The Taman bridgehead - 1943
Soviet T-34/76 hit by AT guns and used as observation by Romanian soldiers during the fights in the Taman Peninsula
Bofors antitank gun of cavalry troops. Taman bridgehead, May 1943.
Romanian soldiers firing a ZB 30 LMG during the fights in the Taman Peninsula in the summer of 1943
Maj. Ioan Palaghita, CO of the 1st Battalion/94th Infantry Regiment, KIA on 9 May 1943. He had been awarded the Mihai Viteazul Order 2nd class and the Knight's Cross
Romanian and German soldiers on a break
50 mm Pak 38 AT gun firing on the front in the Kuban during the summer of 1943
ZB-53 machine-gun emplacement. Kuban, May 1943.

Following the Soviet offensive near Stalingrad in November 1942, the supply lines of the Axis forces in the Caucasus were threatened. Thus a general retreat was ordered. The 1st Panzer Army (minus the Romanian 2nd Mountain Division) pulled back towards Rostov, while the 17th Army, to which the bulk of the Romanian forces were assigned, towards the Taman Peninsula.

The 17th Army had to cover a front, which stretched from Novorosiysk to Nalchik, where the 2nd Mountain Division was covering the left flank of the 3rd Panzer Corps. On 4 December it received the order to start retreating westwards, through very difficult weather conditions and permanently harassed by Soviet forces.

On 11 January 1943, the Cavalry Corps (6th and 9th Cavalry Divisions) was subordinated to the German 44th Corps. Its mission was to secure the Georgievsk – Afipskaya – Holmskaya communication line and to stop the Soviet advance towards Krasnodar. The two Romanian divisions had to cover an 80 km long front.

On 16 January, 3 Soviet divisions (later joined by another 4) attacked the 9th Cavalry Division, which was stretched over 42 km, and the German 125th Infantry Division to its left. By evening they had managed to surround parts of the 2nd Battalion of the 9th Calarasi Regiment at Stavropolskaya and the 1st Battalion at Smolenskaya, which eventually held out for 7 days. However, they could not take Trushenik, where the calarasi took 69 POWs, one AT gun, 3 machine-guns, 4 light machine-guns and two mortars. In the sector of the 3rd Rosiori Regiment the Soviets made a breach 2-3 km wide and 4 km wide, west of the Lambina Hill, near Maraket. The 13th Calarasi Regiment was also surrounded in the area near Hill 476.9 and Hill 490.8, but it held out for 4 days, before it managed to get out of the encirclement. Maj. Teodor Baciu, the regiment’s CO, was severely wounded following this action and passed away shortly after that. He was awarded the Mihai Viteazul Order 3rd class posthumously. Another 3 officers from his unit received the prestigious award for their deeds during those days. The resistance of the 9th Cavalry Division was essential in the failure of the Soviet offensive meant at intercepting the Krasnodar – Smolenskaya retreat line. The German command expressed its appreciation by awarding 134 Iron Crosses 2nd class.

The 6th Cavalry Division also distinguished itself., when, on 18 January, it destroyed the elements of the Soviet 16th Special Brigade, which had infiltrated in the breach made in the Lambina Hill area, had encircled Romanian troops at Azovskaya, captured an artillery battery (supporting the 10th Rosiori Regiment) and attacked Severskaya. All the available forces were thrown into battle and after some very violent fighting, the Soviets were cut off, Azovskaya was relieved and the artillery battery was recaptured. Thus the attempt to widen breach was stopped. The officers and men of the 6th Cavalry Division received 80 Iron Crosses 2nd class.

The front of the 17th Army was on the line Protoka Channel – Nikolaevskaya – Popovicenskaya – Staro – Novovelikoovskaya – west Krasnodar – west Tothamukay – east Smolenskaya – Novorosiysk. The 17th Army had 6 Romanian divisions, of which 3 were subordinated to the Cavalry Corps: 6th and 9th Cavalry Divisions and 19th Infantry Division. The 10th Infantry Division and the 2nd and 3rd Mountain Divisions were assigned to German units. The Cavalry Corps also had at its disposal a tank battalion equipped with 50 second-hand T-38s (Romanian designation for the Skodat LT VZ 38). There were a total of 64,606 Romanian troops in the Kuban in 1943.

