Armies from antiquity to the present day have wrangled over this patch of ground in the Black Sea but why?
The three key principles of the real estate business, the saying goes, are “location, location, location.” The style of a home, its square footage, the backyard pool—all factor in, but none is as important as the location. Some places are more desirable than others, and homes built in those coveted locales are often the subject of bidding wars.
The principle carries over into military history. Some locations attract more attention, draw more invaders and generate more wars. Take Crimea. A diamond-shaped peninsula dominating the Black Sea, it has long enticed would-be overlords of every stripe. While it is a natural naval base, its tenuous link with the mainland via the Isthmus of Perekop is also just wide enough to lure land armies. And lure them it has, one after the other: Tauri and Scythians; Greeks and Romans; Byzantines and Kievan Rus’; Mongols, Ottoman Turks and Russians; Soviet commissars and German field marshals. All felt the pull of Crimea’s beauty and its temperate climate, to be sure, but what really drew them was the location. The ruler of the peninsula has 360-degree power projection at his fingertips: north into Ukraine, east into the Caucasus, south into Asia Minor or west into the Balkans.
Take Crimea? Many have tried.
The 1853–56 Crimean War provided a case example of the peninsula’s lure. In 1852 a diplomatic clash arose between Russia and France over the status of a handful of Christian shrines and churches in the Holy Land, then under Ottoman Turkish rule. Both powers claimed to be the protector of Christians living in the Ottoman empire, with Russia speaking on behalf of Orthodox believers and France for the Roman Catholic population. To show he meant business, French Emperor Napoléon III (Louis Napoléon Bonaparte) sent the 80-gun ship of the line Charlemagne into the Black Sea, and Ottoman Sultan Abdülmecid I was sufficiently impressed to rule in France’s favor.
Russian protests against the sultan’s decision fell on deaf ears in Istanbul, and in July 1853 Czar Nicholas I ordered Russian troops over the border into the principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia (present-day Moldova and Romania), territories then under nominal Turkish control. And after Ottoman protests fell on equally deaf ears in St. Petersburg, the empire declared war on Russia in October.
It is perhaps easy to make light of the obscure monkish quarrel that sparked the conflict, but big issues were at stake. The long-term cause was the “Eastern question,” the upheaval in the Near East caused by the long-term decline of the Ottoman empire. As Turkish strength waned, the Great Powers sought to protect their strategic interests in the region. From the point of view of London or Paris, a bipartite war between Russia and the Ottomans would certainly result in a decisive Russian victory, and Russian dominance of the Near East was an unthinkable proposition. And so British and French naval units entered the Black Sea in a show of support for the Turks.
Tensions boiled over on November 30, when a Russian naval squadron operating out of Sevastopol—the great naval base in Crimea—used its newfangled explosive shells to destroy a Turkish squadron of a dozen ships off Sinop, inflicting more than 3,000 casualties. Now under heavy pressure from public opinion inflamed by this “massacre of Sinop,” Britain and France declared war on Russia in March 1854.
Their purpose was to prop up the teetering Ottoman empire, but it hardly seemed necessary. After declaring war, Turkish forces brought the fight to the Russians, invading Wallachia and fortifying a number of positions along the Danube River. The Russian drive south faltered, and in April 1854 they began a desultory siege of the fortress town of Silistra. The Ottomans were holding out, but unfortunately an allied expeditionary force was already en route. It landed at Varna on the Black Sea in May, where poor sanitation promptly sparked a cholera epidemic that killed thousands. At the same time, recognizing they would never take Silistra, the Russians abandoned their siege in June. The following month, after an ultimatum from neutral Austria, they evacuated Wallachia and Moldavia altogether.
The conflict might well have ended then, but the allies were in the theater, and simply turning around and going home would have been a public relations fiasco. They had to attack Russia somewhere. It had to be a valuable and high-prestige target, it had to be nearby, and it had to be a spot vulnerable to allied naval power. Based on geography and the strategic realities of the region, there could be only one location: Crimea. The allies would seize Sevastopol, punish the Russians for Sinop and reduce the threat level to both the Ottoman empire and the broader region.
