On Jan. 7 the headquarters of the 1 st separate tank brigade received an encrypted telegram ordering to send a prepared tank company to the front line. The brigade had the entire 3 rd tank battalion commanded by Valerii Kashchyshyn ready to go, but the command decided to send only one company. One company of the 3 rd battalion was sent to the front line on Jan. 8-9; within it, one of the platoons was commanded by Lieutenant Ivan Zhdan. Zhdan had a totally peaceful profession before the war - he worked at the State Fiscal Service as electronic keys expert in the tax service department.
Kashchyshyn - the only career officer in his battalion - trained his soldiers a very useful exercise during the combat shakedown, which was how to act if fallen in ambush.
For imitation of real battle conditions, a platoon that was supposed to be in an ambush would open fire with blank charges from a close distance against another platoon which was moving in a march column. The task of those attacked was to immediately turn around and launch a counterattack.
The drills turned to be very useful.
After all, in the company, as well as throughout the battalion, there was not a single man with military experience - it was a newly formed division of drafted soldiers. They had been trained for about three months. Could they know when starting engines of their war machines that two days later they would have to be at the forefront of a daring tank raid?
The company arrived in the anti-terrorist operation (ATO) are on Jan. 17, but the unit was depleted right away. Four tanks commanded by company commander Kolomiiets were order to leave for Volnovakha. Another two platoons - six tanks - came near Donetsk. As soon as they arrived in Vodiane, they were covered with 'Grads', which damaged two tanks immediately - the damages were insignificant, but time was required for their repair. In the morning of Jan. 18, the company was ordered to redeploy to one of the front line ATO strong points - 'Zenit', located in a bunker of an air defense unit near Opytne village. Instead of a company, a compounded tank platoon under Lieutenant Zhdan arrived to 'Zenit.'
Ivan Zhdan. Photo posted by Pavlo Shvets on Facebook.
Together with his tankmen, Zhdan arrived to report to 'Zenit's commander and to receive a combat task. Recently mobilized taxman-turned-tankman came directly from a drilling center to the headquarters of the bunker and was greeted personally by … Chief of Staff Viktor Muzhenko, commander of high-mobile assault forces Mykhailo Zabrodskyi, and 'Zenit' commander, Air forces colonel, callsign Hraf.
The company's combat task was to assault Spartak village together with the 1st battalion of the 95th airmobile brigade, seize the village, approach the Putylivskyi bridge, dig in, and secure the advance of an engineer group to the bridge, who were supposed to destroy it.
Putylivska junction was a convenient road for Russian units; it was used by Somali battalion to move from Donetsk towards the new terminal in order to assault Ukrainian positions there, as well as supply convoys and our positions in Opytne and at 'Zenit.' Spartak village was the enemy's bridgehead, where Russians were holding separate strongholds and watched the airport from. In order to prevent flank attacks and artillery fire against convoys to the new terminal, Ukrainian military had to kick the enemy out of Spartak and not allow for fast redeployment of reserves via Putylivskyi bridge.
The distance between 'Zenit' and Spartak is insignificant - some 3.5 kilometers fight-away. The assault was planned for two hours later, leaving time for refueling. Information about the enemy? None. "Try not to drive across the fields to the left of the road, there might be mines there!"
The assault started at about 12 p.m. As reported by tankmen, they were accompanied by six armored vehicles and a Gaz-66 with ZU-23 from the paratroopers' battalion. They didn't have time to learn anything about their battle comrades except for the commander's callsign, as well as to agree on their planned activities. Our tankmen fired directly at the enemy's observation points at Butivka mine, then destroyed a frontline checkpoint at Spartak's outskirts. During the movement, the enemy started to fire from mortars.
The enemy opened small arms and grenade launchers fire from one of the buildings at the outskirts of Spartak. The paratroopers retaliated. The tankmen were advancing. Four tanks entered Spartak and followed a street leading to the bridge. There was no organized resistance in the village. Obviously, the enemy didn't expect our soldiers to act this bravely. Small arms fire could not stop the tanks; grenade launchers operators attempting to approach the tanks were rebuffed with enemy losses.
