In February, 2015, I arrived in Kiev, Ukraine, for the first time. I was joined by fellow SOFREP author and my good friend Buck Clay. We were there to meet a contact inside the Azov Battalion. A fellow young Brit like myself, he had been here a few months and went by the name “Swampy.” The first meeting was set to take place at Maidan Square at 1700 hrs. OK guys, I am going to set the scene here for you: It was a cold, wet, grey, miserable day with a touch of snow. It was dark as we approached the centre of Maidan Square; there was a sea of candles and pictures of those who had fallen in the war. Many people were walking around paying their respects.
As we made our way through the crowd, I could see our man standing on the steps. Behind him, a Ukranian flag blew in the wind. Our contact sported a long, light brown beard and wore full MultiCam, smoking a pipe like a good old sport! I thought to myself, he looks like Dusty from the Medal of Honor games.
“Hello lads. Nice to meet you. We have some of the guys in the pub up the road. We can talk there.” With that said, we headed for the bar for vodka and beer, followed by war stories and a good old chin wag.
Waking up the next day felt a bit rough to say the least. We got a message saying we’d be picked up at the train station in the east. We spent a few more days chilling in Kiev before taking the most brutal train journey in my life. (A train journey I have since come to know all too well.) Our destination: a small town called Berdiansk, just north of Mauripol. There, our contact would be waiting for us. Our transportation pulled up in an old 4×4 that had seen better days, with a large Azov logo on the door so people knew just who was inside. They were sporting AK-74s and Makorov pistols. From there, it was about 25 kilometers to the base. This would take about one hour or more. The roads are just awful, full of potholes and just holes in general. The maximum speed you can do is 25 kilometers per hour, or you run the risk of destroying the car completely.
We rocked up to the base where we would spend downtime after returning from the front. It was once a five-star hotel, so for me this military base was the best I have ever stayed in (says a lot for the British Army). As we walked to the front door of our block, the rest of the team were coming out rocking out in full kit, rigs, AKs, with different camouflage on every man. This would also be the first time I would meet the boss of this team, who would later become a very good friend of mine. Still, my first impression of him was, “What a cock!”
His first words to me and Buck were the following: “Yeah, yeah, whatever. We are training. You guys go wank or whatever. Swampy, let’s go get your shit now.” I can laugh about it now. It must have been the French Foreign Legion (FFL) in him. Over the next few days, we would get to know the team and train with them so we’d be up to speed on their tactics. Of course they had a ton of explosives to play with, so Buck was in his element. Buck also spent time teaching us lessons on ways to detect and deactivate mines and IEDs. It was here where we would hear more stories about the war and shit that went down on the front line—stories that included being 20 meters from a tank and taking rounds! Or tales of hiding in basements to escape GRADS fire and the region’s many snipers. This to me just sounded wild. I would, in the future, refer to these days as the Mad Max days.
Sitting in our base after a day’s training on the range, I was looking forward to getting in my bed and getting some shut-eye. But Ukraine had something else in mind for us. Ste headed out that night and disappear for a few hours. He was in a meeting with the other bosses from different units. He returned later that night and called the whole team into my room for a brief. This was it: We were about to get told, “Pack your kit, shit is about to get real.”
Ste gave us orders that the move would take place later that night. We would leave the base at 0100 and arrive in Mariupol at 0200. Once there, we would wait on the rest of the commanders to make their final plans to move into the town of Shirokino. Azov had tried in the past to retake this town but had pushed too far forward and came under heavy fire, with no other option but to leave. This was their second chance to have a pop at it. Only this time, the orders were to embed themselves in the town and stop any further advancements. This was the last stop before the port town of Mariupol. If they lost Shirokino, the people and the military would suffer hard losses in Mariupol. The economy would take a hit as well, so it had to stop here at all costs.
Upon arriving at the Mariupol base just after 0200, we were told the final move would take place at 0400. We would move from there into the front-line town of Shirokino for first light. We all decided to hit the shop to get some last-minute things. Buck and I got some cans of juice and smokes—the most important things, obviously. The rest of the lads were stuffing bread, cheese, meat, snacks, any type of food they could. This should have told us something, but what were we to know?
Everyone got some shut-eye, then we were up and back into the truck. The next stop was the front HQ, halfway between Mariupol and Shirokino. No one had been past this point and we were the first team to rock up. While we had a quick smoke, Ste went and got a quick update on the situation. He said, “Fuck it, let’s head in there.” The mood changed as we approached this final piece of road. We came to a stop on the road where a spray-painted sign could be seen on a wall to our left. It was skull and bones, and written in Ukrainian were the words, “Caution, mines ahead.”
“What the fuck does that mean? This road is mined, or what?” (We were told the route was clear.) Why the hell send us in this way if the Ukrainians mined this shit?
Swampy and Buck were quickly out of the truck, walking in front, scanning for mines. The closer we got, the more it became a reality for me: I am about to take part in this conflict and this shit was real! We came to a stop just outside the town, scanning ahead for any signs of the enemy. Within seconds of dismounting, I could hear a crack and thump in the distance. We edged closer. Then came the whistle. Then came the boom. Ste said, “Learn to love the 82s, bro, haha.” He stood there with a big grin on his face as we came into the street. Our first objective was to find a place to live in—an FOB of our own. One of the lads spotted a nice pad, but it was all locked up. This was not some old shit hole, no, this was a five-star villa right on the beach. Unable to get in from the front, we made our way down the side and in the back door. Next thing I know, I hear, “Get down. Shut the fuck up.”
