The Red Army Returns to the Crimea, 1943

“The Crimea is the largest prison camp in the world.”

Soviet radio propaganda broadcast, winter 1943/44

General der Pioniere Erwin Jaenecke was an unusual German army-level commander since he came from the engineers, not the infantry, cavalry, or artillery. He took command of AOK 17 in June 1943, just five months after being badly wounded at Stalingrad and being flown out on one of the last transport planes. The 53-year-old Jaenecke had spent most of his military career since 1911 in engineer or logstic assignments. He saw no frontline service in the first two years of World War II, and was a senior staff officer in Paris until February 1942. Jaenecke was also a good friend of Friederich Paulus, commander of AOK 6, with whom he had served in pre-war staff duty. Despite never having commanded infantry units before, Jaenecke was given command of the newly raised 389. Infanterie-Division and sent to the Eastern Front, where he participated in the advance to the Volga and the vicious city fighting around the tractor works in Stalingrad. Like many German soldiers who found themselves encircled at Stalingrad in the winter of 1942/43, Jaenecke became critical of Hitler and his conduct of the war. He openly urged his friend Paulus to disobey Hitler’s orders and attempt a breakout, saying that, “your own head is nothing compared to the lives of so many soldiers.”1 Paulus ignored him and all other advice. Jaenecke was badly wounded on January 17, 1943, and was fortunate to be flown out a week later. After three months convalescing in France, he returned to the Eastern Front as summer 1943 arrived. Assigned to a backwater theater in the Kuban and given command of another army threatened with isolation and encirclement, Jaenecke was less than enthusiastic about his situation.

When Operation Brunhild began on September 12, Jaenecke lost control over parts of AOK 17 as it was transported from the Kuban to the Crimea. XXXXIV Armeekorps was the first major formation to be transported to the Crimea, where the OKH immediately transferred it to AOK 6 to reinforce its crumbling front. As more divisions were evacuated from the Kuban, they kept getting transported to other threatened sectors in Ukraine, until finally, eight of the ten German divisions in AOK 17 were transferred to other commands. In the Crimea, Jaenecke’s AOK 17 was left with just the 50. and 98. Infanterie-Divisionen and six Romanian divisions. Even those units were incomplete; Major Erich Bärenfänger’s Grenadier-Regiment 123 was detached from the 50. Infanterie-Division and sent by truck across the Chongar bridge to reinforce XXXXIV Armeekorps at Mariupol. In small compensation, AOK 6 transferred Generalmajor Wilhelm Kunze’s worn-out 336. Infanterie-Division to AOK 17 for rebuilding in the Crimea, but it had only four battalions and almost no artillery.2 Of the seven Romanian divisions subordinate to AOK 17, the three mountain divisions were in decent shape in terms of personnel and equipment, but the Germans no longer put much faith in the Romanians to fulfill any but the most basic missions after the defeat at Stalingrad. In addition, the Befehlshaber Krim contributed the 153. Feldausbildungs-Division and the 1st Slovakian Infantry Division, both of which had minimal combat capabilities. By late October 1943, there were over 200,000 Axis military personnel in the Crimea, but only about one-fifth of these were combat troops. Over 27,000 personnel were assigned to quartermaster and logistic units, Fliegerkorps I had over 5,000 Luftwaffe personnel and the Kriegsmarine had over 4,000 in the Crimea. In addition, the SS, SD, and Abwehr still had a very strong presence in the Crimea, with over 6,000 assigned personnel, but their military effectiveness was negligible.

Jaenecke had only just settled into his new headquarters in Simferopol when the entire situation around him spun out of control. AOK 6, including the recently arrived XXXXIV Armeekorps, was badly defeated at Melitopol by General Fyodor I. Tolbukhin’s 4th Ukranian Front on October 24 and began to retreat toward the lower Dnepr. Tolbukhin let loose his armor and cavalry in pursuit – the 11th and 19th Tank Corps and the 4th Guards Cavalry Corps – which came rolling across the barren Nogai Steppe at great speed. It was quickly apparent that the Soviets would make for the traditional entrances to the Crimea – Perekop and the Chongar Narrows – to isolate AOK 17. Amazingly, the only Axis forces near Perekop was a battlegroup of the 1st Slovak Division and a few replacement battalions from Generalmajor Kurt Gerock’s 153. Feldausbildungs-Division, while the Chongar Narrows were virtually unguarded.3 For once, it was the Wehrmacht caught with its pants down, with the entrances to the Crimea wide open.

Axis command and control in the Crimea was in a muddle in the last days of October 1943. Jaenecke controlled General der Gebirgstruppe Rudolf Konrad’s XXXXIX Gebirgs-Korps, but Konrad had no troops near Perekop or Chongar, which were still designated “Rear Areas” under control of the Befehlshaber Krim. Generalleutnant Friederich Köchling, an experienced infantryman, arrived from Berlin to take over the Befehlshaber Krim just two weeks before the Soviets arrived at the approaches to the Crimea. The command relationship between Jaenecke and Köchling was rather fuzzy, with each controlling some of the troops in the Crimea – a clear violation of the principle of unity of command. There were also separate Romanian, Kriegsmarine, and Luftwaffe chains of command, with no clear senior authority (this same phenomenon of poor inter-service coordination and inter-allied relations had plagued the Wehrmacht in North Africa as well). Köchling was observant enough to notice the threat to Perekop and Chongar and he agreed to move his available units, meager though they were, into blocking positions. Jaenecke displayed no sense or urgency at all and openly talked about a plan named “Michael” that his staff had prepared for evacuating AOK 17 from the Crimea, even though this was not authorized.4 In fact, Hitler expressly forbade evacuation on October 28.5 Yet Hitler did not bother consulting with the Romanian dictator Ion Antonescu about his opinion of keeping seven Romanian divisions isolated in the Crimea. By chance, elements of Kunze’s 336. Infanterie-Division were not too far from the northern coast of the Crimea and Jaenecke acquiesced to it establishing a few blocking positions, but he was slow to order either the 50. Infanterie-Division or the two Romanian corps to detach any reinforcements. Jaenecke was looking to exit the Crimea, not defend it.

Kunze began establishing a blocking position at Sal’kove, at the northern entrance to the Chongar Peninsula, with a battery of four 8.8cm flak guns and two companies from his Panzerjäger-Abteilung 336, while his division pioneers prepared the railroad bridge for demolition. He sent the other company from Panzerjäger-Abteilung 336 to link up with an 8.8cm flak battery at Ishun. Indeed, Generalleutnant Wolfgang Pickert’s 9. Flak-Division, which had 134 8.8cm and 334 light flak guns, would play a crucial role in the defense of the Crimea. Yet Kunze had very little infantry in his decimated division and was initially able to provide only 100 troops from Grenadier-Regiment 686 for the Chongar blocking position. The replacement formations under Köchling’s Befehlshaber Krim had devolved into essentially school and convalescent depots during the past year, with personnel always in transit and minimal equipment on hand – not combat-ready formations. Gerock’s 153. Feldausbildungs-Division had three Feld-Ersatz Bataillone (FEB) near Perekop, which were ordered to dig in along the old Tatar Wall, assisted by a battalion of construction troops. Artillery support was limited to two batteries of 10.5cm howitzers. The Slovak Tartarko Combat Group, with 800 troops, was also assigned to the Perekop position. Köchling sent Generalmajor Weber from a school unit in Yevpatoriya to take command of the defenses at Perekop, while combing out more ad hoc infantrymen from units as far as Feodosiya. Kunze ordered his II./Grenadier-Regiment 687 to reinforce Gruppe Weber. By October 28, two rudimentary blocking positions were established at Perekop and Sal’kove, but neither was capable of sustained defense against a superior enemy force. After all the effort wasted on trying to colonize the Crimea, the Germans had actually made no provision to defend it. As an afterthought, a Kampfgruppe from Luftwaffen-Jäger-Regiment 10 was assigned to guard Genische’k and the Arabat Spit.6

