below A StuG III assault gun waits amid ruined buildings outside Kharkov.

Case Blue: the Eastern Front between Barbarossa and Stalingrad

Eighty years on, David Porter analyses Germany’s plan to launch another great offensive in the summer of 1942.


The Eastern Front: German strategic planning, 1942

Germany’s need for oil was a major factor in Hitler’s decision to invade Russia in 1941: Operation Barbarossa, launched on 22 June, involved 3.8 million Axis personnel in the largest military invasion in history. But as Barbarossa misfired in the winter of 1941, and as Soviet counter-offensives eliminated the immediate threat to Moscow, oil remained crucial in formulating German strategy for the following year.

In September 1939, German oil reserves had totalled 842,000 tons. The subsequent conquest of much of Western Europe added another 280,000 tons of captured oil, and imports from the Soviet Union a further 225,000 tons. However, a study of May 1941 found that reserves would be exhausted by August of that year, as military requirements surpassed imports and home production.

Soviet exploitation of the 1939 Russo-German Non-Aggression Pact to annex the Romanian provinces of Northern Bukhovina and Bessarabia posed a direct threat to Romania’s Ploes,ti oilfields, which were crucial to the German war effort. As early as 31 July 1940, Hitler briefed senior commanders of his intention to shatter Russia ‘to its roots with one blow’. He also emphasised the need to seize the Baku oil-fields, in what is now Azerbaijan: these were the richest in the Caucasus region (between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea), and among the most productive in the world.

below A StuG III assault gun waits amid ruined buildings outside Kharkov.
A StuG III assault gun waits amid ruined buildings outside Kharkov. Image: akg-images/Mondadori Portfolio.

The failure of Barbarossa to knock Russia out of the war led Hitler to set the capture of the Caucasian oilfields as the overriding priority for 1942. In order to meet this objective, German planners devised Fall Blau (‘Case Blue’), a three-stage offensive:

Blau I: the 2nd Army and the 4th Panzer Army, commanded by Hermann Hoth, supported by the 2nd Hungarian Army, would attack from Kursk towards Voronezh on the upper Don, and protect the northern flank of the offensive towards the Volga.

Blau II: the 6th Army, commanded by Friedrich Paulus, would attack from Kharkov and move in parallel with 4th Panzer Army, to reach the Volga at Stalingrad. (Initially, the city was regarded as nothing more than a secondary objective – Hitler’s Directive 41 read: ‘every effort will be made to reach Stalingrad itself, or at least to bring the city under fire from heavy artillery so that it will cease to be of use as an industrial or communications centre.’)

Blau III: the 1st Panzer Army would strike south towards the lower Don, flanked by the 17th Army to the west and the 4th Romanian Army to the east, opening the way for a drive into the Caucasus.

The Panzer divisions committed to the offensive were reinforced, to a strength of three Panzer battalions each, with armour drawn from other sectors. The serious German casualties incurred since the start of Barbarossa forced the wider deployment of foreign troops, totalling 52 divisions – 27 Romanian, 13 Hungarian, 9 Italian, 2 Slovak, and a Spanish volunteer division.

Although 1,100,000 replacements were sent to the Eastern Front between 22 June 1941 and 1 May 1942, the average strength of infantry divisions of Army Group South was around 50%, while that of the other two army groups was as low as 35%. Army Group South was given priority: by the start of the 1942 offensive, its infantry formations would be brought up to full strength.

ABOVE The strategic objectives of Case Blue were the Caucasian oilfields, including those at Maikop and Grozny. However, Hitler’s obsession with Stalingrad would, arguably, doom the campaign.
The strategic objectives of Case Blue were the Caucasian oilfields, including those at Maikop and Grozny. However, Hitler’s obsession with Stalingrad would, arguably, doom the campaign. Map: Ian Bull.

The strategic objectives of the operation were the Caucasian oilfields at Maikop, Grozny, and Baku – between them accounting for 84% of Soviet production. On 1 June 1942, four weeks before the offensive, Hitler told senior officers: ‘If I do not get the oil of Maikop and Grozny then I must end this war.’

