Sevastopol's Epic of Imperishable Glory
During the Crimean War, not quite ninety years ago, Sevastopol made history when for a year it withstood the assault of the combined armies of Britain, France and Turkey. Now a second siege of Sevastopol has ended. But Sevastopol's name and fame will live as an inspiration for generations to come.
"SEVASTOPOL has fallen." From Hitler's headquarters came the news in a special announcement on the evening of July 1.
"The German and Rumanian war flags have been hoisted on the fortress, town and harbour," went on the announcement. "German and Rumanian troops, commanded by Col.-Gen. von Mannstein, effectively supported by the air corps commanded by Col.-Gen. von Richthofen, mastered at noon today the strongest land and sea fortress in the world after 25 days' bitter fighting. Strong forts, fortifications built into rock and underground positions, concrete and earth bunkers, and innumerable field entrenchments were taken in exemplary collaboration between the two armies. The number of prisoners and amount of booty cannot yet be estimated. The remnants of the beaten Sevastopol army fled to the Khersonese Peninsula. They are being pressed together into a small area, and face destruction."
More details of the Russians' "last desperate defence" were contained in a statement issued by the German High Command.
"Dive-bombers opened the way for infantry through the positions in and around Nikolayevska. Heavy bombs, dropped from a low altitude, tore terrific blocks from the rock walls, which buried large parts of the Russian trenches. A similar effect was obtained by bombing the entrances to rock tunnels, thus silencing enemy batteries which were too well concealed for the German artillery. The destruction caused in the inner town of Sevastopol by previous German attacks was increased during yesterday. Barracks, railway depots and electricity and gas works went up in flames. Ships at anchor in the harbour were lit during the raid and several of them were sunk."
Sevastopol's siege began in November 1941, when von Mannstein's troops overran the Crimean peninsula, as far as the outer defences of the great Russian fortress-port. An attempt as that time to carry the place by storm cost the Germans sixteen thousand dead. During December a second attack was launched, and in the course of the seventeen days it lasted the German killed were reported to number 45,000. Followed a five months' lull - or rather near lull, since air raids were frequent. Then on June 5 the third attack was launched, and it was soon apparent that this time it was to be pressed to the bitter end. When it began, the Soviet C.-in-C., Admiral Umashev, told his troops: "If Sevastopol must fall it must cost the Germans 100,000 men. If you make the enemy pay this price, your sacrifice will not have been in vain." The defenders saw that the Germans did indeed pay the price, since even before the final assault the third attack had cost the lives of 50,000 German and Rumanian soldiers.
When the attack was in its second week Lt.-Gen. Dietmar, the Nazi military commentator, admitted, in a broadcast from Berlin, that the attempt to reduce Sevastopol was certainly no easy one. The approaches to the fortress, he pointed out, were ideal for the defence in every particular, since they consisted of many deep ravines and steep-sided gorges, which made direct shelling practically impossible. Everywhere there was excellent cover for the defenders, who had constructed positions deep in the rock, immune to even the most powerful guns or mines. Numerous natural caves provided roomy shelter for men and materials. Then coast batteries and armoured and concrete defence positions made the Soviet defence particularly strong. Nor did the guns point only out to sea, as at Singapore... In the fighting, tanks were condemned to play a minor part or no part at all. Thus is was that even more than usual the brunt of the fighting fell upon the infantry.
Long before the end the inevitability of Sevastopol's fall was realized by soldiers and citizens alike. Yet there was no sign of weakening. Air raids were so frequent that the warning was no longer given, but the 60,000 people who remained in the city out of the original 130,000 or so still "carried on". In large measure they lived their lives underground, where in caves and in artificial galleries they had established factories and canteens, newspaper offices, dormitories and first-aid posts -even schools, until 15,000 children were evacuated with their mothers by warships of the Black Sea Fleet. Even the theatre continued in operation, and Moscow's Grand Guignol company played to crowded houses.
Ere long most of the city had been converted into rubble by shelling and bombing. "Sevastopol does not stand anymore," said the Soviet writer, Petrov, in a telephone message to Moscow. "There is no town left, no more acacia trees or chestnuts; no more clean, shady streets and little parks. Now each day is like a year. The fire upon us is heavier than ever before in the history of the war. Every yard of the yellow, rocky ground of the city is pocked with shell and bomb. Every day the enemy infantry attacks, believing nothing can be left after such a hell; and every day the yellow rocks of Sevastopol come to life again - come to life again with a deadly fire from her defenders."
Another description of life in the doomed city came from the Russian playwright Boris Voytechov, who reached Sevastopol after the third offensive had begun. The Germans, he reported, were trying to break the people's nerve with terror-bombing. Apart from screaming bombs they had rained down on the city pieces of railway lines, wheels and ploughs. But the nerves of Sevastopol were different from those of Cologne or the Ruhr. The ordeal was being borne with stoical courage; the anonymous heroes of Sevastopol carried on. The electric power plant and telephones were still working. Unexploded land-mines were promptly cleared from the streets. Everybody was carrying a rifle or hand-grenades, and every enterprise had organized its defence groups so that the city bristled like a hedgehog. At one point on the front fighting was in progress in the vineyards and orchards less than six miles from the city. Yet the nerves of those fighting on its shores were as calm as the Black Sea. "The scent from acacia drowns the stench of charred timbers, and by the lights of star-shells and rockets the familiar fašade of the city looks unchanged."
Fort after fort in the defence range was carried by assault - Fort Stalin, Fort Molotov, Fort Lenin, Fort Maxim Gorki. The last, said a German correspondent in a broadcast from Berlin, was a formidable fortress.
"Fort Maxim Gorki (he said) went on fighting even after it had been captured. It sounds unbelievable, but it is true. Although the upper storeys are in our hands and the battle line has moved some 1,400 yards forward, Soviet soldiers are beneath us, deep underground in the lower storeys of the fort, and continue to put up resistance. We have sent negotiators to explain to them that further resistance if useless, but they refuse to listen; they will not come out. While we succeeded in forcing several hundred Soviet soldiers out of the upper storeys, blasting them out with hand-grenades and explosives hurled through the apertures, we cannot reach these last men."
"Never before," he continued, "have we seen such armour-plate, such concrete walls, and, above all, such a kind of concrete, which is quite new to us. Fort Maxim Gorki had 13-in. guns, which continued to blast away even after our shock units and storming guns had been brought up to close range. They went on firing at a range of less than 800 yards, and even 500 yards. We have still to deal with other forts. One, a very large artillery bastion, has been bypassed by our troops, but continues to hold out in our rear. We still have to silence heavy coastal Soviet batteries, the huge guns of which have been turned inland and shell us incessantly."
As the end drew near Russian commandos made a daring landing at Yalta on the Crimean coast well behind enemy lines, and Sevastopol's defenders themselves delivered an almost incessant series of counter-attacks. But the enemy came on in inexhaustible strength. Fort Malakhov was stormed on June 30, and on the same day it was claimed that Rumanian troops in a rapid advance had taken the harbour and town of Balaclava. The next day the Germans were in Sevastopol itself. But there were no negotiations for surrender, no appeal even for an armistice. Days later von Mannstein was reported to be capturing the city street by street, even house by house, since the Russians, both garrison and civilian population, refused to lay down their arms.
"The Germans have gained nothing but a heap of ruins," said Moscow radio; and "Let us fight like the men of Sevastopol" became the Russian people's slogan.