Improvised Explosive Devices hold a fiendish fascination and the disposal of them is sexy. But the vast majority of Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) work that goes on around the world is concerned with the rendering safe of manufactured military ordnance.
Even in the UK, there are around 2500 EOD tasks every year and around 2000 of them are Conventional Munitions Disposal (CMD) tasks. In fact, among Ammunition Technicians and Ammunition Technical Officers, CMD tasks are so common as to be viewed as a kind of mundane background activity.
I think this is slightly unfair, as, on the whole, EOD operators who have a thorough grounding in CMD knowledge and experience usually find the transition to the higher levels of IED disposal easier than those without. If you’ve done a few hundred CMD tasks you already know how to manage a scene, deal with the police and public, extract information and devise practical solutions under a degree of pressure. If you don’t have to apply too much thought to those things, you can devote more of your valuable – because it is limited – brain power to the actual bomb that may be down the road.
In the UK at least, the majority of suspect IED incidents turn out to not be a bomb after all, whereas most CMD tasks do. Besides that, CMD is fascinating and not without its dangers. The path to becoming proficient is not always a smooth one. To prove my point, I’ll give you a few examples.
The first CMD tasks I undertook on my own were on a training exercise in Belgium. There was a grenade range and the unit experienced a number of ‘blinds’ – that is grenades that did not explode. These needed to be destroyed and it is the responsibility of the Range Conducting Officer (RCO) to do this. The RCO had other ideas, saying – not unreasonably – “we have an ATO here, maybe he should deal with these”. So I did. At the time I was quite surprised about his reluctance. I really, really, wanted to blow things up as that is what I had been trained to do – plus its fun – and I couldn’t understand why he didn’t feel the same as me. Looking back, I can see that he was a mature, experienced infantry Colour Sergeant who saw no point in putting himself into danger when he had some other schmuck to do that for him: Me.
On the same exercise the battalion needed to improve an anti tank range. The existing range had been used by the Belgian army to fire the 66 mm Light Anti-armour Weapon (LAW). We had the British 94 mm LAW which was a much larger weapon, so needed backstops to be built. At the end of one working day I was tasked to deal with a blind Belgian 66 mm rocket that had been found in the sand where the troops were building the backstop. I was a little suspicious that I was only called at the end of the day and I suspected they had found it much earlier and set it to one side so that I would not interrupt their work. This was a dangerous tactic for them, as these rockets are fitted with a piezo electric fuze that makes them particularly sensitive if they don’t explode on impact. However, I dutifully destroyed it.
The next day I hung around the ranges just in case they found another one. They did. The manner of their finding it was interesting. A young second lieutenant on a gap year commission found it. He grabbed it by the venturi (the nozzle at the rear), pulled it from the sand like King Arthur withdrawing Excalibur from the stone, and waved it above his head, shouting “oooh look what I’ve found”. I told the big ginger oaf to stand still, quite firmly, before approaching and taking it off him. I laid it very carefully down in the sand, where I destroyed it once everyone was clear.
My first CMD task back in the UK didn’t go quite so well. I was tasked to an unexploded shell that had been found at a construction site near Canterbury. It was a 6 pounder shell fitted with a Hotchkiss base fuze. The shell was a blind so I decided to destroy it where it was. After the explosion I went to check the results and found that the base of the shell, complete with the fuze, was intact, so I prepared another charge. On the first blow I had tamped the charge and shell with sandbags in order to protect the surrounding buildings and cars. Some of the sandbags had survived the explosion so, rather than fill new ones, I re-used them. This was a mistake as there were fewer of them and they were now in a poor condition. After successfully destroying the remainder of the shell I walked around the area with the police officer in charge and, to my horror, found that I had smashed five car windows with fragmentation from the second blow. I got into quite a lot of trouble for that.
Not as much trouble as Andy the Troop Staff Sergeant who, the very next week, also broke a number of car windows when he destroyed a blind shell at an aggregate yard. That was slightly different though. Unexploded shells were always being found at aggregate yards and it was a common practice to tamp them using bucket load of sand delivered by the yard’s mechanical shovel. This is usually very effective. Well, it is if you use sand. Unfortunately, the driver delivered a load of 10 mm pea shingle instead. Rather than reducing the effects of the explosion, all it achieved was to turn it into a massive claymore mine.
Other tasks at aggregate yards involved pulling shells from massive magnets and climbing up 30 metre high conveyor belts in order to retrieve a stuck shell and carry it down to the ground where it could be safely destroyed.
Parts of the Isle of Sheppey were used as an aerial bombing range during both world wars – a practice which, in my opinion, should never have been stopped. You’ll understand if you’ve ever been there. I was tasked to a suspected air dropped bomb. It was a 16 lb RL high explosive bomb, dating from the First World War. I had done a few of these before and was familiar with them. They have a very simple fuze in the tail which, once released from the aircraft, has no safety restraints. This bomb had washed up on a beach, about 20 metres in front of a row of glass fronted chalets.