Meanwhile, General-Lieutenant Ivan D. Vasil’ev’s 19th Tank Corps was rapidly approaching the Perekop Isthmus, with Kirichenko’s 4th Guards Cavalry Corps (4GCC) close behind. Tolbukhin assigned General-Lieutenant Iakov G. Kreizer’s 51st Army the mission of breaking through any defenses at Perekop, while General-Lieutenant Aleksei A. Grechkin’s 28th Army would penetrate the defenses on the Chongar Peninsula. Tolbukhin hoped to take the Crimea on the run – and he stood a good chance given the level of German unpreparedness – and he knew that Petrov would soon mount an amphibious crossing of the Kerch Strait. While both Kreizer’s and Grechkin’s armies had suffered heavy losses in the Melitopol offensive, they were still infinitely stronger in tanks, infantry, and artillery than the ad hoc formations thrown together to defend the Crimea. The VVS was also much stronger than in 1942, and the 8th Air Army could provide effective fighter cover and ground support over the Crimea. If the two Soviet armies could break through at Perekop and Chongar, followed by Petrov landing at Kerch, the entire German defense in the Crimea could collapse in a matter of days. However, the Soviet advance into the Crimea was a secondary operation, while the Stavka focused most of its attention and resources on crossing the Dnepr River and liberating Kiev.

October 30, 1943, was a cool, overcast day in the Crimea. Several of Gerock’s battalions were still arriving at Perekop, giving Gruppe Weber a total of six battalions, but all very understrength. Köchling was able to get the Kriegsmarine to agree to send some coastal artillery to Perekop, and they were enroute. Another odd unit, the III./Gebirgsjäger-Regiment Bergmann (an Abwehr unit comprising Azerbaijani and Georgian volunteers), also arrived at Perekop. At the Chongar Narrows, Kunze managed to force-march Fusilier-Bataillon 336 to reinforce the Sal’kove blocking position, and he had the rest of Grenadier-Regiment 686 on the way. Soviet reconnaissance aircraft were already flying over the Crimea, and they detected the German effort to fortify the entrances. Grechkin’s 28th Army was the first to reach the entrance to the Crimea, in the late afternoon. Elements of the 347th Rifle Division forced the Luftwaffe field troops out of Genische’k and began pushing down the Arabat Spit, while the 118th Rifle Division appeared a mile north of the Sal’kove blocking position. Kunze took the risky course of action of splitting his forces; he ordered his pioneers to ferry I./Grenadier-Regiment 686 and some Pak guns across the lagoon to defend the Arabat Spit, while II./ Grenadier-Regiment 686 remained to hold the Chongar Narrows. The move was accomplished during the night, to minimize risk of air attack.

Although Soviet scouts began probing the Chongar position during the night, the information about the Sal’kove blocking position was apparently not disseminated. Around 0900hrs, a column of 14–16 Soviet trucks approached Sal’kove and drove straight into the German engagement area. German 7.5cm Pak guns and 8.8cm flak guns tore the column to pieces, destroying every vehicle. Five hours passed before the 118th Rifle Division responded to this ambush, when it sent two dismounted rifle companies supported by mortars against the blocking position, but the result was a desultory exchange of fire for the rest of the afternoon.7 The Soviet advance down the Arabat Spit also stopped when they encountered Koch’s single battalion of grenadiers. By this point, Jaenecke was finally facing the reality that he was going to have to defend the Crimea, and he ordered Generalleutnant Friedrich Sixt to send a Kampfgruppe from his 50. Infanterie-Division to reinforce Gruppe Weber at Perekop. One-third of the division, organized as Gruppe Krieger, remained to defend Feodosiya. Belatedly, the Romanians were finally included in the picture, and the Romanian Mountain Corps dispatched Gruppe Balan (three mountain battalions, an artillery battalion, an antitank company, and a company of Skoda-built light tanks) to guard the Sivash coastline between Perekop and the Chongar Narrows. The situation had become a race to see who could get their forces into place fast enough.

On the morning of November 1, the lead elements of Vasil’ev’s 19th Tank Corps arrived within sight of Perekop. Lieutenant-Colonel Nikolai Lebdev’s 220th Tank Brigade was the vanguard, and he attacked immediately at 0620hrs, with 11 T-34s and 300–400 troops. Since the beginning of the war, Soviet tank commanders had often attacked aggressively and impulsively with poor results, but this time was different. Pickert’s 8.8cm flak guns were still back at Ishun and only light artillery and Pak guns had arrived at the Perekop position. Nor were any mines in place yet. Lebdev’s tank brigade smashed into the center of the enemy position at the Tatar Wall, panicking one of the Slovak battalions. Contrary to some sources, the Slovaks were not annihilated defending the Tatar Wall, but simply retreated, opening a large gap in the Axis front line. Since Gruppe Weber had not received authorization to destroy the road and rail bridges over the Tatar Ditch – which were still intact – Lebdev’s tankers raced across them and penetrated over a mile into the Axis position, being stopped only at the outskirts of Armyansk. Part of the 40th Cavalry Regiment from Kirichenko’s 4GCC also arrived to reinforce the breakthrough, but Soviet reinforcements were insufficient to exploit this tactical success, which gave the Germans a chance to recover.

Hauptmann Werner Streck was a 30-year-old reserve officer who had just returned from home leave in Germany after being wounded for the fourth time, and found himself placed in command of Feldersatz Bataillon 81 (FEB 81); this was a 1,500-man replacement unit divided in four companies and armed only with small arms and light machine guns. Streck’s battalion was holding the west end of the Tatar Wall and he moved quickly to seal off Lebdev’s breakthrough as best he could. A small counterattack even managed to capture a few prisoners at the Tatar Wall, who revealed important details about the Soviet forces en route to Perekop.8 Streck and a few other replacement battalions managed to patch together a new front around the Soviet breakthrough, while waiting for three battalions from the 50. Infanterie-Division to arrive.

While the Germans had won the race to block the three traditional entrances into the Crimea, they were too late to protect the coastline along the Sivash. Lieutenant-Colonel Polikarp E. Kuznetsov, chief of intelligence of Generalmajor Konstantin P. Neverov’s 10th Rifle Corps, had been tasked by General-Lieutenant Kreizer to find useable fords across the Sivash. Due to wind and tidal conditions, the Sivash was very unpredictable. Gathering up 30 volunteers, Kuznetsov began reconnoitering the coastline, and had the good fortune to find a local fisherman who identified a crossing site from the mainland to Cape Dzhangar. Kuznetsov sent three scouts across the 1½-mile-wide stretch of muddy water, which was ankle deep, and they confirmed the fisherman’s information. The next morning (November 1), Kuznetsov led his small detachment across the Sivash at 1000hrs. It was slow going, and it took the men nearly two hours to cross the muck, but they made it to the opposite shore and Kuznetsov lit a signal fire to alert Neverov’s 10th Rifle Corps to begin crossing. Major P. F. Kaymakova was the first to cross with a battalion of the 1168th Rifle Regiment and the rest of the 346th Rifle Division soon crossed as well, followed by the 216th and 257th Rifle Divisions. Nesterov’s troops could not use rubber boats because the water was too shallow and the soldiers had to cross the Sivash on foot, with linked arms to avoid becoming stuck in the mud. A few heavy weapons were brought across on shallow-draft pontoons, including some 45mm antitank guns, but the troops were mostly limited to what they could carry. There were no Axis troops within 3 miles of the crossing site, and even though it began in broad daylight, the enemy was ignorant of the Soviet crossing of the Sivash for hours.9

As Nesterov’s 10th Rifle Corps crossed the Sivash, Kuznetsov pushed on ahead and captured a German officer in his staff car, who had been sent to select positions for the Romanian Gruppe Balan, en route to guard the Sivash coast. By the time that the Romanians began to arrive, Nesterov’s corps had already seized a large bridgehead on the southern side of the Sivash. Two ad hoc German formations, Gruppe Grote and Gruppe Beetz, were detached to reinforce the Romanian blocking force and to seal off the Soviet bridgehead at Cape Dzhangar. Since Nesterov’s troops had no tanks and a small number of mortars, they had only a limited ability to attack until pontoon bridges could be built across the Sivash. The handful of Romanian mountain-infantry battalions, along with a sprinkling of German replacement troops, was able to build a screen around Nesterov’s beachhead for the moment. It would take Nesterov more than two weeks to organize and supply his forces, by which point the German 336. Infanterie-Division had reinforced the Romanians. Colonel Petr G. Panchevsky’s 12th Assault Engineer Brigade was brought up to build a pontoon bridge across the Sivash, but the task proved exceedingly difficult and the bridge was not completed until December 9, 1943.

