The Great Patriotic War (the Heroic Defence of Odessa, the Partisan Movement, the Liberation of the City)
On June 22nd, 1941, nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union in violation of the 1939 non-aggression Pact. By that time German imperialism had at its service practically the entire economic potential of conquered Europe, and it was out to rout the Soviet Union and wipe out the gains of the Great October Socialist Revolution. The Soviet people courageously met the onslaught of the fascist invaders, and the Great Patriotic war began.
From the very first days, Soviet troops were involved in
bitter and bloody battles along the vast line of the front which stretched from the Black Sea to the Barents Sea. At the same time the entire country was re-structuring its life to the needs of the war.
In 1941, however, the situation on the Soviet-German front was extremely unfavorable for the Soviet armies. With the material resources of practically all of Western Europe to back it, and with a superiority in manpower and military hardware, fascist Germany increased the pressure, disregarding its immense losses.
The strategic importance of Odessa for the defense of the southern Ukraine was very great. The nazis sought to capture Odessa and Sevastopol and thus end the domination of the Soviet Fleet in the Black Sea, in order to ensure the advance of their troops in the Donets coalfields and the Crimea, to the Caucasus and Transcaucasus. Nazi Germany was counting on establishing its domination in the Black Sea by stepping up the pressure on Turkey and drawing it into the war against the Soviet Union.
The enemy was constantly throwing new reserves into battle and it continued to advance, despite the heroic efforts of the Soviet troops.
The systematic bombing of Odessa began. Between July
22nd and October 16th, 1941, 316 bomb alerts were sounded in the city and enemy planes made 350 raids. The enemy was drawing its troops up for the capture of Odessa and the city prepared to defend itself.
The long and staunch defense of Odessa was of immense significance for the Soviet troops in the southern sector of the front and it played an important part in foiling enemy plans.
Among those who were closely involved in planning the defense of the city was Brigade Commissar Leonid Brezhnev, as the representative of the special purpose group of the Military Council of the Southern Front. He arrived in Odessa and together with regional leaders studied the complex situation, visiting troops and army units, as well as the catacombs, which were later to become the base for the underground party organization and the partisan movement.
The threat to Odessa increased sharply at the end of July-beginning of August. On August 5th, the Command of the Southern Front received orders from the High Command, “Odessa must not be surrendered. It must be defended as long as possible, using also the Black Sea Fleet.” That hot August day went down in history as the first day
of the seventy-three day long defense of the city. A state of siege was proclaimed in the town and its suburbs on August 8th.
Odessa was not a fortress in the proper sense of the word as there were no natural barriers to protect it. On one side was the sea, but on the other three sides there was a flat steppe-land interspersed in some places with low hills, and cut from north to south by planted belts of acacia and gleditschia.
The few and comparatively powerful long-range coastal batteries in the vicinity of Odessa had been designed for battle with enemy ships, not for the defense of the city from land.
Defense lines had to be built as quickly as possible. By the end of August, engineering forces helped by the population built three main and several secondary defense lines. The first was 20-25 km from the city, the second and main one 10-14 km away, and the fallback passed along the outskirts.
This defense system was augmented by barricades in the streets, anti-tank obstacles and firing points.
Odessa became a front line town. It was hard to recognize its streets, which only a short while ago had been so busy and gay. Now shells of houses destroyed by enemy planes, artillery and the fires they caused, barricades and shelters could be seen. The streets scorched by the August sun were pockmarked by bomb craters and the gray banks of bomb shelters. Basements of big houses were also used as shelters. From early morning to late at night women, old people and teenagers carried paving stones and sandbags to the barricades to reinforce them, turned houses into fortifications, laid concrete around artillery units, and set up rails hedgehogs to stop tanks. Three lines of barricades and firing units encircled the port area, the centre and the outskirts of Odessa.
Meanwhile the enemy had approached Odessa and a bitter battle was in full swing. The German Command sought to speed up the capture of the city and the naval base. The Chief of the General Staff of the Land Forces of the nazi Army, General Haider, noted in his diary that until Odessa had been taken they could not launch the operation for the capture of the Crimea.
The defence line was one huge flaming arc above the coast. The enemy concentrated twenty divisions and brigades, 300,000 men in all, around Odessa. The city was defended by the Maritime army of the Southern Front and ships from the Odessa naval base. But the Soviet troops were outnumbered, the enemy had six times more men and five times more artillery.
On August 19th the Supreme Command set up the Odessa Defence Area, including in it the Maritime Army, the Odessa naval base and warships from the Black Sea fleet. The Military Council of the Odessa Defence Area became the supreme command for operations. This was a very timely and highly important measure, since the Maritime Army was cut off from the main forces of the Southern Front and the Soviet command found it difficult to direct operations of the land troops defending Odessa. The success of the defence operation depended on manpower reinforcements and supplies of arms, ammunition and food and all this the besieged city could receive only by sea. With the formation of the military council with powers over the Black Sea Fleet, the necessary unified command was formed. Rear-Admiral Gavriil Zhukov, an experienced commander and organiser, was appointed its head.
Some parts of the coast were isolated by limans, and these hindered the interaction of troops, so three comparatively independent sectors were set up on the defence line; the Southern, Western and Eastern.
The efforts of the merchant seamen and the port workers were vital to the defence of Odessa. The equipment of industrial enterprises and the evacuees and wounded were taken out by the sea route, and it was in this way that the besieged town received much needed manpower, armaments, ammunition and food. The merchant seamen made 911 trips to Odessa. The route from the Crimea to Odessa was known at that time as the “lifeline”.