It was around 1 p.m. when the tanks approached the bridge. This is when the events started moving fast and by seconds. Zhdan turned around and saw no paratroopers behind him. The infantry was lagging behind significantly. The lieutenant could have turned around in order to renew the cooperation, because the tanks' individual activities in a village are very risky - they can be burned down by a grenade launcher from the nearest yard. But Zhdan decided to conduct the task anyway. He ordered two tanks to stay behind and cover getaways. He together with the tank of Sergeant-Major Anatolii Skrytskyi would go directly to the bridge. Skrytskyi was the eldest soldier of the battalion - he was 58 and a volunteer. He served in the Soviet Union army in 1975, but he knew the material resources of the tank perfectly. Anatolii is a politically active citizen, deputy of a district council in the Kyiv region. He had his own accounts with the Russians - his nephew, a paratrooper from the 95th airmobile brigade, was killed in the war.
Zhdan's T-64 popped out to the bridge first - suddenly, from round the corner, here it is in some hundred meters from here. Skrytskyi followed Zhdan to the bridge and suddenly they both saw the targets! Two enemy tanks were standing under the Putylivskyi bridge with their TAILS facing the Ukrainians, and their crews were quickly loading ammunition and getting ready to follow the combat sounds in Spartak. Under the bridge there were also other armored vehicles, an armored troop carrier, and many motorcars. Possibly, the enemy shot a round of ammunition near the new terminal in the morning and left for the recharge. They had ammunition storage under the Putylivskyi bridge.
But Zhdan was so fast that the enemy did not have time to react.
Zhdan and Skrytskyi opened fire at the revealed targets simultaneously. Somali militants could not fight back. Seconds after, it was total hell under the bridge. Out tanks were hitting point-blank, the distance was smaller than 100 meters; the tanks, cars, and ammunition started to explode.
Zhdan and Skrytskyi were attempting to contact command point or paratroopers, but to no avail. The connection was not operating even at this short distance. The enemy might have used radio interference.
It became clear there would be no engineer soldiers. All of a sudden, ammunition and tanks under the bridge began to explode, and the bridge started to collapse! Two tank crews succeeded without engineer soldiers!
Making sure the bridge is doomed, Zhdan commanded to retreat. Cover tanks were the first to move. As soon as they turned around, a Russian T-72 popped up against the tank of Skrytskyi from a side street. The distance was 50 meters! Skrytskyi's tank's turret was still heading the bridge, he had just started to move, and the Russian tankman shot without obstacles - here it is, the sudden ambush! A 30-meter shot! It was a direct hit that made our T-64 stop. Direct hit at the top armored plates! The tank is disabled! Now there will be a second shot, and they are dead; they only need several seconds for recharge.
But the Russian tankman could not celebrate his victory. Ivan Zhdan's crew did not lost their nerve and reacted immediately - they turned their turret, and the T-72 was never able to make the second shot; it received a hollow charge shell point-blank, from some 50 meters. Boom! There was no need to shoot again - the barrel nestled in the ground! No one jumped out of the Russian tank. The way is clear! Now they needed to go back and save their wounded comrades!
Skrytskyi's crew was literally saved by Zhdan - he put them on the turret and they drove along a Spartak's street to their troops. But they were waited for on the way back. The fire of infantry and another tank was dense - the enemy got the situation. The lieutenant understood that the infantry would not make it to save the tankmen - they had to solve this on their own. They had to break through at high speed, shooting at flashes on all sides. They survived by a miracle - they were shelled from all directions along the narrow streets. During the retreat, another tank was hit, the crew taken captive.
They reached the outskirts of Spartak - paratroopers were there, engaged with the enemy units that had entrenched at the edge. During the retreat, not far from the checkpoint, the enemy hit another Ukrainian tank. Small arms fire wounded all members of Skrytskyi's crew. One of the tankmen fell off the tank and could not be picked up.
