The destroyed harbour at Sevastopol’s Southern Bay, following the Axis capture of the city on 1 July 1942, after a prolonged 250-day siege and heavy artillery and air attacks.
(© Copyright Horst Grund/Bundesarchiv)

After four weeks of hard pounding, the guns fell silent on 1 July 1942 over the once mighty citadel and naval base of Sevastopol. As the clouds of dust and acrid smoke lifted, an eerie stillness descended over the battered town and port. Although some isolated pockets of the Red Army continued to resist fanatically for a few days more, the last major Soviet bastion on the Crimea had fallen to the invading German and Rumanian forces. For over eight months the veteran troops of Colonel General Erich von Manstein’s Eleventh Army had invested the seemingly impregnable fortress, purportedly the strongest in the world, whose capture had become for Hitler as much a matter of political prestige as a military object. The great siege had ended with a spectacular feat of German arms, one last great – gasping – triumph for Germany during the Second World War before the crushing debacle at Stalingrad, six months later.

The ferocious struggle for Sevastopol remains – in the West at least – a dimly recalled event, a dark and distant chapter in the German-Soviet conflict so large in scale and desperate in nature that it continues to defy modern imagination. Manstein, the victor, is almost as forgotten as the campaign of nearly seventy years ago. The final attack of June 1942, with all the heavy artillery and close air support that the Wehrmacht could put at his disposal, only just succeeded. Losses on both sides had been horrendous. And for the Germans, the bloody battles for the city would prove a dramatic episode in an ultimately unsuccessful war. Of the victory hard won in July 1942, by May 1944 all had been lost and the Crimea abandoned. On 1 May 1945, Stalin announced that brave Sevastopol, along with Leningrad, Moscow and Stalingrad, was to become a ‘hero-city’ of the Soviet Union.

The summer of 1942 marked the high-water mark in Germany’s fortunes in the Second World War. In the Western Desert, Colonel General Erwin Rommel had captured the stronghold of Tobruk on 21 June, and the British Eighth Army was in headlong retreat towards Egypt and the Nile. For the Allies, the prospects looked equally grim in the Soviet Union. In recent months on the Eastern Front, Soviet armies near Leningrad, Kharkov in the Ukraine and on the Kerch peninsula on the Crimea had all been defeated decisively. As Manstein savoured his crowning success at Sevastopol, the main weight of the German Army in the East – under the aegis of Operation BLUE – was beginning its overly ambitious summer offensive towards the Caucasus and its economically crucial oilfields that would lead to the fatal distraction and climactic battle of Stalingrad. Despite incurring over a million casualties since the start of Operation BARBAROSSA on 22 June 1941, Hitler’s hopes of smashing Bolshevism in the summer of 1942 were still high, if not unduly optimistic.

Colonel General Erich von Manstein, summer 1942.
(© Copyright Manstein Archive)

In the meantime, Germany could celebrate another splendid victory. It earned Erich von Manstein, at the age of 54, his field marshal’s baton: the zenith of his career. Preceded by a triumphant fanfare, Berlin radio broadcast a special communiqué announcing the fall of Sevastopol. Shortly after, Hitler’s warm congratulatory message clattered over the teleprinter link to the Eleventh Army’s forward command post at the Tatar settlement of Yukhary Karales, now called Zalesnoe, 20 kilometres due east of Sevastopol:

To the Commander-in-Chief of the Crimean Army,
Colonel-General v. Manstein,
In grateful appreciation of your exceptionally meritorious services in the victorious battles of the Crimea, culminating in the annihilation of the enemy at Kerch and the conquest of the mighty fortress of Sevastopol, I hereby promote you Field-Marshal. By your promotion and the creation of a commemorative shield to be worn by all ranks who took part in the Crimean campaign, I pay tribute before the whole German people to the heroic achievements of the troops fighting under your command.

