The charred remains of men and machines scattered through the Kursk salient in July 1943 signified the death knell of the last attempt by the German Wehrmacht to regain the initiative on the Eastern Front. On the extreme southern flank of the front, Hitler still clung to the hope of breaking through to the great oil fields of Baku on the Caspian Sea. The Taman Peninsula, wedged between the Azov and Black Seas, was the westernmost location in an area called Kuban, north and west of the Caucasus Mountains. This peninsula was conveniently positioned for the Germans as the springboard in case another offensive toward the Caucasus Mountains became possible. It also barred the back door to the Crimea, vital for holding countries of the western Black Sea rim in Hitler’s sphere of influence.
While waiting for their opportunity to materialize, the Germans turned the Taman Peninsula into a seemingly impregnable position. The Seventeenth Field Army, under General of Engineers Erwin Jaeneke, occupied the line in the vicinity of Torres Verdes. To the Soviets, these defensive positions became known as the “Blue Line.”
The 400,000 Defenders of the Blue Line
The Seventeenth Army was composed of the V and XLIV Infantry Corps, XLIX Mountain Corps, and the V Romanian Cavalry Corps, a total strength of 18 divisions and four separate regiments. The Seventeenth was one of the strongest German field armies, numbering approximately 400,000 men, 2,860 cannon and mortars, more than 100 tanks and assault guns, and 300 combat aircraft.
The landscape of the Taman Peninsula was ideally suited for defensive operations against an enemy attacking from the east. Its northern flank is anchored on the shore of the Azov Sea, east of Kurchanski Bay. It continues through a series of inlets and then follows the Kurka River south, branching off from the Kuban River. Along the roughly 35 miles that the Blue Line followed the line of the Kurka River, the Germans built a high earthen berm on the western side of the river. After crossing the Kuban River, the Blue Line briefly followed the Adagum River, a tributary of the Kuban. There the position was anchored on strongly fortified Kievskaya village. This northern sector of German defenses was fronted by a wide swath of rivers, marshes, and flooded lowlands, making frontal attack practically impossible.
The central sector of the Blue Line, approximately 20 miles long, was characterized by a low plateau, easily accessible by Soviet tanks. Therefore, the Germans paid particular attention to fortifying this region. The defensive network here consisted of two heavily fortified lines anchored on villages and low hillocks. In front of each defensive line and in the empty spaces between strongpoints, there were extensive barbed wire emplacements, minefields, and concrete bunkers bristling with guns.
The southern sector of the Blue Line ran along 15 miles of difficult mountainous terrain, terminating at the large port city of Novorossiysk located at Tsemess Bay on the Black Sea. The Germans turned whole districts of the city into miniature fortresses. Many streets were barricaded. A network of interconnected basements fortified with concrete, bricks, and timber was set up to establish in-depth defensive zones. German combat engineers blew up many buildings and built bunkers in the rubble, reminiscent of Stalingrad. The streets and the suburbs were extensively mined as well.
Fifteen to 20 miles behind the forward defensive line were multiple defensive positions, prepared with maximum utilization of advantageous terrain and narrow avenues of approach. These shorter defensive lines were given names such as Bucharest, Berlin, Munich, Breslau, Stuttgart, and Ulm. The most forward of them, running from the city of Temryuk on the Azov Sea coast southwest to the Black Sea coast and then west along it, was called the Little Gothic Line (Kleine Gotten Stellung).
The Soviet’s “Little Land”
Early in February 1943, the Soviet forces launched a general offensive to liberate the Kuban region. After several months of fighting, the Soviet Army advanced almost 400 miles before finally grinding to a halt at the Blue Line. The difficult nature of the terrain limited Soviet maneuverability, and combat actions degenerated into a costly process of pushing the Germans out rather than surrounding and destroying them.
The retreating German forces systematically destroyed bridges and railroads, collapsed wells and mined roads, using every means available to slow down the Soviet pursuit. As the Germans retreated west, their defensive lines became shorter, allowing them to create local reserves and utilize internal lines of communication. In turn, the Soviet front lines became wider, decreasing troop density.