A notable episode was the one of the 5th Company/38th Infantry Regiment from the 10th Infantry Division, commanded by cpt. Nicolae Dabija, which faced a strong landing at Ossereyka. Early in the morning of 4 February, Soviet marines and tanks came to shore under fire from mortars and an 88 mm AA section, which caused serious casualties and knocked out several M3 Stuart tanks. Three landing craft were sunk and apparently the heavy fire prevented further reinforcements of the forces that made it and had managed to create a bridgehead. The decision was taken to cancel the operation and the 563rd Independent Tank Battalion, the 142nd Sailor Battalion and two battalions from the 255th Naval Brigade were left behind. Out of roughly 1,500 men, only around 800 and 8 tanks were still remaining. They had taken advantage of the gaps in the Axis line and had outflanked the Romanian troops. Soviet sources claim 500 KIAs and WIAs and roughly 100 POWs taken, obviously more than what the 5th Company had on the beach. The German command rushed in reinforcements and the bridgehead, with the participation of the cpt. Dabija's men. He was awarded the Mihai Viteazul Order 3rd class and the German Cross in Gold.

On 12 February 1943, the Red Army took Krasnodar. The Soviets pushed on and attacked along the Abin Valley in the sector of the 3rd Mountain Division, trying to get to the Krasnodar – Krimskaya railroad. The vanatori de munte together with the German 9th Infantry Division held on until 20 February and repulsed the attacks causing many casualties to the Red Army. They also attempted to brake through the front of the 2nd Mountain Division in order to intercept the Krasnodar – Slavianskaya – Krasnii Octobrii highway and encircle the Axis forces north of the Kuban river, but failed.

During 15 – 20 February the defence south of the river was reorganized. The two cavalry divisions were pulled out of the first line and sent to Anapskaya (the 6th) and on the seaside at Anapa (the 9th). Parts of the 3rd Mountain Division were subordinated to the German 9th and 97th Infantry Divisions, while the rest was sent to Moldovanskoe. The 19th Infantry Division was also broken into smaller pieces and assigned to the German 97th Infantry Division (the 94th and 95th Infantry Regiments and the 37th Artillery Regiment) to the 101st Infantry Division (96th Infantry Regiment, 42nd Artillery Regiment, 19th Light Infantry Battalion, 19th Pioneer Battalion, 994th Independent Battalion). The 2nd Mountain Division kept its position north of the Kuban river, as did the 10th Infantry Division, which was on the seaside between Anapa and Lobanovo.

The first Soviet offensive against the Taman bridgehead took place between 25 February and 12 March 1943. The 17th Army generally managed to hold the line and repulse the assaults. The 94th and 95th Infantry Regiments distinguished themselves in the defence of the Beregovoy area and of Yasterbovskiy at the beginning of March. The 2nd Mountain Division cleared up the Belikov village of Soviet troops and eliminated the infiltrations near the Svistielninov Lagoons. Despite the apparent successes, the situation of the Axis troops in the bridgehead was not very good, because of the losses they had suffered and of the lack of reserves. Thus the 17th Army decided to shorten its front and between 12 and 25 March it pulled back on the line Novorosiysk – west Abinskaya – Slavianskaya – Vostoniy. The 2nd Mountain Division was completely exhausted, seeing 203 days of fighting from the autumn of 1942 to March 1943. It had earned the admiration of both Romanian and German commands, the latter awarding 478 Iron Crosses 1st and 2nd classes to some of its men. The 2nd Mountain Division was evacuated to Crimea for rest and refitting.

The second Soviet offensive started on 25 March. Again the troops of the 19th Infantry Division, which were assigned to the German 97th Division, distinguished themselves, by repulsing repeated Soviet assaults (made by 3 infantry divisions). The 1st Battalion/94th Infantry Regiment, under the command of maj. Ioan Palaghita, stopped the infiltration of Soviet troops behind the Axis lines, thus preventing the encirclement of nearby German troops. His unit was positioned on the railway northwest of Krepskaya. To his left there was a small forest. Soviet forces tried to advance through it and then launch an assault from there, but were surprised by a company, dispatched by maj. Palaghita on the railway, which attacked them from the rear and eliminated the threat. He received the Mihai Viteazul Order 3rd class and the Ritterkreuz for this action. He was later killed in action in front of his troops, on 9 May 1943. He was awarded the 2nd class of the Mihai Viteazul Order posthumously.