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Get Ste here now,” Swampy said. A few seconds later, the rest of the team rocked up.
Everyone went down on one knee and stacked up on the side of the house. Swampy informed Ste he has seen weapons on the sofa. Five AKs or so. “OK, move in now!” Not wasting time, we breached the door. Room right. Corridor left. Stairs front. Two boys blocked the stairs, two boys blocked the corridor. Swampy, Ste, and I moved into the room. My heart was popping out of my chest, sweat dripping off my nose as we entered. The rest of the team hit the corridor. We went straight into a kitchen that then led into the hallway. Ste stuck his hand out to inform the lads it was us. They began to move up the stairs. We followed room to room. No signs of life, I am thinking. “Thank God.” As it turns out, they were BB guns and replicas. We all began to laugh and take the piss out of Swampy, but to be fair he could have easily been right.
This was to be our new home, a place where we would spend the next few months of our lives. The day was sunny and to be honest, it looked like a nice place to stay. The other units moved in at different points across the town. Most of the day was spent setting up the house and looking at plan Bs. Next door to us was a big hotel with a basement that would be ideal cover from big artillery fire. Our house in many ways was a very soft target, as we would find out in the future. It was not long before the rounds started flying out and then the mortar fire started. This, most of the time, went on for 12-14 hours per day. I often sat there and thought to myself, “Where the hell do they get all the ammo from?” Because it went on all day, every day.
Over the next few weeks we would work with the Azov Battalion on many tasks, come under daily mortar fire, and have our fair share of laughs. But there were some grim, horrible days—that’s for sure. Now I know there are some real hardcore motherfuckers out there that read SOFREP, but you have not really been on a tour until you spend your time eating Ukrainian rations! This will make you appreciate even the British ration packs. But all jokes aside, living on about 400-500 calories a day, even walking up the road to collect the shit was a massive task. In the end, we broke into houses trying salvage whatever we could. I found some oats and lived on them for like a week. We once or maybe twice received water with fuel in it. And I now know we also got seawater once.
Because we mainly worked as a recon unit, we worked at nights and tried to sleep through the day. Buck would also get a hard time work-wise as anything to do with explosives required his attention. He was crashed out all the time. I remember once I said, “Fuck it, I’m sick of working nights,” so I made the choice to go out in the morning and managed to convince the team this was a good idea. The whole thing was a disaster. Within seconds of covering a football field-sized area, the 82s started raining down on us while we lay there on the ground.
Going back was not an option. There was five millimeter rebar fence between us and hard cover. Ste shouted, “Get the fence cut now!” I started cutting and then we heard it. An enemy drone was flying over us. This was not the best place to be. I was blowing out my ass within two minutes because of my shit diet. Buck took over and he was the same. Ste jumped in and then blew by all of us to cut a hole in the fence. We took cover across the road in a row of houses as the mortars kept raining down on us.
A couple of hours passed and we all said, “Fuck it! Let’s make a run for it.” We got ourselves ready one by one, then left the house, moving as fast as we could, jumping through the hole in the fence. I was behind Ste when he went through, but then I heard metal scraping bone. Ste managed to catch his head on the rebar, making a bit of a mess. Long story short, we made it back in once piece. Ste was loaded up and sent to the hospital.
That night, we went back out again. On our return, we were on our side of town, making our way through this bombed-out school. A full moon gave a little bit of light, but also made it a scene out of some apocalyptic film set. One of our guys stepped out of the building following me when BOOM! I just remember being flat on my stomach, crawling back inside, my mate pulling me in.
I took cover against a wall and screamed, “What the fuck is this?! Get on the radio and tell whoever is fucking shooting us to fuck off!” They continued shooting. We heard on the radio that these guys in a five-story building across from us didn’t have a radio. We started screaming “AZOV, AZOV! Don’t shoot!” When we came out, I remember looking up at this building and thinking, one of these muppets is going to shoot me. Our guys came from the FOB and walked us back in. Never in all my life have I been so pissed off. I couldn’t sleep that night. I drank tea and smoked my head off like a proper Englishman.
This would not be the only time the Ukrainians tried to kill us, even though we were there doing the jobs they were too scared to do. I find it funny that even through all that, the one thing that did my head in the most was seeing the dogs. This is something that pissed me off in Syria, too. I guess I am just a big softy. But these guys were lifesavers; they could hear the mortars before we did. They would run for cover. Combat indicator right there. If anyone was creeping around, they would bark to wake us, and in general they kept us busy. We had no form of entertainment, so they helped with that, too.
Now, the toilets. Well boys and girls, there was no plumbing and no engineering unit to set something up. I will say this: By the end of my time there, it was hard not to find a toilet, sink, bath, or bed that was not brimmed to the top with human shit. It was just horrible. Every house covered in shit. The smell of it was enough to put you off your already shit food. But once again, in the hard times comes laughter in the form of Buck Clay; he just had enough of not finding a place to do his business. So with that great mind of his, he built a toilet on the beach. Made from a toilet seat and chair, it was a take-anywhere shitter. So how does it work, you ask? It’s simple! Pull the lid up, place your buttocks firmly on the seat, do your thing, wipe, then kick sand over your shit! This was a very proud moment for him and to this day, I applaud you, sir.
All in all, I loved every second of it, and if I could I would do it all over again!