Molotov Cochrane

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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.

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Towering Leadership

One morning, when I ‘worked’ at EOD Branch HQ Northern Ireland, I was confronted by an unruly gaggle of young army officers, bimbling their Rupert-like way around camp and making a din akin to a squall of angry seagulls.  I found this rather irksome and it set me wondering what the collective noun for such a group is. 

I routinely referred to them as a gaggle of officers, or a herd of subalterns, or an annoyance, a confusion or my favourite – a plague.  We’ve all had our lives blighted by a plague of young officers at some point. But even that doesn’t seem truly descriptive.  After much deliberation (instead of doing any work) I eventually decided that the correct collective noun for a group of young army officers is a “Tower Block” 

The reasons for this might not seem blindingly obvious, so please let me explain. 

Most tower blocks of the 1960s and 1970s were built up using prefabricated reinforced concrete sections.  The individual young officers are akin to these sections.

They are selected on the assumption that they are made of the right stuff. In many cases, this simply stems from the fact that the establishments that provide the raw material have always supplied it.

They are made in a factory where they grind up the raw material, mix them up, squash them, and then pour them into a cast of the required shape and size until dry.  However, due to shoddy quality control, many are issued while still slightly soggy.

They all leave the factory pre-stressed.

Despite the maker’s claims that the quality of the raw material and the manufacturing process leads to a leaner, more efficient product, some of them are really quite thick.

Occasionally the raw material is supplied by a non approved establishment.  These can sometimes be recognised by being a little rough around the edges and prone to some coarseness.  However, more often than not, the factory will apply a respectable looking veneer that makes it almost indistinguishable from the real thing.

Experience has shown that they are often not up to the job.  They flake, they crumble, and some fall off. Those that remain simply become crusty and mouldy as they get older.

It is very difficult to replace a sub standard item with a new one that is up to the job.  The architects responsible claim that if you start pulling out individual parts, the whole edifice may collapse.

Despite all of this, some of them manage to reach dizzy heights.

Shades Of Remembrance

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Mark Sobers. Mark Fogarty.  Chris Muir. Gaz O’Donnell.  Dan Shepherd.  Oz Schmid.  Dan Read.  Brett Linley.  Lisa Head.

These are the names of the people I have known who have lost their lives in the service of their country.  There are, of course, many others but these are the ones that occupy my thoughts during the two minutes silence.  Readers from the British EOD community will be familiar with the last seven names.  Chris Muir was killed while undertaking a Conventional Munitions Disposal task in Iraq in 2003.  The remainder died while trying to deal with IEDs in Afghanistan between 2008 and 2011.  Readers may not be so familiar with the first two names.  Mark Sobers died of a tropical disease while in Belize in 1989.  Mark Fogarty was killed in the First Gulf War not by enemy action, but in a tragic accident.

It is worth taking a few moments to think about Mark Sobers.  He was the first soldier I knew to die in service and his was the first military funeral I was involved in.  Like me, he hailed from Tottenham in North London, so his funeral was held in Enfield.  I was one of the firing party.  My abiding memory is of how bitterly cold it was. I worried throughout the service that my frozen numb hand would drop the rifle.  I also remember the shameful disrespect shown to his family by the cemetery staff.  The Sobers family is from Tottenham’s large West Indian community. It is their tradition that, once the coffin has been lowered into the grave, each mourner throws a handful of earth on to it.  It is a slow but dignified and very personal way to bury someone.  Too slow, it seemed, for the grave diggers who interrupted the proceedings by driving a JCB excavator through the crowds and then filling the grave in with it.  I didn’t care how cold it was.  I would have stood there all day rather than watch that.  I suppose to the workers it was just another funeral – they must see dozens a day – but it wasn’t just another funeral to the Sobers family.

Historically, far more soldiers succumbed to disease than were killed in battle but, in this age of medical marvels, Mark’s death was an anomaly.  It resonates with me because my own life has been affected by illness contracted while on operations abroad at Her Majesty’s behest.  Mark’s death and my own medical history lack the drama and savagery of being the result of enemy action but they are just as much a result of our military service.  That is why I remember Mark Sobers, even if few other people do.

Remembrance can take different forms.  My last job as Weapons Intelligence Warrant Officer in Iraq was to investigate an IED strike against a civilian vehicle.  In actual fact, it was the job of Dave, my replacement, to investigate it.  I was just there as part of my hand over to him. 

