Stuka dive-bombers of the German Luftwaffe fly over the Sea of Azov during World War II. The Nazis tried to build a bridge over the Kerch Strait but only got so far before the Russians advanced on Crimea in 1944.
Soviet soldiers celebrate the liberation of Sevastopol in May 1943.
Once spring weather arrived, the German goose in the Crimea was pretty well cooked. Tolbukhin and Eremenko had met with Stalin in Moscow during March to discuss the Crimea, and the basic plan of attack had been decided. Zakharov’s 2nd Guards Army would mount a strong deliberate offensive against Gruppe Konrad’s defenses at Perekop, while Kreizer’s 51st Army would stage a breakout attack from its Sivash bridgehead. Once the German front was broken, Vasil’ev’s 19th Tank Corps would exploit southward to Simferopol. Eremenko’s Coastal Army was intended merely to fix Allmendinger’s V Armeekorps at Kerch during the first phase of the Crimean Offensive and then exploit the situation as circumstances permitted. Compared to previous Soviet offensives, the 1944 Crimean Offensive was very well planned and coordinated. Zakharov’s troops had spent the winter months training intensively on breach operations, and were well provided with wire cutters, sapper platoons, and plenty of support weapons. On the Perekop front, the 2nd Guards Army had been busy digging approach trenches, which narrowed the width of no man’s land from 700–1,000 yards to just 150–200 yards. From their trenches, the Germans watched apprehensively as the distance narrowed.
Gruppe Konrad had prepared a defense in depth, consisting of three lines across the Perekop Isthmus. Indeed, this was a luxury that the Germans rarely enjoyed on the Eastern Front, but here the narrowness of the isthmus allowed them to concentrate their forces. Sixt’s 50. Infanterie-Division deployed in a standard “two up, one back” style, with Grenadier-Regiments 121 and 122 still holding the eastern and western ends of the Tatar Ditch, and the town of Armyansk in the center turned into a fortified Stützpunkt. Further back, two batteries of StuG III assault guns from Major Gerhard Hoppe’s Sturmgeschütz-Brigade 279 waited in reserve. Sixt’s other regiment, Grenadier-Regiment 123, was positioned even further back, where it could either reinforce at Armyansk or act as a reserve for the defenses on the Sivash. Oberstleutnant Willy Marienfeld, the former schoolteacher who was awarded the Ritterkreuz for being one of the first German officers into Sevastopol in 1942, was commander of Grenadier-Regiment 123. Hauptmann Walter Salzmann, another veteran company commander and Ritterkreuz recipient from the 1942 campaign in the Crimea, commanded Füsilier-Bataillon 50. Sixt’s division might have been badly depleted from losses, but it still had very capable tactical leaders. The German front line consisted of a continuous row of trenches, surmounted by rows of barbed wire and antipersonnel mines – reminiscent of the last year of World War I. The second and third lines of defenses were built at Ishun, but manned only by Romanian troops. The Axis defenses on the Sivash front were broken into three distinct groups by the lake terrain: a western group (consisting of the Romanian 38th Infantry Regiment), a central group (the Romanian 23rd and 33rd Infantry Regiments, the German 336. Pionier Bataillon, and a battery of StuG III assault guns), and an eastern group (the Romanian 94th and 96th Infantry Regiments, supported by two StuG IIIs). In all these sectors, the terrain was flat and constricted by water, which favored the defense.
Tolbukhin knew that airpower would be the crucial element of this operation, and he wanted to take the Luftwaffe out of the battle as quickly as possible. Hoping for a knockout blow, Tolbukhin decided to begin his Crimean offensive with a massive air attack by 8th Air Army on April 7 against the Luftwaffe bases and German artillery positions on the Perekop. Having learned the value of a specialist close-air-support unit from Fliegerkorps VIII, the 8th Air Army was provided with General-Major Vasiliy Filin’s 7th Ground Attack Aviation Korps (7 ShAK), which possessed 108 Il-2 Sturmoviks. Barkhorn was away on leave at the start of the Soviet offensive and II./JG 52 was apparently caught off guard by the scale of the Soviet onslaught; it got only a few fighters in the air in time. Protected by dozens of Yak-7 fighters, groups of Soviet Sturmoviks came in low over the treeless Perekop Isthmus, shooting up artillery positions and anything else that was visible. Although the Germans claimed that flak inflicted heavy losses on the raiders, the VVS raids were not seriously disrupted.
