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Ice crossing of the Kerch strait

Published on Monday, 26 September 2005 01:02
Last Updated on
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During the struggle for the Crimean peninsula, an important role was played by the Red Army’s ability to mount a successful ice crossing of the Kerch strait in January of 1942. The operation posed considerable logistical and organizational challenges for the Trans-Caucasian Front’s engineer units, and transporting a large number of troops and equipment across the strait in the middle of winter required a great deal of effort, initiative and inventiveness. Unfortunately, today’s military literature remains silent on the engineers’ heroic actions during this operation. This is what prompted me, as former commander of the Front’s engineer troops and a participant in these events, to share my experiences in organizing the ice crossing.

In December of 1941 the 51st Army, then part of the Trans-Caucasian Front, was ordered to force the Kerch strait, destroy enemy groupings in the Kerch peninsula and take the city of Kerch. Upon completing these objectives, the army was to advance towards the Turkish earthwork and towards the railroad station Ak-Monaj, with the aim of capturing the northern portion of the Ak-Monaj positions. The army’s crossing of the strait was to be facilitated by the Azov Flotilla and the forces of the Kerch naval base.

The crossing operation, lasting from December 1941 into January of 1942, was mounted under exceptionally difficult meteorological conditions. The weather took a sharp turn for the worse immediately before the scheduled start. The forecast had indicated that the unfavorable conditions would last into the following week, however Front commander Lieutenant-General D. T. Kozlov and Black Sea Fleet commander Vice Admiral F. S. Oktjabr’skij decided against postponing the operation due to the need to alleviate pressure on the besieged port of Sevastopol. While the commanders realized that crossing the strait in stormy winter weather would significantly complicate the operation, it was thought that this would be partly offset by the element of surprise.

The assault ships began loading in the evening of December 25, with the weather continuing to worsen. At 2220 hours, Kerch naval base commander L. S. Frolov reported the following weather conditions to commander of the 51st Army Lieutenant-General V. N. Lvov: wind speed at 14 metres per second; sea state 5–6 [rough to very rough waves, 2.5–6 metres or 7.5–18 feet in height – Transl.]. The weather report was also forwarded to the chief of staff of the Black Sea Fleet, Rear Admiral I. D. Eliseev. Notwithstanding the deteriorating weather, at 2310 hours both Lvov and Eliseev ordered the operation to proceed as planned.

The crossing began in highly unfavorable conditions. The towed assault barges loaded with troops and equipment were taking on water and breaking off from their tugboats. As a result, the tugboats had to reduce speed, and several assault detachments had to turn back to port. Nevertheless, on December 26 Red Army troops landed near the villages of Kamysh-Burun and Staryj Karantin as well as in the Cape Zjuk - Cape Hroni region.

Having received the news of the landings, Lieutenant General Lvov and Front commander Kozlov ordered reinforcements towards the growing bridgeheads. Several squadrons took to sea, however additional landings could only be effected in Kamysh-Burun and the nearby township of El’tigen.

On December 27, the weather grew even worse and no further landings could be made. The storm relented the next day, however, and reinforcements began to reach the peninsula. These landings continued through December 30, during which time the ships of the Azov Flotilla ferried across approximately 6,000 soldiers of the 224th Rifle Division along with 9 tanks, 28 mortars and 204 tons of ammunition. Separately, the ships of the Kerch naval base delivered 11,225 men, 47 artillery pieces, 229 machine guns, 198 mortars, 12 trucks and 210 horses. Still, a portion of the 51st Army’s first echelon, including some troops from the 224th and 302nd Rifle Divisions and virtually all their attached artillery, as well as the entire second echelon (the 390th and 396th Rifle Divisions and the 12th Rifle Brigade) remained in their staging areas on the Taman peninsula.

On December 28, the Black Sea Fleet took on units of the 44th Army and landed them in the port of Feodosija on the neck of the Kerch peninsula during the night of December 29. As a result of this landing, the enemy commenced a staged retreat from the Kerch region. However, poor weather conditions prevented the Azov Flotilla from landing sufficient numbers of 51st Army troops to effect an exploitation.

On December 30, the Front staff began to receive reports of ice in the Kerch strait, although the assault ships were still able to ferry troops to the peninsula. This changed on the night of December 31, when the staff received a telegram from the 51st Army’s Chief of Engineers Colonel V. P. Shurygin about an intense ice flow in the strait. Ships in the path of the ice flow became uncontrollable, and either drifted with the ice or were hemmed in against the shore. The fleet confirmed this in the morning. The report stated that the ships and assault transports presently staging on the Taman peninsula are unable to leave port; and rescue efforts are underway for the ships and troops already at sea.

