Certain elevations have played such key roles in important battles in history that they’re etched into the popular consciousness. Others may be less well-known in the mainstream, but might be familiar only to those who follow military history.
Where the heights of the Tokmak offensive will land remains to be seen.
Bunker Hill, for example, needs no introduction, at least for an American audience. Located in Charlestown, just north of Boston, this was the hill where militia forces that would go on to form the Continental Army caused heavy casualties to British forces. Throwing back two assaults by the Brits before being forced to retreat when they ran out of ammunition, the Continentals showed that they could deal horrific losses when challenged.
Bunker Hill is just 34m (110 ft) high. Numerous other hills might seem surprisingly small to many. Consider Napoleon’s famous victory at Austerlitz, which was sealed by the capture of the Pratzen Heights, which rise just 10-12 meters above their surroundings.
The Union Army’s defense of Little Round Top on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg turned out to be a key moment that helped turn the tide of the Civil War. The peak of Little Round Top looms less than 49 meters above the surrounding topography.
Eight Allied and German divisions furiously fought over Hill 70 outside of Lens, France, during WWI in 1917. Hill 70 was just 70 meters tall.
Some 1600 Marines died capturing Sugar Loaf Hill during the Battle of Okinawa. The hill loomed just over 15 meters above its surroundings.
It’s conceptually easy to understand how an army positioned on a literal mountain would be a formidable foe. Iwo Jima’s Mt. Suribachi—167 meters high—was turned into a giant underground fortress, with interconnected tunnels, hidden machine gun pits, and camouflaged artillery emplacements.
By contrast, how could Sugar Loaf Hill pose any threat? The U.S. Marines who advanced on the position on May 12, 1945 felt no differently, assuming it would be little more than a virtual bump on the road.
To their horror, the Marines realized that from their elevated positions, Japanese defenders could see and obtain line of sight on virtually any unit that was approached. Furthermore, two other similarly small hills (called Horseshoe Hill and Half Moon Hill by the Americans) had also been turned into formidable defensive positions. Together, the three hills allowed the Japanese defenders to cover weaknesses and create interlocking fields of fire that devastated the advancing Marines.
It would take eight days, numerous failed assaults, and 3000 U.S. Marine casualties, including those 1600 who gave their lives to capture “that goddamn little hill.”
To understand how even small hills confer tactical advantages, it help to think of the height of hills in terms of buildings, rather than comparing them to mountains. A 9- or 10-meter hill might sound tiny—but it’s essentially the same height as a three-story buillding.
If a soldier attempts to use bumps in the ground as cover to approach a target, being higher up than an opponent is a major advantage. Cover is rendered less effective on the ground, while the height advantage conceals more of the person firing down.
A similar effect happens with armored vehicle. It is easier for an armored vehicle shooting down to secure a line of sight on targets than the opposite.
Even small advantages in elevation can have outsized effects.
But why does all this matter? In the Battle of Tokmak, Ukraine has been fighting literally uphill for virtually the entire battle.
Tokmak is arguably the heaviest-defended city in Russian-occupied Ukraine.
RELATED STORY: Quick Explainer: Why Tokmak is as important as Izium, Lyman or Kupiansk
Russia has established a string of defense lines to impede the Ukrainian advance. Advancing from the north, Ukraine has been forced to overcome defensive line after defensive line, with multiple lines still to go.
Ukraine’s powerful Bradley fighting vehicles of the 47th Brigade have led the way, supported by Leopard 2 tanks from the 33rd brigade.
Bradleys appear to have played a particularly central role in the combat in this sector. The 47th brigade began the counteroffensive with 90 Bradleys at the beginning of June.
Bradleys are one of the most powerful infantry fighting vehicles, known as IFVs for short, in the world, with powerful armor, a digital fire-controlled, high-powered 25 mm auto-cannon that can shred the armor of almost any Russian armored vehicle—short of a main battle tank. Its TOW-3 antitank missies can take out Russian tanks from over 3000 meters, making the Bradley one of the few “tank killer” IFVs capable of dominating older Soviet model tanks while also threatening even the most advanced Russian tanks.
The 47th has helped spearhead Ukrainian attacks that have now managed to punch through three separate layers of Russian defenses.
Aided by the 47th, Ukraine’s 65th and 116th brigades have managed to liberate the northern third of Robotyne. The full liberation of Robotyne would represent securing a highway through the first major line of Russian defenses—and major progress.
Yet to help bring Ukraine to this point, it appears the 47th has paid a heavy price. Oryx has documented the loss of 50 Bradleys; 24 destroyed, 26 damaged. This is the absolute baseline of losses the 47th could have suffered, as Oryx counts only visually confirmed losses.
However, the hardware Ukraine has lost with regards to Bradleys has been quickly replenished. Since the start of the offensive, the U.S. has sent 93 additional Bradley units. This has likely made good on the 47th’s hardware losses. Bradleys are renowned for the survivability they offer troops, so in many cases of Bradleys that were immobilized but not destroyed, the crews were able to simply retreat.
But for all the heavy armor and high survivability, Ukraine is still losing troops, including in damaged Bradleys. It has likely lost some combat strength from the first day of the counteroffensive, but thanks to plentiful replacements for the lost Bradleys, Ukraine likely is still fielding a powerful force.
Ukraine has steadfastly preserved some of its most powerful and decorated units, such as the 82nd, 1st Tank, and 92nd Mechanized brigades. It chose this moment to commit one of its most powerful fresh brigades: the 82nd Air Assault, with western tanks (Challenger 2) and IFVs (Marders and Strykers).
With this new combination of the 82nd and 47th, Ukraine is now attempting to break through Russia’s defense line between Novoprokopivka and Verbove. It is here that Ukraine has an opportunity to finally fight past all of Russia’s counter offensive defenses on higher ground, and start fighting downhill for a change.
Ukraine’s goal appears to be the tallest hill that the Russians hold in this area. It’s a 166-meter tall hill I personally have taken to calling “Hill 166.” This is not an official name, but rather one I personally use for ease of distinguishing various localities.
Every position west of Hill 166 lies at a lower elevation, giving Ukraine the advantage of artillery fire support that not only flanks, but controls a dominant height over enemies to the west. Once Ukraine gets past Hill 166, the rest of the way to Tokmak only goes downhill—in the good way.
The 47th and 82nd brigades’ push up Hill 166 represents the last elevated obstacle that Ukraine must advance past.
Those who are dismissive of Ukraine’s chances of significant strategic gain suggest that Ukraine has only broken through a few small defensive lines, and there are too many more to overcome to make significant progress.
However, it seems to me that Ukraine has just one last truly daunting peak of hills to overcome. Till now, Ukraine had always been fighting fortified enemy positions that were uphill.
Once Ukraine is able to wrest that height advantage away from the Russians, it could be Ukraine that advances downhill upon enemy positions—perhaps in a battle that might make “hill” history.