Artillery, tanks, and ordinary life in the combat zone of the Kherson Front - NV report

23 October 2022, 01:08 PM
Tank riding through a field. Mykolaiv Oblast, Ukraine. September 2022 (Photo:Anthony Bartaway)

Tank riding through a field. Mykolaiv Oblast, Ukraine. September 2022 (Photo:Anthony Bartaway)

The liberation of the oblast of Kherson in Ukraine’s south, occupied by the Russians early in the starting phases of the full-scale war, has been ongoing in the northern parts of the oblast, to the west of the Dnipro River, since early September. It was announced a few days before the Kharkiv blitz that saw the majority of the northern oblast liberated in just days, but there was little movement on the front for weeks. However, this pace sped up in the first week of October. Within just a few days, the Ukrainian military managed to collapse the Russian lines and force them to abandon about a third of the territory they had previously held on this front. During the last week of September, NV went to the most “quiet” part of the Kherson front, along the road between Mykolaiv city and Kherson city, in the territory around the town of Shevchenkove. 

Close-quarter infantry battles were ongoing less than ten kilometers away around Posad-Pokrovs'ke and Blahodatne, but everything to the east of Mykolaiv is a firing range. Our correspondents saw the war in this field from three different angles - the extreme long-distance duels of the artillery, the mobile hit-and-run daring of the armor, and the on-the-ground survival of the civilians who, amazingly, eke out what they can amidst the thunder of war.

Video of day

M777 crew, NV correspondent Anthony Bartaway (center). Mykolaiv Region, Ukraine. September 2022 (Фото: Anthony Bartaway)
M777 crew, NV correspondent Anthony Bartaway (center). Mykolaiv Region, Ukraine. September 2022 / Photo: Anthony Bartaway

Artillery Duels

This war, unlike other modern conflicts, has largely been one of huge, 100mm+ bore guns firing at each other from kilometers apart, aided by modern satellite imagery and drones. The broad territory stretching back from the frontlines to nearly Mykolaiv itself is made up of dozens of artillery crews shuttling from place to place, firing on the invader, then moving away before they can be shot at in return. NV met with two different artillery crews in order to learn more about the evolving role of the King of the Battlefield – one crew that was responsible for an older Soviet M1955 howitzer, and the other – a much more advanced American M777.

Throughout most of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Russians have held a major advantage in artillery. This advantage – bolstered by decades of Soviet operational planning and massive stocks of ancient and rusting cannons – helped the Russians to wage their preferred type of warfare, one they’ve used since World War 2: drowning the target in as many shells as possible. The scars of this doctrine can be seen from Mariupol to Aleppo to Grozny, and while the Russian army never did especially well in close combat, they had been able to fire ten artillery rounds for every one that Ukraine could shoot back in return. That all changed with American-provided HIMARS systems, especially in the Kherson region. After that, Ukraine’s strategy shifted to a more considered approach: wearing down Russian supply lines with backfield strikes, exploiting the range advantage provided by the modern artillery system, and destroying any large ammunition and materiel stockpiles Ukrainian targeters and reconnaissance can find. The soldiers NV spoke to were unanimous in saying that this has led to a huge change in the artillery war. Additionally, Russian crews simply do not have as much ammo available to them as they used to, thanks to a combination of attrition, sanctions, and Ukrainian strikes on logistics hubs, so the number of rounds being fired in either direction has equaled out.

With the artillery war settling on a more level playing field, Ukrainian advantages in skill and technology have been able to show themselves. The Ukrainians have shown more capability in doing a “shoot and scoot” - going to a location, firing off a small number of rounds, then moving on before the enemy can shoot back. This type of hit-and-run has become part and parcel of Ukrainian combat doctrine, and Ukrainian crews are more adept at the technique than their Russian counterparts – even with the Soviet M1955, which both sides use extensively. At the same time, however, the M777 crew, wielding a modern 21st-century weapon, boasted that they can simply outclass most of what the Russians have in stock.

Ammunition for the M1955 howitzer. Mykolaiv Oblast, Ukraine. September 2022 (Фото: Anthony Bartaway)
Ammunition for the M1955 howitzer. Mykolaiv Oblast, Ukraine. September 2022 / Photo: Anthony Bartaway

Yet, even these modern Western guns have only neutered Russia’s previous edge.  Most everyone on these crews are contract soldiers, not recent recruits, and had been fighting in between Kherson and Mykolaiv since that first night when the Russians overran the border troops watching Crimea. The route from Kherson, dubiously aided by traitors in the regional government, was Ukraine’s most one-sided defeat. As a result, many of the defenders there have not even had a proper rotation to rest in all of these months.

NV had to cut its stay at the artillery base short after the word came in that we had been spotted and there was likely an incoming Russian barrage. We made our exit along with the guns and an ambulance evacuating a casualty from the front.

A critically damaged tank used as a defensive position. Mykolaiv Oblast, Ukraine. September 2022 (Фото: Anthony Bartaway)
A critically damaged tank used as a defensive position. Mykolaiv Oblast, Ukraine. September 2022 / Photo: Anthony Bartaway

Riding the Steppes

We met with a unit of tankers, after our visit to the artillerymen. As Ukraine has shifted from the defense to the offense, tanks have become a much more vital part of the war effort. A tank provides the punch needed for infantry to exploit and take ground – a tactic Ukraine has used to great effect in Kharkiv and the Kherson front.

