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Ukraine dam breach exposes remains, refuse from 80-year-old battle

The biggest environmental catastrophe in recent memory has not only left thousands of people displaced, but it has uncovered WW II scars

The southern Ukrainian city of Kherson pictured the day before the dam breach (left) and the day after.
Planet Labs
It was one of the biggest battles fought on the Second World War’s notoriously brutal and bloody Eastern Front and now, 80 years on, another war has literally brought the Battle of the Dnipro back from the dead.

On June 6, a series of late-night explosions brought down a section of the Russian-occupied Kakhovka dam on the Dnipro River in Ukraine, emptying a reservoir the size of Utah’s Great Salt Lake and causing major flooding downstream in Kherson.

Along with Second World War weapons, ammunition and unexploded ordnance, rising out of the newly exposed mudflats were the haunting skulls of what were presumably German troops, at least one of them still wearing the distinctive Stahlhelm steel helmet used by the forces of Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler.

The area around Nikopol and Kamianka-Dniprovska that now forms the centre of Ukraine’s counteroffensive in the war against invading Russian forces is the same region where more than six million Wehrmacht and Soviet Red Army troops fought across a 1,400-kilometre front for four months between August and December 1943.

Some 450,000 soldiers from both sides were either killed or declared missing over the course of what the Russians call the Battle of the Dnieper. The Soviets alone suffered more than a million casualties.

An expert on German military relics in Ukraine, Oleksii Kokot, told The Guardian newspaper that Red Army soldiers killed in action received wartime burials, but “dead German soldiers were just left lying” where they died.

Many of the German remains lay in marshes, which were then submerged when the Nova Kakhovka dam was built in 1956.

This Maxar Technologies satellite image shows the Kakhovka dam and station in Ukraine on June 7, 2023 after the collapse.
Maxar Technologies
Each side in the war launched by Russian President Vladimir Putin in February 2022 blamed the other after a series of controlled explosions opened a 200-metre gap in the 30-metre-high, 3.2-kilometre-wide dam and destroyed its power plant.

The devastating outpouring of water—already at a 30-year high—submerged homes, forced mass evacuations and claimed at least 52 civilian lives. Another 31 people were missing.

Thousands were left homeless and tens of thousands were without drinking water. The flooding has ruined crops, displaced land mines, caused widespread environmental damage and set the stage for long-term electricity shortages.

Hydroelectric authorities declared the supply of water used to cool Europe’s largest nuclear power plant at critically low levels.

It has been described as the most significant environmental catastrophe since the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster—also in what was then Soviet Ukraine. It may also constitute a war crime.

“It seems clear to me that this was a significant structure that was not blown up by accident,” Chris Waters, a law professor at Ontario’s University of Windsor, told Global News.

“International humanitarian law prohibits causing damage to the environment which is widespread, severe and long-term, and it’s pretty clear that this attack and the forces it’s released will have widespread long-term and severe consequences.”

Ukrainian officials subsequently released a May 28 drone photo of a white car with its roof cut open, revealing large barrels inside, one of which appears to have a landmine attached to its lid. A cable runs from the barrel toward the side of the river held by Russian forces.

A Ukrainian special forces official told The Associated Press he believed the car was there to stop any Ukrainian advance on the dam and to amplify a planned explosion originating in the machine room.

Russian forces have attacked other dams, including a rocket attack on the Kyiv dam days after they first crossed the Ukraine border, the Oskil River dam in July 2022, and the Kryvyi Rih dam—in a missile strike—last September.

In Demydiv, villagers thwarted what could have been a decisive Russian attack on Kyiv early last year by opening a dam on the Dnipro and flooding the enemy’s route to the Ukrainian capital.

The tactic turned the approaches and a main road to Kyiv into a swamp, thwarted an armoured assault and bought Ukrainian forces precious time to mount a co-ordinated defence.

A skull found on the mudflats after the Kakhovka dam reservoir was drained near Kherson, Ukraine. The helmet appears to be Second World War German.

It has been described as the most significant environmental catastrophe since the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

Ukrainian military intelligence claims the Russians wired the Dnipro dam soon after they took it in the war’s first days. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned of sabotage and called for an international observation mission at the site to prevent a catastrophe.

A day after the recent Dnipro breach, Russian forces shelled the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson where residents were already in flood-induced crisis. The attacks, coming hours after Zelenskyy visited the area, forced suspension of some rescue and relief efforts.

The Kherson region has been occupied by Moscow’s forces for a year. Ukraine held the western bank of the Dnipro, while Russia controlled the eastern side, which is lower and more vulnerable to flooding.

Ukraine’s deputy defence minister, Hanna Malier, alleged that Russia blew up the dam to prevent Kyiv’s troops from advancing in the southern Kherson region.

Ukraine’s security service said it had intercepted a phone call claiming a Russian “sabotage group” was responsible.

Post-Second World War protocols of the Geneva Conventions address attacks on “installations containing dangerous forces,” such as hydroelectric dams, though experts say the bans are conditional, depending on the military advantage gained.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan told Zelenskyy in a June 7 phone call that an international commission could be formed to investigate the blasts.

Water has long been used as a weapon of war, throughout ancient history and as recently as 2016 by Islamic State (ISIS) forces on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers in Syria. The terror group controlled six of eight dams, attacked an eighth, and prevented water from reaching some areas while flooding others.