When the wounded returned, images of the tanks destroyed under Putylivskyi bridge were posted by all information agencies.
In the evening, wounded Skrytskyi was called by President Poroshenko personally; Poroshenko thanked him for the act of bravery and promised to award all those who distinguished themselves.
The results of the operation are as follows: all the brunt was taken by two tank crews. Putylivskyi bridge has been destroyed. Four enemy tanks have been destroyed. It turned out there was another tank under the bridge which caught fire and exploded due to missiles and ammunition storage detonation. Much of other equipment has been destroyed as well.
We lost three tanks. Four tankmen were captured. Unfortunately, they could not be evacuated. Two of them are still in captivity, a year since…
Five wounded fighters, including Skrytskyi, were awarded 'Orders for Valor'. Other tankmen of the third battalion, who conducted more acts of bravery during that month, were never rewarded.
Zhdan and Skrytskyi did not disengage. They stayed at 'Zenit' and took active part in subsequent battles. Zdan repeatedly went to the landing strip to draw the fire upon himself and hit the enemy's firing points in order to alleviate the plight of our soldiers, who fought to the bitter with the last bit of strength in the new airport terminal. In one of these dangerous raids the platoon commander was seriously wounded in the shoulder.
The main hero of the Putylivskyi bridge battle, Lieutenant Zhdan, was put up for the state decoration, Bohdan Khmelnytskyi Order of the III degree only in October.
He is a very modest man, shy of glory and avoiding too much attention to his persona. Ivan is not unsociable - he is friendly and open to his comrades-in-arms. There is no information about him on the Internet, and he is closed for media at the moment. I hope he will be more overt one day.
After demobilization, Ivan moved to Kyiv to work in central office of the State Fiscal Service. The hero, who in the battle of Jan. 18 participated in destroying four tanks and one armored vehicle, is now working on a modest position of chief inspector of users' registration in Kyiv's office of the SFS's informational department.
Jan. 18 is Ivan's and his comrade, Sergeant-Major Skrytskyi's, as well as their crews' second birthday and the commemoration day of their act of bravery. Thank you; you are real people's heroes. We wish that all your comrades return home from their captivity - this is the duty of the entire society and the state. Knowing everything of our soldiers' deeds and telling about them to our children is an honorable duty of every citizen.
P.S. I thank Valerii Kashchyshyn, Anatolii Skrytskyi, and Serhii Kushnir for detailed and vivid story of the battle, on which a new TV show 'War stories' is based; it will be announced soon, I hope everyone will want to see the heroes' emotions.
To the left - Lieutenant Ivan Zhdan, commander of a tank platoon in January-February 2015, participant of the Donetsk airport battles, inspector of the State Fiscal Service of Ukraine in Kyiv, electronic key expert. To the right - Soldier Serhii Kushnir, tank driver of the Skrytskyi's crew on Jan.18, wounded at the exit of Spartak, taken captive, exchanged and released.
Putylivskyi bridge as viewed from Donetsk an hour after the battle. Under the collapsed bridge the armored equipment keeps burning, destroyed by crews of Zhdan and Skrytskyi.
Russian T-64 of Somali battalion, destroyed under the Putylivskyi bridge by crews of Lieutenant Zhdan and Sergeant-Major Skrytskyi on Jan.18. Remnants of the exploded ammunition lie around.
Russian T-64 of Somali battalion, destroyed under the Putylivskyi bridge by crews of Lieutenant Zhdan and Sergeant-Major Skrytskyi on Jan. 18. As a result of the explosion and the bridge collapse, the tank was buried under debris.
Russian T-64 of Somali battalion, destroyed under the Putylivskyi bridge by crews of Lieutenant Zhdan and Sergeant-Major Skrytskyi on Jan.18. As a result of the explosion and the bridge collapse, the tank was buried under debris.
Yurii Butusov, Censor.NET