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.