During the spring of 1944, the Red Army was getting ready to eliminate the German 17th Army that was entrenched in the Crimea. For this task, Stavka had prepared the 4th Ukrainian Front of col. gen. F. I. Tolbulkhin, in the Perekop Isthmus and the Separate Coastal Army in the Kerch Peninsula. There were in total 462,400 soldiers, 5.982 artillery pieces, 559 tanks and self-propelled guns and 1,250 aircraft. These forces were supplemented by the partisan detachments still active inside Crimea.
On the northern front the main strike was supposed to be executed by the 51st Army of lt. gen. I. G. Krieser and the 19th Tank Corps of lt. gen. I.D. Vasiliev. These had to attack from the bridgehead south of the Sivash Sea towards the rear of the Axis troops defending the Perekop Isthmus. The 2nd Guards Army, commanded by lt. gen. G. F. Zakharov, was supposed to attack on the front in the isthmus and pin down the forces opposing it. In the Kerch Peninsula, the Separate Coastal Army had to advance westwards and join up with the 4th Ukrainian Front in the Simferopol area. The Soviets had superiority all perspectives: 2.4:1 in soldiers, 6:1 in artillery pieces, 2.6:1 in tanks and 8:1 in aircraft.
On the other side, the 17th Army of col. gen. Erwin Jänecke had 230,000 men, some 1,000 artillery pieces and 200 tanks and self-propelled guns, but which were not grouped in a big unit. Northern Crimea was defended by the German 49th Mountain Corps, commanded by gen. Rudolf Konrad, made up of two infantry divisions. The German 50th Infantry Division blocked the access through Perekop and the German 336 Division was positioned south of the Sivash Sea. To the east, the front was manned by the Romanian Cavalry Corps, subordinated to the 49th Corps, with the 10th and 19th Infantry Divisions at Karanki, Chiongar and Arabat. The corps' reserve consisted of a part of the German 111th Infantry Division. At Kerch was the German 5th Corps, commanded by gen. Karl Allmendinger, which was made up of the German 73rd and 98th Infantry Divisions and the Romanian 3rd Mountain and 6th Cavalry Divisions. On the southern coast of Crimea was the Romanian Mountain Corps, commanded by maj. gen. Hugo Schwab, which consisted of the 1st and 2nd Mountain Divisions. The 9th Cavalry Division was defending a 260 km sector along the western coast of the peninsula, going from south of Evpatoryia to Kisil-Bay.
The fighting started in the evening of 7 April, when Soviet troops attacked the 33rd Infantry Regiment, which was situated north of Karanky, and pierced its positions in the center. Several counterattacks carried out during the night managed to reestablish the situation. The main assault began on 8 April. South of the Sivash Sea, the German 336th Infantry ands Romanian 10th Infantry Divisions were attacked in force by infantry supported by tanks. Thus, only in the sector of the Romanian division were identified two Soviet rifle divisions near Karanky and a rifle division and a tank brigade near Chyucheak. Soviet mechanized troops infiltrated behind the positions of the 33rd Infantry Regiment, but were stopped 1 km south of Karanky by a battalion of the German 111th Division. The 23rd Infantry Regiment, on the other hand, managed to repulse a frontal assault and an enemy landing attempt. To support the 10th Infantry Division, maj. gen. Constantin Trestioreanu, who was commanding the Cavalry Corps in the absence of lt. gen. Gheorghe Cialîk, brought in the area two battalions from the 19th Infantry Division. In the Perekop Isthmus, the German 50th Division had lost Armeansk. On the entire front, 25 VVS aircraft were claimed as shot down. Following these events, the 17th Army decided to bring the 111th Division from Feodosyia in the Sivash Sea sector, but it did not have to organize and it was used in fragments. The following day, at 0900 hours, a powerful artillery preparation started on the entire northern front and afterwards the Soviet infantry stacked supported by over 100 tanks. In the morning, the 10th Infantry Division managed to hold its positions and the AT artillery knocked out 17 tanks. During the second assault, in the afternoon, the 33rd Infantry Regiment was practically destroyed in the Karanky area and the division had to pull back. Beside it, however, the German 336th and Romanian 19th Infantry Divisions managed to hold their ground. In the Perekop Isthmus, the front of the 50th Infantry Division was broken south of Armeansk and the unit's remains started to retreat southwards.
