“Festung” Crimea – 1943/44
Romanian Pak 97/38 battery in Crimea in December 1943. Notice the special winter cammouflage
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During the autumn of 1943, the situation of the Axis forces in Crimea worsened, as the Soviet Southern Front of gen. Tobulkhin had reached the Perekop Isthmus. The 17th Army, which had just evacuated the Taman bridgehead took over the defence of the peninsula. It was made up of 3 German divisions and the Romanian Cavalry Corps (6th and 9th Cavalry, 10th and 19th Infantry Divisions) and Mountain Corps (1st, 2nd and 3rd Mountain Divisions), far too few to cover the entire coastline with a continuous line and fight the large partisan formations. This is why the defence was concentrated around some resistance points (mainly ports) that the Soviets would have had to take in order to consolidate a landing. Observation posts and naval artillery batteries covered the rest of the coast.

On 24 October the Red Army restarted its offensive and, on 1 November 1943, the 4th Ukrainian Front closed the Perekop Isthmus. They made several attempts to brake through the defence, but failed. Then the Soviets established a bridgehead south of the Sivash Sea, on the line between west Urshin – north-east Tarkhan – north Kirlent – north-west Karanky. To counter this threat, the Romanian 23rd and 24th Mountain Battalions, the 2nd Battalion/4th Artillery Regiment and 37th AT Company (from the 1st Mountain Division) and 15th Mountain Battalion and 53rd Tank Company (from the 2nd Mountain Division) were brought in from the south and put under command of col. Grigore Balan, the deputy CO of the 2nd Mountain Division. Later, the 38th Infantry Regiment, 20th Artillery Regiment and 2nd Battalion/3rd Artillery Regiment (from the 10th Infantry Division) and 95th Infantry Regiment (from the 19th Infantry Division). On 10 November, maj. gen. Ion Dumitrache, the CO of the 2nd Mountain Division, took over the detachment. The Soviets mounted several assaults on the Romanian positions, the most violent being on 19 (west of Urshin) and 21 November (south of Ashkadan), but were repulsed. The tank company lost 9 of its 12 T-38s and also its commander, cpt. Ioan Cernea (who was awarded posthumously the Mihai Viteazul Order 3rd class). On 12 December 1943, the detachment was disbanded and the sector was taken over by the German 336th Infantry Division and the Romanian units returned to their divisions, as did gen. Dumitrache.

During the night of 31 October/1 November Red Army troops landed south of Kerch and quickly took over village Eltigen. The bridgehead was widened the next day to about 4.5 km and had a depth of 1.5-2 km. Eltigen was in the sector of the 98th German Infantry Division. It was reinforced with a Romanian cavalry detachment from the 6th Cavalry Division: the Maj. Horia Detachment (3 cavalry squadrons, 1 machine-gun platoon, 1 battery, one AT platoon). By 5 November the Axis forces managed to contain the Soviet bridgehead and they now had to eliminate it. The 10th Motorized Rosiori Regiment was also assigned to the German unit, for this operation. However, the assault, which was carried out on 7 November, failed.

Because the Red Army made another landing, this time north-east of Kerch, the situation was becoming critical for the 98th Division, which also had to defend that sector. The German 5th Corps decided to move the whole Division to face the new threat. The Eltigen bridgehead was going to be taken over by the Romanian 6th Cavalry Division, which was deployed there from 14 November. Initially its mission was to defend against any possible Soviet attacks, but the German command later requested that the bridgehead be eliminated.

After the return of brig. gen. Corneliu Teodorini, the cavalry division's CO, the date for the assault was set for 4 December. The division was going to be reinforced with two battalions from the 3rd Mountain Division, one German StuG battalion, 12 German artillery batteries and would also benefit from the support of the Romanian 3rd Dive Bomber Group and of StG 3 and JG 52.

The attack began at 0500 hours, after a five minute artillery barrage. Only the right wing of the Romanian forces managed to advance. On the left the Soviets put up a heavy resistance, especially near the state farm and on Hill 56.7, where they had a pillbox.

The next day, the 6th Cavalry Division continued its attack, on three directions. The main push was made from west to east, from the state farm towards the lighthouse south of Eltigen. From the positions gained the previous day, two attacks were going to be launched: one towards west, in the rear of Soviet positions, and the other from south to north, aiming to clear the southern part of the bridgehead.