The next morning, April 8, 1944, the artillery of both the 2nd Guards Army and the 51st Army opened fire at 0800hrs. The Soviet artillery delivered a punishing 2½-hour-long prep fire against the Axis positions, from tube and rocket artillery, as well as heavy mortars. The 8th Army also returned again in strength, strafing and bombing the German positions. This time, II./JG 52 was able to intercept some of the Soviet bombers, although it made little difference. Soviet aircraft were everywhere over the Crimea. At 1030hrs, both Soviet armies commenced their ground attacks.
The 51st Army put its main effort against the center of the Axis perimeter around their Sivash lodgment, with the 91st Rifle Division and 32nd Guards Tank Brigade (32 GTB) attacking the Romanian 10th Infantry Division. The Romanian positions were well protected by mines and artillery, which broke up the Soviet attack. German StuG IIIs supporting the Romanian defense knocked out 27 of the 32nd Guards Tank Brigade’s 53 tanks. Surprisingly, a supporting attack made by Koshevoi’s 63rd Rifle Corps’ 267th Rifle Division and the 22nd Guards Tank Regiment against the Romanian 19th Infantry Division on the eastern end of the lodgment was more successful. Upon Tolbukhin’s specific recommendation, Koshevoi sent the 2nd Battalion/848th Rifle Battalion to wade across the shallow Lake Aygulskoe to outflank the Romanian positions. Although German sources claim that the Romanian 94th Infantry Regiment panicked and ran, Koshevoi notes that the enemy fell back slowly to a second line of defense and that only 550 prisoners were taken. When Kreizer realized that he was achieving no success in the center but that the Romanian 19th Division was buckling, he shifted the depleted 32 GTB and more infantry to reinforce this sector.
At the Perekop Isthmus, Zakharov’s 2nd Guards Army used relatively novel tactics. Instead of relying upon mass, as in previous offensives, Zakharov used only General-Major Porfiri G. Chanchibadze’s 13th Guards Rifle Corps in the initial attack. Like Stalin, Chanchibadze was a Georgian and he had a similar tough outlook, which made him well suited for a breakthrough operation. While the 126th Rifle Division and the 87th Guards Rifle Division launched supporting attacks on the flanks, the heavily reinforced 3rd Guards Division (3 GRD), under General-Major Kantemir A. Tsalikov, made the main effort in the center. Rather than just futilely throwing tank brigades at the enemy front, as in the past, Zakharov kept Vasil’ev’s 19th Tank Corps in reserve. The Soviet ground assault was preceded by artillery-delivered smoke rounds to reduce the accuracy of German automatic weapons, then the infantry rose up from the trenches and assaulted the enemy frontline trenches around Armyansk. Another Soviet innovation was the use of the 512th Separate Tank Battalion equipped with 16 TO-34 flamethrower tanks and the 1452nd Self-Propelled Artillery Regiment with a mix of KV-85 tanks, JSU-152 howitzers, and Su-76 assault guns to support the infantry attacks. The 3 GRD concentrated all its effort against a single German battalion, II./Grenadier-Regiment 122. This time, German mortars and automatic weapons failed to stop the Soviet infantrymen from reaching the first line of trenches, which were quickly taken in a frenetic moment of hurled grenades and submachine-gun bursts. Soviet flamethrower tanks burned out German machine-gun nests and antitank guns in the rubble of Armyansk, which was quickly overrun. Indeed, the Soviet breakthrough was going better than expected until the supporting armor ran into a very large field of antitank mines located behind the German HKL, which knocked out eight tanks. As the Soviet attack bogged down in the minefield, Panzerjägers engaged the stalled tanks, knocking out five more. German artillery was also directed onto the Soviet penetration corridor, destroying two JSU-152s with direct hits. Yet despite these losses, the 13th Guards Rifle Corps had torn a large hole in the German front line that could not be repaired, and Zakharov fed more troops into the breach. Sixt scraped some infantry platoons together to counterattack the flanks of the Soviet breakthrough and committed Hauptmann Karl-Otto Leukefeld’s I./Grenadier-Regiment 123 from reserve, but could not regain any ground. Konrad then sent the two batteries of assault guns forward and they were able to stem the Soviet advance, but lost a number of their vehicles. By the end of the first day of the ground offensive, Tolbukhin’s two armies had achieved local penetrations, but had not yet achieved a true breakthrough. Nevertheless, Gruppe Konrad had very little in the way of reserves left to influence the battle.
