Another Plea For Retreat
It was now up to the German commanders to make another case for the evacuation of the Crimea. Since the Seventeenth Army held only a small portion of the peninsula, both Schörner and Jaenecke argued that it was useless to sacrifice even five understrength divisions in a futile effort to remain there.
OKH had already agreed that transport units, prisoners of war, and other nonessential personnel could be ferried across the Black Sea to Romania, and more than 67,000 had already made the trip. The Luftwaffe still kept the Red Air Force and Black Sea Fleet at bay, but the Soviets were becoming bolder.
On April 19, Schörner repeated his demand for evacuation. He told Zeitzler that Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine losses were starting to mount, and that the Romanian units, which were useless, were already waiting to embark. His warning went unheeded. Even a personal visit to Hitler at the Berghof failed to sway the Führer. After listening to Schörner, Hitler promised reinforcements for the Crimea (a promise unkept), but ordered that no German combat troops were to be evacuated from the peninsula.
Paying For Last Years’ Inactivity
Tolbukhin was in no rush to storm the German defenses. His armies were strung out along the few usable roads on the peninsula, and there was little chance that the Germans would, or could, launch an attack from the Sevastopol line. While more divisions made their way toward the besieged port, the Soviet general and his staff worked on the plan for the final assault.
As for Jaenecke’s “Army,” the inactivity and boredom that had set in during the past year now had to be paid for. The main defensive line was in relatively good shape, but positions behind the main line of resistance were almost laughable. German doctrine called for a second and, if possible, a third line to be constructed and manned behind the main line, but they did not exist at Sevastopol. Even if there were such defenses, there were no troops to occupy them.
The German units were not in much better shape than their defenses. Allmendinger’s V Army Corps had lost all of its heavy artillery and some units, such as the 98th Infantry Division, had no entrenching tools. Thoroughly despondent, Jaenecke sent a message to Hitler’s headquarters demanding freedom of action—three words that Hitler could not stand. It was the last straw for the Führer.
More Changes In German Command
In the final days of April Jaenecke was relieved, replaced by Allmendinger. Allmendinger’s replacement was Lt. Gen. Friedrich-Wilhelm Müller. Konrad soon followed, replaced by the one-armed, one-legged General Walter Hartmann, who wore the coveted Oak Leaves to the Knight’s Cross. Changes in command, however, did little to affect the overall situation. It may have been more helpful if Hitler had kept his promise and sent reinforcements instead.
By the beginning of May, after receiving replacements and reinforcements, Tolbukhin was ready. The Independent Coastal Army had also been placed under his command, and the Soviet general now had about 470,000 men, 600 tanks, and 6,000 guns and mortars to assault the Sevastopol fortified area. The attack would be two-pronged, with the 2nd Guards Army mounting a feint assault on the northern perimeter, and the 51st Army, assisted by the Independent Coastal Army, striking the main blow in the east and southeast.
At 9:30 am on May 5, Tolbukhin began the attack with a massive artillery bombardment. About 300 guns and mortars were used to blast each kilometer of the German front. While the 2nd Guards Army kept German forces in the north pinned down, Kreizer’s 51st Army launched an attack against enemy positions in the Sapun Hills.
Red Air Force Comes Out Of Hiding
The 63rd Rifle Corps spearheaded the attack, supported by the 1st Guards Rifle Corps. As soon as the two corps punched a hole in the German line, the breach was to be exploited by the 10th Rifle Corps. The Red Air Force now made an appearance in force, strafing and bombing German positions and successfully challenging an overstretched Luftwaffe for temporary air superiority over the Crimea.
Allmendinger ordered his men to hold their ground, but it was asking too much for the battered troops. By 6 pm, the Germans had sustained about 5,000 casualties, and the line was threatening to crack in several places. On the Soviet side, Tolbukhin pressed his commanders to keep up the attack throughout the night, hoping for a decisive breakthrough.
