Manstein Takes Over the Eleventh Army 1941 Part II

he battle caused a necessary rethink in the German High Command. At last, the impracticability of Eleventh Army conducting two simultaneous operations was recognized. Manstein retained XXX and LIV Corps for the Crimean operation, some five and two-third divisions, for a third of 50th Division was still employed in the vicinity of Odessa. Conquering the Crimea and then mounting an operation over the Strait of Kerch on to the Kuban peninsula and the Caucasus still figured prominently in OKH’s thinking. Manstein applied to Army Group South for the ‘immediate release of a corps of three divisions for the Crimea’, and called for increases in air support. Although he received Headquarters XXXXII Corps with 24th and 132nd Infantry Divisions, it remained to be seen whether such reinforcements would guarantee the ‘complete clearance of the Crimea’. As he predicted, the Soviet Supreme Command would rather abandon Odessa than lose Sevastopol.

Over the period 2-16 October, the Red Navy evacuated the Coastal Army from Odessa and reinforcements began to flow into Sevastopol and into other smaller ports of the western Crimea, exacerbating Manstein’s problems. Although some Soviet shipping was lost, neither the Luftwaffe nor the Kriegsmarine had sufficient forces to interdict this sea line of communication effectively. As a result, Soviet land and naval forces had pulled off a remarkable operation on the scale of Dunkirk, evacuating some 300,000 military and civilian personnel without significant loss.

When Manstein resumed his offensive at Ishun on 18 October, six German divisions were soon faced by ‘eight Soviet rifle and four cavalry divisions’. Even allowing for a significant overestimation of the enemy, his forces hardly dominated. The LIV Corps eventually assaulted the Ishun position with 22nd, 46th and 73rd Infantry Divisions. Initial progress was excruciatingly slow and extremely costly. True, Manstein was able to mass his army’s artillery but this could not offset the Soviet air superiority over the battlefield. He recalled:

The salt steppes of the isthmus, flat as a pancake and bare of vegetation, offered no cover whatsoever to the attacker. Yet the air above them was dominated by the Soviet Air Force, whose fighters and fighter-bombers dived incessantly on any target they could find. Not only the front-line infantry and field batteries had to dig in: it was even necessary to dig pits for every vehicle and horse behind the battle zone as protection against enemy aircraft. Things got so bad that anti-aircraft batteries no longer dared to fire in case they were immediately wiped out from the air.

Such was Manstein’s mounting concern about the lack of air support that he wrote on 20 October to General Sodenstern, chief of staff of Army Group South, arguing for a ‘drastic concentration of the Luftwaffe’ to defeat the enemy air force, to destroy the Soviet artillery and to give his weakened infantry the necessary ‘moral uplift in the attack’. Further, he requested ‘at least one mobile armoured formation’ to block the road between Simferopol and Sevastopol in order to cut off retreating Soviet forces.

Manstein’s diary entry for 22 October reveals that he even considered calling off his offensive once he had forced the Ishun position in order to ‘bleed the Russians in counter attacks’ and to allow the concentration of Fourth Air Fleet to keep the Russian Air Force at bay. He decided to press on, noting ‘how often have I taught that one should not throw away victory five minutes too early’. With the arrival of the Mölders fighter wing (Jagdgeschwader 52), local air superiority by day was achieved by 26 October.

Meanwhile, Manstein had become increasingly alarmed by the declining fighting power of his force, a recurring feature of the campaign. The commander of a ‘particularly good division’ (73rd Infantry) had reported on two occasions that week that his formation could ‘do no more’. ‘This was the hour’, he wrote after the war, ‘that usually comes sooner or later in such a contest, when the outcome of the battle is on the razor’s edge. It was the hour that must show whether the will of the attacker to exert himself to the very limit of physical endurance is stronger than that of the defender to go on resisting.’ Manstein’s soldiers were made of stern stuff: their opponents cracked first on 28 October. The German pursuit into the Crimea could now begin.

