The year 1943 began badly for the German Army on the Eastern Front. After a great struggle at Stalingrad, German Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus surrendered himself and his Sixth Army on January 31. Powerful sledgehammer blows from the strengthening Red Army began to shudder the entire southern flank of the German Army.
In the Caucasus, the Soviet steamroller started clearing the Taman Peninsula to eliminate the German threat to the Caspian Sea oil fields. The key to securing the entire northeastern shore of the Black Sea was Novorossiysk, an important deep-sea port city held by the Germans since September 1942.
Soviets Need to Recapture a Vital Naval Base
The goal of Soviet Operation Sea was to cut off and destroy German and Romanian forces operating in and near Novorossiysk. The German 17th Army defending this area was composed of both German and Romanian divisions. The Soviet 47th Army, from the North Caucasus Front under General I.E. Petrov, was to launch an overland assault from northeast of the city. Once the troops of the 47th Army breached the German defenses, the Soviet 18th Army, also from the North Caucasus Front, was to land its forces in the immediate vicinity of the city itself, on the Tsemess Bay.
With the German occupation of Sevastopol and Novorossiysk in 1942, the Soviet Black Sea Fleet had lost its primary naval bases. Its operations were shifted farther down the southeast coast to the city of Poti, whose port facilities were small and poorly equipped to serve as a naval base. An even smaller port, Gelendzhik, closer to Novorossiysk, picked up part of the workload. The recapture of Novorossiysk would provide the Soviet Black Sea Fleet with a base large enough to accommodate its naval forces.
The Land Attack Fails; An Amphibious Assault is Planned
The Soviet 47th Army launched its attacks northeast of the city on February 1, 1943. The spearhead was unable to breach German defensive lines and reach its objectives. To support the 47th, Petrov ordered the 18th Army to land its forces from the sea no later than February 4.
This amphibious assault was to be carried out in two locations. The main landing force was to come ashore in the vicinity of the village of South Ozereika. This force was composed of the 255th Naval Infantry Brigade, the 563rd Separate Tank Battalion, and supporting assets. South Ozereika is located southeast of Novorossiysk, and a Soviet force landed there would be a direct threat to German rear echelons.
A diversionary landing was to take place on Cape Khako on the western side of the Tsemess Bay, near Stanichka village, which was situated in the vicinity of Novorossiysk. The 250 men in this battalion task force came from the 255th Naval Infantry Brigade. The Black Sea Fleet, under Vice Admiral F.S. Oktyabrsky, was to transport the troops and provide covering bombardment. Oktyabrsky was in the overall command of the operation.
The armored fist of the primary assault, the 563rd Separate Tank Battalion, was formed in the summer of 1942. Initially, the battalion was equipped with British Valentine and American Stuart Lend-Lease tanks, but eventually became entirely equipped with M3A3 Stuarts.
The lack of appropriate landing craft was to play a key, and tragic, role in the operation. Instead of actual amphibious assault craft, the Soviets were forced to use bolinders, which were shallow-draft, self-propelled barges. These craft were named for a Swedish firm that had produced maritime commercial vessels in Russia before the 1917 revolution. At this time, three bolinders were in use by the Black Sea Fleet, but they could no longer move under their own power and were used as towed barges or temporary floating docks. These were the only tank-landing resources available for Operation Sea.
The plan called for 30 tanks to land in the first echelon at South Ozereika. After disembarking the tanks, the bolinders were to revert to their role as floating docks and receive troops disembarking from gunboats, trawlers, and transports, which could not get close to the beach due to their deeper draft.
The Soviet command realized that the success of the whole operation depended on the ability of these three ancient, dilapidated craft to get close to land. To ensure their survival, Soviet aviation and naval supporting bombardment were to provide cover for the landing. Small groups of minor combat vessels were to draw attention away from the landing group.
Outdated Bolinders Lead to Disaster
Embarkation began in the evening of February 3 in Gelendzhik, which was ill equipped to handle an operation of this size. The units participating in the operation did not have an opportunity to practice embarkation and quickly fell behind schedule. Miraculously, at 1940 hours, only 30 minutes late, the first echelon of the landing force began to get underway. The sea conditions were not taken into account in planning, and minor swells further slowed the tempo of the operation.
It immediately became apparent that the bolinders, heavily loaded with tanks, were creeping along at a much slower speed than was planned. Bolinders, even in their prime, were designed for in-shore work and they were completely inadequate to cross the open waters of the Tsemess Bay. The timetable began to fall further and further back. It was soon determined that the ground assault force was going to be one and a half hours behind schedule.
This meant that the assault troops would hit the beach well after the scheduled air and naval strikes and diversionary landing took place. Realizing that this meant the failure of the whole operation, the first wave commander, Captain 1st Rank (Captain) N.E. Basisty, requested that the operation commander, Vice Admiral Oktyabrsky, delay the diversionary landings and fire support by 90 minutes. Extreme inflexibility in decision-making and the strictest adherence to plans had plagued the upper echelons of the Soviet command throughout the war, so it is of little surprise that Oktyabrsky denied the request.
Heavy naval bombardment and air strikes began at 0045 and lasted over two hours. For the first time in naval warfare, several vessels had “Katyusha” multiple rocket launchers mounted on them. The naval bombardment was largely ineffective due to a lack of fire correction. It did succeed, however, in alerting the German and Romanian defenses.
Waiting German and Romanian Defenders Rip into the Soviet Attack
In the weeks preceding the operation, numerous reconnaissance parties had landed on the beach. They had been spotted by the Germans and Romanians and the defenders were prepared for a possible amphibious landing.
At 0335 on February 4, six cutters packed with 300 naval infantrymen darted toward the Axis-occupied shore. The defenses came alive. The bulk of the defenders on this stretch of the shoreline were from the Romanian 10th Infantry Division. The Germans were represented in small but effective numbers of specialist troops, mainly field and antiaircraft artillery batteries and searchlight crews. Well-manned searchlights reached out and found the advancing Soviet craft, which immediately came under heavy artillery, mortar, and machine-gun fire.
Two cutters were hit right away and one of them, SKA-051, exploded. The resulting losses cut the assault force by a third, with only 200 out of 300 men actually landing. The loss of SKA-051 was doubly significant because the commander of this spearhead force, Captain 3rd Rank (Lieutenant Commander) A.P. Ivanov, was killed, leaving the troops without effective command and control.
Since Ivanov was dead, there was no one to give the bolinders the signal to advance closer to the shore. Roughly half an hour after the landing began, the surviving naval infantrymen still were not able to suppress the German and Romanian fire. Their foothold on the beach was very tenuous. It is unknown who gave the bolinders the command to move in, but they began to creep forward. These vulnerable landing craft loaded with tanks represented a gunner’s dream: slow, fat targets. The German searchlights easily spotted the approaching bolinders.
Immediately, the bolinders came under fire. The very first hits on Bolinder No. 2 and its tugboat Gelendzhik caused serious damage and set the vessels on fire. Still over 200 meters away from the shore, both vessels began to sink. The 350 men on board—naval infantrymen and tank and vessel crews—were forced to jump into the freezing water and swim ashore under fire. All 10 tanks on board, a third of the total armored force, were lost.