August 18 marked the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the defense of Zaporizhia in WWII. I am deliberately not using the word “heroic” in order to finally distinguish between heroes and those who later called themselves heroes. By all accounts, the defense of Zaporizhia consists of the exploit of 105 soldiers of the 3rd Battery, the 16th Antiaircraft Artillery Regiment, and, later, the heroic work of Zaporizhia residents who dismantled and uploaded factory equipment and of Donbas workers and engineers who helped to rebuild the city. Add to this the true exploit of railroad people who wrought genuine wonders under enemy fire and evacuated, almost without losses, all the required property. We cannot but also mention the heroic actions of Red Army fighters to liberate Khortytsia Island. But what made this possible was skillful command of General Kharitonov who managed to make quite a battleworthy unit out of a rather tattered Zaporizhia garrison in a short time.
These notes are exclusively based on generally accessible encyclopedic sources and reminiscences of Zaporizhia war veterans with whom this writer has been in touch for almost 15 past years. I am especially grateful to the well-known Zaporizhia area researcher Oleksandr Oliinyk.
To begin speaking about the defense of Zaporizhia or, in simpler terms, about the additional one and a half month (August 18 to October 4, 1941) during which the city’s industrial giants were to be evacuated, we should mention two explosions. One of them destroyed a bridge over the New Dnipro (from the left bank to Khortytsia Island) and the other ruined the Dnipro Hydroelectric Station (Dniprohes) dam. But for these two events, Zaporizhia would have faced the same lot as all the other Dniproside cities did, i.e., it would have been lost as early as August 1941 – not because there was a shortage of heroes but because there was a lack of Red Army men. To be more exact, there were almost none of them.
Look at how the Soviet troops were abandoning Dniproside cities: Kryvyi Rih on August 15, Mykolaiv on 16, Nikopol on 17, Kherson on 19. Dnipropetrovsk seemed to be defended by a large Reserve Army consisting of three divisions. But on August 25 the Hitlerites captured not only the right-bank city but also a bridgehead on the left bank. According to historical chronicles, the cause was that “divisions were still undermanned and did not have the required armaments.” In a word, the tragedy of Red Army troops in Central and Southern Ukraine resulted from the rout of two – 12th and 6th – armies in the notorious “Uman pocket.” A total of 103,000 soldiers, the commanders of both armies, five corps commanders, and one division commander were taken prisoner, and three division commanders were killed in action. The “pocket” was put an end to on August 10. The front line was laid bare, and German tanks began to roll unopposed to the east, only stopping to let soldiers rest, service the equipment, and eat.
Meanwhile, only air force units were stationed in Zaporizhia, which, naturally, could only be used to support land operations. The 16th Antiaircraft Artillery Regiment also had an objective to protect the Dnipro Station, the railway junction, and industrial facilities from air strikes. The NKVD 157th Guard Duty Regiment was also assigned the task of protecting the Dnipro Station. There was also – on paper, though, – the 274th Rifles Division. Under the General Headquarters’ directive of August 3, it was being formed in the Zaporizhia suburbs of Kushugum and Balabino. But, as of August 18, this unit was still absolutely unfit for action – in terms of weapons, morale, and skill. For, if war veterans’ stories are anything to go by, the troops ran to the river crossing point in the very first battle on a wheat field, the place of what is Khortytsia District now.
Incidentally, as the Hitleries were approaching Zaporizhia, any rumors of this were considered display of panic and were punishable by death. The culprits were shot down without being given a fair trial by armed patrols in house courtyards. And when the advanced units of the abovementioned 16th Antiaircraft Artillery Regiment phoned in the evening of August 17 that they heard the sound of “skidding automobiles” in the west (as it became clear la-ter, it was the sound of German tanks’ heavily overloaded engines), they were also threatened with punishment for “panic-mongering.” At the same time, when the Germans entered Khortytsia on August 18, the first building to be blown up – by its own residents – was the NKVD department on Griaznov Street. As for the regional Communist Party functionaries, they beat a hasty retreat, too. This was followed by a three-day period of looting and plundering in Zaporizhia. Taking advantage of the absence of police, the looters smashed shops and bakeries and grabbed all that could come in handy.
Meanwhile, the 3rd Antiaircraft Battery, with Junior Lieutenant Zakharchenko and, after he was fatally wounded, Lieutenant Chumakov, at the head, was dying in action. At 5 a.m. on August 18 the battery men did not “chicken out” and, lowering their guns for pointblank fire, hit three German tanks and forced an armored column to halt. This happened on the Dnipro’s right bank, at a place where the world-famous Zaporizhtransformator enterprise was built after the war. The Dnipro Station was fewer than two kilometers away.
Fighting “by the book,” the German command was not exactly rushing. After retreating and regrouping its forces, it called for air and artillery support. The 3rd Battery finally ceased to exist at about 3 p.m. on August 18. As the battle was over, a dozen of survivors with Chumakov at the head retreated towards the hydroelectric station. I will add that it is veterans of the 16th Antiaircraft Artillery Regiment with the now late Yevhen Borisov at the head who gathered all this information piece by piece.