The Shia militia in southern Iraq were called Jaish Al Mahdi (JAM) and they were supported by Iran.  They deployed fiendishly clever IEDs that used a form of shaped charge called an Explosively Formed Projectile (EFP).  These do their damage not by blast effect, but by propelling a copper slug at the target vehicle at extremely high velocity.  The insurgents could arm, disarm and remotely fire the devices using modified mobile phones.  However. the main method of firing used a passive infra red switch, such as can be found in a home security system.  Once armed, the device would explode if anything moved into the switch’s field of view.  It would also explode if moved and usually exploded when an EOD weapon was fired at it.  These were some of the most technically advanced IEDs we have ever encountered but, in my opinion, JAM did not demonstrate the tactical flair of the Taliban or the patient cunning of the IRA.  They tended to just drop them by the roadside and wait for a target to come along.

It was one of these IEDs that had exploded alongside the civilian vehicle.  The vehicle was one of those old Mercedes trucks with a bonnet in front of the cab, that can be seen all over the middle east and Africa. It was a dirty orange colour and had six wheels and a large boxy tipper body. A British army convoy of Mastiff armoured vehicles was driving along a dirt track and for some reason, the tipper truck latched onto the back of the convoy and followed it for a while.  The Mastiff is also a large six wheeled truck with a long bonnet and boxy body.  We assessed that the JAM insurgents had mistaken the civilian truck for a Mastiff. There were a few other contributory factors, but there is no need to go into them here.

The passenger door of the truck had a neat hole in it, about eight inches in diameter, where the slug from the EFP had penetrated it.  The hole was surrounded by smaller perforations.  The driver’s door was bowed outwards and severely damaged by the exiting slug. The front tyres were both punctured and the truck sat down on its front axle in the sand.  The windscreen had popped out and, looking through the empty aperture, I could see the driver slumped forward with his head resting on his steering wheel.  His hair was matted with sand thrown up by the explosion.  I did not need a doctor’s opinion to confirm that he was very dead.

A small crowd had gathered a short distance from the truck and, from their crying and ululating, we surmised that at least some of them were the dead driver’s family.  We stood off at a safe distance and watched them.  It would have served no good purpose to risk turning their grief into anger against us.  After a short while a white pick up truck approached and drew up alongside the crowd.  Two men, dressed from head to toe in black, got out and began speaking with the crowd. We thought they were from JAM, possibly even the men who had placed and initiated the IED, but as they were unarmed there was nothing we could do about them.  It was not an offence to go about dressed like a ninja.

The men in black offered some members of the crowd money – blood money perhaps – but rather than appease them it drove them into a rage and they started attacking the two men.  They swiftly got into their 4×4 and made good their escape.  I am as confident as I can be that, if they hadn’t departed so swiftly, we would have found ourselves in the bizarre position of having to prevent the lynchings of two JAM insurgents who had just tried to kill our comrades.  I wonder how hard we would have tried?  After the men had gone, the crowd found a sheet from somewhere and used it as a makeshift stretcher to take the body away. 

I have often wondered who that man was.  I don’t know anything about him, except that he was loved by enough people to form an effective lynch mob and that one day he left his home with the intention of driving a truck.  He may have been an Iraqi, but he wasn’t an enemy combatant. He was just a bloke trying to earn a living but, before the day was out, he had lost his life – killed by his own countrymen who, doubtless, would have claimed that they were fighting in his interests.

So, I remember all of our fallen – especially Mark Sobers, Mark Fogarty, Chris Muir, Gaz O’Donnell, Dan Shepherd, Oz Schmid, Dan Read, Brett Linley and Lisa Head.  But I remember the truck driver too.  For me, he represents the innocents.

An Orange Dog Called Errol

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I found Errol as a starving stray in Cyprus in October 2002, when I was there on a two year posting at the Cyprus Service Support Unit.  My Dad was over on holiday and we were driving to Troodos to visit the Kykko monastery.  I’m not sure why.   Neither of us were particularly interested in the Greek Orthodox Church or its architecture. Moreover, having read a bit of the Island’s history, I knew that in the 1950s, when Cyprus was a British colony, the monastery had been used as a haven by EOKA terrorists from which to attack British forces.

The road to Troodos twists and turns through mountain and forest, but it was much improved from when I first went to Cyprus in 1990.  A few months before my first visit, a British army truck had crashed through the barriers on a hairpin bend and fallen over a cliff, killing all eight soldiers in it. 

So I was being careful as I steadily climbed the Troodos road. And there, ambling along the white lines, was this dog. He walked slowly, his head hung low and I could see that he had given up. I sounded my horn but he ignored it and I had to drive around him to avoid running him over.

