Tuesday, April 14, 2009
They are armed with just a pair of pliers and raw courage. As the widow of a hero bomb disposal expert prepares to collect his medal, ROBERT HARDMAN meets the bravest (and most modest) of the brave...
How on earth are you supposed to keep your cool in this thing? You can hardly bend your legs, you feel as if you are trapped in a diving bell and the whole lot weighs more than 7st. But this is the uniform of a small elite who must always keep the coolest of heads while all around are losing theirs. In fact, they might even crack a joke while they're at it.
They are the people with what is, arguably, the worst job in the world. They don't see it that way, of course. In fact, they are devoted to their profession and are universally regarded as the world leaders in their art. Which is just as well because, right now, the world needs Britain's bomb disposal experts more than ever.
Last week, the spectre of an Al Qaeda superbomb in northern England prompted an enormous police operation and many arrests.
Concrete details have yet to emerge, but one thing is beyond doubt: if any such bomb should surface, it will be the men and women of 11 EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) Regiment who will end up walking towards it while the rest of us are stampeding in the opposite direction.
As I stand here alone, holding a missile the weight of a small child with a mobile phone detonator attached, I cannot comprehend what makes anyone sign up for this sort of work. When one of my hosts cheekily calls the mobile attached to the bomb and it starts ringing - very funny, chaps - I am on the cusp of a coronary.
All right, I know I am at 11 EOD Regiment's Oxfordshire headquarters. I know this thing is a fake. I know I am being watched by some of the best and boldest experts in the world - and they are all laughing. But this thing still looks like a bomb, it's in my hands and it's going 'Brrring brrring. . .'
In recent days, this assiduously low-key branch of the Armed Forces has been propelled back into the spotlight for the saddest but noblest of reasons.
In last month's list of gallantry decorations from the Ministry of Defence, it was announced that Warrant Officer Gary O'Donnell had been awarded the George Medal for 'repeated and sustained acts of immense bravery' in Afghanistan, where he had defused more than 50 bombs.
What made this award so exceptional was the fact that WO O'Donnell already held the George Medal for similar heroism in Iraq, where he had tackled several devices under enemy fire.
It was the first time in 26 years that this decoration - just below the Victoria Cross and George Cross - had been given to the same person twice.
But the announcement was a posthumous one. The 40-year-old father-of-four had been killed by a Taliban device, which was threatening troops and civilians last September, just nine weeks after the birth of his son, Ben. It will be his widow, Toni, who goes to Buckingham Palace shortly to receive the Bar to his original George Medal.
The Mail has now learned that WO O'Donnell is to receive another honour. Next Thursday - on St George's Day - the men and women of 11 EOD Regiment will gather with his family at his old headquarters to watch a new wing be named in his honour. The O'Donnell building will be home to 40 members of this remarkable unit.
It is impossible to say how many lives this one man has saved. In one case, WO O'Donnell stopped a bomb going off in Afghanistan by jamming his finger into its clothes peg detonator. Another time, he was attempting to defuse a bomb when he realised that a man in a nearby crowd was trying to detonate the thing by mobile phone (he managed to deflect the signal using lead screens).
His commanding officer summed him up as follows: 'Bigger than life. Brave as a lion.'
The rest of the Army were in awe of him. The Parachute Regiment does not mess with words. Major Russell Lewis of 2 Para, himself the holder of the Military Cross and who knew WO O'Donnell in Afghanistan, said: 'I have seen many brave soldiers and he was one of the bravest. What he did was above and beyond the call of duty.'
Warrant Officer O'Donnell did not see it like that, of course. As his widow has explained: 'He just got on with it. He loved his job.'
That was the same response given this week by Captain Tom Bennett, 28, shortly after taking out a 45lb bomb near a crucial bridge in Afghanistan's Helmand Province.
As he approached the device - knowing there could be a remote detonation any second - he was ambushed by enemy fire on three sides, but pressed on under covering fire and attached a charge to the thing before withdrawing to press the button. Only half of the device went off, so the gallant captain had to run back through the enemy bullets and do it all over again. 'Just another job,' he said later.
So what does makes these men tick? I have come to 11 EOD Regiment of the Royal Logistic Corps in Didcot to find out. It could be any old military complex except for the odd truck saying 'Bomb Disposal Unit' and the flaming 'A' symbol on various uniforms (it stands for Ammunition Technician).
Inside I find Warrant Officer Class 1 Martin Laverack, 38, who has just returned from Afghanistan after six months. He hasn't even been home yet as he needs to debrief the regiment on all his discoveries. And he doesn't pause for a moment when I ask him what his worst moment was in Helmand Province.
'Losing Gary,' he says. 'I'd known him for 15 years. He was in the tent opposite me. We waved him off on a few jobs and that was it. It could have been anybody working on the one that killed him.'
Don't moments like that make him rethink his career? He looks baffled. 'If I couldn't do the job properly, I wouldn't be allowed to do it,' he says. What I cannot understand is why, given all the technology available, anyone needs to get killed any more.
WO Laverack explains there are often situations when you can't use a remote-controlled robot (known as a 'wheelbarrow'). Similarly, there are often situations where there is neither time nor space to use the hefty 7st bomb suit which took me 15 minutes to put on.
'If you are arriving by helicopter and people are shooting, your options are limited,' he adds.
So why not just shoot the blasted thing or spray it with petrol and light a match?
'Because we need to discover what we are up against.'
