Battle of the Kerch Peninsula (German language: Unternehmen Trappenjagd) (Russian Керченско-Феодосийская десантная операция (Kerchensko-Feodosiyskaya desantnaya operatsiya, 'Kerch-Feodosiya landing operation')) was a World War II offensive by German and Romanian armies against the Soviet Crimean Front forces defending the Kerch Peninsula, in the eastern part of the Crimea. It was launched on 8 May 1942 and concluded around 18 May 1942 with the near complete destruction of the Soviet defending forces. The Red Army lost over 170,000 men killed or taken prisoner, and three armies (44th, 47th, and 51st) with twenty-one divisions. The operation was one of the battles immediately preceding the German summer offensive (Fall Blau), and its successful conclusion made it possible for the Axis to launch a successful assault on Sevastopol in the following months.
Some groups of Soviet survivors refused to surrender and fought on for many months, hiding in the catacombs of the quarries. Many of these soldiers were occupying the caves along with many civilians, who had fled the city of Kerch.
Soviet landings on Kerch and German counter-attack
On 26 December 1941, the Soviets landed on Kerch, and on 30 December executed another landing near Feodosiya with the 44th and 51st Armies. The operation was to drive to Sevastopol and relieve the garrison, now encircled by the German 11th Army. The 46th Infantry Division, under Generalleutnant Kurt Himer, was the only division in a position to be able to block the Soviet advance. Von Manstein believed it could contain the landing, but the Soviets consolidated their bridgeheads and defeated the attacking Romanian brigades. As a result, the XLII Corps commander, Lieutenant General Hans Graf von Sponeck, chose to withdraw the 46th Infantry division from Kerch through the Parpach narrows to avoid being caught and encircled by Soviet forces advancing from the landing zones located at the extreme east (Kerch) and west (Feodosiya) of the peninsula. Manstein diverted the XXX Corps to support XLII Corps, forming a new front at Feodosiya. They succeeded in sealing off the Soviet armies in the Kerch peninsula. The Soviet landings had saved Sevastopol and seized the initiative. Casualties were high. The Germans lost 8,595 between 17 and 31 December. The Soviets lost 7,000 killed and another 20,000 as prisoners of war.
To slow the Soviet build-up, Alexander Löhr's Luftflotte 4 was sent to the region to interdict shipping. The 7,500 long tons (7,600 t) transport Emba was severely damaged on 29 January. Still, the Luftwaffe failed to prevent the transport of 100,000 men and hundreds of artillery pieces to Kerch between 20 January and 11 February. At Sevastopol, 764 short tons (693 t) of fuel, 1,700 short tons (1,500 t) of supplies were sent to the port. On 13 February, the cruiser Komintern and destroyer Shaumyan brought in 1,034 soldiers and 200 tons of supplies. The cruiser Krasny Krym and destroyer Dzerzhinskiy brought in a further 1,075 men on 14 February. The next day, the minesweeper T410 brought in 650 and evacuated 152. On 17 February, the transport Belostok brought in 871 men. The Black Sea Fleet regularly shelled German positions on the coast. The Luftwaffe increased its pressure, dispatching KG 27, KG 55, and KG 100 to bomb the ports at Anapa, Tuapse, and Novorossiysk on the Caucasian Black Sea coast. On 20 February, the 1,900 long tons (1,900 t) transport Kommunist was sunk by KG 100.
Manstein was unwilling to surrender the initiative, and ordered counterattacks which recaptured Feodosiya in January 1942. The German 11th Army lacked the strength to destroy the 44th and 51st Army in the Kerch Peninsula, and the Stavka reinforced the front with nine rifle divisions. The Stavka created the Crimean Front under Lieutenant General Dimitri Kozlov on 28 January to coordinate operations. Kozlov began a series of offensives in February, March, and April, which were defeated by Hansen's LIV Corps, all with heavy Soviet losses. Petrov's Coastal Army also supported the operations on 26 February, inflicting 1,200 casualties while losing 2,500 in return. A stalemate ensued. The spring thaw arrived in early May, and both sides prepared for the battle that would decide the campaign.
Meanwhile, the Luftwaffe had flown in the specialist torpedo bomber unit KG 26. On 1/2 March 1942, it damaged the 2,434 long tons (2,473 t) steamer Fabritsius which was damaged but written off. The 4,629 long tons (4,703 t) oil tanker Kuybyshev was damaged on 3 March south of Kerch, which deprived the defenders of much fuel. It was withdrawn the port of Novorossiysk where it was crippled by Ju 88s of KG 51 on 13 March. On 18 March, KG 51 Ju 88s sank the 3,689 long tons (3,748 t) transport Georgiy Dimitrov. Further damage was done on 23 March when nine Ju 88s of KG 51 sank the minelayers Ostrovskiy and GS-13 and a motor torpedo boat in Tuapse harbour. They also damaged two submarines (S-33 and D-5). That evening, He 111s of KG 27 claimed one 5,000 long tons (5,100 t) and two 2,000 long tons (2,000 t) ships sunk. Soviet records recorded the loss of the 2,960 long tons (3,010 t) steamer V.Chapayev, with the loss of 16 crew and 86 soldiers. KG 51 returned to Tuapse on 24 March and sank the transports Yalta and Neva. On 2 April, the Kuybyshev was intercepted and sunk. So great was the loss of the ship that Soviet land forces were ordered to cease all offensive operations and conserve its supplies. In the eight-week air offensive, from early February to the end of March, the Black Sea Transport Fleet had been reduced from 43,200 long tons (43,900 t) of shipping to just 27,400 long tons (27,800 t). Six transports had been lost and six were under repair. On 17 April, the 4,125 long tons (4,191 t) steamer Svanetiya was sunk by KG 26 while trying to bring in supplies to Sevastopol. Some 535 men were lost. Worse was to follow. On 19 April, the tanker I. Stalin was damaged along with three other transports. On 21 April, KG 55 damaged the minesweeper Komintern and sank a transport ship. By this time the Black Sea Fleets ability to supply the Soviet forces in Sevastopol was severely curtailed.
