supplies. For the time being, the Crimea would remain safely in German hands.
False Security Overcomes Seventeenth Army
While the rest of Heeresgruppe A fought for its life during the winter of 1943, the men of the Seventeenth Army were, for the most part, left in peace. A sense of false security gradually spread through the ranks, and the rebuilding of destroyed Soviet fortifications slowed to a crawl as engineer units were ordered to other duties.
The men of the infantry divisions found themselves with little to do except combat the boredom of their daily routines. At Jaenecke’s headquarters, various plans were worked out for the evacuation order that must surely come, but the malaise that affected the junior officers and men was already spreading to higher headquarters as weeks of inactivity turned to months. The Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine were both active in ferrying supplies and keeping the Black Sea Fleet bottled up, but for the army, there was little to do but wait.
In January and February 1944, the Soviets launched a major offensive against the Sixth Army at Nikopol and Krivoi Rog. After these successful operations, Malinovsky’s 3rd Ukrainian Front continued to hammer the Sixth Army, taking Kherson and forcing Hollidt’s men back to a line on the Bug River. The Bug position did not last long, and by the end of March Soviet forces were already crossing the river and heading for Odessa.
A Furious Hitler Begins Sacking Generals On Eastern Front
Hollidt was ordered to hold the city at all costs. The remnants of a few battered German and Romanian divisions attempted to form a ring around the city, but the Soviets were already knocking at the door. Hitler, furious about the collapse in southern Russia, had already sacked von Manstein on March 30. Von Kleist went the following day, replaced by Col. Gen. Ferdinand Schörner (Hitler also renamed Heeresgruppen Süd and A, changing them to Heeresgruppen Nordukraine and Südukraine). Hollidt was the next to go, replaced “for reasons of health” during the first week of April by General Maximilian de Angelis.
Jaenecke had escaped Hitler’s wrath for the moment. Thanks to a steady flow of supplies and reinforcements, his Seventeenth Army now had five German infantry divisions (50th, 73rd, 98th, 111th, and 336th) and two assault gun brigades in addition to the seven Romanian divisions that were still on the peninsula. On April 7 Schörner paid a visit to the Crimea, inspecting Jaenecke’s defenses and declaring that the peninsula could be held “for a long time,” before flying off to his own headquarters. That same afternoon, the Soviets attacked.
Soviets Unleash On Germans and Romanian Divisions
General Y.G. Kreizer’s 51st Army hit the 10th Romanian Infantry Division in several areas, probing for weak points in the front facing the Sivash. Brigadier General Constantin Testioreance’s men barely held on to their positions during the night. The following morning, the full weight of the 51st Army fell upon the terrified Romanians and their German neighbors.
The Perekop Isthmus was held by General Rudolf Konrad’s IL Mountain Corps (50th, 111th, and 336th Infantry Divisions, 10th and 19th Romanian Infantry Divisions, and the 9th Romanian Cavalry Division). At about 9 am on April 8, Konrad’s line was rocked by a heavy artillery barrage. Immediately following the bombardment, Kreizer’s III Corps (1st Guards Rifle, 10th and 63rd Rifle) stormed the German and Romanian positions. At the same time, General G.F. Zakharov’s 2nd Guards Army (13th Guards Rifle Corps, 54th and 55th Rifle Corps) hit Konrad’s Perekop positions. The two armies had a combined total of 278,000 men, supported by 347 tanks and 1,785 guns and mortars.
German and Romanian defenses were anchored in a position known as the Tartar Ditch, but the area was no longer tenable due to the overwhelming Soviet superiority. Konrad received the code word Adler (Eagle) late on the night of April 9, ordering him to withdraw. The general immediately began pulling his battered divisions out of the line and started a headlong retreat toward the Gneisenau Line, which was a blocking position that arced around the city of Simferopol and covered the main roads to Sevastopol.
An Overdue Message To Retreat
At the Kerch bridgehead, the Independent Coastal Army (formerly the North Caucasus Front) under General A.I. Yeremenko had also started probing attacks. Yeremenko had two corps (11th Rifle and 16th Guards Rifle) with 12 rifle divisions, two rifle brigades, and one independent tank brigade (135,562 men, 212 tanks, and 961 artillery pieces). He faced General Karl Allmendinger’s V Army Corps (73rd and 98th Infantry Divisions, 6th Romanian Cavalry, and 3rd Romanian Mountain divisions). When Allmendinger received the Adler message, his divisions began a 150-mile race to the Gneisenau Line, with Yeremenko’s army in hot pursuit.
The first stage of the retreat took Allmendinger’s divisions back to the Parpach Line, which stretched across the narrowest part of the Kerch Peninsula. Although suffering considerable losses from Soviet mechanized and armored units, his men made a good fight of it. German artillery, employed in the main line of resistance, caused heavy casualties among the advancing Russian men and machines, but the Parpach Line soon became untenable. With Tolbukhin’s armies advancing from the north, threatening the rear of the V Army Corps, Allmendinger had no choice but to abandon his positions and try to make it to the Gneisenau Line.
German Artillery Destroyed At Yalta Mountains
Yeremenko’s pursuit was held up by strategically placed antitank and infantry units that occupied mountain passes and important crossroads until the last minute before retreating to new positions farther west. Unfortunately for the Germans, the passes of the Yalta Mountains proved too much for their horse-drawn artillery and the big guns had to be blown up, depriving the V Army Corps of vital artillery support.
When Allmendinger reached the Gneisenau Line, he learned that the position had already been breached in the north by Tolbukhin’s troops. His men, on the brink of collapse, would have to continue retreating to the fortified area around Sevastopol. Along with this news came the ominous report that Odessa had fallen, cutting Jaenecke’s main supply link.
Attrition Takes Toll On Romanian Units
Allmendinger’s units entered the main Sevastopol defense line on April 16, joining Konrad’s IL Mountain Corps, which had occupied the northern part of the line on the 14th. During the first eight days of the Soviet offensive, the Seventeenth Army had lost 13,131 German and 17,652 Romanian soldiers. The condition of the Romanian units made them both unfit and unreliable in further combat situations, and Jaenecke recommended that they be evacuated as soon as possible.
His five German divisions were also battered. Already understrength when the Soviet offensive began, they were now little more than reinforced regiments. Jaenecke organized them into five combat groups and supported them with the assault guns, artillery, and antiaircraft guns that had survived the retreat. Meanwhile, three Soviet armies prepared for the final assault.