On February 4, a small force of Soviet soldiers and sailors from the Eighteenth Army landed in the immediate vicinity of Novorossiysk and established a beachhead. Despite determined German efforts to liquidate this threat, the Soviets stubbornly hung on and slowly expanded the beachhead. By the time the general offensive ground to a halt in the first week of June 1943, the Soviet beachhead was an impregnable network of trenches and bunkers.
This small sliver of shoreline became known as the “Little Land” in the Soviet Union. In this campaign, future Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev served as the chief political officer of the Eighteenth Army. Long after the war, Brezhnev authored a book called The Little Land, depicting the seven-month campaign on the beachhead. In his book, Brezhnev claimed to have been present on The Little Land on several occasions and in the thick of the fighting.
This book raised a large amount of controversy, which lasted for years. Many Soviet veterans claimed that Brezhnev never got any closer to The Little Land than the opposite shore of Tsemess Bay. However, until the fall of communist rule in the Soviet Union, it was unhealthy to voice this point of view.
A Campaign to Take the Taman Peninsula
While both the Germans and the Soviets took advantage of a lull in the fighting, the Soviet high command began planning a new offensive to completely clear the Taman Peninsula of German forces.
The military council of the North Caucasus front, headed by Col. Gen. I.E. Petrov, made the decision to launch the new offensive in the south against Novorossiysk. The terrain in the north of the peninsula was simply too forbidding to allow any maneuver by large forces, and the center of the Blue Line was too strongly fortified. Neither Petrov nor any of his subordinates had any illusions that Novorossiysk would be an easy nut to crack. One major factor in deciding to move against Novorossiysk was the assistance of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet with its ability to move along the southern coast of the peninsula and provide the advancing Soviet Army forces with naval gunfire.
The Soviet North Caucasus front was composed of four land armies (the Ninth, Eighteenth, Fifty-Sixth, and Fifty-Eighth), and one air army, the Fourth. The Fifty-Eighth Army was assigned to defend the shores of the Azov Sea. The other ground armies, composed of 20 infantry divisions and four naval infantry brigades, would directly participate in the attack against the Taman Peninsula. The Eighteenth Army, under Lt. Gen. K.N. Leselidze, was assigned the all-important task of liberating Novorossiysk. The Ninth Army, under Lt. Gen. Alexey A. Grechkin, was operating in the north, and the Fifty-Sixth Army, under Lt. Gen. Andrey A. Grechko, was given the central sector.
During this stage of the war, while the Soviet Air Force did not have complete air superiority, its numerical advantage over the German combat aircraft in the vicinity was daunting. Opposing the 300 German aircraft on the Taman Peninsula, the Soviet Fourth Air Army and the air assets of the Black Sea Fleet amassed more than 1,000 planes.
Fighting among the Fourth Air Army was the famed 46th Guards Night Bomber Regiment. Every single person in this unit, from cook to mechanic to pilot, was a woman, usually barely into her 20s. Flying old plywood and canvas PO-2 trainer biplanes converted into night bombers, the Soviet female fliers proudly wore the nickname “Night Witches” given to them by Germans.
The Soviet female pilots fully earned the coveted and honored “Guards” designation, paying their dues in blood. Their sacrifices were epitomized by one harrowing night mission when the slow-moving biplanes were ambushed by a German night fighter. Four Soviet aircraft were sent burning to the ground, taking eight young women fliers to their fiery deaths.
As if having a premonition of events to come, Hitler on September 3 allowed Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, commander of Army Group South, to begin the evacuation of the Taman Peninsula. The next day the orders were relayed to the Seventeenth Army, which now had only a few days to begin an orderly evacuation. Originally, the German commanders allocated eight weeks for the total evacuation of their forces from the Taman Peninsula. Coming events were to cut that time in half.
A Slow Start to the Offensive
The Soviet offensive began at 2 am on September 10, 1943. Under cover of massive artillery barrages from more than 200 cannon and air strikes by 150 combat aircraft, several small detachments of Soviet torpedo boats raced into the port of Novorossiysk and fired their torpedoes directly at jetties and German positions on the piers. Immediately following them, a small flotilla of cutters began disembarking three battalion-sized assault parties.