Scorched earth, blown dam

August, 1941. An unknown German soldier takes a photo of the huge hydroelectric dam spanning the Dnieper river at Zaporizhia in Ukraine. It has been blown up by NKVD agents, acting on orders from Stalin. As the Red Army retreated, they practiced a scorched earth policy, leaving as little as possible for the advancing Germans to use. The middle of the more than 760 meters wide dam has been dynamited, disrupting power generation for years to come.

Construction of the dam began in 1927, taking five years to complete. It was one of the largest in the world, producing 560 megawatts and powering the industrial centers at Zaporizhia, Kryvy Rih and Dnipro (Russian: Zaporozhye, Krivoi Rog & Dniepropetrovsk), among them the electricity-consuming aluminium industry, which was vital for Soviet aviation. The dam was the pride of Soviet industrialization.

The destruction of the dam caused a catastrophe that was covered up by Soviet authorities. With no regard for the people living downstream, the demolition team destroyed the dam. The resulting tidal wave hit villages and settlements, killing many thousands of civilians. A low estimate is set at 20,000 victims, but some historians believe that as many as 100,000 could’ve been killed. The wave also killed a number of Red Army officers who were crossing the river as the wall of water surged forth.

When the Germans retreated in 1943, they destroyed parts of the dam and the powerhouses. Reconstruction began after the war ended, and the dam resumed the generation of electricity in 1950. There is no official monument over the victims of its destruction.


The conquering enemy

A street in ruins, possibly in Warsaw, German soldiers with time off looking at the devastated city. The poster on the left says “Do broni – Zwarci i zjednoczeni zwycięƶymy wroga!” (“To arms – Strong and united we’ll vanquish the enemy!”) Unfortunately, as bad as the war had started, even worse was to come. The Jewish population was herded into a ghetto, where the unbearable conditions eventually resulted in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, triggered by the order to annihilate the ghetto as part of Hitler’s “Final Solution”. On 19 April 1943, Jewish fighters launched the uprising. Despite being heavily outgunned and outnumbered, the Ghetto held out for almost a month. When the fighting ended, almost all survivors were massacred, with only a few managing to escape or hide.

A year later, as the Red Army was deep into Polish territory and pursuing the Germans toward Warsaw. The underground Home Army (AK) tried to seize control of Warsaw before the Red Army arrived. On 1 August 1944, as the Red Army was nearing the city, the Warsaw Uprising began. The armed struggle went on for 63 days. Eventually the Home Army fighters were forced to capitulate. They were transported to PoW camps in Germany, while the entire civilian population was expelled. Hitler, ignoring the agreed terms of the capitulation, ordered the entire city to be razed to the ground. About 85% of the city was destroyed, including the historic Old Town and the Royal Castle.

The city was rebuilt after the war, the Old Town reconstructed, and today Warsaw stands as one of the great capitals of Europe.


Thanks to Artur Szulc for the translation of the poster.

After the storm

Warsaw, October 1939. Four German soldiers walk along the rubble of a bombed-out street. A couple of Polish women walk past them, the shorter one carrying an armful of branches which will warm her home for another day and night.

The first air raid on Warsaw took place on 8 September, when Stukas and medium bombers attacked Polish army positions. Five days later the bombers returned, starting fires in several parts of the city. Then, on 25 September, the largest air raid by that time took place, Luftwaffe bombers dropping 560 tons of high explosive bombs and 72 tons of incendiary bombs. Compared to later raids later in the war, that was a small attack, but it still caused widespread destruction. Together with artillery shelling, some 6000-7000 civilians were killed in the September attacks.

By the end of the war, after German bombing, shelling, and demolitions in 1939 and during the 1943 and 1944 uprisings, 85 % of Warsaw lay in ruins. The Poles reconstructed the Old Town, which is now on UNESCO’s World Heritage list.

Ravaged Maid of Orléans

Another photo from Orléans, summer of 1940. In Place du Martroi, surrounded by ruins, stands the statue of the Maid of Orléans, Jeanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc). The 15th century virgin general and national saint is a symbol of France, and to be there with German soldiers walking the streets around her statue must’ve felt like an insult to patriotic Frenchmen. The huge bronze statue by Denis Foyatier was erected in 1855 and survived the war. The city was one of the first to be rebuilt after the war, and care was taken to reconstruct historical Buildings. Today, the Place du Martroi looks pretty much like it did before German and Allied bombs destroyed the neighborhood.


Workers clearing debris in the ruins of a French town, summer of 1940. I have a number of photos from the Battle of France, showing many towns and villages damaged to a greater or lesser degree. German bombing raids during the six weeks the campaign lasted caused the deaths of about 3,250 civilians. It’s hard to find the total number of civilan deaths due to combat action.

Still, in the coming years, France would be the target of a great number of British and American air raids, hitting factories, ports and communications. Over 50,000 French civilians were killed by Allied bombs between 1940 and 1944. Close to 20,000 civilians died in Normandy alone in conjunction with bomb raids and combat action on D-Day and the weeks afterwards. The war destroyed 1.2 million French homes, taking a generation to rebuild. Other countries suffered even more, Poland perhaps worst of all. This is the oft-neglected effect of war when history is written, and some of it is conveniently forgotten, like the French killed by their saviors…