It isn’t unusual to see stray – and dead – dogs in Cyprus.  I think most Cypriots see them in a completely different way to us.  Very few are kept as pets for their own sake.  Dogs are either gun dogs or guard dogs and if it transpires that the dog isn’t very good at its allocated job, it is often taken to the mountains or the edge of the motorway and just thrown away.

Yet, there was undeniably something about this one. I said to my Dad “if that dog is still there on the way back I’m having it”. To this day I don’t know what prompted me to say that, because having a dog when you’re a single soldier is decidedly impractical. My Dad, who had a healthy disregard for all things religious, said “well, the monastery isn’t going anywhere”. On that I executed a U-turn and drove back until we found the dog. As we drew alongside him I pulled over and got out.  He just stood there, in the middle of the road, looking at us.  He was an emaciated wretch and I could see just about every bone in his body through his skin.  I thought he was about six months to a year old and I reckoned that he could not have survived for more than a few days longer.

I extended my hand out to him and, to my surprise, he began slowly walking over to me.   He was very weak and timid, yet somehow trusting. He came over to me and accepted a drink of water.  Then he let me stroke him and, eventually, allowed himself to be put into the car. I had to lift him in as he was too weak to climb in by himself.

We mused over what name to give him.  Naming pets always seems hard to me but eventually we decided on Errol, simply because my horse is called Flynn.  I had no idea what kind of dog he was at that point, and it didn’t matter to me. It turned out that he was a Hungarian Vizsla – an ancient breed of pointer. I’d never heard of them.  I took him to the stables and I took him to work.  It was fascinating to watch his reactions to people change as he realised that the ones he now met wouldn’t hurt him or shoo him away. 

Some months later I was assisting a company of the Resident Infantry Battalion on an exercise, and I took Errol with me.  One of them saw him and said “there’s that dog again”.  I asked him what he meant and the story of Errol’s second abandonment came out.  There is an infantry base in Troodos which is manned by companies on rotation.  Some soldiers from this company found Errol when he was a puppy. It seemed he had been abandoned at a very young age.  They took him in, fed him, had him inoculated and generally took good care of him.  But when their company was relieved, the new company commander decreed that there would be no dogs on camp and had Errol and a few others expelled.  It was some time after that expulsion that I found him.

Errol soon grew out of being timid. He also just grew. Within a few months the skeletal wreck that I found had grown into a big, beautiful, friendly rambunctious monster. He was very intelligent and strong-willed. His obedience and hearing were selective and he could have taught Houdini a thing or two about escaping.  I once took him into an office at 321 EOD Squadron in Northern Ireland.  Because it was a large office I let him off his lead.  He ran up to a fire escape door, of a kind I know he had never seen before.  He sat down, and ruffled his brow as he stared at the door and its handle.  Then, after a few moments thinking, he leapt up and struck the door release bar with both paws.  The door swung open and Errol was off looking for rabbits.

He performed a similar trick when I was the ATO at Antrim detachment.  On the very day of the OC’s quarterly inspection he got out through the fire escape and I was lucky that Brian was the OC and Geordie was the SAT.  They could have been justifiably annoyed at me, but instead they laughed at my vain attempts to catch him on the lawn in front of the NAAFI.

He was a consummate hunter. He could find, point and flush game – and cats – even though he was never trained as a working gundog.  This, combined with his having very much his own ideas about when he should come back to me, led to some problems. 

There was a grassy area behind my house in Lisburn and I would let him off the lead there.  This was fine until, one day, there was a cat sitting on my neighbour’s garden fence.  The cat saw Errol and jumped off into the garden.  Errol saw the cat jump and gave chase, clearing the four foot tall fence like a startled deer. The cat ran into the house and Errol ran after it. I stood helplessly on the other side of the fence. I could hear a commotion going on inside the house and I feared the worst for the cat.  But the cat reappeared and then disappeared into a neighbouring garden at a rate of knots.  Errol then bounded out into the garden and, seeing no cat, leapt back over the fence again and sat next to me as if he actually was a good boy.  Then a woman appeared from the back door.  Wrapped only in a towel and still bearing some bubble bath clouds, she looked somewhat confused. I made sympathetic noises as she told me of how she was enjoying a lovely warm candlelit bath, when first a strange cat and then an even stranger big orange dog stormed into the bathroom.  But inside I laughed.

I took to using a long length of EOD line as a lead, so that he could have a run about but I still had control of him.  This can best be described as a partial success. One night I was stood at the top of the embankment outside the Felix and Firkin, 321 EOD Squadron’s bar in Lisburn, chatting away about nothing in particular to Martin.  Errol was by my side – for a while.  I was so engrossed in our conversation that I didn’t realise that he had seen something – a cat or rabbit maybe – in the undergrowth somewhere down the embankment.  He ran after what ever it was, and didn’t stop when he got to the end of his line.  The first I knew about this was when the line went taut and I was picked up bodily and propelled down the embankment into a large and prickly bush.

