The German military philosopher Carl von Clausewitz wrote that danger is ‘part of the friction of war’, observing that ‘chance makes everything more uncertain’. At 12.30 hours on 12 September 1941, luck ran out for the commander of the German Eleventh Army, Colonel General Eugen Ritter von Schobert, when his Fieseler Storch light aircraft landed on a Russian minefield and burst into flames. He and his pilot were killed instantly. By that evening, Hitler had appointed Schobert’s successor. Over the next ten months Manstein captured swiftly most of the Crimea, skilfully thwarted determined Soviet attempts to liberate it during the winter of 1941/1942, and consummated his conquest in midsummer with the capture of Sevastopol. As he noted, the campaign deserves attention for ‘it is one of the few cases where an army was still able to operate independently in a segregated theatre of war, left to its own devices and free from interference from the Supreme Command.’
On the afternoon of 17 September 1941, Manstein arrived at his new headquarters in Nikolayev, a Soviet naval base at the mouth of the southern Bug. First and Second Panzer Groups had just encircled Marshal of the Soviet Union Budenny’s South-Western Front defending Kiev, resulting in the loss of four Soviet armies comprising forty-three divisions, an unmitigated disaster for the Red Army. Notwithstanding such spectacular success, Eleventh Army had slogged all the way from the Rumanian-Soviet border. Progress had been slow, casualties high and supply lines increasingly stretched. Having just led a motorized corps in the forests of northern Russia, Manstein was now responsible for an infantry army on the open steppe of the southern Ukraine – ‘ideal tank country’, as he remarked – with no armour in support.
Whereas Schobert had been a ‘hands-off’ commander, Manstein was soon in the thick of all operational planning. Before his arrival, his reputation for clear thinking had preceded him. The chief of staff, Colonel Hans Wöhler, advised in a staff conference: ‘Don’t be afraid of the new commander-in-chief. He is a friend of relaxed conversation.’ Coincidentally, the preceding war diary entry stated, ‘it is not worthy of an officer to witness shootings of Jews’. Manstein was entering a different type of war yet again in Army Group South.
Manstein was again blessed with an extraordinarily capable staff, including Colonel Theodor Busse, head of the operations section. A solid, bespectacled and operationally gifted general staff officer, he became a lifelong friend. In the intimate working environment of a busy operational headquarters, Manstein’s clipped manner appeared abrasive. Busse confided with his former commander’s defence lawyer, Reginald Paget, that during the first few weeks, he ‘hated [Manstein’s] guts’ and ‘never left his presence without smarting’. He went on:
But in spite of myself I admired his amazing grasp. Then one day, late in the evening, he sent for me and said: ‘Busse, I realise that you are the hardest worked member of my staff. I hate to ask you this, but will you look through these papers and see if you can find any possible grounds upon which I can spare these men?’ . . . From that point onwards I saw von Manstein in a new light. Beneath his icy exterior there was a kindly, indeed an emotional humanity.
In dealing with cases of cowardice, Manstein suspended a court-martial sentence of death for four weeks with the agreement of the soldier’s regimental commander. If the condemned ‘redeemed himself in action during this time’, Manstein quashed the sentence; ‘if he failed again, it was carried out’. Of all the men he dealt with in this way, ‘only one went over to the enemy. All others either proved their worth or died like true soldiers in the heavy fighting in the east.’
The situation facing Eleventh Army in mid-September 1941 was unenviable. Although numerically superior Soviet forces (9th and 18th Armies) to its front were in retreat, they retained considerable residual fighting power. Worse still, Manstein had assumed the poisoned chalice of a double mission, which would lead inexorably to the dissipation of his forces on two divergent axes. Striking east, he had to advance along the northern shore of the Sea of Azov towards Rostov-on-Don whilst tasked simultaneously to turn south to capture the Crimea as a ‘special priority’.
At first sight, the Crimea appeared a diversion. From a strategic perspective, however, its seizure had much to commend it. On 12 August 1941, Army Group South was ordered by Hitler to ‘occupy the Crimean Peninsula, which is particularly dangerous as an enemy air base against the Rumanian oilfields’. Nine days later, the Führer gave further directions. ‘The most important aim to be achieved before the onset of winter’, he wrote, ‘is not the capture of Moscow’ but, rather, ‘to seize the Crimea and the industrial and coal mining area of the Donets Basin, and to cut off the Russian oil supply from the Caucasus’.
To control operations on both his eastern and southern fronts, on 21 September Manstein established a forward headquarters in a collective farm at Askania Nova on the dry Tavriya Steppe. Frequent Soviet air attacks had delayed this move. Once a favourable air situation had been achieved, Manstein was able to visit his corps and divisional commanders more freely. He confided to Paget: ‘My tactical decisions were influenced greatly by the morale of the particular units that would have to carry them out.’ Busse confirmed: ‘When the Field-Marshal talked to the troops they always felt that they could do what he asked.’