A force of nine divisions—four British, four French and one Turkish—dutifully sailed for Crimea, landing at Eupatoria in September. None of the contending armies had fought a serious war since 1815, and it was evident. The allies came ashore without transport and little equipment beyond rifles, drove straight down the main road toward Sevastopol and met the Russians coming straight up to block them. There was no preliminary jousting, no attempt to find a flank, no real reconnaissance. On September 20 the adversaries met on the Alma River.
It was the greatest battle since Waterloo, with some 60,000 British, French and Turks facing off against 36,000 Russians, but no one covered himself with glory at the Alma. The British and French kicked things off with an unimaginative frontal assault. The Russians defended their redoubts south of the river bravely at first, but superior allied firepower—courtesy of the new Minié rifle—soon forced them to retreat. The battle started out orderly enough, but as the Russians’ shaky command and control broke down, it degenerated into a confused rout. Fighting a long way from home with meager cavalry, the allies failed to launch a pursuit, and their victory ended on a disappointing note. Still, the casualty statistics told the tale: The British had done the heavy lifting in the assault, suffering 362 killed and 1,640 wounded. The French, delayed to the action by obstructing cliffs in their battle sector, suffered 60 killed and 500 wounded. The Russians, fighting in dense columns with smoothbore muskets, suffered more than 5,000 casualties of all types.
The Russian rout did not end until it reached Sevastopol. The arriving force was a beaten rabble more than a cohesive army, and the allies might well have taken the city by brisk direct assault. This was a cautious war, however, and the allied command decided instead to execute a long flank march around the city. This maneuver let them seize new supply ports—Kamiesh for the French and Balaklava for the British—and abandon their original base at Eupatoria, which Cossack attacks had rendered untenable anyway. But it wasted precious time. The allies did not bombard Sevastopol until October 17, by which time any hope for a speedy victory was gone. Instead, there was a siege—always a slow, difficult and costly business. It began for the allies with another outbreak of disease, this time a combination of dysentery and cholera, and in late November a bitter winter storm wrecked their supply fleet. While such things happen in every war, the telegraph—a new factor in the Crimea—allowed correspondents like W.H. Russell of the London Times to file daily accounts of every gory detail to shocked readers back home.
The Russians launched three inept relief attempts of Sevastopol—at Balaklava (site of the ill-fated charge of Britain’s Light Brigade) in October, Inkerman in November and the Chernaya River in August 1855. The allies beat back each attack with heavy losses, and the issue was no longer in doubt. Successive allied bombardments of the fortress met increasingly feeble resistance, and a French assault in September smashed the linchpin defensive position, the Malakoff redoubt. Recognizing defeat, the Russians torched their arsenals and abandoned the city.
By now all sides were exhausted, and the subsequent 1856 Treaty of Paris reflected it. The accord not only returned Sevastopol to the Russians (as a long-term allied occupation was neither politically nor militarily feasible) but also demilitarized the Black Sea, barring the Russians from stationing fleets or forces in the theater. That was about it, however, and even those meager clauses would have a very short half-life. With Europe distracted by the Franco-Prussian War in 1870–71, the Russians would renounce the entire treaty.
Largely forgotten today, the Crimean War was a signal moment in history for many reasons. The art of war took a quantum leap forward, with railroads, rifles and the telegraph taking center stage. Russia’s complete ineptitude— unable even to defend a fortress on its home soil—came as a shock to the country. It led to long overdue social reforms, such as the abolition of serfdom, and also fostered the rise of radical revolutionary groups that would eventually bring down the empire altogether. But more than anything, the war showed the importance of Crimea itself, then as always a key piece of strategic real estate. The lure of the peninsula had summoned forth the soldiers of four great empires and killed more than a half-million of them.
We saw the same dynamic at work in World War II. The clash between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union was the greatest land conflict in history, involving tens of millions of men and ranging from the Arctic Circle to the Caucasus Mountains. Yet, at times it seemed as if Crimea was the focal point of the entire titanic struggle.
