RICHARD PENDLEBURY: ‘We need more guns, more equipment, but, most of all, more men.’ Dispatch from the Kupiansk frontline in Ukraine

Under a different circumstance, this would be the perfect winter’s day for a walk in the woods. The temperature is a little below zero, the sky a faultless blue and sunlight dapples through the pine canopy as we crunch across the snow.

But these details are incidental to the crash and boom of incoming and outgoing artillery fire that echoes through this lovely forest.

Like hooded wraiths, two Ukrainian soldiers in white camouflage overalls have just stepped from among the trees to greet us, assault rifles slung over their shoulders.

This way and quickly, they say.

We go that way and quickly, because today is also ideal for drone warfare and the Russian frontline and its numerical superiority in such weapons is well within range.

First line of defence: Richard Pendlebury, left, with Sasha, a gunner tasked with stopping Russian assaults reaching Ukraine trenches

Snow patrol: Ukraine soldiers return to their base after frontline manoeuvres near Kupiansk

Snow patrol: Ukraine soldiers return to their base after frontline manoeuvres near Kupiansk

The Russian frontier is only 25 miles away. We must avoid the clearings, the soldiers say. No chance to admire the blueness of a sky filled with hostile eyes and murderous intent.

Presently, we arrive at a timber-framed portal, obscured beneath a mound of foliage.

What follows has a Narnia-like quality. Beyond and below this discreet entrance, earth steps descend steeply into another world, where a tabby cat named Pixel begins purring round my ankles.

A black iron kettle is boiling on a stove in the corner of the dugout, watched over by a plump artilleryman in a khaki T-shirt. Encouraging letters from schoolchildren decorate the walls. All seems well and homely, and smells deliciously of pine sap and brewing chai.

But then the unmistakable growl of a military jet, moving low and fast over the forest, penetrates our subterranean reverie, and the soldiers in this potential tomb fall silent and nod grimly to each other.

This was the Kupiansk forest frontline, late last month. The situation here and in two other sectors of this vast warzone, is ‘difficult’ the Ukrainian army’s supreme commander has admitted, with perhaps a degree of understatement.

In this second winter of full-scale war, battlefield conditions are taxing for both sides. But pressure is growing on the Ukrainian defenders in particular, not least since summer’s failed counteroffensive and, more recently, the suspension of American and EU funding.

A bill to lower the age of conscription from 27 to 25 has also stalled in the parliament in Kyiv. As it is, the average age of the Ukrainian combat soldier is a scarcely credible 43 years (almost two decades older than that of the average British serviceman in World War II).

Mail photographer Jamie Wiseman and I were given privileged access to troops in the frontline sectors of eastern Ukraine most threatened by an expected Russian winter offensive. Everywhere we visited in these sub-zero temperatures, frostbite and pneumonia have begun to appear on the casualty lists.

Politicking and finance might determine their fates.

But, as our snapshots of life here show, these are the places where a badly mauled but still determined and largely volunteer, middle-aged army, is dug into the snow and ice — in preparation for a new Kremlin onslaught.

In Dnipro, I am woken at 5am by an explosion. The air-raid sirens begin to wail and, as the sun appears over the ice-bound Dnieper river, two more detonations rattle my windows; Kinzhal hypersonic missiles have struck the city, social media reports.

The temperature is falling towards a predicted -21C, as we set off eastwards; retreating from this haven of relative peace and security towards the guaranteed miseries of the frontlines.

Sasha, pictured here in the woods, says, ‘we are not Russians who can fire indiscriminately’

Sasha, pictured here in the woods, says, ‘we are not Russians who can fire indiscriminately’

Richard Pendlebury, centre, says frostbite and pneumonia have begun to appear on the casualty lists everywhere he visited in the sub-zero temperatures

Richard Pendlebury, centre, says frostbite and pneumonia have begun to appear on the casualty lists everywhere he visited in the sub-zero temperatures

The journey into the Donbas takes us through a vast, flat snowscape, broken only by the skeletal outlines of trees, occasional car wrecks and halts at military checkpoints.

