UP to one million terrified people were preparing to flee outgunned Ukraine yesterday in a desperate dash to the Polish border.
The refugees included thousands of Brits who had defied earlier calls to evacuate.
It is feared that the final number escaping the all-out Russian onslaught could hit five million if deranged President Vladimir Putin continues to push westwards.
Residents of the capital Kyiv were woken by massive airstrikes and, by daybreak, roads and trains heading over 400 miles west to Poland were swamped.
Around 6,000 UK nationals were in Ukraine when the British Ambassador in the country, Melinda Simmons, urged them to evacuate for their own safety earlier this month.
But most are believed to have stayed — wrongly believing Putin would never order a full-on attack.
EU member Poland, which borders western Ukraine, was yesterday drafting plans to deal with up to one million refugees.
European leaders fear Putin’s invasion may trigger the worst refugee crisis since World War Two.
Germany’s Interior Minister Nancy Faeser pledged “massive support” for Poland “in the event of large refugee movements”.
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British magazine publisher Peter Dickinson, 45, who lives in Kyiv with wife Susanna, 39, and kids Elizabeth, 14, and Nina, 11, was woken by blasts at 5am.
The whole family, including Susanna’s Ukrainian parents, hit the road within 15 minutes of the airstrikes hitting the capital.
But those left behind faced fights at petrol stations with fuel rationed and queues for hours at ATMs as desperate families tried to get cash before finding shelter. Main roads out of the capital were gridlocked as many tried to head for Poland.
Read our Russia – Ukraine live blog for the very latest updates
Buckinghamshire-born Peter — who settled in Kyiv after working for the British Council 20 years ago — told The Sun: “I’d never heard bombs before but it was loud enough to wake us and I knew it was time to get away.
“After a wake-up call like that, there was no way we were going to stay. We’d made some preparations, packed and stored some fuel for the journey and set off.”
Peter hurriedly packed belongings into his BMW before dawn broke and sped away with his family, followed by his in-laws.
He added: “My girls are clearly quite scared and keep asking us what’s going on and why we have to get away from Kyiv so quickly.
“They don’t really appreciate that we’re all victims of a tyrant who seems to have completely lost his mind and has no respect whatsoever for human life.
“Vladimir Putin is the most dangerous man on the planet — this is Hitlerian madness — and my priority now is to get my family as far away from his forces as possible.
“Lots of Brits like me stayed because they never really believed it would happen — but Putin has pressed the button. It’s sickening.”
UK Ambassador Ms Simmons and a core of diplomatic staff moved 340 miles west to Lviv near the Polish border last week as intelligence warned of an attack.
But explosions were also reported on the outskirts of Lviv.
Edinburgh-born healthcare firm boss Stuart McKenzie, 51, organised a 200-strong expat flag procession through Kyiv in support of locals after defying advice to leave.
Vladimir Putin is the most dangerous man on the planet — this is Hitlerian madness — and my priority now is to get my family as far away from his forces as possible.
Peter Dickinson, 45
But the dad finally decided to flee yesterday as the bombs rained down across the country.
Father-of-three Stuart — who is married to Ukrainian Lena, 49 — said: “The situation had become so grave that we decided to go at 4.30am — and heard the first explosions of the war as we set off.
“I had stayed up and saw Putin’s speech — and we hit the road as soon as we heard it because he is clearly planning something even bigger than our worse fears.
“Fortunately, I had jerry cans of fuel in the car and ended up packing and getting on the road in 15 minutes flat.
“We’re close to the Polish border west of Kyiv now but God knows what kind of chaos is waiting for us there.
“Thousands of refugees are heading west now and I dread to think what awaits us.
“But anything is better than Kyiv at the mercy of Russian troops.”
Stuart also predicted chaos across Ukraine as garages ran out of fuel after being swamped by desperate people battling to flee on the eight-hour road trip to Poland.
He told The Sun: “We’ve passed horrendous queues of cars at filling stations and it’s clear supplies will soon run out and people here will be stranded in a war zone.
Thousands of refugees are heading west now and I dread to think what awaits us. But anything is better than Kyiv at the mercy of Russian troops.
Stuart McKenzie, 51
“I still can’t believe this is actually happening.”
Business tycoon Richard Spinks, 55, from Kent, has lived in Ukraine for more than 20 years and flew his two sons back to family in the UK two weeks ago.
But he returned to his home in Lviv to be with his wife Tetyana, 45. He said: “I don’t want to attempt to drive to the Polish border and end up as target practice in a huge queue, but that’s what we are going to have to do.”
Marine engineer David Martin, 59, who moved to Lviv from Cornwall six years ago and lives there with his Ukrainian wife, said: “Every bank has a queue of 50 people outside and some have no cash left.
“No one believed Putin would do this. We thought he was going to maybe take more of the Donetsk region but he has bombed Kyiv, home to three million, on day one.”
David went to the UK Embassy in Lviv yesterday to try to get a visa for his wife but claims he was told they could not help him.
He added: “We are going to have to go to Poland. I am not leaving my partner. It’s not an option.”
Sean Cusick, from Glasgow, heard bombs being dropped close to his home in Kharkiv, near the Russian border. He is currently stranded with his Ukrainian wife Chloe and his two-year-old stepson. He said: “I’m terrified.”
And Brit Martin, 65, who is living in the Black Sea city of Odesa with his wife and step-daughter, told of being woken by huge explosions.
He said: “I felt the earth shake. We knew this was very serious.