For obvious security reasons, he can't tell me much about techniques. But he says he signed up to be an ammunition technician in 1991 and, after five years' training, he faced his first job - a suspected IRA car bomb in Preston, Lancashire.
What was he thinking as he took what they call the 'long walk' from the ICP (incident control point) to the target?
'I was probably wondering what I was having for tea that night,' he says. WO Laverack does not do melodrama.
He loves the job, he says, because of the challenge and the unusual level of responsibility. He points out that it is not unusual for a young ammunition technician to have a colonel hanging on his every word as soon as an IED ( improvised explosive device) is discovered.
The outside world, he says, finds it very hard to grasp what he actually does, so he doesn't tell many people. His colleague, Warrant Officer Steve Fallon, says his own parents-in-law did not believe what he did for a living until he turned up outside their house in a truck with 'Bomb Disposal Unit' on the side.
But then this curious breed of men - and there are now a few women, too - have always been a modest bunch.
At the outbreak of World War II, there was not a single specialist unit charged with handling unexploded bombs. By the end of the war, during which the Luftwaffe dropped more than half a million bombs on Britain, the Armed Forces had tackled 45,000 which did not go off.
Quite apart from the death and destruction it could cause long after landing, an unexploded bomb (UXB) could cause as much disruption as an explosion if, say, its mere presence shut an entire airfield.
On land, the early bomb disposal teams were drawn from the Royal Engineers. Their kit consisted of a shovel, a pick-axe and a bit of string to pull out the fuse from a 'safe' distance if they could run far enough.
The best candidates, so the joke went, were 'unmarried and good sprinters'. Their life expectancy was less than ten weeks.
One of the bravest, and most modest, veterans I've ever met is Colonel Stuart Archer, now 94, who found himself leading a bomb disposal team in Swansea in 1940 when that city was being thumped by the Germans. On one occasion, two hefty UXBs were blocking a vital Battle of Britain airfield, so the young Archer simply dug them up, hauled them on to a lorry and drove them away - alone - to a nearby field for demolition.
Soon afterwards, he was called to defuse a series of bombs in, of all places, a blazing oil refinery. While everything around him was exploding, he spent hours in the inferno dismantling a single bomb and managed to extract not just a new type of fuse, but also a new breed of German booby trap.
These things had killed many UXB teams but he had the first specimen intact, to the delight of the boffins back at base. 'This was luck, luck, luck,' he said later. It was also monumentally brave, and George VI had no hesitation in awarding him one of the first George Crosses.
As the years progressed, a new breed of enemy evolved - the terrorist. While the Royal Engineers handled industrial ordnance dumped from the air, it required very different skills to tackle the improvised bombs of today's enemies.
That task fell to the ammunition experts of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, now part of the Royal Logistic Corps.
Bob Harvey, 70, learned the trade using a fishing rod to 'jerk' homemade bombs in Cyprus and Malaysia, and was presented with one of the first car bombs in Northern Ireland in 1972.
'It was 20lb of explosive with an alarm clock,' he recalls. 'We tried shooting it but when that didn't work, I had to go up and deal with it.'
He remembers the frantic on-the-job learning curve in those days - and the casualties.
'We lost three men in a week,' he recalls. 'There was real pressure to "get things back to normal", and the terrorist had the edge. It [the explosions] damaged my hearing and the stress affected me a lot. But I'd do it again.'
Mark Ritchie, 69, also remembers the pressure to 'get on with it' from his days as a warrant officer in Ulster, where he once dismantled 500lb of gelignite concealed in milk churns in County Londonderry.
'If you join the Army, you've got a job of work and you don't want to be seen as not up to the job,' he says.
The game of cat and mouse between terrorist and bomb disposal teams would last for years - which is why Forces all over the world still call on 11 EOD Regiment for its unique expertise.
The Army's kit was much-improved by October 1989 when WO Barry Johnson found himself tackling a set of mortar bombs next to a hospital in Derry. The remote-controlled 'wheelbarrow' was of little use and he decided to handle all the bombs himself. The last one blew him right across the road. But even as he lay there critically injured, he continued to give instructions.
Having been awarded the George Cross, Barry Johnson GC could have retired with distinction. But he didn't. 'I just wanted to get back to my family for Christmas, get my sight back and then get back to work,' says the 56-year-old father of two. And, in due course, he did all three.
He thinks he had it easy compared to today's bomb disposal teams.
'They're having to chuck smoke grenades just to get near the device without being shot at,' he says.
He has huge admiration for his fellow GC, Captain Peter Norton, who supervised a major bomb disposal operation in Iraq in 2005 despite having suffered dreadful injuries himself.
But let us never forget those who are left behind. Flo Grosvenor, 69, was a young mother with a six-year-old son when her first husband, Staff Sergeant Chris Cracknell, was killed with Sergeant Anthony Butcher while defusing an IRA car bomb 37 years ago.
'I remember the three officers in uniform coming to the door and they just looked at me,' she recalls. 'I was absolutely devastated. I just thought: "What do I tell my son?"'
Over the years, she has been greatly comforted by the friendship within the War Widows Association and by a 'lovely memorial' in Belfast. But it all floods back every time she hears of a military casualty.
'You never get over it. You live with it,' she says. 'Chris was always quiet about his job. He said that only a fool would not be frightened. But he loved his work.' So did Gary O'Donnell.
The world never gets any safer. But wherever there is terror and panic, just be grateful for the quiet soul making that 'long walk' into the unknown, armed with nothing more than a pair of pliers and the heart of a lion.