The third Soviet offensive, from to the second half of April, forced the 19th Infantry Division and 3rd Mountain Division, which had received the main blow (3 infantry divisions and 1 armored brigade) and were forced to pull back towards Pricubansky and Krimskaya. Because of the severe losses, the 19th Infantry Division was gradually retreated from the first line in order to replenish its forces.

On 26 May 1943 the Soviets launched their fourth attack, with the main thrust on the direction of Krimskaya and Anapa. 6 infantry divisions and 3 tank brigades were concentrated between Kyevskoe and Moldovanskoe and these forces managed to make a breach 5 km deep. They were stopped on the line between Svoboda, Gogolia, Noviy, Sadoviy and Pobeda,but they had taken the villages Samsonovskiy, Tambulovskiy, Podgorniy, Arnautsky, Palmenskiy and Hill 121. The Axis counterattack threw them back 2 km and retook Podgorniy, Arnautsky and Hill 121. The following day, the Red Army restarted its attacks in the sector, but with little success. By 4 June, they had only managed to reoccupy Hill 121.

The 19th Infantry Division had been reintroduced in the first line, but its combat effectiveness had dropped, because the replacements it had received were inexperienced. It was again broken into smaller pieces and assigned to several German units: to the 97th Division went the 1st Battalion/96th Infantry Regiment; to the 101st Division went the 2nd Battalion/95th Infantry Regiment, 94th Infantry Regiment, 19th Light Infantry Battalion, 2nd and 3rd Battalions/37th Artillery Regiment; to the 79th Infantry Division went the 2nd Battalion/96th Infantry Regiment, 19th Recon Group, 19th Pioneer Battalion, 994th Independent Infantry Battalion, 1st and 2nd Battalions/42nd Artillery Regiment. The 1st Battalion/96th Infantry Regiment and 2nd Battalion/95th Infantry Regiment were on the main direction of the Soviet assault and suffered many casualties, being reduced to one company each after the fighting on 26 and 27 May. In the repulse of the enemy attack also distinguished themselves the 94th Infantry Regiment and the 37th Artillery Regiment.

The 3rd Mountain Division was also broken into several parts, which were assigned different German units: the 5th, 11th and 12th Battalions and the artillery to the 79th Infantry Division and the remaining 6th, 21st and 22nd Battalions to the 9th Infantry Division. The latter did not take part in the fighting, but the 6th Mountain Battalion suffered heavy casualties from Soviet artillery fire and aerial bombardments.

The Cavalry Corps had under its command the 10th Infantry Division and 9th Cavalry Division, which were deployed on the seaside. The 6th Cavalry Division (without the 5th Calarasi Regiment and the 2nd Battalion/4th Horse Artillery Regiment, which were assigned to the 10th Infantry Division) and the 38th Infantry Regiment were subordinated to the German 4th Mountain Division.

After 4 June 1943, the fighting decreased in intensity and changes could be made in the Axis ranks. The 10th Infantry Division replaced the 19th in the frontline. The latter was sent on the seaside, near Anapa. The 3rd Mountain Division was retreated to Crimea, where it assumed defensive positions between Ak Monay and Bulganak (in the Kerch Peninsula). The 1st Mountain Division was brought in the Kuban and, on 28 June, it took over the line from Adamovichia to 8 km north of it. It had the 2nd and 3rd Mountain Battalions, the 37th and 137th AT Battery, the 186th German Infantry Regiment, the 3rd Battalion/213th German Infantry Regiment. The 1st Mountain Battalion was in reserve and the artillery support was provided by the 1st Battalion/4th Artillery Regiment and 2nd and 4th Battalions/175th German Artillery Regiment. The 23rd Mountain Battalion was subordinated to the German 213th Infantry Regiment (replacing the battalion this regiment gave the division), while the 4th and 24th Mountain Battalions and the 1st Mounted Vanatori Squadron were in the reserve of the German 9th Infantry Division. The 3rd Battalion/4th Artillery Regiment was at Nova Bakanskaya, also under the command of the 9th Division.

