Verdun on the Black Sea:
The Siege of Odessa, Part 2
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
The story begins here.
The lagoons north of Odessa divided the front into three distinct segments of unequal size. The new Romanian effort would take place in the larger, western segment, which took up a little more than half of the perimeter, behind two spearheads. Fourth Corps, with three reasonably fresh infantry divisions and supported by five Romanian heavy artillery battalions, would attack on the left flank. Eleventh Corps, with two infantry divisions, a cavalry brigade and all of the still-serviceable Romanian tanks gathered into a single detachment plus a German assault pioneer battalion and five German artillery battalions, would strike from the far right along the Black Sea coast.
The attack jumped off with a 25-minute bombardment, followed by frontal assaults. The infantry ground forward, but even with tank support the cavalry could make no gains in three failed attempts. By day’s end IV Corps had moved the front about a kilometer closer to Odessa, while XI Corps’ 14th Infantry Division had managed about the same.
At dawn on the following day the Soviets struck back, rolling back IV Corps’ gains. But the Romanians counter-attacked this counter-attack, retrieving the lost ground and some additional real estate. Bodies piled up on both sides, as the close-quarters infantry combat and brutal bayonet charges took a massive toll on the assault troops and their junior officers in particular.
Ciuperca pulled his most-damaged division, 6th Infantry, out of the front line and fed in his reserves, including the redoubtable Royal Guard and Frontier Guard divisions, and the 21st Infantry Division. Progress continued, slowly, as the casualty lists grew on both sides. Romanian heavy artillery finally came within range of Odessa’s harbor. But at the height of the fighting, the cruiser Komintern came close inshore to shoot it out with the Romanian batteries while a convoy crept into Odessa’s harbor with 10,000 fully-trained replacements in ten draft battalions – something normally seen only in pre-war tables of organization, as elsewhere the Red Army shoved semi-trained conscripts into its front lines in a desperate attempt to halt the Axis advance.
With their ranks replenished, the Soviets went on the offensive themselves, punishing the 8th Infantry Division and forcing its withdrawal from the front. Romanian attacks continued, but by 6 September they obviously had reached their end and Ciuperca ordered a halt. He told Antonescu that almost all of his divisions had reached the end of their offensive capability, and that the effort desperately needed a serious commitment of German airpower to halt the flow of reinforcements, ammunition and supplies into Odessa by sea. The handful of Romanian aircraft assigned to the task had neither the firepower nor the pilot skills to pose an interdiction threat.
Antonescu responded by firing Ciuperca, replacing him with the defense minister, Iosef Iacobici, who the Condicator ordered to carry out the directives of the General Staff without question or comment. Antonescu took over the defense portfolio himself, and asked the Germans for reinforcements. Hitler and his generals responded mostly with sneers and sarcasm directed at the outdated Romanian offensive doctrine, but they did provide an infantry regiment and one of assault pioneers along with more artillery. The requests for German air support were flatly denied; the Black Sea Fleet would continue to have easy access to Odessa.
The Soviets took full advantage of that lapse, shipping in another 15,000 trained replacements plus large stocks of ammunition. The tiny Romanian surface fleet could do little to stop the flow; when a Romanian motor torpedo boat did manage a hit on a Soviet destroyer, the over-aged torpedo failed to explode.
Iacobici received fresh troops, but already Romania scraped the barrel for undamaged formations and Antonescu sent forward the two fortress brigades emplaced along the Dnestr – units of over-aged soldiers with over-aged weapons, never intended for front-line combat. In a sign that morale neared the breaking point, Romanian divisions began collecting their fittest and most willing soldiers into special assault battalions, a practice reminiscent of the First World War. The assault resumed on the 12th and the Romanians ground forward again, trading blood for soil and steadily pushing back the Soviet perimeter.
Romanian heavy artillery lined up for inspection outside Odessa.
Finally the steady attacks wore on the Soviet defenders and pushed them back far enough to imperil the left wing of the Odessa defenses. Antonescu and the chief of the Romanian General Staff, Alexandru Ioanitiu, came to Fourth Army headquarters to see Odessa fall. And then things began to go wrong. Ioanitiu disembarked from their airplane and promptly stepped into a whirling propeller. Ciuperca’s warnings of low ammunition stocks became a reality, and both German and Romanian batteries fell silent just as the infantry neared success. And after their generals had ridiculed Romanian efforts, the German contingent reacted to its first taste of combat by fleeing the battlefield – something no Romanian unit approaching its size had done.
Even so, the Soviet perimeter seemed in danger of collapse. Coastal Army’s commander, G.P. Sofronov, abandoned much of his left wing before the troops there could be cut off. In a remarkable sea-lift the Black Sea Fleet brought a complete, full-strength rifle division (the 157th) from Novorossisk to Odessa in two days along with thousands more well-trained individual replacements. Once again, the Romanians could do nothing to stop the convoy’s arrival, and the fresh troops saved the defenders.