Despite his hunting talent, he had no killing instinct and was forever letting things go, only to chase them again.  Perhaps because of this – and his time as a stray – he never grew out of begging and he could not walk past a bin without putting his head in it in a search for food.  I took him on a train once and needed to move down the centre aisle of the carriage. Errol walked in front of me and, as he was tall enough for his head to be at the same height as the tables, he saw the lady’s sandwich before I did.  In fact, he saw, snaffled and swallowed it before I could do anything about it.

There were many times like this when he drove me mad, embarrassed me or got me into trouble.  But he was my constant companion for seven years, and was beside me every day except for when I was in Iraq or the odd occasion when I couldn’t take him with me.  He was loyal, demonstrably affectionate and bursting with character and fun. Most importantly, he made me laugh every day.

On a licensing exercise that I took Errol on – and shouldn’t have – I noticed that he had developed a limp in his front left leg.  I took him to the vet and after a series of tests he was diagnosed with osteosarcoma – a very aggressive form of bone cancer.  Amputation of the affected leg was an option, but the vet said that by the time the cancer was apparent in the legs, it would have already spread to the lungs. 

I have made some tough decisions in my life, but that was by far the toughest, even though there was only one realistic option.  No manual approach to an item of unexploded ordnance or a suspect IED was ever as hard as that walk with Errol to the vets – and walking away afterwards, alone, with an empty collar in my hand and tears streaming down my face.  Errol was put down on 21st October 2009, seven years to the month after I found him. I miss him terribly.

Following The Mad Major

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Over the years I’ve met a few people who have been nicknamed ‘Dangerous Dave’.  Some simply because they are called David and it is traditional.  More gained it because their general ineptitude is a hazard to others, especially if some fool has placed them in a position of responsibility.  Many of these aren’t even really called Dave, but they should all be avoided like a Kenyan courtesan’s clitoris.  Finally there are those who receive the sobriquet because of their eccentricity, pugnacity or general batshit mentalness.  These are the ones who, when the chips are really down, find the situation highly agreeable and fix bayonets with a cheery grin.

My first working unit was 42 Ordnance Company RAOC in Colchester, and the Officer Commanding was one of the latter. He really was called David, but he was known throughout 19 Infantry Brigade as The Mad Major.

Of medium height and build, he wasn’t physically striking, apart from his hair.  He had what I can only describe as a mullet.  Not a full on Part Sharp style affair, of course, but his curls were longer at the back than any officer’s should have been – even in 1988.  Atop this, he wore a beret at a rakish angle with the badge positioned directly above his left ear.  Bear in mind that at this time, the ‘ally’ beret was almost unknown in the RAOC. Most officers and senior NCOs wore theirs with the cap badge in the middle of the forehead, Cyclops style, and the remaining cloth pulled back like a reversed flat cap.

Dave also smoked cigars, in uniform.  He strutted about the garrison, thumbs poked inside the webbing belt around his Para smock, chewing on a zeppelin-like Havana from the corner of his mouth. No one ever challenged him about this.

His background was the subject of myth and rumour.  He wore Parachute wings, yet no one who had served with 82 Ordnance Company, the RAOC’s airborne unit, remembered him being there.  Some said that he had been in the Royal Tank Regiment. That may be true but, given that a Chieftan tank weighed over 56 tonnes, I can’t imagine they had much need for parachutists.  There were airborne armoured units, using bijou tankettes, but they were drawn from the Household Cavalry.

Some said that he had once been a Corporal.  He didn’t look or sound like a former NCO but nor did he have the stereotypical upper middle class accent that was almost universal among officers, even as late as the 1980s.  He sounded like an actor from a 1950s war film, trying to portray a tough-no-nonsense-yet-still-clearly-an-officer type.  When he was excited he elongated his vowels, especially in the word ‘soldier’. Perhaps it was all an act, but if it was he never let the mask slip.

Not many officers can deliver a really effective bollocking, but Dave could.  On a range day, some clown left his rifle unattended outside the troop shelter and Dave found it.  I was actually on the adjacent range, at least 300 metres away, and I could hear every word of his tirade.  “You’re not fit to be a sooooooooooldier!!!!”

