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Downfall: Decline Of Nazi Germany: Crimea, 1944

Russian soldiers remove the swastika from a factory in Voykova, Kerch. 1944.

The faintest hint came from the Battle of Moscow in the harsh winter of 1941. That the invincible German juggernaut was not infallible. Stalingrad underlined it boldly. The days of Hitler were numbered. It was only a matter of time. Kursk was the last strong surge by the Germans to clutch at the rapidly receding victory in Russia.

After that the downfall had begun. A long series of hard fought battles that the German army fought with desperation but all adding to the increasing gloom of the approaching disaster.

We start here with Crimea.

Image (Click to enlarge image)

The Crimea - 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, islandand 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 were 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 narrow beach. It was here that the tragedy of the Seventeenth Army was to be played out.
 A German soldier surrenders in 1944 somewhere in the Crimea


The Crimean Offensive (8 April - 12 May 1944) — known in German sources as the Battle of the Crimea — was a series of offensives by the Red Army in the effort to liberate Crimea from the German Wehrmacht occupation. The Red Army's 4th Ukrainian Front engaged the German 17th Army of Army Group South, which consisted of German and Romanian formations, in an operation to liberate the Crimean peninsula. The result of the battle was complete victory for the Red Army, and a botched evacuation effort across the Black Sea, leading to significant German and Romanian losses.

During late 1943 and early 1944, the Wehrmacht was pressed back along its entire frontline in the east. In October 1943, the 17th Army was forced to retreat from the Kuban Bridgehead across the Kerch Strait to Crimea. During the following months, the Red Army pushed back the Wehrmacht in southern Ukraine, eventually cutting off the land-based connection of 17th Army through the Perekop Isthmus in November 1943 

 Soviet landings across the Kerch Strait and in the north-eastern sector of the Crimea near Sivash at the end of 1943 set the stage for the liberation of the Crimea from the Germans. For nearly 5 months, the Soviets turned their attention away from the Crimea, instead focusing on pushing Army Group South out of Ukraine, which they were able to do with the highly successful Lower Dnieper and Dnieper-Carpathian Offensives.

 An assault across the Perekop Isthmus was launched on 8 April by elements of the 4th Ukrainian Front's 2nd Guards and 51st Armies. The 17th Army fought well but was unable to stop the advance. Kerch was liberated by the Separate Coastal Army on 11 April; Simferopol, about 37 mi (60 km) northeast of Sevastopol, followed two days later. The 17th Army was retreating toward Sevastopol by 16 April with remaining Axis forces in the Crimea concentrating around the city by the end of the third week of April. The OKW intended to hold Sevastopol as a fortress, as the Red Army had done during the first battle for the Crimea in 1941-1942. However, inadequate preparations made a prolonged defence impossible against the rapid Soviet advance. Fighting broke out in the city outskirts towards the end of April and the city fell on 9 May, less than a month after the start of the offensive.

The Axis sea evacuation to Constanța was attacked by Soviet land-based bombers. The last Axis pockets in the Crimea were destroyed on 12 May. The German and Romanian formations suffered very high irrecoverable losses of 97,000 men, many of whom drowned during the evacuation. The sinking of the Totila and Teja on 10 May alone caused up to 10,000 deaths.

German losses:
Killed and missing: 31,700
Wounded: 33,400
Total: 65,100
Romanian losses:
Killed and missing: 25,800
Wounded: 5,800
Total: 31,600
Total Axis:
Killed and missing: 57,500
Wounded: 39,200
Total: 96,700

 A column of German POW in the Crimea. 1944.

The Commander-in-Chief of the Seventeenth Army, Generaloberst Jaennecke, realized this and ordered plans drawn up and preparations made for a fast, staged evacuation of the Crimea along the Isthmus of Perekop toward the lower Dniepr River. It was his belief that holding on to the Crimea was of no military value whatsoever; on the other hand, his army could significantly strengthen the southern wing of the German eastern front.

Situation as published in the Charlotte News on April 12, 1944
Image source

The Seventeenth Army was already cut off from the mainland and on its own, it was engaged in battle with enemy forces near Perekop and Kerch, and 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 divisions1 sent to the Crimea as reinforcements, though two divisions was completely inadequate.

The Russians knew that the Crimea, and if it stayed, the Seventeenth Army, 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."

