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Breaking the "Blue Line": Liberating the Taman Peninsula

 With the complete annihilation of German Army Group 6 at Stalingrad in early 1943, Hitler's strategic attempts in the southern Soviet Union were declared bankrupt. The counter-offensive of the Soviet Red Army swept southward, and the focus of the battle in this direction was concentrated on the Taman Peninsula, located between the Azov Sea and the Black Sea.


The wreckage of tanks scattered in the Kursk salient signaled the failure of the last German attempt to regain the initiative on the Eastern Front. At this point in the southernmost part of the Soviet-German front, the Germans still had a glimmer of hope of capturing the Baku oil fields, and the Taman Peninsula was their last springboard to attack Baku.


Because of its extraordinary importance, the Germans had turned the Taman peninsula into a large, seemingly impregnable position, where they had laid down the so-called "Blue Line", which was held by the 17th Army under General Erwin Janek. This was one of the largest groups in the entire German army sequence, consisting of the 5th and 44th Armies, the 49th Mountain Army and the Romanian 5th Cavalry Army, with 18 divisions and 4 independent regiments, totaling nearly 300,000 men, and with 2,860 artillery and mortar pieces, more than 100 tanks and assault guns, and more than 300 fighter planes.


In terms of terrain, the Taman Peninsula is indeed easy to defend and difficult to attack, with the "Blue Line" running north to south through the peninsula's key areas. The northern flank of the Taman Peninsula is the coast of the Azov Sea, from where the "Blue Line" begins, extending 55 kilometers south along the Kurka River, a tributary of the Kuban River, crossing the Kuban River and then following the Adagum River, another tributary of the Kuban River. The northern flank of the peninsula is dense with rivers, swamps and flooded lowlands, making a frontal assault here extremely difficult.


The central part of the "Blue Line" was about 32 kilometers long, and the relatively low and gentle terrain facilitated the movement of mechanized troops. It was for this reason that the Germans bet heavily on this area, and the line was particularly tightly configured, with fortress villages as support points for each section and a large number of barbed wire positions, minefields, and concrete bunkers filled with crossfire points in the open areas between the support points.


The southern section of the German line stretches along 24 kilometers of rugged mountainous terrain, ending at the important port city of Novorossiysk on the Black Sea coast, which has been a fortress area since 1838 and was heavily fortified by the Germans, who occupied the entire city, calling it the "Stalingrad of the Taman Peninsula".


Behind the "Blue Line", 25 to 30 kilometers deep, the Germans had a series of reserve defensive positions, which took advantage of the favorable terrain and were named Bucharest, Berlin, Munich, Breslau and Stuttgart. One of the most important preparatory positions extended from Temruk on the Azov Sea coast to the southwest to the Black Sea coast and was called the "Little Gothic Line".


At the beginning of February 1943, just after the victory at Stalingrad, the Soviet Red Army had already launched an offensive against the Kuban area, and after fierce fighting the Soviets managed to advance almost 640 km before stopping near the "Blue Line" on the Taman Peninsula.


Meanwhile, in another direction, the Soviet Navy's Black Sea Fleet also moved against Novorossiysk, and on February 4, transports brought a number of infantry and sailors up to the coast near Novorossiysk, and landing troops quickly established and consolidated beachhead positions. Although the offensive in this direction came to a halt in early June, the area controlled by the landing forces on the outskirts of Novorossiysk became an impregnable bridgehead, and the Soviet side affectionately referred to this coastal position behind enemy lines as "Little Land.


After these actions, the Taman Peninsula entered a period of relative calm, and while the Germans were doing their best to make up the shortcomings of their defenses, the Soviet high command was already planning a new general offensive to cleanse the Taman Peninsula of German forces. Since the terrain in the northern part of the peninsula was not conducive to large-scale troop maneuvers and the central part was heavily guarded, the new Soviet offensive, although it would be launched all along the peninsula, would have Novorossiysk in the south as its main target, and the ground operation would be assisted by the Black Sea Fleet.




The forces ordered to participate in this campaign were the North Caucasus Front Army, commanded by General Petrov, which had the 9th, 18th, 56th and 58th Army Groups under its command. Up to 20 infantry divisions and four naval infantry brigades would be directly involved in the attack on the Taman Peninsula. The 18th Army Group, commanded by Lieutenant General Leselidze, was given the most important task of liberating Novorossiysk, Lieutenant General Greshkin's 9th Army Group was to conduct a holding operation on the northern flank, Lieutenant General Greshko's 56th Army Group was to fight in the center, and the 58th Army Group was to clear the relevant coastline in response to the 18th Army Group's operation.


The North Caucasus Front was able to receive strong support from the Soviet Air Force's 4th Air Force Group. By this stage of the Patriotic War, although the Soviet Air Force had not yet fully mastered air superiority, it had overwhelmed the Luftwaffe in terms of the number of military aircraft. As far as the comparison of air power on the battlefield of the Taman Peninsula was concerned, the Germans had amassed about 300 aircraft here, while the combined strength of the 4th Air Group and the Black Sea Fleet Air Force had more than 1,000 aircraft available.


