Generalmajor Erich Diestel’s 101. Jäger-Division was first into action and easily overran Apsheronsk on 15 August, then pivoted westwards to outflank the Soviet blocking positions at Khadyzhensk. Initially, Diestel’s Jäger made good progress, approaching the outskirts of Khadyzhensk by evening of 16 August. However, the lead elements of Polkovnik Mikhail F. Tikhonov’s 32nd Guards Rifle Division – transferred by sea from the Taman Peninsula – began to arrive in the area at the same time, which re-energised the 12th Army’s defence. By the time that Diestel began to organise a deliberate assault upon the town, the 32nd Guards Rifle Division was dug in around the train station and nearby railway tunnel. When 101. Jäger-Division began its attack upon Khadyzhensk on 18 August, supported by Stukas and corps-level 21cm Mörser fire, Tikhonov’s troops repulsed every German attempt to advance.
On de Angelis’ left flank, Generalmajor Ernst Rupp’s 97. Jäger-Division began a major attack southwards from Apsheronsk on 16 August with two regimental-size Kampfgruppen. The Jäger moved quickly through the rugged and heavily forested terrain, capturing Samurskaya on the first day. Soviet resistance was spotty and Rupp allowed his division to disperse, with individual battalions pushing forward as fast as possible. On 18 August, I./Jäger-Regiment 204 captured the Neftyanaya oilfield. Hauptmann Friedrich Höhne’s III./Jäger-Regiment 204 achieved a remarkable 25km advance in three days towards the Tuby Pass and overran a Soviet 15cm howitzer battalion. However, the Soviet 12th Army had merely retreated to more defensible positions on mountain tops further south and Höhne’s lone battalion boldly advanced along a narrow track into a classic ambush at the 50m-wide Wolf’s Gate Pass. Both sides of the narrow pass were flanked by steep, wooded ridges which were occupied by the Soviets. Höhne’s battalion advanced in a long column and was blasted from both sides as it entered the pass, destroying the vanguard. The Soviets had fortified Mount Oplepek (Gora Oplepen), which overlooked the Wolf’s Gate Pass and brought the German column under heavy fire while Soviet infantrymen manoeuvred through the hills to cut off their escape route. With great difficulty, Höhne extracted his bloodied battalion from the ambush at the cost of abandoning his wounded and heavy weapons and retreated 12km back to Samurskaya. The next day, Rupp tried an outflanking manoeuvre with II./Jäger-Regiment 207, but this too failed.
De Angelis’ XXXXIV Armeekorps offensive towards Tuapse had been halted after only four days by the increasing Soviet resistance and rugged terrain. Diestel’s 101. Jäger-Division brought up more artillery and attempted an ambitious double envelopment of the 32nd Guards Rifle Division between 28 and 30 August; the jaws of the two converging Jäger-Regiment almost closed around Tikhonov’s division, but ground to a halt just short of their objective. Tikhonov launched a counterattack that briefly surrounded II./Jäger-Regiment 228 before Diestel called off the offensive. West of Khadyzhensk, 198. Infanterie-Division had captured Goryachy Klyuch on 20 August, which offered the possibility of outflanking the Soviet position, but the offensive was called off. Instead, 17. Armee remained in a funk for the next month, slowly preparing for another offensive and drifting into command limbo after List was relieved by Hitler on 10 September.
While Ruoff’s army sat immobile, the Soviets used the respite to rush reinforcements to Cherevichenko’s Black Sea Group from the Transcaucasus. Kamkov’s 18th Army eventually absorbed the depleted 12th Army and assumed primary responsibility for defending the main avenue of approach to Tuapse; this army was rebuilt around six rifle and one cavalry divisions, and received substantial artillery reinforcements. On 23 August, the Military Council of the North Caucasus Front ordered the creation of a Tuapse Defensive Region (TOR), under the command of Rear-Admiral Georgy Zhukov – which would be subordinate to Kamkov’s 18th Army. Ryzhov’s 56th Army, with four rifle divisions, was ordered to defend Kamkov’s left flank and to tie in with Grechko’s 47th Army. The 5th Air Army also received another fighter division and more Il-2 Sturmoviks.