The peculiar geography of the Crimean peninsula favours strongly the defender. Separating the Crimea from the Ukrainian mainland is the Lazy Sea (Zatoka Syvash), a stretch of seawater, mudflats and salt marsh that forms a 30-kilometre western extension to the Sea of Azov. The shallow Syvash was not suitable for a major amphibious operation: Manstein’s army had nothing more substantial than his combat engineers’ assault boats.
From the north there are three potential avenues of approach to the Crimea. In the north-west lies the Perekop, with a road and railway running through a slender tongue of twisted land at the head of the Ishun isthmus. Historically, this was the principal gateway to the Crimea with its ancient bulwark, the Tatar Ditch, still posing a formidable obstacle to movement in 1941. To the north-east, the Chongar peninsula of southern Ukraine is linked to the Crimea by the isthmus at Salvako, and then by the causeways and bridges carrying the main railway line and road from Kiev and Melitopol over the Syvash to Dzhankoi and Simferopol. Forcing a corps attack axis through a gap only 2 kilometres wide and then over the causeways would have been suicidal. Rightly it was discounted in Manstein’s planning as being ‘quite useless’. Slightly further to the east lay one final approach route at Genichesk, separated by a short stretch of water from the Arabat, itself a very narrow neck of land that stretched nearly a hundred kilometres south-east to the Kerch peninsula. It, too, was unsuitable for developing a major attack.
So only the Perekop offered any realistic prospect for Manstein’s entry into the Crimea, albeit by frontal assault. Once the isthmus had been breached, the northern two-thirds of the Crimea, consisting of open steppe, terrain particularly suitable for armoured operations, lay ripe for rapid exploitation. To the south and east of Simferopol lies the Crimean mountain chain that towers above the southern and south-eastern coastline.
On taking over, Manstein commanded the following German forces: XXX Corps under General of Infantry Hans von Salmuth; XXXXIX Mountain Corps under General of Infantry Ludwig Kübler; and LIV Corps under General of Cavalry Erik Hansen. A separate infantry division (the 50th) was split between supporting the Rumanians at Odessa and being ‘partly engaged mopping up the Black Sea Coast’. Of the Axis forces under command, the Third Rumanian Army comprised a mountain and a cavalry corps, each of three brigades – the equivalent of a further two divisions of uncertain capability.
The first operational decision that Manstein faced was to determine how to pursue the enemy towards the east and to capture the Crimea: should these tasks be conducted simultaneously or sequentially? As he noted critically, it was a decision that ‘was really the responsibility of the Supreme Command’. Forcing the Perekop was too difficult to be left to the single corps (LIV) assigned already for this task. The 51st Separate Army under Colonel General F. I. Kuznetsov had recently assembled three militia divisions for its defence and three more were on the way; the total Soviet force on the Crimean peninsula would soon amount to twelve rifle and four cavalry divisions, of mixed quality. In any case, as Manstein concluded, ‘a stubborn defence by even three enemy divisions would probably suffice to deny LIV Corps access to the Crimea or at least cause it considerable losses in the fight through the Isthmus’.
The terrain between Perekop and Ishun, lying 30 kilometres south-east, which narrows to 3 kilometres in width, had been thickened with strong field defences. At Perekop, the first zone of defence incorporated the Tatar Ditch. In depth, the Soviets had constructed a second main zone of defence linking the salt lakes and the new town of Krasnoperekopsk (Red Perekop), built in the 1930s to commemorate the Red Army’s famous victory there over the White Russians in 1920. These natural and manmade obstacles, when combined with the local Soviet superiority in the air – for the Luftwaffe could not be strong everywhere on the Eastern Front – demanded a ‘hard and exhausting struggle’ by Eleventh Army.
Manstein needed reinforcements if any breakthrough were to be converted into exploitation and pursuit: the only source now was his two corps pressing eastwards (XXX and XXXXIX). To attempt both operations simultaneously would result in neither objective being achieved, so Manstein decided to give initial priority to the Crimea over Rostov-on-Don. In breaking in at Perekop, he reinforced LIV Corps as best he could with all available army artillery, anti-aircraft and engineer units, and feinted operations from the Chongar peninsula. He brought up 50th Division to reinforce LIV Corps and warned XXXXIX Mountain Corps to ‘conquer the Crimea quickly after the breakthrough’ had been achieved.