On 10 April, the command of the 17th Army reached the conclusion that it didn’t have the necessary forces to hold the northern front and gave the general retreat order. All forces were to head towards Sevastopol. The first phase of the evacuation was also going to begin. At 10:00, when the 49th Mountain Corps received the order, the 50th, 336th and 10th Infantry Divisions weren't capable of putting up much resistance to the enemy. Soviet mechanized detachments were already ahead of them in several places and managed to occupy Baydari, Djedra Kyat, Chyrik and to head towards Djudink si Djankoi with a force of approximately 130 tanks. Thus the retreat of the Romanian 19th Infantry Division became very difficult. The unit repulsed several enemy attacks and started to move only under the cover of darkness. To stop the encirclement of the German and Romanian forces south of the Sivash Sea, col. gen. Erwin Jänecke deployed a detachment of 32 StuGs in the threatened area. The German 5th Corps also started to pull back from Kerch and the Romanian Mountain Corps received the mission to secure the defense of Sevastopol with a part of its forces and to defend the southern coast against possible landings. The length of the front in the care of lt. gen. Hugo Schwab was 280 km, more than his two divisions, already engaged with partisans in the Yaila Mountains, could handle. Because of this, the 6th Cavalry Division, lacking the 10th Motorized Rosiori Regiment, and the "Krieger" Group, which contained the 6th Mountain Group of the Romanian 3rd Mountain Division, were also subordinated to his command.
In following morning, the German and Romanian infantry, lacking AT weapons, was crushed by two Soviet tank brigades southwest of Kirk and until 1000 hours their spearheads reached Djankoi before the 19th Infantry Division did. It had to cross the marshes east of the city and pierce the Soviet defense on the Djankoi – Barin Nemetky line. Until 12 April, at 0800 hours, the division arrived on the Bertha Line, after moving over a distance of 120 km in two days and nights. It then received the order to fall back to the Gneisenau Line. At 1230 hours, elements of the 19th Infantry Division reached the Buyuk Inlar – Kostely line, which was occupied by Soviet tanks and motorized infantry. After a violent struggle it managed to open a way southward. The command of the 10th Infantry Division was already on the Gneisenau Line, near the Kitay station, and had at its disposal the 10th Motorized Rosiori Regiment, two batteries of 88mm Krupp AA guns, a German StuG battery, a battery of 105 mm Schneider model 1936 guns, a battery of 150 mm Skoda model 1934 howitzers, three batteries of 75 mm AT guns and a section of 172 mm guns. The division's left wing was secured by the German 46th Pioneer Battalion. At 1400 hours, the commands of the Cavalry Corps and of the 10th Infantry Division received the order to head to Sevastopol.
The Mountain Corps started its move to Sevastopol after the units of the 5th Corps began to pass on the coastal road. The 1st Mountain Division sent the 23rd Mountain Battalion, strengthened with AT guns and a battery of the 4th Artillery Regiment in the Perival Pass, to block the access of Soviet troops from Simferopol to Alushta. The 2nd Mountain Division dispatched the 4th Mountain Guns Battalion to the Gneisenau Line, but it was attacked between Suya and Star Buratsky by 10 Soviet tanks and returned south. It was encircled during the night and captured. The 3rd Mountain Division, located east of the other two, began a forced march towards Sevastopol.
