Hero of the month – March 2022

  • 3 March, 2022
  • Bravery
  • Britain at War
  • Medals

Published in Britain at War in March 2022.

Warrant Officer Justin Bell QGM

Before writing my third bravery book, George Cross Heroes, 12 years ago, I attended a bomb disposal course. Because so many GCs have been awarded to bomb disposal experts, I wanted to obtain an insight into the difficult and hazardous job that they faced.

My host for the day of “continuation training” at Merville Barracks, near Colchester, Essex, was Warrant Officer Justin Bell, along with his comrades from 621 EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) Squadron, part of EOD Regiment. I was hugely impressed by Bell’s knowledge and his calm approach to his job. He and others like him display what I call “cold courage” in that they know the huge dangers they regularly face but are happy to risk their own lives to protect others.

The course lasted all day. In the morning, I learned about Conventional Munitions Work (CWM): how to dispose of potentially deadly devices, whether it is a rusting Second World War bomb or a sophisticated new hand grenade. I also saw live explosives detonated on a demolitions range – quite scary enough even before I was told that the typical Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) encountered in countries like Afghanistan are forty times larger than the ones I experienced. In the afternoon, I moved on to even more high-risk Improvised Explosive Device Disposal (IEDD) work, carrying out my own fingertip search of a lifelike “device”. All in all, it was a memorable experience.

Sadly, Bell died in the summer of 2019 after losing his battle against cancer. He was just 47 and left behind a widow and their two children. Before he died, he had been working on his autobiography. With the blessing of his widow, this book has now been published thanks to the commitment of his friend, Jane Harvey-Berrick, a journalist and editor. Using information gleaned from that book, this is my personal tribute to a special man.

Bell was one of three children but his parents split up when he was young. He had a difficult relationship with his mother and was forced to leave home, aged just 15. After enlisting in his local regiment, the Royal Anglians, he was soon encouraged to become an Ammunition Technician (AT). This he did, passing his training with flying colours. His early training came from veterans of Northern Ireland and, as Bell put it, “what they didn’t know about bomb disposal wasn’t worth knowing.”

Bell displayed a patience that was key to his role. As he stated: “When you’re looking for the tiniest indication of the bomb, you don’t rush. We’re like the opposite of fighter pilots: they have to tell everyone they’re a pilot and they say speed is life. We don’t tell anyone what we do and speed is death.”

Bell also described the pressures of the early training vividly: “It’s hard going: just the constant standing, kneeling, then lying, then back to standing as you examine the scene from different aspects while wearing 80 lbs of Kevlar. It means you are drenched in sweat. Your visor mists up, even though you have a battery mounted fan on the top which blows hot air over it. It’s designed to stop it steaming up but it doesn’t work well. I always used to tuck some rag behind the blast plate. Every few minutes I would lift the visor to wipe it clean. This had the added benefit of allowing me to view the scene without looking through the visor too, although technically it meant you weren’t protected if something unpleasant happened.

“It takes you a little over two hours to get to the weapon. The closer I get to it, the more the anticipation increases that I’ll spot the device…I’m consumed in my own little world of my personal battle.”

Bell passed his training course, as did his good friend, identified only as “Steve”. Soon he was working on his first real incidents with “wheelbarrows”, robots used to tackle suspected devices and designed to protect lives. “They warn you it’s a lonely walk. I’m feeling it, it’s the most alone I have ever felt in all my life. My senses are heightened and I’m taking it all in.” In fact, somewhat embarrassingly, his first “device” turned out to be a police surveillance camera.

Soon Bell is working in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles – it is 1991. In one of his first incidents, the IRA attacked a barracks using a truck packed with 2,500 lbs of homemade explosives. Three soldiers were killed and Bell was flown to the scene in a helicopter. “They were killed as they were evacuating the building, making a last minute sweep to ensure everyone was safe. I will not describe what I saw but the smell has never left me.” It was a stark lesson of the dangers that Bell was constantly facing on tour.