However, it seems he never seriously assessed the practicalities of transporting large quantities of oil to the Reich. A specialist detachment, the Mineralöl Brigade Kaukasus (‘Oil Brigade Caucasus’), was formed to operate captured oilfields. However, when it reached Maikop in August 1942, it found that Soviet sabotage was so extensive that less than 1,000 tons of oil could be produced before the Germans were forced to withdraw in January 1943.

Stalin’s problems

Despite defeating the final German offensives of 1941, Stalin was well aware of the threat still posed by Axis armies – by early 1942, the Red Army had lost more than 6,127,000 men, almost 50% of them taken prisoner. Although Axis losses for the period totalled 850,000 of the 3,800,000 men initially committed to Barbarossa, Russian casualty rates were roughly seven times higher.

While Hitler believed the German economy was under strain, its Soviet counterpart was in a far worse state. Despite the Red Army’s counter-offensives, the Germans still controlled the regions that had supplied the bulk of Russia’s essential raw materials, including iron ore and manganese. Early in 1942, the Reich produced roughly 80% more coal and 70% more steel than the Soviet Union. By this time, the Caucasus was one of Stalin’s few accessible sources of oil and raw materials – but the German offensives of 1941 had overrun 40% of the Soviet rail network. This loss, plus damage inflicted by the Luftwaffe, threatened to choke off vital shipments from the Caucasus.

Another factor in the strategic equation was anti-Soviet uprisings in the region: by early 1942, a serious insurrection, which began in Chechnya and Ingushetia, had spread to neighbouring Dagestan. German intelligence agencies quickly began planning to exploit the situation – it seems likely that both the Abwehr (military intelligence) and the SS were involved in the creation of several ‘national committees’, drawn from émigrés, defectors, and POWs, to act as governments in exile for various ethnic groups in the Caucasus. Regimental-size ‘legions’ were raised from the same sources to give at least token armed forces to these committees and local knowledge to German formations spearheading the planned advance.

BELOW Führer conference at HQ Army Group South, 1 June 1942. Left to right: Generalleutnant Adolf Ernst Heusinger, General der Infanterie Georg von Sodenstern, Generaloberst Max Freiherr von Weichs, Adolf Hitler, General der Panzertruppe Friedrich Paulus, Generaloberst Eberhard von Mackensen, and Generalfeldmarschall Fedor von Bock.
Führer conference at HQ Army Group South, 1 June 1942. Left to right: Generalleutnant Adolf Ernst Heusinger, General der Infanterie Georg von Sodenstern, Generaloberst Max Freiherr von Weichs, Adolf Hitler, General der Panzertruppe Friedrich Paulus, Generaloberst Eberhard von Mackensen, and Generalfeldmarschall Fedor von Bock. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Could Fall Blau have worked? With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to dismiss the plans as unrealistic, but even so, they came remarkably close to success. Hitler’s failure was largely due to his disregard of the basic military principle of ‘maintenance of the aim’ – his growing obsession with the capture of Stalingrad was arguably the factor that doomed the campaign. If he had given absolute priority to the capture of the oilfields, the outcome of the war on the Eastern Front might have been very different.

The Second Battle of Kharkov: 12-28 May 1942

The origins of this major battle date back to January 1942, when the Red Army launched the Barvenkovo-Lozovaya Offensive, one of a series of winter counter-offensives that recaptured a great swathe of Axis-occupied territory. It was a highly ambitious operation by the Soviet South-Western and Southern Front army groups, intended to retake the Ukrainian city of Kharkov before advancing into the rear of Germany’s Army Group South in the Donbass-Taganrog area. Although the Red Army managed effectively to destroy three German infantry divisions, the offensive fell short of its overall objectives. This was largely because the German technique of creating a defensive network of fortified towns and villages drastically slowed the Soviet advance. Crucially, the successful defence of two key towns, Balakleya and Slavyansk, funnelled the Soviet advance into what became known as the ‘Barvenkovo salient’ or ‘Izyum bulge’, where it was finally halted at the end of January after achieving a penetration 80km deep and 115km wide.

ABOVE A German officer waves his men forward from a slit trench near Kharkov, May 1942.
A German officer waves his men forward from a slit trench near Kharkov, May 1942. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Mutual exhaustion and the thick mud of the spring thaw forced a lull in major operations and gave both sides a chance to plan their summer campaigns. While Hitler was determined to concentrate German efforts on taking the Caucasus oilfields, Stalin was concerned that the reinforcement of Army Group South indicated preparations for a renewed attack on Moscow using an indirect approach. The fundamental problem was whether to pre-empt the German offensive or adopt a defensive strategy until the Red Army had rebuilt its strength. The more thoughtful senior officers – notably Marshal Shaposhnikov, Chief of Staff of Stavka, the Soviet high command – recognised that the Soviet counter-offensives had only worked because the Germans had been ill-equipped for warfare in what had been exceptionally harsh winter weather. Stalin, however, was fixated on the danger to Moscow, ordering Marshal Timoshenko to prepare an attack to recapture Kharkov, to disrupt German preparations for their own offensive. These objectives were ambitious enough, but Timoshenko soon expanded them to include the recapture of a great swathe of territory as far west as the Dnieper River. Stavka’s planning staff were concerned the offensive would be dangerously overstretched, but Stalin angrily dismissed such reservations, asking: ‘Are we supposed to sit in defence… and wait for the Germans to attack first?’

Soviet command failings, notably the lack of any deception plan, allowed German intelligence to detect the build-up of Soviet forces, coming up with a fairly accurate estimate of 750,000 men, 1,000 armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs), 10,000 guns and mortars, and 400 aircraft. The majority of the tanks were concentrated in tank brigades, barely equating to a tank battalion in most other armies, each with a nominal strength of 10 KV-1 heavy tanks, 20 T-34 medium tanks, and 20 T-60 light tanks. Shortly before the offensive, some of these brigades were grouped into tank corps, which were supposed to have 100 tanks each. In practice, Timoshenko fielded 923 tanks, a third of which were modern heavy and medium tanks (80 KV-1s and 239 T-34s). There were also 117 British-made Matilda II and 81 Valentine tanks, which were effective in the infantry-support role, but the remaining Soviet armour was a mix of T-60 light tanks with marginal combat value, plus obsolescent T-26, BT-2, and BT-5 light tanks in some tank brigades. The extent of the damage inflicted on the Red Army since June 1941 was shown by the fact that only six of Timoshenko’s 19 tank brigades were fully equipped. At best, in the sectors selected for the main thrusts, the Soviets had a 3:1 numerical advantage in terms of armour and infantry, and a 2:1 advantage in artillery. The Panzer formations fielded a much higher proportion of medium tanks than Soviet tank brigades, notably the 112 Pz.IIIJs and 17 Pz.IVF2s (armed with long-barrelled 50mm and 75mm guns), which for the first time gave them the ability to fight the T-34 on roughly equal terms.

LEFT A Soviet T-34 tank burns on the Eastern Front the victim of a German 88 (88mm anti-tank gun).
A Soviet T-34 tank burns on the Eastern Front the victim of a German 88 (88mm anti-tank gun). Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Initially, the Red Air Force in this sector had a significant numerical advantage over the Luftwaffe, fielding a total of 142 Yak-1, LaGG-3 and MiG-3 fighters, 85 Su-2 and Pe-2 light bombers, plus 67 Il-2 Shturmovik ground-attack aircraft, and 125 Po-2/U-2 biplane night bombers. In contrast, Fliegerkorps IV had only 40 Bf 109F fighters and 60 He 111H bombers. However, the Soviet numerical superiority was largely offset by abysmal aircraft production standards and poor aircrew training, which led to massive casualties. (In 1942, the Russians deployed a total of 33,000 aircraft, losing 7,800 in combat and a further 4,300 in accidents.) Any remaining Soviet advantage was wiped out when much of Fliegerkorps VIII was hastily redeployed from the Crimea, including 43 of the new Hs 129 ‘tank-busters’, more than 100 Ju 87 dive-bombers, 144 Bf 109F fighters, and 170 Ju 88 bombers. These reinforcements started to arrive on 14 May, allowing the Luftwaffe swiftly to regain aerial supremacy, and freeing German bombers to make almost unopposed attacks on battlefield targets and Soviet supply lines.