Dangerous Dave was a hard taskmaster.  We had an operational evaluation inspection.  This involved the Company crashing out to Friday Woods, where we were assessed at doing the things we were meant to do should the Russian 3rd Shock Army be rude enough to come storming across the Inner German Border.  The day closed with a Combat Fitness Test (CFT), which was an eight mile march, carrying 35 lbs of kit, in one hour and fifty minutes.  It did not go well.  About half of the Company finished in the allotted time, with the remaining stragglers stretched across the Essex countryside.

The inspecting officers were not impressed and said we needed to do another CFT to gain a satisfactory grading. Dave was furious.  He formed us up on parade and berated us.  “You, you’re a slug” was one phrase that sticks in my mind.  Then he said “We’re all going to do a CFT every day for a month”.  I thought he was bluffing.  He wasn’t.  That was a tough month but, when we were re-assessed, the whole Company – even me with my short legs – breezed it.

That was the thing about him.  He believed in Rommel’s dictum that “the best form of welfare for troops is first class training”.   On exercises, he would stalk about the Company location, checking that sentries were alert, and looking for unattended rifles or equipment.  It seemed petty at the time, but he was forcing a soldierly point.  You didn’t want to be the bloke who had his rifle snatched by the OC, so you learnt to never let it leave your side – which was his aim.

Most exercises involved driving our trucks into a wood, camouflaging them, then digging in.  This could take hours and, often, as soon as we were finished we moved again.  We hated digging in, but Dave made us do it, saying “The Russians will have their guns parked up wheel to wheel, and the only thing that will protect you is terra firma”.

Although he wasn’t averse to giving us a hard time, he wouldn’t let anyone else do it.  We had a young 2nd Lieutenant who was keen and confident, but had much to learn about man management.  You know the type.  On one exercise, Dave was seen remonstrating with him in a secluded clearing.  Dave used one hand to hold the subaltern by the yoke of his webbing and swang him in circles around him.  With his free hand he punched him in the head and this was accompanied by regular kicks up the arse.  Dave was heard to bawl “The only one who fucks my soooooldiers around is me”.  All the while his cigar never left his mouth.

On another exercise Ronnie, the bloke that Dave had called a slug, was on stag.  A Military Police Land Rover approached and when Ronnie challenged them, they refused to stop and drove past him, shouting abuse.  At this point, Dave leapt out of the bush from where he had been spying on Ronnie and launched himself at the Land Rover.  Before the driver could say “Do you know who I am?” Dave had opened the door, pulled him from his seat and spread eagled him on the ground, He then drew his pistol, put it in the policeman’s mouth and shouted “If one of my sooooooldiers tells you to stop, you damn well stop!”

Another Brigade exercise had been a complete cluster from start to finish.  Just about everything that could have gone wrong did.  When rations didn’t arrive and then the heavens opened, Dave realised that morale was low and that no useful training purpose was being served.  He called a halt to our part in it.  Dave ordered that lights be turned on and a field kitchen set up.  We had a hot meal, got warm and dry and when spirits were restored, the lights went off and we resumed our part in the exercise.  Perhaps it was not very ‘warry’, but it was masterful leadership. I believe Dave got into quite a lot of trouble from the Brigade HQ for that.

Now, I doubt that Dave’s methods are to be found in the curriculum at Sandhurst.   You could argue that his treatment of the 2nd Lieutenant and the military policeman was just as bad as whatever they had done to our blokes.  But they demonstrated that he cared for the men under his command, even if he had a slightly unhinged way of expressing it.

When he was posted out some breathed a sigh of relief.  The next OC was much easier going.  But after one exercise, where we had been crashed out early in the morning to test our response time, he was overheard to say “send them straight in to work.  I don’t mind of they don’t get any breakfast.”  Now, breakfast isn’t the most important thing in the world and none of us were in any danger of starving, but it showed that his values were the exact opposite of Dangerous Dave’s.  However approachable he was on the surface, he didn’t care about us and I lost all respect for him at that very moment.  As it happened, he disappeared after about six months.  It wasn’t on promotion, as I saw him a year later and he was still a Major.  However, his replacement was one of the finest officers I ever served under, who went on to have a brilliant career. The last I heard he was a Brigadier and he may well have gone further.

This led me to develop my ‘two to one’ theory.  The theory is simple: On average, for every two good officers you serve under in a particular post, you will get one bad one.

Badness in an officer can manifest itself in several ways.  Surprisingly, ineptitude isn’t necessarily one of them, as long as they are willing to take advice.  If they are not, that’s usually a sign of arrogance, or over-playing confidence to hide weakness.  This often portends disaster.  An officer should be confident, but it’s a small step from confidence to arrogance.  If they are naturally arrogant they really need to temper it with a spot of self deprecation, and/or back it up with exceptional talent. Contrary to the apparent beliefs of the Army Officer Selection Board, a strong jawline, a bouffant of note and a striking pair of corduroy pantaloons are not adequate substitutes.

