Inside bloodbath Battle of Bakhmut where Putin’s troops die in their thousands but Ukraine may be forced to retreat

UKRAINE’S heroic defenders were last night fighting to stave off encirclement in the bloodiest battle of the war so far.

Countless thousands have died on both sides in the Battle of Bakhmut, where Putin’s Wagner Group mercenaries have become cannon fodder after launching assaults on foot against the defenders’ guns.

Chris EadesThe battle of Bakhmut has claimed thousands of lives on both sides as Ukraine fights off Russia’s Wagner Group mercenaries[/caption]

APUkrainian defenders are considering having to strategically retreat against non-stop attacks[/caption]

Ukrainian combat engineers braved non-stop bombardments to lay a pontoon bridge after a suspected Russian Iskander missile cut the last route and lifeline into the devastated community.

Russian troops have launched a pincer movement to surround the town from the north and south after struggling to blast their way forward with a months-long full-frontal assault.

Almost every building is reduced to rubble, yet amazingly some 5,000 civilians, including 37 children, are still there.

The Sun joined troops — some trained in Britain — in “zero line” trenches at the city’s southern flank yesterday as rockets, mortars, missiles, heavy artillery and grenades from automatic launchers thundered over their quagmire positions.

Soldiers there who had been in the town described a hellscape of World War One-style slaughter as Wagner’s largely convict army was thrown into the “meat grinder”.

Russian prisoners claimed Wagner commanders had shot their own men if anyone dared to take one step back.

Serhii, a soldier who fought inside Bakhmut, said: “Wagner aren’t like soldiers.

“When we hit them they don’t stop to look after their wounded, they keep coming.

“A five-man squad would charge forward. Three of them get killed and the two survivors start digging.

“Then those two get killed and five more run forward and repeat, but this time they know where our firing positions are, so another squad gives them covering fire.

“Maybe they dig a bit deeper before they are killed, but eventually they get a trench they can defend.”

Bakhmut has become a symbol of resistance for Ukraine against Putin’s Russia

Western officials play down the town’s strategic importance.

But it has gained an iconic status after President Zelensky hailed Bakhmut’s defenders when he addressed the US Congress last year.

He jetted into Washington hours after meeting troops in a bunker beneath the battlefield.

He said “every inch” was soaked in blood.

The phrases “Bakhmut Stands!” and “Fortress Bakhmut!” have become rallying cries of Ukraine’s resistance.

But recently Zelensky signalled his soldiers may have to retreat.

He described the fighting as “the most difficult situation” and said: “It is important for us to defend it but not at any cost and not so that everyone dies.”

One reason Ukraine has clung on for so long is because they could inflict huge losses on Russia.

A Western official said: “Ukrainians have been very effective at holding Russians back and killing lots of their troops.

“We need to be blunt about that.”

But US officials have reportedly advised Ukraine to abandon the town, insisting it has little strategic value.

Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin has staked his name on taking Bakhmut.

But he has repeatedly missed his own deadlines since he launched the assault in August and he has admitted his men are being slaughtered.

He shared a picture of dozens of bodies gathered in a ditch and accused Moscow’s defence chiefs of betraying them by starving their guns of artillery shells.

But a shortage of Russian ammunition is not something that Ukraine’s troops recognise.

One survivor told The Sun that more than half his unit were killed in just 72 hours on the front.

Chris EadesInjured Ivan is helped after suffering shrapnel wounds from the fighting[/caption]

Chris EadesAn injured solider at the hospital in Bakhmut which receives new casualties every day[/caption]

Ivan, 37, who suffered shrapnel wounds and was evacuated, said: “The Russians were 40 metres away. It was mostly close combat and constant shelling.”

He was in the town for three days when four of his six-man squad were killed.

The former cabinet-maker said only 21 remained from the unit of 52.

He added: “When the Russian artillery was on us, it was hell. They are destroying us.

“I have seen more than 50 comrades killed with my own eyes. I have picked up the pieces of ten of my friends.”

