In the early spring of 1942, Adolf Hitler hoped to regain the momentum his armies had lost in Russia during the bitter winter of 1941. He told his generals that he was going to mount a new offensive to capture the rich oil fields at Maikop, Baku, and Grozny in the Caucasus Mountains of southwestern Russia.
Seizing these vast resources would provide the Führer's thirsty war machine with fuel to keep driving into Russia. And it would deprive Soviet dictator Josef Stalin of his own badly needed oil. The German offensive would kick off in June 1942.
"If I do not get the oil of the Caucasus," Hitler told General Friedrich von Paulus, commander of the Sixth Army, "then I must end the war." Stalin could have said the same thing.
When preparations for the all-out attack got underway, Baron Adrian von Fölkersam, who was regarded as one of the German Army's most gifted young officers, was called to a high headquarters and assigned a crucial role for his curious little private army. He called his men the "wild bunch," and with ample reason.
Captain Fölkersam was elated on learning of his mission: he and his men, who officially belonged to an elite Commando-type outfit called the Brandenburgers, were to work their way into the Caucasus and prevent the oil fields at Maikop from being blown up by the Russians before German spearheads arrived.
Fölkersam, the grandson of a Russian admiral, was ideally suited for the daunting task behind enemy lines. He spoke Russian fluently (as well as English and French), and was noted for his coolness in tight situations. Earlier in the year, he had recruited and trained a force of sixty-two Russian-speaking Balts and disillusioned Germans, and he pledged to take them farther behind Russian lines than any Brandenburg unit had ever gone. Now that chance was at hand.
Dressed in the military uniforms of the NKVD, the Russian secret service, Fölkersam and his "wild bunch" sneaked through Red Army lines under the veil of night in July 1942, and headed for the Caucasus in captured Russian vehicles.
A week later, the Brandenburgers tagged on to the rear of a long Russian convoy of trucks on the road to Maikop. Soon, they ran into a large band of Red Army deserters. Deciding to try and use this situation to his advantage, Fölkersam persuaded the deserters to return to the Soviet cause, and thus he was able to join with them and move at will through the Russian lines.
On the outskirts of town, they encountered a group of real NKVD men who were trying to sort out a confused traffic jam. Fölkersam, whom his men thought relished perilous situations, halted his truck and approached one of the genuine NKVD officers.
"Well, you finally got here," the Russian exclaimed with a snarl. "Well, we don't need you now!"
"Major" Fölkersam had no idea to what the Russian was referring, but he saluted, got into his truck, and the convoy drove on into Maikop. In the city, the caravan pulled up in front of the NKVD headquarters. Fölkersam went inside and presented himself to a Russian general as "Major Turchin from Stalingrad."
A friendly type, the general seemed to be delighted to have a visitor from where the real war was being fought, apparently disappointed with his assignment in the seeming backwaters of the conflict in Russia. After an amiable conversation with "Major Turchin," the general arranged for comfortable quarters for the newcomers. Fölkersam even persuaded the Russian general to give him a personal tour of the city's defenses. With a good knowledge of his target's strengths and weaknesses, Fölkersam formulated a plan for the capture of Maikop.
For several days, the Brandenburgers meandered around Maikop in their Russian uniforms, sizing up the defenses of the city and those of the nearby oil fields. On the night of August 8, Fölkersam could hear the distant rumble of German artillery firing shells, and the much louder roar of Russian guns emplaced around Maikop. He learned from a genuine Russian officer that the German army was only ten miles from Maikop.
At dawn, Fölkersam called his men together and gave them final instructions. In teams of four or five, they were to stir up mass confusion among the Russians and prevent them from destroying the oil wells.
Lieutenant Franz Koudele and a few men were sent to seize the local telegraph office. When he told the Russian officer in charge that Maikop was being abandoned and that he had better get out while he could, the Russian was not inclined to argue, and he and his staff fled.
Now the Russian-speaking Koudele was in charge of a telegraph system connected to various headquarters and posts throughout much of the northern Caucuses. Messages flooded the office. Soviet commanders demanded to be connected with some officer who knew what was going on at the front. "We cannot connect you, sir," Koudele replied with just the proper tone of anxiety in his voice. "Maikop has been abandoned."
By now, there was a stampede of Russian officers and soldiers heading out of Maikop, away from the front. No one wanted to be left in town to confront the oncoming German army.
Meanwhile, at the Maikop oil fields, army engineers were preparing to blow up the wells, storage tanks, and pumps. Then the counterfeit NKVD men raced up in their Russian trucks and shouted at the engineers to hold up on the demolitions. They quoted Fölkersam's Soviet friend, the general, who had already left for the rear, as the authority for the hold-up order.
As matters turned out, the failure of the Russian engineers to blow up the oil fields played right into the hands of Josef Stalin. Although German panzers reached the outskirts of Maikop, Adolf Hitler's offensive ground to a halt, and Stalin retained his crucial oil source.
Sources and Additional Information:
Daring missions of World War II By William B. Breuer