More Soviet units began to arrive in front of Perekop on November 2, including Colonel Peter S. Arkhipov’s 79th Tank Brigade and the rest of General-Major Boris S. Millerov’s 10th Guards Cavalry Division. The Soviets mounted another attack at 1400hrs against the center of the Tatar Wall with 30 tanks and 2,000 troops; they succeeded in getting both troops and tanks across the ditch. German flak guns knocked out four tanks and inflicted “bloody losses” on the attackers, but the Soviets succeeded in pushing a large salient into the center of the German defenses.10 The next day, Millerov sent another 1,000 dismounted cavalrymen across the Tatar Wall, along with more tanks. However, by November 3, Pickert had brought up several 8.8cm flak batteries to reinforce the defense and Gruppe Konrad had arrived with seven StuG IIIs from 2./Sturmgeschütz-Abteilung and additional infantry. Luftflotte 4 was able to commit Stukas for ground-support missions at Perekop, despite intense Soviet air opposition, which enabled Gruppe Weber to stabilize their defense at Perekop by November 4. German flak and antitank troops claimed to have knocked out about 80 Soviet tanks at Perekop between November 1 and November 4, although Pickert’s flak gunners had suffered considerable losses, including five 8.8cm and four 2cm guns. When Stalin found out that the Soviet breakthrough at Perekop was not exploited in a timely manner, he had General-Lieutenant Nikolai Kirichenko relieved of command of the 4th Guards Cavalry Corps for failing to move up his troops quickly enough. Oddly, Vasil’ev, commander of the 19th Tank Corps, was awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union for the breakthrough at Perekop, although he had been slow to get the rest of his corps into the fight.

On November 6, reinforcements from the 50. Infanterie-Division had finally reached Gruppe Weber, and the Germans began an all-out attack against the Soviet salient from east, west, and south with six battalions. Although the Germans were able to recover the ancient Fort Perekop near the center of the line, they suffered very heavy losses and could not eliminate the Soviet salient. Hauptmann Streck, leading his FEB 81, was wounded for a fifth time, and this time he was sent home permanently – with the Ritterkreuz in recognition of his role in saving the line at Perekop. On November 7, Gruppe Weber shifted back to the defense and the front at Perekop stabilized, as it already had at Chongar and on the Arabat Spit. Although probing attacks would occur regularly, the front line settled into static, positional warfare for the next five months with little change. Gruppe Sixt from the 50. Infanterie-Division eventually took over the defenses at Perekop, while Gruppe Weber and the 336. Infanterie-Division took over the Sivash and Chongar sectors. The Axis had been extremely lucky, particularly at Perekop, but AOK 17 had been granted a temporary reprieve. However, AOK 17 was now isolated in the Crimea and completely dependent upon naval supply across the Black Sea from Romanian ports. Furthermore, just as the Axis were fending off this series of probing attacks by Tolbukhin’s 4th Ukrainian Front, they also had to confront an old, more familiar crisis – Petrov’s troops were crossing the Kerch Straits.



Jaenecke assigned General der Infanterie Karl Allmendinger’s V Armeekorps to defend the eastern Kerch Peninsula, although this was a very threadbare formation consisting solely of Generaleutnant Martin Gareis’s tired 98. Infanterie-Division. Gareis’ division had four battalions guarding 61 miles of coastline, with another four battalions in reserve.11 Allmendinger had very little artillery support, but he had one ace up his sleeve: Hauptman Alfred Müller’s veteran Sturmgeschütz-Abteilung 191, which had racked up an impressive combat record during the defensive fighting in the Kuban.12 In addition, the Romanian Cavalry Corps was subordinated to Allmendinger’s, but only the 6th Cavalry Division and part of the 3rd Mountain Division were in the eastern Kerch Peninsula. Allmendinger could count on a fair amount of support from the Kriegsmarine in coastal defense, although German naval leaders wanted to conserve their strength for an evacuation operation. Luftflotte 4 still had about 185 combat aircraft in the Crimea, including 84 He-111H bombers in three Gruppen, 33 Bf-109G in I./JG 52, and 63 ground attack aircraft in II./StG 2 and III./SG3. All of the ground-attack aircraft were at Bagerovo airfield, within easy reach of potential landing beaches in the Kerch Peninsula. The Germans knew that Soviet amphibious capabilities were very limited due to heavy losses over the past two years, so Jaenecke was not particularly concerned about a Soviet attack across the Kerch Strait just yet. However, the Red Army did not always play by the book, and the Stavka was insistent that Petrov mount an amphibious operation at the same time as Tolbukhin’s forces reached Perekop and Chongar.

General-Colonel Petrov had begun planning for a crossing operation over the Kerch Strait just three days after the last elements of AOK 17 evacuated the Kuban. His basic plan was to transport elements of the 18th and 56th Armies simultaneously across the strait and seize beachheads north and south of Kerch – which was quite similar to the December 1941 landing operation. Unfortunately, neither Gorshkov’s Azov Flotilla nor the Black Sea Fleet had the resources to mount a proper amphibious landing, and from the start, the operation later known as the “Kerch-Eltigen landing” was run on a shoestring and was more dependent upon luck than logistics. Relatively little shipping was available in the Caucasus and it consisted primarily of trawlers, fishing boats, tug boats, and barges. Gorshkov’s flotilla could provide coastal minesweepers, motor torpedo boats, and various gunboats. Amazingly, after three years of war, the Soviet Navy still did not have a proper landing craft available, particularly one that could transport tanks or heavy artillery. Nor did they have anything in the Black Sea comparable to the German MFPs. While the Western Allies did provide over 500 DUKW amphibious trucks that would have been perfect for crossing the Kerch Strait, they were sent elsewhere. Marshal Aleksandr Vasilevsky, chief of the Soviet General Staff, opposed Petrov’s under-resourced amphibious operation across the Kerch Strait since he assessed it as too risky, and instead advocated concentrating all effort against the northern entrances to the Crimea, but he was overruled.

