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"The Siege of Sevastopol" from Tactical and Technical Trends

The following U.S. intelligence report on the German siege of Sevastopol in 1942 was originally published in Tactical and Technical Trends, No. 5, August 13, 1942.

[DISCLAIMER: The following text is taken from the U.S. War Department publication Tactical and Technical Trends. As with all wartime intelligence information, data may be incomplete or inaccurate. No attempt has been made to update or correct the text. Any views or opinions expressed do not necessarily represent those of the website.]

(German Accounts of the Operations Against Sevastopol,
June 7 - July 4, 1942)

Eyewitness accounts appearing in the German press of the operations against Sevastopol between June 7 and July 4, 1942, permit the Military Intelligence Service to reconstruct this siege operation in a detail not possible for any other operation of the Russian-German War. German press accounts term the fortress of Sevastopol the "strongest single fortress of the world" and unanimously declare neither the Maginot Line nor their own "West Wall" compared in strength with this mightiest of Russian fortresses.

The fortress of Sevastopol was initially constructed in the two decades between the years 1806 and 1825. These ancient forts showed great strength in the Crimean War, 1854 - 1856, when they held up an allied army composed of British, French, Italians, and Turks for a period of nine months. Since 1939, the Soviets devoted special attention to the modernization and enlargement of this fortress, recognizing that, with the coming of airpower, the retention of the Crimea was all-important for control of the Black Sea. An examination of the map discloses that the island-like Crimean Peninsula lies in the middle of the Black Sea, and that an air force based on Crimean air fields can control the maritime trade routes across the Black Sea in any and all directions.

In November, 1941, the Eleventh Germany Army under General of Infantry, von Manstein, after hard fighting forced the Russian fortified lines across the Perekop Isthmus at the north end of the Crimean Peninsula. Following this penetration, von Manstein's troops advanced rapidly to the south and captured the city of Simferopol, the capitol of the autonomous republic of the Crimea. The bulk of the Russian armies defending the Crimea, then withdrew to the eastward into the Kerch Peninsula, and eventually were forced to withdraw completely out of the peninsula when the Germans captured the city of Kerch. While these operations were in progress, a group of Russian divisions, cut off from Kerch, withdrew within the Sevastopol defense lines. While von Manstein's operations against Kerch were in progress, Sevastopol was contained by a small German force.

Early in December, the bulk of von Manstein's army returned westward from Kerch and began offensive operations against the fortress. This initial attack had, at first, some success, and one of the outer forts, "Balaklava" was captured, but German offensive operations had to be completely halted, when a larger Russian counter-offensive began from the mainland. Taking advantage of their maritime control of the Black Sea, powerful Russian forces were landed simultaneously in several places on the Crimean Peninsula. The city of Kerch was recaptured, as well as the towns of Eupatoria and Feodosia to the north and east of Sevastopol respectively. The entire German position in the Crimea, for a time, appeared to be threatened. All reserves had to be thrown toward Feodosia and Eupatoria. In consequence, the German forces attacking Sevastopol retired to their blockading lines some miles in front of the outer Russian fortified lines.

From December until June, hostilities in the Sevastopol region were of a minor nature. Occasionally, local counter-attacks were launched by the Russians, but these attained no great success. The Germans, on their part, found themselves confronted with a serious guerrilla war in their rear areas, where Russian guerrilla bands roaming the Jaila Mountains attacked German supply columns, troop headquarters, and base depots. In January, 1942, the German position gradually improved, as a result of this recapture of Feodosia and Eupatoria, and the suppression and extermination of the Russian guerrilla bands

In May, 1942, the main body of the army of General von Manstein resumed offensive operations with a carefully planned and well-executed attack against the three Russian armies which had reoccupied (in December, 1941) the Kerch Peninsula. The German press unanimously declares that this local offensive was one of the best prepared and well-executed attacks of the entire war, and that complete success was achieved; three Russian armies being completely destroyed and 165,000 prisoners captured. This victory, it is declared, ended for all time the Russian threat to relieve Sevastopol. Preparations for the storming of Sevastopol were at once begun by von Manstein's army, and the opening of the attack was scheduled for the first week in June. At least eight German infantry divisions, three Roumanian divisions, and one German armored division were assembled in the western Crimea for this operation.