Heavy fighting continued throughout the 7th, with German forces desperately trying to hang on to the all-important Sapun Hills, the gateway to Sevastopol from the south. It was no use. On May 8, the 63rd Rifle Corps succeeded in dislodging the last German defenders. The 10th Rifle Corps then moved forward, splitting the enemy line wide open and driving toward Sevastopol. A German counterattack failed to stop the Soviet exploitation. Schörner, knowing that all was lost, sent another signal to Hitler’s headquarters—“Request evacuation since further defense of Sevastopol no longer possible.”
Hitler Finally Relents
Finally, in the early hours of May 9, Hitler agreed. Allmendinger immediately began the evacuation of Sevastopol, which was under heavy artillery fire, and retreated to his last bastion, Cape Kherson, on the southwest tip of the peninsula. By 4 pm, the last German units had left Sevastopol, and Soviet forces began a cautious move into the city.
The German fortifications around Cape Kherson were considerably better than previous positions. Deep trenches and concrete strongpoints gave the troops a sense of safety that had been lacking in other areas of the Crimea. The narrow front also hindered the mass divisional attacks by the Soviets, who could concentrate only a few units for each assault.
On May 10, the Soviets attacked German positions seven times without success. Artillery fire pounded the remnants of the Seventeenth Army without mercy, but the strong fortifications held up under the heavy bombardment.
German Troops Ordered To Fall Back To Coast
May 11 saw renewed Soviet attacks. Knowing that the end was near, Allmendinger had already contacted Admiral Otto Schulz, the German naval commander, telling him to send all available ships to evacuate his men. A German flotilla was due to arrive after nightfall to embark the remaining troops. At 11 pm, the signal was given for all units to fall back to the coast and dig in around predesignated landing points to await the arrival of the German ships. That was when things began to go terribly wrong.
Allmendinger’s men had successfully disengaged from the main line and had made it to the beach, but the German ships were not there. Schulz had indeed arrived with his flotilla, but the radio channel that he had planned to use to guide individual ships to their loading points was being jammed. The frustrated admiral then ordered a signal sent on another channel to all ships, ordering them to gather near the mouth of Kamyshevaya Bay, just off Cape Kherson, so that they could be piloted to the embarkation points. That message, too, was lost in the airwaves.
Evacuation Blinded and Made Deaf
To compound matters, smoke drums, which were set around installations in case of air attacks, were set off by the Soviet artillery pounding the area. Others were purposely set ablaze by German units to give them more cover while they were waiting to embark. The result was a massive smokescreen that obscured docks and landing areas, making it next to impossible for the German ships to see their designated destinations.
Many of the more intrepid German skippers made it to shore despite the difficulties. Ferries, motor-torpedo boats, and some transport ships groped their way through the dense smoke to find Allmendinger’s troops and bring them to safety. In all, 31,708 of the remaining men eventually made their way safely back to Romania.
In some places, however, luck was against the Germans. Major General Erich Gruner’s 111th Infantry Division, which had arrived in the Crimea only two months earlier, did not have one major ship make it to the division’s embarkation point. As dawn broke on May 12, most of the division was still on shore, an inviting target for the Soviets.
German Division Meets Soviet Wrath
Furious that so many Germans had gotten away, the Soviets attacked the near-helpless division with tanks and infantry. When Gruner fell victim to a Russian tank shell, resistance soon ceased. Eyewitness accounts speak of German officers and Russian auxiliaries being lined up and shot after the division had surrendered, a bitter end to Hitler’s Crimean venture.
Since the Soviet offensive began in April, 31,700 Germans and 25,800 Romanians had been killed or wounded. Another 20,000 were missing in action, and several thousand more were captured. The Soviets put their losses of killed and wounded at 84,331.
“Crimea Was Our Biggest POW Cage”
The losses incurred in the Crimea can be blamed directly on Hitler’s mania for holding every inch of ground, even when that ground was no longer strategically important. Soviet troops had long ago passed the peninsula as they pushed steadily westward, and even Soviet intelligence officers were surprised, and somewhat amused, at how the Seventeenth Army had been used.