Ruoff’s 17. Armee was not able to resume the offensive until late September; he wanted proper mountain troops to conduct the operation, but none were at hand. Since the promised Italian Alpine Corps had not arrived, the OKH finally cancelled the operation by XXXXIX Gebirgskorps against Sukhumi and sent parts of both of its divisions, totalling five infantry and five artillery battalions, as Division Lanz to reinforce 17. Armee. Ruoff also received an infantry regiment from 46. Infanterie-Division. Altogether, Ruoff intended to hurl three German corps against the Tuapse defences, but the delay allowed the Soviets to regain their confidence. During the lull, on 6 September Soviet troops from the 395th Rifle Division managed to ambush and kill Generalmajor Albert Buck, commander of 198. Infanterie-Division, and wound his operations officer.
Ruoff’s offensive, dubbed Operation Attika, began on 23 September when LVII Panzerkorps committed 125. and 198. Infanterie-Division against the 56th Army’s 395th Rifle Division south of Goryachy Kluych. His intent was to penetrate through Ryzhov’s weaker defences and push down the Psekups Valley to reach Shaumyan, thereby enveloping Kamkov’s left flank. Kirchner’s two infantry divisions succeeded in making a modest 10km bulge into Ryzhov’s front and captured Fanagoriyskoye by 30 September, but were then stymied by tough Soviet resistance. In the centre, de Angelis’ XXXXIV Armeekorps concentrated both Jäger-Divisionen, reinforced by Infanterie-Regiment 72 from 46 Infanterie-Division, against Tikhonov’s 32nd Guards Rifle Division on 25 September; although they kept pounding for a week, they could not capture the main defensive positions. Despite support from Stukas, heavy artillery and assault guns, 101. Jäger-Division was repeatedly repulsed by Tikhonov’s division. The 97. Jäger-Division succeeded in pushing back the 236th Rifle Division and capturing Mount Lyssaya, but was fought out after just four days of combat.
It was Generalmajor Hubert Lanz’s ad hoc division of Gebirgstruppen that achieved the most success. Lanz did not launch his attack until 27 September and his battalions advanced across mountainous terrain that the Soviets regarded as nearly impassible. In just three days, Lanz’s Gebirgsjäger advanced 10–15km, capturing Mount Geiman and Mount Gunai. On 28 September, the remainder of 46. Infanterie-Division (two regiments) conducted a supporting attack on Lanz’s left flank and succeeded in capturing Mount Oplepek. Having broken through Kamkov’s centre, Division Lanz pivoted westward into the Gunaika Valley, intent upon outflanking Tikhonov’s 32nd Guards Rifle Division. Kamkov was forced to pull some of his units back to prevent encirclement. The 46. Infanterie-Division achieved a clear-cut breakthrough south of Mount Oplepek and advanced to seize Kotlovina on 3 October. De Angelis’ XXXXIV Armeekorps continued to pound on Tikhonov’s nearly encircled division and briefly cut it off by seizing Kurinskiy, but a rapid Soviet counterattack by 32nd Guards Rifle Division reopened the road.
By early October, the German advance towards Tuapse was bogged down, moving only occasionally in fits and starts. Ruoff could only jab in a few sectors – he lacked the resources to mount an all-out offensive. Short of infantry, Ruoff was forced to use Sicherungs-Regiment 4 in the front line to cover his army’s left flank. Kamkov received reinforcements from the 47th and 56th armies, enabling him to mount local counterattacks between 7 and 13 October, which succeeded in cutting into the flank of XXXXIX Gebirgskorps and recapturing Mount Oplepek. The weather was beginning to turn and would soon make offensive operations impossible in the mountains. Nevertheless, on 14 October Ruoff kicked off another offensive by all three corps. The 198. Infanterie-Division was able to break through the 56th Army’s defences, which finally caused Tikhonov’s 32nd Guards Rifle Division to evacuate its positions at Khadyzhensk and retreat towards Tuapse. The 101. Jäger-Division followed and captured Shaumyan on 17 October. Ruoff was confident that 17. Armee would make it to Tuapse before the weather closed in. Then it began to rain on 18 October, turning the mountain trails into untrafficable muck. Low cloud cover also interfered with the ability of I./StG 77’s Stukas to provide close air support.