Next, he was based at Hereford in the rank of corporal before more tours of Northern Ireland and more advanced training. In one incident, again in Northern Ireland, he described approaching a device that it was feared would blow up a road bridge. “Inside the helmet, you are insulated from the world: you are conscious of your breathing – every exhalation briefly fogs up your visor; the whir of the fan in the helmet blowing air over your face, and clearing each breath almost as quickly. You feel everything, each pull of the cables attached to your equipment, each step you are conscious of the ground beneath. I move my head constantly, examining the world around me in a conscious scan, looking for trouble. I know from looking at the robot’s camera pictures that the device is almost certainly a hoax but that doesn’t mean there isn’t something else down there to catch me out. I’m hyper alert, fuel-injected on adrenaline. I can feel every pulse – but as mad as it sounds, I’m calm. I would not want to be anywhere else.”

This device was a hoax, designed to cause traffic chaos and so Bell and his team headed back to camp, for “tea and medals”, as they say. Bell spent his 30th birthday working in Northern Ireland, just as he had his 20th birthday too. For much of his tours, he and his men had to pull dead taxi drivers out of their vehicles – men killed by terrorists in tit-for-tat murders. “The risk was that they had been killed to bring the RUC into an ambush or bomb,” Bell wrote of the murders by the IRA that required his attendance. He dealt with many small devices, car bombs, pipe bombs and the like, as well as bigger ones, command wires, mortar attacks and land mines. Over the years, he and his comrades were also constantly the target of IRA terrorists seeking to kill them by luring them to bombs or hoax devices.

Bell wrote about the nightmares he had suffered from dealing with “the under-car job, the burning pub and the railways”, adding: “I dreamed I’d lost both my  hands under the car and woke up crying.” However, along with the night sweats and panic attacks, came the rewards too. “At the time, I saved myself by concentrating on the little girl I’d saved who would not grow up to have a life. It was worth everything to know I’d made a difference. She’ll be 18 about now. The little boy from my first tour [who Bell had also saved] would be 31,” he wrote.

Next came a tour of Iraq in 2003, during and after the Second Gulf War. Once again, the work was both challenging and incredibly dangerous. In fact, Bell lost one of his closest friends, Staff Sergeant Chris Muir, 32, carrying out bomb disposal work in southern Iraq on March 31 2003. Bell would have shared the thoughts of Muir’s widow, Gillian, who said: “I know that Chris was very proud to wear the badge of an Ammunition Technician, and I take small comfort from the knowledge that he died doing the job that he loved.”

Chris Meadows, who also served with Bell in Iraq, later said of his friend and comrade: “Although Troll [Bell’s nickname] set high standards, they were not anything he wouldn’t have done himself, or had done himself.” Yet the tour of Iraq left its mark on Bell, by then in the rank of staff sergeant: two other comrades were killed and he had nearly been killed himself. As Bell put it, “The risks taken day after day must have had an effect.” He began drinking too much and suffered from depression.

However, Bell carried on working and in September 2005 he was decorated with the Queen’s Gallantry Medal for his bravery in dealing with First World War high explosive mortars that had been found in Southampton on September 22 2004. He received his award from the Prince of Wales at his investiture.

In 2006, Bell was promoted to warrant officer and he also embarked on a tour to Afghanistan, serving with the Weapons Intelligence Section. “As the Warrant Officer running the detachment, I’m christened WISWO; it reminds me of a magician,” Bell wrote. Initially the deployment was going to be in Kabul, then this changed to Helmand Province. Here he and his men had to deal with suicide bombers, endless IEDs and much more during a gruelling tour of duty.

Bell completed 23 years in the Army, almost all of it serving as a bomb disposal operator. He retired in 2011 in order to spend more time with his family. In 2017, Bell was diagnosed with brain cancer. He died in the summer of 2019 while still working on his memoirs with Jane Harvey-Berrick. As stated, she completed his autobiography with the blessing of his widow. Harvey-Berrick ends the Preface to Bell’s book with the words: “His future was stolen, but his memories live on.”

  • Troll: My life in Bomb Disposal” by Justin Bell QGM is out now. Edited by Jane Harvey-Berrick and published by Harvey Berrick Publishing, it costs £9.99 in paperback and £5.99 for the Kindle edition. Both are available from Amazon and other outlets.

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