Romanian assaults continued, this time aimed at the heavily-fortified suburb of Dalnik. Iacobici committed his best units and all remaining tanks (10 of them) to the effort, to be spearheaded by the Germans. Once again the Germans broke and ran; their commander blamed the Romanians and lack of air support. Romanian assaults continued daily until the 21st, and Soviet losses became so alarming that Sofronov was reduced to sending lightly-wounded men from their hospital beds to the trenches and conscripting Odessa’s fire department.
The day after Iacobici suspended the attacks on Dalnik, Sofronov struck back with a complicated combined-arms operation aimed at the Romanian left flank, on the opposite side of the perimeter from the recent heavy fighting. Two rifle divisions (the mostly-naval 421st and the newly-arrived 157th) attacked frontally, while the 3rd Marine Brigade coming from Sevastopol landed behind Romanian lines and small groups of paratroopers dropped behind the lines as well.
The two Romanian divisions of V Corps had been posted to this supposedly quiet sector to absorb replacements and recover from the stress of heavy combat. Under the confusing three-pronged air-land-sea attack they crumbled, losing 1,300 men and falling back about 10 kilometers. Sofronov immediately ordered planning to begin for a spoiling attack on the Romanian units on the opposite end of the perimeter.
Antonescu, meanwhile, finally realized that his allies would not render meaningful assistance until he forced the issue, and he ordered a halt to offensive operations against Odessa until the Germans provided infantry and artillery reinforcements and significant air power.
While the Romanians had paused their attacks, the Soviets now made plans to abandon the city altogether. German and Romanian troops broke through the 51st Army’s positions holding the Perekop Isthmus leading into the Crimean Peninsula. The Soviet high command did not believe it could hold Odessa once German aircraft had bases at Sevastopol and other Crimean fields. Sofronov’s troops were needed in Crimea.
To mask the intended withdrawal, Sofronov’s spoiling attack would go forward as planned. On 2 October a barrage of Katyusha rockets, never before seen by the Romanians and only rarely encountered by the Germans at this point in the war, heralded an assault by the 2nd Cavalry and 25th Rifle Divisions at the seam of the Frontier Guard and Royal Guard divisions. The attackers penetrated the Romanian forward lines and destroyed several artillery pieces, but the Romanians counter-attacked and restored their lines by nightfall.
As rumors spread through the garrison of the impending evacuation, locally-conscripted troops began to desert in large numbers. Romanian front-line commanders soon became aware of the Soviet intention to abandon Odessa, but Antonescu, Iacobici and the General Staff rejected the information and pressed ahead with plans to take the fortress by storm.
With German aid promised, Antonescu ordered Romanian attacks to resume. An assault by two infantry divisions on the 4th opened a breach in the lines by 7th Cavalry Brigade, leading to a large-scale cavalry battle as the Soviet 2nd Cavalry Division counter-attacked. A nighttime surprise attack on 8/9 October by 11th Infantry Division proved very successful, and the way to Odessa seemed to be opening. Iacobici ordered a general offensive for the 14th, but before the troops moved out it became apparent that their opponents were leaving. Romanian troops entered Odessa on the morning of the 16th, and by evening the last strongpoints had been reduced.
The Siege of Odessa cost the Armata Romana 92,454 casualties out of 340,000 men engaged, a staggering loss from which it never recovered. Soviet losses came to 41,268, with a least 100,000 people successfully evacuated including both soldiers and civilians.
After the Fall
The Romanian Army took over NKVD headquarters as its command post in the occupied city, and on the 22nd a powerful bomb destroyed the building, killing 16 Romanian officers including the city commandant Gen. Ion Glogojanu, as well as 46 other Romanians and four German liaison officers. Antonescu personally ordered Iacobici to undertake “drastic measures” as punishment: 200 civilians were to be shot for each Romanian officer killed, and 100 for each of the others.
Iacobici had no information as to who might have planted the bomb, and decided to blame Odessa’s large Jewish population. Outside the city, in the suburb of Dalnik, the 10th Machine Gun Battalion gunned down at least 5,000 people, most of them Jews; in the city’s port district, sappers of 10th Infantry Division crammed at least 19,000 people – Jews and wounded Soviet prisoners of war – into warehouses where some were mown down with machine guns and grenades and others doused in gasoline and set alight. The Romanian chief of military police in Odessa, Lt. Col. Mihail Niculescu, cautioned his men to be sure that entire families were killed as it would be inhumane to leave children without their parents.
All told, 4th Army troops murdered up to 34,000 Jews and others during a three-day orgy of slaughter, and transported another 45,000 to the Bogdanovka extermination camp where they were killed in November.
In 2004 the Romanian government admitted responsibility for the massacre.
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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.