On July 4, 1942, the men of newly promoted Field Marshal Erich von Manstein’s Eleventh Army celebrated the capture of the last Soviet bastion in the Crimea.
Sevastopol: Hard-Won German Victory In The East
Since September 24 of the previous year, von Manstein’s German and Romanian battalions had fought a stubborn Russian opponent for control of the peninsula. The forts surrounding the port of Sevastopol had withstood the fire of 14-inch howitzers and 17-, 24-, and 31.5-inch siege guns and had fallen only after costly frontal attacks by German assault troops.
Von Manstein had little time to celebrate with his men. His headquarters was soon moved north to an area near Leningrad, where Hitler hoped that the victor of Sevastopol could repeat his Crimean performance. After a few months, however, the headquarters was disbanded and von Manstein was assigned to the Stalingrad sector, where he was charged with stopping the Soviet attack that threatened to shatter the German front in southern Russia.
Germans Tasting Victory
In the Crimea, the occupation troops had followed the advance of German forces into Stalingrad and the Caucasus with pride and anticipation. With the capture of “Stalin’s City” and the Caucasian oil wells, the war would surely be over soon. Newspaper headlines and German radio were already declaring victory in southern Russia, and the Crimean garrison had little doubt that victory was close at hand.
Although the peninsula seemed to have been relegated to the backwaters of the war, there was still work to be done by the Germans and their Romanian allies. Airfields had to be guarded against sporadic attacks from partisan groups, and the ports along the Black Sea had to be maintained to support the troops advancing toward the Eurasian border.
The tide of battle suddenly changed when the Soviets launched their own Stalingrad offensive on November 19, 1942. Within months, the mighty Sixth Army of Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus was destroyed, sacrificed by Hitler in a futile attempt to hold the city. South of Stalingrad, three Soviet fronts (army groups) battered the First Panzer Army and the Seventeenth Army that comprised Field Marshal Ewald von Kleist’s Heeresgruppe A (Army Group A), which had been advancing on the Caucasian oil fields at Grozny and Baku.
Soviets Push Back Nazi Forces Toward Black Sea
While the Battle of Stalingrad was in full swing, Heeresgruppe A fought for its life. The Soviets gradually pushed von Kleist’s two armies back toward the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, threatening to cut off the Heeresgruppe by advancing on Rostov. Von Manstein, now in command of Heeresgruppe Don, later renamed Heeresgruppe Süd (South), put up a desperate fight to keep the city from falling into Soviet hands.
General Eberhard von Mackensen’s First Panzer Army managed to fight its way north and was able to escape through the narrow corridor still under German control. It was a different story for Col. Gen. Richard Ruoff’s Seventeenth Army. Both von Manstein and von Kleist argued for the evacuation, by sea if necessary, of all of the forces of Heeresgruppe A, but Hitler refused to give up the bridgehead that the Seventeenth Army occupied on the Taman Peninsula.
Even after Stalingrad, Hitler still thought that the bridgehead could be used as a point for a future drive on the southern oil fields. Thanks to his stubbornness, the First Panzer Army’s 50th Infantry Division was forced to move south and attach itself to the Seventeenth Army, which gave Ruoff needed infantry reinforcements. By the end of March 1943, Ruoff had established a defensive line that stretched from east of Novorossiysk north to the Sea of Azov.
A Stubborn Hitler Ties Down Seventeenth Army
The Germans on the Taman Peninsula held their positions throughout the summer and early fall of 1943. Although Ruoff’s men did tie down a considerable number of Soviet forces, the divisions of the Seventeenth Army could have been better used in the critical battles in the Donets Basin that raged during the first half of the year.
On June 25, General Erwin Jaenecke assumed command of the Seventeenth Army. Born in 1890, Jaenecke had served on the Eastern Front since February 1942, first as the commander of the 389th Infantry Division and then as commander of the IV and LXXXII Army Corps. He arrived at a critical time for both German and Russian forces on the Eastern Front.