The worst trait is simply not caring about their troops.  I don’t mean caring in a wishy-washy way.  You don’t want a hand wringing, Guardian reading, lentil munching yoghurt knitter as a leader of fighting men.  But nor do you want one who sees them as expendable stepping stones on his career path.

Officers are, by their nature, ambitious and that is only right.  But, barring being caught dipping the till or hanging out the back of the CO’s wife, they pretty much all get to Major, sooner or later.  They don’t all go further.  A good many of them fail to grasp that if they have the talent and drive and a bit of luck they can make it to colonel and above.  That being so, they shouldn’t need to step on anyone on the way up.  If they lack the talent, drive and luck, they won’t progress very far, no matter who they tread on or drive to exhaustion.  The ruthless careerists who can’t grasp this should be shunned for they are, to a man, weapons grade bell-ends.

Talented careerists do exist.  I’ve served under them and it isn’t pleasant.  The tragedy is, they didn’t need to be such sausage-jousters.  Their talent  would have taken them on anyway, without making a raft of enemies on the way.  I suppose worst of all is the incompetent careerist.  I’ve only met a few of these but I had the misfortune to serve under one.  He was an iron clad, copper bottomed, ocean going, ice breaking spunk-trumpet.  And he was not promoted beyond Major, thank God.

A good commander can make being in the army seem like an effortless joy, but a bad one can force you to question why you ever signed up in the first place.  I say the ratio is two good to one bad on average, because its not an exact science.  I’ve never had two complete arse-parts in a row but, if you’re unlucky, you might get a one to one ratio for a while. However, at some point this should even itself out with a run of good eggs.  So if you’re lucky enough to have had three great Troopies, OCs or COs in a row, you’ll have had a splendid six years or so.  But if you’re coming to the end of the third one’s incumbency, I suggest you seek a posting, sharpish, because the Military Secretary will have seen that the ying and yang of leadership is skewed and will seek to correct that. You can guarantee that an assignment order with your unit’s name on it is winging towards an intergalactic cock-socket.

Leadership – as that paragon of it, Field Marshall Slim, said – is “that combination of persuasion, compulsion and example that makes other people do what you want them to do” and it is no easy thing to get right.  To the two thirds of officers that I have known that did get it right I salute you.  Not your commission, your rank or your appointment.  You.  To the remaining third I need say no more, and I doubt it would do any good if I tried.

On balance, I think that Dangerous Dave, the Mad Major, was one of the good ones. At least in my experience.  I heard that, later on, there was an allegation of sexual harassment.  I never discovered the outcome of that but I hope it wasn’t true.  He wasn’t universally loved, but I doubt that bothered him much.  Looking back now, I think even the other officers were wary of him, and I may have taken a different view if I had known him when I was an NCO or Warrant Officer, rather than a private soldier.  But we did genuinely respect him and would have followed him to war, which is much more important.  He may have been as mad as a sandbag of salamanders, but we knew that he wouldn’t sacrifice us, metaphorically in peace and literally in war, on the altar of his career.

Two Weeks In February.

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There are no heroics in this piece.  No tales of derring-do. No agonising life or death decisions over which wire to snip.  No doom laden briefings, warning me that the terrorists are after the ‘short, no-haired bomb man’. For the most part, bomb disposal isn’t like that.

This is a snapshot of an EOD Team’s life in the later stages of Operation BANNER, the British army’s campaign in Northern Ireland which lasted from 1969 to 2007.  You know, the part after the PIRA ceasefire and the Good Friday Agreement, when we all enjoyed peace in our time.  Or not.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that it was anything like 1972 or, for that matter, 1994 but it would be wrong to think that nothing happened.  There were incidents that, had they occurred in London they would have been front page fodder for days, but because they were in Northern Ireland, they barely made the regional news.

I spent half of 2001 in Northern Ireland.  In 2002 I was called back to fill a manning shortfall.  This was entirely normal and I expected it.  The reason was that operators deploying to a theatre like Northern Ireland had to pass the High Threat IEDD course (now called the Advanced IEDD course) and this is no easy thing.  Typically, two to four out of a course of sixteen will pass and on some courses no one passed.  This sounds harsh, especially when all candidates are already trained and usually experienced IEDD operators, but it is important to maintain the standard.  Experience has shown that cutting corners in selection and training is dangerous.  EOD operators have died because they were placed in situations that they weren’t ready for.