While Gorshkov and Vice-Admiral Lev Vladimirsky gathered up all the available shipping, Petrov positioned virtually all the artillery from the 56th Army – over 400 guns – on the narrow Chushka Spit to support the main landing near Yenikale. A smaller artillery group with 50 howitzers from the 18th Army was deployed on the lower Taman Peninsula to assist the secondary landings at Eltigen. Petrov intended to first make his main landing with the 56th Army near Yenikale, northeast of Kerch, on October 31, but this effort was delayed due to a bungled loading process by the Azov Flotilla. Another effort on the morning of November 1 was aborted due to unexpected losses to enemy mines. Instead, the 18th Army’s secondary landing at Eltigen was the only one ready to go on the morning of November 1. Colonel A. D. Shiryaev’s 137th Rifle Regiment from the 318th Mountain Rifle Division loaded at Krotovka on the lower Taman Peninsula throughout the night of October 31/November 1 and proceeded into the Kerch Strait around 0100hrs in six small landing flotillas. Each vessel loaded as many troops as it could carry on its deck, and none of the Soviet troops were issued life jackets or any form of flotation device. Off Cape Panajia, the Soviet flotillas ran into a German minefield that sank two vessels, killing over 200 troops, including Shiryaev and most of his regimental staff. The Soviet formations became disordered in the darkness, and the different speeds of vessels – some troops were even rowing across in longboats – pulled the formations apart. In mid-crossing, the flotilla encountered the German K-12 barrage, which had 120 moored contact mines – causing several more Soviet vessels to blow up. Although the Germans had several coastal batteries from Marine-Artillerie-Abteilung 613 to cover the straits, they did not notice the explosions. The Kriegsmarine also had several S-Boats on alert, but none near the straits. Despite heavy losses, the battered Soviet flotillas continued their crossing.

Petrov’s staff had selected the sandy beach at Eltigen, south of the previous landing site of Kamysh Burun used in 1941, to land the assault elements of the 318th Rifle Division and the 386th Naval Infantry Battalion. Around 0330hrs, seven I-15 and two I-153 fighter-bombers from the VVS-ChF’s 62 IAP strafed and bombed the beach area around Eltigen. Two Il-4 bombers also dropped incendiary bombs near the beach to provide a beacon for the landing force. At 0420hrs, the artillery support group on the lower Taman Peninsula opened a 35-minute artillery preparation against the opposing shore. This would have been a good time for the Black Sea Fleet’s cruisers and destroyers to make an appearance and provide naval gunfire support, but the Stalin edict after the disaster of October 6, 1943, found them restricted to base. At 0450hrs, the first vessels approached the beaches at Eltigen. Due to lack of proper reconnaissance, Petrov’s staff had failed to note that there was a sandbar located about 50 yards from the shore, and the first wave of troops began disembarking on the sand bar. When they enthusiastically rushed forward in the darkness, troops fell into 3 yards of deep water, and many heavily laden soldiers drowned. Initially, there was no resistance, but the surf was rough and made beaching difficult. By 0505hrs, small groups of troops had made it to the beach, which was covered with barbed-wire obstacles, but no Germans fired on them. Most soldiers arrived on the beach in the dark with only their personal weapon, and in small squad-size gaggles.

The beach around Eltigen was guarded by 5. Kompanie from II./Grenadier-Regiment 282, but its level of alertness was woefully inadequate. It took about 15 minutes before they realized that there was activity on the beaches. Finally, someone noticed something and called for artillery to fire illumination rounds over the straits at 0520hrs. The flares revealed dozens of Soviet craft on the water, which provoked a barrage of German artillery fire. The 2. Batterie of Marine-Artillerie-Abteilung 613, with four 17cm cannon, was located a mile southwest of the Soviet landing, and it began firing large-caliber rounds into the flimsy Soviet flotillas. The coastal artillerymen inflicted tremendous losses on the landing force, including sinking the barges carrying the artillery battalion’s 12 76mm guns. Nevertheless, the Soviets managed to land enough troops to secure a lodgment, and a battalion from the 1339th Rifle Regiment and the 386th Naval Infantry Battalion managed to overrun a battery of two Romanian 75mm howitzers on the northern end of the beachhead. Another Soviet battalion from the 1331st Rifle Regiment landed too far south, near the German 17cm gun battery, but the Germans could not see the troops on the beach in front of them due to cliffs, and the Soviet troops marched along the shoreline to link up with the main landing force. Once the sun rose, the Soviets were forced to suspend further landings at Eltigen until the next night. It is estimated that no more than 2,900 Soviet troops landed at Eltigen out of 5,700 dispatched, and that only a few 45mm antitank guns and mortars reached the shore. At least one-third of the landing craft were sunk or damaged, and hundreds of troops had drowned.13

Allmendinger was not particularly alarmed by the landing at Eltigen, which was incorrectly assumed to be a battalion-size diversionary force, so he ordered Oberst Karl Faulhaber’s Grenadier-Regiment 282 to mop it up. Inside the bridgehead, Major Dmitri S. Koveshnikov found himself the senior officer at Eltigen, with elements of several battalions mixed together. Initially, Koveshnikov had no radio contact with his division command post on the Taman Peninsula or with his subordinate units. Oberst Faulhaber pulled together the spread-out 5. and 7. Kompanie for a counterattack at dawn, but quickly realized that he was not dealing with a small diversionary force. By 1130hrs, Faulhaber had assembled a battalion-size counterattack with some artillery support, but in the interim Koveshnikov had finally established radio contact with the artillery on the Taman side, which he directed to pound the German positions around the beachhead. Soviet aircraft also continually strafed every attempt by Faulhaber to mass troops for a counterattack. Around 1230hrs, six StuG III assault guns from Sturmgeschütz-Abteilung 191 arrived and led an advance against the northern side of the Eltigen beachhead. A Soviet penal company was overrun and destroyed, and Major Koveshnikov’s front line began to crumble. Only timely artillery support from the Taman Peminsula forced the Germans to break off the counterattack late in the afternoon. When night arrived, Petrov began sending more troops across to reinforce the Eltigen beachhead, and, despite serious losses due to mines and artillery fire, another 3,200 troops and nine mortars were landed. Among the new arrivals was Colonel Vasily F. Gladkov, commander of the 318th Mountain Rifle Division, who took command of the Eltigen beachhead. Again the Kriegsmarine failed to interdict the crossing operation.

Dawn on November 2 found Gladkov with three poorly armed battalions holding a half-mile-deep and 1½-mile-wide strip of land. In mid-morning, Gareis’s 98. Infanterie-Division began a counterttack with two infantry battalions (I. and II./GR 282), supported by six StuG IIIs, pioneers, and flak guns. Luftflotte 4 also managed to scrape up some air support, although the Soviet 4th Air Army strenuously contested the air space over the beachhead. Attacking both ends of the beachhead, the Germans were able to reduce Gladkov’s lodgment by half during the day, but Soviet artillery support from the Taman Peninsula inflicted significant losses on the German infantry, halting the counterattack. Faulhaber’s Grenadier-Regiment 282 suffered 110 casualties in the first two days of fighting at Eltigen.14 The next day Gareis continued counterttacking, and he received Stuka support from III./SG3 at Bagerovo airfield, but could not overwhelm the beachhead at Eltigen. By this point, the German forces surrounding the beachhead were heavily outnumbered by the encircled Soviet forces, but Gladkov’s troops lacked the tanks or heavy weapons necessary to affect a breakout.

Meanwhile, Petrov was finally able to begin his main landing effort with the 56th Army on the night of November 3/4. It began with a massive artillery preparation with over 600 guns and rockets from the Chushka Spit, bombarding German positions near the beaches. Then assault elements of the 2nd Guards and 55th Guards Rifle Divisions, along with the 369th Naval Infantry Battalion, began crossing the straits. The Germans detected the crossing operation, and coastal artillery from Marine-Artillerie-Abteilung 613 opened fire and inflicted losses, but could not stop the crossing. The easternmost part of the Kerch Peninsula was guarded only by 9. and 11. Kompanie of III./Grenadier-Regiment 290, supported by three batteries of 10.5cm guns and one battery of 17cm cannon. When the 55th Guards Rifle Division began landing at Golubinaya Bay near Mayak, 9. Kompanie immediately fell back toward the battalion headquarters in Baksy. It was much the same at Opasnaya, where the 2nd Guards Rifle Division routed the sole German company in the area. Almost 4,000 Soviet troops were landed on the first day, seizing a lodgment area by evening that was 8 miles wide and up to 5 miles deep. Allmendinger hurriedly shifted two companies of fusiliers, some replacement units, and a pioneer outfit to create a thin screen around the Soviet beachhead, but he knew that he would need virtually all of Gareis’s 98. Infanterie-Division to contain the new Soviet beachhead. Consequently, he ordered Faulhaber’s Grenadier-Regiment 282 to make one more effort against the Eltigen beachhead, reinforced by Pionier-Bataillon 46 and two Romanian battlegroups from the 6th Cavalry Division. Allmendinger’s staff developed a counterattack plan known as “Komet,” which would crush the Eltigen beachhead, then redeploy all forces to contain the new Soviet landings. Allmendinger also pressed the Kriegsmarine to attack Soviet convoys in the Kerch Straits, but it was reluctant to risk its limited number of warships in the face of Soviet air and artillery attacks.

