Air and Naval Power in the Black Sea 1941-44

First published: 17th September 2016 | Gabriel Elefteriu

***

Contents

Introduction

The Role of Sea Power in the Black Sea

Explaining the Low Performance of the Soviet Fleet

The Role of Air Power in the Black Sea

Case Study: The Evacuation of Sevastopole, 1944

Conclusion

References

 

Introduction

As the Soviets fled Odessa by sea in October 1941, pressed by the Romanian Army, they curiously claimed a victory of sorts. Indeed, this evacuation operation ranks as probably the greatest single achievement[1] of the Russian Black Sea fleet during the Second World War. But the fact that a mere final stage of a defeat on land would come to hold such distinguished a place in the powerful fleet’s hall of honour illustrates the paradoxical nature of operations in such an enclosed maritime theatre. Acknowledging the added impact of airpower, this essay considers what fighting in the Black Sea area tells us about the relative importance of air and naval forces.

The paper first illuminates the actual role of sea power in the Black Sea, highlighting the tension between its diverging strategic and tactical aspects. The second part explains the relatively poor record of the nominally superior Soviet navy, showing that the Luftwaffe menace was just one of several elements that combined to degrade Russian sea power. Thirdly, the essay challenges the notion that airpower had a decisive impact in this theatre, by looking at a number of factors that impaired its efficiency in practice. Detailed Luftwaffe unit deployment research is used to support the argument. Additionally, a short case study of Sevastopol’s evacuation in May 1944 is used to illustrate how the elements outlined previously combined to force an apparently paradoxical outcome. In conclusion, this paper finds both air and naval advantage in the Black Sea area extremely volatile because of a complex interplay of various factors, with the final result being ultimately swayed by the fight on land.

 

The Roll of Sea Power in the Black Sea

The role of sea power in the Black Sea during the Second World War is controversial. A Soviet fleet that enjoyed a crushing superiority in warships and submarines[2] could not force a strategic decision in its theatre of operations.[3] Ostensibly built for the primary, traditional role of destroying the enemy forces at sea in offensive combat operations,[4] the Russian navy was quickly forced to assume a strategically defensive posture. However, by keeping their large ships in port the Russians effectively employed a “fleet in being” strategy, assuring nominal Soviet control of the Black Sea irrespective of the shifting fortunes of coastal engagements. Even when approaching Tuapse, one of the last bases of the Soviet fleet, the Axis could not claim the sea as its “own.” Strategically, this counted for little given the primacy of tactical coastal warfare, but it had a key political influence on Turkey’s attitude.[5] The fleet’s main units might not fight, but they would still count.

For most of the war, the naval units of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet engaged almost exclusively in tactical coastal operations in support of the Army’s land campaign – a role they had not been designed to play. The expected large-ship naval battles for command of the sea gave way to small-scale operations by light units[6] — and occasionally destroyers — for command of the coast. The Soviets termed these actions “day-to-day activities” and considered them crucial for creating and maintaining “favourable operational conditions”[7] for their sea forces, whether for attacking enemy supply transports or undertaking amphibious landings. Command of the coast was elusive and always in dispute given the relatively close proximity of both sides’ bases, especially in the North-Eastern Black Sea and the Kerch-Azov area where naval action concentrated from mid 1942 to early 1944. It was a permanent struggle involving a wide range of missions, from raids on enemy ports and communications to mining and minesweeping activities. At stake was not only the sea supply of army units ashore but, crucially, the security of the maritime flanks of the land front. Only the navy could exercise such an incessant pressure on the enemy, with the purpose of gaining tactical advantage in favour of the land front.

The resulting “favourable conditions” were a prerequisite especially for amphibious operations. These did not depart from the navy’s tactical-operational land support paradigm even in their largest-scale instances (the Kerch and Eltigen landings). The employment of sea power as a strategic weapon, independently and unconnected to an immediate Army interest, simply had not figured in the Soviet pre-war naval doctrine — which is why no dedicated landing craft were available in 1941. The Navy remained to the end the Army’s “faithful handmaiden,”[8] its operations and employment being synchronized to the fight on land. Ultimately, the Soviet Black Sea Fleet’s role in the war was passive and sterile strategically, but active and indispensable tactically for challenging and securing command of the coast through constant, small-scale fighting. This, in Manstein’s words, originally left “all the possibilities open to the Russians by reason of their mastery at sea.”[9] However, this remark, while true before the fall of Sevastopol in 1942, lost much of its substance afterwards as the Soviet Navy gradually lost the initiative.