The 2nd Squadron/10th Motorized Rosiori Regiment managed to take the pillboxes north of Hill 56.7. Thus gen. Teodorini ordered the all-out assault to begin. The forces were split into two groups:

  1. Col. Pasa Group: 9th Rosiori Regiment, 4th Squadron/5th Calarasi Regiment, 1st and 3rd Squadron/10th Motorized Rosiori Regiment, 14th Machine-gun Battalion and one German StuG battery. Its mission was to attack towards the lighthouse and then take the heights north of it.
  2. Lt. col. Portasescu Group: 10th Motorized Rosiori Regiment (without the 1st and 3rd Squadron), 5th and 10th Mountain Battalion, two German StuG batteries. Its mission was to take the state farm and then advance towards the lighthouse.

By nightfall (at 1530) the state farm had been taken, but the Soviet forces at the lighthouse were still holding out.

The division was reorganized into three groups for the battle on 6 December:

  1. Col. Pasa Group: 9th Rosiori Regiment, 4th Squadron/5th Calarasi Regiment and one German StuG battery. Its mission was to assault the Hill 37.4
  2. Lt. col. Portasescu Group: 10th Motorized Rosiori Regiment and one German StuG battery. Its mission was to advance occupy the lighthouse and advance towards the heights east of Hill 37.4
  3. Lt. col. Borislavski Group: 5th and 10th Mountain Battalion. Its mission was to take Eltigen, by attacking on the seaside.

The 14th Machine-gun Battalion was going to provide support for all three groups.

The vanatori de munte managed to enter Eltigen after heavy fighting. By 1400 hours the lighthouse was also taken by lt. col. Portasescu, who started to advance towards the heights north of it. During the night, a group of Soviet troops managed to penetrate through the Romanian lines (14th Machine-gun Battalion) and flee towards north.

On 7 December, at 0530 gen. Teodorini ordered the final assault. The 14th Machine-gun Battalion took Hill 37.4 along with many POWs, lt. col. Portasescu continued his advance, while col. Pasa took the heights north of Eltigen. At 0700 all objectives had been reached and the remaining Soviet forces were surrendering. At 0715, gen. Teodorini reported to the German 5th Corps: "the Eltigen bridgehead is no more".

The 6th Cavalry Division had suffered 381 casualties (68 dead and 313 wounded) and the 3rd Mountain Division (the 5th and 10th Battalions respectively) suffered 484 casualties. 2,294 POWs were taken, along with 35 artillery pieces, 21 MGs, 35 mortars, 39 LMGs. The number of enemy dead and wounded was also high.

The Soviet forces under the leadership of the CO of the 318th Rifle Divison that managed to escape from the encirclement, took refuge on the Mithridate Hill, south of Kerch. The Romanian troops commanded by brig. gen. Leonard Mociulschi (CO 3rd Mountain Division) eliminated this last stronghold on 11 December and captured 820 POWs, one AT gun, 60 MGs, 17 AT-rifles, 720 SMGs. About 1,100 Soviet soldiers were killed.

In total, 76 tanks were destroyed and the Luftwaffe and the AAA claimed 251 VVS aircraft. The Kriegsmarine was also very active in the straits and sunk 65 different small ships.

Following this victory, brig. gen. Corneliu Teodorini was awarded the Mihai Viteazul Order 2nd class and the Oak Leaves for his Knight’s Cross, while brig. gen. Leonard Mociulschi also received the Mihai Viteazul Order 2nd class the Knight’s Cross.

A important problem for the defenders of Crimea were the large partisan formations in the Yaila Mountains, which in November 1943 were estimated to be about 7-8,000 men strong. After the Red Army had reached the Perekop Isthmus, they intensified their actions, which until then had been pretty rare and involved small groups. They became so troublesome that the Romanian Mountain Corps was ordered to clear the main partisan group, 20 km east of Simferopol. The operation took place between 29 December and 4 January. Three tactical groups were created:

  1. Col. Balan Group, from the 2nd Mountain Division: the 8th, 10th and 16th Mountain Battalions, one communications detachment, one pioneer platoon, the 2nd Mounted Vanatori Squadron, 3 artillery batteries, four 120mm mortars, one AT battery, one police platoon and from the 3rd Mountain Division: one mountain battalion and one artillery battery.
  2. Col Mavrichi Group, from the 1st Mountain Division: 2nd Mountain Battalion, two 120mm mortars, one pioneer platoon, from the 2nd Mountain Division: one communications detachment and one German battalion and four motorized 20mm guns.
  3. Lt. col. Borislavschi Group, from the 3rd Mountain Division: two mountain battalions, one artillery battalion, one pioneer platoon and one communications detachment.