In the sequence of the 4th Air Force Group was also the famous 46th Konrad Night Bomber Regiment. The uniqueness of this flying unit was that everyone in the division - from pilots to mechanics to logisticians - was female, and the average age was just in their early 20s. The intrepid Soviet women pilots flew the Bo-2 night bombers, which were mainly made of plywood and canvas, and delivered constant blows to the enemy, proudly using the nickname given to them by the German soldiers: Night Witches.


Hitler had always had a "no retreat" attitude toward the Eastern Front, but, rather unusually, on September 3, 1943, he agreed to Field Marshal Manstein, commander of Army Group South,'s request to withdraw his troops from the Taman Peninsula. The next day this order was transmitted to the 17th Army Group, and General Janek estimated that it would take eight weeks to complete the evacuation, yet just days after the Germans began their withdrawal, a fierce Soviet offensive began.


The Soviet offensive began at 2 a.m. on September 10. After artillery preparations were carried out by more than 200 guns, several detachments of torpedo boats, covered by 150 fighters, stormed the port of Novorossiysk and fired torpedoes directly toward the docks where German gun positions were laid, followed by a convoy of barges that sent three battalion assault teams ashore.


Following this surprise opening, the main body of the 18th Army Group attacked from two different directions beginning at 0315 hours, with the Western Group attacking from the Mishakot beachhead on the west side of Novorossiysk Bay and the Eastern Group operating in the rugged hills north of Novorossiysk.




Romanian soldiers on sentry duty along the Black Sea coastline


After dawn, the Germans gathered their forces to launch a counterattack against the Soviet landing force, and the 1337th and 1339th Regiments of the Soviet 318th Division remained in the dock area until the afternoon of the 11th. Just then, the 18th Army's Eastern Group, supported by tanks, broke through the German defensive position near the October Cement Plant and joined the 1337th Regiment.


While the main attacking force was engaged, 9th Army Group, which was deployed in the northern part of the Taman Peninsula, launched a coercive attack on the northern section of the "Blue Line" and, as planned, failed to break through the German lines, but held back part of the German 17th Army's reserves from moving south against 18th Army Group. At the same time, 56th Army Group, deployed in the middle of the peninsula, also made a test attack between the 11th and 13th.


While the battle of Taman was gradually entering its climax, a strange phenomenon appeared on the battlefield. On the one hand, the 17th Army Group was still trapped in the "Blue Line" and resisting the Soviet attack; but on the other hand, some units had already started to withdraw from the Taman Peninsula according to Manstein's orders. In order to meet the retreating troops, the German Navy sent a large number of ships, in the eastern side of the Crimean Peninsula, Kerch and the Taman Peninsula between Annapa, Temruk and Taman and other places constantly shuttle ......


From the 12th to the 13th, the North Caucasus Front Army continued to move reserves, including a divisional tank cluster, into the direction of the main attack of the 18th Army Group. The German troops in front of them were still fighting hard, but the southern section of the "Blue Line" was beginning to show signs of loosening due to the lack of unity in the determination to "hold" and "retreat".


To the north of the October Cement Plant, the two sides were engaged in a tug-of-war in the Mevdiyevsky District on the northern outskirts of Novorossiysk. The German defensive support was a large building known as the "Red Building," which the Soviets concentrated their bombardment on with tanks and self-propelled artillery, and then sent a large number of engineers to lay explosives. This marked the end of German resistance in the Mevdiyevsky district, and the Soviets were now firmly in control of the suburbs of Novorossiysk.


On the 14th, Lieutenant General Greshko's 56th Army was ordered to launch a heavy attack on the middle section of the "Blue Line" in order to match the breakthrough of friendly troops to the south. When artillery preparations ended at 7:00 a.m., the Soviet attack began against the heavily guarded, well-armed middle section of the Blue Line.


The area was suitable for tank operations, but as the Soviet T-34 tank groups pushed forward, they soon encountered a German mine field. The tanks had to stop a short distance from the German trenches, firing their guns to engage the German anti-tank guns while waiting for the sappers to come forward to clear the obstacles. The sappers under a rain of bullets cleared a narrow passage through the minefield, yet when several tanks drove into it, they were immediately cross-fired by German artillery. The tank attack failed, and without tank support, the 56th Army Group infantry failed to make a successful move.




Black Sea Fleet Supports Shore Operations with Firepower


A new offensive was launched at dawn on September 15. This time, after hard fighting, the T-34 tanks broke through the German forward trenches, and the Red Army infantry swarmed over many sections of the German line, shouting "Ullah".


