It would be difficult to exaggerate the admiration that I have long felt towards Britain’s bomb disposal experts.
Time and again, they display what I call “cold courage”: premeditated bravery in going to deal with suspect “devices” – that’s bombs to you and me – that will kill or maim them if they make a wrong call.
So you can imagine my delight when I was able to take up an invitation from Felix Fund, a charity I support, to join Improvised Explosive Device Disposal (IEDD) operators on a training day at a disused quarry in deepest, rural Somerset.
Under grey skies and in driving rain, I was given a fascinating insight earlier this week into the work of an eight-strong team of volunteers from 11 EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) Regiment.
I soon realised that black humour was the order of the day: these are men who have either seen or heard about their friends and comrades being blown to pieces in theatres such as Afghanistan, where the IEDs have become the preferred weapon of the insurgents in recent years.
Warrant Officer Tony Kelly, aged 38, who has served for 22 years in trouble-spots all over the world, told me he actually prefers handling large “devices” rather than small ones. He explained that if one of the former detonates “you are not going to feel a thing” (in death), whereas if the latter goes off, you are likely to wake up in hospital minus one, or more, limbs.
My day started with an introduction to basic explosives: no bomb disposal expert can hope to deal with a device unless he knows its potential make-up, its deadly capabilities and how it might have been put together.
From a safe distance, I watched as Sergeant Clive Fiddes, aged 33, another veteran of Afghanistan, and his comrades set off five different explosives ranging from the “pop” (their word not mine) generated by just a detonator to the formidable blast caused by a pound of plastic explosives and, separately, a container of petrol set off by detonating cord.
I was then allowed to help attach three cartridges – one and a half pounds of explosives – and detonating cord to a solid steel girder to see the “cutting power” of such a device. I set off the explosion from a splinter-proof shelter using the switches and buttons on a “shrike”, a panel that sends an electrical pulse to the explosive device.
Next I was allowed to participate in and observe how a bomb disposal team might deal with a suspect device placed on the passenger seat of a car.
Initially, they used a “whellbarrow”, a highly-sophisticated robot, equipped with cameras and other equipment that enable a remote operator to “disrupt” or “disable” the device from afar.
I watched as one operator aimed and fired the “pigstick” so that a jet of water rendered the device safe. Next another operator, covered from head to toe in a Kevlar-enhanced protective suit, made what was known in Northern Ireland as “the long walk” to inspect the device in person and provide “manual confirmation” that the danger was over.
When, however, he delivered his verdict that the vehicle needed to be destroyed, it was time to retire once again to our bunker as the team attached two pounds of plastic explosives to detonate the device.
After a blast so loud that it set off a “mini-avalanche” of slate at the quarry, I approached the car, breathing in the strong smell of explosives’ residue in the air. One door had been thrown some 30 yards away and the vehicle was a twisted, burnt-out wreck that was clearly never going to see a second-hand car showroom ever again.
I knew from researching one of my books, George Cross Heroes, that in war-zones such as Afghanistan and Iraq, IEDD operators often have to tackle road-side bombs and the like without the luxury of “wheelbarrows”. The heat and the lack of mobility – as soldiers they sometimes need to able to shoot back if they come under enemy fire – means they often also decline the chance to wear protective suits.
The last two writes-ups in George Cross Heroes are about the decorations awarded in 2010 to Warrant Officer Kim Hughes and Staff Sergeant Olaf “Oz” Schmid for bravery in Afghanistan.
The former was awarded his GC for one of the most courageous acts of bomb disposal in the history of the Royal Logistic Corps. The latter was no less brave but Staff Sergeant Schmid paid the ultimate price for his gallantry when, on October 31 2009, the device he was dealing with detonated and claimed his life, aged 30.
This week was not the first time that I have had the good fortune to spend time with bomb disposal experts. In the spring of 2010, I went to Merville Barracks in Essex for a day’s training with a squadron from 11 EOD Regiment.
In June 2011, I had to give one of the most difficult speeches of my life: as a besuited businessman who had never seen action I had to talk on bravery to a group of some of the most courageous and highly-decorated men on earth. Fortunately, my audience – the Ammunition Technical Officers’ Dining Club – were too polite to denounce me as a fraud!
My training day earlier this week had been both enjoyable and informative – but most of all it made me even more appreciative of the job done by our IEDD operators, and their sense of professionalism and team-work.
I would like to thank Felix Fund, a charity set up to support bomb disposal experts and their families, for a fascinating day. I, in fact, hosted the launch of the charity at the House of Lords in September last year and make no mistake: this is a thoroughly deserving cause that helps a group of truly extraordinary individuals.
* If anyone wants to know more about the work of Felix Fund and/or make a donation to the charity, visitwww.felixfund.org.uk