Verdun on the Black Sea:
The Siege of Odessa, Part 1
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
The Romanian Army that marched on Odessa in August 1941 did so with confidence born of a significant victory - the “lost province” of Bessarabia had been liberated, and the long-feared Red Army sent on the run. Morale would never be higher, and on July 27th the Germans formally requested that the Romanians attack the key commercial port of Odessa. Romanian military dictator Ion Antonescu agreed four days later.
“I have no conditions,” the Conducator wrote to Adolf Hitler, “and I will consult no one about extending military cooperation into new territory.”
Romanian troops forced a crossing of the Dnestr River into Soviet Ukraine on 3 August, with the 1st Armored Division following on the night of 5-6 August. The next morning Hitler and Antonescu met to map out the extent of Romanian cooperation on the eastern front. Romanian forces would be responsible for taking Odessa and securing the region between the Dnestr and Southern Bug rivers. Happy to have such an accommodating ally, Hitler traveled to Berdichev in Ukraine where he pinned an Iron Cross on Antonescu. On 8 August, the Romanian General Staff issued its Operational Directive 31, calling on 4th Army to take Odessa “on the move.”
That might have been a reasonable expectation for an army trained and equipped for mobile operations. Gen. Nicolae Ciuperca, 4th Army's commander, detailed his mobile formations to attempt the coup - 1st Armored Division and 1st Cavalry Brigade. They quickly met fierce opposition, and even before Romanian spearheads isolated the city on the 14th, Ciuperca had begun to fling his infantry divisions at Odessa's outermost line of defenses.
Romanian infantry on the attack.
Inside the city, the Soviet 9th Army had two very good rifle divisions of the pre-war regular army, the 25th and 95th, that had fought very well at Kishinev in Bessarabia, and the 2nd Cavalry Division, also a veteran of the fighting in Bessarabia. On September 1st the Odessa command formally organized the 421st Rifle Division from the 54th Rifle Regiment, 1st and 2nd Marine Rifle Regiments, and 134th Howitzer Regiment, plus several Odessa workers' militia battalions. Though a scratch unit, it had a very good cadre and fought as well as the regular divisions. Several machine-gun battalions of the Tiraspol Fortified Region added experienced troops with a large number of automatic weapons. And to make sure everyone fought hard, the 249th NKVD Rifle Regiment rounded out the garrison.
The city had the benefit of three concentric rings of trenches and fortifications, built by tens of thousands of enthusiastic civilian volunteers. The outermost line ran about 50 miles, and was located about 17 miles from the city center. The second line, intended to be the main line of defense, was about 19 miles long and placed about four miles from the city center. The final line was within the city limits itself, as buildings were prepared for house-to-house fighting.
One fighter, one bomber and two seaplane squadrons were based at Odessa, and more provided support from airfields in the Crimea. The 69th Fighter Squadron of the 21st Air Division particularly distinguished itself. One of the first squadrons equipped with the IL-2 "Sturmovik" attack plane also joined the defenders. The garrison had no armored units, but workers at the January Uprising factory transformed 68 STZ-5 agricultural tractors into small, slow, makeshift tanks known as "Ni" ("terror") tanks. The first of them was completed 20 August and saw combat on 1 September, and by late September the garrison had its own home-made tank battalion.
The assault on Odessa began on 9 August, one day after Romania’s General Staff issued the formal directive for Odessa’s capture. III Corps attacked the outermost ring of fortifications, striking at Radzelnaya, just east of the Odessa-Kishinev railroad and in keeping with the directive the point closest to the Romanian crossing of the Dnestr River at Tiraspol. The corps had the 3rd and 7th Infantry Divisions and the Royal Guard, backed by the R35 tanks of 2nd Armored Regiment. V Corps with the Royal Armored Division, 15th Infantry Division and 1st Cavalry Brigade would cover the corps’ left flank.
The Romanian infantry pressed forward relentlessly, taking enormous casualties as they cleared bunkers and trench lines with bayonet charges. For the next four days the infantry attacks continued, with entire platoons dying in frontal assaults while the Soviets gave ground only slowly. Finally on the 13th Antonescu ordered Ciuperca to suspend the direct assault while new formations joined Fourth Army and the Romanians completed the encirclement of Odessa.
Troopers of 1st Cavalry Brigade reach the Black Sea coast east of Odessa.
On the next day, 1st Cavalry Brigade reached the Black Sea coast east of Odessa, driving back the 30th Mountain Rifle Division marching to join the garrison. Ciuperca declared the siege begun. By that point, he had nine divisions and two cavalry brigades deployed in four corps. They included many of the Romanian Army's best units: the Royal Guard and Frontier Guard divisions, the "model" 21st Infantry Division, and the Royal Armored Division. Antonescu conferred with Ciuperca and his generals, and on the 16th they began a frontal assault on the left flank of the Odessa defenses. I Corps, with the best Romanian divisions, slowly ground forward. The Soviets launched repeated counter-attacks, according to Romanian sources backed by tanks (though it appears the garrison had no tanks at this point), and once again inflicted enormous casualties on the attackers. The lightweight Romanian artillery made no impression on most of the Soviet pillboxes, manned by tough long-service veterans of the Tiraspol Fortified Region wielding heavy machine guns, and these had to be taken singly by infantry assault and bayonet charges.
On the 17th, the Guards took the city's water reservoir. For the rest of the siege, city residents would be limited to half a bucket of water per day for all uses. On the far left flank fo the Romanian army, the 1st Cavalry Brigade fought off a series of Soviet counterattacks while the neighboring 15th Infantry Division gave back hard-won ground.
The next day brought a renewed general assault all along the line, opening with a pre-dawn bayonet charge by the 11th Infantry Division attacking down the Kishinev railroad, supported by R2 tanks of the Royal Armored Division. Neither formation had trained in tank-infantry combined arms tactics, and the infantry got little help from the tanks while the armor was often left unsupported and at the mercy of Soviet anti-tank teams wielding Molotov-cocktail. The infantry did make progress, but the armored division left 32 of its virtually-irreplaceable machines on the battlefield in a single morning’s fighting.
Since the Romanian Army’s French-made 75mm light field pieces had little impact on the Soviet fortifications, Romanian commanders turned more and more to the surprise attack. Fifth Infantry Division’s 9th Dorobanti Regiment spent the 18th and 19th on Hill 110 in a series of fearsome, no-quarter hand-to-hand engagements with the Soviet 241st Rifle Regiment. Hundreds of men from both armies died in a scene out of some medieval depiction of Hell.
Relentlessly, the Romanian infantry pressed forward, steadily losing dead and wounded men – particularly junior officers – but gaining ground. The Royal Guard and the crack Frontier Guard Division finally made it through the outer defense zone, only to confront the second ring of fortifications around Odessa. Fresh divisions arrived to continue the assault, but little in the way of air power or heavier artillery that might have made an impression on the Soviet positions.
On 20 August the Romanians shifted their tactics again, bringing forward their light artillery for direct-fire missions against Soviet positions in mixed infantry-artillery tactical groups and finally receiving substantial air support. But the Royal Romanian Air Force (FARR) lacked dive bombers or even medium bombers, let alone heavy bombers. Romanian fighter planes, pressed into the ground support role, flew 118 sorties in support of 21st Infantry Division’s mixed tactical group but dropped only 78 tons of bombs. They did knock out a Soviet armored train that had been a stubborn opponent.
Recognizing the threat posed by the new Romanian methods – developed on the spot by the “model” 21st Infantry Division, probably the best-trained formation in the Armata Romana at this time – the Soviets mounted a powerful counterattack that drove back the attackers, this time at the cost of substantial Soviet casualties. Meanwhile, the Royal Guard continued its advance, breaking the front of the 25th Rifle Division. The Romanians were making progress through the tough and thick Soviet defenses, but only at the cost of massive casualties among their best formations: the 21st, Royal Guard and Frontier Guard divisions.
The other Romanian divisions continued to fight as well, with 14th Infantry Division pressing down the rail ine from Kishinev with the help of 1st Armored Division’s tanks. The armor then shifted to Fourth Army’s left flank, and on 24 August, 13th Infantry Division finally secured firing positions within range of Odessa’s port for Ciuperca’s heavy artillery batteries.
Lacking prime movers for their heavy artillery, Romanian troops move a siege gun into position outside Odessa by hand.
With that achieved, Antonescu told Ciuperca to bring the assaults to a halt while the artillery stopped the flow of supplies and replacements to Odessa. The Romanians restocked their own ammunition supplies, while heavy artillery (excellent and well-crewed French-made 155mm howitzers) finally arrived. Antonescu set 28 August for resumption of the assault; so far Fourth Army had lost over 5,000 dead, 18,000 wounded and 3,000 missing.
The story continues here.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold hopes to catch a squirrel soon.