British troops sent to train Ukrainian forces fighting battling Russian-backed separatists are also learning from their pupils
As the 10-man patrol picked its way down the lakeside track, the pine forest ahead suddenly erupted with gunfire.
The Ukrainian troops took cover and fired back at their unseen ambushers, throwing smoke grenades to cover their retreat, while bandaging up a wounded comrade writhing on the ground.
Moments later, as armoured personnel carriers sped to their rescue, the men clambered aboard and departed to be debriefed by British Army teachers watching the drill from a nearby rise.
In Western Ukraine, a small force of British trainers is trying to teach the beleaguered Ukrainian army battlefield skills that will keep them alive against more heavily-armed Russian-backed separatists.
But British soldiers of 1st Bn The Yorkshire Regiment and 4 Armoured Medical Regiment are finding they can also learn from their pupils. Troops who have spent a decade honing skills against lightly-armed Taliban fighters and their roadside bombs are learning from those who have spent a year facing the very different threat of Vladimir Putin’s tanks and heavy artillery.
WO2 Steven Harrison, company sergeant major, said: “We try to learn as much from them as we are trying to teach them.
“We have never been to war with an overmatched force before. Wherever we have been, we have always been the better equipped, better manpowered, better disciplined army, so some of the lessons that they have been learning are things that we can definitely understand ourselves and get back into our training cycle.”
Around 75 British troops have already trained 1,000 Ukrainians in life-saving battlefield medicine and basic infantry tactics. Courses are being widened to include new lessons in urban combat, dealing with mines and building stronger fortifications. The aim is to have taught 2,000 by the end of the year.
“It is relaxed but we have very sharply in mind that the guys that we are training are going to be at high end operations pretty soon after,” said the 38-year-old from Barnsley.
“They are in a pretty difficult fight.”
During their lessons, the British troops can point to years of hard-earned experience in Afghanistan, but the Ukrainians see that as a very different conflict.
He said: “They definitely see, rightly or wrongly, Afghanistan and Iraq as a peacekeeping mission. They don’t see it as how we see it, the sharp end.”
Kiev has asked without success for the West to supply arms including anti-tank weapons. The Ukrainian troops being taught at Zhytomyr, two hours drive west of Kiev and 500 miles from the heavy fighting around Donetsk, are also not content with defensive lessons.
“They have asked us to teach offensive tactics, but we are not in that field, it’s defensive tactics we are teaching and how to preserve life,” said Lt Col Paul Kinkaid, a training specialist with the Adjutant General’s Corps.
Drills honed in Afghanistan in the face of Helmand’s homemade bombs may not be suitable for eastern Ukraine, where the great threat is artillery and snipers, he said.
“The Ukrainians weren’t lacking anything, they are a credible armed force, but they want different ways of doing business.
“Some of our drills have been very deliberate because the threat that we focused on in Afghanistan was from improvised explosive devices, so they were slower than they need to be here.
“Obstacle crossing, for example a bridge, was very slow, very deliberate because in Afghanistan it would be a choke point where IEDs could be laid, whereas the Ukrainians don’t have that time.
“They say that at the front line if they are exposed for more than 11 minutes they can start to get hit by artillery.”
The Ukrainian soldiers learning these first courses will themselves become instructors for their comrades.
One Ukrainian officer, who said he went by the nom de guerre of Maj Zam, said: “The best thing is the methodical nature of the training. We want to see less theory and more practice.”
Asked about whether it would improve the Ukrainian forces, he said: “In terms of the whole country, I hope there should be an improvement, because it cannot get much worse.”