A Look Back at the WWII Crimean Campaign
Robert Forczyk, Where the Iron Crosses Grow: The Crimea, 1941-1944 (Osprey Publishing, 2014)
Crimea, once a place remembered for the Yalta Conference and the summer retreats of the tsarist and Soviet elites, now has the world’s attention as pawn in the new struggle between Putin’s Russia and revolutionary Ukraine. In this case, the military campaign was short and decisive with Russia’s “little green men” and pro-Russian irregulars seizing Crimea in the aftermath of the Maidan Revolution in February with its anti-Russian program. This bloodless campaign led to Crimea’s annexation by Russia and renewed tensions between Russia and the West.
In the book under review Robert Forczyk, a former armor officer with the U.S. Army and published author on tank warfare on the Eastern Front, has written about the campaigns fought in Crimea from 1941 to 1944 between the Wehrmacht and its Romanian allies and the Red Army for control of the peninsula and its key naval base at Sevastopol. Crimea was a point of struggle between the Ottoman Empire and Russia, which conquered it during the reign of Catherine the Great. In the 19th and 20th centuries, war came to Crimea when the Anglo-French expedition took Sevastopol and destroyed Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in order to protect the Ottoman Empire from Russian naval power. Crimea was the last bastion of Russia’s White Movement during the Civil War and fell when Red Army forces under the command of Mikhail Frunze defeated Baron Wrangel’s defenders and forced the evacuation of the Whites from Sevastopol.
Crimea did not figure prominently in the Wehrmacht’s planning for war on the Eastern Front, but plans do not survive contact with the enemy, and Crimea did become a major battleground. Adolf Hitler and his generals had counted on destroying the Red Army along the western borderland of the Soviet Union and then advancing deep into the U.S.S.R. in the face of a broken Red Army. Hitler and his generals began to quarrel in July 1941 when it became apparent that the frontier battles had not destroyed the Red Army and that Germany would be engaged in a longer and more difficult campaign. During this period, Hitler began to shift his attention away from the lightning campaign. He started to consider Germany’s exploitation of Soviet resources and the protection of key resources supporting the Reich’s war effort, particularly the oil fields and refineries in Romania, which seemed vulnerable to Soviet air and naval attacks launched from Crimea.
Only after the great encirclement battle at Kiev did the Wehrmacht commit significant combat power to the taking of the Crimean Peninsula: Army Group South assigned the 11th Army with two Romanian corps to the conquest. In mid-September, after the death of its commander General-Oberst Eugen Ritter von Schobert, General der Infanterie Eric von Manstein assumed command of the Army in time to direct the assault of the Perekop Isthmus against the Soviet 51st Army. German forces penetrated the defenses at Tartar Wall and advanced rapidly into central Crimea but were unable to take the Soviet naval base at Sevastopol from the march and by storm. Manstein’s drive into Crimea was, however, a secondary operation in comparison to the major advance deeper into the Soviet Union with Army Group South focused on the drive to capture Rostov. Having not planned for a naval campaign in the Black Sea, Germany had no major naval forces to blockade Sevastopol. This meant that the Black Sea Fleet could resupply and reinforce the garrison there. As during the Crimean War, Sevastopol proved to be a tough nut to crack. The siege would last 250 days. The Soviet Stavka mounted major efforts to relieve Sevastopol by landing at Kerch, suffering serious loses in the process. The German high command responded by reinforcing the 11th Army’s artillery park and increasing its air support by the Luftwaffe. Manstein, who would become famous for mobile armor combat on the Eastern Front, proved an adept practitioner of siege warfare.
Forczyk is at his best in describing the tactical fights around Sevastopol and on the Kerch Peninsula. German tactical skills and enhanced Luftwaffe anti-shipping operations during the winter and early spring of 1942 paid off in defeating three Soviet armies on the Kerch Peninsula and leading to the capture of Sevastopol on July 4th, 1942. The thorn in Hitler’s side was no more. An additional 100,000 Soviet prisoners were in German hands, but the 11th Army was itself greatly weakened and in need of reconstitution. OKH (Oberkommando des Herre) decided to send Manstein and his army with Army Group North to another siege operation against Leningrad.
