The Onset of War, June–August 1941

“The beauties of the Crimea, which we shall make accessible by means of an Autobahn. For us Germans, that will be our Riviera.”

Adolf Hitler, July 5, 1941

The exact details of Soviet strategic planning prior to Operation Barbarossa are difficult to quantify, but a number of Stalin’s pre-war strategic assumptions are clear. Foremost, Stalin believed that the Red Army was strong enough to deter a German invasion for the time being. Even if the Germans were tempted to commit aggression against the Soviet Union, Stalin believed that there would be adequate early warning to provide the Red Army time to prepare and deploy its forces for combat. Soviet military leaders were not ignorant of the threat posed by Germany after the sudden fall of France in 1940, but believed that their forces and plans would prevail. A series of war games conducted by the Soviet General Staff in Moscow in December 1940 suggested that the Germans would make their main effort in Ukraine, but that their forces would be pushed back to the border long before they reached the Dnepr River.1

When war came, the mission of the Black Sea Fleet was to assist the Red Army’s Southern Front in defending the coastline of the Black Sea. To that end, one of the primary tasks was laying defensive minefields outside Sevastopol and the other Black Sea ports. However, the fleet also wanted to use its naval air arm and submarines to attack enemy naval targets and facilities in the Black Sea – but little real planning had been put into this concept. At the start of the war in June 1941, the Soviet Stavka (high command) was wary that Turkey might allow Axis air and naval forces to move through her waters in defiance of the Montreux Convention, so Batov’s 9th Rifle Corps was ordered to deploy its forces along the coast from Yevpatoriya to Kerch to repel potential amphibious or airborne attacks. No effort was made to construct ground defenses at either Perekop or Sevastopol, since the Stavka believed that the fighting would be confined to the border regions. Instead, the Soviets would use the Crimea as a springboard for air and naval attacks on Romania in order to distract German forces from the main area of battle.


Although Barbarossa did not address the neutralization of the Black Sea Fleet, the Luftwaffe included it in its first-strike plan. Before dawn on June 22, 1941, a small number of He-111 bombers from Fliegerkorps IV’s 6./KG 4 approached Sevastopol unchallenged and managed to drop their bombs near Vice-Admiral Oktyabrsky’s headquarters. It was only a raid, not a serious attack, but it rattled Oktyabrsky and inflicted 230 civilian casualties.2 Thereafter, Fliegerkorps IV conducted occasional raids and reconnaissance flights on Sevastopol, as well as some aerial mine-laying operations off the port, but the main fighting was occurring in the western Ukraine.

Shortly after the attack on his headquarters, Oktyabrsky initiated defensive mine-laying operations, and his ships emplaced about 3,000 mines by mid-July. He also decided to commit the VVS-ChF to a campaign of attacking the Romanian ports of Constanta and Sulina. The first raid conducted by 3 DB-3F from 2 MTAP and 6 SB-2 from 40 BAP on the afternoon of June 22 met little resistance and succeeded in inflicting minor damage. However, the Royal Romanian Air Force was alert when the VVS-ChF sent 73 naval bombers on June 23, and Romanian Hurricane fighters shot down three. The next day, German Bf-109 fighters from III./JG 52 also got involved and shot down ten of 32 naval bombers.3 Within the first five days of the war, the VVS-ChF lost 22 naval bombers, including some of their best-trained aircrew. Oktyabrsky was apparently ignorant of the arrival of significant Luftwaffe strength in Romania, which threatened his surface warships and made raids on Romania costly.