Timoshenko intended to launch the northern pincer of his offensive with the 21st, 28th, and 38th Armies attacking from the Staryi Saltiv bridgehead, east of Kharkov, and the southern pincer with the 6th, 9th, and 57th Armies in the Barvenkovo salient. After breaking through the German front, 6th Army would commit a mobile group based on the newly formed 21st and 23rd Tank Corps to envelop the German 6th Army from the south. The northern group’s breakthrough was to be exploited by 3rd Guards Cavalry Corps, and the Soviet pincers were confidently expected to link up within 15 days. Timoshenko created Army Group Bobkin from 6th Army resources on 27 April in order to provide a combined-arms flank guard for his main effort, but this only served to blur command responsibilities in the Barvenkovo salient, which were already split between South-Western Front’s 6th Army and Southern Front’s 9th and 57th Armies.

While Timoshenko was planning his offensive, the Germans were preparing their own attack, codenamed Unternehmen Fridericus (‘Operation Frederick’), as a preliminary to the main Fall Blau (‘Case Blue’) strike against the oilfields of the Caucasus. This was to be a simple offensive based on two concentric thrusts to meet at Izyum and pinch off the Barvenkovo salient. Originally planned for mid-April, Fridericus was rescheduled for 18 May to give time for adequate forces to be assembled – but the operation was pre-empted by Timoshenko’s attack.

BELOW The Second Battle of Kharkov would result in an overwhelming German victory, with Soviet losses totalling 170,000 killed, captured or missing.
The Second Battle of Kharkov would result in an overwhelming German victory, with Soviet losses totalling 170,000 killed, captured or missing. Map: Ian Bull.

Battle commences

The Russian offensive opened on 12 May with a 60-minute artillery barrage and achieved initial successes by sheer weight of numbers, but after making advances averaging 25km in the first 48 hours, Timoshenko was unable to maintain the tempo of the offensive. The northern arm of the attack lost momentum as it tried to break through the network of German strongpoints, and was then hit by a counter-attack spearheaded by the 3rd and 23rd Panzer Divisions, forcing the commitment of 3rd Guards Cavalry Corps on 17 May to prevent a complete collapse in this sector.

The southern offensive also made good initial progress, but failed to achieve a clean breakthrough, although it did open up gaps in the German front which allowed 6th Cavalry Corps to penetrate as far as the vital rail hub at Krasnograd by 16 May. The situation was critical, but an ad-hoc battlegroup, Sperrverband Ziegelmayer, comprising a combat engineer battalion and a motley collection of rear-echelon troops, managed to hold off the Soviet cavalry, which lacked the manpower and the heavy weapons to get through even improvised defences.

It became apparent that the Red Army still could not match German tactical flexibility – one Panzer officer recalled how Soviet tank units ‘got in each other’s way, blundering against our anti-tank guns… That was when single 88s could knock out more than 30 Soviet tanks in an hour. We thought the Russians had created a tool which they would never be able to handle properly.’

Nonetheless, Soviet forces were still advancing on 17 May, when Generaloberst Ewald von Kleist’s 1st Panzer Army launched a devastating counter-offensive against the southern flank of the Barvenkovo salient with a total of nine divisions, including 14th and 16th Panzer Divisions. It effectively crushed the Russian 9th Army within 24 hours, and on 18 May further disrupted the Soviet command structure when it overran the HQ of the 57th Army. At the same time, 16th Panzer Division took Izyum and cut one of the main Russian supply lines across the Donets River at Donetsky.

LEFT Some of the thousands of Soviet soldiers taken prisoner at Kharkov in May 1942.
Some of the thousands of Soviet soldiers taken prisoner at Kharkov in May 1942. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Timoshenko hesitated for several hours before informing Stavka of the situation late on 17 May. Stavka’s acting Chief of Staff, Colonel General Vasilevsky, realised that the Germans intended to cut off the Barvenkovo salient, and recommended halting the offensive to free forces to stop Kleist. However, Stalin ordered Timoshenko to continue the attack on Kharkov while using 21st and 23rd Tank Corps to defeat the German breakthrough. By the time they finally redeployed, 48 hours later, Kleist was threatening Protopopovka, a vital link and one of the last major Soviet-held crossing sites on the Donets.