A crosswind is whipping snow from the fields over the road surface. In the distance, one of the Donbas coalfield’s characteristic slag heaps looms like an enormous iceberg in a polar sea.

Eventually, we reach the sad little Donetsk town of Kurakhove.

At Christmas, after a long and devastating siege, the Russians captured Maryinka, a few miles up the road. It was the Kremlin’s most significant battlefield victory since taking Bakhmut last May.

Observers believe Kurakhove will be the next target in the Russian line of advance. The town stands beside a reservoir supplying water to a power station and was once an angler’s delight.

Beneath a mural of a bucolic fishing scene decorating a wall on Victory Street, there is a quote from the English writer Neil Gaiman: ‘It’s not the fish you catch, it’s the peace of mind you take home at the end of the day.’ I am contemplating this when a volley of Russian rocket artillery lands a few blocks away, causing me to jump and a nearby pack of stray dogs to scatter.

An air defence system blasts into action and, belatedly, the local warning siren comes to life. The only civilian to be seen in the main street is a drunken man in the middle of the only junction, shouting at passing military traffic. Kurakhove’s peace of mind has long vanished, along with the fishermen.

We drive on, by icy back lanes and through deserted, war-scarred villages until we reach the location of a drone unit of the Border Guards. We visited them last spring, when they were heavily involved in the unsuccessful defence of Maryinka.

Bivouacking in an abandoned cottage, they grumble about the cold and military situation.

This is not good drone weather. The skies are clear but when the temperature falls below -10C the drones’ batteries lose power.

There have also been instances this week of rotors freezing mid-flight, causing the machines to drop out of the sky. ‘The situation here in the last couple of days has become quite rough,’ the senior NCO tells me. ‘They [the Russians] are pushing. We need more drones and more pilots.’ There has been a marked increase in Russian drone activity and effectiveness in the past few months.

Daniel, who worked in a travel agency before the Russian invasion, is now a qualified drone pilot, flying his machines via video goggles.

Richard, left, meets the Thunder Company at night on a freezing roadside behind the Kharkiv frontline

Richard, left, meets the Thunder Company at night on a freezing roadside behind the Kharkiv frontline

Soldiers return to barracks in the snow after a front line patrol near Kupiansk

Soldiers return to barracks in the snow after a front line patrol near Kupiansk

It is -15C but he can’t wear gloves because the controls require finger-tip sensitivity on his part. His hands are purple with cold and a small icicle hangs from an eyebrow. The drone he is trying to launch refuses to lift off. The battery is sleepy. Again, it’s this perishing cold.

‘This war has made me hate the winter,’ reflects the NCO. ‘I dream of the summer. After victory I don’t ever want to feel this cold again.’

We drive north, in a snowstorm, to meet Nazar, a senior sergeant in a scout battalion.

His unit has been in continuous action near Bakhmut — one of the other ‘difficult’ sectors — for more than a year. He is carrying a new American AR-15 assault rifle equipped with a thermal scope, which he paid for from his own pocket. ‘Unfortunately, we must buy [up-to-date equipment] for ourselves,’ he says.

‘This [rifle] cost me 3,000 euros, which is not cheap, but when you are talking about [the price of] your life… well, that is worth more than 3,000 euros to me.’

His unit’s hardest fighting of the full-scale war has taken place during this winter and the last. ‘When the frost comes the Russians start moving forwards,’ he says.

‘It’s deja vu. The conditions now are much more hard [for us] than usual. In winter it’s very easy for our enemy to find us with their drones, which have become the biggest threat.’

I ask him about rest and rotation. ‘That’s a painful question. Our battalion doesn’t have rotation.

‘New guys come in to replace someone who has been wounded or killed… but we cannot leave our positions [for a rest] because who will take our place?

‘The frontline is so big and we need more guns, more equipment, but, most of all, more men.’

The snow is still falling as we reach an icebound hamlet beyond the city of Sloviansk. Here, another abandoned cottage is being used as the medical command post for a battalion of the 56th Brigade.

In the front yard, a soldier is chopping firewood as snowflakes drift around him and artillery thuds in the distance.

