Their uniforms became encrusted with layers of powdery concrete blanketing them as they descended the stairs. Across their weary faces, black soot smeared in strange wavy patterns created by the channels of sweat dripping from their chins. They had just completed a sweep of the upper stories of the fortress-like grain elevator and silo. Just like the first floor, they found several bodies. Most were wearing the standard olive drab of the Soviet Army. A distinct few wore the black uniforms of Navy sailors, whose appearance seemed all too strange in a city like this; where Hell would have been too kind a name to christen.
This was Stalingrad, where the ‘Rattenkrieg’ (War of The Rats) raged. Here, after three days of brutal fighting, German soldiers realized that perhaps no more than 40-50 men almost succeeded in preventing thousands of their Panzer division infantry from taking this vital structure…The blame (or triumph), rested on this small group of slain Russian soldiers. These intrepid fighters had piled up German bodies by the hundreds and disabled their armor as it attempted to provide support.
The sheer tenacity of this place soon veered toward these men in black. Perhaps they were the ones who motivated the others to fight so hard. The Germans had already encountered them before – every time knowing that the men wearing these distinct uniforms would fight like beasts; proving it to be almost too costly to try to dislodge them from any position they set their boots in. Now, as they exited the structure into the smoldering wasteland around them, the soldiers began relaxing and thinking over the day’s events. Some tried garnering satisfaction in knowing that it was unlikely that any of the elite sailors escaped.
One lucky sailor managed to beat the odds. Just before the position fell, the commanding officer, Lieutenant Andrey Khozyaynov, managed to escape back to the Russian line. He told them the story of how he and 17 of his detachment reinforced and helped thirty Red Army soldiers hold off an insurmountable assault for over three days starting on the 18th of September, 1942. By this stage of the campaign on the Eastern Front, the appearance of men like him on the battlefield was often causing concern far out of proportion to their numbers.
The Germans considered them among the best of the Soviet fighting man – those who often fought with such motivation and eagerness, that even when annihilated, unlike many in the Red Army units that suffered the same fate, they tended to take much more of the enemy with them. So much so that Germans nicknamed them the ‘Black Death’ for their black, formal-like uniforms. To their countrymen, they were known as the Naval Infantry of the Soviet Union.
Their history in the Second World War is unique for the fact that these units were never considered elite when they were first created. The Soviet Union was hard pressed for men during the initial stages of the 1941 German invasion and the services were called of just about anybody fit to carry a rifle. Many sailors received army training and equipment before being assigned to one of 37 brigade-sized infantry (some were called rifle) detachments. They would guard seaports or be used to augment Red army defenses with the hopes of engaging in amphibious landings should an offensive require it in the future.
Soon after their combat debut on the defensive, they began developing a reputation as fearsome warriors, not because of their tactics, but because of their spirit. This ‘never say die’ sense of honor and duty to overcome impossible odds often contrasted with other Soviet units who carried a resigned and fatalistic view that they were doomed no matter what. This special élan led some to achieve incredible feats; one of them being the aforementioned story of the heroic effort to hold the grain elevator in Stalingrad.
Another, even more incredible, act of bravery took place in and around an uphill outpost called Malaya Zemlya (Minor Land) at Cape Myskhako, the southern part of the city of Novorossiysk, on the Black Sea.
On February 4th 1943, just two days after the fall of Stalingrad, this display of absolute dedication arose from the abyss. On a hellishly snowy night, an 800-man contingent of the 83rd Naval Infantry brigade, under Major Caesar Kunikov, attempted a landing on the shores of Malajia Ozereevka and Bolshaia Ozereevka. Both proved to be problematic and too costly, so the plan was quickly reworked to set them off at what was originally going to be a decoy landing at nearby Malaya Zemlya.
The unit sprung from their landing craft and engaged the Germans in short order. Fighting was fierce and unforgiving, but the Soviets began to make headway when they captured an outpost along the southern portion of the city where its prize, the port, was located. Afterwards, the unit dug in along a few kilometers and waited for the inevitable response. After all, this liberated position sat between a peninsula and the mainland territory still occupied by the Germans.
The next day brought a rain of artillery and airstrikes onto the tiny beachhead; one that was unlike any seen before. The German infantry made their move with the support of tanks. They attempted to regain that tiny sliver of land; hearkening to a few months previous in Stalingrad, when the Red Army had been reduced to just a few hundred yards of territory, never relinquishing control. Worries arose within the Germans as they brought hell down upon on the Soviets at Malaya Zemlya. Realizing that this was unlike Stalingrad, a sense of urgency took hold. This beachhead had the ability to be reinforced and expand from being a current thorn in their side, to a gaping wound spreading over the body of the German forces who were now fighting to get out of the Caucasus before being cut off.
It must fall.
Every day that went by, the Germans attacked the Soviets. Infantry and panzers rushed forward in snow, silhouetted by the smoke of artillery and airstrikes against the entrenched sailors. Without fail, they were pushed back, but not without sustaining heavy casualties. In the early days of the beachhead, the 83rd managed to receive a few hundred reinforcements to help out; little else accompanied them, except for the supplies to help keep the place from falling.
Despite growing casualties (including the death of Kunikov), the fighting amid the winter landscape gave way to the muddy boots of a spring thaw, with the Soviets refusing to be dislodged. No matter what tactic or weapon was hurled against them, they refused to give in. This disgusted the Germans, who knew that time was not on their side because their forces were struggling on the mainland. Those devoted to taking back the outpost knew that at some point they would have to join in on a similar escape if the Soviet counteroffensive could not be halted.
The fighting ended when fresh Red Army units arrived on September 16th to relieve the sailors, most of whom were grizzled and looked far older than their real age (most were in their late teens and early twenties). After a summer’s worth of fighting, the destruction had left the land as barren and marked as a moonscape. News of their fight spread and began to hold a special place of honor in Russian military history; so much so that Novorossiysk was added to their name. They were also awarded the Red Banner Order of Suvorov Light Infantry, twice. This medal signified the 83rd’s achievement of holding off and prevailing against a foe that always outnumbered them by many thousands. They did this for an unimaginable 225 days.
In addition, Caesar Kunikov posthumously received the highest honored individual medal his nation awarded: Hero of The Soviet Union.
As Malaya Zemlya faded, the war raged into its final two years. Most of the Naval Infantry brigades were absorbed into Red Army units by the time the final offensives took them into Germany. Their legacy was destined for preservation. After the war, the 83rd was reformed. Thankfully, this meant that they could never be used against the U.S. and its western Allies during the Cold War, as the East and West stared each other down around the globe.
So what made these men fight so well?
One can form different theories, but a likely one is that they were sailors thrust into an unexpected role. They may have felt their Red Army counterparts looking down on them. Suspecting they would fail in their assignment, they knew they had to prove otherwise. Without a doubt, they did that and more.
By bonding into a brotherhood that carried them through the most difficult of circumstances, they became ranked among the best fighting forces of World War II.
(Featured Image Courtesy: The Wandering Scot)
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