Street fighting in Kerch. 1943

Then, however, 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, and Soviet offensives along the entire southern front forced Army Group A back beyond the Dnestr. On April 10, Odessa, the Seventeenth 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, and that from now on it would have to be supplied from the Rumanian port of Constanza, which meant a much loner sea journey. There was till time, however, to evacuate the army by sea with all of its men, horses and materiel. But Hitler stubbornly refused and forbade any evacuation.

 Russian officers pose on top of the wreck of a downed German Messerschmitt fighter. 1944.

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 XXXXIX Mountain Corps was also threatened, on April 10 the Seventeenth Army gave the order for a withdrawal toward Sevastopol. The German and Rumanian forces faced a difficult retreat over 160 kilometers of open terrain lacking significant natural obstacles. The result was a race with the pursuing Soviet tanks and motorized infantry.
The exhausted men breathed a sigh of relief, they had made it. They had reached Sevastopol, and here was the harbor from which they would sail across the Black Sea to freedom. Unbeknown to them, however, a new order from Hitler, issued on April 12 while the retreat was still under way, had arrived, striking the army command a crushing blow: although the Crimea had been lost, the fortress of Sevastopol was to be held indefinitely. That those in the Führer Headquarters imagined the battered units could do so was inconceivable.



The unending columns, mostly train units and surviving German and Rumanian units, streamed south in the direction of the fortress of Sevastopol. There was now no one who could restore order. The many small groups of infantry interspersed among the columns stopped, fought briefly and then hurried westward again. Late on the afternoon of April 13 the 'main body' of the 98th Division reached Ssudak and halted. The hours of waiting made the soldiers jumpy and uneasy. It became dark. Firing began. First it was only an anti-tank gun. Shell after shell landed in the village. It was the opening act of a partisan ambush of the columns as they prepared to move on. Hand grenades came flying down. Submachine-gun fire sprayed from windows and rooftops. There were muzzle flashes everywhere. Several trucks drove away, but became lost in the darkness and got stuck. The columns were close to panic. There was still a few of the 'old warriors' left, however, and they saved the situation by placing well-aimed bursts of fire on the muzzle flashes. Soon things had quieted down; the threat of panic had been averted. The columns resumed their march at about midnight.
 Captured German POW in the Crimea. 1944

Sevastopol at that 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. An especially sad fate awaited the many horses.
On Hitler's orders no more units were permitted to leave the Crimea. The order from the army command on April 16 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. 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.

Sevastopol was not the fortress it had been in early 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, German-installed naval guns and coastal batteries faced seaward, the existing bunkers, forts and casemates had not been repaired an 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.

A German signboard at the entrance to the seafront in Sevastapol. A relic from the recent past when the Germans briefly ruled .

The initial difficult and costly positional fighting saw all enemy attacks repulsed; the northern front held firm. On April 27 the Soviets felt strong enough to launch their first major attack. Supported by large numbers of tanks and closesupport 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 troops had not learned of Hitler's obstinate, completely incomprehensible order. However, it was clear to the Commander-in-Chief of the Seventeenth 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. Generaloberst Jaennecke therefore decided on an unusual step. On April 28 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 Jaennecke as Commander-in-Chief of the army and forbade him from returning to Sevastopol. General Allmendinger assumed command of the army.

Russian soldiers examine a wrecked German Panzer 3

For more than half a year the Seventeenth 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. When the morning of May 12 dawned the Black Sea was again empty and quiet and endlessly wide. 

Since any further resistance had become senseless, at about 0800 the bulk of the remaining troops in the area of the northern embarkation points, including the commander of the 73rd Infantry Division, Generalmajor 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. Further resistance was useless. 

General Gruner, commander of the 111th Infantry Division, walked toward one of the tanks to surrender. The tank opened fire, killing the General. 

Then, as was so often the case with the Soviets, 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

Then, on this hot summer day, the last remnants of the Seventeenth Army, over 15,000 Germans and Rumanian 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 at 1500, 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.


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Points To Ponder


It is difficult to distinguish between the quality of both the German and Russian soldiers. Both were motivated by their love for their motherland. But there were others factors that drove the two sides to such desperate fighting.

One, both sides knew that this was a no-holds bar war. Not fighting was thus not an option.

Second, both Hitler and Stalin had squads that killed any deserter. Turning away from fighting was just not possible.

Thus was seen some of the most bitter, brutal and desperate fighting on the WW2 eastern (Russian) Front.
"Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
-- George Santayana


"Be polite; write diplomatically; even in a declaration of war one observes the rules of politeness."
--Otto von Bismarck

"When the enemy advances, withdraw; when he stops, harass; when he tires, strike; when he retreats, pursue.'
--Mao Zedong

Your Comments

Senior Observer said...