Months before the 1943 Battle of Dnipro, Allied forces launched Operation Chatise, better known as the Dambusters Raid, in which 19 Lancaster bombers of 617 Squadron, Royal Air Force, hit Germany’s Möhne and Edersee dams with specially designed bouncing barrel bombs.

Both dams were breached; a third—the Sorpe Dam—was only lightly damaged. Eight Allied planes were lost and 53 crew killed, including 14 Canadians.

The raid, intended to cripple the region’s industrial production, caused catastrophic flooding in the Ruhr valley and of villages in the Eder valley, killing some 1,600 civilians, including about 1,000 mainly Soviet slave labourers. Germany’s industrial production suffered only minor consequences.

Wehrmacht troops dig in along the Dnipro River during the fighting in 1943.

Eight Allied planes were lost and 53 crew killed, including 14 Canadians.

The recent explosions at Kakhovka were not the first to take out a dam during wartime on the Dnipro, Europe’s third-largest river after the Volga and the Danube.

As Wehrmacht and SS troops swept through Soviet-era Ukraine in 1941, Josef Stalin’s secret police blew up the DniproHES hydroelectric dam in the city of Zaporizhzhya, about 250 kilometres upriver from Kakhovka, to slow the German advance.

“There was no one at the time to defend Zaporizhzhya,” said Oleksiy Baburin, the head of the Ukrainian Communist Party’s regional branch. “We had very few soldiers. There were almost no NKVD troops or military regiments who could have stopped the Germans.”

The operation temporarily cut off parts of Zaporizhzhya from attack—and flooded villages, killing as many as 100,000 civilians.

“People were screaming for help,” survivor Oleksiy Dotsenko told a documentary crew in 2009. “Cows were mooing, pigs were squealing. People were climbing on trees.”

By late-1943, Hitler was determined to retain metal ore mines at Nikopol, on the west bank of the Dnipro river. Today, Ukrainian-held Nikopol is on the front line, bordering on the mudflats where the modern dam’s reservoir had been.

Coming on the heels of history’s greatest tank battle, a Soviet victory at Kursk, the Red Army launched the August-December 1943 Battle of the Dnipro, attempting to exploit the Germans’ defensive position.

Hitler had concluded his forces could not contain the expected Soviet offensive on the open steppe and ordered a vast complex of fortifications built along the riverfront, turning the high western shore into a daunting obstacle.

Soviet leader Josef Stalin launched the operation on Aug. 26, 1943, mobilizing multiple divisions—2.6 million troops—across a front stretching from Smolensk in the north to the Sea of Azov in the south. It would employ 51,000 guns and mortars, 2,400 tanks and 2,850 aircraft.

Soviet Red Army soldiers prepare improvised rafts to cross the Dnipro in 1943. The sign reads “To Kyiv!”

The operation temporarily cut off parts of Zaporizhzhya from attack—and flooded villages, killing as many as 100,000 civilians.

The Soviets had two options—to wait it out until a weakness in the German defences showed itself, then penetrate it, circle around, and come at the main line from behind; or stage an immediate but costly mass assault.

As was his wont, Stalin opted for the latter and the operation began across a 300-kilometre front, with Red Army forces crossing the river by whatever means available, from small fishing boats to rafts improvised from barrels and trees.

Wehrmacht and SS troops put up a ferocious defence against a numerically superior enemy.

By late-September 1943, however, Soviet forces had reached the lower part of the Dnipro. Once across, the Red Army troops had to dig themselves into the clay ravines on the river’s west bank.

They established 23 bridgeheads on the western side by month’s end, some 10 kilometres wide by one or two kilometres deep. The Germans counterattacked, hitting almost every one.

The Red Army held fast, but suffered tremendous losses in the process. By October, most divisions were down to 25-50 per cent of nominal strength, but mid-month they launched a massive offensive on the southern part of the Dnipro.

When the offensive ended, the Soviets controlled a bridgehead 300 kilometres wide and up to 80 kilometers deep. Crimea in the south was cut off from the rest of the German forces and all hope of stopping the Red Army on the east bank was lost. It would be one of the largest military operations of the Eastern Front.

Coming as it did in the aftermath of German defeats at Kursk, Stalingrad and Moscow, and with the continuing siege at Leningrad, where the Wehrmacht would suffer more than half a million casualties, the Battle of the Dnipro set the stage for the Soviet breakout and victory at Kyiv a month later. The tide had decidedly turned in the East.

A Ukrainian military drone photographed what appears to be an explosives-laden a car parked on the Kakhova dam on May 28. The dam was breached in two explosions on June 6.
Ukrainian military
The Red Army held fast, but suffered tremendous losses in the process.

The presumably German remains discovered after the recent dam breach are among many found during the current war. In the first year of fighting alone, teams from the German War Graves Commission recovered the remains of 816 Wehrmacht and other German troops killed during the Second World War—still about half the rate of previous years. Another 41 were recovered in May 2023.

Similar to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the German group was founded during the Weimar Republic after the First World War, initially to recover and bury war dead from the battles of Verdun, Ypres and others. After WW II, it continued its work, first in West Germany.

The commission extended its work east after the Iron Curtain fell, focussing particularly on Poland, Belarus, Ukraine and Russia—all overrun by Hitler’s forces.

“Before the [Ukraine] war, we interred people twice a year in each cemetery,” Vladimir Ioseliani, the German commission’s reburial leader in Ukraine, told the German broadcast service Deutsche Welle.

There have been no burials of German remains from the Second World War in Ukraine since Russia invaded.


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