The Red Army launched its fifth offensive on 16 July. They managed to obtain only small gains in the sector between Moldovanskoe and Kyevskoe and were later repulsed to the starting positions, by the counter-attacks mounted by the German and Romanian troops.

In the Neberdshayevskaya – Dolgaye Mountain sector, the 1st, 23rd and 24th Mountain Battalions distinguished themselves especially between 24 and 30 July. The 23rd Battalion was stretched over a line 4.8 km long, between Neberdshayevskaya – 1 km SW Hill 352. Gen. Vasiliu-Rascanu, the CO of the 1st Mountain Division, decided to shorten its line by introducing the 1st Mountain Battalion in the front line. Thus one company was made available and was supposed to be used as a reserve. But the commander of the German 213th Regiment considered that the area was not suitable for a Soviet offensive (difficult, wooded terrain) and relocated this small reserve. The attack of the Soviet 9th and 83rd Mountain Divisions (from the 56th Army) started early on 24 July, with the support of 15 artillery battalions. After four hours of heavy combat against a superior foe and lacking reserves, the battalion had to retreat towards Hill 352. The German command assembled a force of 8 battalions (including the Romanian 24th Mountain Battalion) to counter-attack, but this action failed. The German command in charge of the sector (Group Bünau) tried to put the blame for failure on the “poor morale and determination” of the Romanian troops. The reply from gen. Vasiliu-Rascanu came quickly and it signalled the mistakes made by the Germans, the use of Romanian units on fronts longer than their possibilities to defend efficiently and criticized the “corseting” system they used with the Romanian units. The German command went as far as taking companies away from battalions and relocating them. This led to the worsening of the morale of these units, which felt isolated and even abandoned by their original commanders.

In the bridgehead south of Novorosiysk, two Soviet battalions breached the position of the 5th Calarasi Regiment (from the 6th Cavalry Division) and took a hill north on Mountain Mishako. Between 22 and 28 July the Romanians tried several times to recapture it, but failed in front of the powerful and determined defence. A German attack had the same result. The regiment lost 50% of the officers and NCOs and 24% of the soldiers. On the other hand, the rest of the 6th Cavalry Division managed to hold its position, the 3rd Squadron/9th Rosiori Regiment, under the command of cpt. Niculescu, distinguished itself during those days.

In the Moldovanskoe and Kyevskoe sectors, the Soviets made little progress and were later pushed back to the starting positions by the German-Romanian counterattacks. On the Kurka Channel there were only two small attacks, both of which were repulsed.

Taking advantage of the pause in the Soviet actions, the 6th Cavalry Division was replaced in the first line by the 4th Mountain Division and sent to Crimea for rest. The 3rd Dive Bomber Group, equipped with Ju-87D3s and D5s, was dispatched to Kerch, from where it supported the operations of the German and Romanian forces in the Taman bridgehead.

On 7 August the Red Army renewed its offensive between Werch Adagaum and the Krimskaya-Moldovanskoe highway, with four infantry divisions supported by 100 tanks and a powerful VVS presence. Until 12 August they only managed to make a breach 7 km and 1 km deep. The 23rd Infantry Regiment (from the 10th Infantry Division) distinguished itself during these fights, receiving the praises of the CO or the German 97th Division. Another Romanian unit, which fought very well, was the 1st Mountain Division. The 4th Mountain Battalion held its position almost entirely against the assault of the Soviet 328th and 216th Rifle Divisions, causing them take a lot of casualties for an advance of 400-500m. The mountain pioneer platoon belonging to this battalion, under the command of slt. Jippa, counterattacked two times (8 and 17 August) and repulsed the Soviet forces, which had infiltrated through the position of the German 2nd Battalion/213th Regiment.

On 7 September, the Red Army launched an assault aimed at taking Novorosiysk, but failed because of the counterattack executed by the Axis forces, among which was also the 10th Infantry Division. But the last Soviet offensive in the Kuban started two days later. The North Caucasian Front had concentrated the 18th, 56th and 9th Armies, which totalled 21 divisions, 5 brigades, one independent regiment and 2 marine battalions, against 10 German and 6 Romanian divisions.

Over 800 artillery pieces and mortars, 225 Katyushas, 150 aircraft and 150 ships of different sizes were amassed for the assault on Novorosiysk. After the violent artillery preparations and aerial bombardments, the ChF landed between 4,000 and 5,000 men in the port (2 battalions from the 255th Marine Brigade, 2 battalions from the 1339th Marine Regiment and the 393rd Independent Marine Battalion).