 

Explaining the Low Performance of the Soviet Fleet

Compared to its overwhelming overall numerical superiority, the Black Sea Fleet’s performance was mediocre at best. In fact, by late 1942 it was even facing the spectre of annihilation as the Germans were overrunning its bases in turn. A number of factors contributed to its poor showing. First and foremost, there was the German airpower. The Luftwaffe, operating from the “aircraft carrier Crimea”[10] (an apt description of the peninsula’s strategic position), took a heavy toll on Russian naval activities. A special command, the Fliegerführer Süd (Air Command South) was established in early 1942 with the mission of interdicting Soviet supply traffic to Sevastopol. In little over two months, with limited forces, it sank 68,450 tons and damaged a further 42,000 tons[11] of Russian shipping. Particularly heavy were Soviet losses in warships — three destroyers and a cruiser sunk at or on the approaches to Sevastopol, by June 1942.[12] Eventually, the Soviets lost all their five cruisers to air attacks by mid 1942 — two sunk and three put out of action.[13] Luftwaffe bombers would also reach out to Russian bases on the East coast of the Black Sea. For example, a powerful raid on Novorossiysk on 2 July 1942 sank the destroyer leader Tashkent and several transport ships.[14] The reverse only reinforces the point: the Odessa evacuation, the Soviet fleet’s finest hour, was decisively facilitated by weak German air opposition.[15]

But even when not successful in their attacks — or not even attacking — warplanes still impacted significantly on the fleet’s performance. Standard air defence procedures forced Soviet ships bombarding coastal positions to fire underway without correction.[16] This sharply reduced their efficiency. Aerial mining operations against the enemy’s shipping routes and ports also resulted in losses and additional security problems. However, arguably the key effect of the Luftwaffe was indirect: in 1943 German aerial successes at sea eventually pushed Stalin to order that the larger Soviet warships be kept in port for fear of losing them.[17] This momentous decision, triggered by a chance[18] Luftwaffe sinking of three destroyers in a single day on 6 October 1943, came at a time of marked German overall aerial inferiority. Stalin’s order effectively forfeited the fleet’s nominal superiority in heavy warships for the remainder of the war.

For all the Luftwaffe’s efficiency, the Soviet Navy faced another danger arguably at least as great: the systematic loss of its bases. Pushed out of Odessa, Nikolayev, Sevastopol and Novorossiysk, the fleet had to operate from late 1942 until the end of the war from Batumi, Poti and Tuapse.[19] This caused considerable maintenance problems, and of the last three ports only Tuapse had some construction and repair facilities;[20] but it was also extremely vulnerable to air attacks. Consequently, damaged ships were put out of action indefinitely. By 1944 for example, only 16 out of 29 Soviet submarines were operational, and only 14 out of 47 MTBs (Motor Torpedo Boats).[21]

The relevance of the Russian navy’s numerical superiority was further undercut by equipment problems. The Russian MTBs proved insufficiently seaworthy and had no radar.[22] In this respect the Germans were especially superior, making use of coastal radar and of radar-directed shore-based artillery.[23] Additionally, Russian guardboats also showed themselves “rather helpless”[24] against German and Italian MTBs. Soviet MTBs were armed with machine-guns whereas German Siebel ferries, MFPs and MALs[25] carried heavy armament including 88mm guns.[26] Indeed, the Axis fleet in the Black Sea gradually increased in strength. The Germans sent small ships (including 10 MTBs and 23 minesweepers) overland from the Elbe river to the Danube, and thence to the Black Sea.[27] Six submarines were also sent in this way, and the Italians contributed a squadron of MTBs as well.

