“Crimea has been officially severed from the rest of the front line.”

This was how Captain Perelli decided to greet me as I had just sat down for lunch.

“Well, I’m sure Hitler is pleased. Care for some sausages?”

This brought a smile to my friend’s face and he sat down to join me.

“What precisely does this mean? Are evacuations to begin by sea?” I asked as I cut into one of the sausages I had been able to acquire on Constanta’s black market.

“Officially, no; Hitler has forbidden any evacuations at this time. He claims it would leave the Romanian oil fields too vulnerable to Soviet air attack,” Perelli parroted from his own CO, rolling his eyes as he said it.

“And unofficially?”

“Unofficially, the German high command is not keen to see another field army be captured. While they are obeying Hitler’s orders for now to not evacuate troops, non-essential personnel are to begin disembarking from Sevastopol immediately.”

“And we’re their ride?”

“Si!” The captain declared as he shoveled a fork full of onions into his mouth.

I was one of only three Hungarian captains in the entire Axis Black Sea Fleet. I am not entirely sure how I got the job, except that I had the experience of operating one of the ferries in Budapest before the war. This did give me more experience on the water than most Hungarians, but it still was not much. The Germans were desperate for ships since the Turks had closed the Bosporus to Axis reinforcements, so Hungary volunteered a couple retrofitted riverboats to help. In exchange, Hungary was promised claims to some of France’s North African territories after the war. For three years’ service I was promised a grant for 1,000 hectares in one of these territories, at least half of which had to be arable ground.

It seemed like a pretty good arrangement, and early on it was easygoing. As the German divisions encircled entire Soviet field armies on land, we sank the Soviet Flagship Moskva and crippled the Communists’ Black Sea Fleet. Soon Manstein had Crimea, and there was talk of an assault on Batumi. Then came Stalingrad, and the victory bells ceased. Now it was only loss after loss.

Italy had just changed sides a month prior, but Perelli was cautious when the news came in. While the other Italian captains let their men celebrate and even started preparing to go home, Perelli confined his men to their ship. The Germans shot all of the officers of those ships and either forced the crews to continue service under German officers or shipped them to Germany to work as slave laborers. Perelli and his men were, however, unmolested due to their “loyalty to the Anti-Bolshevik cause.” This episode made Perelli fully believe the rumors coming out of the Ionian Islands, and he was slowly sneaking his men out on Turkish freighters and replacing them with Romanian fisherman until he himself could flee.

Yet now, we had a new mission and plans for escape had to be put on hold. No sooner had Perelli left than a German officer came by with the official orders that my ship, Perelli’s, and an escort of three torpedo boats were to depart at dawn for Sevastopol. I informed my crew to be ready.


The water was still calm when we disembarked, the winter storms having not yet descended upon the region. It would make our job quicker and we would probably be able to reach Sevastopol before nightfall, provided we did not encounter any Soviet patrols along the way. Calm seas give men time to think, a dangerous situation. Staring out from the bridge of my little ship, my helmsman keeping us steady, I could not help but to think of how many times before these calm waters had been turned red.

It was perhaps a year ago that I had been out gambling with Perelli when a Romanian policemen found me to inform me that there had been an incident involving one of my crew at a tavern. When Perelli and I arrived at the place, we found a body under a sheet, my chief engineer Viktor Kovacs handcuffed to a Romanian policeman, and several other policemen interrogating other members of my crew who had been present.

I was told my men were drinking when a couple Turks from a visiting freighter entered the bar and asked to join them. My men obliged and soon the whole party were drunk as lords and telling their best stories.

The Turkish bastard under the sheet decided he would tell his best tale from the last war when he was with the Ottoman Army in Trebizond. Apparently, he had been assigned to a special detail for pacifying the civilian population of Trebizond. He recounted how he helped round up a couple hundred Greek and Armenian women and girls onto a waiting ship. They told the women they were being sent to Crimea as part of a population exchange negotiated with the Czar. Instead, a couple miles off the coast the ship dropped anchor and the Turkish soldiers proceeded to grab the women and girls and throw them overboard and watch them drown. The Turk claimed to have participated in several of these voyages.

Kovacs, it seems, listened to this story for several minutes without uttering a word. Then, as the Turk got into more lurid details about some of the women they did not drown, Kovacs stood up, walked behind the Turk, and slit the man’s throat from ear to ear with his pocket knife. The other Turks fled in a panic while Kovacs sat back down and finished his beer before the police arrived.

Kovacs needed to be punished, but this sort of crime warranted half-pay for a month or cancellation of leave, not a noose. Perelli tried to bribe the policemen with a thick wad of Romanian bills to release Kovacs to us, but they would not hear of it. Then I reached into my pocket and pulled out 200 Swiss Francs in gold which I had won off a German officer only an hour prior. The eyes of the officers widened, for even the most duty-bound bureaucrat understands the difference between gold and printer’s ink.

