BRAVE Shaun Pinner has returned to Ukraine and spoken for the first time about the moment he was captured by Russian forces in his daring bid to escape the siege of Mariupol.
The ex-Royal Anglian soldier, who had been fighting alongside Ukrainian troops, has also revealed how army training in resistance to interrogation helped him endure torture, starvation and beatings during six brutal months as a prisoner of war.
Shaun, 49, jetted back to Ukraine less than ten weeks after being freed in a prisoners swap brokered by ex-Chelsea boss Roman Abramovich.
The dad-of-one has promised his mum Deborah, 65, and adult son not to fight on the frontline again. But he insisted on returning to the warzone — despite daily deadly missile strikes — to be with his Ukrainian aid-worker wife Larysa who is helping to save lives.
The Sun met Shaun and Larysa at a secret location we agreed not to reveal for fear Russian agents might threaten their lives.
Shaun — whose British Army days included time in Northern Ireland — joined Ukraine’s forces in 2017 and was sent to a frontline post north-east of port city Mariupol a few months before Vladimir Putin ordered his February 24 invasion.
By April his men had been forced back and were holed up around the Illich steel plant, on the northern edge of the city, with Ukraine’s 36th Marines.
Hundreds more troops from the Azov battalion were trapped with their wives and children in the sprawling Azovstal steelworks on the southern edge of the city.
They had been hammered by air, tank and artillery strikes for 47 days as Russia reduced the city to a hellscape of rubble and dead bodies.
At one point the Russians attacked Shaun’s position by rolling a train carriage packed with explosives up to his bunker and, just yards away, blasting a crater 35 metres wide.
Shaun spent two days in hospital recovering from flash burns before returning to frontline duty.
He said: “It was war. It was miserable. We would get up in the morning and not know who was coming home. We lost three BTRs (armoured infantry fighting vehicles) to air strikes. We ran out of food, ammo, water.”
The city was cut off, surrounded by tens of thousands of Russians, and Ukrainian bids to break through had failed. The UN and Red Cross were trying to broker ceasefires to let women and kids escape.
Mums who made it through said sick Russians at checkpoints had strip-searched them to look for Nazi tattoos and taunted them with threats to send their husbands’ heads to them in boxes.
The order came from Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky to try to get out, but Shaun said: “We were surrounded by Russian soldiers. There was no hope of a rescue breaking the siege from the other side.
“We were fighting patrols as close as 20 metres. My commander said we could either surrender or try and get out. Straight away, he said there was no way he was going to surrender. I was with him.”
A few days before they fled, Shaun received a phone call from Larysa. He said: “I thought she was going to break down. She screamed, ‘Survive!’ — then we lost contact.”
Makeshift armour was welded to lorries for the escape. Shaun said: “They looked like something out of Mad Max. Everyone was s**t scared.”
At 3am on April 13, Shaun’s convoy rolled out of a warehouse under cover of dark — but Russian drones with night-vision cameras spotted them almost instantly.
Shaun said: “They hit us with everything — air strikes, white phosphorous, mortars.”
Around 100 soldiers burst out of the convoy vehicles and scrambled for cover in nearby buildings.
Shaun helped a wounded officer unable to walk but in the chaos they got separated from the main group. He said: “I carried the officer into a building and left him with a medic.
“We found another wounded soldier in the building, and another hobbled out of the trees. It was like zombies.” They were exhausted, cold and starving. Shaun had eaten just two cabbage leaves in five days.
He said: “I went looking for food but couldn’t find anything. We had got separated from the main body. I had lost my platoon in the darkness and had to make a really hard decision.”
The nearest friendly positions were more than 80 miles away from the west and northwest of the city.
Shaun said: “I had helped these guys find shelter but there was no way they would make it 80 miles. I was fit, armed and could still fight. I was exhausted but it was my duty to try and get out. I told them I was going, and I left.”
