139 Vorontsov Palace, in Odessa

Vorontsov Palace, in Odessa

(July 30, 2021) This week, 80 years ago, the Siege of Odessa began as elements of the Romanian Fourth Army, commanded by Lt. Gen. Nicolae Ciupercă, arrived outside Odessa.

Odessa is located on the Black Sea and is the fourth largest city in Ukraine, with a population exceeding 1 million. At the beginning of the war, the city had a population of more than 600,000, of which Jews, with 33 percent, were the most numerous, followed by Ukrainians and Russians at 30 percent each. By the time of the siege, half the population had fled. Additionally, most of the heavy industry had been dismantled and shipped out.

The Romanians hoped to be able to take Odessa on the move — before the Soviets could perfect their defenses. Only 30,000 Soviet soldiers defended it at the time. However, strong defenses had already been prepared consisting of three concentric lines. That, coupled with Romanian ineptitude, prevented a quick conquest.

The defense of the city was entrusted to the Separate Coastal Army, which had been formed on July 20, 1941 and was commanded by Lt. Gen. Georgii P. Sofronov.

The Army consisted of the: 25th (Chapayev) and 95th Rifle Divisions, commanded by Ivan Y.Petrov and Vasilii Frolovich Vorobev; a Calvary Division; an N.K.V.D. Regiment and three anti-aircraft battalions. The garrison was reinforced by the 175th Rifle Division in September.

One of the soldiers in the Chapayev (named for a hero of the Russian Civil War) Red Banner Rifle Division was Lyudmila Pavlichenko, who would become the most proficient female sniper in history with 309 confirmed kills, of which 187 came during the defense of Odessa. Most of the rest were achieved during the defense of Sevastopol.

Of the 309, 100 were Axis officers and 36 were enemy snipers. She was wounded four times. After the last injury, she did not return to combat, but turned to training other snipers.

In late 1942, Pavlichenko visited the White House, becoming the first Soviet citizen to do so. She then embarked on a tour of the country with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Before her return to the USSR, she also toured Canada and the United Kingdom. Upon her return to the Soviet Union, she was promoted to major and named a Hero of the Soviet Union. A stamp was issued in her honor. After her death, in 1974, a second stamp honoring her was issued. She is buried in the Novodevichye Cemetery, in Moscow.

The Romanian General Staff ordered Gen. Ciupercă to capture the city on Aug. 8, 1941. That same day Moscow sent the following message, “The situation on the land front notwithstanding, Odessa is not to be surrendered.” Within five days, Gen. Ciupercă’s Fourth Army had surrounded the city by land. Four days later, the city’s water reservoirs were captured.

By Aug. 28, the first line of defense had been breached and the Romanians were preparing to assault the second line. The port was now within range of Romanian artillery, and Gen. Ciupercă’s Fourth Army had suffered 27,307 casualties.

Gen. Ciupercă submitted a memorandum, on Sept. 3, to the Romanian General Staff, critical of its strategy. For that, he was replaced by the Romanian War Minister Lt. Gen. Iosif Iacobici on Sept. 9, with express instructions to follow the directives of the General Staff. Gen. Iacobici was replaced, as War Minister, on Sept. 22, 1941 by the Romanian Conducător, Marshal Ion Antonescu. Both Generals Iacobici and Ciupercă were arrested, after the war, tried, convicted and sentenced to life in prison, where they died in 1950 and 1952.

The offensive resumed on Sept. 12, but had to be stopped after two days when the artillery units ran low on ammunition. The Romanians now numbered 200,000, divided into 12 infantry divisions. A German detachment, consisting of two heavy artillery, an infantry and assault pioneer, regiments commanded by Lt.-Gen. René von Courbier arrived. On Sept. 17, the Romanian Army’s Chief-of-Staff, Gen. Alexandru Ioaniţi, was killed when he was hit by the propeller of the plane, which had just transported him and the Conducător to Odessa.

On Sept. 24, the Conducător informed his German ally that Fourth Army would have to abandon the siege. By Oct. 1, he had been convinced to continue it, with the promise of further German assistance. But the German reinforcements were not expected until at least Oct. 17.

