A Russian Custer Last Stand in Chechnya, 2000
The First Battle in the 21st Century
The first wars of the 21st Century proved to be the same ones that carried over from the 20th Century. In Chechnya, one such war continued as it had since the early 1990’s. The first epic type battle that would go into the history books was near a small village of Ulus-Kert. The battle would invoke historical comparisons with a similar battle that occurred over one hundred years before. The times and technology had changed but the basic situation was once again being revisited. In Custer’s Last Stand it was an overconfident American cavalry force seeking to block and capture what was thought to be a small Indian tribe. At Ulus-Kert, the Russian 6th Paratroop company, 2nd Battalion, 104th Regiment sought to block the retreat route of some 2000 lightly armed Chechens. Supported with SU-25, Mi-24 gunships, and artillery, the Russians presumed superiority over a cunning foe. The Chechnya force had concentrated in the town of Ulus-Kert. This had been an area the Russians dared not enter during the First Chechen War. This time, they wore bravery on their shoulders.
Ulus-Kert is surrounded by extremely steep, mountainous terrain. The weather cold, foggy and snowy. The Chechens planned to escape over the mountains using a main path that leads out from the town, through a gorge and over the mountains between Hills 776 and 787, and eventually into Dagestan. While Company 6 was to block the path between both hills, other units of the battalion would surround and it was hoped that artillery and aircraft would demolish the Chechens.
On February 29th, 2000, after an intense battle for nearby Hill 705, the Chechens were forced to move south into a small, narrow gorge. The force was armed with automatic weapons, mortars and grenade launchers. Seeing that the most likely route was between Hills 776 and 778, the 2nd Battalion commander ordered the 6th company to occupy the saddle area, which was about 900 yards south of Hill 776. This area was narrow but somewhat more level. Sixth company arrived by 1100, and the company commander ordered troops to lay a minefield in front of their trenches towards the gorge. No access routes were created through the minefield and none of the platoon positions were sited to be mutually supporting. Once the defenses were created, the company ate their lunch and leisurely awaited their foe, congregating in the open.
However, the cunning Chechen foe had been all the while eavesdropping to the Russian communications. Armed with this intelligence, the Chechen force was one step ahead of the Russians. They sent a recon platoon to the edge of the Russian positions, which was discovered by a Russian recon patrol. The flare had gone up. Another larger Chechen combat group launched an attack and quickly seized the initiative. Yet, another Chechen group had secretly bypassed the Russian positions and attacked from the Russian rear as the defenses were being attacked frontally. The big squeeze. With Chechens in the front and rear of the paratroopers and with no escape route existing through the minefield, 6th Company pulled back and withdrew and dug in on Hill 776. The hasty withdrawal was so precipitous, the Russians left their rations behind.
Shades of Custer’s men pulling back to make their last stand at Little Big Horn over 100 years ago.
The Chechen vengeance now rained down with huge volumes of automatic weapons fire and mortars. With 6th Company encircled, the Chechens tossed in waves and waves of fighters. By the end of the 29th, the 100 man company had lost 31 men or 33%. The weather precluded air support as dense fog and snow prevailed. Russian artillery fire was also hampered. Sixth company was alone.
The Russian command was in shock.This dangerous situation had "doom" spelled all over it. Thus, on March 1st, the Russians sent a relief force consisting of two Spetsnaz platoons and the 4th and 5th Paratroop companies from Hill 1410 (south of the game map) some 1.5 km distant. The terrain traveled across was, at times 70% steep, and infested with other Chechen forces, which ambushed the relief force constantly. Only one Spetsnaz platoon managed to break though to Hill 787 and even this unit was force to dig in due to withering fire. Again, fog ground all aircraft and helicopters.
Shades of Capt. Benteem’s aborted relief to aid Custer.