On 19 May, Vasilevsky finally persuaded Stalin to abandon the attempt to take Kharkov and concentrate on defeating Kleist. However, constant Luftwaffe attacks disrupted Timoshenko’s attempts to redeploy his forces, whose mobility and combat capability were also reduced by fuel and ammunition shortages. By 21 May, the neck of the Barvenkovo salient had been reduced to just 18km, and a final German effort the next day closed it completely. Such a high proportion of the Red Army’s tank strength had been committed to the offensive there was virtually no armour available to penetrate the German cordon to rescue Timoshenko’s forces, which were frantically trying to break out of the encirclement. On 25 May, the remnants of four trapped divisions launched a major attack, which was bloodily repulsed, but further escape efforts were increasingly disorganised as the command structure inside the pocket collapsed. By 26 May, more than 200,000 Soviet troops and hundreds of vehicles were squeezed into a 20km strip of the Bereka valley, where they were bombarded by German artillery and subjected to repeated air attacks. The Luftwaffe (primarily Luftflotte IV) played a major role in the German victory, flying 15,648 sorties (averaging 978 per day), and dropping 7,700 tonnes of bombs.

Red Army personnel losses probably totalled 170,000 killed, captured or missing, plus 106,000 wounded – 22 rifle divisions, 7 cavalry divisions, and 15 tank brigades were destroyed. Equipment losses were just as severe – 1,200 AFVs, 1,600 guns, 3,200 mortars, and 540 aircraft. Equally seriously, the commanders and staffs of the 6th, 9th, and 57th Armies were largely wiped out, worsening an already serious shortage of qualified staff officers.

The disaster at Kharkov vividly demonstrated the fragility of the Red Army at this stage of the war. Its ranks were full of barely trained conscripts, and the officer corps, emasculated by Stalin’s purges, was struggling to learn the basics of armoured warfare in the midst of campaigning against a sophisticated enemy.

Semyon Konstantinovich Timoshenko. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Paul Ludwig Ewald von Kleist. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Semyon Konstantinovich Timoshenko (1895-1970) was the son of a peasant family. In 1915, he was conscripted into the Imperial Russian Army, serving in the cavalry. In 1918, he joined the Bolsheviks and fought throughout the Russian Civil War in the 1st Cavalry Army. There he first met Stalin, who was at that time a Red Army commissar. Stalin’s patronage ensured his steady promotion and his survival during the purges of the late 1930s. Timoshenko commanded the Soviet forces that overran eastern Poland in 1939, and subsequently forced the Finns to surrender after the humiliating defeats of the Red Army in the initial stages of the Winter War. He was promoted to the Red Army’s highest rank – Marshal of the Soviet Union – in May 1940 in recognition of his part in the victory over Finland, and became People’s Commissar for Defence. Following the German invasion, Stalin sent Timoshenko to act as a ‘fireman’ to save as much as possible from the succession of Soviet defeats in the summer and autumn of 1941. Despite the scale of the disaster at Kharkov, he was entrusted with command of the North-Western Front in July 1942. Although his pre-war military career was primarily in the cavalry, Paul Ludwig Ewald von Kleist (1881-1954) rapidly displayed an innate talent for armoured warfare. He commanded Panzer Group Kleist (later 1st Panzer Army), the Wehrmacht’s first operational grouping of several Panzer corps, in the Battle of France. In this campaign, units under his command included the five Panzer divisions committed to the attack through the Ardennes which was a key factor in the final German victory. During Operation Barbarossa, Kleist’s 1st Panzer Army destroyed 20 Soviet divisions in the opening stages of the offensive, and shared in the destruction of a further 50 in the Kiev pocket. After his brilliant victory at Kharkov, he commanded Army Group A in its advance on the oilfields of the Caucasus. Following the Axis defeat at Stalingrad, he masterminded a remarkably successful withdrawal from the region, but increasing disagreements with Hitler led to his dismissal in March 1944. After the war, Kleist was extradited to the Soviet Union, where he was sentenced to 25 years imprisonment for war crimes; he died in Vladimir POW camp.

The Siege of Sevastopol: 30 October 1941 – 4 July 1942

Initial planning for Barbarossa had assumed that the Crimea would be a secondary objective, after the destruction of the Red Army west of the Dnieper. However, in July 1941, Russian aircraft operating from Crimean airfields bombed Romania’s oil refineries, destroying 12,000 tons of oil. This vivid demonstration of the threat posed by Soviet control of the Crimea prompted Hitler to order the conquest of the region in a supplement to Führer Directive 34, dated 12 August 1941.