Only Division Lanz continued to push forward slowly, while the rest of Ruoff’s army struggled merely to hold on to what they already possessed. Kampfgruppe Lawall, with all three battalions of Gebirgsjäger-Regiment 98, pushed on resolutely despite the rains that began on 18 October. Four days later, the Gebirgsjäger were able to capture the 1,016m-high Mount Semashkho, from which they could see the Black Sea in the distance.
However, furious Soviet counterattacks by the fresh 408th Rifle Division and 383rd Rifle Division brought the German advance to a halt and inflicted heavy losses on Division Lanz. Although the German effort to capture Tuapse would continue for two more pointless months, Ruoff’s offensive had peaked by late October 1942 and the front line settled into a static nature. Soviet counterattacks kept picking at the exposed German flanks throughout the next two months. The commitment of three German corps to capture a minor Black Sea port had proved to be a costly diversion in a campaign which had little margin for error.
TO THE HIGH CAUCASUS, 10 AUGUST– 2 SEPTEMBER 1942
The offensive against Tuapse had been weakened from the beginning by the OKH’s last-minute decision to send General der Gebirgstruppe Rudolf Konrad’s XXXXIX Gebirgskorps far to the south to advance down the so-called ‘Sukhumi Military Highway’ in order to seize several mountain passes in the High Caucasus Mountains and then capture the port of Sukhumi. Konrad argued for using his corps in the advance upon Tuapse, while von Kleist wanted to use the Gebirgsjäger to assist 1. Panzerarmee’s advance to Grozny, but both were overruled. As early as 5 August, Konrad was informed that in addition to seizing several key passes, he was to organise an expedition to occupy Mount Elbrus – the highest point in the Caucasus and in Europe. The powers back in Berlin, like Dr Joseph Goebbels, wanted a photogenic propaganda triumph which planting a Nazi flag on Elbrus would serve admirably, while ignoring the affect of this extravagant diversion on the overall operation.
Konrad knew that the Caucasus mountain passes would be closed by snow by September, so like a good soldier he forced-marched his two divisions 200km southwards as rapidly as possible, following in the path of von Kleist’s panzers. Amazingly, his vanguard – Kampfgruppe Lawall from 1. Gebirgs-Division – reached Cherkessk on 11 August and then stormed into Mikoyan-Shakhar (Karachayevsk). The ‘Sukhumi Military Highway’ turned out to be little more than a dirt road, which turned into an even narrower track as they approached the main Caucasus peaks. Meanwhile, Tyulenev’s ZKF (Transcaucasus Front) staff were completely unaware that Konrad’s troops were pushing through the mountains towards Sukhumi and did not even issue orders to defend the passes until 10 August. General-mayor Vasiliy F. Sergatskov’s 46th Army was assigned the mission of defending the Caucasus passes, but even Soviet sources are frank about condemning his lethargic effort to move units towards them. Sergatskov merely ordered General-mayor Konstantin N. Leselidze’s 3rd Mountain Rifle Corps to send company and battalion-size detachments from the 9th and 20th Mountain Rifle divisions and the 394th Rifle Division to observe the passes. One unit, the 1st Battalion, 815th Rifle Regiment from the 394th Rifle Division marched to the town of Teberda, where it was surprised and defeated by Kampfgruppe Lawall on 14 August. The German Gebirgsjäger pushed on, with a single picked battalion known as Kampfgruppe von Hirschfeld and seized the important Klukhor Pass on the evening of 17 August. Stalin was furious that the Germans had penetrated so deeply into the Caucasus and ordered his NKVD chief Lavrenti Beria, who had arrived at Tyulenev’s headquarters in Tbilisi, to relieve Sergatskov of command. Leselidze, a Georgian officer (Stalin and Beria were both Georgians) managed to survive this shake-up and demonstrated ability by rushing a reinforced regiment to the Klukhor Pass to block any further German advance towards the coast; Stalin gave him command of the 46th Army.