So in February 2002 I was at Antrim detachment for two weeks.  The No 2 was a rotund and exuberant Scottish driver called Stevie.  To my eternal shame I have forgotten the Bleep’s name.  He was a big, dark haired Yorkshireman with a fine line in understatement.  For example, the road that runs from Coleraine to Magilligan hugs the north coast of Northern Ireland and at one point, sandwiched between the sea and rugged rocky precipices, a waterfall cascades over green mossy cliffs and splashes into a small lagoon.  It is beautiful.  To express this, the Bleep nodded towards it and merely said “S’alright, in’t it?”.  I like that in a team member.  It suggest that he won’t flap.  The infantry escort was also a Scot called Steve, which made things confusing. Both Steves later became Ammunition Technicians.

We had a busy fortnight, so I won’t recount every incident in detail. To set the scene, just before I arrived, a security guard at Magilligan ranges, near Londonderry, had picked up what appeared to be a discarded army water bottle.  It concealed a Victim Operated IED (VOIED), probably operated by a mercury tilt switch, and it exploded in his hands, seriously injuring him.  It was the work of the so-called Real IRA.  A year later a similar device killed a civilian worker at Caw Camp in Londonderry.  These types of IEDs were common in the 1970s, but faded from view as the army’s tactics improved.  I wondered if there was a correlation between the release of IRA prisoners, the lowering of security levels and the reappearance of these devices.

In 2000, Magilligan had been the scene of two large VOIEDs in troop shelters, which were rendered safe.  The terrorists liked attacking there as it was easy to gain access, yet was exclusively used by the security forces.  It was a strange, barren, windswept place, overlooked by tall hills.  By one of the quirks of history, geography and political semantics, at Magilligan  you can stand on the north coast of Northern Ireland and look northwards into the South.

In the first week I dealt with three VOIEDs.  They were placed by Loyalist terrorists and were connected to an internal feud.  They were small and crude but they would have worked.  I also dealt with two finds of loyalist weapons and bomb making equipment, one of which included a complete IED. 

I cleared a car in the republican village of Toome. This was unusual, in that a Sinn Fein councillor had called us in.  He had received a call, purporting to be from the Real IRA, warning him that they had placed a bomb on his car.  I had my doubts.  In these situations, the terrorists didn’t give warnings.  I was confident that there was nothing on the car, but was conscious that the whole situation may have been set up to draw us in to attack us.  We cracked on regardless.  The police had only a few officers available and their cordon was small and porous.  Half way through the task, while kneeling down at the side of the car, in the centre of my supposedly evacuated area, I felt a tap on the shoulder.  I looked up to see a drunk civilian.  He said “You’re wasting your time.  There’s nothing there” before staggering off with a bag of chips in his hand like a compass guiding him home.  His threat assessment was spot on, as it turned out.

In the next week I was called to the grounds of a hospital. A member of the public had found a suspicious object by the hospital buildings. He picked it up and moved it away. It amazed me that, despite 30 years of bombings, people still did things like that.  The object was a pipe bomb, which was the staple weapon of Loyalist terrorists at this time, although republicans used them as well.  A pipe bombs is as simple as an IED can be, consisting of a length of pipe, usually filled with a low explosive such as gunpowder, and securely closed at both ends.  They can be wired into an electrical circuit but most are initiated igniferously.  Or, in other words, they have a length of burning fuse, such as Wiley Coyote might use.  This one was a foot long, an inch in diameter and was made from copper plumbing pipe and sealed with plumbing compression caps. 

Despite their simplicity, pipe bombs can be a pain to deal with.  There are two theoretical risks associated with them. One is that, while it may look like a simple pipe bomb on the outside, it may conceal something more cheeky on the inside.  This could be countered by moving it remotely, using the Wheelbarrow robot or hook and line, and X-raying it.  The other risk was that if the bomb had screw-on end caps, as most did, grains of explosive might have worked into the threads.  When the end cap was unscrewed, there was a risk that this could crush and ignite the grains, initiating the device.  Because of this, unscrewing the end caps by hand was normally forbidden.  They had to be removed remotely. 

I tried everything to get those end caps off.  I used the Wheelbarrow with special attachments. I used a vice with hook and line.  I tried a cutting tool.  Nothing doing.  I was tempted to take shortcuts, when I received a phone call from Perfect Pete to say he was on his way.  Warrant Officer Class One Pete was the Senior Ammunition Technician of 321 EOD Squadron RLC.  Part of his job was to ensure that technical standards were maintained and that operators stayed safe.  To do this, he would visit teams on task to see how they were getting on – and to stop them from taking short cuts.  He got his nickname because he is one of those annoying bastards that is sickeningly good at whatever he turns his hand to. And he made being good look easy.  Always impeccably turned out, he demanded the same high standards from everyone else. 