We left with Kovacs and the Romanians said they would deal with the Turk. Knowing the Constanta police force, they probably dumped him into the Black Sea. A fitting end.

The helmsman’s voice brought me back to the present as we were nearing the mouth of Sevastopol’s harbor. By sheer luck, we had made it before the sun had fully set when the Soviet subs were the most dangerous. It seemed unlikely to me that we would make as good of time on the way back, but at the very least we would be in Romanian waters again by tomorrow’s sunset, a far safer prospect.

I awoke the next morning safely docked, ready to load our passengers and get underway. I looked out on the dock, but I only saw a few Crimean dockworkers milling about. Where were the throngs of evacuees?

I had barely gotten to the bridge when Perelli was shown in. I could tell I was in for an earful.

“Horses! A captain of the Royal Italian Navy and I’m ordered to haul 50 fucking horses! My ship is going to stink like a fucking barn for a month!”

The Germans had been using Northern Crimea as a staging area for Army Group South’s reserve transport horses. The Crimean Steppe made for perfect horse forage, so they were left there until they were needed. Now with the losses that had been sustained by Army Group South, they were desperately needed to help evacuate wounded and equipment.

“Easy Perelli, they’ll onboard for a day. Besides, our hold will stink just as bad when all’s said and done.”

“No! You’re getting VIPs. They won’t be here for another hour and a half.”

“What! But its already 7:30. We’ll be lucky if we’re halfway back by nightfall.”


We waited around for two full hours with no activity, save the occasional whinny from Perelli’s ship’s hold. Then, finally, I saw a group of around 30 people walking towards us on the dock. As they drew closer, I noticed that most of them were women. The German officer leading them met me on the dock as he told the women to get aboard. He handed me the passenger list and spoke promptly.

“The secretaries for Army Group South’s General Staff. They were separated from the rest of the headquarters and the officers there need their assistance desperately.”

“Why couldn’t they have been here two hours earlier? We’ll be lucky to make it halfway back before nightfall now.”

“Apologies. They had to say their goodbyes to the senior officers here,” he said with a smirk before flashing a quick salute and walking away.

I glanced over the list and then looked at the women as they were climbing aboard the ship. They were all beautiful. Their dresses were on the finer end of what a secretary could afford, but their leather baggage suggested incomes well beyond the normal number of Reichsmarks allocated for an ordinary secretary. No doubt their words per minute rates were all pitiful, but they made it up to the generals in other ways.

The last of the secretaries were climbing aboard when Perelli walked back over from his ship.

“Are we ready to disembark?”

“Whores and horses.”


“Nothing. Let’s get out of here,” as I flashed him a quick salute and started shouting orders to my men.

We were able to get out of port in record time and actually reached the halfway point by 16:00. The crews of all five of the ships were actively watching for periscopes. That stopped when we heard the approaching aircraft.

Two Soviet fighters. I could not tell you what model, but probably MIG-3s. Their guns opened up and were obviously gunning for mine and Perelli’s ships. Only a few of the rounds hit their mark, but the sound of lead tearing through steel and the roaring engines was still enough to elicit multiple screams from the women below.

The torpedo boats opened up with their machine guns first, followed by additional lead from mine and Perelli’s ships. The bullets found their mark and soon one of the planes was trailing black smoke, but not before one of the torpedo boats received a full burst.

The Russians fled as quickly as they had arrived, the one plane obviously losing altitude as they flew East. All of the ships made it back to Constanta without further incident. It was only after our passengers had deboarded that I learned how badly the one torpedo boat had been hit. Of an eight-man crew, three dead and two wounded.


It was several months before we made another run to Crimea. The seas had grown harsh and the Soviet subs were operating ever closer to the Romanian coast. The General Staff were also struggling to determine who else they could sneak out of Crimea without enraging Berlin.

Perelli, on the other hand, had gotten almost all of his men out without incident. I imagined soon he would take his few remaining Italians and slip away on a Turkish freighter like the others. My hunch was proven correct when my ship received orders for another evacuation run. Perelli came to see me before we left.

“I plan to be gone by the time you return, my friend. Come find me when this war is over. My town is named Soave. It’s in the north. I’ll find you a job, and one of my cousins still needs a husband!”

“I’ll come for a visit, but I’m going back to Budapest when this is all over.”

“What about the Soviets?”

“Horthy is a good king. He’ll be able to make a deal with Churchill and Stalin. We may have to disarm again, but we’ll remain Hungary.”

With this, we shook hands and Perelli left. We got underway shortly thereafter, ordered to retrieve a handful of personnel and a precious cargo from Sevastopol. The voyage to Crimea was without incident, though radio traffic made it clear that Soviet air and submarine attacks were becoming more frequent.