The cottage’s warm but cramped interior is piled with boxes of pills, bandages and tourniquets, much of which has been donated by civilian aid organisations. The doctor in charge is a young reserve lieutenant called Viktor.

He speaks candidly to me about the pressure he is under and the new challenges the winter war has imposed. ‘It’s very tough now, on the battlefield,’ he says. ‘Sometimes we don’t sleep for several days. Eighty per cent of the casualties we are treating are caused by shrapnel, rather than bullets.

In the capital Kyiv life is relatively normal and the 'restaurants and bars were full of young people who have neither volunteered nor been drafted'

In the capital Kyiv life is relatively normal and the ‘restaurants and bars were full of young people who have neither volunteered nor been drafted’

A young boy, one of the few children remaining along the front line, heads home on a sled

A young boy, one of the few children remaining along the front line, heads home on a sled 

‘But due to the [steep fall in] temperature we are now getting cases of pneumonia and frostbite. Because of the sub-zero temperatures the [safe] time for applying a tourniquet is also significantly reduced, to no more than an hour, rather than two.

‘This requires faster medical aid provision and faster delivery of the wounded to the casualty station.’

Battlefield evacuations are carried out with an elderly M113 armoured personnel carrier.

Marked with red crosses, it is nevertheless concealed under trees — the drone threat, again — in a field across the lane. Manufactured for the U.S. Army during the presidency of Jimmy Carter, the vehicle is considerably older than the doctor himself.

But he appreciates its capabilities, compared to the Soviet-era blood-wagon it replaced. ‘Once, in an extreme situation, we were able to get 11 wounded soldiers, including two stretcher cases, into the back, along with two medics,’ Viktor recalls. ‘It was quite a squeeze, but we got everyone out.’

I wonder how so many were wounded at one time.

But then we meet Thunder Company and understand.

Our rendezvous with them takes place at night on a sub-arctic roadside behind the Kharkiv frontline.

The soldiers lead us down a farm track of iron-hard ruts until an unharvested wheat field blocks our way and the faint light of a cottage twinkles on a hillside.

Suddenly, the horizon beyond is lit by an explosion.

The next 48 hours are instructive. All of Ukraine’s military strengths and weaknesses are to be found or articulated inside the hillside hovel that has become the embattled company’s HQ. Even before the war, life must have been hard for whoever lived here. There is no plumbed water, the wallpaper is peeling and I can hear mice in the ceiling (which is why most units have a pet cat — in this case she is called Dusia.)

In the main room, plasma screens are broadcasting monochrome snowscapes — nearby frontlines — in real time, captured by a dozen different drone cameras. On another screen, Marti Pellow of Wet Wet Wet is crooning Love Is All Around, courtesy of MTV.

Back in Kyiv, the restaurants and bars were full of young people who have neither volunteered nor been drafted. Here, our hosts are grizzled, stout-bellied and with medical conditions that should have seen them signed off as unfit.

But they are determined. This is an existential conflict, being fought by Ukraine’s Generation X.

A bear of a man with the call sign Poacher, the company commander was a construction engineer. He has undergone heart surgery and suffered a broken neck. After the full Russian invasion he rejoined the army, along with his 28-year-old daughter. Why is he even here? ‘Who else would come?’ Poacher asks. ‘The younger ones can run faster than us old guys.’

His deputy is a walrus-moustached veteran with the call sign Kruger. ‘Look what they gave me to fight with,’ he says. He shows me a Carl Gustaf M/45 submachine gun; a World War II era relic that the Swedish army retired almost 60 years ago.

The following night he takes the gun outside the cottage and fires a demonstrative burst into the hillside. ‘A weapon of last resort,’ he grumbles. Like Nazar, he has bought himself an AR-15 rifle, which has three times this museum piece’s accurate range.

Ihor, the company supplies officer, had a heart valve fitted after he suffered blast injuries in 2014. He has been wounded almost every year since then.

A gentle soul, he has found solace in cooking for his comrades — and us — splendid stews and his piece de resistance; a doughnut made from cottage cheese, raisins and jam, called pundyky.