The next morning, both of Tolbukhin’s armies continued to pound away at Gruppe Konrad. Even after the loss of Armyansk, the 50. Infanterie-Division still had a front line of sorts across the Perekop Isthmus, but it was crumbling on the western side. Zakharov simply kept attacking with infantry and artillery until the German line finally broke around 1600hrs. With the help of massed Sturmovik attacks and a brigade of BM31 multiple rocket launchers, Koshevoi’s reinforced 63rd Rifle Corps overwhelmed the Romanian 19th Infantry Division as well, and by late afternoon a small group of tanks were heading south. Konrad alerted Jaenecke that his forces could only delay the enemy and that he should activate plan Adler as soon as possible. After several hours of hesitation, Jaenecke activated Adler at 1900hrs on April 9 – without informing the OKH – and ordered Allmendinger’s V Armeekorps to abandon its positions at Kerch and retreat immediately toward Sevastopol. Eremenko was quick to note the German preparations to retreat, which included destruction of the harbor facilities in Kerch, and immediately ordered his ground forces to advance and the 4th Air Army to attack German convoys heading westward. Tolbukhin also spotted preparations by Gruppe Konrad to withdraw to its second line of defenses at Ishun and ordered Vasil’ev’s 19th Tank Corps to cross the bridge across the Sivash and enter the battle through the 51st Army’s breakthrough zone. Although the crossing was slow, it caught the Germans completely by surprise.
While Gruppe Konrad was struggling to maintain its positions on the Perekop Isthmus, Zakharov decided to increase the pressure on the German defense by conducting an amphibious landing behind the German lines on the Black Sea. Before dawn on April 10, 512 troops from Captain Filipp D. Dibrov’s 2nd Battalion/1271st Rifle Regiment were landed on the coast. As usual, the troops landed without heavy weapons and could hold only a small beachhead. Gruppe Konrad soon counterattacked with a company of infantry and several assault guns, but the Germans could not spare sufficient troops to eliminate the beachhead. Consequently, Dibrov’s battalion was the final straw that convinced Konrad to abandon his remaining positions on the Perekop Isthmus and retreat to the second line of defense at Ishun. This retreat proved difficult, since some sub-units of Sixt’s 50. Infanterie-Division were already bypassed and a number of artillery pieces and flak guns had to be abandoned. Indeed, Gruppe Konrad put up only token resistance at Ishun for a few hours, since the breakout of the 51st Army from the Sivash lodgment threatened to cut them off. Konrad, whose headquarters was in Dzhankoy, directed his forces to pull back to the Gneisenau Line.
Hauptmann Werner Dörnbrack’s Fw-190F fighter-bombers from II./SG2 made every effort to stem the enemy breakthrough, and mercilessly attacked Soviet troops crossing into the Sivash lodgment. At 1000hrs on April 10, General-Major Nikolai V. Gaponov, commander of the 26th Artillery Division, was killed by a German air attack. Vasil’ev went forward to personally reconnoiter the route that his 19th Tank Corps would have to follow, whereupon his vehicle was also strafed by German fighter-bombers and he was severely wounded. Nevertheless, his deputy took over and moved the 19th Tank Corps into forward-assembly areas on the evening of April 10. The 19th Tank Corps was heavily reinforced for the exploitation mission, with four tank brigades with a total of 221 tanks and assault guns (including 58 T-34s, 34 TO-34 flamethrower tanks, 44 Su-76s, and 63 Valentines) at the start of the operation. At dawn on April 11, the 19th Tank Corps advanced south between two lakes and pushed against weak resistance to Tomashevka. Overhead, the 8th Air Army provided excellent close air support, despite tenacious efforts by the Experten of II./JG 52. Fearful of being outflanked, the rest of the Axis units on the Sivash line fell back, along with those units defending the Chongar sector. By 1100hrs, the vanguard of the 19th Tank Corps reached Dzhankoy, capturing Konrad’s supply dumps. It was apparent that Tolbukhin’s front had achieved a successful breakthrough. All of Gruppe Konrad was now falling back toward the Gneisenau Line, although the lack of transport and incessant Soviet air attacks caused a great deal of material to be abandoned. In particular, the 50. Infanterie-Division suffered heavy losses in the retreat, since a number of its units were already cut off. Hauptmann Karl-Otto Leukefeld, commander of I./Grenadier-Regiment 123, was captured, along with some of his troops.