The strength of the air force units which were assembled in the Crimea to support the ground army is not entirely clear; but it would appear, from German accounts, that its strength could not have been less than 1500 planes. These air forces were organized as the VIII "Close Support" Air Corps, and were under the command of General of Aviators, von Richthofen. A small naval force, comprising German, Italian, and Roumanian units, the largest of which were destroyers, operated as a unified fleet under the command of the Roumanian Vice-Admiral Georgescu.

As in the Cretian operation, of the year 1940, all branches of the German armed forces served as a unified command -- a task force, under the command of General von Manstein.

The terrain within and around the fortress lines of Sevastopol presents great difficulties to an attacking army. Sharp hills and deep ravines alternate across the landscape. Vegetation is scarce. The Russians had utilized the months of the winter 1941-1942 to greatly strengthen the existing fortifications. Several deep and broad tank trenches had been constructed, barring the way to the German tanks. About 137,000 tank mines were also laid within the fortified zone. German reports state that, by May 1940, Sevastopol was defended by modern forts and 3,597 pillboxes and other lesser defense installations of a permanent character.

The principal weakness of the fortress lay in the fact that it was cut into two parts of equal size by the Sevastopol Harbor, a deep and broad fjord-like channel of the Black Sea, which ran for some six miles inland. Sevastopol city lay on the south shore of this bay. Only a narrow strip of land connected the two portions of the fortress.

During the month of May, the German High Command assembled an immense amount of special material and equipment to assist their troops in overcoming the fortress' works which confronted them.

The tactical plan of campaign envisaged a deep and rapid penetration by the German ground forces of the northern half of the fortress down to the northern shoreline of Sevastopol Harbor. While this main attack was in progress, German and Roumanian elements confronting the southern and eastern fortress were expected to advance from the east and capture the Sapon Hill, an elevation which dominated the terrain between Sevastopol and Balaklava. A very important role was given the German Air Force. The Russian air units stationed in Sevastopol were perforce few in number and restricted to operation from a very few air fields. The Caucasus was too far away to permit the Russian air units stationed in that region to intervene in the fighting at Sevastopol. The neutralization of the minor Russian air units stationed at Sevastopol therefore, appeared to the German High Command a relatively simple matter. The bulk of the Air Force was, therefore, to be used to support and cover the attacking German ground forces. In particular, the Air Force was given the mission of neutralizing or destroying the permanent fortified works in the area of the fortress lying to the north of Sevastopol Harbor.

[The Siege of Sevastopol, 1941-1942]

It is known that as far back as 1936, the German Air Force was developing special bombs and fuses for use against permanent fortifications. There is evidence in the German accounts of the Sevastopol operations to suggest that these special bombs and fuses were used extensively. It is also of great interest that the Germans speak of their Air Force in these operations as a "rolling barrage controlled by radio".

General von Manstein planned to use his tank forces only sparingly in the coming attack. The terrain was highly unfavorable for tank operations, and the pillboxes, antitank mine fields, and forts indicated that pioneers and infantry would prove more effective than tanks. It is German doctrine, moreover, not to employ tanks in attacks against lines of permanent fortifications.

The artillery preparation for the storm began early on June 2d and lasted until 3 o'clock on the morning of June 7th, when infantry and pioneers moved forward in the northern sector against the Russian outpost line located on the south bank of the Belbek. German accounts state that the amount of artillery employed and the intensity of fire delivered rivaled that used in any battle on the west front in the First World War. While the bulk of the fire, both from artillery and airplanes, was placed on the front lines and the Russian forts on the high ground south of the Belbek stream, the long range artillery and heavy bombing squadrons concentrated on the city of Sevastopol itself; in particular, the navy yard and the commercial docks.