Notwithstanding the anticipated difficulties, such was Manstein’s optimism that he tasked the Leibstandarte, in conjunction with other motorized elements of the army, to act as a fast mobile group to pursue the retreating enemy to Sevastopol and capture the city. To substitute the troops drawn from his eastern front, he placed the Rumanians, reinforced by German troops, in a thinly manned defensive line on the steppe approximately 100 kilometres east of the Dnepr bend. In so doing he took a big, albeit calculated, risk. It represented the ‘price that had to be paid if we were to avoid attempting the capture of the Crimea with inadequate forces’.
Storming the Perekop and the Battle of Azov
A deliberate attack – one with detailed preparation – as opposed to one conducted hastily off the line of march can favour either the attacker or defender depending on the relative build-up of resources on both sides, particularly in terms of fire support. A frontal attack such as the one conducted by Manstein’s army at Perekop, against a determined enemy in a prepared defensive position may result, as German Army doctrine noted, ‘in long, obstinate fighting for dominance’. And so it turned out. When LIV Corps attacked on 24 September 1941 it achieved an initial, extremely hard-fought penetration to the Tatar Ditch. On the 26th, 73rd Division stormed the obstacle as described by a young officer:
At 04.40 hours, therefore before dawn, divisional artillery concentrated its fire on the regimental breakthrough axis. Under cover of the barrage infantry troops worked themselves forward until they were close to the Tatar Ditch. At 04.50 the artillery support was lifted. In unison, infantry and engineers rushed forward traversing the northern edge of the ditch, sliding and slipping down into the channel, at some places twenty metres deep, climbing up the far side and breaking into and seizing the enemy positions.
During the next night, LIV Corps, reinforced by the Leibstandarte, began to break through south-west of Armiansk, and prepared to mount an attack past the Ishun lakes. But, as Manstein noted, ‘the fruit of this hard-won victory, the final break-out into the Crimea, could still not be plucked’. Since 26 September, the Soviet 9th and 18th Armies, twelve divisions reinforced with strong tank units, had been mounting increasingly threatening attacks on Third Rumanian Army. By the morning of the 27th, Soviet forces had forced a penetration in the north between XXXXIX Corps heading for the Perekop (which Manstein turned back) and the Rumanians. An alarming 15-kilometre ‘hole’ suddenly appeared in his eastern line of defence.
On 28 September, within XXX Corps’ sector to the south-east, the situation became yet more critical. Manstein was now obliged to act decisively in order to maintain the integrity of his army. Although he did not close down his attacks at Ishun immediately, it became evident soon enough that LIV Corps was exhausted and that he must divert fresh forces to meet the new threat. In any case, the German High Command – ‘on the Führer’s orders’ – had intervened unhelpfully by reserving the Leibstandarte, Manstein’s only fully mobile formation, for employment with First Panzer Group for the intended thrust to Rostov-on-Don.
By counterattacking with XXXXIX Corps, together with elements of 50th and 22nd Divisions and the Leibstandarte drawn from Perekop, Manstein was able to stabilize the situation on 29 September. It had proved a close-run affair. To stiffen resolve, he established a small tactical headquarters at Nish Segorosi close ‘to the danger spot’. As he remarked, such action
is always an expedient measure in times of crisis, if only because it prevents subordinate staffs from pulling out early and making a bad impression on the troops. On the occasion in question it was particularly appropriate in view of the tendency of many Rumanian headquarters staffs to change their locations prematurely.
His concern about his allies was born of experience. On at least one occasion, he had found it necessary to rally the Rumanians in person, finding ‘their commanders’ staff cars pointing west with their engines running’.
But it required more than Manstein’s mere presence to win the battle. Following urgent requests, Army Group South finally ordered von Kleist’s First Panzer Army on 1 October to advance into the rear of the Soviet grouping (9th and 18th Armies). This envelopment from the north and further hard fighting by Eleventh Army attacking east to capture Melitopol decided the battle of the Sea of Azov. Total Soviet losses by 10 October amounted to 106,362 prisoners, 212 tanks and 672 artillery pieces. In retrospect, Manstein believed that his army could have been driven back to the Dnepr had the Soviet counter-offensive been better planned and led. As one historian observed, ‘it was a victory pulled from the brink of disaster’.
Although never one for dramatic gestures, Manstein thought the action worthy of recognition. He issued an order of the day on 4 October 1941:
Soldiers of the 11th and 3rd Rumanian Army! You can be proud of your achievements when attacking as well as in defence against the enemy assault, which you have brought about through loyal comradeship-in-arms. We remember our comrades who gave their lives and blood, whose sacrifice has set us on the path to final victory.
The stunning success also brought Manstein his first mention during the Second World War in the daily Wehrmachtsberichte (reports of the Wehrmacht) on 11 October 1941.