While Allmendinger struggled to employ his limited combat resources, Petrov ordered the 56th Army to expand its beachhead before the German defense could stabilize. On November 4 the town of Baksy was captured and the thin German center shoved backward. Gareis committed his fusilier and pioneer battalions, which prevented a complete collapse, but it was obvious that the equivalent of four battalions could not contain the 56th Army for long. Soviet reinforcements continued to pour across the Kerch Strait every night, enabling General-Lieutenant Mel’nik’s 56th Army to mount a major breakout effort on November 5–6. Somehow, Gareis’s thin screen of fusiliers and pioneers repulsed all attacks for two days, until Mel’nik’s forces expended most of their ammunition. Thereafter, Petrov called off further attacks until he could get more troops, tanks, artillery, and supplies across the straits.

The Axis implemented “Komet” at Eltigen on November 7 and it was an utter failure. The promised Luftwaffe support went instead to Gruppe Konrad at Perekop, and Gladkov’s troops heavily outnumbered the German and Romanian units that attacked the northern and southern perimeter. The only positive aspect of “Komet” was that the Kriegsmarine was finally prodded into operating in the Kerch Straits again, and the S-Boats and R-Boats began to seriously interfere with resupply missions to the Eltigen beachhead. Furthermore, it was clear to Petrov that Eltigen could not be expanded into a larger lodgment area, so no more reinforcements would be committed into this tactical dead end. After the failure of “Komet,” Grenadier-Regiment 282 was withdrawn and the Romanian 14th Machine-gun Battalion and 6th Cavalry Division took over the perimeter defense. The Kriegsmarine also began to erect a fairly impenetrable blockade around Eltigen, using light warships, armed MFPs, and mines, which gradually starved the Soviet forces in the beachhead.

The battle of Kerch–Eltigen was shaped by the struggle for air supremacy over the beaches and the Kerch Straits in November and December 1943. Although Fliegerkorps I only had a single fighter unit at any one time in the Crimea during this period, it was the cream of the Luftwaffe’s fighter arm. The Germans began the battle with I./JG 52, but Hauptmann Gerhard Barkhorn’s II./JG 52 took their place on November 13, and his unit remained in the Crimea until April 1944. Barkhorn was already one of the top Luftwaffe aces, with 177 victories claimed by the end of October 1943. Although his Gruppe of 40 Bf-109G fighters was outnumbered by more than 10-1 by the fighters from the VVS-ChF and the 4th and 8th Air Armies, Barkhorn’s pilots ripped into the Soviet air units operating over the Kerch Peninsula. In November and December 1943, Barkhorn personally claimed 51 enemy aircraft shot down and II./JG 52 inflicted over 200 losses on the VVS in exchange for 17 Bf-109s lost. Due to the ferocious resistance put up by Barkhorn’s fighters, the VVS failed to deliver adequate air support to either beachhead.

Once a lodgment in the Crimea was created, the 56th Army was redesignated the Coastal Army and Petrov took personal command. On November 10, Petrov made a major attack against the center of the German perimeter west of Baksy and pushed it back 2 miles. Gareis’s had a hodgepodge of company-size detachments from eight different battalions, but no complete units, so his defensive line had little integrity. The first ten T-34 tanks were brought across the Kerch Strait on barges on November 10/11, but Petrov had only limited armor support for some time. He continued to push westward, and by November 12 the Coastal Army was on the outskirts of Kerch. Major Erich Bärenfänger’s Grenadier-Regiment 123, which had been detached to AOK 6, was now flown back into Bagerovo airfield by Ju-52 transports to reinforce Gareis’s flagging line. Bärenfänger’s regiment was reduced to a battalion-size Kampfgruppe after the heavy fighting at Mariupol, but this consisted of first-class veterans. When Petrov brought his armor into play on November 13–14, they ran straight into Bärenfänger’s grenadiers. With his usual preference for close combat, Bärenfänger participated in knocking out a T-34 with Teller mines and 3kg demolition charges, and his battalion knocked out a total of nine tanks in one day. Bärenfänger was wounded again but remained with his troops, and his battalion was responsible for knocking out 24 enemy tanks between November 14 and November 20.15 The Red Army also had heroes. Mladshiy Serzhant Tatiana I. Kostyrin, a 19-year-old female sniper in the 691st Rifle Regiment, had gained a reputation as a lethal killer during the fighting against Bärenfänger’s battalion on the outskirts of Kerch. On November 22 Kostyrin led a local counterattack near the Adzhimushkay Quarry when her commander became a casualty, and she charged the German positions. She was killed in the action, but the Soviets claim that her bravery helped to achieve a favorable tactical outcome and she was posthumously awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union. Around the same time, German pioneers apparently tested a new weapon system known as the Taifun-Gerät, which was similar in effect to a fuel-air explosive and which was used against Soviet underground tunnels near the Adzhimushkay Quarry. Although not very effective, the Soviets regarded it as a chemical weapon.

Although Petrov was eventually able to replace his armor losses, he had to suspend his efforts to take Kerch until reinforcements arrived. Just as his forces were preparing to renew the offensive, the weather and the Kriegsmarine saved Allmendinger’s V Armeekorps from being overwhelmed. Six R-Boats of Kapitänleutnant Helmut Klassmann’s 3. Räumbootsflotille and five S-Boats from Korvettenkapitän Hermann Büchting’s 1. Schnellbootsflottille proved a major thorn in the operations of Gorshkov’s Azov Flotilla and gradually sank or damaged a considerable number of vessels crossing the Kerch Straits. Armed MFPs, equipped with 2cm or 3.7cm flak, also proved effective in the blockade mission, although 11 out of 31 committed were sunk, mostly by mines or air attacks. In skirmish after skirmish, the German R- and S-Boats picked off Soviet shipping, which seriously impeded the Coastal Army’s build-up, and doomed the Eltigen beachhead.

By early December the situation at Kerch had become deadlocked, and Allmendinger took steps to finally eliminate the troublesome Eltigen beachhead. The Germans provided Sturmgeschütz-Abteilung 191 with 12 artillery batteries and Stukas to support Brigadier-General Corneliu Teodorini’s 6th Cavalry Division’s attack against Eltigen at 0500hrs on December 4. Two mountain-infantry battalions from the Romanian 3rd Mountain Division spearheaded the attack on the southern end of the beachhead, which gained ground. Attacks on the northern end of the beachhead failed. Gladkov’s troops had limited ammunition due to the Kriegsmarine blockade, and the troops had been on limited rations for weeks. Continuing the attack on December 5, the Romanians slowly rolled up the beachhead from north to south. On December 6 Teodorini committed all his forces, and the Soviet perimeter began to crumble. After three days of heavy fighting, Gladkov decided that he would lead a breakout attempt to reach the Soviet positions near Kerch. This was a desperate decision, entailing a march of more than 12 miles through Axis lines. On the night of December 6/7, Gladkov led a group of more than 1,500 troops through the Romanian 14th Machine-gun Battalion’s lines and succeeded in breaking clean through the enemy perimeter. The next morning, the Romanians overran the Eltigen beachhead by 0715hrs and took 2,294 prisoners. Teodorini’s Romanian units suffered at least 865 casualties in reducing the Eltigen beachhead, but Soviet losses were much larger.