Simferopol fell on 13 April. The German 5th Corps had only one possibility of retreat: the coastal road Feodosyia – Alushta – Yalta – Sevastopol, while the passes in the Yaila Mountains were defended by Romanian detachments at Perival and Enisala. The Mountain Corps dispatched the 7th Mountain Battalion from the 2nd Division to Alushta to defend the rear of the 23rd Battalion in the Perival Pass and to secure the road for the troops of the 5th Corps. Another 7 mountain battalions (3 from the 1st Division, 3 from the 2nd Division and one from the 3rd Division) manned the defensive perimeter at Sevastopol. Maj. gen. Constantin Trestioreanu and the command of the Cavalry Corps reached Sevastopol. The 10th and 19th Divisions were still struggling to safely reach their destination. The 96th Infantry Regiment from the 19th Division was intercepted by Soviet forces at Novo Kerlut. The 1st Battalion was encircled and destroyed after heavy fighting, while the rest of the regiment and the 994th Independent Battalion continued their journey to Sevastopol. The 6th Cavalry Division was on the coastal road in the Sudak area and the 9th Cavalry Division was west of Starii Karagut. The German 50th, 111th and 336th Divisions were encircled on the Gneisenau Line, but managed to open their way to Sevastopol during nighttime and reached the fortress the following day.
A tragic episode took place at Alushta on 14-15 April 1944. The Alushta Detachment, made up of the 23rd (CO lt. col. Aurel Vulcanescu) and 7th (CO lt. col. Vasile Teofanescu) Mountain Battalions, strengthened with a 75 mm field artillery battery from the 4th Artillery Regiment and one from the 1st Artillery Regiment, received the mission to cover the retreat of the German 5th Corps on the coastal road. The 23rd Battalion was already stationed at Perival and the 7th Battalion occupied Sumy, 8 km from Alushta, in order to defend the northern approaches of the city. One of its companies was blocking the Asport – Alushta road. The detachment was commanded by col. Ionescu.
During the night of 14/15 April, at 0230 hours, Soviet troops attacked the 23rd Battalion at Perival. After several assaults, at 0800 hours, the center of the battalion gave in and it had to retreat 2 km to the south, where it formed a new defense line. At 0945 hours, because they were in danger of being encircled, the vanatori de munte pulled back to Sumy, where the 7th Battalion was located. At noon, after the last German columns had passed through Alushta, the resistance of the Romanian troops had lost its purpose and they started to retreat. The German 5th Corps' motorized rearguard, which had to cover Alushta from the east, retreated at 1130 hours. Thus, at 1400 hours, the first Soviet troops entered the city. Col. Hartung, the commander of 5th Corps' pioneers, also left with the 6 MFPs, which had the mission to transport the Romanian vanatori de munte by sea to Balaklava. Abandoned, they headed west and at 1530 hours were at approximately 8 km from Alushta. They never reached Sevastopol. On the Romanian side, col. Pandelescu, the commander of the 5th Mountain Group, was under investigation for his failure to take the necessary measures to lead the battalions in Alushta on time so that they could be evacuated. Out of the detachment, only cpt. Lazar Oprisor and two soldiers, from the 7th Mountain Battalion, managed to reach Sevastopol on 20 April, infiltrating through the lines. Cpt. Oprisor was one of the battalion's best officers. He had been awarded the Mihai Viteazul Order 3rd class since 1941, when he was commanding the heavy weapons company.
The loss of the two battalions, after they had been uselessly sacrificed by the German 5th Corps, led to the overheating of the Romanian – German relations in Crimea. Also the fact that the Romanian troops didn't have the same priority at evacuation as Germans "helped". The CO of the Romanian Mountain Corps, lt. gen. Hugo Schwab, fought hard so that the truth be told about what happened at Alushta, especially under the circumstances in which the command of the 17th Army was trying to pin the responsibility of the defeat on the Romanians.
During the Soviet offensive and the subsequent retreat to Sevastopol, the 17th Army lost 12,221 Germans and 17,652 Romanians until 16 April 1944. In total 73,058 people reached safety in Romania during the first phase of the evacuation: 28,394 Germans, 20,779 Romanians, 723 Slovaks, 15,055 Russian volunteers, 2,559 POWs and 3,748 civilians. The command of the Cavalry Corps and parts of its units were sent back to Romania. The Mountain Corps took over responsibility for the Romanian troops remaining at Sevastopol.
