Crimean Offensive
German and Romanian armies evacuate Crimea
author Paul Boșcu, December 2016
The Crimean Offensive was a series of Red Army attacks directed against the German-held province of Crimea in southern Ukraine. German Army Group A 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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.’

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.

Soviet armored and mechanized units raced across the Noga Steppe toward the lower Dniepr. The first Soviet tanks appeared at the northern end of the Isthmus of Perekop. The front finally stabilized beyond the lower course of the Dniepr, with bridgeheads near Kherson and Nikopol.

Soviet armored forces advanced toward the Crimea from the north, making initial gains until they were halted by hastily assembled German units. The Russians had crossed the Tartar Wall and advanced to the outskirts of Armyansk, and had begun to establish a large bridgehead on the islands and spits of land of the Sivash. Soviet pressure on the isthmus was maintained, but the German defences there firmed up after the arrival of the 50th Infantry Division.

The 88mm batteries of the 9th Flak Division proved particularly effective, with their accurate and devastating fire providing valuable support to the hard-pressed German infantry. An armored flak train also distinguished itself, destroying 24 enemy tanks in the early days of the battle for the Crimea.

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 17th Army was already cut off from the mainland and was engaged alone in battle with enemy forces near Perekop and Kerch. The army's commanders were convinced that an evacuation by sea was inevitable in the near future. In spite of this, Hitler stuck to his decision: no matter what, the Crimea was to be defended with all means available. To back up his decision, Hitler had two more German divisions sent to the Crimea as reinforcements, though two divisions was a completely inadequate amount of troops.

The army carried out its orders and prepared to defend the peninsula. In the north was the 49th Mountain Army Corps, whose 50th Infantry Division was holding positions on the Isthmus of Perekop. Holding the areas opposite the Sivash and the Sea of Azov were the 336th Infantry Division and the Romanian 10th and 19th Infantry Divisions. Far to the east on both sides of Kerch was V Army Corps, with the 98th Infantry Division, the recently arrived 73rd Infantry Division and the Romanian 6th Cavalry Division.

The Romanian I Mountain Corps and two additional Romanian cavalry divisions were holding the Russian partisan units in the Jaila Mountains in check, while guarding the lengthy coastline. Until it was sent into action in the Ishun Narrows in the north, the 111th Infantry Division - the other of the two divisions sent to the Crimea by Hitler - was the army reserve. This role was later assumed by the so-called ‘Gebirgsjägerregiment Krim’ (Mountain Infantry Regiment Crimea).

Per total, the Axis had five weak German divisions and seven Romanian divisions. Other than two assault gun brigades, there were no mobile armored units. The defenders' heaviest firepower was provided by the proven heavy flak batteries of the 9th Flak Division, which performed in the dual role of anti-tank and anti-aircraft defence. There were also army and corps units, rear-echelon services, coastal batteries, naval units, Luftwaffe personnel and Russian volunteer troops and laborers. The result was an imposing rations strength of 235,000 men, of which only a small percentage were pure combat troops.

With the exception of Kerch, where bitter fighting continued around the enemy foothold, the winter months passed relatively quietly. German naval and air superiority on and over the western Black Sea ensured a regular, smooth and almost unhindered flow of supplies from the mainland to the Crimea. The 17th Army received all the supplies it needed. Nevertheless, the 17th Army and Army Group A continued to press for the evacuation of the Crimea, which had long since ceased to be of any military significance. Hitler insisted that the Crimea was to be held, and confirmed this in Operations Order No. 7.

The Russians knew that the Crimea and the 17th Army, if it stayed, were theirs. They dropped leaflets urging the defenders to desert, mocking the German position: ‘The Crimea is our largest and most secure prisoner-of-war camp. The Germans feed themselves, guard themselves and when they go on leave they even return voluntarily. We are in no hurry to take the Crimea.’

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.

Hitler refused, ostensibly in order to avoid repercussions in Turkish policy and the danger of air raids against the Romanian oil fields. Perhaps in reality his refusal was based on the fact that he still hoped that, after a stabilization on the Eastern Front and a defeat of the invasion in the West, he could reconquer the Ukraine and thereby reestablish land contact with the Crimea. There was also concern over the Soviet Black Sea fleet regaining the great base at Sevastopol.

When Antonescu visited Hitler's headquarters, the Germans were primarily interested in checking whether he was about to leave the war and whether or not to have Romania join Germany in occupying Hungary, which was indeed considering an exit from the conflict far more seriously than Romania.

Hitler decided not to have the Romanians participate in his planned action against Hungary because he hoped to keep Hungary fighting on Germany’s side. Promising to return to the Romanians the piece of that country which the Axis had awarded to Hungary in 1940 was guaranteed to prevent that. But neither would he agree to an early evacuation of the Crimea. The five German and seven Romanian divisions were to remain there.

