The Crimean Offensive was a series of Red Army attacks directed against the German-held province of Crimea in southern Ukraine. In these battles the Red Army’s 4th Ukrainian Front engaged the German 17th Army. This army was part of the German Army Group A, and was composed of German and Romanian soldiers. The offensive ended when the Axis forces evacuated Crimea at the city of Sevastopol. The Germans and Romanians suffered heavy casualties during the evacuation.
After months of heavy and costly fighting, the 17th Army was finally permitted to evacuate the Kuban bridgehead. In a well planned and executed operation the army crossed the Strait of Kerch from the Taman Peninsula. By October 1943, the army had reached the Crimea. If the troops had expected to be given time to rest and recover, they were soon disappointed. Eight divisions were immediately transported to the north, where they were thrown into further heavy fighting. The remaining German and Romanian divisions stayed where they were for the time being. Hitler wanted to hold on to Crimea for political reasons. But from a military point of view, this was not a realistic plan.
The Commander-in-Chief of the 17th Army, General Erwin Jaenecke, ordered plans drawn up and preparations made for a fast, staged evacuation of the Crimea along the Isthmus of Perekop. It was his belief that holding on to the Crimea would be of no military value whatsoever. On the other hand, his army could significantly strengthen the southern wing of the German eastern front. Hitler refused to permit the 17th Army to evacuate the Crimea. Then it was too late. The Soviet 4th Ukrainian Front under General Fyodor Tolbukhin broke through the front held by the German 6th Army north of Melitopol. The 17th Army was cut off from the mainland.
While the army was mastering the situation on the northern front, a new crisis developed on the Kerch Peninsula. The Soviets had gone on the offensive there as well, sending forces across from the Taman Peninsula. Following successful landings in early November, they established a bridgehead near Kerch which, try as they might, the Germans could not eliminate, leading to continued heavy fighting by the 98th Infantry Division holding the line there.
The collapse of German military power in the Dniepr bend area and the loss of the Nikopol bridgehead once more raised the problem of the German and Romanian forces which had been cut off in the Crimea in the fall of 1943 and were now more isolated than ever. Marshal Ion Antonescu urged Hitler immediately after the fall of Nikopol in February, to evacuate Axis troops from the Crimea now that all hope of regaining contact with them was lost. Hitler refused. Only the seven Romanian divisions stationed there could secure the defense of Romania itself from the obviously imminent Soviet invasion.
The entire situation on the Eastern Front began to deteriorate. From mid-March the Germans were forced to abandon their defenses on the Lower Dniepr. Soviet offensives along the entire southern front forced Army Group A back beyond the Dnestr. Odessa, the 17th Army's most important supply base and port, fell to the Russians. This meant that the army was now totally isolated, 300 kilometers from the new German front.
The Soviets set out to ‘liquidate’ the German army in the Crimea. General Fyodor Tolbukhin’s Fourth Ukrainian Front massed in the north, with the Second Guards Army (6 rifle divisions) near Perekop and the Fifty-first Army (5 rifle divisions and 1 tank corps with 500 tanks) in the Sivash. Near Kerch, the Coastal Army under General Andrey Yeremenko was ready to attack with 11 rifle divisions and a tank brigade with 100 tanks. Air support was to be provided by the Eighth and Fourth Air Armies with a total strength of about 2,000 aircraft. Marshall Aleksandr Mikhaylovich Vasilevsky’s headquarters took over coordination of the two fronts.
The hasty retreat by the 49th Mountain Corps toward Sevastopol began during the night. Soviet forces occupied Ishun. Constantly on the move, mostly on foot, the long German and Romanian columns strove southward, pursued relentlessly by the Soviets and all the while facing the threat of being overtaken and surrounded, especially on the left flank. Near the rail junction at Dhankoj the Mountain Infantry Regiment ‘Crimea’, the army's last reserve, held out against numerically superior forces until it was overwhelmed.
All of the resistance and countermeasures were unable to hold up the enemy for long, however. Soviet forces entered Simferopol, the capital of the Crimea and the former site of 17th Army Headquarters. And who knows if the 49th Mountain Corps would have reached Sevastopol at all, if it had not been for the former commandant of the fortress, Colonel Beetz? He recognized the danger facing the approaching columns and established a blocking position in the Belbek Valley near Bakshissery. There Beetz inflicted a heavy defeat on a Soviet force advancing from Simferopol in an attempt to overtake the retreating German forces.
The exhausted men breathed a sigh of relief - they had made it. They had reached Sevastopol, the location of the harbor from which they would sail across the Black Sea to freedom. Unbeknown to them, however, a new order from Hitler had arrived: although the Crimea had been lost, the fortress of Sevastopol was to be held indefinitely. First, however, the 17th Army had another concern. The 49th Mountain Corps had arrived, but V Army Corps was still far to the east near Kerch. The retreat by V Corps was to be far worse. The last units of this Corps arrived 3 days after the 49th Mountain Corps, and suffered heavy casualties.