On 8 May, the Germans intended to launch operation Trappenjagd (Bustard Hunt). Prior to the offensive, the Luftwaffe had succeeded in applying severe pressure to the Soviet supply lines. By late April food and other resources were virtually exhausted. Everything, including firewood had to be brought in by sea. Luftflotte 4 had strangled these supply lines and the Soviet armies near Kerch were compromised. The Stavka asked Stalin to consider the evacuation of the Kerch region. Stalin refused, and on 21 April ordered preparations for an offensive to liberate the Crimea. On 6 May, he changed his mind and issued Order No. 170357, which ordered all forces to assume a defensive posture. He also refused to send more reinforcements. Mixed in with this order, was a limited offensive operation against German lines to improve the defenders' tactical positions. Instead of preparing for a defence against the impending German offensive, the Soviets were preparing for an attack.
For the defence of the peninsula, the Soviets had three armies. The 51st protecting the north (three rifle and two tank brigades and eight rifle divisions) and the 44th Army in the south (five rifle divisions and two tank brigades). The 47th Army was kept in reserve (four rifle and one cavalry division). Kozlov did not expect a major attack as he outnumbered the Germans two to one, Moreover, on the southern front, he had swampy terrain which made it an unfavourable place for offensive operations.
The German offensive had no option but to break through the Soviet lines head-on. To do this, it needed exceptionally strong air support. Fliegerkorps VIII under the command of Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen was sent to support the assault. The unit was the best equipped close air support corps in the Luftwaffe. To bolster its strength, it was given the experienced KG 55 medium bomber wing.
Trappenjagd began at 04:15 on 8 May. Fliegerkorps VIII operating under Luftflotte 4, began operations against lines of communication and against Soviet airfields. Within hours, Ju 87s of StG 77 had knocked out most of the Soviet 44th Army's communications. The airfields were also virtually destroyed and 57 of the 401 Soviet aircraft in the area were shot down in just 2,100 sorties. Having knocked out the army's Headquarters, the Soviets could not organise a counter offensive and the 44th Army collapsed into a retreat when von Manstein launched the ground attack.
Von Manstein had five infantry divisions, one Panzer Division (22nd Panzer Division), and two and a half Romanian Divisions against 19 Soviet divisions and four armoured brigades at Kerch. He committed his units in the south against the 44th Army. The 902nd Assault Boat Command of the 436th Regiment, 132nd German Infantry Division, landed behind the Soviet lines and helped unbuckle the Soviet second lines. The artillery bombardment lasted only 10 minutes, and within three and a half hours of the assault being launched, the 44th Army collapsed. On the first day, XXX Corps, attacking with the 28th, 50th and 132nd Divisions had broken through in the south. At a cost of 104 killed and 284 wounded, they captured 4,514 Soviet soldiers. Kozlov did not appreciate the significance of the German breakthrough and failed to release reserves for a counter-attack. On 9 May, von Manstein committed the 22nd Panzer Division, which swung north and trapped the 51st Army against the Sea of Azov. Soviet morale and organisation collapsed, and a stampede to the rear areas began. Once this happened, the eight divisions of the 51st Army surrendered releasing XXX Corps to pursue the fragments of retreating Soviet forces to Marfovka, barely eight miles from Kerch.
The speed of the advance was rapid. The 132nd Infantry Division overran several airfields, capturing 30 Soviet aircraft on the ground. On 10 May, Fliegerkorps VIII launched KG 55's He 111s against the Soviet forces. The large and slow He 111s made easy targets for ground fire, and eight were lost. However, the anti-personnel bombs (SD-2) were devastating to Soviet infantry. German bombers also attacked shipping evacuating personnel from Kerch. The 1,048 long tons (1,065 t) Chernomorets was sunk the same day. By this time, the air battle was won by the Luftwaffe. Despite the withdrawal of some Geschwader to support the German 6th Army at the Second Battle of Kharkov, the Luftwaffe had destroyed Soviet aerial opposition and enabled the German Army to make deep penetrations, capturing 29,000 Soviet men, 220 guns and around 170 tanks.
In 12 days, the VVS Crimean Front had lost 417 aircraft. The Luftwaffe assisted the final defeat of Soviet ground forces on 20 May, when Kerch finally fell. Some 116,045 Soviet soldiers were evacuated by sea. However, 162,282 were left behind, killed or captured. The Germans claimed to have taken 170,000 prisoners, but this number included a large number of civilians. German casualties amounted to only 3,397 casualties in XXX and XLII Corps, including 600 dead. They expended 6,230 short tons (5,650 t) of ammunition, losing nine artillery pieces, three assault guns and eight tanks. In exchange, von Manstein had destroyed three Soviet armies. Although forced to return some Luftwaffe units and the 22nd Panzer Division for Operation Blue, he could now concentrate his forces for an attack on Sevastopol.
- John Erickson (1975). The Road to Stalingrad: Stalin's War with Germany.
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