Almost 200 soldiers from the Royal Artillery base at Baker Barracks on Thorney Island are being scrambled to mainland Europe at the request of the Polish government as the bloody war between bordering Ukraine and Russia continues to rage.
About 100 personnel from 16 Regiment will arrive in Poland next month, fielding Britain’s latest weapon, the ‘world-class’ Sky Sabre missile air defence system – which is capable of obliterating jets and hypersonic missiles.
Among them will be three soldiers who have postponed leaving the military or changing units to join the mission.
They will be backed up by a detachment of about 60 soldiers from 12 Regiment, equipped with the Starstreak missile system, which can be shoulder-launched or fired from a Stormer armoured vehicle, to destroy aerial threats like helicopters.
One fire group of Stormer vehicles, which can carry up to 17 missiles that can travel more than three times the speed of sound, was deployed to Poland last week.
Colonel Graham Taylor, head of the army’s 7th Air Defence Group, insisted the mission would not see British troops entering Ukraine and said: ‘The British government has agreed that we will provide ground-based air defence capability, in a defensive posture, to Poland.’
The deployment comes after 30 cruise missiles were reportedly launched by Russia at a Ukrainian military training base close to the Polish border, increasing fears that Poland could be inadvertently blasted by the ‘indiscriminate’ aerial attacks of the Russian military.
Speaking of the crisis in Ukraine, Col Taylor said: ‘This is a desperately difficult situation. It’s politically very difficult. Emotionally it’s very difficult [but] as soldiers our job is to answer the call when required.
‘It is part and parcel of being a soldier and being in the military that when you’re asked to deploy overseas then you turn to and deploy
‘But I can tell you that a large proportion of the soldiers, if not all of them, are looking forward to making a small contribution.’
The Sky Sabre only recently entered service in the British Army, officially replacing its predecessor, Rapier, during a military service in January.
The high-tech kit is able to detect enemy aircraft and missiles from about 75 miles away. The system is so sophisticated and accurate, that the army says it could intercept ‘24 tennis balls all travelling at the speed of sound simultaneously’.
Captain James Billingham, 27, of Thorney Island, is part of 16 Regiment working as the regimental operations officer and will be deploying to Poland.
He said: ‘Seeing what’s happening in Ukraine is very distressing and certainly for some people I think it is very difficult to watch.
‘At a time of great uncertainty in the world, we all joined the army to make a difference and to do something – and right now I find myself in a position where I will be able to actively contribute to help to make the world a safer place.’
The deployment for the regiment was a personal one, with one Polish soldier from within the unit having family in Ukraine, said Capt Billingham, who added: ‘For the soldiers, it only increases the enthusiasm and desire to do what they can to support those people.’
Major John Axcell, commanding officer of 16 Regiment, was full of pride for his troops - which includes a number of RAF personnel.
He added some soldiers had even postponed retirement to join the mission in Poland.
‘We have three soldiers that are preparing to deploy that have delayed transfers and termination of service in the military in order to deploy on this operation,’ he revealed, adding: ‘The commitment of our soldiers is very high. They are talented operators.’
The Sky Sabre system is currently deployed to the Falkland Islands.
However, its mission to Poland will be the first time it has been used on European soil.
Lance Bombardier Alex Jaggers is a deck commander on the system and hailed it a ‘big step change’ compared to the old Rapier system, describing the new weapon as a ‘fabulous bit of kit’.
Speaking of the deployment, he added: ‘The morale is pretty high at the moment. Everyone is pretty eager to get out there and get things sorted.’
Bombardier Robin Hearn, of 12 Regiment, leads a team of four soldiers in a Stormer vehicle.
Asked about how he feels about the mission to Europe, the determined 38-year-old insisted he was ‘fine with it’ and added: ‘It’s our job; it’s what we’re supposed to do – it’s what we’re going to do.’
Troops could be deployed for up to six months.