Alone, and without map or night-vision goggles, Shaun crept from building to building, moving west across the city’s outskirts in search of a highway to lead him to safety. It was a near-impossible mission. He said: “We had half the Russian army after us.
‘I had to pray I wasn’t betrayed’
“But to survive Mariupol was one miracle, so there was nothing I thought we couldn’t do.” As dawn broke, he reached a village on the city outskirts. He changed into civilian gear, stashed his fatigues and weapon and went in search of food.
He said: “I had to pray I wasn’t betrayed.” He could not find anything to eat, changed back into uniform and advanced slowly up a hill.
But he said: “As soon as my head crested the knoll they fired a warning shot. There were troops dug in and I was almost on top of them.
I dropped out of sight but knew the game was up. I threw my phone into a pond and watched it disappear. Then I yelled in Russian and in English to say I was British, and hoped they would’t shoot me.”
It was roughly 9am, six hours after they launched the escape. Shaun said: “I walked up the hill with my hands up. I knew this was the most dangerous moment. You are taught that if you are going to get killed this is the time it’s most likely to happen.
They were kicking and punching me all over — in the stab wound — but not on my face and that made me think I was valuable.
“They asked me if I was on my own and I lied. I said there were others with me because I didn’t want them to think they could just shoot me and nobody know.”
Within minutes he was frog-marched to a command post and heard officers on the radio discussing what to do with him. He said: “I was constantly listening, gathering information. That was what I had been trained to do.
“That was what I had been trained to do. I heard someone say I was going to be moved on. That meant I was of interest. So I knew they weren’t going to kill me.
“I thought, ‘I just have to get through this’.” He clung to that thought — but then a squad of Spetsnaz special forces arrived and one of them knifed him in the thigh. He said: “This guy just walked up and stabbed me.”
His captors mockingly asked if he wanted to phone home, as troops taped electric cables to his thumbs and used a wind-up field telephone to electrocute him. He said: “It was so painful. I was strapped to a chair but somehow standing. They beat the f* out of me for about an hour and a half.
“They were kicking and punching me all over — in the stab wound — but not on my face and that made me think I was valuable. They didn’t want the beating to show.
“That helped me. I knew they were not going to kill me.”
He was moved to two more prisons, repeatedly quizzed, beaten and fed just a starvation diet of occasional bread — before a kangaroo court convicted him of terrorism and sentenced him to death, along with fellow Brit prisoner Aiden Aslin.
He lost more than three stones in captivity, and the beatings have left him with long-term damage to his back, hips and legs.
He added: “One of the lowest moments was when they took my wedding ring off me..”
Wife Larysa had scoured the internet for signs he was alive and noticed the ring was missing when his captors released a propaganda video. She bought a replacement and wore it round her neck until Shaun was freed on September 22.
He said: “When we landed in England, Larysa was there to meet me and had the ring for me to put on. She said, ‘I saw the Russians stole it. I bought another’.”
‘I feel like the luckiest man alive. People ask if I am religious. I was for those six months in captivity. Every day.’
When he got home, his mum Deborah was furious. He said: “She was so angry. But she said, ‘I can’t kill you — everyone tells me you are a hero’.”
Reflecting on his return home, he said: “I feel like the luckiest man alive. People ask if I am religious. I was for those six months in captivity. Every day.”
Standing in his mum’s garden, he was overwhelmed with emotion.
He said: “It was the first time I had felt the wind for ages and I burst into tears. I had been living in the dark. At first at Mariupol, we were in trenches. Then we got captured. It takes a while to get used to normal life again.”
“And then we got captured. It takes a while to get used to normal life again.”
President Zelensky awarded Shaun the Order of Courage medal for “personal courage and selfless actions” last week, along with fellow ex-PoWs Aiden Aslin, Andrew Hill and John Harding.
Shaun said: “None of us went there for medals, but it means a lot to be recognised. It is really about remembering the fallen, the guys who didn’t come back. They are the real heroes.”
- Additional reporting: PAUL SIMS