The great German offensive at Kursk, which began on July 5, occupied the Red Army for the first half of the month. When Hitler, nervous about the Allied landings in Sicily, called off the attack, the Soviets gained some much- needed time to replenish their depleted armies before beginning their own offensive in the area. While the Kursk offensive was in full swing, the German forces on the Taman Peninsula, far from the main fighting in the north, repulsed some probing attacks from General I.E. Petrov’s North Caucasus Front, but no major damage was caused to the defensive line.
Soviets Regroup For Large Offensive
The German failure at Kursk gave the Red Army the opportunity to take the offensive on the Eastern Front once and for all. Recovering quickly from the huge losses of men and materiel suffered in July, the Soviets prepared to launch a series of attacks designed to batter the German lines from Smolensk to Rostov. By mid-August, all was ready. The offensive began in the last week of August with a series of staggered attacks across the front. The German High Command was kept off balance as Russian forces struck toward Smolensk and Briansk in the north, Kiev in the center, and Dnepropetrovsk and Kherson in the south.
While Jaenecke’s Seventeenth Army sat impotently in the Taman, General R.I. Malinovsky’s Southwest Front struck the First Panzer Army near Izyum, while General F.I. Tolbukhin’s South Front hit the newly reconstituted Sixth Army, commanded by Col. Gen. Karl Hollidt, along the Mius River. Within days, calls for reinforcements were coming in from all sectors of the front, but there were few to be had.
Appeal For More Divisions & More Empty Promises From Hitler
On August 25, an aircraft carrying the operations officers of the Sixth Army and the First Panzer Army arrived at von Manstein’s Heeresgruppe Süd headquarters to present a proposed withdrawal of German forces to new lines farther to the west. In turn, von Manstein went to Hitler’s headquarters at Vinnista and bluntly told the Führer that the Donets Basin could not be held unless reinforcements totaling at least 12 divisions were immediately sent to the Heeresgruppe.
Hitler said that he would find the divisions, but von Manstein had heard those empty promises before. When the Soviet 2nd Guards Mechanized Corps broke through the lines of the Sixth Army on August 31, von Manstein ordered a general withdrawal of the Sixth Army to new lines that had been established in the west. That evening, Hitler sent word that he would give von Manstein freedom to withdraw his entire Heeresgruppe, “provided that the situation absolutely demands it and there is no possible alternative.”
Logically, the next defensive stand in the south could be made only at the Dneper River. Hitler, however, refused to allow a withdrawal of that magnitude, citing severe political and economic repercussions if the entire Donets Basin was lost. Because of his stubbornness, the Germans faced Malinovsky and Tolbukhin in a poor defensive position east of the Dneper and were forced to fight a war of attrition that they could not possibly win.
Withdrawal of Seventeenth Finally Approved
On the Taman Peninsula, the Seventeenth Army finally was given permission to begin its own withdrawal. There was now no hope of using the Taman as a springboard to the Caucasian oil fields, so Jaenecke was ordered to start ferrying his men across the Kerch Straits to the relative safety of the Crimea. Although Petrov’s North Caucasus Front (soon to be reformed as the Independent Coastal Army) attempted to interfere with the evacuation, the move was completed by the first week of October.
Meanwhile, the Soviet offensive to the north gathered steam. By the end of September, Tolbukhin’s 4th Ukrainian Front had reached the outskirts of Melitopol, about a hundred miles northeast of the Perekop Isthmus, the gateway to the Crimea. Soviet armies were also within reach of Dnepropetrovsk, Kiev, Gomel, and Vitebsk, and had already liberated Smolensk.
With the Seventeenth Army released from the senseless occupation of the Taman Peninsula, von Manstein now had a fairly potent pool of reserves. He asked Hitler for use of most of Jaenecke’s divisions to shore up the front, but his request was steadfastly refused. The Seventeenth Army would stay where it was to prevent the fall of the Crimea.
Hitler’s Crimean Obsession
Since the opening stages of the Russo-German conflict, Hitler had been obsessed with the Crimea. The Romanian oil fields, on which the Wehrmacht depended to fuel its divisions, were within range of Crimean air bases. Hitler often referred to the Crimea as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier,” and once it was in his hands, he would not let it go.