The need to eliminate the four Soviet armies, totalling almost 50 divisions, trapped in the enormous Kiev pocket, delayed the start of the attack on the Crimea until 24 September 1941. Generaloberst Erich von Manstein’s 11th Army made good progress along the main route into the Crimea through the Perekop Peninsula, but then had to divert forces to defeat a Soviet counter-attack near the Ukrainian city of Melitopol. The Germans were unable to resume their offensive until mid-October, by which time the defenders were being reinforced by 80,000 men evacuated by sea from Odessa. In just over a week of fierce fighting, Manstein broke through the remaining defence and cleared the whole of the Crimea, except for the heavily fortified naval base of Sevastopol, by 17 November. Initial attempts to storm the port between 11 and 21 November failed after overrunning parts of the outer defence perimeter, and further efforts in December made only limited progress before being halted by Soviet reinforcements.

below Sevastopol following the siege, July 1942.
Sevastopol following the siege, July 1942. Image: Alamy.

The situation changed dramatically on 26 December, when the Russians launched an unusually imaginative amphibious operation across the narrow Kerch Straits, followed up with further landings at the port of Feodosiya, forcing the Germans to evacuate the eastern Crimea and establish a new north–south defence line across the Parpach Narrows. Stavka rapidly reinforced the area, creating the Crimean Front under Lieutenant General Dmitry Kozlov on 28 January 1942, comprising the 44th, 47th, and 51st Armies, with the Independent Coastal Army (garrisoning Sevastopol) and the Black Sea Fleet under its operational control.

By early May, the Crimean Front had almost 250,000 men supported by 350 tanks and more than 400 aircraft. Kozlov had little combat command experience beyond regimental level and, like all ranks, went in fear of the NKVD, the Soviet secret police. The organisation’s malign influence was personified by Lev Mekhlis, the Stavka representative to the Crimean Front, who was also Head of the Main Political Administration of the Red Army. He was an incompetent, arrogant bully who quarrelled with Kozlov and engineered the dismissal of his able chief of staff, the future Marshal Tolbukhin. Mekhlis insisted on repeated ill-prepared attacks, which sapped Soviet strength, and was largely responsible for the failure to destroy the 11th Army when it was at its most vulnerable in early 1942. When Manstein launched a counter-attack – codenamed Unternehmen Trappenjagd (‘Operation Bustard Hunt’) – on 8 May, Mekhlis’s incompetence contributed to the destruction of the Crimean Front in barely ten days. As at Kharkov, there was little coordination between the Soviet tank brigades, whose 350 AFVs were committed to action piecemeal. This negated their numerical superiority over the sole German armoured formation, the under-strength 22nd Panzer Division, which was largely equipped with obsolescent Panzer 38(t)s. Once again, Soviet losses were staggering: the 44th, 47th, and 51st Armies, totalling 21 divisions, were destroyed, and the Germans took 170,000 prisoners, besides capturing 258 tanks and more than 1,100 guns.

After the last Soviet forces in the eastern Crimea had been eliminated on 20 May 1942, Manstein was free to concentrate on the capture of Sevastopol, which had been left during Trappenjagd under siege by General Erick Hansen’s LIV Corps. Under the overall command of Vice Admiral Filipp Oktyabrsky, Commander-in-Chief Black Sea Fleet, the garrison of Sevastopol comprised General Major Ivan Petrov’s Independent Coastal Army of about 110,000 men in seven infantry divisions and one dismounted cavalry division, plus an Independent Tank Battalion. They were supported by 6,000 men of three naval infantry brigades, while two more infantry brigades totalling 3,000 men were landed during the battle. The port’s three defence lines were formidable, comprising 3,600 permanent and improvised fortifications with 600 guns, including eight 305mm weapons in four twin turrets, as well as 40 tanks. Other fixed defences included 33km of anti-tank ditches, 56km of barbed-wire entanglements and 9,600 mines.