This German navy, specially built and customized for the conditions of coastal naval warfare in shallow waters, proved a strong opponent to the Soviet fleet which, for reasons outlined above and because of extensive minefields offshore, could not employ its heavier units. The naval fighting in the Kerch straits during the Eltigen landings of November 1943 offers good insight into the problems faced by the Soviets at sea at a time of Soviet superiority in the air. After Soviet troops gained a precarious beachhead on the Kerch peninsula, the German navy set up behind them a close blockade of MTBs, minesweepers and MALs that lasted for five weeks.[28] Powerful German coastal artillery batteries prevented Russian ships from crossing the strait in daylight. Most naval actions, therefore, were conducted at night. German and Soviet ships were routinely engaging at very close range even using pistols and hand grenades in the middle of the mine-infested straits, in what has been characterized as “a battle from the days of pirates.”[29] The Germans were only driven away by heavy artillery batteries and searchlights eventually set up by the Soviets on shore. Thus, the Eltingen blockade illustrates best the strictly naval issues the Soviet navy had to tackle.

To sum up, several independent factors besides German airpower hampered Soviet naval efforts. Loss of bases, an enemy better adapted to shallow-water warfare and powerful fixed defences all but cancelled on their own account Russian nominal naval superiority, at least in 1943.

 

The Roll of Air Power in the Black Sea

And yet, it is airpower that is considered to have been the all-important military factor in the Black Sea. However, for all its virtues this was an imperfect and performance-variable tool in itself, not only in relation to other factors.

The paramount problem that reduced airpower’s impact on Black Sea operations was…its absence. Or, better said, it was air commitments elsewhere along the front that often drew units away from the maritime theatre. On the German side, there are two main reasons that led to such situations. The first is the core tenet of the German airpower doctrine, centring on the concept of “Schwerpunktbildung” — developing individual points of maximum strength.[30] In the German view, for airpower to be effective, it had to be applied en masse, concentrated in the key sector of the land offensive. Consequently, air commanders saw little beyond the immediate operational situation and deployed all available forces to deal with the task at hand.[31] This hardly squared with the long-term requirements of a maritime campaign, where, as shown above, ensuring “favourable operational conditions” is a matter of constant fighting. Secondly, Wolfram von Richthofen, the commander of the German 4th Air Fleet (Luftflotte IV) covering southern Russia, had little consideration or interest for antishipping missions. He never allocated more than 20%, and after May 1942 usually only 5-10% of his aircraft to operations over the Black Sea.[32] Moreover, Richthofen looked with disdain at specialist antishipping units, characterizing in his diary a failed German torpedo air attack as “absolutely pathetic.”[33]

The German practice of Luftwaffe concentration at key points reached impressive rates. At Kursk were gathered in 1943 almost 70% of the German aircraft on the Eastern Front. In early May 1942 the Schwerpunkt was in Kerch, but when the Russians broke through at Kharkov on the 12th, von Richthofen was sent there, drawing away air units from Crimea. Eventually, by October 1942, the whole of Luftflotte IV had no more than 129 operational bombers (with only a 55% operational rate).[34] During the Stalingrad airlift, even the reconnaissance planes used for maritime surveillance were redeployed to the Kessel.[35] Then in April 1943 came the massive air battle over the Kuban, with the Luftwaffe deploying there over 50% of its forces in the East.[36] But Luftwaffe units in Russia did not lose aircraft only to temporary points of concentration; they were also redeployed to other fronts. For example, 270 aircraft from the central and southern frontlines in Russia were sent to Africa after the Allied landings in November 1943.[37]

Such a fluid pattern of Luftwaffe activity, impacting directly all operational areas, could hardly have been conducive to a consistent application of airpower as required in the Black Sea. The “happy times” for the Luftwaffe in this theatre were merely by-products of Luftwaffe Schwerepunkte formed there for ground campaign-related purposes. This is particularly apparent from the annexed chart,[38] which offers an overview of Luftwaffe deployment in the Black Sea area during the conflict. The concentration of units particularly during March-June 1942 and April-May 1943 corresponds to the Sevastopol and Kuban battles. Also, the decline in bomber unit presence from winter 1942/43 onwards stands out, especially with the departure of II./KG26 and (earlier) of I./KG100 specialist antishipping units. The high concentration of fighter units in 1943 in the Kuban partly accounts for successful German sea supply of the Kuban bridgehead, benefiting from strong fighter cover. The last noticeable short-lived concentration is at Sevastopol in 1944, the final act in the Black Sea campaign.

