THE Sun joined Ukrainian artillery in a deadly duel with Russian forces – and saw a crack team launch a rapid strike within ten minutes before rushing to safety.
We got exclusive access to a Ukrainian howitzer crew pounding the southern front with 152mm shells.
After nearly four months of Putin’s slaughter, ground is increasingly being gained and lost by the speed, range and skill of artillery teams.
Ukraine desperately needs bigger and more modern weapons to allow it to bombard Russian positions up to 44 miles away.
But while Western allies are dragging their feet with deliveries of rockets and high-tech artillery, frontline troops are relying on decades-old Soviet-era guns.
The Sun has joined a squad of gunners at a secret position where their howitzers are hidden from Russian drones.
As soldiers ate borscht from pewter bowls, their radios crackled with details of their latest mission.
They grabbed their body armor and sprinted towards the truck – which tows a Soviet-era Msta-B gun with a 23ft barrel.
Seconds later they were on the move, roaring across the countryside to a secret firing position.
As they drove, commanders double-checked calculations on range, ammunition, wind speed, weather and temperature – all of which affect a shell in flight.
The Sun agreed not to reveal where they fired from to protect the crew.
Both sides have radar capable of detecting incoming shells, tracking shell trajectories and using them to locate enemy positions.
Staff Lieutenant Ruslan, an arms commander who only gave his first name, said they never spent more than 20 minutes in one place.
The day we joined Lt Ruslan, he had already fired four times that morning – once at a Russian tank, once at artillery and twice at teams of drone operators.
He said: “The drone teams are far behind enemy lines. We are the only ones who can get them.
They missed the tank by 3 feet, but he said, “We ran their artillery.”
Parts of its seven-ton weapon were pockmarked by shrapnel from previous Russian bombardments.
On his busiest day, he said he fired 200 rounds over a 24-hour period without a break. He added: “Most days there are 30 to 40 shells.”
The Msta-B cannon has a maximum range of 18 miles, but Ukraine has warned it is running out of longer-range ammunition.
As we raced down dusty roads behind the towed artillery gun, a soldier in our vehicle gave urgent instructions: flee at the last shot.
He added: “If the weapon is damaged, we leave it. We can always come back for it later.
The truck towing the howitzer came to rest in a cornfield and soldiers jumped in to unhitch it and secure its tails, which act as reinforcements.
Drone teams are far behind enemy lines. We are the only ones who can get them.
Staff Lieutenant Ruslan
Their comrades removed a dust sheet while others turned dials to adjust the direction of the gun. At the same time, the soldiers placed the charges and the shells on a mat behind the gun.
It took them less than six minutes before the breech was closed and the firing team prepared for the explosion.
In a firm voice, Lt Ruslan gave the order to fire. Flames and smoke erupted from the barrel and within seconds the next round was ready and ready to go.
After finishing bombing, the crew departed within four minutes.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Russian advances in bombarded eastern Donbas were due to “artillery terror”. He said: “Russian artillery outmatches ours by 1 to 15 in the most crucial parts of the front line.
“We urgently need more heavy weapons from various sources to turn the tide in our favor and save lives.” America has pledged to send four M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, known as HIMARS.
With the right ammo, they can blast targets 186 miles away. But officials said Ukraine would only get rockets that can fire 44 miles.
Britain and another unnamed country have pledged to send guided multiple-launch rocket systems that have a similar range. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said the first from Britain will arrive within days.
Britain has also purchased 20 self-propelled heavy artillery guns – tracked howitzers – as well as sending thousands of NLAW anti-tank weapons, anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles.
But Mr Kuleba of Ukraine said that was not enough. He said: “Our most urgent needs are for hundreds of multiple launch rocket systems and various 155mm artillery pieces.
“The pivotal moment will come when our armed forces use Western-provided multiple rocket launch systems to destroy Russian artillery, turning the tide in Ukraine’s favor across the entire frontline.”
It came as Prime Minister Boris Johnson yesterday warned that the world must not tire of standing with Ukraine as Russian tyrant Putin tried to crush the country.
Mr. Kuleba said: “The West must understand the stakes and the consequences of our failure.
“If we lose, not only will there be no more Ukraine, but there will be no prosperity or security in Europe.”
For artillery soldiers, the reality is even starker. Their lives are at stake every day.
Chief Lieutenant Sula, 32, another arms commander, said: ‘It’s dangerous but it’s our job to defend our country. Each time we shoot, we become faster and more efficient. But each time there is a risk.
“My priority is to make sure I get all my guys home alive.”
THE DOG HAS THE EAR FOR DANGER
A DOG has become an unlikely early warning system protecting its owners from Russian artillery.
Barsik lives with Lubov, 60, in the frontline village of Shevchenkove, in his shrapnel-shattered house.
He will play happily despite the regular fire from the outgoing artillery.
But as the Russian guns fire back, the bastard rushes to the hangar for shelter.
Lubov said: “If Barack is relaxed, we also relax.”
Husband Leonid, 62, uses crutches to walk but said: “I can move pretty fast when I have to.”