Although Manstein could call on almost 204,000 men for the assault, designated Störfang (‘Sturgeon Catch’), there was a dire shortage of infantry. To compensate, a total of 16 combat engineer (Pioniere) battalions were assigned to 11th Army – each of these had 385 men, equipped with flamethrowers, mine detectors, and demolition charges. In addition, the 300th Panzerabteilung deployed a substantial number of the new Goliath remote-control demolition vehicles for attacks on major strongpoints. Manstein planned to minimise infantry casualties by exploiting the firepower of his siege train of roughly 700 artillery pieces, including three 60cm Karl self-propelled howitzers, one 80cm Gustav railway gun, and 24 rocket-launcher batteries.

Luftwaffe air support was lavish, totalling 600 aircraft of Generaloberst Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen’s VIII Fliegerkorps (seven bomber, three dive-bomber and four fighter Gruppen). The air and artillery bombardment began on 2 June – Luftwaffe formations were based no more than 70km from Sevastopol, and were able to fly multiple sorties each day. In the first 24 hours, 723 missions were flown and 525 tons of bombs dropped, inflicting major damage across the city. Despite fierce AA fire, only a single Stuka of StG 77 was lost, and intensive air support continued with a further 1,783 sorties during 3-5 June. By the start of the ground offensive on 7 June, the Luftwaffe had flown 3,069 sorties, dropping 2,264 tons of bombs, plus 23,800 incendiaries. The obsolete Polikarpov I-15, I-153, and I-16 fighters of the Black Sea Fleet’s 62nd Fighter Brigade defending Sevastopol were hopelessly outclassed by VIII Fliegerkorps Bf-109Fs escorting the bombers. In all, the Germans lost just 31 aircraft (mostly to AA fire) across a total of 23,751 sorties during the siege, in which 20,000 tons of bombs were dropped.

While the bulk of VIII Fliegerkorps was committed to the bombing of the city and its defences, II/KG 26 concentrated its efforts on interdicting Soviet naval supply lines – although its He 111 torpedo bombers sank the tanker Mikhail Gromov, it rapidly became apparent that naval support would be needed to prevent the Black Sea Fleet reinforcing and resupplying the garrison.

An urgent request for Italian support led to the despatch of 101a Flottiglia MAS, with nine motor torpedo boats (MTBs) and nine coastal submarines under the command of the highly competent Capitano di Fregata Francesco Mimbelli. The squadron was based at Feodosiya and Yalta. It suffered its first casualties on 13 June, when Soviet MTBs supported by fighter-bombers sank the submarine CB-5 off Yalta. However, on 18 June, MTB MAS-571 intercepted and scattered a convoy of barges carrying reinforcements to Sevastopol, before torpedoing and sinking the Black Sea Fleet’s submarine ShCh-214 off Cape Ai-Todor. Other Italian successes included the sinking of the 5,000-ton steamer Abkhazia and the crippling of the 10,000-ton transport Fabritius, which was subsequently destroyed by Stuka dive-bombers. In the closing stages of the siege, the Italians were reinforced by a squadron of German S-boats, which sank the Soviet motor gunboats SKA0112 and SKA0124 as they attempted to evacuate senior officers from Sevastopol.

Erich von Manstein

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Erich von Manstein (1887-1973) (above) served as a junior infantry and staff officer during the First World War, showing such outstanding ability that he was one of only 4,000 officers retained by the tiny post-war Reichswehr. By 1939, he had been promoted to Generalleutnant, planning the Sichelschnitt (‘sickle cut’) plan that played a major role in the French defeat in the summer of 1940. During Operation Barbarosssa, he commanded LVI Panzer Corps in its advance from East Prussia to Demyansk. In September 1941, he was appointed as commander of the 11th Army, tasked with the capture of the Crimea and the naval base of Sevastopol. He overran most of the Crimea by November 1941, defeating subsequent Soviet landings in the Kerch Peninsula. His conquest of Sevastopol led to his promotion to Generalfeldmarschall and command of Unternehmen Wintergewitter (‘Operation Winter Storm’), the unsuccessful attempt to break through to 6th Army at Stalingrad. Despite this failure, he devised the highly successful Kharkov counter-offensive, which inflicted heavy losses on the Red Army and stabilised the front. He became increasingly disillusioned with Hitler’s micro-management of the war, and was dismissed as commander of Army Group South in March 1944. In 1949, he was sentenced to 18 years imprisonment for war crimes, but served only four years before being released in 1953.

