Isolated and Outnumbered: The Desperate Battle for Hill 3234 in Afghanistan

Photo: A Soviet soldier-internationalist guards the Afghan roads / RIA Novosti archive, image #21225 / A. Solomonov / CC-BY-SA 3.0

In late 1987, the government of the Soviet Union, led by Mikhail Gorbachev, was determined to complete the Afghan war. Active fighting was over and the Soviet troops were preparing to withdraw from Afghanistan.

By that time, none of the Afghan provinces was under full control of the Mujahideen. However, in December 1987, part of the government forces of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan were blocked in the town of Khost.

After the departure of the Soviet troops, Afghan soldiers lost control over the town and the road “Khost-Gardez.” The city and the road passed into the hands of the Afghan Mujahideen.

Afghanistan 1982.
Afghanistan 1982.

To assist the government in regaining control, the military leadership of the USSR decided to conduct a major military operation called “Magistral.” The task of the operation was to clean up Khost and take control of the Khost-Gardez route. The road was of strategic importance.

This road provided the city with food and fuel. The Mujahideen systematically attacked the posts lining the road. On December 30, 1987, along the road in the direction of Khost, Soviet supply columns were moving.

Mikhail Gorbachev in 1966. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1986-1126-307 / CC-BY-SA 3.0
Mikhail Gorbachev in 1966. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1986-1126-307 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Hill 3234

The Soviet military command expected that the Mujahideen would attack the supply caravans. Attacks on road convoys on mountain roads were some of the most common tactics of the Afghan rebels. To ensure safety on the road, Soviet units took control of the high elevations, located on the outskirts of the route.

View from the hill 3234, southern Afghanistan. Photo: S.V.Rozhkov CC BY-SA 3.0
View from the hill 3234, southern Afghanistan. Photo: S.V.Rozhkov CC BY-SA 3.0

Hill 3234 is located in the south-west, a few kilometers from the middle section of the road. The 9th Parachute Company of the 345th Regiment was sent to defend it. The company consisted of 39 paratroopers led by the commander of the third platoon, Lieutenant Viktor Gagarin.

In a short period, they prepared the position for defense. They built facilities to protect soldiers and firing positions, set up minefields, dug trenches, and opened communications routes.

Mi-24 Hind in Afghanistan
Mi-24 Hind in Afghanistan

On January 7, 1988, the Mujahideen began shelling the positions of the paratroopers with mortars. The military historian and veteran of the war in Afghanistan, Victor Dobroselsky, said this about the fight:

«… They fired not only hill 3234. They fired on everything around it. It just so happened that the enemy concentrated shooting on this hill. During the shelling, the paratroopers suffered the first casualties – a radio operator named Fedotov was killed and along with his death, the platoon lost their radio. 

Mujahideen weaponry seized by the Soviets: Mortars, artillery rounds, recoilless rifles, etc. Photo Sergey Novikov CC BY 3.0
Mujahideen weaponry seized by the Soviets: Mortars, artillery rounds, recoilless rifles, etc. Photo Sergey Novikov CC BY 3.0

The shelling started somewhere at three o’clock local time, and at half past three the first attack began. As far as I know, there were different people. In addition to the Mujahideen, there were also Pakistanis, both ideological warriors and a whole bunch of mercenaries who had more “selfish interests”.

Americans and Pakistani “specialists” naturally from afar run this orchestra. Special in this attack was the fact that Special Forces, dressed in black uniforms, attended the assault. They were called “black storks”.  It is certain now that not only the Pakistanis but also the Americans prepared the “black storks”…»

This is a photo of Abdul Rasul Sayyaf of Afghanistan (left) with one of his top lieutenants, Commander Abdullah. Picture taken in Jaji, Paktia Province, Afghanistan on 30 August 1984.
This is a photo of Abdul Rasul Sayyaf of Afghanistan (left) with one of his top lieutenants, Commander Abdullah. Picture taken in Jaji, Paktia Province, Afghanistan on 30 August 1984.

The Mujahideen were repelled during the 1st attack and temporarily retreated. However, at 16:30 with the onset of twilight, they came again and this time from two directions. After about a 50 minute firefight, the paratroopers repulsed the attack. The Mujahideen lost about 15 people killed and about 30 wounded.