The largely self-contained campaign on the Crimea in 1941-42 had proved a bitter and costly fight, in many senses a microcosm of the much wider, total war waging between Germany and the Soviet Union that stretched from the Barents Sea in the Arctic north to the Black Sea in the south. Whilst German personnel and matériel losses continued to mount, the capability of the Red Army was on the increase – quantitatively if not yet qualitatively – despite the grievous damage it had suffered thus far in fighting a ‘sacred war’ (sviashchennaya voyna) in defence of Mother Russia.

In stark contrast with the First World War, when most of Germany’s military effort was directed and expended on the Western Front, from June 1941 onwards the decisive campaign was fought in the East. It was here that Manstein wrestled to contain the Red Army’s growing offensive power and argued with Hitler about the conduct of operations from Stalingrad onwards. As multiple Soviet fronts (groups of armies) threatened to engulf the German southern wing, he demanded repeatedly freedom of manoeuvre to conduct counterstrokes on a vast, operational scale in order to unbalance, then bring the Russian juggernaut to a halt and defeat it. As Manstein remarked, however, this approach was inconsistent with the supreme commander’s ‘way of thinking [that] conformed more to a mental picture of masses of the enemy bleeding to death before our lines than to the conception of a subtle fencer who knows how to make an occasional step backwards in order to lunge for the decisive thrust’.

The Field Marshal argued with the Führer so persistently that he was dismissed as an army group commander at the end of March 1944. Throughout his career, Manstein was an assertive subordinate and self-assured commander. Although relations remained cordial for the most part, there was certainly no love lost between him and Hitler, which was painfully obvious to all involved. As the crises mounted on the Eastern Front, which shifted inexorably westwards, and Germany’s defeat appeared increasingly inevitable, on 10 January 1944 Time magazine enquired provocatively whether Manstein would ‘play the Teutonic Pétain’ – and betray his head of state. He did not. Although his retort to a member of the resistance that ‘Prussian field marshals do not mutiny’ is probably a fiction, it neatly represents his position. Even though Manstein opposed Hitler’s catastrophic decision-making, unlike Claus, Graf von Stauffenberg, he would not go for the kill. Ultimately, he failed in a doomed personal contest that saw Hitler’s implacable will trump reasoned military judgement. On his farewell from Headquarters Army Group South, Manstein’s intensely loyal staff presented him with an oil painting by a Dutch master of two fighting cocks (the Hahnenkampf ), symbolizing poignantly his combative relationship with the Führer. No other general served Hitler so well whilst disputing his military decisions so consistently.

Today, despite his impressive military record, Manstein remains a highly controversial figure. No German barracks bears his name: any such link would unleash a storm of political protest. Since the Second World War, and more particularly over the last thirty years, there has been a distinct historiographic trend to cast senior figures such as Manstein in a bad light, and to brand the Wehrmacht as a criminal organization. Of course, the less than favourable aspects of his career demand close scrutiny, bearing in mind that he was brought in front of a British military court in 1949. Amongst seventeen charges of war crimes, he was accused of ‘deliberately and recklessly disregarding his duty’ by failing to ensure the humane treatment of Soviet prisoners of war, large numbers of whom died or were handed over to units of the German Sicherheitsdienst (SD) to be killed. Equally damning was the alleged involvement of his army in the widespread shootings of partisans, in support of the mass extermination of Jews by Einsatzgruppe D and in the conduct of brutal ‘scorched earth’ policies. Although Manstein was acquitted on eight charges, he was found guilty on nine, resulting in a sentence of eighteen years’ imprisonment, subsequently reduced to twelve on confirmation.

After the fighting ends, apart from the quest for justice or retribution, it is perhaps inevitable that the ensuing analysis of causes and outcomes continues in an undeclared war of reputations. The first battle to be fought in the resulting peace, if one prevails, is that of the memoirs: the reappraisal of past events and personalities seen through the eyes of the principal surviving participants. Military history written through the perspective of the commanders involved can rarely be objective. To expect otherwise would be naive. War, to recast Clausewitz, remains the province of egos, as well as the familiar realms of danger, physical exertion, suffering and chance. Whilst it is the job of the military historian rather than the participant to bring distance and objectivity to bear, without the views of those directly involved in the making of events, any history would lack colour and authenticity.