Gladkov managed to make it to the south side of Kerch before running into elements of Faulhaber’s Grenadier-Regiment 282, which blocked their path. Although only 4 miles from Soviet lines, Gladkov’s exhausted troops could not fight their way through the city of Kerch. Instead, he formed them into a perimeter along the water’s edge, just east of Mount Mithridates. Although some Soviet sources refer to this action as the battle of Mount Mithridates, the Soviet troops were not on the mountain itself and instead clustered near the water, hoping for rescue. It did not take long for the Axis to figure out what had happened, and Brigadier-General Leonard Mociulschi’s 3rd Mountain Division was assigned to eliminate the Soviet group. He quickly surrounded Gladkov’s group with three mountain battalions, while German artillery and Stukas pounded the trapped enemy into submission. After four days of this, Mociulschi’s 3rd Mountain Division overran the Soviet position on December 11 and took 820 prisoners. Gladkov was not among the dead or the prisoners, having been evacuated by sea just before the end.

Petrov had succeeded in creating a firm army-size lodgment at Yenikale that Allmendinger’s V Armeekorps could not defeat, which greatly added to the strain on AOK 17’s limited resources. However, the Eltigen beachhead was a clear defeat that cost Petrov a reinforced division, as well as a great deal of Gorshkov’s diminished naval transport. Yet the Axis ground forces had proved to have very little offensive capability left – just enough to defeat troops who lacked armor and artillery support. Given the Soviet lodgment across the Sivash and the lodgment across the Kerch Straits, it was obvious by mid-November 1943 that a force as weak as AOK 17 could not possibly survive an all-out Soviet offensive once Tolbukhin and Petrov had gathered sufficient forces and supplies. However, Hitler had no intention of giving up the Crimea without a fight.


The Third Reich’s military situation on the Eastern Front deteriorated rapidly in late 1943, as the Red Army crossed the Dnepr River at several points before the Wehrmacht could establish a coherent defense. Kiev was liberated on November 6 and it was evident that Germany had lost the strategic initiative. Faced with one disaster after another, Hitler dug in and refused to consider withdrawals, even when military common sense dictated otherwise. He also failed to appreciate the reduced capabilities of his armies, and believed that they could still operate with the kind of superiority they enjoyed over the Red Army in 1941–42. In looking at the Crimea, Hitler saw terrain that was eminently defensible and a full army to defend it – why should AOK 17 evacuate the Crimea? Adding to his misperception, the Kriesgmarine assured him that they could supply the army in the Crimea indefinitely or evacuate it if necessary. Thus, in Hitler’s mind, AOK 17’s situation was not analogous to AOK 6’s situation at Stalingrad, one year earlier.

In a letter sent to Romanian dictator Antonescu on November 28, Hitler informed him of his intent to defend the Crimea “by all means” and to supply AOK 17 by sea. Hitler also promised to send reinforcements by sea to rebuild AOK 17 and that at some point, Heeresgruppe Süd would re-establish ground communications with the Crimea. Hitler did send reinforcements: low-quality cannon-fodder units such as II./Grenadier-Regiment 583 from France and I./Grenadier-Regiment 759, a newly raised fortress unit. Obviously, a few battalions of overage static troops was little more than a gesture, and a pathetic one at that. While it was true that AOK 6 still maintained the Kherson bridgehead on the east side of the Dnepr as a springboard for a potential counteroffensive to re-establish rail links with the Crimea, the Wehrmacht could barely maintain its current front, never mind recover lost territory. Thus, the Crimea was going to remain isolated, and AOK 17’s only realistic options were either to evacuate (and use the troops elsewhere on the Eastern Front) or hold to the death. If AOK 17 had been comprised primarily of German troops Hitler might have been more open to evacuation, but since the bulk of the combat units were Romanian, he regarded them as having negligible value if deployed elsewhere. By holding the Crimea, AOK 17 was tying up three much stronger Soviet armies, as well as two air armies and much of the Soviet naval capabilities in the Black Sea. If the Crimea was evacuated prematurely, the OKH feared that the Soviets might conduct amphibious attacks against Heeresgruppe Süd’s coastal flanks. Thus, there was a brutal military logic to Hitler’s intransigence over evacuating the Crimea, since the logistical infrastructure was available to sustain operations there for some time.

Throughout the winter, the Soviets contained to pound against the German defenses of the Crimea, particularly near Kerch. Prodded by the Stavka to break out from his Kerch lodgment, Petrov mounted an ill-planned amphibious landing behind the V Armeekorps lines at Cape Tarhan on the morning of January 10, 1944. The winter weather was predictably awful, and broke up the Azov Flotilla’s landing force. Colonel Georg Glavatsky, who had been awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union for his bravery at Balaklava in 1942, led over 1,700 troops from his 166th Guards Regiment ashore, but lacked the equipment to seriously threaten the Germans. Furthermore, the VVS-ChF failed to protect the beachhead, and German Ju-87 Stukas and Fw-190F ground-attack aircraft had a field day shooting up the Azov Flotilla and Glavatsky’s regiment. German ground troops moved in the next day and crushed the landing force, although Glavatsky and some of his troops escaped. Petrov tried to reach Glavatsky’s beachhead using a battalion of T-34 tanks that he had just received, but Sturmgeschütz-Abteilung 191 was repositioned to counter this effort and knocked out 16 T-34s. On January 20 Petrov began a serious attack with his 16th Rifle Corps against the southern end of the German HKL, but Füsilier-Bataillon 98 put up fanatical resistance that held the line and inflicted heavy losses on Petrov’s assault troops. Bärenfänger’s Grenadier-Regiment 123, now just a battalion-size Kampfgruppe, also put up great resistance, which resulted in Bärenfänger being awarded the Oak Leaves to his Ritterkreuz. German losses were also quite heavy, including Bärenfänger, who was wounded for the sixth time; he was sent home to recover and received his award directly from Hitler.16

On the night of January 22/23, Petrov attempted a coup de main against Kerch, with the Azov Flotilla transporting two naval infantry battalions into the harbor. Although the Soviet naval infantrymen briefly seized part of the port, the battalions were too far apart to support each other and Allmendinger’s V Armeekorps destroyed them piecemeal. Fighting continued for several days as Petrov’s troops tried to reach the naval infantrymen in Kerch, but every effort by the 339th Rifle Division was repulsed. Two German junior officers, Hauptmann Hans Richter and Hauptmann Hans Neumayer, were each awarded the Ritterkreuz for their role in stopping this Soviet offensive. Stalin was incensed when he learned about the double failures at Cape Tarhan and Kerch; both Petrov and Vice-Admiral Lev Vladimirsk, commander of the Black Sea Fleet, were relieved of command and demoted. Instead, Stalin sent one of his favorites, General Andrei I. Eremenko, to take over the Coastal Army on February 6, while Vice-Admiral Oktyabrsky was brought back to command the Black Sea Fleet once again. Rear-Admiral Sergei Gorshkov (still the same rank after three years of constant combat experience) somehow managed to avoid serious censure, and a subordinate took most of the blame for faulty naval execution.

