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.
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The Crimea is virtually a large island, joined to the mainland in the north by the six- to eight-kilometer-wide Isthmus of Perekop and a rail line whose raised embankment crosses the Sivash. The Sivash, the ‘foul lake,’ is a shallow, island- and lagoon-rich body of water. To the south and west extends the Black Sea, and in the east the four- to fifteen-kilometer-wide Strait of Kerch separates the Sea of Azov from the Black Sea and at the same time the Crimea with its Kerch Peninsula from the opposite Taman Peninsula.
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The Crimea is largely flat, with wide, open plains. Only in the south do the plains rise to form the Jaila Mountains, part of which run along the southern coast. There are few rail lines and a couple of overland roads.
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In the southwest corner of the Crimea is the city, fortress and harbor of Sevastopol, with a small tongue of land, the Khersonyes Peninsula, with a number of bays, steep rock faces and a narrow beach. It was here that the tragedy of the 17th Army was to be played out.
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.
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Hitler wanted to hold on to the Crimea for reasons of prestige. He was concerned about the negative political effects which would ensue from the loss of the peninsula, especially where Turkey, Bulgaria and allied Romania were concerned. However, political considerations and motivations only make sense when they correspond to a nation's military position and strength.
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The argument that holding onto the Crimea would provide flanking protection for the southern end of the Eastern Front did not ring true. This could have been better achieved by barricading the Perekop Peninsula. And the claim that was often repeated in such situations, that the Crimea would tie down significant enemy forces, was also invalid. After the battle of Kursk the Red Army, with its great superiority in troops and materiel, had been in a position to launch offensives simultaneously in several sectors.
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Hitler worried that the Crimea would serve as a base from which Allied air power could attack the Romanian oil fields. There was some irony in this position, because early American bombers, flying out of the Foggia fields in Italy, opened up an offensive aimed at destroying the Romanian oil fields.
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By spring Hitler had pushed considerable German resources into the Crimea to defend the Isthmus of Perekop and Kerch Peninsula, where the Soviets had again established themselves. Over the course of the winter, the Crimea received four German divisions as reinforcements. In addition, two self-propelled assault gun brigades, almost the equivalent of a Panzer division, had also arrived. Hitler had ordered these reinforcements despite the desperate situation in Army Group South.
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General Ferdinand Schörner arrived to inspect the Crimea’s defenses. Displaying extraordinarily bad timing as well as a lack of ability as an analyst, the general pronounced the fortifications outstanding and defensible ‘for a long time.’
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- Gerhard L. Weinberg, A World at Arms A Global History of World War Two, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1994
- Andrew Roberts, The Storm of War A New History of the Second World War, Penguin Books, London, 2009
- Williamson Murray, Allan R. Millett, A War To Be Won Fighting the Second World War, Belknap Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2000
- Alex Buchner, The German defensive battles on the Russian front 1944, Schiffer Publishing, Atglen, Pennsylvania, 1995
- Rebecca Mace