Air supremacy

The ground offensive finally opened on 7 June, slowly grinding through the port’s outer defences. Goebbels’ propaganda made much of the Gustav and Karl super-heavy siege artillery, but although their three- and five-ton shells were capable of destroying the heaviest fortifications, their accuracy and range were embarrassingly poor, and no more than 170 rounds were available. The conventional artillery concentrated on the destruction of the bunkers in each defensive belt – these were mainly earth and timber structures vulnerable to the 15kg and 43kg HE shells of the 105mm and 150mm divisional howitzers. Luftwaffe air supremacy freed 88mm flak batteries for deployment against particularly stubborn strongpoints, together with 37mm and 20mm flak guns, which were highly effective at knocking out machine-gun posts.

ABOVE A German SdKfz 252 ammunition carrier moves up amid the ruins of Sevastopol, July 1942. LEFT Schwerer Gustav, the largest-calibre rifled weapon ever used in combat, formed part of the siege train at Sevastopol, but its accuracy was poor.
A German SdKfz 252 ammunition carrier moves up amid the ruins of Sevastopol, July 1942. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Some sectors of the front soon resembled First World War battlefields. This was particularly true of the ‘Balaklava front’, where steep hills and broken terrain forced the Germans and the Romanian Mountain Corps to make ‘set-piece’ infantry attacks on Soviet trench lines. However, in other sectors the 65 StuG III assault guns of Sturmgeschütz-Abteilungen 190, 197, and 249 proved to be invaluable in minimising German infantry casualties and in dealing with the 40 obsolete T-26 light tanks of the Soviet garrison’s 81st Separate Tank Battalion.

By late June, the situation had reached near-stalemate, with both sides having taken heavy casualties. However, Manstein saw the possibility of breaking the deadlock by making an assault crossing of Sevastapol’s Severnaya Bay. Although Soviet commanders were aware of the possibility of German amphibious operations, they did not expect anything to be attempted in Sevastopol itself, anticipating a less risky attempt to outflank the port’s defences around Balaklava. This belief was reinforced when Mimbelli’s MAS boats made a series of feint attacks off Cape Fiolent near Balaklava on the night of 27/28 June.

In contrast, the southern shore of Severnaya Bay was guarded only by the exhausted survivors of battered Soviet Naval Infantry units, totalling fewer than 800 troops, who believed they were manning a quiet sector. During the night of 28/29 June, German pioneers laid a smokescreen on the north side of the Bay to conceal the 902 and 905 Sturmboote-Kommando launching their 130 assault boats, which could each carry a battalion across the bay. German aircraft made a succession of raids on the defences around Inkerman to distract the Russians as the first wave of almost 400 troops began the 20-minute crossing.

Schwerer Gustav, the largest-calibre rifled weapon ever used in combat, formed part of the siege train at Sevastopol, but its accuracy was poor. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The defenders were spread thinly along the shoreline and failed to detect the landings – a single outpost overlooking the landing area was eliminated before the alarm could be raised. Incredibly, more than 700 German troops had landed before the Russians reacted. Soviet artillery-fire damaged a quarter of the assault boats, but the crossing had cost the Germans only two boats destroyed, plus 33 casualties. In a major coup, German assault troops succeeded in capturing Sevastopol’s main power station, cutting off the city’s electricity.

The psychological impact of the landing broke the deadlock, allowing the German XXX Corps and Romanian mountain troops to overrun the key Sapun Heights, south-east of Sevastopol, and take more than 4,700 prisoners. Stalin authorised the port’s evacuation on 30 June, giving priority to senior officers, who spread panic as they abandoned their units to fight for places in the last transport aircraft and submarines to leave the city. Perhaps 200 commanders and NKVD officers escaped, although total Soviet losses may well have totalled 20,000 dead and 90,000 prisoners. Axis casualties numbered almost 36,000, but severe damage had been inflicted on both the Red Army and Black Sea Fleet. Luftwaffe claims alone included the destruction of 611 motor vehicles, 123 aircraft, and 48 Soviet artillery batteries. German air attacks sank 10,800 tons of Soviet shipping, including four destroyers, a submarine, three MTBs, six coastal vessels, and four freighters.

After eight months, the Siege of Sevastopol had finally ended in German victory. Any relief, however, would be short-lived. For both sides, the ordeal of Stalingrad lay ahead.