The Romanian army had, to all intents and purposes, bled to death at Stalingrad and in the Crimea. The collapse of the Romanian forces on the latter battlefield came right after the Soviet offensive freeing Nikolaev and Odessa removed all realistic hope of their relief. The Romanians were already trying to find a way out of the war. The Germans were in effect giving them every incentive to quit while making it as difficult as possible for them.

After the Axis forces reached Sevastopol, Antonescu again sent a desperate message requesting a withdrawal so that the Romanian formations could return to defend their borders, where Soviet forces were already gathering. So tense was the atmosphere that Hitler’s headquarters staff refused to even show the Führer the message.

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.

From now on the Axis forces would have to be supplied from the Romanian port of Constanza, which meant a much longer sea journey. There was still time, however, to evacuate the army by sea with all of its men, horses and materiel. But Hitler stubbornly refused and forbade any evacuation. This was the prelude, and now the first act of the tragedy began.

The massive spring offensive on the southern front was a major Soviet victory which made it foolish for the Germans to try to hold on to the Crimea—and also made it difficult for them first to supply and then to evacuate its isolated garrison. Designed to crush the whole German front from the Pripyat Marshes to the Black Sea, the Soviet offensive freed the important ports of Nikolaev and Odessa from German and Romanian occupation.

An equally effective if less daring frontal assault by Ivan Konev's Second Ukrainian Front demolished most of the German 8th Army while the Third Ukrainian Front of Rodion Malinovsky battered the reconstituted 6th Army at the southern end of the front. Although in this process the speedy Soviet advance captured important German supply centers, the Soviet hope of catching the 1st Panzer Army in an encirclement was not realized, in part because of the re-transfer of an SS armored corps from the forces assigned to deal with an invasion in the West.

The Red Army's advances were, nevertheless, dramatic. It was obvious that its commanders knew how to maneuver and control vast forces on the move. Prospective German defensive lines to be based on the Bug and Dnestr rivers were bounced in the advance, and the next one, on the Prut river, outflanked from the north. The Germans and Romanians had been driven out of the main portions of the Ukraine, and the Red Army stood at the entrance to Romania and Hungary.

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 Soviet air force became more active, an indication that the expected enemy offensive was not far off. The Soviet assault began when vastly superior forces attacked the German northern front. At nine o'clock in the morning, following an hour-long artillery barrage, the Second Guards Army advanced against the German positions on the Isthmus of Perekop, supported by the aircraft of the Soviet Air Force. At first the 50th Infantry Division held fast and, with elements of the 111th Infantry Division, even launched counterattacks to eliminate enemy penetrations. The 336th Division on the west side of the Sivash also held firm.

After two days of fighting, the situation abruptly began to change. The 50th Division was unable to hold any longer and fell back toward the Ishun Narrows, which were occupied by the 111th Division, suffering heavy casualties in the process. In the Sivash area the Romanian 10th Infantry Division, which had been hit by the Soviet 51st Army, fought with great determination, launching several counterattacks which resulted in heavy casualties. However, the Romanian division's resistance suddenly collapsed. Soviet rifle divisions and tank brigades emerged from the lakes and islands of the Sivash. They drove deep into the flank of the German defences.

Working by night over a period of months, employing German prisoners as laborers, the Russians had built raised roadways and foot bridges, the tops of which lay just below the surface of the water so as to remain undetected by German aerial reconnaissance. They used these, as well as barges and boats, to move their troops across the ‘foul lake’. The German positions in the Ishun Narrows could no longer be held.

With the German northern front smashed, the enemy had a free entrance to the Crimea. As there were no further forces or reserves available, and since the rear of the 49th Mountain Corps was also threatened, the Seventeenth Army gave the order for a withdrawal toward Sevastopol. The German and Romanian forces faced a difficult retreat over 160 kilometers of open terrain lacking significant natural obstacles. The result was a race against the pursuing Soviet tanks and motorized infantry.

German commanders on the scene had no choice but to authorize a withdrawal to Sevastopol. Hitler was furious, but since Ferdinand Schörner confirmed the need for a retreat urged by the 17th Army commander, the Führer acquiesced.

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.

Flak detachments, assault guns and the remaining elements of the Luftwaffe provided support and relief when the Soviets got too close or broke into the retiring units and generally delayed the pursuit. German fighters, Stukas and close-support aircraft flew 2,390 sorties. General Paul Deichmann, commander of I Fliegerkorps, directed his units from the forward infantry positions. In one instance a Gruppe of KG 27 carried out a low-level attack on Soviet armored units and put 50 tanks out of action. The flak detachments destroyed 58 enemy aircraft and 62 tanks. All of this gave the withdrawing forces breathing room, but only temporarily.