Therefore, 105 3rd Battery fighters saved 10 hours for Zaporizhia, without even knowing what a great exploit they performed. Is this much or little? It is everything! For even minutes could decide whether or not the Hitlerites would enter the city.
LUCKY MAN EPOV
Take, for example, the bridge from the right bank to Khortytsia. Veterans recalled that on August 18, as they came running here from the abovementioned wheat field, they could see the retreating soldiers, civilian evacuees with a lot of collective farm cattle, and… German motorcyclists moving “peacefully” on the bridge. In other words, nobody had blown up this bridge, even though it was planned to do so. According to Oleksandr Oliinyk, who studied this matter for years, the point is that the local NKVD was busy carrying out the order of Comrade Beria to shoot the prisoners who were forced to dig trenches. When the NKVD bosses arrived at the right bank to do their blood-spilling job, they ordered the bridge not to be blown up under any circumstances until the prisoners got back. So the Hitlerites took hold of it.
Later, to correct its mistake, an NKVD battalion, praise be to it, exploded a bridge over the New Dnipro. This was done in a frantic rush by driving an engine-locomotive-drawn explosive-loaded tank wagon into the bridge. A terrible explosion shattered the bridge’s metal structures into pieces. Cut off from Khortysia, soldiers tried to come back to their units by swimming on boards and other improvised means. They were sure the bridge was blown up by some disguised saboteurs.
The Dnipro Station is a different story. A few days before the approach of the Hitlerites, Col. Shyfrin, in charge of the South Front’s Engineer Corps, sounded the alarm. As the command “ruled out the very possibility of exploding the flagship of Soviet hydroelectric facilities,” he turned to Gen. Kotliar, chief of the Red Army’s General Engineer Directorate. The very next day the general received not only a coded letter signed by Stalin and the Chief of the General Staff, Marshal Shaposhnikov, but also two planeloads of explosives. Let us hear the reminiscences of Tymofii Salamakhin, a pupil of Military Engineer, 2nd Rank, Boris Epov, a participant in the Dnipro Station’s demolition. They were once published in Moskovskiy komsomolets. Yet one should take this story with a pinch of salt for the following reason. The memoir Sabotage in the Name of Stalin mentions two TB-3 bombers that delivered 20 tons of explosives to Zaporizhia. There is no other evidence that these mammoth four-engine winged machines flew to the city at the beginning of the war. Besides, a TB-3’s payload is 5 tons and the take-off weight is 17.5 tons. So 5 plus 5 can in no way equal 20 tons.
Why are we in doubt about these details? Because the well-known claim that the stormy tide caused by the Dnipro Station explosion took a toll of 100,000 people and washed away all the riverside villages based on the memoirs of Salamakhin and a statement made by the South Front Commander Gen. Tiulenev. We are prepared to dispute this, but let us first turn to Epov’s reminiscences retold by his pupil: “The explosive-loaded trucks speedily rammed into the upper utility gallery [of the station dam]. The idea was that the explosion should, on the one hand, hinder the German troops and, on the other, leave the possibility of quickly restoring the power station after the war. The specialists had no practice in this kind of explosions. They estimated that 20 tons would be enough to partially demolish the dam. To send the blast wave in the required direction, they decided to lay sandbags on both sides. But the Germans opened a hurricane of mortar fire on the power station, and we failed to lay sandbags on the eastern sides – so the charge remained open.”
Incidentally, the memoirs note that the NKVD 157th Regiment was a guard duty unit which performed this very function to the end. As a command was given to carry out the explosion, its subunits abandoned the right bank. But the “annals” complied by the Communist Party Oblast Committee say that the NKVD regiment is one of the main, if not the main, defender of Zaporizhia, which could not have been the case by definition.
One more thing. When the Bickford fuse was already burning, a message came from Gen. Zaporozhets, member of the Front’s Military Council, which… banned the explosion on the grounds that the Hitlerite tanks had launched a counterattack. “But it was too late – everybody had run out of the utility gallery. The explosion rang out at 18:00.” (We quote the reminiscences published in the Novokuznetsk newspaper Gorod novostei.)
Epov and Petrovsky, another “Moscow man,” also a military engineer, 2nd rank, were arrested and, according to various sources, given “third-degree treatment” at the Southern Front’s NKVD department. Meanwhile, Shyfrin bombarded Kotliar with telegrams, but the latter could not reach Stalin. At last he managed to do so: nothing is known about Petrovsky, but Epov was released – the interrogators apologized and even allowed him to change clothes. He later came back to Moscow and carried out some more high-profile explosions at various fronts. He survived in the war, taught at a war college, and authored a manual on demolition.
To sum it up, the Dnipro Station explosion cut short the frontline in the Zaporizhia direction. Only some not very reliable sources claim that the German 274th Division dropped a force on the Dnipro’s left bank.
On August 21, Leonid Korniets, Chairman of the Ukrainian SSR’s Council of People’s Commissars (government), and two deputy chairmen of the USSR-level councils arrived in the city. They brought back authority to the city, which helped stop riots and lootings and begin the titanic job of evacuating the equipment of 22 USSR-level factories. Interestingly, some of these enterprises turned out their first products in the Urals and Siberia as soon as December 1941. In addition, 6,000 wagonloads of ferrous metals were taken to the east. Was it perhaps the last straw that broke the back of the Hitlerite “camel”?
