Hell on Earth: The Siege of Sevastopol

On the 4th of July 1942, the city of Sevastopol on the southwestern extremity of the Crimean Peninsula fell to the eastward advance of Nazi Germany into the Soviet Union. 

It was the culmination of an eight-month-long siege and one of the bloodiest engagements of the Second World War. 

By the time it ended, approximately a quarter of a million men were either deceased or seriously wounded. The German Luftwaffe dropped tens of thousands of bombs on the city. 

But what is curious about the engagement is how seldom it features in the broader historical narrative of the Second World War. Here we tell the story of the siege of Sevastopol, a battle which some have dubbed ‘Hell on Earth.

The Eastern Front, 1941–2

The siege of Sevastopol was undertaken as part of the wider Nazi drive into the Soviet Union, which commenced with Operation Barbarossa in the summer of 1941. 

The German invasion was three-pronged and involved approximately three million soldiers and personnel and thousands of tanks, armored vehicles, and planes. 

One wave of the attack moved north-eastwards towards Leningrad and a second towards the Soviet capital, Moscow. 

These were the two initial priorities, to begin with, for Adolf Hitler and the German high command. They believed the two foremost cities of Russia could be quickly captured in the winter of 1941. 

It would force the Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, to seek peace terms quickly, and much of Eastern Europe would come under Nazi rule. 

However, the third prong of the German attack was more strategic. This was much further to the south through Ukraine, capturing Kyiv and then moving on towards the city of Stalingrad, where the Nazis would have access to massive Russian oil in the Caucasus if they secured the region. 

On the way, they would need to secure control of the Crimean Peninsula and other key regions, including naval control of the Black Sea.

The Arrival of Von Manstein

In the winter and spring of 1942, the conflict on the southern prong of the German advance into Russia centered on the Crimean Peninsula. 

It would be overseen here by General Erich von Manstein, who was promoted to command the German 11th Army when its previous commander, Colonel-General Eugen Ritter von Schobert, was killed in a plane crash. 

At the time of his death, von Schobert had been preparing for an assault on the Crimean Peninsula by seizing the key port city of Sevastopol. 

This task was now handed over to von Manstein upon his arrival there in October 1941. He quickly sent his forces, numbering over 200,000, along with a major division of Romanian troops, into the peninsula. 

They would remain there for eight long months in a battle that would soon extend across the Crimean peninsula as the Soviets attempted a counter-attack.

The Siege and the Wider Crimean Campaign

The initial German assault on Sevastopol in the winter of 1941 was impeded by a lack of air support by the Luftwaffe. 

Most of the German air force’s aerial power was being concentrated on the northern prong attacks on Leningrad and Moscow at this stage. 

Despite this, by the end of 1941, most of the Crimean Peninsula was occupied by von Manstein’s forces. Sevastopol was the only major site that could still hold out at this stage. 

German Soldiers outside of Sevastopol, 1941

Its ability to do so was partly due to the onset of the Russian winter, which severely stalled the German advance further to the north and allowed Stalin and his generals to divert larger numbers of troops to the south. 

Moreover, von Manstein’s plans for capturing the city were further delayed by the onset of severe rains, which delayed the German attack on the Crimean city. Thus, it was not until mid-December 1941 that a major assault on the city was launched. 

When the Germans finally began the assault on Sevastopol on the 17th of December, it was interrupted almost immediately by a major Russian counter-offensive when an amphibious expedition arrived at the Kerch Peninsula on the eastern end of the Crimean Peninsula. 

This eventually involved over half a million Soviet troops, most of whom died or were wounded in one of the bloodiest engagements of the Second World War. 

Over the next several months, as von Manstein’s forces sought to expel the Russians from Kerch and the Russians aimed to reclaim Crimea, the Nazi forces killed approximately six Soviet soldiers for every German or Romanian that died. 

The death toll in Sevastopol, which remained under siege throughout this time, was also catastrophic, with disease, starvation, and artillery and aerial bombardment claiming thousands of lives a day during the worst engagement. 

Moreover, the Einsatzgruppen, divisions of SS troops who operated behind the front lines of the German army, were also in operation here and were exterminating Jewish, Romani, and other population groups across the Crimean Peninsula in the winter of 1941. 

In the following months, the battle for the Kerch beachhead on the east of the peninsula and for Sevastopol on the southwestern extremity became intertwined. 

Sevastopol would only be able to hold out against the Germans for so long as von Manstein’s forces were diverted away from it to fight the Russian counter-attack in the east. 

By the late spring of 1942, the situation began to turn in favor of the Nazis, despite the clear numerical superiority of the Russians overall. 

By the end of the spring, the Russian position on Kerch was so critical that in his Wolf’s Lair in Poland, Hitler finally acquiesced to von Manstein’s long-standing request for aerial support to end the Crimea Campaign. 

And so it went. In the first days of May 1942, over 700 planes of the 8th Air Corps of the German Luftwaffe arrived in Crimea under the command of Wolfram von Richthofen. 

Sevastopol in flames

In the following weeks, these proved decisive in both the Kerch assault and the siege of Sevastopol. Von Richthofen’s planes flew over 1,300 sorties a day on average, bombing the stranded Russians on the Kerch beachhead and in Sevastopol into an inferno. 

Von Manstein’s troops finally secured the Kerch beachhead on the 19th of May. 

Then, with the support of the 8th Air Corp and the Germans able to concentrate their attention on Sevastopol in the following weeks, the Crimean city became a charry inferno. 

By the time the Germans entered it on the 4th of July 1942, little of the city was left intact. 

The End of the Crimean Campaign and Subsequent Events

The end of the siege of Sevastopol and the wider Crimean Campaign ushered in a whole new stage of the war on the Eastern Front. 

By now, the advance on Moscow and Leningrad had stalled, and the Germans were being pushed backward out of the Soviet capital. But their focus was increasingly on securing Stalingrad, the key city dominating Russia’s control of the oil fields of the Caucasus. 

Sevastopol after the battle ended

There, in the months that followed the capture of Sevastopol, the ultimate conflict between the Germans and the Russians would ensue. When it eventually ended in the first weeks of 1943 in utter German defeat, it completely turned the tide of the war. 

By the time it ended, over million people had died at Stalingrad. For that reason, Stalingrad has always been viewed as the crucible of the war on the Eastern Front. 

For that reason, the siege of Sevastopol, which became hell on earth for eight months between late 1941 and the summer of 1942, is often overlooked in the discussion of the Second World War. 

Sources:

Robert Forczyk, Sevastopol 1942: Von Manstein’s Triumph (Oxford, 2008). 

Dunkan Anderson, et al. (ed.), The Eastern Front: Barbarossa, Stalingrad, Kursk and Berlin (Campaigns of World War II) (London, 2001).  

Lord Carver, ‘Manstein’, in Correlli Barnett (ed.), Hitler’s Generals (New York, 1989), pp. 221–248; Robert Forczyk, Manstein: Leadership, Strategy, Conflict (Oxford, 2010). 

Samuel W. Mitcham Jnr., Hitler’s Field Marshals and their Battles (New York, 2001); Baron Reginald Thomas Paget, Manstein: His Campaigns and his Trials (London, 1951). 

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