Konrad’s other division, 4. Gebirgs-Division, also initially made good progress towards the coast by marching on a parallel route, and its vanguard Kampfgruppe Stettner (two Gebirgsjäger-Bataillone and six 7.5cm mountain guns) seized several passes. Yet despite the apparent proximity of Sukhumi – just 30km away – Konrad never really had a chance to reach that objective. It began to snow in the mountains on 18 August and continued for several days, reducing the German advance to a crawl. The Sukhumi Military Highway petered out after the Klukhor Pass into trackless mountains. The OKH staff members who thought that Konrad’s Gebirgstruppen could advance from the Klukhor Pass to the southern segment of the Sukhumi Military Highway near the coast did not appreciate that this would require a corps to supply itself along a 90km stretch of trail that was only fit for mules; the nearest railhead was over 170km distant. It was not the Soviets that defeated Konrad, but a combination of the terrain and weather. Even if Konrad could somehow have reached the coast, he would have had to defeat the bulk of the 46th Army with a handful of battalions in order to seize Sukhumi – and then his lines of communications across the Caucasus would be severed by snow for the entire winter. If his corps was caught on the wrong side of the passes once winter arrived, it would eventually be destroyed. Neither the Kriegsmarine nor the Luftwaffe would be able to supply the Gebirgskorps in the Caucasus Mountains for an entire winter. Indeed, the entire OKH plan to push Konrad’s Gebirgskorps towards Sukhumi was a half-baked concept that ignored terrain and weather and which risked these elite troops becoming isolated and possibly destroyed, all for the sake of a tertiary objective.
After taking the Klukhor Pass, 1. Gebirgs-Division sent a hand-picked force to climb Mount Elbrus, which was accomplished on 21 August. Hitler was rightly furious when he heard about this frivolous expedition, which caused further friction with List. Konrad’s advance was now running up against serious opposition. Leselidze quickly shifted his 46th Army divisions along the coast road and received reinforcements from Tyulenev, while Konrad was on his own. Kampfgruppe Stettner was able to cross the Bsyb River on 28 August but was blocked by the 354th Rifle Division near the Achavkar Pass, while Kampfgruppe Lawall was blocked by the 304th Rifle Division. Konrad’s supply lines were a mess, requiring four days or more for mule convoys to reach Kampfgruppe Stettner. By late August, it was clear that the plan to seize Sukhumi had failed and List, Ruoff and Konrad met in Krasnodar to discuss options. It was decided that the Gebirgstruppe could be better employed in supporting Ruoff’s offensive towards Tuapse, rather than freezing to death in the High Caucasus. The Sukhumi front would become an economy of force effort, where the Germans left only enough troops to prevent Tyulenev’s forces from threatening von Kleist’s lines of communications. Gruppe von Le Suire, consisting of five battalions, was left to guard the passes. Consequently, Konrad pulled the rest of his corps back to reduce his supply problems and transferred the remaining units to Division Lanz, which was sent north to join in the second offensive against Tuapse.
What was supposed to be the advance intended to decide the whole war had stalled at Novorossisk, on the Terek, and in the mountains. There are indications that by early September, Hitler realized that the objectives in the east could not be attained and even that the war was lost. This defeat was the result of failure in the Caucasus and not Stalingrad, where he still hoped for at least a local victory.