The German troops, and with them the Romanian soldiers, were forced to march and fight simultaneously. Every officer and man knew what was at stake, hoping that if they could reach Sevastopol, ships would be waiting to take them off and that the Crimea was finally to be evacuated. The retreat continued in a somewhat orderly fashion. It was a forced march for men and animals, with the Soviet tanks and mounted and motorized infantry close on their heels. There were no bivouacs or night quarters, just a few hours rest and then on the move again. The withdrawal covered 40 to 60 kilometers daily.

Everything considered superfluous was thrown from the horse-drawn wagons to make room for the wounded and footsore. The motor vehicles were covered with clusters of soldiers, hanging on for dear life. Although intermediate and blocking positions had been prepared, they had not been manned by reserve forces and were therefore useless. As the columns raced onward, rearguards tried to break the enemy's pursuit, fighting until they were outflanked or until the Soviets broke through.

Some battle groups were temporarily surrounded, but managed to fight their way out and get back to the main body. Across the flat, coverless plains echoed the hard roar of Russian tank cannon, the crack of 88mm anti-aircraft guns, the rumble of hastily positioned German batteries, and the thud of Stuka bombs. Soviet close-support aircraft roared overhead. German assault guns drove to the most threatened positions and backed up the hard-pressed infantry.

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 Soviets threw caution to the wind, advancing in a densely-packed column of tanks and vehicles. Suddenly, accurate fire began to smash into the column. Beetz won twelve precious hours, which allowed the mass of the German and Romanian units to stream into the fortress and hurriedly prepare to defend its northern section.

The 49th Mountain Corps had just made it, although it had suffered heavy casualties. In only three days, fighting day and night under constant enemy pressure, it had covered 160 kilometers, bringing its heavy artillery with it.

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.

Until the V Corps arrived, the eastern and southern zones of the fortress were guarded by units of the I Romanian Mountain Corps. The V Corps received the code word ‘Adler’, which meant it was to retreat to Sevastopol to link up with the remaining elements of the army. Like 49th Mountain Corps, V Corps had to cover a tremendous distance in a few days - 240 kilometers - to reach the fortress before the Soviets, and it too had to travel mostly on foot. The withdrawal by the fighting elements of the 73rd and 98th Infantry Divisions and the Romanian 6th Cavalry Division was to start in the evening.

The retreat began to develop into a fiasco. Again there was a foot race - and this time an especially dramatic one - between the foot and horse-drawn German units and the tanks and motorized units of the Soviet Coastal Army. The Soviets immediately gave pursuit. Even sacrificial actions made by rearguard units were unable to halt them.

The retreating German and Romanian forces reached the intermediate position at Parpatsch, having already suffered considerable losses. Nevertheless, the position was held until evening. As elements of the Soviet Fifty-first Army were now approaching from the north, the corps was forced to abandon its westward march and veer south to cross the Jaila Mountains along the coastal road. In order to speed up the withdrawal, about 10,000 men were picked up by small ships of the Kriegsmarine at Feodosia and other small coastal ports and delivered safely to Balaclava.

The lives and freedom of the stalwart former defenders of Kerch hung by a slender thread. The entire corps faced the possibility of death or capture. The withdrawal, which was ordered much too late, had deteriorated into a chaotic retreat. Between 1,000 and 1,100 men, the last elements of the corps, reached the fortress area south and east of Sevastopol, completely exhausted after their tremendous march. The corps had suffered crippling losses in men, horses, vehicles, weapons and equipment, including all of its heavy artillery.

Despite extreme pressure from the enemy, heavy fighting and terrible casualties, the withdrawals by the two army corps toward Sevastopol succeeded at the last moment. German losses were 13,131 men killed, wounded or missing. The Romanians lost 17,652 men. The 73rd Infantry Division lost 79% of its authorized strength. Only a handful of stragglers returned from the Romanian 19th Infantry Division, which had been at the Sivash. The artillery lost 70% of its guns; three-quarters of the antitank guns had been lost. This was the first act of the tragedy.

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.

More than 100,000 people were evacuated to the Romanian mainland. Most were sent back in supply ships, which were empty on their return journey to Romania anyway, but some went by air. Everyone belonging to a combat unit was forced to remain, however. The sea convoys were still running relatively unhindered. Soviet aircraft made only sporadic attacks and were held in check by the Luftwaffe.

Sevastopol at the time was the scene of tremendous confusion. Commanders assembled their troops, headquarters tried to establish contact with their units, new units were created out of thin air, supplies and munitions were organized, sectors assigned and command posts set up. A steady flow of stragglers, men who had escaped the Russians, was arriving from all over the Crimea, in ones and twos, on foot or in overcrowded vehicles. Parking areas were filled with large numbers of useless and abandoned vehicles of every kind.

The army command had assembled the wreckage of both corps within the fortress area, reorganized all of the available troops and men from the train units, navy and air force and organized a stronger, united defense. The main line of resistance extended in a semi-circle around Sevastopol from south to north with a radius of 20 kilometers in the south and 10 kilometers in the north. Behind it was the city, the harbor and then the sea.

Deployed on the northern front was the 49th Mountain Corps with the 50th and 336th Divisions, while on the eastern front (facing south) was V Corps with the 98th, 111th and 73rd Divisions, as well as newly-formed combat units from Romanian divisions and other scratch battalions. As before, the heaviest firepower was provided by the 9th Flak Division, which had brought back more than 300 light and heavy guns. As the Romanian units had little fighting value left they were evacuated, with the exception of the 1st Mountain Division and three battalions of the 2nd and 3rd Mountain Divisions.

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.

Even after the deep disappointment caused by Hitler's renewed order to hold out, the soldiers still trusted their Commander-in-Chief, the man who had brought them out of the Kuban Bridgehead in an orderly manner. They were prepared to fight on until the order finally came to evacuate the Crimea and the ships arrived to take them away. Keeping the harbor and coast free for this purpose depended on their steadfastness.

German-installed naval guns and coastal batteries faced seaward, and the existing bunkers, forts and casemates had not been repaired but were serving as bullet-proof accommodations for headquarters, hospitals, assembly areas and so on. The field positions in the main line of resistance had been beefed up, with barbed wire in front, but there was no in-depth system of defenses with strongpoints or a second and third line. Because of the hard limestone, the trenches could not be dug deep enough. The only well-built rear position was on the small Khersonyes Peninsula.

The poor state of the fortress was not the only disadvantage facing the defenders. During the retreat, the Luftwaffe had lost all its airfields in the Crimea and was left with only two fields near Sevastopol and on the Khersonyes Peninsula, which would soon be under Soviet artillery fire.

The enemy knew the terrain and the fortress installations very well, and was assembling his numerically-superior forces for the final battle. The Fourth Ukrainian Front now numbered 24 rifle divisions, 1 tank corps, 1 artillery division, 2 anti-aircraft divisions and other combat units. The Coastal Army had likewise been reinforced.

One of the defense orders was especially painful for the troops but was unavoidable. It was obvious that when the evacuation came they would be unable to take the vehicles and horses with them. The vehicles had already been assembled in preparation for destruction. The order instructed that all horses were to be shot and thrown into the sea, as there was a shortage of fodder, but also to prevent them falling into the hands of the enemy. They stood patiently in long lines until their turn came, the four-legged comrades of the long war years. When the German drivers, handlers and blacksmiths hesitated, Russian volunteers, together with Romanian soldiers, took over the bloody job.

In killing the horses, the Romanians were not satisfied with single shots. They drove the animals to the edge of the cliffs and sprayed them with machine-gun fire. Thousands of horse cadavers choked the waters around Sevastopol and Khersonyes - 26,000 in all. Thousands more were set free out of pity. These grazed freely in the valleys near the front until most of them met a painful end under heavy fire when the final battle began.

Unfortunately for the Germans in the Crimea, the Luftwaffe and navy painted a rosy picture of their ability to supply the ‘fortress’, thus reinforcing Hitler’s determination that 17th Army must hang onto Sevastopol. As he explained to Schörner, he needed to hold on to the Crimean city for six to eight weeks until he had defeated the Anglo-American invasion in the

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.

There were still 124,000 men in and around Sevastopol. The evacuation of non-combat units was continuing. Instead of an order for the final evacuation of the entire army, which was becoming more imperative day by day, Hitler once again issued strict orders that the ‘fortress’ of Sevastopol was to be held. Hitler even went so far as to send reinforcements, in total two replacement battalions with 1,300 men - a number which was laughably inadequate. These unfortunate troops found themselves thrown into the midst of the impending defeat.

The Soviets felt strong enough to launch their first major attack. Supported by large numbers of tanks and close support aircraft, they struck in the southeast, attacking toward the Sapun Heights. The attack collapsed with heavy casualties. The Soviets had not yet completed their artillery buildup, however. Mercifully, the German troops had not learned of Hitler's obstinate, completely incomprehensible order.

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.

It was clear to the Commander-in-Chief of the 17th Army that Sevastopol could not be held much longer, and that a total evacuation was imperative if the army was not to be lost. The enemy was building up his forces rapidly, the situation was becoming ever more acute and it was only a question of time until the German front was overrun, which would mean the end.

General Jaenecke decided on an unusual step. He flew to Führer Headquarters to convince Hitler to authorize an immediate and total evacuation. In spite of his forcible presentation, Hitler remained unmoved. Finally, his rage became so great that he relieved Jaenecke as Commander-in-Chief of the army and forbade him from returning to Sevastopol. General Karl Allmendinger assumed command of the army.

In an extraordinary piece of moral courage, General Erwin Jaenecke requested that his army be directly subordinated to Hitler, thus making the looming disaster the Führer’s responsibility. For his honesty, he was immediately relieved.

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.

The Soviets now had 470,000 men, about 600 tanks, more than 6,000 mortars, guns and Katyusha rockets and a massive force of bombers and close-support aircraft. Facing this array on the German side was a total of 64,000 men in largely makeshift units comprising troops from every branch of the armed services. The total available reserves were three battalions.

The rifle divisions of the Soviet Second Guards Army and the Fifty-first Army, supported by bombers and close support aircraft, attacked the 49th Mountain Corps in the north. The corps was now under the command of the one-armed, one-legged General Otto Hartmann. A cloud of smoke and dust hung over the entire front.

The main force of the assault by four Soviet divisions struck the 336th Infantry Division, which held fast. The 50th Division also helped prevent a Soviet breakthrough. Counterattacks sealed off or eliminated enemy penetrations. Although the Soviets made repeated charges against the German lines, all of their tank-supported attacks were repelled during three days of heavy fighting, with heavy casualties to both sides. However, as a result of the overall situation, both German divisions 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 infantry of the Coastal Army, accompanied by tanks and masses of close-support aircraft, operating in groups of up to 50 machines with a fighter escort, stormed the positions of V Corps. In the south the attackers smashed a wide breach in the front held by the 50th Division and achieved major penetrations against the 111th Division. The Sapun Heights were lost. Located south of the city, they offered a commanding view of Sevastopol, the coast and the sea.

By evening the two German divisions in the area had lost about 5,000 men. The army was forced to order the recapture of the commanding heights in order to prevent a collapse of the entire defense. Units withdrawn from the northern front had been forced to pull back toward the city and the south bank of Severnaya Bay, threw back the enemy spearheads and firmed up the front held by the hard-pressed V Corps.

The hills and valleys around Sevastopol rang with the crash of bursting shells, the thunder of bombs, the rattle of machine-guns, the roar of gunfire and the thud of exploding hand grenades. The scene was typical of a major Soviet offensive: the air was filled with smoke, dust and the flashes of impacting shells. Dirt-encrusted German infantrymen crouched in their battered positions as the Soviet waves rushed toward them with their piercing shouts of ‘Urray!’ Wounded soldiers, crying and moaning, staggered toward the rear and crawled or were dragged under some sort of cover.

Messengers dashed across the shell-torn terrain. Command posts lay under falling bombs and artillery fire as a steady flow of bad news came in. Officers led counterattacks with a handful of men. Commanders scraped together the last reserves. In the headquarters the field phones rang steadily, radio messages poured in and messengers arrived from every quarter. The headquarters tried to direct, lead, help and support the fighting troops, but there was little they could do. The battle raged on into the night. The darkness was illuminated by Russian parachute flares, with bombs whistling and howling before bursting.

The Maxim Gorki I fort was the site of one of the field hospitals in the Sevastopol area. Beneath its thick ceilings and behind its mighty walls, long lines of wounded lay in the gloomy passages. Doctors and first aid teams did everything in their power until they were ready to drop. The flow of wounded was continuous, with the injured men supporting each other or being dragged or carried in. A trench had been dug in the nearby steep slope so that the severely wounded could be taken down to the wharves for evacuation by ship. Others were evacuated by air.

The crews of the Ju 52s performed magnificently. Arriving during the hours of darkness, they came in through Soviet searchlights, flak and fighters to land on the dark runway, which was marked for a brief period by illuminated flashlights. Many of the transports crashed while attempting to land or went up in flames before they could take off again.

The ambulance drivers, who braved enemy fire to take the wounded to the unit dressing stations by day and then transported them to the airfield at night, witnessed some gruesome scenes. On several occasions transports were hit by Soviet bombs and set on fire, and the drivers were forced to look on helplessly as they listened to the screams of the wounded on board above the crackle of the fire.

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.

In some places, the fighting withdrawal was more like a flight. The troops in the north pulled back through the battered, rubble-filled fortress of Sevastopol, fighting their way through enemy forces which had landed on the shore of the bay west of the city. The last rearguards from the 50th Division began to fall back and moved in good order into the new defensive position. That evening Colonel Beetz, who had become division commander following the wounding of General Sixt, was killed. It was Beetz who had provided such effective support to the 49th Mountain Corps near Sevastopol.

After the Luftwaffe withdrew from Sevastopol, Soviet air superiority was absolute. From then on the fearless Ju 52 pilots were forced to make night landings on two hastily converted sections of paved road, which had intentionally remained unused until now - so as not to betray their positions to the enemy - in order to continue to evacuate the wounded.

In the east, Soviet loudspeakers scoffed: ‘Yes, yes, you are already encircled, the best thing you can do is give up and become a prisoner!’ Colonel Faulhaber of the 282nd Grenadier Regiment (98th Division) and two squads covered the withdrawal of the remaining elements of his regiment. He was wounded twice by machine-gun bullets and lost a leg. As so often before, the flak proved its worth, covering the withdrawal with the last of its guns and shooting up pursuing tanks and infantry. Frequent air attacks resulted in fresh casualties, and the dead and wounded were left where they fell.

For the army command, everything depended on two things: that the Khersonyes position, as the last defensive barrier, hold out until the bulk of the remaining soldiers - just over 50,000 - had embarked, and that the ships necessary for the evacuation arrive in time. The badly battered German units found themselves manning a front barely 10 kilometers wide, which extended across the completely flat, naked plateau of the Khersonyes Peninsula. In the short term, however, the position still offered advantages: it was relatively well fortified, and there were even adequate stocks of food and ammunition.

The Soviets pursued sharply in an attempt to break through and roll up the Khersonyes Peninsula before it was occupied by the Germans, but failed. The worst part of this hurried, and in some places panicky, withdrawal, was that the Luftwaffe, which had so far provided such effective help and support, was forced to leave Sevastopol. The last usable airfield on the Khersonyes Peninsula now lay under direct enemy artillery fire. Battered by bombs and shells, landings and takeoffs were no longer possible.

The northern part was occupied by the remaining units of the 49th Mountain Corps, the southern part by the 5th Corps. The Soviets immediately made a major effort to break through this last German defensive front, but their attacks were beaten off everywhere. The troops knew that this was the final battle, and that they only had to hold on for another day or a few more hours, until the ships came for them.

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.

The large transports Totila and Teja arrived in the waters off Khersonyes and halted two nautical miles offshore to avoid enemy artillery fire. As the ships refused to come any closer, embarkation was delayed from the beginning. Also, a storm at sea that day, accompanied by high waves, damaged a considerable number of the ships which were following behind. In spite of these difficulties the first units, which had already assembled at the piers carrying only their small arms, were delivered to the ships lying offshore by Siebel ferries and pioneer boats in a calm and orderly fashion.

Totila was struck by three bombs and left dead in the water and on fire. On board, all hell broke loose. Water streamed into the lower compartments, while topside everything was in flames. The ship was wracked by thunderous explosions. Those who were not drowned below decks or killed by bomb fragments, gunfire or the flames leaped into the water, which was covered by sheets of blazing oil. Clusters of men clung to life preservers and floating pieces of wreckage. Most of those who tried to swim clear went under. The Totila sank at about 08:00. The mine-sweeper R 209, which rushed in to help, was only able to rescue a few hundred men.

The embarkation was further delayed, however, by the loading of a large number of wounded, and dragged on well into broad daylight. The enemy, who had spotted the embarkation, did not sit idly by, and soon the ships came under heavy artillery fire and continuous air attack.

With about 4,800 to 5,000 soldiers on board, the Teja had sailed off toward the southwest escorted by two minesweepers. The Teja was caught by Soviet aircraft. Heavily damaged by aerial bombs and torpedoes, it went down, 23 nautical miles southwest of Khersonyes. Once again casualties were heavy. The mine-sweepers picked up about 400 survivors and arrived back in Constanza. About 8,000 soldiers on the two transports drowned in the waters of the Black Sea.

Death at sea now joined death on land. There was no safety, even on board the large ships. Totila had taken about 4,000 men aboard when Soviet bombers and close-support aircraft approached. There were no German fighters left. The ship's anti-aircraft guns hammered away, firing tracer into the sky.

The small steamer Helga still had ammunition on board when it arrived and approached the coast. As soon as the ship had taken aboard as many soldiers as it could hold, the Helga set sail. Soon afterward Soviet aircraft appeared. The ship took a direct hit amidships, the ship's boiler exploded and fire broke out. All of those uninjured jumped overboard. Three pionier landing craft crisscrossed the scene in an attempt to rescue survivors. Four times they returned to shore with survivors they had fished out of the water, some of them wounded. The Romanian torpedo boat Naluca was also sunk.