The 18th Army also continued its offensive that day. The department's Western Group advanced into the Cape Mesjaco area and made modest progress, pushing the enemy in front of it back about 3 kilometers. On the other hand, the eastern group, supported by a small number of tanks, captured the high ground outside Novorossiysk, opening the way for a breakthrough into the city.


The German 4th Mountain Division, now holding the city, had not only suffered heavy losses, but was threatened with encirclement, and in the afternoon of the 15th the mountain troops began to withdraw from Novorossiysk in disgrace, and by noon on the 16th the Soviet ground forces and the Black Sea Fleet jointly declared the city liberated.


As the Germans retreated in defeat, the Red Army followed, hoping to use the new victory as a starting point for further destruction of the living German forces stranded in the southern Taman Peninsula. And while Soviet tanks and infantry took aggressive action, Soviet partisans who had previously been operating in the forested southwestern part of the peninsula began to strike boldly, attacking retreating German units along the way, slowing their progress and creating panic.


As the Soviets continued to advance westward, they began to assault German reserve positions that had been constructed on lagoons, swamps, and other complex terrain. Positions in the name of Bucharest, Berlin, Munich, and other cities fell. In the mountain passes near Wolff, however, German and Romanian soldiers of the 17th Army fought against the backdrop, and Soviet reports indicated that the previously weak Romanian mountain infantry and cavalry fighting on foot had shown "surprising tenacity" here.




Soviet naval sailors played an important role in the battle


By September 20, the 18th Army's advance reached the outskirts of the port city of Annapa on the west coast of Taman, where they were supported by strong artillery fire from the Black Sea Fleet. on the morning of the 21st, the Red Army soldiers moved into Annapa and cleared the entire German garrison there before nightfall.


The success of the ground operation also greatly encouraged the Black Sea Fleet, and at dusk on the 25th a landing force of nearly 8,500 men landed on the shores of a dense lagoon and marsh, followed by large barges carrying artillery and mortars. The task of this odd force was to retake the city of Taman, for which the entire peninsula was named. The battle heated up on the second day, and despite strong support from the Black Sea Fleet air force, the landing force was unable to make a breakthrough for the time being.


By this time in the northern theater, 9th Army was already advancing on Temruk, a city located on the southern shore of the Azov Sea and a key pivot point for German shipping between the Taman Peninsula and the Crimea. The terrain here impeded the movement of tanks and artillery, and Soviet infantry threw themselves into a swampy and lagoonous area filled with mines, barbed wire and bunkers without hesitation. To overcome the soldiers' inability to advance effectively in chest-high water, the Soviets were equipped with a large number of small flat-bottomed boats. Another "field invention" was the use of fully inflated bicycle inner tubes, which were attached to the body in order to paddle through the water.


To complement the 9th Army, the Black Sea Fleet again conducted amphibious operations behind the German lines. Supported by fire barges of the Azov Fleet, more than 1,600 army and navy soldiers successfully landed on two shores west of Temruk and immediately went on the offensive. The German "Little Gothic Line" collapsed under the two-pronged attack, and the 9th Army declared the liberation of Temruk on the 27th.


On October 9, the last of the German and Romanian soldiers fled the peninsula, with General Janek, commander of the 17th Army Group, being one of the last to do so, in a move worthy of his general's star.



Soviet soldiers carry out amphibious operations off the coast of the Taman Peninsula


The Soviets eventually won the battle for the Taman Peninsula at the cost of more than 114,000 casualties, of which the number of killed may have been around 40,000. The victory not only liberated a large part of the country, but also completely eliminated the possibility of a German attack on the Caucasus oil fields.


On the tactical level, the Soviets also gained a lot, and one of the main features of the Taman campaign was the excellent synergy achieved between the ground forces and the amphibious forces of the Black Sea Fleet and the Azov Sea Fleet. Ships and sailors showed their unique value in the battle to liberate the Taman Peninsula, and it was their successive landings behind the German lines that threw the defensive system of the defenders out of balance. It can be said that, starting from the Taman Peninsula, the Soviet doctrine of coordinated multi-services operations would become increasingly mature.


The Germans were hit hard in the Battle of Taman, with nearly 20,000 German casualties, including four division commanders, and 1,600 Romanian troops killed, 7,200 wounded, and 800 missing. With the loss of a strategic location, perhaps the only consolation the Germans could take was the preservation of the operational capability of a complete army group: the 17th Army was defeated but withdrew 250,000 soldiers, 21,000 vehicles, 1,800 artillery pieces and 74,000 military horses.


If you are not satisfied with the battle, you may want to find a movie called "The Iron Cross" and watch it. This film, released in 1977, is one of the masterpieces of "Aesthetics of Violence" director Sam Peckinpah, and reflects a local battle during the Battle of the Taman Peninsula, where the German positions were shaken by the Soviet onslaught. The film reveals one of the essentials of the battle of Taman: there was no lack of courage on either side of the battle. In the words of German Sergeant Steiner, starring actor James Coburn, "The Taman Peninsula is where the Iron Cross grew up.


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