The Soviet side also suffered losses. The junior sergeant Vyacheslav Aleksandrov, the commander of the large-caliber machine guns died in the 2nd assault. Before his death, the sergeant ordered the soldiers to retreat deep into the defenses, and he himself remained to cover the defensive area.

Soldiers ride aboard a Soviet BMD airborne combat vehicle.
Soldiers ride aboard a Soviet BMD airborne combat vehicle.

At 17:35 the next attack started on another position. A platoon of Senior Lieutenant Sergei Rozhkov defended this position. Once again, the Soviet paratroopers repulsed the attack, but lost another large-caliber machine gun and soldier, Anatoly Kuznetsov.

At about 19:30, the Mujahideen came again. Despite the loss of personnel, they charged in plain site without cowering down showing complete fearlessness. The defenses of the Soviet soldiers held and the attempt to capture the hill was unsuccessful.

Mujahideen fighters passing around the Durand Line border in 1985.Photo: Erwin Franzen CC BY-SA 1.0
Mujahideen fighters passing around the Durand Line border in 1985.Photo: Erwin Franzen CC BY-SA 1.0

The next attack began at 23:10 and was the fiercest. The Mujahideen used the “dead space” and climbed to the slopes of the hill from three directions. In some areas, they breached the Soviet defenses and close combat ensued.

Column of Soviet BTR APCs in Afghanistan – RIA Novosti archive, image #644461 Yuriy Somov CC-BY-SA 3.0
Column of Soviet BTR APCs in Afghanistan – RIA Novosti archive, image #644461 Yuriy Somov CC-BY-SA 3.0

Somehow in the chaos, the paratroopers managed to throw them back outside the perimeter. The Mujahideen suffered serious losses and their dead littered the area. But they were undaunted and continued several more times in less coordinated and sporadic attacks.

The twelfth attack began later that night at 3 am on January 8. Memories of Sergeant Vladimir Shchigolev in an interview with the Russian edition of Komsomolskaya Pravda:

“On the night of January 8, the dushmans (mujahideen) started throwing mines, then went on the attack. We fought back and in an hour, we were again covered with mines – and the next attack. And so 12 times in a row! 12 attacks in 12 hours.”

Mujahideen fighters in the Kunar Province of Afghanistan in 1987
Mujahideen fighters in the Kunar Province of Afghanistan in 1987

By that time, ammunition was nearly exhausted. The soldiers were preparing for the worst. However, at this time, a reconnaissance platoon headed by Alexei Smirnov arrived. The reconnaissance platoon made a 2 mile crossing over the mountains in total darkness.

Mi-24 Flying over Soviet Soldiers in Afghanistan
Mi-24 Flying over Soviet Soldiers in Afghanistan

This allowed them to launch a counter-attack, a move that decided the outcome of the battle. The Mujahideen appreciated the situation and began to retreat. From this moment, the battle of Hill 3234 was over.

Sgt. Vladimir Shchigolev recalled, “In the morning the whole mountain was strewn with their corpses … Another one or two attacks and it would have been the end of us.  There was almost no ammunition: all the grenades were thrown and we had even resorted to throwing stones …” 

Result of battle

During the battle, assistance to the soldiers of the 9th company was provided by the D-3 howitzer artillery battery and three Acacia self-propelled vehicles. Without the support of artillery and the arrival of reinforcements, the outcome of the battle would have been quite different.

Soviet war in Afghanistan: Mi-8. By Serg Neo – CC BY 3.0
Soviet war in Afghanistan: Mi-8. By Serg Neo – CC BY 3.0

Accurate data on the losses of Mujahideen are unknown. About 200 to 300 militants participated in attacks on the hill, 6-8 men per paratrooper. Of the 39 Soviet paratroopers, 6 were killed, 28 injured, 9 of which were severely injured.

Hill 3234 remained under the control of Soviet troops and the enemy could not break through to the road. The soldiers who participated in the event all received combat awards.

Soviet troops returning from Afghanistan.
Soviet troops returning from Afghanistan.

The event is said to have inspired the feature film “9th company.” However, this film is the fruit of Fyodor Bondarchuk’s imagination and has little to do with real events.