The German command rushed in all available reserves in the area, among which was also the 20th Mountain Battalion (2nd Mountain Division). This unit was split into two groups: the 1st and 2nd Companies were sent to the harbour sector, while the rest, under the command of lt. col. Constantin Anghel, took up position in a forest north west of the city. Although during the night the Axis forces were bombarded by VVS aircraft and by ground artillery, on 11 September they pushed on the attack. The 1st and 2nd Companies advanced up to the railroad station, while the “Anghel” Group got as far as 100 m of it. But the retreat of the German unit right of the 2nd Company resulted in the retreat also of the Romanian companies. Lt. col. Anghel was killed in action and his detachment fell back to the Zemes Valley. Cpt. Lambru reorganized the 1st and 2nd Companies and led them back to the railroad station, linking up with the rest of the battalion. During this action, the Romanian vanatori de munte saved a German battalion from encirclement. These positions were held until16 Semptember, when the Axis troops started to retreat.

The plans for evacuation had already been drawn up since 4 September, so on 15 the German and Romanian forces started a fighting retreat. The 1st Mountain Division left its positions during the night of 15/16 September and fell back to the Bakanskaya-Gorny area (on the so-called Siegfired line), where it had to face several small attacks on 17 September, but resisted without problems. The following day it retreated to Martshenko (on the so-called Volker line) and on 19 started its march for Taman, where it arrived on 20. It was evacuated by sea and by air (the 4th Mountain Battalion) to Crimea. There it took defensive positions on the southern coast of the peninsula.

The 10th Infantry Division, which was subordinated to the German 44th Corps, also began its retreat during the night of 15/16, when it took up positions on the Gernot line. On 17 September, at 1200 hours, it left the sector of front to the German 79th Division and fell back to the Ahtanizovskaya (on the Siegfired line) and then, on 19 September, to the Hagen line. Only the 1st Battalion/38th Infantry Regiment and the 10th and 110th AA Batteries remained on the front. On 21 September the division started to cross the straits to Crimea and, by 23, all its forces had left the Taman Peninsula. It was subordinated to the Kerch Command and from 26 September it took up defensive positions near the city. But on 1 October it was ordered to move to the western side of Crimea (with the exception of the 33rd Infantry Regiment and the 2nd Battalion/3rd Artillery Regiment), where, between 17 and 25 October, it secured the coast between Yevpatoria and Mamashay.

The Cavalry Corps had under its command the 4th Mountain, 9th Cavalry and 19th Infantry Divisions. On 24 and 25 September its staff moved to Crimea, leaving the 9th Cavalry and 4th Mountain Divisions to the German 5th Corps and 19th Infantry Division to the 49th Corps.

The 4th Mountain Division fell back from its positions around the Mishako Mountain on 15 September at 1900, without being noticed. The Soviets stormed the following day the old positions, just to find them empty. They made contact again on 17 Sepember, near Lake Abrau (on the Siegfried line), but the repeated attacks were repulsed by the vanatori de munte. The same thing on 19 September, when the Soviets found the division further back, in the Sukko Valley (on the Volker line). The enemy managed to breach the positions of the 17th Mountain Battalion, but were counterattacked and repulsed. The organized retreat continued. The 4th Mountain Division had to leave a detachment under the command of col. Oscar Honig at Anapa to secure the passage of the German 4th Mountain Division on 21 September. At 1300, the Soviet troops tried to exploit the fact that the 14th Mountain Battalion had the left flank uncovered (because of the German retreat). The counterattack of the 4th Mountain Pioneer Battalion however caused many casualties and forced them to give up the action. The section of the 99th AT Battery, under the command of cpt. Stoian, knocked out four tanks. At 1700 the enemy repeated the maneuver, with the same result. In the meantime 6 MTBs attempted to land troops in the harbour and cut off the group’s retreat, col. Honig managed to concentrate artillery and automatic weapons fire on them and repulsed the attack. A platoon, commanded by slt. (r) Octavian Zamfirescu (he will later be awarded the Mihai Viteazul Order 3rd class), eliminated a Soviet soldiers in Romanian uniforms, which had infiltrated to the bridge west of Anapa. In the southern part of the city, the 13th Mountain battalion repulsed one enemy attack after another, until the evening, when the “Honig” Group started to fall back, after finishing their mission. Together with the rest of the division (“Col. Petrescu” and “Lt. col. Vasilescu” Groups) it reached the Taman port on 23 September. By 24, the 4th Mountain Division had passed in the Kerch Peninsula, from where it will be sent in southern Ukraine. During its stay in the Caucasus, it had suffered close to 1,000 casualties.