Asked how he would feel if his fellow soldiers retreated from Bakhmut, Ivan said: “For now we are holding Bakhmut and we are focusing on the bigger goals to kick Russia out of all of our country.”

One survivor who spoke to The Sun said the training that he had received in Britain helped to keep him alive.

Brave Andrii, 26, was hit by a mortar blast when his squad was almost surrounded in Bakhmut’s northern outskirts.

He said: “Bakhmut is hell.”

Andrii spent 35 days learning basic infantry skills at Lydd Camp in Kent, as well as trench and urban warfare, before training on anti-tank missiles in Ukraine.

He said: “The training in Britain was hard, but it was worth it.

“We learned how to survive.

Devastating blitzes

“We learned how to fight.

“We learned how to move under fire, how to fight in a stairwell, defend a building when it is under attack.

“We learned how to carry our kit, how to handle our weapons and how to do combat first aid.”

Andrii had been on the front for less than a week when shrapnel tore into his shoulder.

He said: “We were in a village just north of Bakhmut and almost surrounded.

“We spent five days in a building under constant tank and mortar fire.

“We got orders to leave the position.

“An armoured BTR (transporter) came to collect our anti-tank missiles and they took our wounded.

“We had to leave on foot but the mortars were almost non-stop.

“We took shelter in an abandoned house.

“I had just gone outside to do sentry duty when a mortar exploded near us.

“Maybe they had seen us with a drone.”

Troops said Russia’s advance was backed by devastating rocket and shell artillery blitzes and the rare use of helicopter gunships.

A soldier manning a mud-filled trench on the town’s southern flank said the roar of a Ka-50 attack helicopter in the valley below his position had turned his legs to jelly.

Artem, 35, a businessman who signed up to fight on the first day of the war, said: “I don’t mind the shelling, even the shooting. But the helicopters were terrifying.”

Western officials said the Russians were losing 1,000 soldiers a day, including dead and injured, across Ukraine’s front lines.

They have lost up to 130 tanks in a three-week battle around the southern Donbas town of Vuhledar.

But the deadliest fighting is around Bakhmut — where Russia has relied on infantry and artillery instead of tanks and armoured vehicles.

Dima, an anti-tank platoon commander, said: “They are not using their tanks to attack in Bakhmut because they know we can destroy them with Javelins and NLAWs (missiles).

“They have learnt the lessons from last year.

“Now they are using the tanks like mobile artillery, hiding on the far side of hills and shooting at us.”

Russia has lost around 200,000 dead and injured in the year-long war, almost double Ukraine’s losses.

The hospital near Bakhmut said it was treating 100 to 200 casualties per day from the front line.

Last night Ukraine’s armed forces were urgently digging new trench lines to defend the nearby towns of Kramatorsk and Kostyantynivka in the event that Bakhmut falls.

Alexander, 42, was also wounded in the fighting for Bakhmut.

He said: “Of course we are scared, everyone is scared. But you can still fight, even if you are afraid.”

He suffered shrapnel wounds to his legs when his eight-man assault troop carrier was ambushed with rocket-propelled grenades.

He said: “In my group of eight, five of us were hurt. But luckily another squad was covering us so we could escape.”

The former painter and decorator is part of a wave of older foot soldiers in their late 30s and 40s who answered their country’s call when Vladimir Putin unleashed his invasion a year ago.

Despite the horrors they described, all three of the wounded Bakhmut survivors insisted they wanted to go back to the fight. Alexander said: “If not us, who else?”

Chris EadesAlexander, Andrii and Ivan have been fighting fiercely to hold Bakhmut[/caption]

APBakhmut is in ruins but 5,000 Ukrainians still remain in the town[/caption]

Chris EadesThe churned up battlefield is the scene of trench warfare between both sides[/caption]

AFPWagner group chief Yevgeny Priozghin has staked his reputation on taking Bakhmut[/caption]