There were two policemen on the scene and a local man. This latter gentleman insisted on telling me that the Navy usually come out to these things and they carry them out on the mud flats to destroy them – “and that’s what you should do”. I had no intention of either moving this bomb or taking EOD advice from someone who chooses to live in a glazed shed on the edge of a boggy island in a scene from The Wicker Man.
Instead I built a large hive of sandbags around the bomb, but left the face that looked out to the sea open, so that the blast and fragmentation would be directed that way. After confirming, several times, with the police officers that all of the chalets had been evacuated my number two fired the charge and the bomb detonated with a loud and pleasing crump. I approached to inspect the area and found to my satisfaction that all of the windows on the chalets were intact. Then a woman stepped out from one of them. “Blimey, that was loud” she said, holding her hands to her ears. I felt the colour drain from my skin and my career flashed before me. “Where have you just come from?” I asked her. She told me that she had been sitting in her front room, watching me and then stayed to observe the blast. “Didn’t the police ask you to leave?” She said they had, but she decided against it. I was heartily glad that my three sided sandbag hive plan had worked because sometimes, there is no accounting for what people will do.
This is amply demonstrated by metal detectorists, or whatever they are called. I couldn’t begin to count the number of tasks that started with a bearded bloke in a cagoule looking for treasure. At least one I know of deliberately went looking for unexploded ordnance. I think he needed a little drama in his life. Another found two 1.5 inch 1 lb rounds. These dated from the turn of the 20th century and were fired from the ‘pom-pom’ gun, first in an infantry support role and then as an anti-aircraft weapon in the First World war. The shell was filled with gunpowder and the cartridge case with cordite. This meant that they just needed the sufficient application of heat before one or both parts exploded. Mr metal detectorist found these and took them home. He thought that they weren’t very pretty when all covered in mud, so he washed them. Impatient to see them adorning his mantelpiece, he decided it would be a good idea to speed up the drying process by putting them in the oven. His wife – yes I was surprised he had one as well – had more sense than he. She called the police who called us. When I got there the rounds were still in the oven. It was an unusual Render Safe Procedure: Turn oven off. Turn kettle on. Wait until cool.
All of the events above occurred when I was a young sergeant. Even later in my career things didn’t always go to plan. As a Warrant Officer I was tasked to a find of No 76 grenades in St Albans. These were also known as SIP (Self Igniting Phosphorous) grenades. The name ‘grenade’ overstates their case somewhat. They are really just fancy Molotov cocktails – milk bottles filled with petrol with a strip of rubber added to make the petrol sticky. Into that is inserted a small blob of White Phosphorous and the neck was closed with a crown cap. They were intended to be used as anti tank weapons after most of the army’s heavy weapons had been lost at Dunkirk. The idea was that, if the Germans invaded, our chaps would approach their panzers to within a few feet and lob their ‘grenades’. These would smash on contact with the tank, releasing sticky petrol. At the same time the phosphorous would come into contact with the air and ignite both itself and the petrol. Desperate times breed desperate measures. Not as desperate as the sticky bomb, which was just as likely to stick to the thrower as the enemy tank, but that’s another story.
A crate containing 12 of these No 76 grenades had been found buried in a garden, where they had lain since the war. The wood of the crate had rotted away and the grenades were precariously perched on top of one another, held in position by some remaining rotten goo and a degree of wishful thinking. My task was to remove them and take them somewhere safe to destroy them. This was easier said than done when any crack in the glass would cause one or all of them to ignite. Covered by two fire fighters with a charged hose, I gently transferred the bottles from their resting place into a water filled plastic box. I carried this to my van and, escorted by the police and fire brigade, we drove the grenades to an open area nearby. The council brought a skip in which to destroy them, which they had helpfully lined with sand. I rather wished they hadn’t. When phosphorous gets into sand it can be protected from the air, only to burst into flame when the sand is disturbed.
I had never dealt with these items before so I decide to do a trial with one of them before destroying them en masse. Using a small charge of detonating cord I broke the glass and the grenade ignited, giving off a large amount of foul smelling smoke. Pleased with the results, I prepared the remaining eleven grenades. In doing so, I crouched in the skip and the back of my flameproof coveralls must have come into contact with some phosphorous contaminated sand. I didn’t know this at the time. We fired the charge and waited for the grenades to burn off. There was a woman police constable and a female fire fighter, both very attractive. If you’ve ever wondered what EOD operators think about when making that walk, well, now you have a pretty good idea. While I was chatting to them, I felt a warm sensation on my posterior. “That’s strange” I thought. Warm soon turned to hot and suddenly my arse burst into flames. The female fire fighter picked up her big hose while I struggled to get my coveralls off. I was in a race between being burnt on the pineapple fritter and being drenched with icy high velocity water. The water seemed to be the worst of the options. Luckily I disrobed quicker than she could get the hose into action.
Every AT and ATO will have dozens of stories like this. These are just a few of mine.