Again, it was a matter of location. The simple fact was neither side could advance beyond a certain point in the Ukraine were Crimea in hostile hands. The Germans first felt the pull. With Army Group South driving on Rostov at lightning speed in the summer of 1941, Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt had to halt and divert the entire 11th Army to overrun Crimea. When its commander, General Eugen von Schobert, had the misfortune to land his Fieseler Fi 156 Storch aircraft in a freshly laid Russian minefield, General Erich von Manstein took command of the 11th. Blasting into Crimea through deeply echeloned Soviet defenses in the Perekop Isthmus, he kept his eyes on the great prize, Sevastopol.
Before he could get there, however, trouble intervened all over the map. Crimea’s central location is a double-edged sword, as events transpiring in different sectors can dramatically affect any operation. A Soviet counteroffensive on the northern shores of the Sea of Azov forced Manstein to detach a corps to contain it; the fall of Odessa to the west brought another evacuated Soviet division into Sevastopol. Although German intelligence reported three Soviet divisions in the peninsula, by now there were at least seven.
As a result the Germans had a tough time clearing Crimea and were not ready to storm Sevastopol until mid-December. The attackers had to blast through three concentric rings of Soviet fortifications including strongpoints, machine-gun nests, medium and heavy batteries in armored cupolas, and positions built into the caves and rocky hillsides. The Germans came within a stone’s throw, but just as they were making their breakthrough, Soviet reinforcements arrived in the form of the 79th Naval Infantry Brigade. Transported into Severnaya Bay on a small flotilla, its men hustled ashore, rushed to the threatened sector and held back the onrushing Germans. The Soviet crisis at Sevastopol was past.
Then it was the Germans who were in trouble. As Manstein pondered his failure, the Soviets landed a blow on the eastern side of Crimea, a series of amphibious landings on the Kerch Peninsula. Three complete armies—the 44th, 47th and 51st—came ashore, and Soviet Lt. Gen. Dmitri Kozlov hurled them at the German defenses in the Parpach bottleneck. Four times he sent the armies forward; four times they came reeling back with massive casualties. The final try, in April 1942, was especially horrible, with tanks, guns and trucks stuck in glutinous mud, and the men having to muscle shells forward by hand.
Kozlov had failed, and once again it was Manstein’s advantage. His response was Operation Trappenjagd (“Bustard Hunt,” named for the flightless bird that inhabits Crimea). The Soviet offensives had petered out with slight gains on the northern sector, an outward bulge toward the German lines. Smelling blood, Manstein launched an assault on May 8. Deploying XXXXII Corps in the north to pin Soviet forces in place, he sent in a beefed-up XXX Corps to make the main effort in the south, breaking through the Soviet front and opening a path for the 22nd Panzer Division. Once through the tanks wheeled sharply left, heading north and driving to the coast across the rear of the Soviet 51st and 47th armies in the bulge, cutting them off and encircling them. Throughout the offensive the German Luftwaffe was supreme in the air, with virtually all of Luftflotte 4 deployed in Crimea. Usually tasked to support an entire army group, it flew thousands of sorties per day over this tightly constricted battlefield. Soon the encirclement became a seething cauldron of fire and destruction. Kerch itself fell on May 15, the operation’s eighth day. After a few more days of mop-up fighting Trappenjagd was over. Soviet losses were colossal, some 170,000 men in all, more than 1,100 guns and 250 tanks; the Germans, by contrast, suffered just 7,500 casualties.
Still Sevastopol held out. Russian skill at siege and field fortification was proverbial, and the defenders of the fortress (the First Independent Coastal Army) had been busy in the preceding few months. New strongpoints, bunkers and tank traps sprouted around the perimeter, and crucial sectors, like the northern shore of Severnaya Bay, presented some of the most heavily fortified concrete blockhouses on earth. Chief among the guardians were the monstrous twin batteries Maxim Gorky I and II, each comprising two heavily armored turrets housing twin 305mm guns. Superlatives are always difficult to prove, but Sevastopol may well have been the strongest fortress in the world in 1942.