The Chechens continued their attacks on Hill 776 from all directions. At times, the odds were 10 to 1 in Chechen favor as more and more troops sought revenge from the loss of Grozny. It was like a shark frenzy at the smell of blood. The Russian officers of the 6th company showed an unhesitating willingness to sacrifice themselves. Junior officers were equally valiant. In fact, despite the hasty withdrawal back to Hill 776, the Russian paratroops proved to be the elite force promised. They stood their ground and fought off hoards of Chechens.
Shades of Custer’s last stand as the Indians attempted to melee.
Even for a modern, elite force, numbers soon to prevail, for as the men of 6th Company fell, more Chechens arrived and by 0500, the first break in the Russian defenses occurred. The odds were too much for the dwindling Russian force. As more breaks occurred, hand to hand fighting now prevailed. The wounded battalion commander now ordered artillery fire upon their own position. Artillery shells barraged the position with devastating effect on the Chechens...and Russians. By the end of March 1, another 26 Russians were dead and the Chechens continued to arrive. The 6th company had 33 men left.
The 45th Recon regiment group finally arrived from Hill 1410, passed Hill 787 and managed to reach the original 6th company’s position but Chechen forces halted any further advance. The 45th retreated back to Hill 787 and could only watch the frenzy melee on Hill 776.
The Russians had also intercepted Chechen communications and found out that the Chechen commander was instructing the Chechen forces to not engage in the battle on Hill 776 but bypass it and cross the saddle to safety. Some obeyed and some did not for the Chechens could smell victory like a shark smells blood from their victim. When the Russians sent in another recon platoon towards the saddle, it was ambushed by Arab volunteers.
On March 2, late in the morning, the 1st Company managed to breakthrough to Hill 776, however, even this force was unable to reach the Hill due to Chechen forces. Captain Solokov and the remaining 32 men were left on their own. They organized what final defense they could but Solokov called artillery fire down in a desperate attempt, a last gasp. By the end of the 2nd, another 16 men had died.
March 3rd would be the final day as the Chechens continued their attack and the remaining Russian paratroopers killed. The Chechens had won a Pyrrhic victory. Like the Indians did to Custer’s men, the Chechens mutilated and dismembered those already dead.
The Chechens had lost 400 men for their victory, the balance either had slipped through to safer havens or forced back into the narrow gorge to be hunted by Russian SU-25s and attack helicopters. It was also an expensive Russian victory for it did prevent the bulk of the Chechen force from crossing the saddle and forced other units back into the gorge where they would subsequently be captured or destroyed.
A Look Back
This battle pales in losses when compared to America’s own Hamburger Hill of 1969 against an entrenched NVA regiment. Ulus-Kert did not have to happen. According to Chechen reports it was not to have happened, as the real goal of the 1500-2000 man Chechen force was to escape not take on the Russians after the fall of Grozny. However, the 6th company was blocking the escape and the first group of Chechen units that arrived easily bypassed the Russian company as they awaited (in lackadaisical fashion) for the Chechens. The Russians had failed to send out recon units to locate the proximity of the approaching enemy. When the battle opened, the Russians were stunned when the fire came from nearly all directions. Feeling surrounded, the fell back to the Hill where the main base was located. This apparently went in good order. No rout was recorded. Once on the hill, the Chechens now arriving in much larger numbers were lured by revenge to the hill. Chechen commanders either had loss control of their men or maybe joined in for the kill. This was not what the top level Chechen leaders had ordered. The Russian forces held their positions and stood against 15 to 1 odds. Things were desperate even after March 1st. By the 3rd, top level Chechen commanders were ordering subordinates to avoid the battle and escape across the saddle. The Chechen losses came to over 400 men to the 90 or so men of Company 6. Not many Chechens had escaped to the east as planned, for the 45th regiment arrived and once again blocked the way. The remaining Chechens were now trapped in the narrow gorge and hunted on the ground and from the air. The Chechens had their crushing victory and had their revenge for the loss of Grozny. The battle was seeded in nationalistic pride. Neither the mighty Russians nor the dangerous Chechens had entertained any notion of backing down. It was a face to face showdown. Ironically, but not surprising, both sides claimed victory. Sounds like echoes from Vietnam.