Given this situation, the Front commander demanded intense monitoring of the ice flow, and ordered to begin preparations to mount an ice crossing at least with the infantry formations.

Colonel Shurygin along with his staff mounted an engineering survey of the ice in the strait and began assembling equipment necessary for an ice crossing. In addition, the engineer staff quickly composed and distributed to Army troops instructions for field manufacture of skis, snowshoes, and troop and equipment sleds. The Front’s construction units also began centralized production of this equipment, while the 132nd Motorized Engineer Battalion and the 6th Motorized Bridging Battalion along with some supporting units were tasked with preparing the crossing itself.

Front and Army engineers continued to conduct intensive surveys of the ice flow. The units conducting the surveys encountered particularly challenging conditions on January 3–4, due to the presence of a considerable number of cracks and weak spots in the ice as well as strong northeastern winds. The sappers moved forward in single files, carefully measuring the thickness of the ice while tied together with safety ropes and towing wooden boards to bridge the larger gaps. These safety measures and a high level of unit organization resulted in zero casualties and frostbite cases despite increasingly difficult working conditions.

While the sappers continued to survey the ice, the troops busied themselves preparing the ice crossing equipment. Over the course of several days, the soldiers produced over 1500 ski and snowshoe pairs as well as several dozen sleds. As the crossing itself commenced, the engineers marked out the crossing routes and directed troop columns. As the ice was still relatively weak and susceptible to cracks, the engineers were forced to map out new routes several times a day.

The infantry went across in single file with 5–7 metre intervals. The thickness of the ice was such that only machine guns could be dragged across on sleds, while the artillery had to be left behind. By January 6, approximately 13 thousand troops from the 302nd and 244th Rifle Divisions had made it across, along with units from the 396th Rifle Division and most of the 12th Rifle Brigade. The 132nd Motorized Engineer Battalion commanded by Captain P. N. Nikonov deserves special mention in mapping out crossing routes and directing the infantry columns during the operation.

As none of the heavy equipment could be ferried across the ice at this stage of the operation, the Front commander decided to temporarily stop the ice crossing. The remaining units of the 51st Army were directed to continue attempting ship-borne crossings from the southern tip of the Taman peninsula, while the Front’s second echelon (47th Army and a Kuban’ Cossack cavalry division) were ordered to Anapa and Novorossijsk, from where the Black Sea Fleet could ferry them to the Crimean coastline. The 47th Army’s Chief of Engineers Colonel S. V. Holodov was tasked with organizing this latter crossing.

As the operation progressed, the question of who was responsible for managing the flow of men and materiel from the Taman peninsula became a major issue. In the 51st Army, this was done by individual staff officers who were physically present at the embarkation points without any centralized logistical control. Meanwhile, the Army’s staging areas were still crammed with over 50 thousand soldiers, most of its artillery and heavy weapons, and substantial quantities of ammunition. As such, the Front commander decided to make his Chief of Rear Areas Lieutenant General V. K. Mordvinov responsible for centralizing and managing the transport of men and materiel from all Black Sea ports on the Northern Caucasus coastline to the Kerch bridgeheads, while I, as Chief of Engineers for the Front, was directed to perform the same function at the 51st Army. My orders were to transport as much artillery and ammunition as possible to the bridgehead over January 8–10 using the ships of the Azov Flotilla, as well as to organize the transport of heavy equipment over the ice itself at the first opportunity.

Given that the Front headquarters has now taken over the responsibility over all crossing operations, commanders of the 51st and 44th Armies were free to focus on the combat operations of the troops that have already crossed over the strait. Thus, the staff of the 51st Army was shifted out of Kerch itself and closer to the frontlines, leaving behind the Army’s Chief of Operations Major General N. I. Dubinin to coordinate with the Front.

The new command structure largely eliminated logistical errors in transporting troops across the strait, and allowed for easier planning as well as to work out an order of crossing for the various units involved. The Army commanders made the transport of artillery, ammunition, and signals and engineer units a top priority in the first 3–4 days after the new command structure was put into place. Their requests were largely satisfied. Over the course of three days, the ships shuttling between the southern tip of the Taman peninsula and the Kerch landing areas were able to ferry over 8,250 men, 120 trucks, 113 field artillery pieces, 40 mortars, as well as other equipment. This included all the artillery of the 105th Mountain Rifle Regiment and the 302nd and 390th Rifle Divisions, as well as some of the guns attached to the 224th and 396th Rifle Divisions and the 12th Rifle Brigade.

