British artist George Butler has been given incredible access to the secret Ukrainian factory where captured or abandoned enemy tanks and armoured vehicles are repurposed and sent back into action against its former owners
In a secret facility in a sprawling light industrial estate on the outskirts of Kharkiv, Ukrainian mechanics are working feverishly to repair tanks and armoured personnel carriers and return them to the frontline in a determined bid to bolster the Ukrainian war effort. Some vehicles are Ukrainian, but many others are Russian.
After being dumped or captured (early in the conflict, there was a spate of social media coverage of Ukrainian farmers towing tens of millions of roubles worth of abandoned Russian tanks, armoured vehicles and other kit from the battlefield), they are repaired and sent back into action.
Two of these Russian tanks have been repurposed more than once already, explains award-winning British illustrator and artist George Butler, 37, who was allowed access to the secret facility earlier this spring.
“While Ukrainian Armed Forces await the arrival of new tanks for the frontline from Germany, America and the UK, these Ukrainian mechanics – including Anatoliy, Ivan and Sergiy – are working tirelessly to fix broken tanks and APCs,” he explains.
Captured Russian tanks that cannot be repurposed and sent back into battle against their former owners are used for spare parts.
“I saw the infamous Russian ‘Z’ sign sprayed all over a pile of them,” Butler says.
Photographs of the warehouses where the facility is located are strictly prohibited, including the walls, the skyline and roof, in a bid to ensure it remains unidentifiable.
But Butler was able to create two pen-and-wash images to reveal the work of the 14th Separate Mechanised Brigade – a tank unit of Ukrainian Ground Forces.
“The warehouses are linked by internal doors so that workers won’t be seen outside in their military uniforms,” says Butler, who was required to use stealth to access the secret facility.”
“So as not to draw attention to my visit, 14th Brigade picked me up from a local shopping mall in a car that regularly went there.”
Traffic to the facility is restricted to ensure its existence remains unknown.
“If its location was common knowledge, it would have been bombed,” adds Butler, whose work has been exhibited in such locations as the Imperial War Museum and the V&A Museum, which also holds some of his work in the National Archive.”
The giant workshops belonging to 14th brigade are the size of several football pitches.
Hidden in plain sight, Anatoliy and his team finish work at 4pm each day to ensure no light can be seen seeping out of the warehouses that could reveal their activities. Tools are rudimentary.
“I watched Anatoliy work to get these tanks back to the frontline using such things as a broken step ladder, a welding iron, a box of spanner bits and a head torch,” says Butler.
Two of the mechanics in the illustrations signed up a year ago, when the full-scale invasion started.
Ivan, 46, worked at a cheese factory and in Poland as a welder and furniture maker, before joining up to the Ukrainian war effort. Sergiy, 52, was a truck driver before the war. Their boss, Anatoliy, 48, has served for 30 years as a military mechanic.
“He says he has ‘golden hands’ but has found the last year incredibly difficult because explosions on tanks can destroy everything, and that it can be hard to find salvageable parts.”
“He told me that every day he works to do his best, always ‘with dirty hands and dirty clothes’ but the thought of victory gives him hope and the energy to continue with his work.”
Some of the tanks undergoing repair had been sprayed with a white cross so that they could be identified by the Ukrainian infantry.
Meanwhile, captured and repurposed Russian tanks had a yellow band painted around their guns to ensure they are recognised as “friendly” by Ukrainian soldiers.
The trip was Butler’s second to the war-torn country.
Last year, his reportage illustrations from a country in peril, featured in the Daily Express, included mass-grave excavations in Bucha and detailed drawings of the bombed Irpin Bridge.
This time, Butler spent two weeks travelling around the entire country to create his delicate yet incisive images.
A complete collection will be published by Walker books next Spring.
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