Kerch Strait Bridge, Crimea (Photo by Vera Katkova/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

A bridge to nowhere

The meaning of the Kerch attack

As a professional military historian, I am often asked, “What is your favourite war movie?” Any interaction soon reveals that the questioner really meant, “What is the most accurate war film?” It is a pointless debate, for they can never be true to life. Hollywood’s studios, like studios everywhere, are usually one-sided (reflecting their funding) and offer camera angles impossible in genuine combat. They can rarely transmit the true stomach-turning fear and loneliness, dirt and smoke and deafening noise of battle; the hunger, thirst and exhaustion of sleep deprivation; or the boredom of real soldiering. At most, perhaps they can suggest a mood.

A surprising number of these films are not actually about war. Conflict provides the backdrop, often for the interplay of clashing characters, as in Casablanca (1942), Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) or Dunkirk (the 1958 version). These days, ever since Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan of 1998, the demands for authenticity have grown — the right haircuts, clothing, speech patterns, aircraft, vehicles and rations. The machine-guns that never ran out of ammunition, single hand grenades which killed dozens, the long hair and wrong tanks in those 1960s war movies jar terribly now. Think Battle of the Bulge or Where Eagles Dare. This perhaps culminated in the very modern white plastic doorbell which made an appearance in 1969’s Battle of Britain

A minor irritant for some, it was nevertheless a shame, for this commendable portrayal was based on a scrupulously accurate book, The Narrow Margin. Its advisors included wartime RAF and Luftwaffe personnel, and the production team had striven hard for correctness with its vast air fleet of 1940s flying machines. 

I remember my mother taking me to see it, when I was aged ten. It was an inspired choice, for she had been ten when the real battle was being fought and wanted me to understand her childhood. Airfix model kits and Action Man soon followed. For years afterwards, the margins of my school work were adorned with Spitfires shooting down Messerschmitts. Such were the seeds sown which led to this professional historian’s future career.

Spans of water are nature’s most useful geological aids to defending terrain

I have dived deeper into how and why war movies are made with the delightful @FightingOnFilm podcast, which now broadcasts informed chat on over 100 different celluloid combat spectaculars. On the two occasions I have shared airtime with its production staff, I have discussed The Bridge at Remagen, which first hit the big screen in 1969, and Kelly’s Heroes of 1970. I chose the former because it featured in my latest book, 1945: Victory in the West. Fronted by Robert Vaughan and portraying the capture of the last span over the river Rhine, Remagen was one of the few war films to deal with the advance into Germany of early 1945. To me, it caught the mood, if not the actuality, of the crumbling of the Nazi Reich in the West. 

Kelly’s Heroes is a delicious, fictional parody romp with Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas and Donald Sutherland leading an unlikely band of buccaneers through German lines in 1944 to rob a bank full of Nazi gold. It is The Italian Job (penned the previous year by the same screenwriter, Troy Kennedy Martin) in olive drab and field grey. With its ludicrous plot, the movie refuses to take itself seriously — it features the private enterprise gang enlisting an entire bridging unit to cross a river far behind enemy lines for their bank heist. 

A surprising number of war films revolve around bridges, or crossing contested water. Apart from the aforementioned Bridge on the River Kwai, Dunkirk, The Battle of Britain and Kelly’s Heroes, we could easily include the 1977 portrayal of the failed Arnhem operation, A Bridge Too Far, and many more D-Day movies besides. This is because spans of water are nature’s most useful geological aids to defending terrain, something observed in writings since the days of Julius Caesar. He, you may remember, managed to cross his own narrow margin of salt water in 55 and 54 BC. Standing on the White Cliffs, on a clear day one can see France, which mightily annoyed both Napoleon and Hitler, who never quite managed to make the same leap.