In the Sivash lodgment, the Soviet 10th Rifle Corps also made several large breakout attempts, beginning with a night attack on February 4, but made no progress. Fortunately for the Germans, it was a relatively mild winter in the Crimea, and the Sivash did not freeze over – if it had, AOK 17’s fragile defenses would have been outflanked and overwhelmed. Another Soviet breakout attempt, in the middle of a snowstorm on March 28, also failed. Gruppe Konrad sealed off the lodgment with the Romanian 10th Infantry Division on the eastern side and the 336. Infanterie-Division on the western side. Although the Soviet 10th Rifle Corps outnumbered the Axis forces encircling it, the Soviet formation lacked the heavy weapons to achieve a breakout. As part of a reorganization Tolbukhin assigned General-Lieutenant Georgy F. Zakharov’s 2nd Guards Army to take over all the forces in the Perekop sector, allowing Kreizer’s 51st Army to focus exclusively on the Sivash sector.

Whether or not AOK 17 could hold the Crimea depended far more upon the Kriesgmarine and the Luftwaffe than Jaenecke’s worn-out divisions. The Kriegsmarine and Royal Romanian Navy had opened a regular convoy route from Constanta to Sevastopol in August 1942, but the bulk of supplies to the Crimea had come via rail. Once the Crimea was isolated, bulk supplies now had to come by sea, while personnel would come by Luftwaffe air transport. Generalmajor Fritz Morzik, who had run both the Demyansk and Stalingrad airflifts, was picked to command the air-transport operation to the Crimea. Morzik was an energetic and talented aviation leader, and by 1943 the Luftwaffe had built up a very robust air-transport capability on the Eastern Front. Seven air-transport groups with 268 aircraft were subordinated to Morzik, who established regular runs from Odessa and Uman to the Crimea. Unlike the Stalingrad airlift, the winter weather was milder over the Crimea and, aside from fog, did not seriously disrupt operations. Nor did the VVS initially make much effort to intercept Morzik’s transports, even though they were flying in daylight. Typically, transport planes could fly one-way to the Crimea in 2½hrs. The main purpose of the airlift was to fly in replacements for AOK 17 and fly out wounded. In addition, they also flew in high-priority cargo, such as replacement parts for the StuG III assault guns and trucks. The Germans still had over 9,000 vehicles in the Crimea, and they managed to keep 80 percent of them operational.17 Although complete statistics are not available, the Ju-52s of just one group – III./TG 2 – flew in 30,838 troops to the Crimea in the period November 5, 1943 to February 2, 1944, and flew out 17,140 wounded personnel, while losing only two Ju-52s to enemy action.18 Morzik’s air-transport fleet also included Major Günther Mauss’s I./TG 5, equipped with 19 Me 323 Gigant transports; the Me-323 was capable of carrying a 10-ton load, such as an 8.8cm flak gun or up to 130 troops. Indeed, Morzik’s air-transport fleet was not severely stressed during the first several months of the airlift, and its capacity exceeded demand.

Heavy equipment and bulk fuel had to come by sea. Since Hitler intended to replace AOK 17’s material losses, in mid-November 1943 the Kriegsmarine and Royal Romanian Navy organized a large naval convoy from Constanta to Sevastopol designated “Wotan.” One vessel, the German steamer Santa Fe (4,627 tons), carried 12 StuG III assault guns intended for Sturmgeschütz-Abteilung 191 in the Crimea. Yet, despite the presence of a strong escort, including a Romanian destroyer, a minesweeper, and three German R-Boats, the Santa Fe was struck by a torpedo (probably from the Soviet submarine D-4) off the west coast of the Crimea on November 23. After catching fire, the vessel exploded and broke in two, taking her vital cargo with her. The Soviets sent more submarines to patrol off the Crimea, but aside from the Santa Fe, they achieved only occasional successes. In response, the Germans stepped up their anti-submarine efforts by deploying more sub-hunters to Sevastopol; the submarine D-4 was depth-charged and sunk less than two weeks after sinking the Santa Fe. Yet aside from occassional large convoys, the Germans tended to rely upon their shallow-draft MFPs for the bulk of their logistical pipeline to the Crimea since these craft could operate in coastal waters too shallow for enemy submarines. Turkey turned a blind eye as German and Italian merchantmen passed through the Dardanelles to increase Axis merchant shipping in the Black Sea.

Between November 1943 and March 1944, AOK 17 suffered 21,970 casualties, including 6,077 dead or missing, but was receiving a monthly average of about 3,500 replacements. In February 1944, Sturmgeschütz-Abteilung 279 was brought in by sea, doubling the anti-armor capability of AOK 17. In mid-March, the Kriegsmarine was even able to transfer large elements from the 73. and 111. Infanterie-Divisionen from Odessa to the Crimea, to reinforce AOK 17; both units were battered and understrength. The 111. Infanterie-Division deployed a 5,000-man group to the Crimea by MFP and air transport, but suffered a painful loss when an Me-323 loaded with an 80-man artillery battery crashed, killing everyone aboard. The OKH directed Jaenecke to restructure all five of his German infantry divisions according to the revised 1944 table of organization (which included 1,181 Hiwis in the structure), but none of his divisions were even close to the standard. His strongest unit, Generalleutnant Friedrich Sixt’s 50. Infanterie-Division, had only four of its own infantry battalions, plus four replacement battalions (FEB), two Slovak battalions, two Bergmann battalions made of Caucasian troops, and two German battalions from other commands. Sixt’s artillery regiment had all its 10.5cm l.FH 18 howitzers, but only three of its 15cm s.FH 18 howitzers.19 The 336. Infanterie-Division was in even worse shape, with only three of its own infantry battalions and six Romanian battalions attached directly to it. Large numbers of Hiwis and Tatars were also incorporated into German units. Aside from relying heavily upon captured or local troops, the quality of most German replacements by this point in the war was problematic, and replacing a junior infantryman was one thing, but replacing veteran NCOs and junior officers was quite another. Jaenecke was also forced to employ odd formations like Landesschützen-Bataillon 876 and the Kriegsmarine’s Marine-Infanterie-Bataillon Klüver, which lacked the equipment or training to go toe-to-toe with the Red Army. Once the Wehrmacht lost its advantage in combat-experienced junior leaders, its ability to withstand the Red Army’s hammer blows was forfeit.

However, not all the replacements flown into the Crimea were inexperienced. Some veterans who had been evacuated earlier for wounds voluntarily opted to return to their units in the Crimea, even though they had opportunities to be re-assigned elsewhere. Hauptmann Karl-Otto Leukefeld, who had been awarded the Ritterkreuz for his accomplishments as a company commander with the 50. Infanterie-Division during the fighting at Sevastopol in the winter of 1941/42, had been assigned to instructor duty in France after he recovered from wounds. Yet in March 1944 he requested to return to his old regiment in the Crimea. He was flown in and took command of I./Grenadier-Regiment 123 in reserve near Perekop. The German concept of Kameradschaft, or comradeship, was a key factor that held units together under the stressful combat conditions on the Eastern Front. Regimental identity and loyalty remained strong among officers and NCOs, serving as a combat multiplier as long as trusted leaders remained. Although the Red Army had many brave soldiers, regimental-level political commissars ensured that loyalties were reserved for Stalin, the Communist Party, or the Rodina, not military leaders or organizations – that kind of loyalty was considered dangerous in the Soviet Union.