The Balan and Mavrichi Groups were subordinated to maj. gen. Dumitrache (CO of the 2nd Mountain Division). The plan drawn up by the Mountain Corps staff called for the encirclement of the partisan units and then for the gradual destruction of the trapped enemy troops. The fighting started on 29 December, at 0500 hours, the vanatori de munte encountering a stubborn resistance at Hill 1004 (east of Angara), Hill 1279, Hill 909 and Hill 884. On 1 January 1944, the col. Mavrichi and the lt. col. Borislavschi Groups formed the 2nd Group, under the command of brig. gen. Leonard Mociulschi, while the col. Balan Group became the 1st Group and remained under maj. gen. Dumitrache. During 2 and 3 January, the Romanians continued the attacks, causing a lot of casualties to the partisans. It all ended the following day. During the week long battle 1,147 partisans had been killed or wounded and 2,559 had been captured. 29 camps were destroyed. The own losses numbered 232 (43 dead and 189 wounded).

But several secondary partisan groups still remained. Other operations against them were carried out later that month. The 1st Mountain Division cleared the area between the Alma and Kacha valleys during 16-18 January. Three Romanian strengthened battalions and one German battalion managed to encircle another formation. The result was 13 killed and 479 captured. The 1st Division lost 12 men (2 dead, 10 wounded). In the same period, the 2nd Mountain Division tried to eliminate the partisans in the mountains southeast of Karassubasar with 2 battalions and 2 companies, but failed to engage them decisively. In parallel it swept the forests between the Saly – Sudak and Karassubasar – Uskut roads. The operation was partially successful, 49 partisans being killed and 27 taken prisoners. 6 vanatori de munte died and 40 were wounded. On 29 and 30 January, another action took place in the hills south of Suya. 24 partisans were killed, 4 wounded and 55 captured. 11 camps were destroyed, but at the cost of 30 casualties (11 dead and 19 wounded).

Between 7 and 9 February, the 1st Mountain Division had to take out the Soviet partisans in the Sably and Martha Valley region, with a perimeter of 65 km. The forces allocated to this operation, were however insufficient: 2 companies from the 2nd Mountain Battalion, the 1st Mounted Vanatori Squadron, the Work Company, 2nd Company/1st Mountain Battalion, 2 platoons from the 37th Police Company, one battery from the 2nd Mountain Artillery Battalion and the 2nd Battery/2nd Artillery Regiment and several German battalions. They advanced on several directions, but could not cover the entire ground. The operation was a failure. The Romanians lost 38 men (4 dead and 34 wounded) and the Germans lost 130 (85 dead, 26 wounded and 19 missing). About 180 shelters were destroyed, but the partisans got away. The 1st Mounted Vanatori Squadron surprised a small group, killed 6 and captured 2. The detachment was strengthened with a company from the 15th Mountain Battalion and continued the search in the Martha Valley and near Kukurekovka. By 11 February, the operation ended with the destruction of four camps, but the enemy escaped again. Two vanatori de munte were killed and 9 wounded, the majority from the 2nd Mountain Battalion.

The 2nd Mountain Division carried out an anti-partisan action south of Stariy Krym on 21 February. It created five detachments:

  1. Lt. col. Popescu Detachment: 2 companies from the 9th Moutain Battalion, two platoons from the 1st Company/16th Mountain Battalion and several 81.4mm mortars.
  2. Lt. col. Nicolicescu Detachment: the 10th Mountain Battalion, without three 120mm mortars.
  3. Lt. col. Stefan Tanase Detachment: the 15th Mountain Battalion.
  4. Lt. Magda Detachment: three recon platoons.
  5. Maj. Anton Ionescu Detachment: the 58th Recon Group.

The operation resulted in the destruction of 12 shelters and the killing of 11 partisans.

Author: Victor Nitu
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