No doubt the Americans were helping to enable this increase in attacks with the supplies they were sending to the Soviets. Everything from locomotives to grain was being shipped to Russia, just as it had been since before the Americans officially joined the war. In truth, our leaders should have anticipated this support from the Americans. Russia and America have always been closer than either of them would like to freely admit. It was in this same Sea only 150 years prior that America’s Naval Saint, John Paul Jones, was fighting on behalf of Catherine the Great against the Ottomans. The only difference now was the Americans were able to contribute more, and our sailors were paying the price.

In spite of this, we made it to port, and the next morning, after safely docking and getting a few hours’ sleep, I was escorted by a pair of SS officers to their organizational headquarters. From the number of crates stacked around the building, it was clear these fellows would be leaving the defense of Crimea solely to Wehrmacht. Yet I was not here for them, but was instead shown into the office of a Colonel Ernst Wolffe of the Ahnenerbe.

“Colonel Wolffe,” as I flashed a quick salute.

“Captain. Heil Hitler!” as the Colonel raised up his hand.

I raised my hand half-heartedly, just seeking to get on with it.

“Colonel, my ship is docked and I am ready to receive your staff and cargo.”

“I’m sorry, Captain, but I am afraid there has been a change of plans. My men are still in the field excavating an ancient Aryan burial mound. The artifacts we are recovering prove the Reich’s ancestral claim to these lands. They will be destroyed by the Communists if we do not retrieve them now. As for the cargo, I am afraid I cannot permit it to depart without me.”

“Colonel, my men and I came all the way from Constanta. Fuel is in short supply and we cannot leave here with nothing. I will lose my command.”

The Colonel thought for a moment, then shuffled through several of his papers. As he was searching, I noticed a gold bracelet on his wrist. I attempted not to make my staring overt, but its general form and shape suggested significant age, no doubt one of the artifacts the colonel was so intent on keeping under his personal control.

“I am sympathetic, Captain. I will allow you to depart with some of the less…inherently valuable artifacts.”

“Thank you, Colonel.”

“However, they are still critical to the Reich’s work. You must sign for them personally, and until they are delivered to the Ahnenerbe agent in Constanta, you will be held personally responsible should anything happen to them.”

I agreed to these terms and flashed a quick salute to the colonel. I learned some years later that Colonel Wolffe was captured in Yugoslavia in 1945 with two crates filled with Scythian gold artifacts. The Colonel was shot and the treasure his men had uncovered was stored next to the Trojan Gold looted from Berlin for decades.

Shortly thereafter, I was overseeing a dozen Crimean laborers loading over 60 crates onto my ship. As I watched them, a long line of wounded German soldiers stood by, hoping to be able to find a space on one of the handful of ships that were returning to Romania. I pitied them, but there was no way we could safely fit them onboard with the space being taken up by the artifacts.

The last of the crates were finally loaded and we got underway. I oversaw things from the bridge for a while, but finally curiosity got the better of me. I walked down to the cargo hold and cracked open one of those crates. Brushing aside the packing straw, I found an ancient clay bowl and wine cask. They were beautifully decorated with geometric patterns, but the designs had scratches all over them, far more recent in nature. As I looked more closely, I realized these scratches were rudimentary swastikas, added to the vessel’s original designs by far less skilled hands. I closed the crate and returned to the bridge.


The Soviet advances continued on the Eastern Front and soon a push was ordered by Moscow to retake Crimea. The German high command finally convinced Hitler that Crimea had to be evacuated and he relented. I lost track of how many runs we made between April and May of 1944, desperately trying to get as many men out as we could.

One trip that I do remember well had us transporting the remnants of a Romanian battalion that was armed with Winchesters. They were weapons that had been captured from the British at Dunkirk and which had passed between at least a dozen different divisions’ armories before winding up in the hands of these poor Romanians. These guys had lost over half their unit in their last engagement with the Soviets, leaving them with more rifles than men. One officer, just grateful for the ride, gifted me one of the surplus rifles and a hundred 30-30 cartridges. It’s one of the few things from the war I still own.

Despite our best efforts, Crimea fell with nearly 50,000 of our comrades captured. Constanta was next, and then the surviving ships of our fleet were scuttled on the Danube near Belgrade. I had Kovacs detonate the charges for our ship. I could not bear to do it myself.

My crew and I finally made it back to Hungary, but no sooner had we arrived then Horthy was overthrown in Szalasi’s coup. By that point, I had had enough. I secured passage to Northern Italy and found Perelli.

“You survived!” was how Perelli greeted me at the train station.

“Barely. Conditions seem to be getting worse by the day.”

“Si, but I don’t see the Americans letting the Soviets get this far west. We’ll be safe in Soave. I have connections, I’ll get you documents and a job. And my cousin still needs a husband.”

“I think this time I will take you up on that offer.”

Now here I sit, 20 years passed in this little walled town. I survived the war, but not unscathed. Every time I close my eyes, I see the approach to Sevastopol’s harbor. That damn peninsula for which I spent some of the best years of my life fighting. Crimea…