Manstein had an answer, though—a blast of “annihilation fire.” By early June he had readied his entire complement of airpower, and guns of every type were unlimbering at the front. They included the monsters of the German arsenal, pieces so large they fascinate even today: two 600mm Karl mortars dubbed “Thor” and “Odin,” along with the 800mm “Schwerer Gustav” railway gun, the world’s largest artillery piece, firing a 7.7-ton projectile from a 106-foot-8-inch barrel. It was definitely a “crew-served weapon”—a crew of 250.
The bombardment opened on June 2, with 600 ground-support aircraft and 611 guns crammed into a 21-mile front. It turned Sevastopol into a “sea of flames,” as the German air commander described it, and it stayed that way for a month. A single shell from “Schwerer Gustav,” for example, destroyed a Soviet ammunition dump encased beneath 90 feet of rock on the north shore of Severnaya Bay. Under such firepower the subterranean tunnels that linked these positions together and housed the civilian population during the fighting offered scant protection.
Backed by this enormous weight of metal the Germans ground through the Soviet defenses, with LIV Corps pushing in the north and XXX Corps to the southeast. Between them the disciplined troops of the Romanian Mountain Corps carried out a holding operation. Soviet resistance was tenacious, and losses were heavy on all sides, but by June 13 the Germans had gained the north shore of Severnaya Bay. Again spotting an opportunity—his operational gift—Manstein now devised an elegant maneuver to unhinge Soviet defenses. On the night of June 28–29 elements of his 50th Infantry Division carried out a daring amphibious crossing of Severnaya Bay on 100 assault boats, seizing the steep southern bank in their initial rush. Over the course of the day they overran Inkerman and the old Malakoff redoubt, positions so crucial to the city’s defense in 1855.
Manstein’s masterstroke fatally compromised Sevastopol’s innermost defensive ring and sealed the fate of the fortress. With the German 11th Army outside the gates, and air and artillery continuing to chew up the rubble, Soviet commanders in Sevastopol received evacuation orders late on June 30—too late, as it turned out, and many Soviet soldiers fell needlessly into captivity. The Germans entered the city the following day, and the fighting ended on July 4.
The Crimean campaign was far from over, however. Soviet partisans continued to inhabit the Yaila Mountains, as they would for the rest of the war, and the Germans relied on their usual monstrous tactics—reprisals, hostages, mass shootings—in a futile attempt to crush the holdouts. After the German debacle at Kursk in the summer of 1943, massive Soviet counterstrokes carried the Red Army up to and over the Dnieper River. In the course of their great advance they sealed off Crimea once again, bottling up the German 17th Army in the peninsula. A great Soviet offensive into Crimea in April 1944 saw the former lineup reversed. This time it was the Germans defending Perekop and holed up inside Sevastopol, with the Soviets’ 4th Ukrainian Front, under the able command of General Fyodor Tolbukhin, trying to break them. The Soviets forced their way though Perekop in two weeks of fighting, overran the peninsula in a third week and by late April stood outside Sevastopol. The Germans hadn’t rebuilt the fortress, however, and a final Soviet assault made short work of them. In a final ironic coda the German attempt to evacuate the doomed fortress was no more skillful than the Soviet one in 1942. Losses among the 17th Army and Romanians alike were steep, though the Soviets lost nearly as many men in retaking the peninsula.
What emerges from the military story of Crimea is more than a mere battle narrative. It is how cru- cial this little acre has been to so many contenders. It will never be easy to compute the number of soldiers on all sides—German, Romanian and Soviet—who perished there in the course of World War II, not to mention those who died in the Crimean War or the innumerable battles for dominance of the peninsula dating back to ancient times.
One thing is certain, however. While the number is out of all proportion to the size of the peninsula, it is not out of proportion to its location or its strategic significance. Every one of the generals who fought there would agree on that. And so, we may surmise, does Vladimir Putin.
For further reading on the Crimean War, Rob Citino recommends The Crimean War: A History, by Orlando Figes, and The War in Crimea, by Lt. Gen. Sir Edward Hamley. And for more on Crimea in World War II, Citino suggests Lost Victories, by Erich von Manstein, and Sevastopol 1942: Von Manstein’s Triumph, by Robert Forczyk.
Originally published in the September 2014 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.