The many gaps and interruptions in this deployment pattern attest to the inconsistent application of air power in the Black Sea area. This also provides insights into the volatile nature of airpower as a strategic instrument, at least in relation to peripheral combat zones such as Crimea and the sea where continuity should be key. Germany’s general aircraft shortages only partly accounted for this state of affairs. Equally important was airpower doctrine, which, by placing disproportionate emphasis on ground support, was unaccommodating to naval warfare.

Much of this is also true with regard to Soviet use of airpower at sea. The Russians concentrated the bulk of their air efforts in support of land operations, similarly to the Germans. Even the Black Sea Fleet’s Air Arm (called VVS-CHF) was primarily occupied with supporting the Soviet army on the ground. For example, in September 1943 (thus in a period of nominal Soviet air ascendancy) the VVS-CHF had only 21 serviceable aircraft to provide air cover for bases and ships along the Caucasus coast.[39] The fateful sinking of the three Russian destroyers on 6 October 1943 is illustrative of the low priority given to aerial-maritime operations: only 9 fighters were available to escort the unfortunate ships at that time.[40]

Important as air force concentration may be, it becomes irrelevant altogether if the target is out of range. Indeed, distance to the enemy represented a crucial aspect of air operations in the Black Sea. It was a problem (for both sides) not unlike the one the Germans faced in the Battle of Britain, when their fighters could remain only for a few minutes over London. Even greater distances were generally involved in operations in the Black Sea area. During the Feodosia landing in December 1941, for example, the Soviets suffered from incessant German air attacks as their own fighters operated from 150 miles away and had just 10-15 minutes of flying time over the target area.[41] Likewise, during 1943 the German coastal supply traffic routes (crossing the Kerch strait over to the Kuban) was out of range to Soviet fighters, but well within the German ones’. Consequently, unescorted bomber raids in that area faced daunting odds, [42] so the Soviets used mainly single-plane torpedo attacks that usually missed anyway.[43]

Sometimes, the ability of aircraft to sink ships is taken for granted but in actual fact it was not an easy task. As the main targets in the north-eastern Black Sea were the German supply ships, their small size[44] compounded the aiming difficulties for the Soviet aircraft that did attack them.[45] This compared well with German inability of stopping the Volga crossings from the air at Stalingrad. Additionally, even these small vessels packed considerable anti-aircraft firepower. For example, on 30 May 1943, all nine bombers attacking a German convoy were shot down by Flak and fighters.[46] Anti-aircraft artillery was indeed very effective, and warships were even more difficult to sink because of their armour. For example, on 27 June 1942, the destroyer Tashkent survived a four-hour air attack and 335 bombs dropped at her. The Germans considered that it took nine Stukas to sink a destroyer and 19-20 to sink a cruiser. But this was a difficult force to concentrate during anything other than a Schwerpunkt action.[47]

The last two independent elements affecting air force effectiveness were weather and time of day. In bad weather and at night aircraft were largely grounded, which allowed ships to approach or depart their own bases in safety during this time. Many coastal transports could therefore travel from port to port at night, while ships undertaking longer routes could use the dark hours to sail out to sea, gaining a safer distance from enemy air patrols.[48] This was particularly relevant at Sevastopol in 1942, when the Soviet nightly ship supply was interrupted not by the Luftwaffe, but by the German-Italian MTB patrols operating after dark.[49]

To sum up, for the air force to operate effectively against naval assets a number of preconditions were necessary. Ranging from daylight to force concentration and proximity, these were not always readily available in practice, making airpower an imperfect instrument of war for the specifics of the Black Sea theatre.