Despite the intense artillery preparation, the German infantry and pioneers, as they moved forward, could do little more than overrun the Russian outpost line. By June 8th, it had become clear that further artillery and air preparations were necessary before the forts themselves could be stormed. In particular, Fort Maxim Gorki in the extreme northwestern end of the Russian defense line, succeeded in repulsing all the infantry and pioneer attacks which were made against it. Maxim Gorki is declared by the Germans to have been stronger than any individual fort in either the Maginot Line or their own "West Wall". Its armament consisted of two armored turrets of battleship construction, each containing two 30-centimeter (11 inch) guns. Underground, there were four levels which were provided with all necessary conveniences for the garrison as well as heavily armored ammunition chambers.

While the German infantry and pioneers were advancing slowly against the line of forts south of the Belbek, other German and Roumanian units attacked the southern half of the fortress. This southern attack began on June 11th. Initially, these attacks were on merely a local scale and aimed at advancing the line in the decisive direction of Sapon Hill. So determined and skillful was the Russian resistance that this southern advance also could make only gradual progress. Great difficulties were encountered by the Germans in particular in capturing the Russian cave pillboxes built into the sides of hills and ravines.

It became clear to the Russians, as the attack developed, that the greatest threat to the fortress came from the north. In consequence, the bulk of the Russian troops were bit by bit transported across Sevastopol Harbor and thrown into the battle raging for the line of forts on the heights to the south of the Belbek.

The decision in this crucial battle came on June 18th, when German infantry and pioneers, after a very heavy artillery and air concentration, succeeded in capturing Fort Maxim Gorki. Previously, Forts Stalin and Siberia had been captured. German accounts give the credit for the fall of Maxim Gorki in equal measure to the ground forces and to the air. In particular, however, a dive-bomber pilot is declared to have sealed the fort's doom when he scored a direct hit on the southern turret of the fortress, putting it out of commission and enabling pioneers and infantry to force their way into the interior of the fortress. Here underground the struggle continued for four days until the last resistance of the garrison was extinguished.

It is thought desirable, at this time, to review the special German technique for reducing fortresses. The special weapons and the tactical methods for this mission were developed between the years 1935-1939. All infantry and pioneer (engineer) units of the German army devoted a portion of their training schedule to rehearsing attacks on modern fortifications. The time and energy spent by the Germans on this special form of warfare was believed by them to be essential inasmuch as it was their intention, sooner or later, to breach the French Maginot Line and other permanently fortified lines by a frontal assault.

The reduction of Sevastopol constitutes the crowning achievement of this "assault technique". Assault technique is a team proposition. The team consisting of infantry, antiaircraft artillery, dive-bombers, and other elements operates to the end of placing its engineer component into position where the engineers can apply their explosives directly to the enemy works. The use of engineers, and engineer materials and weapons, in this strictly combat capacity is the distinguishing characteristic of German assault technique.

As has been indicated, the forts of Sevastopol were protected on all sides by dense systems of obstacles: wire, ditches, mines, and others. These obstacles were deranged and to some extent destroyed by the violent bombardments, both from the air and from artillery, which preceded the actual assaults. It was then the mission of the engineers to move forward ahead of the infantry and complete the clearing of paths through the obstacle belts. The detection and removal or neutralizing of mines must have been the most difficult part of the job. For this operation, the German engineers probably depended chiefly on distributed charges of explosives ("Bangalore torpedoes"), which, pushed ahead and detonated, "induced" in turn the detonation of nearby mines. The entire operation demonstrated once again that under present conditions in Europe, a principle function of combat engineers is the removal of obstacles, in the face of enemy resistance.

The fall of Fort Maxim Gorki opened for the Germans a path to Sevastopol Harbor. Advanced elements of the assaulting infantry reached the shoreline on June 20th. By June 21st, the last of the main northern forts (Fort Lenin) was captured. The entire city of Sevastopol and the naval base of the Russian "Black Sea Fleet" now lay under the fire of German guns. To all intents and purposes, the fortress was doomed. Nevertheless, the Russian resistance gave no indication of diminishing. Even though the struggle was hopeless, the Russian commanders and soldiers never thought of surrendering.

The German forces attacking the southern half of the fortress now began to redouble their efforts. Attack after attack was launched toward the village of Inkerman. Gradually, bit by bit, ground was gained in the direction of the city, and on June 28th, advance infantry elements succeeded in crossing Chernaya Creek and securing lodgment on the line of hills immediately east of the city of Sevastopol. Flanking fire from German artillery stationed north of Sevastopol Harbor assisted this infantry advance. Nevertheless, the Russians successfully maintained themselves on the ridge of hills west of the Chernaya for several days. It appears that General von Manstein became convinced that still further measures were necessary to end Russian resistance.

On the night of June 28-29, the German High Command launched its decisive blow -- an amphibious operation under cover of night and a dense artificial smoke screen across Sevastopol Harbor. This attack was made in conjunction with renewed infantry assaults from the east. This two-pronged assault succeeded in placing in German hands the whole of the important ridge lying west of the Chernaya. In effect, the fortress had now fallen.

The Germans gave much of the credit for the success of this attack to their skillful employment of their power-driven motor launches ("stormboats") which transported the assaulting infantry and pioneers to the south bank of Sevastopol Harbor. This boat, with its 50-horsepower motor, its 12-man capacity, its 30-mile speed, was developed in great secrecy by the Germans during the late peace years, and has been one of the real revelations of this war. The boat was first employed in the crossing of the Vistula by the Fourth Army at Culm in September of 1939. In June of 1940, at the crossing of the Rhine near Breisach, the Germans used the stormboat in great numbers, and showed that, through such use, they had altered profoundly the tactics of the forced crossing of wide rivers. The speed with which assault waves were landed on the hostile bank was unprecedented.

The use of the stormboat in the crossing of Sevastopol Harbor at the storming of Sevastopol appears to have followed the form of the Rhine crossing. That is, the boats were organized in "stormboat companies". The crews remained with the boats, and continued to ferry loads back and forth across the bay until conventional type ferries could be put in operation.

An important supplement to the use of the stormboat at Sevastopol Harbor was the laying of a dense smoke screen to conceal the operation. Since stormboats betray their general position by the noise they make, smoke to screen them becomes especially important. It is possible that the heavy smoke screen at Sevastopol Harbor was partly, at least, a result of the considerable losses suffered by stormboat crews in the Rhine crossing near Breisach.

Conventionally, the crossing of an initial assault wave is accomplished in utmost silence, the assault boats moving normally in twilight, with muffled oars. It will be observed that in the stormboat, silence is sacrificed for terrific speed.

On July 1st, the German troops, advancing on Sevastopol from the east, captured Fort Malakhoff on a dominating height just to the southeast of the city. In 1855 it had been the fall of this fort which ended the earlier siege. Again in 1942, the fall of Fort Malakhoff ended the city's resistance. Sevastopol was occupied on July 2d.

Russian resistance still did not end, however, with the fall of the city. According to German accounts, some 70,000 Russian troops withdrew to the Khersonese Peninsula to the southeast of the city, hoping to find there the ships on which they could withdraw to the Caucasus. No transportation arrived, however, and on July 4th, the last Russian resistance ceased. Vice-Admiral Oktjabrskij, Commander of the Russian combined forces (land, sea and air) and Major General Petrov, Commander of the garrison, succeeded, however, in escaping.

The German High Command, in its review of the fighting at Sevastopol, states that 97,000 prisoners were captured between June 7th and July 4th. They state that the loss of their own troops was as follows:

Killed:    190 officers,     4,147 men
Missing: 11 officers, 1,580 men
Wounded:671 officers,17,512 men

The Roumanian High Command states that approximately 2,500 officers and soldiers were also killed, wounded, and missing during the Sevastopol operation.

It behooves the United States, which, in the course of this war, will certainly be confronted with the task of storming fortification lines of permanent character, to heed the German experience in this most bitterly contested of modern sieges -- SEVASTOPOL.


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