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Dams as targets of war, today as in the past

Well before the destruction of the Ukrainian Kakhovka dam on 6 June, two large-scale military operations against this type of structure took place in the middle of the 20th century.e century, each time with mixed strategic consequences.
IHEDN-Les barrages comme cibles de guerre, aujourd’hui comme hier

In strategy, as in any other field, there are immutable truths, such as this: vital infrastructure is always a prime target. On the night of 6 June, the destruction of the Kakhovka hydroelectric dam, a structure on the Dniepr valley not far from Kherson in southern Ukraine, caused major flooding and disruption to the electricity and water supplies in the surrounding regions. In addition to the ecological and human consequences, the operation of the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant is also likely to be affected, according to the Ukrainian government. Around 40,000 people are thought to be living in the "critical zone" on the Ukrainian side and in the area occupied by the Russians.

The Russian and Ukrainian warring parties are blaming each other for the destruction. According to Western officials and analysts, the fact that this dam and the adjoining power station have been occupied by the Russians since the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 points to their responsibility for the destruction of the structure, which was allegedly mined from the inside. The Russians dispute this, accusing the Ukrainians of sabotaging their own dam. One thing is certain: the Ukrainian counter-offensive is hampered by the consequences of this destruction.


Since 1977, the Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts prohibits attacks on such structures if there is a risk of causing "severe losses" to the population:

"Structures or installations containing dangerous forces, namely dams, dykes and nuclear power stations, shall not be the object of attack, even if they are military objectives, when such attack may cause the release of such forces and consequent severe loss of civilian life. (Article 56)

The USSR had ratified this protocol on 29 September 1989, but an executive order issued by President Putin, on behalf of the Russian Federation, revoked this ratification on 23 October 2019, as shown below. in the list of States Parties to the Geneva Conventions. Ukraine, which ratified it on 25 January 1990, is still a party to the Geneva Conventions.

A few decades before the adoption of this protocol, two examples of dam destruction had left their mark: Operation Chastise during the Second World War and the attack on the Sui-ho dam during the Korean War.


On the night of 16-17 May 1943, 19 Lancaster heavy bombers from 617 Squadron of the Royal Air Force took off from a base near Lincoln in eastern England. Their target: several dams in the Ruhr industrial basin in north-west Germany. The British Air Ministry had identified them as strategic targets even before the start of the war, because they produced electricity, but also because the water they held back was crucial to the steel industry, and therefore to the manufacture of weapons for the Nazi regime.

Since these structures were obviously protected, a British engineer, Barnes Wallis, designed 4-tonne bombs with a retro-spinning effect capable of bouncing off the surface of the water to pass over the anti-torpedo nets, before sinking just in front of the dam and exploding at its foot.

Carrying these munitions and British, as well as Canadian, Australian and New Zealand airmen, the planes took off in two formations, so as to reach the coast of occupied Holland simultaneously, even though their targets were far away. They were immediately targeted by German flak: three aircraft were shot down and one had to turn back.

Five others reached the Möhnesee dam, which three of them managed to bomb. The structure was seriously damaged. Finally, three bombers targeted the Edersee dam, again creating a large breach. However, three other dams were never hit. Eight of the 19 aircraft were lost.

In the short term, the effect of Operation Chastise was positive for the Allies: the production of fresh water and electricity in the Ruhr was drastically reduced, while infrastructure (factories, mines, bridges, communication routes, etc.) was destroyed, flooded or damaged up to 80 kilometres downstream. But the human toll was very high: 53 of the 133 crew members were killed, as well as around 1,650 people on the ground, including more than 1,000 Allied prisoners of war (mainly Ukrainian and French).

Two weeks later, electricity production had returned to its level before the RAF attack, as had water production after a month. But in the meantime, the Germans had had to mobilise significant resources in terms of men and equipment to repair the damage; on the other hand, the propaganda following the raid boosted the morale of the Allied populations, particularly in England, which had been badly hit by German bombing until then. So much so that the pilots who took part in the operation became known as the "Dambusters" and were the subject of an eponymous film in 1955. "The Dambusters" is still the nickname of RAF Squadron 617.


At the end of June 1952, when the East-West confrontation following the invasion of South Korea by North Korea had already been going on for two years, truce negotiations in the village of Panmunjeom were at a standstill. To encourage the opposing camp (North Korea, the USSR and the People's Republic of China) to restart them, the strategists of the United Nations Command (in this case, American generals and admirals) have an idea: destroy the major hydroelectric complex associated with the Sui-ho dam, near the border between North Korea and China.

This dam, built a decade earlier by the Japanese, was at the time the 4th largest in the world.e largest in the world, at 853 metres long and 160 metres high. Its six generators and other nearby power stations supply electricity to most of western North Korea, as well as to Chinese border regions.

On 23, 24, 26 and 27 June 1952, Western aircraft flew no fewer than 1,514 sorties, from the ground or from aircraft carriers; 670 aircraft were involved, mainly from the American forces (Air Force, Navy and Marines) and more modestly from the South African air force. On the other side of the Atlantic, the Soviets, North Koreans and Chinese had 485 Mig fighter interceptors and 87 anti-aircraft guns at their disposal.


After four days of bombardments, the operation was a military success: the dam and power stations were almost completely destroyed (11 out of 13 generators); North Korea had just lost 90% of its electricity production capacity, and would experience a total blackout for a fortnight, and would not recover its capacity before the end of the conflict. On the Chinese side, it is estimated that 23% of electricity will be lost in the neighbouring Dairen region. The UN forces lost only five aircraft, whose crews were all rescued.

On the political front, however, it was a complete failure. In the United Kingdom, the Labour opposition attacked Winston Churchill's Conservative government, accusing it of risking the outbreak of the Third World War. In the United States, Harry Truman faced the opposite criticism: faced with the success of the operation, his opponents asked why the UN had waited two years before carrying it out.

This outcry in the West prevented the UN negotiators from pushing the Communist side towards a truce, as the American officers had wanted. The Korean War lasted for over a year, until the Panmunjeom armistice of 27 July 1953 (even though the two Koreas were still officially at war).