Unteroffizier Werner of the staff of the 98th Infantry Division experienced an air attack on a smaller ship, a navy landing craft, which was forced back to the coast by enemy aircraft: ‘The vessel, its deck was teeming with men, shoved off. At once artillery shells began to land to the right and left and before and behind us. Scarcely had we escaped the enemy fire when enemy aircraft roared in and began to circle round us. They opened fire with cannon and machine-guns. I was lying next to an empty canister, when a burst of fire suddenly severed an arm and a leg from a naval officer next to me. The deck was covered with dead and wounded, and everywhere there were cries and wailing. A motor boat was riddled by gunfire. The surface of the water was dotted with floating pieces of wood and the heads of swimming men. A sailor roared: 'We're taking on water, we're going down! All baggage overboard!' At once knapsacks, rucksacks and pieces of equipment began to fly over the railing. Now even we land soldiers could notice the ship settling in the water. Some of those in the water were swimming alongside, but many had already drowned. We turned back toward land and reached the coast without

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.

The shoreline, with its bays, embarkation points and gangways, lay under constant artillery fire and was subjected to waves of air attacks. The passageways in Maxim II fort were full of wounded. Crowded about the steep slopes, where two to three meter-wide ladders led down to the landing places, were countless stragglers no one was concerned about any more.

Russian artillery had set alight a number of smoke generators which had been installed to protect the harbor installations in the event of a major air attack. The German forces had not destroyed the generators, planning to use them to cover their withdrawal, never suspecting that they were contributing to their own downfall.

Gradually order broke down here and there. Everyone was possessed by the same thought, to get to the ships which might still save them at this late hour. The men knew nothing of the sinkings at sea, and thousands of eyes still scanned the sea for ships, but the sea was empty. A large convoy of ten to twelve ships appeared in the waters off Khersonyes at a distance of 25-30 kilometers. Getting the troops to the large ships was now even more difficult. The Siebel ferries and most of the pionier landing boats were no longer available. Navy landing craft and a pilot boat had to take over the job of ferrying the troops to the ships lying at sea.

Enemy air units carried out running attacks on the Romanian auxiliary ship Romania, which, fortunately, had only taken on a few troops. A survivor, Oberzahlmeister Feucht, described the sinking of the Romanian ship: ‘Russian attack aircraft roared in. Romania increased speed. Despite the fire from its quadruple-flak the ship was hit. Wood and glass splintered and there moans from wounded men. Fresh wounded were added to those already lying below deck. Again the alarm bell sounded throughout the ship. The anti-aircraft guns fired. Aircraft roared round about us. Again bombs whistled into the water. Later, when the ship stopped to take on a newly arrived shipment of men, it happened: the aircraft reappeared. There was a splitting and cracking and a rending crash, which shook the entire ship and extinguished the lights. A bomb had smashed into the engine room and had at once set the outpouring oil on fire. Everyone pressed toward the exits. Biting smoke and hot air made it difficult to breathe. The screams of the wounded mixed with the hiss of escaping steam and the rattle of exploding anti-aircraft ammunition. We plunged head first into the sea, anything to get away from the sinking

The rearguards were to cover the evacuation from Kruglaya, Omega, Kasatscha and Kamyschewaye Bays and the western coast. A report from the navy indicated that a large convoy was expected to arrive at about midnight. It was calculated that the newly-arrived shuttle craft would require two trips to take the approximately 10,000 men to the large ships. After completing this task they too would set sail with a full load of troops. The Naval Commander Crimea, the man responsible for the evacuation, pinned great hopes on this night, as did all of the troops from the General down to the last man. The final evacuation and escape simply had to succeed.

The Sea Commander Crimea left under heavy artillery fire aboard the command vessel of the 1st Motor Torpedo Boat Flotilla. As radioed orders and instructions were no longer getting through to the incoming convoys, Admiral Schulz wanted to personally direct the expected ships as close to the landing sites as possible and organize the shuttle service to save valuable time.

Increasing numbers of soldiers were streaming to the embarkation points, landing bridges and makeshift moles, waiting, worrying and hoping. The ships arrived offshore, but they did not come in to pick up the waiting troops. An especially tragic climax was approaching. Suddenly there was fog, spreading from land out to sea, becoming heavier and thicker and making orientation on the water more difficult. The landing sites were visible only from a short distance, especially since the beacon lights had been knocked out by enemy fire. It became all the more vital for Admiral Schulz to bring the convoy ships as close to the coast as possible.

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.

The embarkation points and the sea approaches lay under heavy artillery fire, which had begun with a destructive barrage. Continuous bombing and strafing attacks, by night as well as day, supplemented the artillery fire, and a series of landing sites was smashed. The groups of soldiers clustered around the bays and inlets and along the narrow beach on the west side of the peninsula saw all hope disappear. Most of those still remaining were the combat troops which had held out until the end. The rescue attempts went on, however, and several thousand more still managed to escape.