The watery obstacle of the English Channel is only slightly wider than the distance separating Russian-occupied Crimea from the nearest point of Vladimir Putin’s mainland. They are no longer separated, due to the Kerch Strait Bridge. This was the structure attacked and partially closed on 8 October. It is not merely a connecting span from one landmass to another. As with all crossings over a significant obstacle, it is also a supply chokepoint. This is why bridges are the focus of so much military activity and why so many war films are made about them. 

When they are standing, these masterpieces of civil engineering allow nations to feed their front lines by road and rail. When they’re down, and the area defended, a contested bridging site can impose a significant delay on an advancing army or stall it indefinitely. It was to stymie a Soviet tank advance that all major road and railway bridges constructed in the 1949–90 Cold War era in West Germany had demolition chambers built into them. They are still there, now bricked up, but a reminder of the “scorched earth” tactics then deemed necessary to halt a westwards-hurrying Russian steamroller.

The Crimean bridge at Kerch is both a span and a logistical bottleneck. In ancient times a Greek colony, this windswept backwater of eastern Crimea, with its lonely hilltop partisan memorial (still boasting a statue of Lenin when I last visited in 2014, shortly before the Russians took it back) now shudders to the daily grind of 40,000 heavy vehicles. They are rumbling across from the Russian mainland. 

The multi-billion rouble span was also one of Putin’s flagship building projects. It showcased the Russian Federation’s engineering know-how, as well as symbolically linking two disparate parts of New Russia. By throwing a concrete umbilical cord across the Kerch Strait, the Kremlin hoped to speed up the Russianisation of this annexed territory. After three years of construction, the twelve-mile, four-lane road bridge, the longest in Europe, was opened for business in May 2018. Of course President Putin drove the first truck across. The rail link, servicing fifty pairs of diesel trains per day, opened a year later.

President Putin has set himself up to fail

Once erected, the bridge closed off Ukraine from the Sea of Azov, with its major port Mariupol. In November 2018, Russia seized Ukrainian patrol vessels attempting to assert freedom of navigation from the Azov to the Black Sea and denied those same waters to Western vessels, military and civilian. The bridge was thus begging to be attacked. It is only surprising that the assault did not materialise sooner. For Putin to label its partial destruction an “act of terrorism” is to overlook the fact that in war, every major bridge is a legitimate military target. This is explicitly permitted under the Geneva Conventions, governing the rules of war. They enumerate a list of targets allowed, including “lines and means of communication (railways, roads, bridges, tunnels and canals) which are of fundamental military importance”.

When Putin denounces the perpetrators as “terrorists”, he is reflecting the language of those other great Geneva-deniers, the Nazis. The Third Reich never acknowledged the legitimacy of partisan activity, referring to counter insurgency operations as “Bandenkampf” — bandit fighting. Moscow has already announced a massive increase in security around the bridge and has directed a maximum effort to its repair. Claims that it is back in service are discounted by the satellite imagery of around 1,000 articulated trucks waiting to cross in a huge backlog that beats anything seen these days at Dover or Calais.

This will be to Ukraine’s advantage. How so? History tells us that after Operation Chastise, the RAF’s Dambusters raid of 16–17 May 1943, the Germans redirected tens of thousands of labourers to repair the damage inflicted by Guy Gibson and his 617 Squadron. At the same time, hundreds of fighters were moved from protecting France to defending the airspace over Germany. This shift of workforce and aircraft fatally weakened the building of Rommel’s defences in Normandy, and his ability to counterattack the June 1944 invasion. 

President Putin has set himself up to fail. By reacting to the Kerch Bridge attack as a personal affront, and reorienting military assets to its security, he will be weakening his forces elsewhere in Ukraine. The most recent aerial photography over the Donbass has revealed Russian trucks and earthmovers digging long lines of trenches, with generous rows of concrete anti-tank obstacles in front. This resembles a Hindenburg Line of 1917, a Maginot Line of 1940 or Atlantic Wall of 1944. All fell. Putin’s new conscripts are in for a long, frostbitten winter in their dugouts. Russia has surrendered the initiative to Ukraine.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover