The Battle for the Crimea, October 1941-July 1942 part 2
Posted December 9th, 2011 at 04:36 PM by irishcrusader95
The Battle for the Crimea, October 1941-July 1942
On the 8th of May the attack went ahead and XXX corps forced the enemy’s anti-tank obstacle scattering the enemy’s southern wing. On the 9th the 22nd panzer division attacked and headed straight for the north coast. Heavy rain on the 10th impeded the advance as did the soviet defenders who fought with grim determination, while the soviet troops fought well their commanders showed complete incompetence in there planning and conduct of the defence. Not demeaning Manstein’s and Eleventh army’s considerable success a great deal of blame go’s to the Crimea fronts commanders whose inexcusable failures lead to their own defeat. On the 11th the 22nd panzer division reached the northern coast, trapping some eight soviet divisions as it went. German mechanized troops broke into the enemy’s rear causing terrible panic and confusion. As the soviet commanders were not able to keep up with the fast changing situation, order and discipline broke down in the soviet ranks and Manstein ordered a general pursuit. On the 16th the town of Kerch fell as the last remaining soviet units evacuated the peninsula, soviet records state that 120,000 troops made it across the Kerch strait to the other side. The battle was a remarkable achievement for Manstein and the Eleventh army costing there enemy, according the German estimates, 170,000 prisoners, 1133 guns and 258 tanks with Manstein declaring that a ‘true battle of annihilation had been fought to a victorious finish’. And indeed it had been, total German casualties were less then 8000. The close air support of the VIII air corps was crucial to the victory and Manstein praised Richthofen for its support. Yet with the Kerch peninsula secured that now left Sevastopol to be taken which would be a much tougher nut to crack, requiring all the troops and firepower Manstein could muster and his own operational skill.
Operation Sturgeon Catch
Sturgeon catch, a reference to the capture of the fish which provides caviar, certainly an appropriate code name for the operation to take Sevastopol. Since the German assaults on Sevastopol in autumn and early winter, the soviet defenders, under the leadership of Petrov had increased their defences in all four sectors with new minefields, gun and tank positions and new fields of fire. Yet this time Manstein had a much greater density of artillery and air support then before, as well as that the longer hours of daylight and better weather favoured the Germans. For the soldiers however, the burning 40- degrees summer heat was oppressive. It was decided that the main point of attack would again be in the north as the terrain and landscape was far easier going then in the south, although the soviets defences and fortifications would be undoubtedly stronger above Severnaya bay. It was also found that air and artillery power could be more effectively used in the north and it would be much easier to keep their stocks supplied. It was important that control be gained of the Harbour in Severnaya bay as soon as possible so as to cut the soviets supply network. Time was also against Manstein as he had to complete the capture of Sevastopol before the launch of operation Blue which would sap much of his air support. A supporting attack would also be needed in the south with the aim of taking the Sapun heights so as to open the road to Sevastopol and fix the soviet defenders in place. Facing the Germans in the Sevastopol defence area was six rifle divisions, a dismounted cavalry division and three marine infantry brigades. Manstein and his staff had spent much time planning out an assault, one crucial precondition for success was a large stockpile of artillery and air munitions which they had been building up for some time while dealing with the soviet grouping in Kerch. In addition, orders were given out and passed through all the levels of command so that everyone knew what their job was before the attack was to be launched. These orders were distributed on the 14th of May while operation Bustard Hunt was at its height, illustrating the old maxim at the operational level that planning for the next battle must be done before the current action is finished.
The plan of assault was to be as follows. It was similar to the attack plan of December; the main assault would be carried out by LIV corps (132nd, 22nd, 50th and 24th infantry divisions) in the northern sector. Their task was to breach the heavily fortified defences and take the heights north of Severnaya Bay, following this up with a supporting attack on its left wing to take the heights of Gaitany and the ground immediately to its south-east. Once achieved the Romanian mountain corps would mount a supporting attack on the left wing of LIV corps with its 18th division, meanwhile the 1st Romanian mountain division would support the northern wing of XXX corps in the south. In the southern sector, the attack by XXX corps was bound to be very fiercely fought in the Sapun Gora heights with the corps commander stressing ‘I expect every commander to exploit every possible success through daring and quick action’. Manstein tried to deceive his intentions and direction of attack to his opponent but the lie of the land and dispositions of the German troops was enough to tell any commander where the attack would take place. Knowing the importance of holding the territory north of Severnaya Bay, Petrov placed no less than forty of his seventy five battalions in that area. With such large enemy forces, difficult terrain and extensive defences Manstein knew that the coming battle would be very hard fought and would require a flexible combination of air and artillery power to prepare and support a determined infantry attack assisted by assault engineers. Apart from one panzer battalion which consisted of a few assault guns and a company of captured T-34s, Manstein had no substantial armoured forces to smash his way into the city. The concentration of artillery support for the coming attack was unprecedented for a German army in any campaign. Over 611 guns in 208 batteries on a 36km front, about 17 barrels per kilometre with the density being much higher in assault sectors. There were also 754 mortar tubes and Nebelwaffa rocket launchers as well as two supper heavy 60cm ‘Karl’ mortars and the biggest artillery piece ever invented the 80cm ‘Dora’ cannon, Manstein commented that it was ‘impressive as a technical achievement but its effectiveness bore no relation to all the effort and expense that had gone into it.
As the stage was now set for the forthcoming attack Manstein was struck with a personal tragedy a few days before the attack. Following a visit to XXX corps headquarters on the southern coast he had taken a patrol along the coast in an Italian E-boat to ascertain how much of the coastal road which the troops would have to move up was visible from the sea and liable to come under observed bombardment. On the return journey the vessel was engaged by two soviet fighters who opened fire on it. Seven out of the sixteen on the boat were killed or wounded, while Manstein was very lucky to come out of it without a scratch, Sgt Fritz Nagel, his personal driver since 1938 and a close personal friend was mortally wounded. His death hit Manstein very hard; he was buried at the German war cemetery near Yalta. Between the 2nd and 7th of June, German artillery and aircraft pounded Sevastopol and its surrounding areas relentlessly in preparation for the ground attack which was set for 03:00 hours on the night of the 7th. On the night of the assault, Manstein and his staff climbed up to an observation post in the outer mountains which overlooked most of the battlefield, it was a rare opportunity in the Second World War for an army commander to view most of his battlefield. The Soviets however had gotten wind of the H-hour of the attack through captured prisoner interrogations so Petrov launched a pre-emptive artillery barrage five minutes before the assault in the hope of catching the Germans in their starting off positions. Having seen through Manstein deception techniques, Petrov was able to tell where the main assaults would come due to the very high intensity of bombardment in these sectors and placed appropriate troop levels in each sector.
Over the next few days of fighting casualties on both sides was horrendous. Surprise had not been achieved in any way during the attack and the daily objectives were not met anywhere. Manstein was in trouble and he knew it, yet he remained calm and integrated lessons from the first day of attack. He found that their massed artillery and air support was not being used effectively and ordered a number of measures to improve artillery support to attacking infantry. He also re-emphasized the primary tasks for air strikes: ‘suppression of enemy batteries in so far as corps artillery is not able to do this and direct support of the attack through close dive bomber attack. This was close air support at its most dangerous proximity to his own troops, with all the risks that it involved of what today we call ‘Blue-on-Blue’ friendly fire. On the 9th of June Manstein requested the release of 46th infantry division from Kerch to reinforce the assault on Sevastopol and stressed that he needed five rather than four divisions for the attack in the northern sector as each of these divisions had lost over 1000 men in the face of difficult terrain and the tenacity of the enemy, interrogations of soviet prisoners also revealed that they had been reinforced by the 9th marine brigade. Eventually Manstein was able to exchange the burnt out regiments of 132nd division for the fresh formation of the 46th. OKH later authorized the release of three infantry regiments followed by a further two which joined latter in the battle; these new units tore into the soviet defensives achieving gains but at high costs. On the 13th of June Fort Stalin was taken by the 16th infantry regiment, the same unit that had been forced to withdraw from the fort during the December assault. By the 17th the outer ring of defensives in the north had been captured, including the vaunted ‘Maxim Gorki I armoured battery by elements of the 132nd infantry division, there company commander was awarded the knights cross first class by Manstein himself. In the south XXX corps had managed to drive a wedge through the defences around the Sapun Gora heights yet the area was still being fiercely contested. The Romanian divisions had been performing poorly with some units not carrying out their attacks and other attacks falling apart due to what some German commanders had described as the incompetence of their commanders. Manstein went to the Romanian corps headquarters on the 23rd to raise his concerns about the inadequacies of command and remind them of the importance of co-operation between the infantry and artillery. As the battle continued, German and Romanian casualties remained high, Manstein routinely checked the conditions his men were fighting in to gauge their moral and inform his decision making. It was found that the average company strength was down to 20-30 men.
After two weeks of the most bitter and intense combat Mansteins troops had captured the outer fortified zone in the northern sector by the 26th. Resistance here had been fanatical with troops holding up in underground storage sites and fighting to the last man. In the south XXX corps made further progress towards the Sapun position and the 1st mountain division redeemed the honour of the Romanian corps by making steady progress. For Petrov’s costal army, the losses had also been heavy with the Germans reporting on 12,000 prisoners taken by the 22nd and over 65,000 soviet mines made safe by German engineers. By now Manstein had to question if whether he should continue with the assault as the fighting power of his army diminished daily, even Hitler, who had been following the battle closely on a specially produced 1:25,000 scale map which was updated daily, began to question the wisdom of the attack, given the priority that would need to be shifted to the summer campaign in the Caucasus. The air support that was being accorded to Eleventh army would soon have to be shifted to support operation Blue, on the 14th VIII air corps reported on a typical day in which no fewer than 803 aircraft were in action, of which 625 were fighters or dive-bombers. Yet in view of the sacrifices that had been made over the two weeks there was a determined desire to press on whatever the cost, a dangerous mind-set that would return to haunt the German high command at Stalingrad in the autumn. Germany would need all the forces it could field in the coming campaign and it was questionable whether they would have sufficient forces to keep a soviet garrison in Sevastopol contained and here was a chance to remove the red Navy’s main base and free up more German troops for employment elsewhere.
On the 27th of June Manstein confirmed his decision to press ahead with a final assault, he had toyed with the idea of switching the main point of effort to the south-east but it was simply not possible to redeploy the artillery and ammunition stocks without running the risk of a substantial pause in operations which would give the soviet defenders much needed respite. For the capture of Sevastopol Manstein would launch a strong supporting attack in the south to seize the Sapun Gora ridge while the main attack counted on an amphibious operation across the 1000m wide Severnaya Bay in assault boats by the troops of the 22nd and 24th infantry divisions. Manstein was determined to deceive his enemy of his intentions this time, ordering the disguising of preparation for the crossing of the bay with all means, artillery fire was not to concentrate on the intended attack sectors in the days leading up to the attack and if possible there would be no artillery preparation before H-hour and the crossing was to take place at night. The attack went perfectly achieving total surprise on the soviet defenders which by the time their defences went into action the assault parties had already gained a firm foothold. The success of this operation unhinged the dreaded Sapun position securing control of the bay for the Germans. With the loss of the bay soviet resistance began to crumble as the initiative passed to the Germans. As LIV corps secured the southern shore of the bay and the Inkerman heights on it eastern end, XXX corps launched its attack on the Sapun Gora defences with massed artillery and air support, achieving a breakthrough and flanking the soviet defenders, the corps then pressed on Sevastopol and enveloped it from its south, meanwhile 4th Romanian mountain division flushed out the defenders around Balaklava by attacking from the rear and took over 10,000 prisoners. With the seizure of the Inkerman heights and the capturing of the Sapun Gora defences, Sevastopol’s fate was sealed.
History in some ways repeated itself with the capture of Malakoff hill, which was the scene of so much bitter fighting during the Crimean war, now German forces could threaten the city centre directly, its capture in 1855 had precipitated a Russian withdrawal from the city across Severnaya bay, an option not available to the soviet defenders in 1942. On the night of the 30th June may of the soviet commanders and key personal were evacuated from the city by submarine, leaving the soldiers to fight on. Mansteins concern was that the enemy would make a last stand in the ruins of Sevastopol and so ordered a massive air and artillery bombardment on the 1st of July to crush the enemy’s moral and will to fight. Sensing the inevitability of defeat, surviving elements of the coastal garrison pulled out of the city to the Chersones peninsula, hoping to make a last stand there or hopefully be evacuated by the Red Navy. Manstein did not know it at the time but soviet command in the city had broken down into a confused scramble to escape. For the majority of the coastal troops, the order to abandon Sevastopol came too late. The confusion and panic of the last days was a far cry from the orderly evacuation of Odessa. By the time large scale operations had ended on the Crimea, no fewer than 90,000 soviet soldiers, marines and naval personal had been taken prisoner, yet the fighting was not quite over, resistance continued at the Maxim Gorki II battery a week beyond its declared capture on the 4th of July as small groups carried on their struggle until the 9th, of the batteries garrison of 1000, only 50 were taken prisoner, all of them wounded. There were also the partisan attacks around the mountains which remained until the end of the German occupation.
For all the decorations and honours a commander can receive, there is no higher accolade then the admiration of his troops. While Manstein was no charismatic, self-publicizing leader in the mould of Rommel, his soldiers still respected him greatly. A frequent visitor to the front lines, he was no distant figure and his subordinates knew they could raise any concerns with him without censure and receive clear direction and guidance in response. For his service in capturing Sevastopol Manstein was promoted to the rank of Field Marshal and in recognition of the heard fought battle a special Crimea shield medal was introduced on the 25th of July which was handed out to all personal who served in the Crimea campaign, some 250,000 were handed out. The Soviet Union also distributed a medal to all personal who served in the defence of Sevastopol ‘The medal for the defence of Sevastopol’ it was introduced on the 22nd of December 1942. Yet was the battle worth it in the end, an entire German army had been tied down and an enormous amount of recourses used, up to 50,000 tons of ammunition had been consumed by the German besiegers and over 25,000 casualties had been sustained during the assault of June-July. While no accurate figures exist of total German losses in the Crimea campaign, the German military cemetery at Goncharnoe on the Sevastopol-Yalta road is space enough for over 40,000 dead. For the soviets they write that for the entire period of 30th December to the 4th of July they lost 156,800 irrecoverable losses plus 53,601 wounded. Would it not have been better to hold the line and keep the soviets in rather than launch a costly assault? Considering the soviets ability to reinforce the garrison through the sea lanes the short answer is no. but while the cost in blood had been high the cost in time had also been high, time which the Germans could ill afford to spend on excursions off the main effort. If anything good did come out of the battle then it showed the brilliance of a commander like Manstein and allowed him a place to horn his skills as he went on to command the Don front in the aftermath of the disaster at Stalingrad where his skills stabilized the front in its wake. One thing the German soldier certainly got out of it was a deep respect for the common Russian soldier who fought with incredibly bravery and determination. If the battle for the Crimea is to be remembered for anything, it should be for the ferocious fighting over small contested areas of land in a 250 day siege that fixed and bled white an entire German army.
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