However, these tankers were very conscious that their particular area of operations was not a priority – at least not yet. Their commanding officer, who carried himself with equal parts joviality and hardened cynicism and had all the free-wheeling attitude you would expect from a cavalryman,  even felt a bit bad that they could not show visiting journalists any of the huge headline-grabbing discoveries of other fronts, just the routine of position and maneuver that they have been at for months. The Ukrainian army had been able to advance 12 kilometers along the road to Kherson city and were only another 15 from the infamous Chernobaivka airport, but did not have the necessary support to go further. They also remarked how the region's extensive network of agricultural irrigation made tank thrusts more complicated and slower.

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Despite this, “quiet” is a matter of perspective – this unit, even when dithering, still poses a threat to Russian defenses in Kherson city directly and provides the pressure on Russian lines that allows Ukraine to be able to break the Russian lines further north when needed.

Oleh, who, like all soldiers NV encountered, preferred for his real name not to be published, had a stunning story that illuminated the frenetic, daring, death-defying nature of tank warfare. Despite all of humanity’s advances, the standard operating procedure for tanks, at least here in southern Ukraine, harkens back to the steppe cavalry raiders of the region’s ancient past: ride out to within a close distance of the enemy lines, fire while avoiding enemy counter-fire until running out of ammunition, then return home just long enough to be restocked. On one such raid, Oleh’s tank was destroyed by the enemy and engulfed with flame. The commander was killed, but Oleh managed to escape the conflagration and spent the next few hours running from trench to dugout to ditch to stay alive. Eventually, he was able to find another tank crew who took him back to safety. But, by the time they got to him, his clothes were burned into his skin and had to be cut off before he could be given any further medical treatment.

For Oleh, this was all in a day’s work, and the tanker relayed the story with all the drama of describing some bad traffic on the way home from work. Yet the reality of combat is that not a single member of the unit was uninjured, and the defenders see concussions as part of the uniform. Another tanker recalled how he once had to fight alone and unsupported for three hours in a near-open field against several enemy tanks - and came out ahead. This is the nature of their war.

A farmer tending his crops. Mykolaiv Oblast, Ukraine. September 2022 (Фото: Anthony Bartaway)
A farmer tending his crops. Mykolaiv Oblast, Ukraine. September 2022 / Photo: Anthony Bartaway

“Not really living, just surviving”

One of the most striking sights in Mykolaiv wasn’t the crates of ammunition, the tanks, or the artillery pieces – they were the ordinary Ukrainians who had refused to abandon their homes, even amidst the violence. Yet there they were, in between the trenches and forward operating bases, stuck in the constant thunder of artillery: in other words, under the constant threat of having everything they know wiped out in an instant. Not many civilians remained in the area by now, but the elderly had often stayed. This was not uncommon – for many Ukrainians, giving up your home, your land, and your livelihood is simply not an option, on a deep and emotional level.

During our visit to a frontline village, we still saw a farmer collecting his autumn harvest – same as in any village across the country, his tractor far more exposed and unprotected than any tank. Cows, chickens, and goats were left to wander and graze. Their life wasn’t an easy one – but a steady stream of aid from Mykolaiv helped keep them above water. They all seemed grateful to the Ukrainian army for liberating them, and children ran up to our vehicle to yell “Slava Ukraini!”

“They’re not really living, more surviving,” one of our military escorts noted, despite the villagers' attempts to put on a strong front.

A school building with peppered with combat damage.  Mykolaiv Oblast, Ukraine. September 2022 (Фото: Anthony Bartaway)
A school building with peppered with combat damage. Mykolaiv Oblast, Ukraine. September 2022 / Photo: Anthony Bartaway

Tough fight ahead

Much of the frontline areas in the south are under a media blackout, and requests from journalists to visit are typically denied. As a result, NV was unable to visit the Davydiv Brid area of operations, though this provided an opportunity to visit the town of Bashtanka, which had a pre-war population of just over twelve thousand and still looked quite active between the bombed-out buildings – even though many had fled. The Russians were never able to take it, though they had attempted to in their raiding and attempted encirclement around Mykolaiv. Early in the war, they had nobody to protect them – no army, minimal proper territorial defense – only themselves. But that, along with some make-shift explosives and personal firearms, was enough to drive off a column of Russian marauders.

A burned-out commercial center in Bashtanka. Bashtanka, Ukraine. September 2022 (Фото: Anthony Bartaway)
A burned-out commercial center in Bashtanka. Bashtanka, Ukraine. September 2022 / Photo: Anthony Bartaway

As the Kherson offensive puts a tighter squeeze around the Russian pocket in the oblast, the soldiers NV spoke to will eventually be called upon to begin the siege of Kherson city itself. It will be a tough fight – Kherson remains the largest city Russia has been able to occupy throughout the course of the war, and modern urban warfare is an ugly, brutal, and bloody affair. Yet Ukraine has no choice but to make the effort, and the sacrifice, in order to free its people.

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