Ukrainian soldiers hungry to learn as they sharpen skills on Salisbury Plain


More than 450 Ukrainian soldiers have received training in the UK on a range of weapons such as the multiple-launch rocket system – seen as vital in the fight against Russia.

Their urgent need to learn in the midst of war meant slow and steady teaching techniques used by British trainers for their soldiers in peacetime were quickly ditched.

Instead, the units have raced through courses over the past few weeks on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire and elsewhere.

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They know it could mean the difference between life and death when they return to the frontline in eastern Ukraine – a major motivating factor.

Captain James Oliphant, a British Army officer, helped to run training on the multiple-launch rocket system (MLRS), a large, mobile weapon on tracked wheels that fires 12 rockets at speed out to a range of more than 50 miles.

“It came as a shock to us,” he said, speaking at the weekend, about the Ukrainians’ hunger to learn.

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“We prepared the training programme and the training content based on our experience delivering training to British soldiers.

“And when we found out that they were professional rocket artillerymen, the content of the course and delivering that became much easier.”

Deborah Haynes VT 30 June

Ukrainian soldiers ‘in combat mood’

As well as training on more complex weapons, the British government has separately said it could give 10,000 Ukrainian soldiers infantry training in the UK every 120 days.

On Salisbury Plain last weekend, Ukrainian troops learning to operate the rocket system worked in teams of three, moving the system around.

They were not firing it.

“Our Ukrainians guys are in a combat mood,” a Ukrainian officer said, asking not to give his name.

“They are ready to return back [to Ukraine]. We understand that we are over here to prepare to improve the situation back there.

“We are confident it will help us in our struggle.”

The same enthusiasm was true for a large group of Ukrainian soldiers training on batteries of light guns, with a shorter range of up to 7 miles, also on Salisbury Plain.

“They know that their window of learning is reasonably short so the motivation to get as much knowledge as they possibly can has been noted,” said Warrant Officer 1 Rebecca Bullock, who was helping with the training.

“They just work, work and work and they ask a lot of questions.”

Deborah Haynes VT 30 June

‘Life ie easy-going here’

A key issue is how to be as fast as possible, firing the weapon and then moving it to a safer place to avoid returning Russian fire.

Military commanders have called the battle in the Donbas, eastern Ukraine, a “battle of fires”, referring to the artillery guns used by either side to pummel the other.

Russia vastly outguns Ukraine by 20 to 1 in some areas.

It is why, from the president downwards, Ukrainian officials are constantly asking western allies for more heavy weapons.

Last Saturday, the Ukrainian troops on Salisbury Plain practised firing the L119 light gun after spending the previous five days learning about it.

They used live ammunition, lobbing 105mm shells at targets and cheering whenever they hit the mark.

Deborah Haynes VT 30 June

It was the first time journalists have been allowed access to the training since it began.

A second Ukrainian officer said the exercises were useful though he said being in the UK was a significant change from being in the middle of a war zone.

“Of course, the life is easy-going here,” he said, asking to remain anonymous and speaking through a translator.

“For us, it is a change of our lives for a while.”

Asked whether coming to the UK for training was like having a holiday, the officer said: “We are doing drills and exercises.

“We do not feel like we are on holiday. Holiday will be for when we win the war in Ukraine.”

Kiwi troops support training

The Ukrainian soldiers wore black bulletproof vests and helmets to distinguish them from their trainers, a mix of British and New Zealander troops.

Some 29 soldiers from New Zealand have travelled to the UK to help with the training because their military is more familiar with the L119 light gun.

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The UK has bought around 50 of the weapons, second hand, from a British company to give to the Ukrainian military. They are due to be deployed imminently.

Britain is also sending a number of the multiple launch rocket systems to Ukraine.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Thursday will announce an additional £1 billion in military assistance to Ukraine, speaking at a NATO summit in Madrid. He has also said the UK will train 10,000 Ukrainian soldiers.

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