Although his fleet’s mission was primarily defensive, Oktyabrsky was inclined from the beginning to use his surface warships and submarines to strike at Romania. In the first 24 hours of the war, he dispatched four Shchuka-class submarines to attack Romanian shipping, but this was only a preliminary step. On the evening of June 25, Oktyabrsky sent the flotilla leaders Moskva and Kharkov to bombard the Romanian port of Constanta, with the heavy cruiser Voroshilov and two destroyers as a covering force. The two Soviet flotilla leaders approached the Romanian coast and opened fire at 0358hrs on June 26. Although their 130mm shells managed to set some oil-storage tanks alight and damage a rail yard, the Soviet destroyers were unaware that the Germans had installed two 28cm coastal-defense batteries to protect Constanta. Battery Tirpitz engaged the two Soviet flotilla leaders, which caused them to break off the action and turn away eastward – straight into a Romanian minefield. The Moskva, moving at 30 knots, hit one or more mines and broke in two, sinking within five minutes; 268 sailors were killed and 69 survivors were picked up by the Romanians. The cruiser Voroshilov was also damaged by a mine. Retreating eastward, the Kharkov was badly damaged by the German coastal battery and had to be towed. Fortunately for the Soviet flotilla, the Luftwaffe was busy with a raid by the VVS-ChF and did not appear in force to sink the damaged Soviet warships. The result of the raid on Constanta, aside from the damage suffered by the Black Sea Fleet, was to cause Oktyabrsky to be much more cautious in his use of surface warships.

Oktyabrsky continued to send the VVS-ChF to attack targets in Romania with small-scale raids, which also began to bomb facilities further inland. On July 13, six DB-3F bombers attacked the Ploesti oil refinery – a critical source of fuel for the Wehrmacht – and managed to damage a refinery and set 9,000 tons of oil on fire. However, enemy fighters shot down four of the six bombers, and in response the VVS-ChF shifted primarily to night raids to reduce losses. On August 13, Soviet naval bombers damaged the King Carol Bridge over the Danube, which disrupted the Ploesti–Constanta pipeline. Nevertheless, Ploesti was 340 miles from the VVS-ChF air bases in the Crimea, and aircraft like the DB-3F were tactical, not strategic, bombers; at best, each bomber could carry only six 100kg bombs to targets in Romania. While the VVS-ChF raids on Romania did not inflict substantial damage on the Axis war effort, they did help to create the impression that Soviet air bases in the Crimea were a threat.


The original plan for Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, issued in Führer Directive 21 on December 18, 1940, did not even mention the Crimea or the Black Sea Fleet. Hitler intended that Barbarossa would result in the rapid destruction of the best part of the Red Army, followed by the occupation of most of the western Soviet Union, which would satisfy his lust for natural resources and Lebensraum (living space). The priority of the German operational effort was weighted on the Leningrad and Moscow axes, and the only specified objectives for Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt’s Heeresgruppe Süd was to “destroy all Russian forces west of the Dnepr in Ukraine,” and “the early capture of the Donets Basin, important for war industry.”4 The occupation of the Crimea and the elimination of the Black Sea Fleet were only implied tasks at the outset of the German invasion, to be accomplished during mop-up operations. After the issuing of Führer Directive 21, Hitler and the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW) focused much of their attention and planning efforts on the Balkans, the Mediterranean, and collaboration with Axis partners, rather than further fleshing out operational details of Operation Barbarossa. Indeed, it remained a rather vague plan right up to the moment of execution, and this would force the Wehrmacht to constantly shift resources as Hitler changed his strategic priorities.

Yet Barbarossa was not the only German planning being made in regard to the Soviet Union. Once Hitler confirmed his intention to invade the Soviet Union, SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich’s Reichssicherheitshauptamt (Reich Main Security Office, or RSHA) began working on Generalplan Ost (Master Plan East), which was intended to conduct ethnic cleansing on a massive scale in conquered Soviet territory. Not only Jews, but also Ukrainians, and, eventually, all Slavs, were targeted for elimination by the SS-Einsatzgruppen. Once the indigenous populations were reduced to a manageable level, where the survivors could be employed as slave labor, German colonists would move in to “Germanize” the conquered territory. Unlike the Wehrmacht, Heydrich did make plans for Ukraine and the Crimea; the Crimean climate was regarded as ideal for colonists, and Ukrainian wheat and Crimean cotton would be valuable resources. Prior to Barbarossa, pseudo-scientific archeological research conducted by the SS Ahnenerbe organization pointed to an ancient Gothic presence in the Crimea as a precursor to modern German colonization of the peninsula.5 Once Generalplan Ost was underway, Heydrich expected that about half the Crimea’s population would be ethnic German by the mid-1960s.

At the start of Barbarossa, SS-Gruppenführer Otto Ohlendorf’s Einsatzgruppe D was attached to Heeresgruppe Süd. Ohlendorf’s unit was to follow close behind Rundstedt’s advancing armies and eliminate large concentrations of civilians deemed hostile to the Reich. Although many army leaders later claimed ignorance of SS activities in the Soviet Union, the cooperation between the Wehrmacht and the SS-Einsatzgruppen was a vital prerequisite in order for Generalplan Ost to succeed.

It was Oktyabrsky’s persistent VVS-ChF air raids on Romania and the threat to Ploesti’s oil refinery that finally caused Hitler to take real interest in the Crimea. He was very nervous about any threats to his oil supplies from Ploesti, and recognized that the Crimea was a useful staging base for Soviet attacks on Romania, serving in the role of an “unsinkable aircraft carrier.” While Luftwaffe air raids on the VVS-ChF bases in the Crimea succeeded in destroying some aircraft on the ground, the only sure way to permanently stop the attacks on Romania was for German forces to occupy the Crimea sooner than expected.

On July 23, 1941 – ten days after the first VVS-ChF raid on Ploesti – a supplement to Führer Directive 33 was issued. It stated that once Heeresgruppe Süd occupied Kharkov, “the bulk of the infantry divisions will then occupy Ukraine, the Crimea, and the area of Central Russia up to the Don.” Less than three weeks later, a supplement to Führer Directive 34, issued on August 12, raised the priority of the Crimea further, stating that Heeresgruppe Süd was “to occupy the Crimean Peninsula, which is particularly dangerous as an enemy air base against the Romanian oilfields.”6 The VVS-ChF had gained Hitler’s attention. Once the Dnepr River was crossed, Rundstedt was obligated to send a strong force to occupy the Crimea. Hitler also began to openly talk of the great value that the Crimea would play in post-war German colonization plans in the East.


While Oktyabrsky was using his bombers and submarines to try and harass the Romanian coast, the Soviet Southern Front was being defeated in detail by the Heeresgruppe Süd. On August 2, Panzergruppe 1 surrounded the bulk of the Soviet 6th and 12th Armies in the Uman Kessel and crushed the trapped Red Army units within a week. The battered Soviet 9th and 18th Armies, having escaped the Uman debacle, retreated toward the Dnepr River. On August 18, the 16. Panzer-Division captured the port of Nikolayev, which deprived the Black Sea Fleet of its main construction and repair facility. Meanwhile, the Romanian 4th Army had surrounded the port of Odessa, held by the Separate Coastal Army. Outnumbered 4-1 and isolated, the Coastal Army could hold Odessa only if the Black Sea Fleet ensured that supplies and reinforcements could be brought in by sea, as well as providing naval gunfire support as needed. Oktyabrsky had to commit a large portion of his surface forces and VVS-ChF aircraft into the fighting around Odessa. Although Oktyabrsky was able to hold back the battleship Parizhskaya Kommuna and his two modern heavy cruisers, he deployed three light cruisers and six to eight destroyers to support the Odessa garrison. For the most part, the Black Sea Fleet played an important part in keeping the siege of Odessa going for ten weeks, and it learned some valuable lessons about convoy operations, mine warfare, and amphibious landings in the process. However, the fighting at Odessa was a doomed effort from the start, and it served to drain resources from the Crimea, which would soon face its own test of fire.

Meanwhile, Generaloberst Eugen Ritter von Schobert’s 11. Armee (AOK 11) pursued the battered Soviet 9th Army to the Dnepr, but the Soviets managed to slip across the river, blow up the main bridges, and establish a hasty defense. Recognizing that German forces could cross the Dnepr at any time, Stavka Directive No. 00931, issued on August 14, activated the 51st Army in the Crimea and it was tasked to “hold the Crimean Peninsula in our hands to the last soldier.” Although Batov’s 9th Rifle Corps formed the core of the 51st Army, General-Colonel Fyodor I. Kuznetsov was brought down from Leningrad to take command of the new formation. In addition to Batov’s two regular rifle divisions, Kuznetsov was provided with two newly formed reserve rifle divisions from the Orel Military District, four militia divisions, and the 5th Tank Regiment. All told, Kuznetsov’s 51st Army had about 95,000 troops, but relatively little artillery or transport. Stavka Directive No. 00931 also made the Black Sea Fleet subordinate to Kuznetsov.

Kuznetsov was forced to begin throwing together a defense at the Perekop Isthmus in mid-August with most of his units still en route or severely understrength. Roughly 30,000 local civilians were used to assist the Red Army in fortifying the Perekop Isthmus and Chongar Peninsula, but Kuznetsov was ordered to “immediately clear” these areas of “anti-Soviet elements.” On August 16, NKVD detachments rounded up virtually all of the remaining Crimean Germans and deported them to the Urals, where most spent the next decade in labor camps operated by the NKVD. Roughly 20 percent of the Crimean Germans died in these camps.7

Kuznetsov’s deployment for battle was seriously hindered by faulty intelligence issued in General Staff Order No. 001033 on August 18, 1941:

According to information from the English military mission, the Germans are preparing sea [amphibious] operations against the Crimea in the most immediate future, while concentrating amphibious assault transports in Bulgarian And Romanian ports. The amphibious assault operation will be supported by airborne forces, which are concentrating in the Nikolayev region.8

Despite the fact that the Axis had no appreciable amphibious capability in the Black Sea in August 1941 and their airborne forces were spent after their costly victory in Crete three months earlier, the Stavka was convinced that the threat was real. Accordingly, Kuznetsov deployed 40,000 of his men along the coast to defend against a non-existent amphibious threat and 25,000 in the interior of the Crimea to defend against airborne landings. Consequently, only 30,000 troops were left to defend the vital northern approaches into the Crimea, with just 7,000 troops from Colonel Aleksandr I. Danilin’s 156th Rifle Division at Perekop. Since there were no tanks assigned to the 51st Army, the Southern Front scraped together ten T-34 tanks and 56 T-37/38 tankettes from repair depots to form the 5th Tank Regiment under Major Semyon P. Baranov; the tanks were sent by rail to provide Kuznetsov with a small mobile reserve.

On August 30, the 11. Armee conducted an assault crossing of the Dnepr at Berislav and succeeded in building a pontoon bridge across the river. The 9th Army managed to impede the German build-up across the river for a week but Schobert conducted a breakout attack on September 9–10 that shattered the Soviet perimeter and forced the 9th Army to retreat eastward in disorder toward Melitopol. The approaches to the Crimea were now open. Schobert was faced with a dilemma, since he was tasked with both seizing the Crimea and supporting Panzergruppe 1’s advance toward Rostov. As soon as he had achieved a clean breakout from the Berislav bridgehead, he directed XXX Armeekorps and XXXXIX Gebirgs-Armeekorps to pursue the 9th Army to Melitopol, while sending General der Kavallerie Erik Hansen’s LIV Armeekorps toward Perekop. German intelligence about Soviet force in the Crimea was sketchy, based entirely upon aerial reconnaissance, and they were unaware of the creation of the 51st Army. Schobert ordered Hansen to send a fast advance guard to try and seize the Perekop Isthmus by coup de main, hoping that it was poorly guarded. In his moment of victory, however, Schobert was killed when his Fiesler Storch crashed on September 12. Hitler appointed General der Infanterie Erich von Manstein to replace Schobert, but he would not arrive for five days.

On the same day as Schobert’s death, SS-Sturmbannführer Kurt Meyer’s Aufklärungs-Abteilung LSSAH from the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler (LSSAH) division approached Perekop after a 35-mile dash from the Berislav bridgehead. Oberstleutnant Oskar von Boddien’s Aufklärungs-Abteilung 22 was close behind, and together these two reconnaissance units reached the village of Preobrazhenka, 5 miles north of the Tatar Wall, at around 0600hrs. Meyer had a mixed reconnaissance group of Kradschützen (motorcycle infantry), a few armored cars, and a Panzerjäger platoon with 3.7cm antitank guns, but no artillery or engineers. Upon entering the village, his lead company was fired upon by 76mm guns from the Soviet armored train Voykovets and engaged by small-arms fire from dug-in Soviet infantrymen. 2nd Battalion/361st Rifle Regiment from Danilin’s 156th Rifle Division was entrenched in a strongpoint in the nearby Chervonyi Chaban State Farm. In addition to this strongpoint, Meyer could see that the area further south around Perekop was heavily fortified with bunkers and barbed wire. He beat a hasty retreat under cover of smoke and reported back to LIV Armeekorps that, “coup against Perekop impossible.”9

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