 

Case Study: The Evacuation of Sevastopole, 1944

Most of the factors mentioned above in relation to airpower combined at Sevastopol in May 1944 in the bitter favour of the defending German and Romanian troops. First, the Luftwaffe did manage to concentrate around three fighter units at Sevastopol. Even the Soviets conceded that these fighters defended convoys “stubbornly” until early May.[50] 45 planes were still operational in late April.[51] Moreover, an additional 70-80 aircraft were transferred in haste from the Mediterranean, Austria and the Balkans to bases in Romania, increasing convoy protection.[52] In contrast, the Soviets assigned 72% of their available aircraft in the Crimea to ground support missions against the fortress. Secondly, only in the last few days of the battle (from 6-7 May on) did the Russians focus their air force on Axis convoys.[53] But the evacuation had started as early as 12 April[54] and by the time the Soviets concentrated on the convoys (targeting them around the embarkation points, not at sea[55]), the bulk of the troops had shipped out already.[56] Third, the Soviet air force operated from distant airfields outside Crimea. The rapid rate of the Red Army offensive and a lag in rebasing ground facilities[57] limited for most of the operation the range to which the Russians could intercept convoys at sea. This interception range stretched up to about 200km[58] out to sea from Crimea, a distance the convoys mostly covered during the night.[59] Crucially, the Russians still did not employ their large warships even at this point. Fourth, the convoys’ own anti-aircraft defence was highly efficient; the Soviets were usually losing two-three planes during an attack.[60] Most of their successes came against ships that had expended their ammunition.[61] Fifth, the evacuation operation collapsed primarily because of Soviet ground artillery fire hitting the embarkation points, not as a direct result of air attacks.[62] In sum, Sevastopol’s relatively successful[63] evacuation is not a paradox, but an interplay of some of the factors outlined previously in this essay.

 

Conclusion

In conclusion, in the Black Sea area there raged an atypical war with complex dynamics which allowed for paradoxical outcomes against the overall pattern of the Axis-Soviet conflict. It was a curious case of strategic dominance by the Soviet fleet coexisting for a long time with German tactical control of the key area in dispute: the coast. Stalin’s order to keep larger warships in port rendered the Soviet fleet’s nominal superiority operationally irrelevant. This decision, though triggered by German air successes against Russian ships, also reflects a deeper reality. Namely, that this was really a war of small craft in shallow waters for command of the coast, requiring permanent naval pressure for maintaining “favourable operational conditions.” Constant naval raids and interdiction actions by light units operating from minor ports relatively close to the enemy proved of key value to this sort of war. Heavy warships, coming from distant bases, could not maintain a regular presence and moreover were highly vulnerable in shallow waters to mines, coastal artillery and torpedo boats. Their main mode of operation was the raid, which interestingly is equally true for aircraft. Thus, in these tactical level, day-to-day operations both airpower and heavy naval power lacked the permanent quality to influence decisively the fighting for the coast.

A number of independent factors also limited the real operational impact of air forces on both sides, despite a number of notable sinkings. Aircraft could not engage warships at night; in daytime these were difficult to sink because of anti-aircraft fire and/or small size; and usually they were out of range or difficult to locate at sea. Consequently, even at Sevastopol in 1942 and 1944 airpower failed to disrupt or defeat, all on its own, the naval forces assisting the defenders.

Concentration of effort was critical to ensuring aerial success, but the irregularity of air force commitments and the primary focus by both sides on ground support challenged airpower’s theoretical viability as an instrument of victory in the Black Sea.

Nor could naval power force a decision on its own. In an area with alternative – albeit longer – land communications, the importance of interdicting sea transports could hardly compare to that required in the Battle of the Atlantic, for example. As for amphibious landings, these were always undertaken in support of the Army’s main efforts onshore, and never as a stand-alone strategic initiative.

These issues point to the core aspect of the complex operations that took place in the Black Sea area: the fighting was at all times dependent on and subservient to developments of the land campaign. It was not a simply a “ship versus plane” contest. In final analysis, however, given the central nature of daily combat activities for coastal control, naval forces appear of greater relevance than air forces in such an enclosed maritime war theatre as the Black Sea. In the end, even the last major operation in this space was an essentially naval one with the Royal Romanian Navy struggling to evacuate Axis troops from Sevastopol, under the covering fire of His Majesty’s destroyers.