An orderly evacuation from Sevastopol of the remains of the 17th Army would still have been possible had it not been for Hitler's order to hold and defend the fortress. At least he had no objection to the evacuation of the quite superfluous ‘Wehrmacht entourage’, which included members of the military and civilian administrations, the labor service, specialists, field railway engineers, the army postal service, women auxiliaries, Red Cross personnel, civilian officials and so on. Also to be evacuated were the now useless headquarters and rear-echelon services, Russian POWs, some Romanian units and, of course, the wounded.
On Hitler's orders no more units were permitted to leave the Crimea. The order from the army command read: ‘There will not be one step back in the defense of the fortress of Sevastopol!’ Viewed in the short term, this order was justifiable in permitting an orderly evacuation of the many personnel still on the peninsula. The fighting troops saw this, and even though conditions were extremely difficult, they retained the necessary fighting spirit. Sevastopol was not the fortress it had been in 1942, when it took German forces weeks of the heaviest fighting to capture it. The mighty fortress works had been shot up and blown apart.
The Soviets gave the defenders no more time to fortify their positions and prepare for the defence of the fortress. The German forces had scarcely reached the fortress when the first battles with the hotly-pursuing Soviet advance battalions took place. The following days saw the fighting intensify along the entire forty-kilometer front. Initially the Soviet efforts were limited to strong scouting raids and probing attacks supported by tanks, especially against the northern front and the 336th Division. Then enemy air activity increased, and Soviet artillery began firing into the city. The initial difficult and costly positional fighting saw all enemy attacks repulsed.
The commander of the German forces at Sevastopol, General Erwin Jaenecke, recognized that the situation was becoming grim indeed. He therefore flew to Germany with the intention of convincing Hitler that the troops should be evacuated. Hitler, however, was not convinced and after an argument he replaced Jaenecke with General Allmendinger.
The Soviets had completed their great buildup for the decisive attack. The men in the fortress still believed that everything would turn out well. But the Russians were already working their way toward the main German positions in nightly battles on the approaches to the fortress. A tremendous, several hour long bombardment from 300 heavy guns, 400 multiple rocket launchers and numerous heavy mortars opened the battle. After two days of heavy fighting, the two German units defending the rearguard were forced to fall back.
Following their standard practice of staggered attacks, the Soviets did not launch their offensive against the eastern and southern fronts until two days after the main assault. This tactic kept the Germans in the dark as to their real intentions and caused them to commit their reserves prematurely. Here they had packed 200 guns into each kilometer of front. This tremendous assembly of artillery opened the assault with a terrific bombardment. As a result the Germans lost important ground at the outskirts of the city.
The defenders of Sevastopol continued to hold out. Finally, in distant Berchtesgaden, Hitler gave his consent for the final evacuation of Sevastopol and the embarkation of the rest of the 17th Army. Once again the order came too late. Early the next morning the evacuation order was in the hands of General Allmendinger. He immediately ordered a withdrawal to the final position, the Khersonyes position. The remains of five German divisions, as well as Romanian units and thousands of stragglers, began a fighting withdrawal toward the small Khersonyes Peninsula.
The German Navy, supported by Romanian military and commercial shipping, began a major evacuation operation. Admiral Dönitz issued the appropriate instructions. More than 190 German and Romanian ships left at intervals in a number of convoys, the first sailing immediately. The 400-kilometer voyage from the harbor of Constanza across the Black sea to the Crimea took one to two nights and one day. The evacuation began well. About 15,000 personnel were picked up during the first night. But after that things did not go so smoothly.
Other fully-loaded ships managed to get through, bringing about 10,000 men to the Romanian mainland. This was nothing from the point of view of the army, which needed to make a complete evacuation. The navy certainly failed to do this, however the heavy seas had forced many convoys to turn back, while others had been delayed. The decision had to be made to hold the Khersonyes position for another 24 hours. The soldiers at the front now received the depressing news that the promised embarkation had been delayed a full day. Once again they settled in to hold on and keep the enemy at bay. Only a small number of troops were evacuated during the night.
Admiral Schulz managed to find the steamer Dacia, which was guided toward the coast by a Siebel ferry and a navy landing craft, before contact was again lost. Schulz was unable to locate any of the other convoy ships. So it was that many ships, especially smaller vessels with poor means of navigation, crisscrossed and stumbled about off the coast in the fog and darkness and just barely found or failed to find the planned landing sites. During the night there were about 60 ships off the Khersonyes Peninsula. Only a few of them found their way to the coast and undertook to embark troops.
For over half a year the 17th Army had held the Crimea, following an insane order. Now the end was near for the remaining defenders. No more ships came to pick them up. The Black Sea was again empty and quiet. Since any further resistance had become senseless, the bulk of the remaining troops in the area of the northern embarkation points, including the commander of the 73rd Infantry Division, General Böhme, surrendered.
The tireless actions of the German and Romanian navies resulted in the rescue of 25,697 troops and 6,011 wounded from Khersonyes and their transport to Constanza. In addition to the human losses, a tremendous amount of war materiel of all sorts was lost. Once again an entire army with two army corps had been lost, and Hitler alone bore responsibility for its destruction.