The Wehrmacht had just launched Operation Blau to cut off the Caucasus from the rest of the U.S.S.R., advance to the Volga, and seize critical oil fields in the South Caucasus with the objective of breaking Soviet resistance. These plans floundered in the stubborn street fighting in Stalingrad and the massive Soviet counter-offensive of November 1942, which led to the encirclement of the 6th Army and the fighting withdrawal of German units from Army Group A into the Kuban bridgehead on the Taman Peninsula. German forces held bridgehead from February to September 1943 and protected Crimea from invasion via the Kerch Straits. In October, the German 17th Army fell back across the Kerch Straits and took up positions for the defense of Crimea.
After the siege of Sevastopol, Crimea became a military backwater occupied by instruments of the Reich’s administration of captured territories intended for future colonization by Volksdeutschen and cleansed by extreme measures of Jews, Communists, and uncooperative Slavs. Forczyk does note the efforts of the German occupiers to mobilize ethnic minorities in Crimea who had suffered repression under the Soviets, especially the Crimean Tartars. These German efforts would have tragic consequences for the Crimean Tartars when the Red Army retook Crimea, and the NKVD under Stalin’s orders forced the evacuation of the entire “enemy nation” from Crimea to Central Asia.
By 1944, the German position on the Eastern Front was precarious. The Luftwaffe had lost air superiority, and the Red Army had the armored and mechanized formations to conduct sequential deep operations along the Eastern Front. Hitler argued with his generals when they proposed tactical withdrawal in the face of emerging operational disasters. In this context, the German 17th Army supported by Romanian troops found the defense of Crimea becoming increasingly untenable. Soviet forces had in November 1943 cut the Peninsula’s land lines of communication, making naval and air resupply the only available alternatives. By early 1944, Soviet infantry had landed at Kerch, and by April Fremde Herre Ost was reporting major Soviet concentrations against Perekop and the Sivash. General der Pionierie Erwin Jaenicke, commander of the 17th Army and Army Group “A” before the launching of the Soviet offensive, proposed the organization of a naval evacuation of the Peninsula. However, Hitler refused because he saw a naval and air threat to the Romanian oil fields and was concerned that the loss of Crimea might bring Turkey into the war against Germany.
The Soviet offensive for the re-conquest of Crimea began on April 8th, 1944. The Soviet attacking forces included the 4th Ukrainian Front supported by the Black Sea Fleet and naval aviation, the 4th Air Army, Separate Coastal Army, and Soviet partisan detachments. Stavka had devoted five months to planning the assault on Crimea and entrusted the planning to Marshal Aleksandr Vasilevsky who, along with Marshal Zhukov, had been the architect of the Stalingrad Counter-Offensive. The Soviet advance against the 17th Army was quite rapid, but Hitler saw Sevastopol as another fortress which would break the Red Army and refused to begin a naval evacuation. Within a month, Fortress Sevastopol had fallen. A last ditch evacuation saved some of the German and Romanian troops, but Axis losses were significant and could not be replaced.
Forczyk offers a final chapter on the Russian military intervention and annexation of Crimea following the Maidan Revolution of February 2014. Putin proved that with a dash of audacity and managing chaos at the right time, a determined actor could take Crimea without firing a shot or declaring war. The author sees Russian actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine as leading to a military confrontation with Ukraine and ultimately, increased tensions between NATO and Russia. “A new cold war beckons, and all hopes for greater East-West cooperation lie dashed to pieces.” For the author, Crimea, like the bones of the Pomeranian Grenadier mentioned by Bismarck with reference to “some damn fool question in the Balkans,” simply is not worth the fight, a point Putin and most Russians seem to have missed. And their judgment may have much to say about what Crimea may cost Russia, Europe, and the world when nuclear weapons are brought into the equation.
Jacob Kipp is a specialist in Russian and Soviet military history. He holds a Ph.D. from Penn State. Kipp taught at Kansas State University and was a founding member of the U.S. Army’s Soviet Army Studies Office and the Director of the U.S. Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office. He served as Deputy Director of the U.S. Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies before he retired from government service. He is now an Adjunct Professor at the University of Kansas and a columnist for the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor.
Photo credit: German Federal Archives