On 15 April, when the first Soviet spearheads reached the outskirts of Sevastopol, the defense of the fortress was mainly secured by Romanian troops: the 2nd Mountain Division was situated on the left wing, the 1st Mountain Division was in the center (both were subordinated to the German 49th Corps) and the 3rd Mountain Division was on the right wing (subordinated to the German 5th Corps). The 2nd Mountain Division was attacked twice by two Soviet rifle divisions supported by tanks, at 1100 hours and at 1430 hours. Both assaults were repulsed and 12 tanks were knocked out. In the sector of the 1st Mountain Division there were also two assaults at 1230 and 170 hours, but unsuccessful and 11 tanks were destroyed. During the night, the German 50th Infantry Division overlapped the positions of the 2nd Mountain Division and the 336th Division overlapped the 1st Mountain Division. On 16 April, the 2nd Mountain Division repulsed four attacks and the 1st Division repulsed two.
The Soviet assaults continued between 17 and 26 April. The 2nd Mountain Division, with the 58th Recon Group instead of the 7th Mountain Battalion lost at Alushta, repulsed no less than 24 attacks in this time span and the 1st Mountain Division defeated 10. Maj. gen. Leonard Mociulschi, the CO of the 3rd Mountain Division, was temporarily in command of the German 5th Corps while gen. Allmendinger was away between 20-24 April. The actions of the vanatori de munte in those days attracted praises from the German commanders. Cpt. Dumitru Beu, the CO of the 2nd Mounted Vanatori Squadron, led his unit in an attack against Soviet troops that were threatening the left wing of the 16th Battalion during the night of 25/26 April and eliminated the danger. On 27 April, the 16th Battalion distinguished itself by repelling two enemy assaults on Bunker Berg. It received thanks from the German 121st Infantry Regiment. The commanders of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Mountain Battalions were awarded the Iron Cross and examples could go on.
On 27 April 1944, the German 17th Army was reorganized. The 5th Corps was made up of the German 73rd, 98th and 111th Infantry Divisions and the Romanian 3rd Mountain Division, which had under its command the remaining elements of the 19th Infantry Division ("Lt. col. Petrisor" Detachment). The 49th Mountain Corps had the German 50th and 336th Infantry Divisions and the Romanian 1st and 2nd Mountain Divisions. The latter had under its command the elements of the 10th Infantry Division that had not been evacuated ("Col. Ardeleanu" Detachment – some 2,100 men). The commander of the Sevastopol Fortress had at his disposal a regiment formed with one battalion from the 6th and one from the 9th Cavalry Divisions ("Lt. col. Bracacescu" Detachment) and the German 755th Bicycle Battalion. The Romanian Mountain Corps had only disciplinary and organizational tasks.
On 3 May the number of German and Romanian troops still in Crimea was 64,700. Two days later, the 4th Ukrainian Front began the general assault. The 336th Infantry and 2nd Mountain Divisions, which defended Hill 104 that barred the access into the Belbek Valley, repulsed the Soviet attacks. In the sector of the 8th Mountain Battalion and of a German battalion, the enemy managed to brake through and advance northeast of Hill104. Later the line of the German 1st Battalion/686th Regiment was broken in the Bunker Berg area. The 16th Mountain Battalion distinguished itself again, counterattacking together with the 2nd Mounted Vanatori Squadron and the Recon Company of the 8th Battalion and driving back the Soviet infantry from the Bunker Berg sector. Also, the 9th and 10th Mountain Battalions repulsed all Soviet attacks in their area. On 6 May, enemy troops managed to penetrate the center of the 1st Mountain Division, but the counterattack carried out by the reserves managed to save the day. The 3rd Mountain Division had only the 22nd Battalion in the first line on 5 May. Two days later it occupied an intermediary position at Nikolaevka with the 5th, 12th and 21st Battalions.