Exploitation into the Crimea

With the departure of the Leibstandarte, Manstein did not have any obvious means immediately available to exploit the situation by plunging into the Crimea before the Soviets could recover. So he employed an old device he had used before with XXXVIII Corps in France. He assembled a forward detachment comprising the reconnaissance battalion of 22nd Infantry Division, a reinforced Rumanian motorized regiment and sundry other German motorized troops.42 Manstein tasked this ad hoc mobile group under Colonel Heinz Ziegler to drive hard south towards the river Alma. On 31 October, Ziegler’s force cut the road between Sevastopol and Simferopol, capturing the Crimean capital the next day.

Heavy rain slowed down the pursuit by Manstein’s infantry divisions, as did determined Soviet rearguard actions. The German High Command, however, was delighted with Manstein’s achievements. Brauchitsch congratulated him on 30 September, signalling his ‘best wishes and full recognition for the outstanding performance of the command and the troops in the breakthrough into the Crimea’. Manstein, however, had more pressing concerns, noting acerbically, ‘I would have much preferred to have received a panzer division.’

On 30 October, he set out his proposed intent in a typically carefully argued estimate to Headquarters Army Group South. He assessed that his opponent had two courses of action open: either to hold the southern Crimea as a firm base for maritime and air operations; or, if too weak to achieve this, to split his forces, directing the mass to Sevastopol and the remainder to Kerch. Manstein considered the most attractive option for Eleventh Army was to pursue the retreating 51st Separate Army to Kerch. He hoped this would tempt Soviet forces out of the mountains and provoke a general engagement on open ground to German advantage away from Sevastopol’s fortifications.

Manstein had presumed here a degree of operational sophistication that his opponents were not yet capable of. He conceded ‘that it is unlikely that the enemy would decide on such an operation. Probably he would only win time to prepare Sevastopol for defence.’ Hence Manstein decided to focus his main effort against the anticipated Soviet concentration between Simferopol and Sevastopol, and to cut off any retreat into the fortress city. At this stage he did not plan to attack the enemy grouping at Kerch until sufficient forces could be released from Sevastopol. But the unexpected tenacity and resilience of the Soviet forces confounded this approach: whilst Kerch fell to Manstein’s forces on 16 November – only to be recaptured by the Red Army at the end of December 1941 and lost again in mid May 1942 – Sevastopol held out until 1 July 1942.

On 1 November, having received endorsement for his plans from Headquarters Army Group South, Manstein confirmed his scheme of manoeuvre. Two corps, LIV and XXX, with a total of four divisions, were tasked to take Sevastopol, whilst XXXXII Corps with three German divisions, together with the Rumanian Mountain Corps, was to press eastwards towards Kerch.

Meanwhile, the Soviet command structure on the Crimea was in disarray although Russian troops were retreating in reasonably good order. On 30 October, Major General Ivan Efimovich Petrov, commander of the Coastal Army that had been redeployed from Odessa, called a council of war at Ekibash, a small settlement 40 kilometres north of Sevastopol. According to one of his subordinate commanders, Colonel I. A. Laskin, Petrov declared:

there is unofficial information that Colonel General Kuznetsov has been dismissed from commanding the Crimean armed forces and the 51st Army. The situation here is changing quickly and not to our advantage. . . . We have two options, two ways to go: either to Sevastopol, to the main Navy base of the Black Sea Fleet so that we can defend the city and the base together with the Fleet; or we can go to the Kerch Peninsula to join the 51st Army and establish the defence there.

Petrov consulted his divisional commanders and then announced his decision that the Coastal Army would retreat to Sevastopol.

Despite Manstein’s best efforts, his forces were far too dispersed over the southern Crimea to prevent the Coastal Army from breaking through to Sevastopol either over the mountains or escaping along the coastal road from Alushta and Yalta. In the race against time to reach the city, the Soviets just managed to forestall any German attempt to seize Sevastopol off the line of march. Eleventh Army would now need more time to bring up the troops, heavy artillery and ammunition required for a deliberate operation. The heady optimism of the first two weeks of November, reflected in Halder’s comment that ‘good progress has been made in the Crimea, but it will take a few more days before we have cleared out the last enemy’, was to be confounded by the tenacity of the Soviet defence and by the onset of winter.