Since a massive attack by Soviet air units was expected in the morning, against which the convoy ships would be defenceless, the Naval Commander Crimea could not accept responsibility for a continuation of the evacuation. Therefore, he sent the following grave message to the senior Admiral Black Sea: ‘Embarkation by day out of the question. Request that all convoys arriving Khersonyes after 02:00 be turned back.’ A further message followed at 02:05: ‘Situation demands the breaking off of rescue operation. Embarkation to end at 02:30 at the latest.’

The last large convoy left the waters off Khersonyes and suffered losses on the return trip. The Romanian ship Tisza was damaged by a bomb and had to be towed by a mine-sweeper. The steamer Durostor was hit by several bombs and a torpedo from a Soviet submarine and sank. A severely-damaged submarine chaser had to be scuttled.

Quite by chance General Reinhardt, commander of the 98th Infantry Division, came upon five Siebel ferries and several smaller boats at a remote coastal position, where the commanders of the vessels had steered their craft up to the shore. Reinhardt alerted elements of his division and nearby units of the 111th Division and brought them to these ships. The General waited for stragglers in the last landing craft, where he was joined by the Chief-of-Staff of the 49th Mountain Army Corps. Finally as dawn approached, the ship pushed off.

The Soviets also failed to notice the 50th Infantry Division's withdrawal to the pier and about 3,000 of its men were rescued. The same thing happened to the 336th Division, whose severely-wounded commanding officer had been flown out. Some of the 73rd Division's men got away in landing craft, the rest aboard a subchaser. Not a single ship found its way to the piers allocated to the 111th Division.

Navy landing craft remained on the scene beyond 02:30, taking on further troops at various embarkation points. They were under orders from the naval commander to take aboard as many men as possible. These small ships, which had been designed to carry 250 men, took aboard as many as 750, and in some cases as many as 1,100 before sailing off toward the west. At 03:30 the boats of the 1st Motor Torpedo Boat Flotilla under the command of Admiral Schulz sailed for Constanza, the last vessels to leave.

One other outstanding incident should be mentioned. During the night, fifty Ju 52 transport aircraft landed at the two makeshift airfields to pick up wounded. Badly overloaded, with as many as 30 severely-wounded men on board, they flew back. Quite miraculously, the lumbering transports returned without losses, having rescued more than 1,000 wounded.

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.

Artillery fired on the barely 25-meter-wide beach between the bluffs and the sea at the embarkation points on the western coast, where several thousand men still cowered among the rocks and crevices and at the steep cliffs. Then Russian tanks attacked the last line of defence. General Gruner, commander of the 111th Infantry Division, walked toward one of the tanks to surrender. The tank opened fire, killing the General. Then the officers and highly decorated soldiers were led away from the others. This was followed by shots and screams. The remaining Russian auxiliaries who had served the Germans were lined up along the cliffs and shot.

The last remnants of the 17th Army, over 15,000 Germans and Romanian troops, were assembled into long columns and marched past the whirring Soviet newsreel cameras into captivity. For most of them there would be no return.

Other groups of German troops refused to surrender and continued to hold out. German aerial reconnaissance revealed that elements were still holding out around the embarkation points probably in the desperate hope that they would still be rescued. They held out until their ammunition was gone.

Others preferred to risk everything rather than be captured by the Soviets. They set out alone in small boats and on makeshift rafts, taking their chances on the open sea in hopes of being found and picked up. In fact motor torpedo boats scouring the sea found and picked up another 83 men. These were the last troops of the 17nth Army to be saved.

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.

Altogether about 130,000 of the 230,000 men in the Crimea were picked up by German and Romanian ships and taken to the Romanian mainland in the evacuation. In the same period the Luftwaffe evacuated a further 21,000 soldiers by air, most of them wounded.

The losses reported by the Army High Command were approximately 57,500 killed and wounded (including prisoners). In addition there were at least a further 20,000 men whose fate remained completely unexplained, including a large number who drowned. Thus the Battle of the Crimea had cost about 78,000 German and Romanian soldiers.

In ten days, 5,261 tons of munitions had been sent to the defenders. Most of this failed to reach the fighting positions or could not be used by the decimated units. Only 720 tons of ammunition were recovered.

Only a small proportion of the Axis troops were evacuated. There was no long siege as in Operation Barbarossa. The Soviet victory and Axis defeat in the Crimea was one of the most complete, if least known, of the war.

The Germans and Romanians did have time to build substantial defenses on the Perekop Isthmus and Kerch Peninsula. But beyond those positions there were no other defensible positions on the Crimea until they reached Sevastopol.

The German Navy bungled the effort, and 26,700 Axis soldiers fell into Soviet hands out of a garrison that had numbered over 64,000 at the beginning of May.

Hitler’s callous disregard for Romanian interests destroyed what little support remained for Antonescu and set the stage for Romania’s complete collapse and coup at the end of August.