On the cold bright morning in late January 2024, UFC Convoy 12 set off from the Company’s depot in Hampshire for the Channel Tunnel. The convoy consisted of 2 reconditioned 2007 vehicles – a Ford Transit van and a green-sprayed Mitsubishi Trojan 4 x 4, both destined for delivery to agencies in Ukraine and loaded with a variety of humanitarian aid including high-end combat medical supplies; medicines and drugs for hospital use; material for a displaced persons’ charity and, finally, British military field uniforms. The drivers were 3 former Royal Marines (Andy Canning, John Howard and Charlie Wilson) and Mike Rostron, a retired GP, a skilled camera operator, all-round sound team player and outstanding reciter of monologues. It is to him that all credit goes for the photographs in this narrative. 

The route plan was to drive across Europe to the Poland/Ukraine border, then for an overnight stop in central Ukraine before heading south to make the first two deliveries. Two more deliveries and the hand-over of the Transit-van would follow in the eastern sector of Ukraine, followed by the final delivery and passing the 4 x 4 to the Ukrainian Army further west. Extraction would be by train to the Polish border, then by taxi to the nearest international airport to fly back to Bristol.   

The trip to the Channel Tunnel was uneventful, taking only about 3 hours.  We would go through the tunnel on the freight route, which was a first for all of us. We experienced two problems on arrival: the first was that because neither vehicle was an HGV we had to scale the heights of the check-in kiosks to enter our vehicle deals on the touch screens, which was easier said than done.   

 

 

 

 

 

 

Scaling the heights

Secondly, one letter of 4 x 4’s VRN had been wrongly entered on the ticket, which caused considerable tooth sucking and head shaking at the check-in problem-solving office. However, thanks to the eventual common sense and understanding of one individual there, who called ahead through the various departure sections, our way was soon clearedAfter each vehicle was X-rayed for illicit content or passengers (but surprisingly no French border and control unlike on the car side of the terminal) and a short period of queuing, we boarded the train.  

Minnows amongst whales

Once aboard the freight wagon we were invited to leave the vehicles for a small bus which took us to the passenger carriage at the front of the shuttle, where we sat in comfort for the transit. The only downside was that the 4 x 4 was announced on the screen at the front of the compartment to have been selected for checking by French customs on arrival.  

This turned out to be a tedious process involving more waiting than action, apart from much documentary photocopying, in which neither we nor the helpful customs agent seemed quite sure what the requirement was. He was also surprised that the Transit had not been selected for checking but advised us to say nothing about this apparent oversight as he ushered us on our way. Curiously, the absence of a French passport stamp did not seem important.  

 We followed the plan across Europe with three overnight stops – uneventful, easy driving, during which we fell into a good routine of long days at the wheel with regular breaks. Distances and driving times were manageable, hotels courtesy of Booking.com all a good standard.  

We reached the Polish/Ukrainian border at 0600 on 30 Jan.  The Polish part was easy, not so the Ukrainian Customs check. 

 

Sunrise approaching the Polish/Ukrainian border.
On the Polish side soon after 0600 – note the clock at top of image!

Desks did not open until 0800, but there were no explanations or signs to this effect, so much confused standing around and waiting followed. When they did open, the expected ‘modern’ customs codes pre-assigned to our vehicles and their cargoes were not invoked. Instead, the whole process was paper based, immensely time consuming and confusing for all, not helped by limited English from the customs people and limited Russian (unpopular anyway!) from the UK teamEventually, after much double and triple checking and photocopying, and probably because our case was destined for the ‘too difficult’ file, rubber stamps were applied to numerous bits of paper that were not necessarily related and we were politely but brusquely told to go on our way. 

 

Looking back once released into Ukraine

We set off towards central Ukraine along initially shocking roads that gradually improved once past Lviv, arriving at about 1745.  The following morning, we departed for our leg to the south.  

On our route we visited a cemetery across the road from one of our breaks stops.  This contained several soldiers’ graves which were notable for the heroic nature of the images emblazoned on the gravestones and the ornate nature and durability of the grave ‘decorations’ (most of the ones we saw dated from soon after the invasion).  Also noticeable on most graves in the cemetery were upturned cups or mugs placed on the earth of the grave – a moving human touch indicating that its owner could no longer use a favourite receptacle.  

 

Roadside cemetery

And so onwards to the first delivery to a Ukrainian Police unit, requested and facilitated by our destination city’s Deputy Mayor, who, although he could not be present was fulsome in his thanks for our efforts in support of his country. Then it was on to one of the city’s major hospitals to pass on a significant quantity of medical supplies, received with humbling gratitude. We spent the night in the historic, atmospheric city centre. Something that caught the eye was a shop selling every conceivable item of military combat kit that the modern soldier could desire – including a discreet Ukraine flash velcro’d to lightweight body armour carrying the immortal words “F**k Putin”.  