Until the main railway line to Simferopol (and onwards to the army’s principal off-loading point at Bakhchisarai) was reopened in January 1942, all combat supplies were hauled over the Crimea’s poor roads, most of which were unpaved. In contrast, the Red Navy still controlled the Black Sea, providing a vital lifeline to the population and the Soviet forces in Sevastopol. In 1941 the first snow on the Crimea fell early on 9 November, followed by continuous ‘hopeless rain’ as Manstein recorded on 11 November, that turned all German routes into muddy tracks that ‘brought everything to a halt’. With the onset of the Russian rasputitsa (literally, the time without roads) any chance of a swiftly conducted assault on Sevastopol disappeared. The worsening weather and declining daylight favoured the Soviet defenders. Petrov’s men used the precious time to reinforce their fortifications with well-camouflaged bunkers, wire entanglements, mines, machine-gun posts and field-gun positions.

As Manstein’s divisions struggled forward towards Sevastopol and Kerch, and fought off determined attacks by partisans in the mountains, Headquarters Eleventh Army established itself in and around Simferopol. Whilst the administrative branch (Ib with specialist logistics staffs) remained in the city, Manstein with his operations and intelligence sections (Ia and Ic respectively), ‘found very suitable accommodation in one of the new schools built by the Soviets’ in Sarabus. Manstein shared a small farmhouse nearby with his chief of staff, living in ‘a modest room’ with only ‘a bed, a table and a chair, a stool for the wash-bowl to stand on, and a few clothes-hooks’. Neither he nor his staff believed ‘in indulging in comforts which the ordinary soldier had to do without’.

For his office, Manstein used a classroom heated by two improvised stoves. As in all armies, when operations become static, the dampening hand of ‘routine’ administration returns to dominate the life of a headquarters. According to Paget, Manstein ‘hated paper work and rarely read papers that were put before him. He expected his officers to report concisely upon their contents and then he initialled the papers to indicate that they had been reported on.’ So perhaps there was some truth in Manstein’s comments after the war that he could not remember reading various documents, and perhaps even the more incriminating ones.

Intermittent Soviet air raids on the nearby Sarabus airfields caused some disruption to staff work. Manstein was on the road most of the time visiting his subordinate formations, not without its attendant dangers. For the majority of his front-line troops, the daily threat and personal demands of combat remained immense. Although Eleventh Army had conquered all of the Crimea by 16 November 1941 except for the heavily fortified area around Sevastopol, frequent partisan ambushes meant that no road movement was safe from attack, and particularly so in the mountains.

Winter is always hard for the soldier: the German Landser manning the half-ring of circumvallation around Sevastopol faced not only enemy artillery fire and air attack, but also debilitating living conditions. As the historian of 22nd Division noted bitterly:

It was not all that cold, but the storms from the sea and the wet snow made life in the front line a misery. Clothing was completely insufficient: many soldiers did not have a coat; far fewer still had gloves or head protection. On top of this came the physical exhaustion; [in this condition] even light wounds could lead to death.

OKH had made no effective preparations for a winter campaign in the Soviet Union. Manstein did what he could do for his troops, but his army was at the very end of an extremely long and thin supply chain, which had no redundancy.

The lack of troops made it even more difficult to give soldiers in the hollowed-out infantry companies the urgent rest and recuperation they needed. Across his seven infantry divisions, losses up to 7 November from combat and sickness, including jaundice, amounted to nearly 40,000 men. Despite receiving almost 16,000 replacements, Eleventh Army was still approximately 25 per cent short of its establishment. The opening stages of the campaign in the Crimea had also proved very costly in Russian blood. German intelligence estimates put Soviet military losses since 18 October 1941 as 100,000, of which three-quarters were prisoners of war. For the civilian population of the Crimea, however, there were yet thousands of casualties to come.

1 thought on “Manstein Takes Over the Eleventh Army 1941 Part II

  1. Pingback: Manstein Takes Over the Eleventh Army 1941 Part II – faujibratsden

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