Written in March 2011 at the War Studies Department, King’s College London

 

References

[1] Ruge (1979), p.68

[2] The Soviet Black Sea fleet started the war with one battleship, five cruisers, and 13 destroyers. The largest Axis warships that would ever oppose it were the four destroyers of the Royal Romanian Navy. (Ruge (1979), p.63)

[3] Ranft & Till (1989), p.97

[4] Achkasov & Pavlovich (1981), pp.10-15

[5] Shtemenko (1970), p.58

[6] usually motor torpedo boats (MTB), gunboats, minesweepers, submarine chasers.

[7] Herrick (1989),p.149

[8] In Herrick’s words, the Russian Navy was the Army’s “faithful handmaiden.”(Herrick (1989), p.156)

[9] Manstein (1958), p.124

[10] Hayward (1998), p.6

[11] Hayward (1998), p.77

[12] Ruge (1979), p.78

[13] Herrick (1968),p.51

[14] Achkasov & Pavlovich (1981),p.185

[15] The Luftwaffe contributed a single Stuka squadron to Odessa operations, while the Royal Romanian Air Force lacked any kind of antishipping aircraft at that time. (Rotaru & Burcin (1999), p.138; p.186)

[16] Achkasov & Pavlovich (1981), p.183

[17] Kuznetsov

[18] The Luftwaffe unit that intercepted them happened to be temporarily in the area, en route to Sevastopol from the Kuban. (Ruge (1979), p.113)

[19] Achkasov & Pavlovich (1981), p.19

[20] Hayward (1998), p.46

[21] Ruge (1979), p.122

[22] Achkasov & Pavlovich (1981), p.265

[23] Achkasov & Pavlovich (1981), p.262

[24] Ruge (1979), p.97

[25] Marinefährprahm (MFP) and Marine Artillerie Leichter (MAL), light self-propelled barges of shallow draft, easily constructed at Nikolayev, Odessa and Constanta starting from 1942.

Kuznetsov also confirms: “these small vessels which had been specially built for operations in narrow waters had good armour plating and rather powerful ordnance.”

[26] Two Siebels actually sank two British destroyers at Tobruk in 1942.(Kesselring (2002), p.66)

[27] Ruge (1979), p.78

[28] Doenitz (1959), p.390

[29] Bekker (1954), p.55

[30] Bergstrom (2007), p.57

[31] Muller (1993), p.109

[32] Hayward (1998), p.316

[33] Hayward (1998), p.93

[34] Corum (2008), p.302

[35] Cooper (1981), p.257

[36] Hardesty (1982), p.127

[37] Cooper (1981), p.249

[38] Unit data collected from: www.ww2.dk; www.lexikon-der-wehrmacht.de

[39] Achkasov & Pavlovich (1981), p.336

[40] Kuznetsov

[41] Hayward (1998), p.35

[42] Ruge even notes that “it is surprising how few attacks they made.”(Ruge (1979), p.100)

[43] Ruge (1979), p.103

[44] Usually MFPs and MALs were used.

[45] Brookes (2003), p.93

[46] Ruge (1979), p.106

[47] Achkasov & Pavlovich (1981), p.336

[48] Achkasov & Pavlovich (1981), p.335

[49] Hayward (1998), p.106

[50] Achkasov & Pavlovich (1981), p.285

[51] Buchner (1995), p.118

[52] Air-Ministry (2001), p.245

[53] Koslinski & Stanescu (1997), p.282

[54] Koslinski & Stanescu (1997), p.214

[55] Wagner & Fetzer(1973), p.255

[56] Koslinski & Stanescu (1997), p.280; p.238—Report by the Royal Romanian Navy on the evacuation, 14-27 April: 72,358 personnel evacuated until 27 April; 21,457 personnel flown out of Sevastopol.

[57] Wagner & Fetzer (1973), p.251

[58] Koslinski & Stanescu (1997), p.210

[59] Koslinski & Stanescu (1997), p.233

[60] Koslinski & Stanescu (1997), p.234

[61] Ruge (1979), p.131

[62] Buchner (1995), p.122

[63] 67% of the troops were saved, overall. (Koslinski & Stanescu (1997), p.282

 

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23 Wagner, L and Fetzer, L (1973), The Soviet Air Force in World War II – The Official History (New York: Doubleday & Company)



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