The reason the German soldier did not rape and loot as the other armies did. Including the US. (I was there) was the discipline. Half the troops or at least a great number of troops on my train to the front were AWOL's or deserters. That would not have happened in the German military. You left your post you were shot. Simple as that. Germans knew that so deserting was not an option. But the ordinary soldier knew that also applied to the officers. You did your duty or else.Remember Rommel? Hitler didn't care. Just follow orders. The respect for the officer by the ordinary soldier was good. I didn't have much respect for our officers. For months after the war we were still drinking instant coffee and instant milk. The general was living it up in London I suppose because I never saw him afterwards even though I was in 3rd DIVARTY Have a nice day


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Great Comments

"The photos are nice, but I hate the way the nazis are portrayed. They are portrayed as always evil. Think about it. What do you think would happen when a country loses WWI? When they enter a depression and are stolen from by gypsies and jews?! Also, the Russians were just as brutal if not worse. They ran the gulags! They murdered men, women, and children who opposed communism. Stalin's regime killed 65MILLION people in it's lifetime. Hitler killed 21MILLION. Take your pick, you politically correct WUSS!"

Anonymous on Nazi Germany: A Pictorial History

"ever heard of the saying two wrongs don't make a right. yes they lost ww1, but they started it so they got their just deserts. and hitler was pure evil,theres no doubt he was a great leader and orator that took advantage of a country in despair. he stood by people that were simular to him and used them to 'persuade' others in high places to flock to his banner. once in power it was easy to unite a nation with his speaches that germeny could rule the world at ANY cost, the hatetred between germany and russia was legendry with both country's sinking to new levels of barbarism.as for russia killing millions of their own under stalin, yes, that was an atocity in itself but it was an internal matter in russia. nothing to do with the west. germany treated the russians as less than human in fact, less than the jews and the feelings were neutral. the battle of stalingrad were tesamony to that. so picking someone to like because they killed 21m instead of 65m is just sick and shows what sort of person you really are. i will say though that although these pictures are interesting, dont belive everything that they show. the picture at the top seems to show two peasants being shot, both are women so we asume that they are inocents. not so, women fought along side their men with amazing efect. rusian women were excellent marksmen and made effective snipers and machine gunners. not behind them a machingun nest. its more likely that the machingun nest was overun and they are being shot for shooting german soldiers. that being said, it saddens me to say that many of the pictures do depict atrocities that the devil himself would be ashamed of.having never been in a war, i can't imagine what humans would go through under such horrific conditions. knowing death was just around the corner probly turned the most mild mannered men and women into monsters. im not going to justify there actions or condone them but to understand what they went through. i hope for all our sakes we never have to go through anything like it again. but i think we will."
Anonymous on Nazi Germany: A Pictorial History


"The main thing is to make history, not to write it."
--Otto von Bismarck

"When you have to kill a man it costs nothing to be polite."
--Winston Churchill


"In time of war the loudest patriots are the greatest profiteers."
--August Bebel

"God is not on the side of the big battalions, but on the side of those who shoot best."

Great Comments....

I think it's important to remember that the German army at this time was one of the most disciplined fighting forces in the world. It's the reason Hitler made them swear an oath on his rise to Fuhrer; he knew they wouldn't break it.

That unflinching devotion to service and country would be their undoing, eventually - there were many suicides in combat. German soldiers who just couldn't deal with the brutality anymore - and the crime. Even leadership attempted to murder Hitler several times.

The Nazis were Germans, but the Germans weren't Nazis. Not all German soldiers were so criminally cruel. Most criminal cruelty was perpetrated not by the German Army, but by the Nazis and their divisions (SS, Gestapo, etc)
(Brutality Of Germans In Russia)
-- By Anonymous

Quotes about War....

"Anyone who has ever looked into the glazed eyes of a soldier dying on the battlefield will think hard before starting a war."
---Otto von Bismarck


"Naturally the common people don't want war; neither in Russia, nor in England, nor in America, nor in Germany. That is understood. But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country."
--Hermann Goering


"To conquer the enemy without resorting to war is the most desirable. The highest form of generalship is to conquer the enemy by strategy."
--Tzu Sun

"All men are brothers, like the seas throughout the world; So why do winds and waves clash so fiercely everywhere?"
--Emperor Hirohito