The Defense of the Adzhimushkay Quarry (Russian: Оборона Аджимушкайских каменоломен) was a guerrilla campaign on the Eastern Front in World War II fought between May and October 1942 in the Adzhimushkay suburb of Kerch during the Nazi occupation of the Crimea (Ukraine).
At the time of war, Adzhimushkay was a small mining suburb located five kilometers away from the city of Kerch, where a complex network of catacombs is located. Limestone was extracted there from 1830, using both the surface quarry and the underground mines. The latter resulted in the network of tunnels (catacombs), known as the Great and Small Adzhimushkay catacombs. They were first used for military purposes by the pro-Bolshevik armed groups during the Russian Civil War.
Start of the guerrilla campaign
When Kerch was first occupied by the Wehrmacht in November 1941, a squad of partisans already operated in the catacombs. By May 1942, a massive counteroffensive was staged by the Wehrmacht in order to expel the Red Army both from the Kerch Peninsula and the city of Sevastopol. The Soviet high command had neglected to build comprehensive defenses; the Red Army was overrun and had to flee, sustaining heavy casualties. By May 19, 1942 the regular fighting in the area was over, and, to ensure the evacuation of the Soviet troops across the Kerch Strait, a defense group was left in Adzhimushkay, led by Colonel P.M. Yagunov. The group absorbed numerous retreating soldiers, along with numerous civilians fleeing the city, and eventually grew to several thousand strong. When it became obvious that the bridgehead over the strait could not be held, the Adzhimushkay group found refuge in the catacombs. It is estimated that more than 10,000 survivors of the surface action fled to the Great Adzhimushkay catacombs system, and 3,000 to the Small catacombs system. The larger garrison was led by Yagunov and the smaller one by Povazhniy.
The catacombs were ill-suited for defense, as there were no supplies prepared and all wells were located outside. Any supply of water had to be taken by force since a sortie was needed to reach a well. The Soviet group attempted several counterattacks, including one resulting the defeat of the Wehrmacht garrison in Adzhimushkay on the night of 8 and 9 July 1942. Colonel Yagunov was killed in that assault.
However, most Soviet guerrillas died, as the groups ran out of ammunition, food and water. The group resorted to extreme techniques of survival that included preparing meat of the dead livestock earlier killed in the mine entrances and gathering water condensed on the mine ceilings. The defenders also attempted to dig their own wells in the catacombs, as deep as 14 m, in order to reach the phreatic water layer.
The German forces surrounded the quarries with barbed wire fencing, blocked the entrances and exits and bombed and shelled them. General Ochsner, chief of the chemical forces, proposed that a non-lethal irritant gas be used to smoke the partisans out of such hiding places. Permission to carry out the attack was denied.
Crushing of the guerrilla forces
On October 30, 1942, German forces finally entered the catacombs and captured the remaining defenders. There are conflicting reports on the number of guerrilla fighters surviving the 170 day siege and final clash (ranging from 48 to 300; out of initial 13,000 strength of the Soviet group) and their subsequent treatment by Nazis.
The Adzhimushkay campaign was largely covered up by Soviet propaganda until the end of Joseph Stalin's rule, as part of the general controversy concerning the fate of the crushed Soviet Crimean Front. It was only with the beginning of the Khrushchev Thaw that the Adzhimushkay Defense began to be popularized. Several books and songs were written to commemorate it. A museum was established in the quarry in 1966 and the memorial erected in 1982.
In popular culture
The 1986 perestroyka drama film Descended from the Sky (Russian: Сошедшие с небес) features the story of an ordinary Soviet couple that struggles with the difficulties of post-World War II life. It is only in the film's finale that the horrible ordeal of their survival in the Adzhimushkay Quarry is revealed. Soviet cinema star Aleksandr Abdulov was cast in the film.
- Joachim Krause, Charles K. Mallory: Chemical weapons in Soviet military doctrine: military and historical experience, 1915-1991, Westview Press 1992, p. 92
- Halder, F., Kriegstagebuch. Tägliche Aufzeichnungen des Chefs des Generalstabes des Heeres 1939–1942. — Stuttgart, W. Kohlhammer Verlag, 1962–1964 (entry dated June 13, 1942).
- Great Soviet Encyclopedia
- V. Abramov, The Crimean Catastrophe, 1942., Eksmo, 2006, ISBN 5-699-15686-0.
- Axis History Forum Index; WW2 in Eastern Europe; Heroic Defense of the Adzhimushkai Quarry in 1942
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