But, to evacuate all this stuff without losses, something was to be done with the Hitlerite artillery in Khortytsia, for it continuously fired at the industrial site’s railway stations that were six kilometers away. At this very moment, Gen. Fedor Kharitonov, the Southern Front’s Deputy Chief Staff, suddenly appeared in the city. It is he who managed to form a combat-ready unit out of the 274th Rifles Division, which mostly consisted of demoralized survivors of encirclements, in a matter of a few weeks. Supported by the garrison’s other units, the division knocked the Hitlerites out of Khortytsia on September 2-4 (by other sources, September 3-6). It will be recalled that in 1943 the Germans chose to abandon Khortytsia after the Soviet troops had crossed the Dnipro near the village of Rozumivka, south of Zaporizhia. And the almost three-month-long attempts to expand the Khortytsia bridgehead only cost our divisions thousands of the dead and wounded.
We have already mentioned Gen. Tiulenev and his dissatisfaction with the Dnipro Station demolition. Incidentally, the defense of Zaporizhia was the only positive result of the Southern Front’s activities in 1941. Let us hear, however, the Front commander’s opinion: “The dam explosion drastically raised water level in the lower Dnipro, where our two armies and a cavalry corps had begun to cross the river.”
In simpler terms, the two armies and the corps were cut off by the Dnipro and, logically, were supposed to be taken prisoner. Sounds a bit incredible, doesn’t it? The right-bank Kherson was abandoned on August 19 during the very peak of the flood which nobody noticed in the city and which did not hinder the troops at all from crossing the river to the left bank. Incidentally, how many armies did the Southern Front have? Two, excluding the 12th Army which was “foisted,” already doomed, on Tiulenev during the Uman catastrophe. But let us emphasize again that the 18th and 19th armies not only successfully crossed the Dnipro (and never complained about the Dnipro Station explosion) but also launched an offensive in late September, trying to block off the troops of the future Field Marshal Manstein in the Crimea. But the attack failed. The General Headquarters and the wounded Tiulenev overlooked a determined southward march of Kleist’s tank army. (It is the Kleist who contributed to the Uman tragedy and the defeat of the South-Western Front’s five armies near Lubny-Lokhvytsia.) So, riding on the rear of the 18th and 19th armies which still had managed to resist Manstein’s forces and allowed Sevastopol to defend itself for almost a year more, Kleist entered Berdiansk. The 19th Army was in fact defeated there (it formally survived because the army commander and colors were flown out), and the 18th Army commanded by Gen. Smirnov was crushed near Chernihivka. Tiulenev was at a Moscow hospital at the time, which saved him from Stalin’s wrath.
Yet Stalin assessed the situation as follows: “The Front commander Tiulenev failed to deliver the goods. He doesn’t know how to attack or how to withdraw his troops. He lost two armies in a way that even regiments cannot be lost. I think Tiulenev is demoralized and unable to command the Front.” The general seems to have mentioned the Dnipro Station as an excuse, and, later, those in charge of counting counted a toll of 100,000…
Now about villages and civilian losses. It is claimed that a half of Zaporizhia and all the surrounding villages were almost washed away. Yes, there was some flood: word has it water reached the level of what is now Freedom Square. There is an essential remark: a flood on such big rivers as the Dnipro is a high tide, not a rapid flow. This kind of flood had always occurred here in the spring before 1932 and, accordingly, was a source to feed millions of people. But for springtime floods, there would have been no fish in the Lower Dnipro. Nor would have there been any Cossacks and many other things that made the Dnipro overflow land, the legendary Great Meadow, famous. In a word, not only the riverside villages remained intact – even the overflow land villages did not suffer. A war veteran, Hryhorii Ostrohliad, recalled about ten years ago that his village, located among the overflow lands about 30 kilometers downstream of the Dnipro Station (it is now on the Kakhovka Reservoir bottom in front of the Plavni freight station of the Dnipro Railway), had not been flooded over. On the other hand, the tide brought a lot of dead horses, sheep, and beehives onto the overflow land. The situation in the spring of 1942 was so acute that peasants would abandon their places and bury the corpses because of terrible stench. Incidentally, not a single dead human body was found.
Now, 70 years on, shortly after Japan’s Fukushima tragedy, a certain Dnipropetrovsk expert began to scare the public with a likely breakdown of the Dnipro Station, which would result in a similar disaster at the Zaporizhia Nuclear Power Plant. As is known, Ukraine has more friends than it can afford to have, so the Russian-language Internet was immediately full of panic messages about the Dnipro Station and the nuclear power plant. Luckily, the management of the latter quickly sized up the situation and publicized the designers’ calculations: even if, God forbid, ALL the Dnipro series hydroelectric stations’ dams simultaneously get ruined, water will rise to the Baltic System of Heights level of 19 meters, while the nuclear plant’s level is 22 meters. So there is really no need to panic.