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On the road to Ukraine – in cars saved from the scrapheap. By Simon White

Blog | By Simon White | Jun 08, 2024

Simon White (middle) with his comrades on the road to Ukraine

Simon White

Think what you will of Sadiq Khan.

His reluctance to allow vehicles acquired under London’s Ulez scrappage scheme to be re-purposed and donated to Ukraine was reversed only after extensive lobbying and his own lightbulb moment of realising it might help his re-election campaign.

We, a group of 60- and 70-something year old ex-paratroopers, think very little of him. His politics are not ours and we regard Ulez as a pointless and irksome exercise in virtue-signalling. But good can come of it. We have just driven five scrapped cars to Ukraine, where they will be deployed in ferrying humanitarian aid and the evacuation of casualties from the front line, and we had a jolly good, comradely time along the way. We gave only our time; there is nothing heroic in our endeavour, not even, due to late arrivals and early starts, our consumption of food and drink.

Most of the key people involved in the logistic process of getting vehicles from London to Ukraine are volunteers. They are far from being part time; it takes over lives. This is where heroes are to be found. They are learning on the job, dealing with governmental and other agencies which are themselves not joined up, hence the operation is far from perfect.

Eurotunnel generously donates free passage on its freight service to Calais, but the French immigration official’s manual has no chapter on how to deal with cars in convoy carrying no freight and with no paperwork. The legal framework is ambivalent. Without going into detail, so as not to compromise the enterprise, any conversation with petty or petit officialdom, whether in English or French, has to involve a certain amount of “mumble, swerve”.

Military experience is useful when travelling in convoy. In journeying over 1,200 miles we only broke up three times. The first was due to hopeless signage in the Calais customs area, itself the size of an entire département; the second we put down to the absurd short phasing of Berlin traffic lights. Only the third was, well, our fault. The use of walkie-talkies, surprisingly cheap, efficient and with impressive range, saw order swiftly restored. Rest stops had a military theme wherever possible. The first was at the Möhnesee, where the Dambusters of 617 Squadron performed so bravely and effectively in 1943. We marvelled that their leader, Wing Commander Guy Gibson, only 24 years old at the time, was younger than any of our offspring and more senior in rank than any of us.

Checkpoint Alpha was our next stop, at the border of the old East and West Germanys, the starting point of the only Cold War road corridor to West Berlin. It is now an autobahn services area, with access to the greater part which is preserved as a museum and looked very familiar to most of our number who were stationed in Berlin in the late 70s. A watchtower and several gloomy customs sheds and other buildings still stand, manned back in the day by East German border guards for civilian traffic and by the Soviet army for the military and their dependents. The allied powers, other than the USSR, did not recognise the existence or authority of the East German state. How simple things seemed back then. We were pleased the museum exists, to ensure the inner German border that was a cornerstone of the Cold War is not airbrushed out of German history. But the only other visitors on this several acre site were a young couple from Kiel, who knew little of their country’s recent past and seemed baffled by the whole thing.

In some ways Berlin seems strangely unchanged since the fall of communism and the re-unification of Germany. The city still sits as an island surrounded by the state of Brandenburg. The line of this political division, once marked by the wall which we patrolled as young soldiers, still marks the city limit, albeit invisibly. Berlin has not expanded; there is just no wall. There is a particular vantage point from which one can see well into the Brandenburg countryside and what used to be East Germany. From here, in the 70s we used to wonder how many Soviet divisions, tanks and hundreds of thousands of troops might be lurking ready to pour over the border and annihilate us. And whether we would last one day or two. Given our present purpose, such thoughts seemed still to be relevant. The only difference being the border is now 500 miles to the east.

Driving into Poland, the densely wooded landscape of Brandenburg eventually gives way to rolling farmland dotted with small villages. The motorway bypasses a number of major cities along the way; there is no conurbation; the view is uninterruptedly pastoral. Somehow it gives a sense of the importance of this being preserved. Polish history is complex. Innumerable wars have been fought, with Poland mainly but not always on what we would regard as the right side. It has been invaded often and from all directions: by the Mongols (three times), Ottomans, Russians, Cossacks and Muscovites, Austro-Hungarians, Swedes, Germany of course in both world wars, and even Ukrainians. They have had true independence, peace and prosperity only since 1991. As the ‘next in line’ to Ukraine, Poland’s significance as an ally, buffer and critical logistics hub cannot be over-stated.

Approaching Ukraine, the landscape flattens, the sky seems bigger and the horizon further away. The end of the road for our little convoy but, if we all put our shoulder to the wheel, not the end of the road for Ukraine. It has been biffed about and subjugated over the centuries as much as Poland. The holodomor is just within living memory: the famine in 1932 and 33 engineered by Stalin during which unknown millions of Ukrainians were starved to death. Many more were displaced, their lands occupied by settlers from elsewhere in the USSR. Ukraine has good reason to resist Putin and Russia.

We have good reason to render every assistance.

The delivery to Ukraine of vehicles scrapped under London’s Ulez scheme is organised by the charity British-Ukrainian Aid