The ice flow had ruined several piers on the Kerch peninsula, and has completely covered other unloading areas, thus significantly reducing 51st Army’s unloading capacity. Only the facilities at Enikal’, Kerch and Kamysh-Burun could be used, but these were repeatedly attacked and damaged by enemy aircraft. The engineer units worked around the clock to repair the damages, however the unloading proceeded very slowly. According to our calculations at the time, transporting 51st Army’s second echelon by ships would take until the middle of February to complete. The only way to speed up the process was to send some of the troops across the ice once it had set.

From January 11 through January 18, 1942, the average daily temperature fell to minus 18 to minus 20 degrees Celsius [approximately minus 28 degrees Fahrenheit – Transl.]. The southern part of the Kerch strait up to Enikal’ was still clear of ice. On the other hand, the ice seemed to have completely set near the small fishing hamlet of Zhukovka, although a crossing was yet to be attempted.

On January 18 I set out to survey the ice flow in the Zhukovka-Glejki region of the Crimean coastline. The director of the local state fishing collective helped select a number of expert fishermen who were familiar with the strait. They were quite eager to help in the ice survey and to lead the troop columns across. In fact, during the Russian Civil War 1918–1922 one of these same fishermen had helped Red Army units cross the strait from Kerch into Taman. The 12 fishermen were attached to the 75th Engineer Battalion, and the ice survey commenced on January 19.

At first the fishermen went alone from Kerch to the Taman peninsula, taking measurements of ice thickness in various parts of the strait. Having reached the opposite shore, they returned by a different route, and the next survey group also included officers and men from the 75th Engineer Battalion. In all, eight groups of 10–12 men, each led by an officer and with 1–2 of the fishermen attached, set out to map eight separate routes across the strait. Along with surveying equipment, each group carried a field telephone and reported back to the Front Chief of Engineers every two kilometres. These reports included description of the ice conditions and thickness as well as of the work necessary to strengthen the ice and make the route passable for troops. By approximately 1400 hours on January 9, the teams reached the Taman peninsula and established telephone communications with the crossing staff based in Zhukovka. The reports were favorable: ice thickness on all 8 routes ranged from 14 to 20 centimetres, and no cracks or crevices were found. Some of the routes required carving a path through jagged ice fields.

When they reached the shore of the Taman peninsula, the scouts were tasked with contacting commanders of local infantry and artillery units and have them report via the telephone link to the head of the ice crossing — i.e. Front Chief of Engineers. Having accomplished this task, the scouts began selecting alternate routes in case any of the first eight become unusable while the local unit commanders readied their units for the crossing. The first troops scheduled to cross were the remaining parts of the 224th Rifle Divisions and the 12th Rifle Brigade as well as artillery batteries and signals and other support units. The second wave would include the 390th and 396th Rifle Divisions with all their supporting troops, while the third wave would comprise all remaining Army support units and rear area services. Each division would be allocated at least two separate crossing routes, depending on the location of its staging area.

The troops’ preparations included stockpiling ropes and wooden boards for strengthening the ice as necessary. In order to investigate the feasibility of transporting horses across the ice, each infantry column would include first single horses led along the ice at 30 metre intervals, then horse pairs. The artillery was preparing to go across on sleds. The crossing was scheduled to begin at 2200 hours on January 19. This would be the second ice crossing, but one where infantry would be joined by artillery and loaded trucks.

The routes were mapped out as follows. The starting points for the routes, numbered right to left, would be located in the region of Kordon Il’icha - Chushka strip. The terminal points on the Crimean side of the strait were north of the village of Glejka. Most of the routes ran from the Chushka strip westward and debouched into Crimea near or just north of Zhukovka.

Control over the operation would be maintained via field telephones. These were set up such that the commanding officer in charge of the ice crossing was in communication with all eight departure points as well as with checkpoints set up every three kilometres along the routes themselves. There were also four checkpoints on the Crimean coastline.

The crossing was facilitated by the men of the 75th Engineer Battalion. Each route had 2–3 alternate pathways marked out. The checkpoints would inform the headquarters about the columns’ progress or any necessary rerouting. The entire crossing was divided into 3-kilometre segments, with each segment serviced by a dedicated team of sappers who also kept track of ice conditions after the columns had passed. If cracks or crevasses appeared along one pathway, the next column would be rerouted to an alternative. At each of the 8 routes there was also a team of sappers and officers tasked with strengthening the ice field where necessary, cutting paths through ice fields, and building links between the ice and the shoreline, since sea ice was generally quite weak at the shore itself.

The troops were categorically forbidden to make any stops while crossing the strait – the first rest stops would be made on the Crimean shore itself. Each column was estimated to take 5 hours to cross along the right-hand routes and 2–3 hours in the center and on the left. Each new column would begin the crossing once the troops ahead of it had passed the first checkpoint and favorable ice conditions had been confirmed by the engineers. This effectively meant a 2–2.5 hour interval between the columns. No troops would be sent over after 05.00 hours. In the event of a blizzard the columns would be escorted towards the next checkpoint by engineers and fishermen guides.

The engineer reserve was located in Zhukovka itself. It would be used to strengthen sapper teams escorting troop columns or strengthening the ice as necessary. The reserve also contained diver units for search and rescue missions.

At 20.00 hours on January 19, the Front commander was informed of favorable ice conditions for mounting a crossing by the 51st Army’s first and second echelon troops up to divisional artillery units. The commander ordered the crossing to commence at the first opportunity, and was to be kept appraised of the situation at least once every 12 hours. The crossing would not be conducted during daylight hours to avoid detection. Any ice strengthening work conducted during the day would be performed only by small groups of engineers.

The crossing commenced during the night of January 20, 1942. The columns that crossed during that first night included units of the 12th Rifle Brigade and the 224th and 302nd Rifle Divisions as well as a part of their artillery. The next day, several single horse-drawn carts were sent across as an experiment. The first night’s crossing was largely a success, and Front command decided to send across the remaining troops of the 51st Army excluding the heavy artillery batteries of the High Command Reserve, which would be sent over by ship.

On the second night of the crossing, the Army succeeded in getting across its entire first echelon with its artillery and stores, as well as parts of its second echelon. There were also trial runs made by trucks, which included determining the appropriate intervals on the ice. The experience of the crossing was instantly disseminated among the Front’s units: during the next few nights, the entire 47th Army, a cavalry division and two Border Guards regiments with all their stores and artillery went across the ice. The cavalry units and sleds loaded with stores were sent across at larger intervals; the horsemen dismounted when on the ice. Simultaneously, additional supplies were sent over for the 47th and 51st army units already across the strait. During snowy or foggy conditions, which precluded enemy aircraft from operating over the strait, additional columns were sent over in the daytime. Gradually, the supply situation of these formations returned to normal.

The movement of trucks across the ice presented particular problems. Often, driver violation of established intervals between the trucks resulted in an excess load being placed on the ice and the truck falling through. To prevent casualties, the truck doors were open through the entire crossing, so that the drivers would have the time to escape from the sinking vehicle and even unload some or all of the cargo. Considerable help in this was provided by the engineer teams covering each crossing stage. The trucks took roughly 15–20 minutes to sink, and the drivers were instructed not to lock down the cargo area to enable quick unloading. This considerably limited cargo loss due to accidents.

During the entire operation the total motor pool losses were fairly small, with only about 60 machines sinking. Compared with the losses experienced by the 47th and 51st Armies and other Front units fighting in the Crimea, these were relatively minor. The sunken trucks were subsequently recovered by the divers of the 75th Engineer Battalion and returned to service. The recovery efforts began almost immediately after each incident was reported.

Interestingly, over the entire two and a half week period of the operation the Germans did not once bomb the ice routes, while the ship convoys sent along from the southern tip of the Taman peninsula were bombed on a daily basis. Several times the aircraft headed for the ship lanes passed directly over the ice routes. Apparently, at that time the enemy did not believe in the possibility of transporting a large quantity of troops and materiel over ice flows. The well-organized crossing, limiting operations to nighttime or to periods of low visibility, as well as strict operational security have all probably contributed to the enemy underestimating the crossing’s potential. This, in turn, allowed for a large number of troops and equipment to cross over into the Crimea over a relatively brief period of time.

The experience of the Kerch operation demonstrates the effectiveness of combining well-organized ice crossings with naval landings to transport large units across the Kerch strait. Thanks to local initiative and the efforts of the engineers, the operation resulted in a successful crossing of the Kerch strait by two entire armies together with a substantial quantity of supplies.

Author: Lieutenant General (Engineer Troops) A. Smirnov-Nesvickij
Translated by: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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