Paul Wood

Meet the 74-year-old British major taking on the Russians in Ukraine

Meet the 74-year-old British major taking on the Russians in Ukraine
Major Cunningham (left) at a Ukrainian military base with Lieutenant Colonel Martin Podpora (right) a former Polish paratrooper
Text settings

Some citizens of Nato countries are in Ukraine to fight. They are members of the new International Brigade the Ukrainians are recruiting at their embassies. The senior official told me that so far around 3,000 foreigners had signed up. A unit 500-strong had already been formed inside Ukraine, he said, ‘ready to go – except there are no weapons’. I thought these numbers might have been propaganda but it appears that the figures are roughly accurate – and more recruits are arriving all the time. There are apparently a number of British volunteers so far. I managed to speak to one of them, a retired major named Ian Cunningham.

At the age of 74, Major Cunningham has the distinction of being the oldest member of the International Brigade. He served in the Coldstream Guards and was also a part of a Territorial Army infantry regiment, the 1st Wessex. When Russia invaded Ukraine, he flew to Poland and then took a taxi to Ukraine. He was among the very first British group to join the International Brigade. He sent me a photograph of them all at Warsaw airport. He told some of his former colleagues in the Household Division what he was doing, sending emails written in code. Ukraine is Malta:

‘It still looks as though I am off to the Head office of Fortnum & Mason in Valetta to work on the MD’s staff…If I go, it will be hard hat time as things are being thrown about rather a lot. Pistols w b drawn & cocked. It’s a very disagreeable bar-room brawl, which is terribly upsetting for the natives…I think that they are overwhelmed by (1) what is happening to their v beautiful island… & (2) the astonishing response of 98% of the world & (3) people pouring in in their thousands to help sort out said brawl. My guess is that the numbers have been tipped now in Malta’s favour…Hug the mems very tightly tonight. The Bear may try and x the Channel in a week or two’s time.’

Major Cunningham won’t be given a field command because of his age. Instead, as he writes above, he expects to get a headquarters job, helping to buy the desperately needed weapons. He had once been an aide to the British Chief of the Defence Staff and so knew ‘which doors to knock on’. I wasn’t able to meet the colonel in person because the Ukrainian authorities are afraid Russia wants to attack the International Brigade’s base and so access for journalists is difficult. But we spoke by phone, using the encrypted app Signal, which the Ukrainians believe the Russians have yet to crack.

When he arrived in Ukraine, last Monday, he had to sign a contract to join the Ukrainian armed forces. All new recruits to the International Brigade do this: the aim is to give them the protection of the Geneva Conventions. Many different languages are spoken on the parade ground, but English has become the Brigade’s main and official language. So far, the major told me, everyone he’s met has ‘very good military experience...[there are] very few cowboys as I can make out. I mean, who the fuck knows, but on cross-examination, all these people are making sense.’

He's become ‘room-mates and instant friends’ with the second oldest member of the Brigade, a Polish colonel, Martin Podpora. ‘Huge man. Parachutist’. He’s also met a Finnish airline pilot who’s had 2,000 hours on Jumbos and A380s and who wants to fly MiGs. He told the major: ‘Give me 30 minutes’ training in a flight simulator and I’ll go straight up and knock those fucking Russians clean out of the sky.’ ‘Gosh,’ the major replied. I asked him if this wasn’t Dad’s Army. He said that the Ukrainians were ‘desperately short of experience’ and ‘we have that experience – first hand and first class.’

In any event, 90 per cent of the volunteers were in their 20s, he said. The first of his ‘very punchy and extremely tough new best friends’ had already gone to Kiev ‘to do their very, very worst against Putin’s mob'. It seems that the International Brigade isn’t just something the Ukrainians created for propaganda reasons (though it has that role, too). The Brigade is also a great and unexpected gift for old soldiers like the major, a chance for one last adventure. He said: ‘One's here for the duration. It could end in two days. It could end in two years. Who knows?

This is an extract from Paul Wood's article from Lviv, Ukraine. You can read it in full here.

Written byPaul Wood

Paul Wood was a BBC foreign correspondent for 25 years, in Belgrade, Athens, Cairo, Jerusalem, Kabul and Washington DC. He has won numerous awards, including two US Emmys for his coverage of the Syrian civil war

Topics in this articleWorld