An almost symbolic date was chosen to sign the “Kharkiv Treaties” in 2010 – 82 years earlier, on April 29, 1918, Ukraine's blue-and-yellow flags were hoisted for the first time ever by the Black Sea Fleet
The Crimean raid of the UNR forces came as a surprise. Two months before, at the negotiations in Brest-Litovsk which eventually led to a peace treaty with Germany, the Central Rada relinquished the peninsula. The pragmatic Germans were surprised as they failed to comprehend what could have motivated Ukraine to give up these strategic territories. What they heard in response was something totally in the socialist spirit: Ukraine was abiding by the principle of “peace without annexations and contributions.”
THE CRIMEAN DILEMMA
The Black Sea Fleet was a powerful military force: three subdivisions of battleships, one of cruisers, one of hydroplane carriers, as well as torpedo boats and submarines. This armada secured control over Black Sea communications and had the capability of playing a part in the still ongoing war.
On April 9, 1918, the UNR government ordered the formation of the Zaporizhian Corps and appointed Gen. Zurab Natiev (Natiiv), an ethnic Ossetian, its commander. The corps was divided into two raid groups: one was headed by Col. Volodymyr Sikevych and went to the Donbas, while the other, under the command of Lieut. Col. Petro Bolbochan, was dispatched to Crimea. This latter group included the Republican Regiment (headed by Bolbochan himself), the Kost Hordienko Cavalry Haidamaka Regiment (Col. Vsevolod Petriv), and the cavalry and mountain artillery battalion (Col. Oleksa Almazov). These were complemented by auxiliary units of various types: an engineering regiment, an artillery unit and an automobile battalion. The corps had a total of 9,000 men. This force advanced downstream along the Dnipro, and prepared to take favorable positions to launch an attack. The commanders were given a secret order by the UNR government: conquering Crimea before Germans and establishing the Ukrainian government there.
Near Melitopol, the corps was confronted by large defense-ready enemy force for the first time during the campaign. The Bolsheviks put up fierce resistance, and the battle could have ended with their victory if it were not for a fortunate coincidence. At the time, a unit commanded by Col. Drozdovsky was passing behind the Bolsheviks’ positions on its way to the Don to join the White Guard forces there. When they learned that the Bolsheviks were fighting some unknown enemy, the Russians attacked them from the rear. The surprise attack overwhelmed the Bolsheviks and they fled all the way to Syvash. On April 20, the Zaporozhian Corps also reached this area and was found there by Gen. Robert von Kosch, commander of the German force. Col. Bolbochan informed him about his decision to immediately attack Syvash.
“FATHER, THE COSSACK SEA!”
Syvash is also called the Rotten Sea in reference to its peculiar smell of stagnant water. It is impenetrable nearly all year long which makes it an ideal defensive position and an almost hopeless offensive target. This is especially true when it is brimming over with enemy troops and filled with state-of-the-art fortifications. The only way leading to the peninsula, a bridge resting on piles, was mined.
The Germans flatly refused to attack these fortifications but did not prevent Bolbochan from preparing and carrying out the offensive. Under the cover of a mass barrage, a handcar containing a small unit under the command of Cap. Zelinsky headed for the Isthmus of Perekop. Going full speed ahead, it burst into the defense positions, with the Ukrainians throwing hand grenades all around themselves. While the enemy was coming to its senses, an armored train crossed the isthmus and opened withering machine gun fire. Finally, the infantry of the Republican Regiment crossed the bridge – which the enemy never had the time to blow up – and attacked the enemy positions. One armored train was followed by others. Then came the infantry followed by cavalry units under the command of Col. Petriv. The Bolsheviks’ retreat turned into a panicked flight. On late April 22, Ukrainian units were in Dzhankoi, a key train station in Crimea. From there they launched attacks at other important locations.
The Ukrainians soon reached the sea. The first to get there was, of course, the cavalry. The units had to take the most difficult path crossing the mountains to the west of Simferopol. With the help of Tatar guides, the cavalry units reached the Black Sea within a month. The finale of their raid was announced by the advance guard: “Father, the Cossack sea!”
A WAR OF NERVES
The raid by the “new Zaporizhians” may look as an easy bravado-fueled trip, but the victory was won with stratagy rather than weapons. Bolbochan had made thorough preparations for the breakthrough. After the defeat of the Red forces near Melitopol, Petriv’s cavalry blocked roads and paths leading to the isthmus and caught everyone who tried to get to the Crimea. One such mounted patrol happened to seize a Bolshevik telegrapher who knew the codes used by enemy units in their internal communication. The precious captive was immediately taken to the headquarters. After this and until the offense, the Bolshevik command in Simferopol received wires about the retreat of the Ukrainian forces and quiet on all sides. The Bolsheviks were shocked when reality confronted them.
After the Ukrainians came to the Crimea, the “war of nerves” turned into “everyone's war against everyone.” The first test was establishing a line of command. Even though the German commander, Gen. von Kosch, was formally superior in rank to Bolbochan, the latter’s corps carried the ball in the operation. Moreover, Ukrainians were vastly more familiar with the local circumstances. In the end however, Bolbochan was finally forced to subordinate himself to the German general.