Transport ships and caravans carried out their voyages in immensely difficult conditions. For example, several dozen locomotives were marooned in Odessa, as the railway lines around the city were blocked. Somebody suggested that they be sent out by sea, by adapting a floating dock for this purpose. So 26 locomotives with a full supply of fuel were loaded onto the dock and were accompanied by fifty-two locomotive crews. The dock successfully completed the voyage to Nikolayev and from there on the
same evening the locomotives and their crews pulled 26 train-loads to the east.
The besieged town lived, worked and fought. Factories that before the war had produced civilian goods now switched to military production. One hundred and thirty-four types of military goods were produced and sent straight to the front and this included armoured trains, armoured tractors, mine and flame throwers, hand grenades and anti-personnel mines, etc. The factories also took over repairs of artillery guns, machine-guns, tanks and so on.
On Ordjonikidze Street (Ulitsa Ordjonikidze) (it can be reached by the No.8 trolleybus) the tourist can see one of these armored tractors standing on a pedestal. The people of Odessa lovingly called it their “tank”. In reality it was an ordinary caterpillar tractor enclosed in ship steel and supplied with a rotating tower on which a light gun or machine-gun was installed. Because of the terrific clatter it made when it stormed enemy positions it usually created a panic among enemy troops. The drivers of these armoured tractors joked, “We scare the enemy to death”, and among themselves they called it the Scare Tank. The name stuck, so that eventually even in official documents it was referred to as the Scare Tank.
Describing the atmosphere of those days, the well-known Soviet writer Konstantin Paustovsky wrote: “During the Great Patriotic War the people of Odessa, by nature a noisy and fun-loving people, fought for their city quietly and fiercely, but always with the invariable joke, they showed such courage and selflessness that even the enemy was amazed.
“Old fishermen and those seamen who could not find room on the ships fought desperately, because behind them lay Odessa, the city where work had always been inter-sticed with laughter, a town always bustling, noisy as the roar of the Black Sea.”
Even metal lipstick tubes were made to serve the war. The people crammed them with exposives and used them as fuses for anti-tank mines. For them too a loving name was quickly found; LAF, lipstick also fires, and these capsules were always known by their first letters, even in official documents.
Tin cans were turned into mines, and mine and flame
throwers were made out of pieces of oil pipes. All this was done when nearly all the equipment had been evacuated, when supplies of raw materials and fuel were strictly limited, and when most of the skilled workers had left to fight the enemy or been evacuated to the East.
The city’s difficulties were complicated still further by a serious water shortage, as the enemy had captured the waterworks on the Dniester River from which Odessa got its drinking water. A desalination unit was installed, and urgent steps were taken to drill new wells and repair old ones that had fallen out of use. In just a few days fifty-eight wells were put into operation. Their water was slightly bitter and salty, but even so it was rationed to no more than five litres a day per person.
In mid-September the fighting on the approaches to Odessa became particularly bitter as the city defenders only held a strip of coast 30 km wide. From the Dophin heights in the north-east, the nazis were able to systematically shell the town and port, while their aircraft bombed the coast and town.
It was at this critical moment that the defenders of
Odessa dealt a serious counter-blow to the enemy. It went down in the history of the war as the Grigoryevka landing. A new infantry division had arrived in the town and on the night of September 21st, while troops of the eastern sector launched a strong counter-attack, a marine unit trained in Sevastopol landed near the village of Grigoryevka and at the same time a unit was parachuted in.
As a result of this operation enemy troops were pushed back and shelling of the city, port and ships from the northeast was stopped. The conditions improved for deliveries of supplies to the city and Hitler’s plan for the blitz capture of Odessa was foiled.
The heroic defence of Odessa was, however, only a part of the great battle fought by the country. Nazi forces were advancing on Moscow and Saint Petersburg, they had captured Kiev and invaded the Donets coalfields and the Crimean peninsula. Because of the threat posed to the Crimea, the Supreme Command, for strategic reasons, decided to evacuate the troops from Odessa on September 30th and to use them to reinforce the defence of the Crimea.
The decision to leave
Odessa was prompted by the overall strategic situation, and was not taken because of pressure from enemy forces besieging the city.
The evacuation continued for two weeks, from the 1st to the 16th of October. The first to be evacuated were women, children and the wounded, followed by the army logistic units. Strict precautionary measures were taken to shroud the evacuation, major counter-attacks were undertaken, rumors were spread about the redeployment of forces, and the impression created was that the city was preparing for a winter siege. The enemy was misled.
At dawn on October 16th the last caravan of ships left Odessa for Sevastopol. It carried more than 35,000 rearguard troops plus their equipment.
To this day old fishermen and sailors in Odessa will tell you that when the caravan sailed, it was accompanied by a vast flock of sea-gulls, they too left the port.
Between the 1st and 16th of October an 86,000 strong army and 15,000 civilians were evacuated from Odessa to the Crimea and the Caucasus, as well as large quantities of military and civilian equipment.
Five divisions tempered in battle and with a great deal of experience in waging war were rebased in the Crimea where they greatly augmented the forces of the defenders of Sevastopol, who staunchly held out for two hundred and fifty days.
The troops that had defended Odessa for seventy-three days had accomplished their mission, they had kept a 300,000 strong enemy army at bay and had greatly weakened it.
The Great Patriotic War (the Heroic Defence of Odessa, the Partisan Movement, the Liberation of the City)