The 9th Cavalry Division remained on defensive positions on the Black Sea coast until 23 September 1943. During the night it created a bridgehead on the Zibanovka Valley (15 km north of Anapa) in order to secure the retreat of the 19th Infantry Division. Thus, on 24, it was on the Rudiger line, near Blagoveshchenskaya. Brig. gen. Dumitru Popescu decided to split his forces into 3 groups: the Maj. Minescu Detachment (6 cavalry platoons, one machine-gun platoon, one mortar platoon, one artillery battery and five 75 mm AT guns), which had to keep the forward positions near Blagoveshchenskaya and then fall back on the seaside; the Lt. col. Radu Grunau Tactical Group (9th and 13th Calarasi Regiments, 2 tank companies, one German company and 4 artillery batteries) had to secure the link with the 75th Infantry Division and defend the Blagoveshchenskaya Plateau; the 3rd Rosiori Regiment covered the coastline in the area of the Bugayevskiy Lake. As reserves, the division had the Pioneer Squadron and the Mechanized Squadron.

On 24 September, early in the morning, the Minescu Detachment was attacked and after an hour and a half it broke contact and fell back to the Rudiger line, where it managed to stop the Soviet battalion, which was following it. Another assault, at 1100 hours, supported by 15 tanks, was repulsed with the help of Ju-87Ds. The next day the Soviets landed about 450 men 10 km west of Blagoveshchenskaya. The 9th Cavalry Division mounted two counterattacks against the new threat to its rear. One was carried out by lt. col. Mihailescu, the CO of the 13th Calarasi Regiment, with his reserves, a tank company and a German company; the other one by maj. Ioan Davidescu, the division’s chief of staff, with 2 squadrons and one mortar platoon from the 3rd Rosiori Regiment. Both attacks were successful and the Soviet infiltrations were eliminated. During the night the division fell back behind the Kleine Goten positions and started the crossing of the straits. By 28 September all its troops had been evacuated to Crimea.

The 19th Infantry Division was the last Romanian unit to leave the bridgehead. Until 18 September it was on defensive positions on the coast. During the following night it started the move towards the Hagen line. The last elements of the division, the 994th Independent Battalion, arrived there early on 22, after it had carried out violent fights near Anapa, allowing the Honig Detachment to retreat safely. Then it managed to brake the encirclement and reach safety.

On 22 and 23 September the positions of the 19th Infantry Division were assaulted by Soviet infantry supported by tanks, of which 21 were knocked out by the AT defense. The Romanian unit suffered 88 casualties. During the night it pulled back 76 km to the Kleine Goten positions. There it covered the line running from 5 km west of Taman to Hill 89.9 Bg. Kruglaya between 26 and 2 October 1943 and it had to face the powerful Soviet assaults. During the night of 2/3 October, the 19th Infantry Division fell back to the Bucharest line, where, with the exception of the 96th Infantry Regiment and 2nd Battalion/42nd Artillery Regiment, which continued the march to the embarkation area, Zaporoyskaya and Batareyka, it held out for one day. Late on 3 October it retreated to the beach area and started to cross to straits under the Soviet aerial and land bombardment. By 1400 hours on 5 October, all elements of the 19th Infantry Division were in Crimea.

Thus ended the Caucasian “adventure” of the Romanian divisions in 1943, which costed 9,668 casualties (1,598 dead, 7,264 wounded and 806 missing) between February and October.

Author: Victor Nitu
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Dutu A., Dobre F., Loghin L. Armata Romana in al doilea razboi mondial (1941-1945) - Dictionar Enciclopedic, Editura Enciclopedica, 1999

Morozov M., The Fate of Amphibious Assault Tanks, Tankomaster no. 1/1999

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