In what followed the Germans actively utilized this advantage. Without limiting themselves to formal means only, they started to apply an entire range of hindrances against Ukrainian forces: disrupting communications and supplies, blocking troop trains at stations, stalling the actions of the command, etc. The situation was precipitated by the “difficulties of translation” – the translator employed in the negotiations between the Ukrainian and German command was Otto Kirchner, who, despite his origin, sympathized with the White Russia.
In Dzhankoi, the Germans disrupted communications between Ukrainian units, the result of which was that Ukrainian commanders could only rely on the speed of their horses and the sympathies of the local population. They paid back in kind when the cavalry broke communication lines between the German command and its troops as a way to say goodbye.
The two sides found themselves on the verge of open confrontation in Simferopol. After conquering the city, Germans blocked Ukrainian armored trains. Then they demanded that the Ukrainian troops be withdrawn from Crimea. Bolbochan refused. Then the Germans brought their units to Simferopol and positioned them in a way that finally blocked the Ukrainian units. On the morning of April 26, both sides started preparing for a battle. The Ukrainian commanders were planning to disarm the Germans or defend themselves with the help of the local population. Gen. von Kosch openly demanded that they disarm themselves and leave Crimea. In response, Bolbochan ordered his troops to take up battle positions.
It was at this moment that Gen. Natiev arrived from Kharkiv. After discussing the situation with the Ukrainian commanders, he decided to refer to the Central Rada. And this is where the narrow-minded and cowardly politicians completely destroyed the achievements of the military. The head of the UNR government, Vsevolod Holubovych, did nothing but deliver utopian speeches. Borys Monkevych testified that during the first round of the negotiations the telegrapher made it look like the connection was disrupted. He was a German noncommissioned officer sympathetic toward Ukrainians and thus explained his motive to the Ukrainian officers: “Only a child, never a statesman, can speak this way.” After he “restored” the connection, Natiev and Bolbochan preempted a barrage of demagoguery with a firm demand to be given clear orders on what to do in the situation. The answer was that they had to comply with the German command and leave Crimea. The Central Rada essentially disavowed its own defenders.
FLAGS ON MASTS
The biggest success came close to the finale of the operation. While most of the units were stuck in Simferopol together with Bolbochan due to the German intrigues, only Petriv’s cavalry reached Sevastopol, arriving there across mountain paths with the help of Tatar guides. On April 28, the Haidamaka Regiment engaged in battles against the Bolsheviks near Sevastopol. At the same time, a Ukrainian sailor came to Col. Petriv with the news that the Bolsheviks were planning to move the fleet from Sevastopol to Novorossiysk despite the fact that the destination point had no technical conditions to host it. Protests were raging across the city, because most residents made their living off the fleet. Moreover, most sailors, who were ethnic Ukrainians, supported handing over the fleet to Ukraine. Then Admiral Mykhailo Sablin made what was an unprecedented move at the time – on April 29, 1918, he ordered that Ukrainian flags be hoisted. None of them knew about a secret order to Raskolnikov, the Bolshevik commander of fleet, to immediately sink it if it were to go to Ukrainians.
The Black Sea Fleet became the official fleet of the Ukrainian National Republic. However, the entire ceremony was rather a "farewell salvo" of the army which was already leaving the Crimea – the last units withdrew in early May. A large number of local volunteers swelled their ranks. Without providing military and ground support, Ukraine was unable to hold on to its fleet.
The fleet then experienced a series of dramatic events. One of the torpedo boats was sunk right in the bay, while another one was so badly damaged that the crew let it run aground. On the night of April 30, the Bolsheviks did move 14 destroyers to Novorossiysk. The next night, battleships Volia and Svobodnaya Rossiya and three torpedo boats also left. Ukrainians kept seven armored battleships, three cruisers, 12 torpedo boats, all the hydroplane carriers, auxiliary ships and a subdivision of submarines. Later, both battleships and part of torpedo boats returned to Sevastopol. However, further events prevented Ukraine from taking advantage of its fleet. It was forced to withdraw its troops from Ukraine in the fall of 1918 following Germany's defeat in the First World War. Then the anti-hetman insurgency erupted. While Ukrainians were busy overthrowing the hetman and defending their state from the Bolsheviks, who started another war against the restored UNR, the Entente troops landed in the Crimea. They supported the White Guard movement and, of course, would not hear of any Ukrainian fleet.
There are few military operations so daring and political decisions so inept on record in world history. By relinquishing the Crimea, the Central Rada deprived Ukraine of an outlet to the sea and essentially gave sea communication to the Bolsheviks or the White Guard – neither of whom were friends of Ukraine. In the grand scheme of things, a Ukrainian Crimea did not please anyone: the Bolsheviks, the White Guard, the Entente (England and France), or Germany. By letting Bolbochan go ahead, Gen. von Kosch secretly hoped that the Ukrainians would suffer losses and fail to break through. The fleet was sunk with the silent agreement of all the big players. After officially relinquishing Crimea, the peninsula could only be won back by force. The military did an excellent job, but Holubovych's order to withdraw reduced this achievement to nothing.
The Verkhovna Rada of independent Ukraine officially sanctioned the Russian Black Sea Fleet's stay in Sevastopol 82 years later.