After loosing the Sapun Heights, during the night of 7/8 May, the Axis troops started to retreat towards the positions at Kherson, from where they hoped to be evacuated by sea. Thus, in the morning of 8 May, the 1st Mountain Division occupied the bridgehead with the 2nd Mountain Group (1st, 3rd and 4th Battalions), the 120 mm Mortar Company and an AT platoon equipped with 50 mm Pak 38 guns. It also took over the 5th Mountain Group (9th and 10th Battalions) from the 2nd Mountain Division, which was in rest preparing for evacuation, and the 2nd Battalion of the "Lt. col. Bracacescu" Detachment, which were located in Sevastopol. The 2nd and 24th Mountain Battalions were subordinated to the 73rd and 98th German Divisions. These suffered heavy losses the next day following the braking of the 5th Corps' front and subsequent retreat. The 3rd Mountain Division was attacked in its positions at Nikolaevka on 9 May by Soviet infantry and tanks. After repeated assaults it was forced to also pull back towards the bridgehead at Kherson. Thus, during the night, the remains of the German divisions overlapped the Romanian vanatori de munte already in position. About 200-300 German soldiers, carrying only light armament, were distributed to each mountain battalion. The general command was assumed by the CO of the German 49th Corps, because the fresh CO of the 17th Army, general Karl Allmendinger, had already been.
On 10 May, the bridgehead were incessantly bombarded by Soviet artillery and by VVS aircraft. There was an attack in the sector of the 1st, 3rd and 9th Mountain Battalions, which resisted stubbornly and managed to separate the infantry from the tanks and destroy those that had entered their positions. The same day were evacuated the commands of the Romanian Mountain Corps and of the 3rd Mountain Division. On 11 May, the 1st, 3rd and 9th Battalions repulsed a new Soviet attack, destroying 6 tanks. At 1700 hours the troops in the Kherson positions had to break contact and at 2300 hours they had to be loaded onto the ships. Unfortunately, the majority of the troops couldn't be evacuated, because the ships weren't able to approach the beaches because of the powerful Soviet artillery fire. Only the command of the1st Mountain Division and of the 5th Mountain Group escaped. The following remained to fight until the end:
- 2nd Mountain Group (col. Ilie Vasilescu)
- 1st Mountain Battalion (lt. col. Petre Marinov)
- 3rd Mountain Battalion (lt. col. Opris)
- 4th Mountain Battalion (lt. col. Ioan Popa)
- 137th Motorized AT Battery
- 120 mm Mortar Company
- AT Platoon
- 9th Mountain Battalion (maj. Oreste Popescu)
- 10th Mountain Battalion (maj. Stelian Busuiocescu)
In total 92 officers, 103 NCOs and 2,561 soldiers of the 1st and 2nd Mountain Divisions remained at Kherson. The resistance ceased on 12 May at 0800 hours. 15,078 Romanians, 28,992 Germans, 346 Russian volunteers, 52 POWs and 3,367 civilians were evacuated. During transport about 11,000 died, of which 4,000 were Romanians.
In total, some 150.000 men of the 17th Army arrived at Constanta transported by sea or by air. The Romanian losses were 23,397 of approximately 62,000 – 65,000 soldiers in Crimea in April. These were some of the most experienced and well-equipped divisions of the Romanian and the losses in men and material were felt three months later during the Soviet offensive in Moldavia. The Germans lost 31,700 men and the fate of about 20,000, mostly local volunteers, is unknown. On the other side, the Soviet losses were 17,754 dead and missing, 67,065 wounded, 171 tanks, 521 artillery pieces and 179 aircraft. Obviously, this disaster could have been avoided if Hitler would have agreed to the evacuation of the 17th Army at the end of 1943 or at least in February 1944, after the loss of Nikopol. The proportions of the defeat were limited by the actions of the Kriegsmarine and of the Romanian Royal Navy, but about this subject, more in the next chapter.