Word has spread about his culinary prowess. ‘One of the company wives said to her husband: ‘After the war I’m taking up with Ihor. You can do what you like.’

Such comradeship has been forged in extreme adversity. Their original company was almost totally destroyed in the ‘meat grinder’ of Bakhmut.

Poacher says that of his 120 men who went in, only 26 came out alive or without life-changing injuries. None went unscathed.

He says their performance in Bakhmut was mirrored by that of the Russian enemy, ‘only they had more idiots in charge than we did’. Kruger says: ‘We held our position there for seven months and then the unit that replaced us lost it inside three weeks. That p***ed us off.’

What remained of their company was taken out of the line then folded into a new formation — 41st Brigade — an amalgam of professional soldiers, volunteers and conscripts. Two of the company’s replacement platoons have been trained in the UK.

At dinner — Ihor has fried potatoes and hunks of lamb — they raise a toast: ‘God save the King!’

Poacher explains: ‘The NLAW [a UK donated anti-tank missile made in Northern Ireland] saved us. Britain has been true from start. But the West has to be patient and understand we cannot defeat Russia immediately.

‘It is a chimpanzee with nuclear weapons. You have to press slowly. It can be destroyed only from inside. We have to work towards that.’

We are billeted in a spartan outbuilding ‘heated’ by a small stove. Tonight, the fire soon dwindles and by 3am it’s simply too cold to sleep. In the darkness, artillery fire is marking a slow drumbeat, like the tolling of a village church clock back home.

The next morning, the snow gives way to heavy rain and meltwater pours off our hovel’s roof. ‘You have brought your British weather with you,’ Kruger complains. The drone monitors are dark. Nothing is flying in this downpour. At least the Russians are suffering the same. The lane outside is no longer a frozen rut, but mud and slush.

Towards the main road, hundreds of newly cut pine trunks have been piled by army engineers. The timber will be used to strengthen Ukrainian trenches and dugouts; defensive rather than offensive positions. By afternoon the rain stops, the sky clears and the temperature plummets, again. The slush is transformed into treacherous, iron-hard, ice.

On our way into the battered city of Kupiansk we are delayed as a Humvee gingerly reverses a 105mm artillery piece across this tundra. Kupiansk was taken by the Russians in the spring of 2022, retaken by Ukrainians in the autumn of that year and is now threatened again by Kremlin forces massing just outside.

All the urban bridges over the Oskil river have been destroyed, forcing a long detour towards the frontlines. It is miserable.

What stands between the Russians and a winter breakthrough on the Kupiansk front? Artillerymen like Sasha.

Before the invasion, he was a maritime welder in Kherson. Now he is a 41st Brigade gunner and his Soviet-era Gvozdika self-propelled howitzer — donated by Poland — is tasked with stopping Russian assaults before they reach the first Ukrainian trench. He complains that his winter camouflage suit makes it harder to move inside the vehicle. Every so often his driver starts the big diesel engine to make sure it doesn’t freeze.

Theirs is a deadly game of hide and seek. The artillerymen are nervous that our arrival and presence will give away their position (though we later learn that the incoming Russian artillery fire is passing over the forest and falling, fatally, into Kupiansk beyond.)

Among the trees, Sasha’s vehicle is ‘hull down’ in a gun pit. The howitzer is further concealed by camouflage netting and a heavy mesh screen, to protect against kamikaze drones. This is lifted only when the 122mm gun is about to fire.

Ammunition has to be conserved. ‘We are not Russians who can fire indiscriminately,’ says Sasha. ‘If we are given a target we fire, for example, six shells.

‘After that we scatter and take cover away from the vehicle (in case of retaliatory artillery fire or drones).’ The most shells his crew have fired in a day is 23.

Recently, his howitzer destroyed two Russian armoured vehicles that were supporting an attack by infantry.

Sasha is one of Nature’s optimists. ‘Everything will be fine!’ he declares as we part.

It is not a sentiment widely expressed in these difficult times for Ukraine.

Additional reporting: Oleksandr Kostiuchenko