Conducting a fighting retreat across a river is one of the most complicated manoeuvres a military force can undertake
By Dominic Nicholls, ASSOCIATE EDITOR
11 November 2022 • 6:00am
Question: What is the difference between a retreat and a rout?
Answer: In the former, soldiers generally take their weapons with them.
There is no guarantee that what we are about to witness from the Russian army as it extracts itself from the west bank of the Dnipro River will not fall into the former category.
Conducting a fighting withdrawal across a river (any river, let alone one as wide as that in Kherson) is one of the most complicated manoeuvres a military force can undertake.
For starters, the retreating force will need to secure both banks of any crossing point to ensure a swift and orderly load and unloading of vehicles, fighters and stores.
Any delays at either end courts disaster. These points, plus the bridge, pontoon or ferry one has elected to use (or been forced to employ through recent activity from the opposing side), are extremely vulnerable.
The loading points on the west side of the river will come under huge pressure from Ukrainian forces as they advance into the areas Russia vacates.
During recent months Russian troops are thought to have set up an elaborate system of ferry crossings to make up for the loss (to heavy military equipment anyway, possibly not lighter civilian traffic) of the Antonovsky bridge, to the east of Kherson city, and the Nova Khakovka dam further upstream. At least eight ferries are thought to have been active.
Being fixed sites, the coordinates of these locations can easily be programmed into loitering munitions, GPS-guided artillery rounds and other precision weapons. They will be high on the priority list for the Ukrainian Himars units that will soon be in range.
There are thought to be three ferry points near Kherson city.
One is located near the Antonovsky rail bridge near Pridniprovsky. Military vehicles have been seen waiting in the area in the last couple of days.
Recent satellite pictures suggest Vladimir Putin’s forces have established two landing points near the town of Oleshky on the Konka River, a tributary of the Dnipro. One is adjacent to a factory, the other in the town itself. Both locations are assessed as having been heavily fortified in recent weeks in anticipation of a withdrawal. Trenches have been created around the landing spots.
These landing points have been used mainly by military vehicles and troops so far. Other ferries near the Antonovsky Bridge have been seen transporting civilian vehicles.
There are thought to be two loading points in Kherson City: one in the centre, the other in the harbour area.
The ferries loading here will most likely go to Hola Prystan harbour, about five kilometres south-west of Kherson city across the river.
Hola Prystan is thought to have been hit hard recently by Ukrainian artillery fire. Many barges have been sunk either on route or in the harbour itself, although the harbour seems heavily defended with a network of trenches.
The whole operation will hinge on whether or not Moscow’s troops are able to establish a strong defence west of the river, to prevent, as far as possible, Ukrainian forces from interfering with the withdrawal.
An outer ring of steel will be needed, probably some kilometres from the landing points themselves, to prevent Ukraine being able to use direct fire weapons – tanks, anti-tank missiles and heavy machine guns – against the vulnerable sites.
These defenders will need to be well disciplined to hold the line as a wave of violence breaks on them. They can be expected to have laid minefields to slow down and channel any units advancing against them.
This is not a job for mobilised men; here, Ukraine should expect to fight the remnants of the VDV, Russia’s more experienced airborne troops.
They will need to stand their ground.
Any cracks in the defence could fatally undermine the whole endeavour. If even just a couple of tanks break through they could wreak havoc at the loading points. Both sides will know this.
The fighting to come could be some of the most intense close-quarter combat seen since Feb 24.