137 Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt

Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt

(Aug. 5, 2022) This week 80 years ago, the City of Maykop was captured by Axis forces in their search for oil. Today it is a city of 144,000 and is the capital of the Republic of Adygeya, in the Russian Federation. The city is located on the Belaya River about 1,100 miles south of Moscow, east of the Black Sea and west of the Caspian Sea.

Maykop was the third largest petrol center in the Caucasus 80 years ago, which was itself rich in petroleum, a commodity desperately needed by the Axis to fuel their war machine. The oil fields at Maykop and Grozny produced 5,000,000 tons of petroleum a year. Before the 1942 campaign began, Adolf Hitler said, “If I cannot capture at least Maykop, I cannot fight on.”

In October 1941, der Führer had told Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, commander of Armeegruppe South, that his forces were to capture Maykop and Stalingrad — each hundreds of miles from the other — even though the field marshal protested that an advance of more than 400 miles from his present position would be required, leaving his left flank dangerously exposed.

Hitler explained to the field marshal — the Wehrmacht’s senior, highest ranking and most respected, field commander — that the Soviets were finished and incapable of serious resistance. The field marshal laughed aloud.

The following spring, Armeegruppe South, now without Field Marshal von Rundstedt because he had been fired in November, was divided into Armeegruppes A & B. Armeegruppe A, commanded by Field Marshal Wilhelm von List, was now tasked with the capture of the Caucasus — the area between the Black and Caspian Seas. Armeegruppe A consisted of First Panzerarmee, still commanded by Ewald von Kleist, Seventeenth Army commanded by Richard Ruoff and Third Romanian Army, commanded by Petre Dumitrescu.

The defenders included the North Caucasian Front, commanded by Stalin crony, Marshal Semyon Budyonny, and the Trans-Caucasian Front commanded by Ivan Tyulenev.

The Red Army, unable to remove machinery and equipment quickly enough from the areas being occupied by the onrushing Wehrmacht, began a scorched earth campaign, destroying everything. To counter this, the Germans sent in a Brandenburger unit, under the command of Lt. Baron Adrian von Fölkersam.

The Brandenburgers were the Wermacht’s special operations troops. Equipped with Soviet trucks and dressed as NKVD soldiers, the Brandenburgers approached the oil fields at Maykop. As they neared the target, they ran into a group of Soviet deserters.

Baron von Fölkersam, who had been born and raised in the Russian Imperial capital of St. Petersburg, and so spoke fluent Russian, convinced the deserters to accompany him rather than face the alternative as deserters from the Red Army.

With them, he arrived at the Soviet headquarters in Maykop and convinced the Soviet Commander to give him a tour of the base. Using the knowledge gained of this tour, the Brandenburgers were able to capture the base communications center and convince the Soviets that were there to withdraw.

Another Brandenburger unit, also dressed in Soviet uniforms and commanded by Lt. Ernest Prochaska and also traveling in captured Soviet trucks, advanced toward the strategically important bridge at Bjelaja, and by yelling “Tanki, Tanki!” while gesticulating and looking terrified, convinced the Soviet defenders that these were Soviet troops in full retreat.

The Soviet troops defending the bridge abandoned their positions and fled, allowing the Brandenburgers to disarm the demolition charges. Both lieutenants were decorated with the Knight’s Cross — Prochaska posthumously.

On Aug. 9, Hellmut von der Chevallerie’s 13th Panzerdivision marched in and captured the city, the oil fields, 1,000 prisoners and the base, without a shot being fired. Accompanying the division was an “oil salvage company,” which, although it may have known something about oil production, knew little to nothing about combat, which didn’t serve it well when it encountered the Red Army.

That same day, Gen. Rouff’s Seventeenth Army occupied Krasnodar. It is located 50 miles east of the Black Sea and 620 miles south of Moscow. Located on the Kuban River, it has a population of 750,000. But its refinery was destroyed.

Unfortunately for Hitler, the capture of Maykop did not solve his fuel problems. The Red Army had, in fact, sabotaged the wells, storage facilities and refineries. A bigger target — and even further distant — was Baku. Der Führer urged Field Marshal von List to scrape together all available forces for the final push to Grozny and Baku.

Today, Baku, a 2,000-year-old city on the western shore of the Caspian Sea, with a population of 2 million is the capital of Azerbaijan. Eighty years ago, it had a population of 800,000 and produced 80 percent of the Soviet Union’s oil. Its capture — no matter the condition of the oilfields — would have driven the U.S.S.R. from the war.

Prior to the campaign, a cake had been presented to der Führer in the shape of a map of the Caspian Sea, with Baku spelled in chocolate. After eating the cake, Hitler told the assembled, “Unless we get Baku oil, the war is lost.”

On Aug. 25, tanks of XXXX Panzerkorps, commanded by Baron Geyr von Scheppenburg, were at Mozdok, 50 miles from Grozny, on the Terek River. The river was crossed on Sept. 2.

Grozny is the capital of Chechen Republic of the Russian Federation, with a population of 271,000. Before the war, Chechnya had a population of about 700,000, of which 53 percent were Chechens and 29 percent were Russians. The Russians have always had trouble with the Chechens and 80 years ago was no different. Therefore, the Germans expected a lot of help, but it didn’t happen to the extent that the Germans thought, and hoped, it would.

The Supreme Warlord relieved Field Marshal von List of the command of Armeegruppe A on Sept. 9. Hitler replaced the field marshal with himself — 1500 miles away! Three days later, Malgobek in the Republic of Ingushestia, was occupied. Ingushestia is a part of the Russian Federation, bordering Georgia to the south and the Russian republics of North Ossetia–Alania and Chechnya to its east and west. Today, Malgobek has a population of 31,000, and on Oct. 8, 2007 was designated a “City of Military Glory.”

On Sept. 20, Eberhard von Mackensen’s III Panzerkorps began driving toward Grozny, and Terek was captured. Today Terek, located on the Terek River, has a population of 19,000. III Panzerkorps consisted of two Panzerdivisions, Felix Steiner’s SS Viking Division and two Rumanian Mountain Divisions, commanded by Ion Dumitrache and Radu Fâlfănesque. On Oct. 6, Gen. Fâlfănesque was replaced by Leonard Mociulschi.

The Supreme Warlord sacked Army Chief-of-Staff Franz Halder on Sept. 25, 1942, and replaced him with Kurt Zeitzler.

Although the Axis came within 50 miles of Grozny, on Oct. 29, 1942, they were never able to capture it, or Baku. Hitler’s decision to attack Stalingrad, and the subsequent siphoning of forces from the efforts to capture the Soviet oilfields, insured that the forces were insufficient for either goal.

The high-water mark of this effort was the failed attempt to capture Vladikavkaz, capital of North Ossetia, which today has a population of 311,000. On Oct. 8, 2007, President Putin recognized it as a “City of Military Glory.”

In November 1942, der Führer decided that if he couldn’t have those oilfields, the Soviets couldn’t either, so he ordered the Luftwaffe to begin attacking them. Previously, the Germans had not bombed them, figuring that they were going to capture them.

On Jan. 29, 1943, the Red Army recaptured Maykop, without the Germans having extracted a drop of oil.

Next week: Operation Pedestal - The Relief Of Malta

Mr. Wimbrow writes from Ocean City, Maryland, where he practices law representing those persons accused of criminal and traffic offenses, and those persons who have suffered a personal injury through no fault of their own. He can be contacted at wimbrowlaw@hotmail.com

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