Evening in city centre

We were on the road for the 560km drive to our next drop-off early the next morning A little bit of Google confusion ensued on arrival in the huge city because our map had taken us to the centre instead of the actual delivery address. However, our host gallantly came to find us and guided us to where we needed to be, his smartly refurbished hostel for internally displaced refugees, into which he has poured heart and soul.  

Refurbished child’s room and kitchen at  the hostel

Awaiting us were the recipients of our third set of stores, more medical supplies destined for the front line, as well as many blankets for the war zone to the east.  The person who had asked for the medical supplies could not be present because she was looking after patients, but her colleague and a stalwart team of volunteers came to receive the stores. They where overwhelmingly grateful, as the message we received later from the principal shows: “I am infinitely grateful to you and your team for your support and help. If you could see the joy with which K looked at each box with medicines and dressings … that will be take to the front line in the near future! I can’t look at this without tears because I understand at what cost our army is fighting for every square meter of Ukrainian land that everything you handed over will be used. Such mixed feelings of joy and sorrow at the same time. And deep gratitude for the fact that you stand next to us for the Victory”.  We received several such heartfelt and sincere messages throughout the trip after deliveries, with the consistent theme of gratitude that our small presence represented Great Britain’s continued support for Ukraine at a time when every Ukrainian knows the West is being distracted from Ukraine’s (and arguably Europe’s) existential plight.   

The final part of our delivery in tis city was the Transit van and the stores it contained for the charity, again received with humbling gratitude and sincerity. We were looked after brilliantly by the charity’s Chief Executive, who later took us for a meal of Ukrainian cuisine and also provided us with accommodation in a self-catering flat in the city. We have since received a video of him using the Transit in support of his charity, which is immensely gratifying. 

Early the following morning, the four of us squeezed into the 4 x 4 and set out on the 480km drive to our final desitination and its deliveries. The trip was uneventful, although a point of interest was passing what appeared to be a memorial to a tractor! 

In Memoriam

Roads improved soon, although at one point the smooth new dual carriageway on which we were rolling effortlessly was suddenly terminated by concrete barriers and we were diverted sharply onto the old road – and very old it was – for some distance until we were able to rejoin the new road nearer to our destination. However, most of this part of the trip passed painlessly and soon we were in the outskirts of the another great Ukrainian city.  

The RV for our final deliveries was in a city centre hotel which we found with little difficulty, although parking there was challenging, especially as the rugged 4 x 4 was distinctly out of place amidst the smart vehicles around it.  The city is beautiful and, on the face of it normality reigned despite the war but poignant reminders of it were evident of all to see. 

Our contacts soon joined us at the hotel and we were delighted to hand over a significant delivery of advanced combat first aid material to another wonderful Ukrainian charity, which elicited the following message, very much in the same tone as those we supported in Dnipro: “Thanks to everybody!! Such support is really precious and we are very grateful! Thanks for saving lives of people”.  

PHOTO 12

All that remained was to empty the vehicle and hand it over to the Ukrainian Army representative who had come to receive it. This was slightly sad moment as the vehicle had served us well and was obviously a true workhorse, but to judge by the enthusiasm and gratitude displayed it was going to be greatly valued by its new owners 

Handover of the Green Machine

The final part of trip was adventurous but painless.  We entered the the great main railway station that evening and found our way to the platform where the night train to Poland  was waiting. Some money had to change hands to enable the carriage attendant to place the four of us in a shared compartment, but after that we settled down and the train left on time to the second, arriving punctually in Poland (note to UK train operating companies!) after a 2 hour halt in the early hours of the following morning for passports to be checked on leaving Ukraine. 

The sleeper compartment

A further 2 hour wait in the train ensued once at the Polish terminus, apparently to allow the passports of passengers in an earlier train to be checked. However, eventually we were allowed to disembark to join the queue of our train’s passengers inching through Polish border control. It was here that the lack of French border controls at the Chunnel terminal, and thus no passport stamp to mark our entry into Europe, almost came back to bite us.  Questions were asked by the Polish border police, but again the fact that four of us were in the same boat, linguistic difficulty and the huge number of people waiting to come though passport control probably made the matter too difficult to resolve, so we were allowed through.  

In the passport queue in Poland in the drizzle

After that it was matter of an 80 minute taxi ride to the nesrerst international airport (obtained for a fair price after negotiation – Uber available but not popular with local taxi drivers as they feel it undercuts them). The airport was immaculate, although notably protected by Patriot air defences. After a wash, some welcome breakfast and another lengthy queue to pass though security, the Ryanair flight took off on time and landed heavily nearly 3 hours later in thick fog at Bristol. Dispersal to our various onward destinations occurred quickly – John in particular needing to travel to Bristol Temple Meads for a northbound train in the face of a possible ASLEF strike!  Despite regret that the team had parted so soon after such a successful trip, there is a distinct feeling that, in the words of the former Governor of California, “We’ll be back!”