As previously mentioned, it was a rare stroke of luck that I was standing behind the commander of 128 Brigade as he gave the final order to withdraw from Debaltseve to Artemivsk. This was Colonel Serhiy Sheptala, and he was later honored with the highest title of “Hero of Ukraine” for planning and organizing our withdrawal.
Colonel Sheptala issued his order in front of many officers, gathered under enemy mortar fire at the entrance of the HQ shelter, and it seemed to me – a reservist and civil person – that the colonel’s manner was pretty rude! But then I realized he’d struck exactly the right tone: his “army style” of speaking was designed to shake us up and prepare us for battle and further orders. The colonel told everyone to board trucks and APCs – even tanks (if there was no room inside the vehicles) – and be ready to start our journey at 3am. And so we jumped to it.
I found the last empty space inside our battalion’s KAMAZ truck (next to the door). Moments later, a large and heavily armed convoy of some 100 vehicles, with over 1,000 personnel, snaked out of the base and headed … back to Debaltseve! In fact we were making for Novohrygorivka village – on the northern outskirts of Debaltseve – in order to form a powerful “fist” with other Ukrainian troops and break through enemy-controlled fields to Artemivsk.
Those last few hours of darkness (18 February) at 128 Brigade’s overcrowded base were full of chaotic events. Some officers – in their attempt to save more military stuff – overloaded several trucks: later, when their engines “gave up the ghost”, we lost them, along with items of personal stuff, somewhere in the snowy fields.
Indeed, we did not appreciate just how scary and dangerous this journey would be – menaced by enemy ambushes, tanks, snipers and shelling – or that it would take four hours to cover a mere 15 kilometers. In fact any vehicle that broke down would almost certainly mean the capture or death of those inside.
Fortunately, the truck I was in did not break down, and it saved our lives. The powerful four-wheel drive KAMAZ, with big wheels, was the best option for snowy fields, and I intuitively felt I must survive. But even this truck got stuck twice in deep snow, requiring us to switch off the engine. Each time – thanks to 128 Brigade’s tanks and APCs – we were pulled out and continued pushing ahead. And when our truck came under enemy fire (which happened several times), the tanks and APCs protected us and effectively silenced the Russian-backed Separatists. Other vehicles in the convoy – like buses or sedans, which were not suitable for rough terrain – soon got into trouble, and the soldiers had to find alternative transport … if they were lucky enough.
On two occasions – at the end of our trip, near the settlement of Mironivsky – our truck came under shelling by Russian “Grads” (MLRSs BM-21). As soon as we heard the rockets exploding behind us, our driver would immediately stop the truck, so the next salvo would fly harmlessly over our heads.
Not everyone in our convoy was lucky. According to official figures, nineteen Ukrainian servicemen in the convoy were killed and 135 were wounded. A dozen of our battalion’s servicemen were wounded, and ninety-four were captured by Russian “kazacks” (but released four days later).
We at 40 Battalion lost one sergeant, Hennadiy Medvedev, killed during the withdrawal. Our communication sergeant, Denis Kozachenko, is still listed as missing – until DNA tests can confirm his death. As we later discovered, Denis may have jumped out of a trapped truck and dashed into a field to hide – only to be hit by a random mortar shell. Being wounded, he probably got into greater trouble: it was almost impossible to reach safety alone, on foot, and in freezing conditions of minus 15 Celcius. Overall, 40 Battalion losses during the two-month Debaltseve campaign totalled twenty confirmed dead, and over forty wounded.
(Edited by Christopher Summerville)