Brave Britons answering the call to arms

Published by The Daily Mail (29th February, 2022)

Gary Bonini spent 12 years in the British Army. Later this week he aims to head out to Ukraine to join their forces bravely fighting to save the nation from a devastating Russian invasion.

Bonini, 30, will be accompanied by Jo Stirling, his former Army comrade, as the Scottish pair answer President Volodymyr  Zelensky’s plea for foreigners to take up arms in a new international brigade being formed to defend Ukraine.

‘I’ve seen what is happening in Ukraine with all the shelling and carpet bombing, then I heard their president asking for help. It sparked a fire in me to do something to help their fight,’ says Bonini, a veteran of two tours in Afghanistan.

He’s among a wave of British citizens preparing to join Ukraine’s fight after Zelensky’s call for international volunteers was backed by Foreign Secretary Liz Truss on Sunday.

Bonini says his plans had met ‘a very positive’ response from British diplomats so he would be travelling later this week to Lviv, in western Ukraine, to sign up for the Territorial Defence Force, which is made up of military reservists.

‘I’ve been on holiday to Ukraine and love the country, along with its people, so for me this fight to help them feels personal.’

He admits his parents were less positive, but says they understood his position. ‘How can you not feel passionate when you watch these people take up arms to defend their country?’ he says. ‘Russia has absolutely no right to invade.’

Stirling, 28, from Edinburgh, who served alongside Bonini in the Royal Regiment of Scotland for six years and once went on holiday with him to Kyiv, says he was inspired by the people he met there – although he admits that he likes ‘getting into a scrap.’

He served a stint in Iraq, although says it was mostly spent on guard duty and was ‘boring since nothing really happened’.

Zelensky made his dramatic call for foreign volunteers this weekend when announcing the creation of a new military unit, the International Legion for the Territorial Defence of Ukraine, to combat Russia’s ‘vile’ tactics.

‘This is the beginning of a war against Europe,’ the president said. ‘Anyone who wants to join the defence of Ukraine, Europe, and the world can come and fight side by side with the Ukrainians against the Russian war criminals.’

Zelensky’s unit has been compared with the international brigades of the Spanish Civil War, which famously included writer George Orwell who fought with the republicans against the fascists of General Franco.

At least two British citizens are already serving in Ukraine’s armed forces with the First Battalion of the Marine Corps and are thought to be engaged in some of the fiercest fighting around the industrial port of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov.

Shaun Pinner, 48, who spent seven years in the British Army, was promoted to commander of his marines unit six months after joining. Originally from Bedfordshire, he now lives in Mariupol with his wife Larysa, a native of the city.

He told The Mail on Sunday last month: ‘Russia started this war – but we will fight them, make no mistake about that.’

He is serving with Aiden Aslin, 28, a former carer from Newark, Nottinghamshire, who previously fought with Kurdish militia against Islamic State in Syria.

He was held on suspicion of terrorism after returning home but the charges were dropped.

The pair were among at least ten British volunteers who took up arms against pro-Moscow separatists in the Donbas region, eastern Ukraine, in the war sparked by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in 2014, which left more than 14,000 dead.

They included Newport-born Michael Jenkins – who is abandoning recent plans to start a new life working with a defence engineering firm in New York and is heading back this week to join the fight for his Ukrainian wife’s nation.

Another British Army veteran, Jenkins is worried about his wife Sabina who has stayed with her grandmother in Pervomaisk, a town in central Ukraine about 120 miles from some of the worst fighting against Russian forces along the southern coastal areas.

‘She is safe but I feel for the Ukrainian people,’ he said.

Jenkins, who left Ukraine’s marines unit at the end of last year, is gathering a group of foreigners to join the battle against Putin’s invading forces. They’re due to meet later this week in Slovakia before travelling over the border.

He claims to have received ‘hundreds’ of approaches through social media – and says his final group will include ten British men and a further eight from the United States.

Another report claimed a squad of ten special forces veterans – including three Britons and a German trained in close combat and counter-terrorism – are in Poland, preparing to cross the border into Ukraine.

Other Britons interested in volunteering have been contacting Harry Jackson, 27, the founder of UK Aid for Ukraine, a Facebook group that aims to supply military and medical aid for the country.

Jackson said he is putting potential recruits in touch with Mamuka Mamulashvili, commander of the Georgian National Legion – a group of foreign fighters set up in 2014 and now falling under the Kyiv Territorial Defence Force.

Yesterday it published instructions on social media for foreign recruits, instructing them to contact their embassies first before making an application to the Ukrainian armed forces and obtaining military gear such as body armour and helmets.

Mamulashvili claimed yesterday to have ‘a very big group’ of about 60 Britons travelling by road to Ukraine through Poland. ‘I am expecting them here with equipment and supplies in the next few days,’ he said.

He added that they were former British military who ‘can be trusted to take on the Russian aggressors and, most importantly, win.’

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