The UK has started turning the first of around 10,000 Ukrainian recruits into frontline soldiers at four bases across England, safe from Russian missile fire, it can be revealed.
The new troops, operating in groups of about 200, have been arriving from Ukraine daily to join a specially-condensed training programme offered by British soldiers. They will then return home to fight Russia’s invading forces.
British commanders aim to have 2,400 recruits rotating through the course at any one time as they mobilise to meet a target of training 10,000 Ukrainian personnel within 120 days.
With Ukraine losing up to 200 soldiers every 24 hours in its war with Russia, the ability to generate manpower is vital. These are “battle casualty replacements”, a senior officer said.
Running the training programme in the UK gives the recruits the chance to learn from British soldiers and – crucially – protects them from the threat of Russian attacks.
A Ukrainian training facility was hit in an airstrike last month as a number of trainees prepared to make their trip to Britain, one Ukrainian officer revealed.
“We think that [a] Russian military organisation knew we were preparing to go to the UK for studying and to prepare our soldiers and that is why they made an airstrike to our base,” said the 26-year-old lieutenant, who asked to remain anonymous.
He was speaking at a military training camp in northwest England where British soldiers are teaching around 600 recruits basic infantry skills as part of the new training mission.
The Ministry of Defence asked Sky News and other news organisations to keep the location secret for security reasons.
Ben Wallace, the defence secretary and a potential contender to become the next prime minister, visited the site on Thursday to meet recruits and speak with commanders.
“Training matters,” he said in an interview during the trip.
“When you’re in a war and you’re against Russia, you need to make sure that you can be the best you can be, and that this is the process we’re doing here.”
‘Many recruits had never touched a weapon before’
He signalled that the UK could offer to train even more than the target of 10,000 recruits.
“If the Ukrainians ask for more, we’ll be open to more,” Mr Wallace said.
Asked how many more, he said: “We could do thousands and thousands.”
With speed a priority given their country is at war, the Ukrainian recruits are being turned into infantrymen at a much faster pace than any peacetime British recruits.
It typically takes six months to pass basic infantry training for soldiers in the UK. The Ukrainians are set to rotate through the course in a matter of weeks.
They are taught a range of skills, most importantly how to shoot straight, how to survive in the open and how to treat blast and bullet wounds.
Aged between 18 and 60, many of the recruits had never touched a weapon before.
They were civilians who only took the decision to join the military in recent days and weeks. A majority of the recruits were men but one unit was said to be 20% female.
One of the new joiners was a 34-year-old e-commerce manager.
“I was sitting in my office and relaxed and used to drink my coffee, do my routine all the day and everything has changed since February 24,” said the recruit, a father-of-one.
“It took time to make sure my family and relatives are safe but right now I am ready to stand and do my best to protect everything that is valuable for me.”
‘Extraordinary motivation levels’
British trainers said the motivation levels of the Ukrainians were extraordinary, with the new troops working from 6am until 10.30pm every day, seven days a week.
Sky News watched as one group of trainees was instructed on how to load AK rifles, while another group took it in turns to fire live rounds at targets on a range.
British instructors, paired with Ukrainian interpreters, bellowed orders to shoot at cardboard cut-outs of soldiers placed some 200 metres away across a field.
“Ready!” one trainer shouted as the recruits lay on the ground with their weapon pointed.
“Ten rounds, central target, in your own time fire!” the trainer said, prompting the Ukrainians to let rip.
A second instructor said that their aim had been pretty poor initially but after a couple of days the majority of shots – about 80% – were hitting in the right place.
“For these guys it is the first time some of them have touched a weapon system so I would say they are either on par or getting there,” said Lance Corporal Philip Lourens, 28.
Like a number of the instructors, he took part in a training mission the UK provided to Ukrainian forces inside Ukraine before Russia launched its all-out war earlier this year.
The lance corporal signalled he would prefer to be helping in Ukraine once again rather than remotely.
“One hundred percent,” he said.
“Unfortunately, it is not up to me but I would love to go out there with them. We see them as brothers in arms here. We would see them as brothers in arms everywhere.”
Principle of ‘survive to adapt’
The ratio of instructor to trainee that the UK can offer is about 1:10 or 1:15 – much higher than they would receive in Ukraine.
The training is being delivered by 11th Security Force Assistance Brigade, commanded by Brigadier Justin Stenhouse.
He said it was key to teach the recruits how to deal with the two main threats they will face on the frontline in Ukraine: Russian artillery and trench warfare. This meant the course was built around a principle of “survive to adapt”, Brigadier Stenhouse said.
“So that in the first few weeks of combat they are learning as rapidly as they can do, offensive spirit, and actually they can trust their basic training we have got that it will keep them alive and allow them to go into the fight,” he added.