Unlike other isolated Axis armies, the forces in the Crimea did not suffer great privations, since food and fuel remained readily available. The troops of AOK 17 were never forced to eat their horses. There was no starvation among Axis troops in the Crimea, and a deliberate effort was made to ensure that food was brought in for local civilians. Special attention was made by AOK 17 to protect the pro-Axis Tatar population from unnecessary privations.20 Local fishing craft were employed to supplement rations with coastal fishing, and even the Tatars were forced to contribute livestock and produce. Nevertheless, the Germans did take the best of the supplies for themselves, and tended to give less of everything to the Romanians. Naval convoys also brought in over 100 tons of S- and T-mines to fortify the northern entrances to the Crimea, as well as large shipments of the new Faustpatrone antitank rocket, which significantly increased the antitank firepower of even weak infantry units. Yet the greatest logistic challenge for AOK 17 in the Crimea was obtaining an adequate supply of artillery ammunition. Due to the diversity of German and Romanian weapons, as well as flak guns, coastal artillery, and captured pieces, the artillery supply was nothing like the lavish standards of 1942. At best, quartermasters were able to prioritize a few ammunition types, like 10.5cm rounds for the German l.FH 18 howitzer, but even this mainstay of the German division-level artillery received a gross total of only 1,500 tons of ammunition per month.21

The morale of the 65,000 Romanian troops in the Crimea was deteriorating for a number of reasons, of which isolation was only one. It was increasingly clear that Germany was losing the war and that the Red Army would soon reach the Romanian border. Antonescu was quietly sending out peace feelers to the Western Allies, and he did not allow any replacements to go to the Romanian forces in the Crimea. By January 1944 most of the Romanian units in the Crimea were seriously understrength and their vehicles non-operational. For example, the 10th Infantry Division was reduced to 30 percent of authorized strength, with just 4,989 troops. Jaenecke attached some of the better Romanian mountain battalions directly to German divisions and attached low-quality German battalions to reinforce Romanian divisions. Anxious to keep the Romanians in the Crimea from lapsing into apathetic non-involvement in the war, Jaenecke put the Romanian Mountain Corps in charge of suppressing the Crimean partisans during the winter of 1943/44.

Once the Red Army reached the entrances to the Crimea, the partisan forces there became increasingly aggressive in attacking Axis lines of communication. Ambushes by groups of 30–100 partisans on the road from Simferopol to Feodosiya and near Yalta inflicted painful losses on Axis rear-area units, which threatened AOK 17’s supply lines. In late December 1943, six Romanian mountain battalions, with limited German support, began a week-long search-and-destroy mission in the rough terrain east of Simferopol. Apparently, the partisans were taken by surprise and had unwisely concentrated their forces in brigade-size base camps, which were identified and destroyed one at a time. The 4th Partisan Brigade had an 800-person camp identified near Sudak. The operation was a major success, inflicting over 3,700 casualties on the partisans, at a cost of 232 Romanian casualties. However, when the Romanians attempted to replicate this success by attacking three partisan brigade areas southwest of Simferopol in mid-January, the results were less promising: 651 casualties were inflicted on the partisans against 88 Romanian casualties. A final anti-partisan operation conducted in early February was a disaster, with the partisans evading the Axis dragnet and inflicting significant losses on the German-Romanian units involved. Altogether, the Romanian-led anti-partisan operations in early 1944 neutralized about half of the Soviet partisan forces in the Crimea and temporarily reduced attacks against AOK 17’s lines of communications. However, the partisans also managed to tie down the bulk of the three best Romanian divisions in rear-area security duties, which was a win for the Red Army.

In addition to partisan attacks, the Soviet VVS formations used their substantial superiority in air power to wear down the Axis forces in the Crimea with almost daily air attacks. Soviet bombers, mostly DB-3s and Pe-2s, began appearing over Sevastopol and Feodosiya in squadron-size strength in November 1943 and regularly pounded the harbor facilities, warehouses, and airfields. By December 1943, Luftflotte 4 decided to pull most of its bombers out of the Crimea, and then the Fliegerkorps I headquarters, which transferred to Romania. Oberst Joachim Bauer was left in charge of the remaining fighters and ground-attack aircraft based in the Crimea. Barkhorn’s II./JG 52 was blessed with an incredibly skilled cadre of Experten – 11 of its pilots had scored over 40 victories and three had over 100 – which enabled them to fend off an enemy who enjoyed a 10-1 numerical superiority over the Crimea.22 Hauptman Werner Dörnback’s II./SG-2, equipped with Fw-190F ground-attack fighters, also played a critical role in defeating Soviet probes against the Crimea’s defenses during the winter of 1943/44. For his part, Hitler attempted to live up to his pledge that the forces in the Crimea would continue to receive adequate replacements, and Bauer’s squadrons received 120 replacement aircraft during the winter, while losing a similar number. Yet VVS strength had grown so overwhelming by the onset of spring 1944 that even the best Luftwaffe units, equipped with the best aircraft and flown by the best pilots, could no longer delay the inevitable.

Both sides used the winter to prepare for the battles in the spring. In January, the Soviets completed another bridge across the Sivash, capable of of handling tanks and heavy artillery. The Soviet lodgment across the Sivash was a miserable, muddy place, with cold winds and completely flat terrain. Troops could not dig trenches because the ground consisted of clay soaked with salty brine, making them particularly vulnerable to German artillery and air attacks. Troops remained cold and wet for days, leading to trench foot. General-Major Peter K. Koshevoi, commander of the 63rd Rife Corps, arrived in the lodgment and was shocked by the conditions:

Soon, the army commander [Kreizer] went with me to the south bank of the Sivash in order to get acquainted with the situation in the bridgehead. Here the picture was quite bleak. There was not a tree or bush… Around us stretched a boundless steppe as flat as a table and a drained white expanse of shallow salt lakes. There were not even any weeds visible. Only here and there was a sparse tuft of reddish-gray sage. We could see all the way to the horizon. It seemed that the troops were completely open to enemy observation and fire. To the south of our front line the enemy was located on ancient Scythian burial mounds … and our scouts have repeatedly noticed the gleaming glass of binoculars. Nor were there any sources of fresh water in the bridghead.23

The Germans were indeed watching and listening. German radio intercepts enabled Jaenecke to keep up with Soviet developments. He knew that Koshevoi’s 63rd Rifle Corps had reinforced the 10th Rifle Corps in the Sivash lodgment and that Petrov’s Coastal Army near Kerch was reinforced to eight rifle divisions and two tank brigades, with 75,000 troops and 80 tanks.24 Jaenecke did succeed in rebuilding AOK 17’s units to some extent, although the overall balance was now so unfavorable that even full-strength units would have difficulty holding the Crimea. One of his efforts to create more effective combat units was the authorization of Gebirgs-Jäger-Regiment Krim (GJRK) in late March 1944; this three-battalion unit was formed under Major Walter Kopp from FEB 94 and FEB 125, plus remnants of the 4. Gebirgs-Division stranded in the Crimea.25 Kopp’s regiment was assigned to Allmendinger’s V Armeekorps to provide it a real reserve, in case of more Soviet landings on the coast.

German intelligence estimates believed it was possible that the Soviets would attempt more amphibious landings on the Crimean coast when spring came, but concluded that the most dangerous threat was a breakout attack from their Sivash bridgehead, followed by an outflanking maneuver against the Perekop position. Although a German retreat to Ishun might have reduced this threat, Hitler refused to authorize any more withdrdawals in the Crimea. Instead, Jaenecke’s staff used the winter to begin work on a fallback position known as the Gneisenau Line, to protect the approaches to Sevastopol in case of a Soviet breakout from the Sivash, but this effort received little priority. By spring 1944, the Gneisenau Line consisted of seven company-size Stützpunkt, each armed with a few antitank guns and Romanian howitzers – at best, a delaying position.26 Jaenecke and his chief of staff, Generalmajor Wolfdietrich Ritter von Xylander, also worked on a variety of evacuation schemes, renamed first Litzmann, then Rudderboot, then Gleiterboot, then Adler. 27 All these plans were designed to organize an emergency Dunkirk-style evacuation from the Crimea once an all-out Soviet offensive began in order to save as much of AOK 17 as possible, but they remained little more than staff studies since Hitler would not authorize an evacuation. Holding the Crimea was more important to him than the risk to AOK 17.

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