Gen. Safronov was replaced by Gen. Petrov, the 25th Division’s commander, on Oct. 5.

Just before what was hoped to be the final assault on the Soviet City, between Oct.14 and Oct. 16, the Soviet Black Sea Fleet successfully evacuated 86,000 of the garrison, 15,000 civilians, 3,625 horses, 1,158 motor vehicles, 462 guns, 19 tanks and armored vehicles and 25,000 tons of cargo.

Elements of the Romanian 7th Infantry Division, commanded by Olimpiu Stavrat, entered Odessa on Oct. 16 at 10:30 a.m. Romanian casualties totaled 17,729 dead, 63,345 wounded and 11,471 missing. Material losses included 10,250 rifles; 956 light machine guns; 336 heavy machine guns; 115 mortars; 90 guns; 20 planes; and 19 tanks.

The Soviets reported 16,578 dead and missing, and 24,691 wounded. The siege had lasted 73 days, but the Soviets had left a few surprises for the conquering Axis forces. With its fall, Odessa became the only major European city captured by a non-German Axis Army.

On Oct. 22 one of those surprises exploded in the headquarters of the Romanian Army on Marazli Street, killing 67, including the Romanian 10th Division Commander, Major-Gen. Ion Glogojeanu, 16 other Romanian officers and four German Naval Officers.

Not being able to determine the actual responsible party, the Romanians began rounding up the remaining Jews in Odessa and killing them in groups of 30 to 40. After about 5,000 had been killed, Lt. Col. Nicolae Beleanu ordered that the Jews be moved into four large storage buildings where holes were made for machine guns. The doors were then closed and Col. Beleanu ordered the soldiers to fire into the buildings. After the firing stopped, the buildings were set on fire. More than 22,000 corpses were discovered after the War.

Another 35,000 to 40,000 Jews were moved into the ghetto known as Slobodka, where most of the buildings were destroyed and the Jews left outside for 10 days between Oct. 25 and Nov. 3, where many of them froze to death.

By January those Jews that had not died in the Slobodka Ghetto were transported in cattle wagons to concentration camps, where almost all died. Gen. Nicolae Macici was convicted by The People’s Tribunal in Bucharest in May 1945 for the Odessa Massacre and sentenced to die. His death sentence was commuted by the Romanian King. Gen. Macici died in Aiud Prison, in Central Transylvania, in 1950. Twenty-eight other members of the Romanian occupying force received prison sentences ranging from one year to life.

In December 1942, Odessa became the center for the Romanian administration of the area Romania called “Transnistria.” This meant “across the Dniester.” “Transnistria” was bordered on the west by the Dniester River, on the east by the Bug River, on the south by the Black Sea and on the north by Poland. Its population was approximately 2.5 million, of which 57 percent were Ukrainians, 28 percent Russians and 4.5 percent Romanians.

This is the area where the Romanians murdered many Jews — at least 185,000. The behavior of Romanians in “Transnistria” was so bad that the Germans protested!

The Romanian administrator for “Transnistria” was Gheorghe Alexianu. His residence and office were located in the Vorontsov Palace in Odessa. Before the war, he had been a respected law professor at Cernauti University in the city of Cernauti, Northern Bukovina, Romania, now the Ukranian city of Cernivtsi. Romanians working in the Transnistrian administration were paid thrice what they were paid in Romania.

As the Red Army approached, Prof. Alexianu was replaced by Maj.-Gen. Gheorghe Potopeanu on Feb. 1, 1944. The professor would be executed, with the Conducător, after a brief trial on June 1,1946. In February, the Red Army crossed the Bug River into “Transnistria.” On March 16, the Germans assumed total control of “Transnistria.” In the meantime, the Romanians were carting off everything they could find.

On May 1, 1945, Stalin recognized Odessa, Leningrad, Stalingrad and Sevastopol as “Hero Cities.” The title was made official on May 8, 1965 by the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR.

Next week: Gone Fishin’

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@gmail.com.

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