When Pete arrived I was still trying to get into the device. I explained that I had spent an hour trying to open this thing and had met with no success.  He suggested I try a technique that I hadn’t thought of.  I did, and that didn’t work either.  In a way I was slightly relieved by this.  If the bomb had defied Perfect Pete, it wasn’t just me being incompetent – it was a tricky customer.

After a while, Pete said “You know, when I was a young Sergeant – and if the SAT wasn’t hanging around – I would probably have attached a set of mole grips to the end cap and taken a hammer to it.”  Then he winked and wandered off.  My ghast was flabbered. But not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I waited until he had rounded the corner then took some tools and set about the pipe bomb with indecent gusto.   Despite a vigorous thrashing it still didn’t open and in the end I used an explosive technique which burnt the filling off but retained the rest of the device intact.  It was a partial success but, more importantly, it offered a glimpse that Pete was human after all.

I had further evidence of Pete’s humanness after my next task.  An army officer had returned home to find a bag on his doorstep.  The top of the bag was open and he peered inside, to see a large cooler box.  Wisely, he decided to investigate no further. 

If this was a real IED, it was probably going to be a republican one, which meant it was likely to be a much more serious device than a loyalist pipe bomb.  But, strangely enough, it would be easier to deal with.  Stevie had the Wheelbarrow off the van in no time and together we loaded the weapons.  These use a small explosive charge in a cartridge to propel a load of water into the target.  The water comes out at rifle bullet velocity and smashes up anything in its path, before dispersing.

The Wheelbarrow covered the 100 metres to the target in high gear. In a minute or two I was looking at the suspicious object on TV monitors in the back of my vehicle, via the CCTV cameras mounted on the Wheelbarrow.  Stevie lined up the larger of the weapons on to the cooler box. After checking that everyone was under hard cover – in case it didn’t work out the way we planned – he shouted “standby – firing” and pulled back the firing switch on the hand controller.  There was a loud bang as the weapon fired, amplified by its echoing around the cul-de-sac.  I looked at the TV monitors to check the results but they were blank.  The screens sometimes went black or grey when fragments thrown up by the shot damaged the camera.  But this was something I had never seen before. The monitors were pink. 

Using the second camera, I saw that the cooler box was smashed to pieces and that the front door was completely covered in an unidentified substance.  I couldn’t see any obvious bomb bits.  So after taking a few more precautions, Stevie dressed me in the EOD suit and sent me on my way.  As an aside, an EOD suit weighs 45 Kg.  I weigh 65 Kgs.  When wearing it, and carrying all of my equipment I was easily doubling my bodyweight. After five minutes in the suit I was sweating like an RAF officer about to be posted to somewhere with no hotels.

When I arrived at the target, I saw that the front door was covered in a pink and white goo.  There were fragments of glass in it.  I peered at it for a while, seeking out something familiar and eventually I saw it.  A pineapple chunk.  I don’t mean part of a grenade.  I mean an ingredient of a fruit salad.  I lifted my visor, poked my finger into the gloop and then popped it into my mouth.  It was sweet and scrumptious!   It transpired that the colonel, whose front door I had just redecorated, had recently suffered a family bereavement and his neighbour thought she would cheer him up with a home made trifle.  Not finding him at home, she left it on his doorstep in the cooler box.  The colonel seemed less than pleased with the whole affair. 

“Are you going to clear up this mess?” he asked

“No sir” I respectfully replied.  “Bomb disposal, not dessert disposal”.

On my report I inserted the code for “action confirmed” followed by “(tasted)” and in the comments box I wrote “EOD action revealed 1 x delicious fruit trifle”.  Perfect Pete vetted all reports and I fully expected this little piece of flippancy to be sent back for amendment.  But he let it past, meaning that he either didn’t read them as closely as we thought, or he was more human than he was letting on.  Now that I know him better, I’m sure it was the latter.

The last job of this two weeks was at Magilligan ranges, where the security guard had been injured.  The range staff were understandably twitchy about anything they found on the area, so we were called out to a couple of empty smoke grenades in a troop shelter.  That was all they were, but I remember this job because of a nice bit of teamwork.  I was thinking about not using the Electronic Counter Measures equipment, mainly because it was heavy and I was lazy.  The Bleep convinced me that I should.  He was right and and, in the end, I did.  I mention this to show that everything we did was a team effort, including the thinking.

The Flying Scud

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They say you never forget the first time you come under enemy fire.  Well, I did.  It slipped my mind for about 15 years.  I suppose this might be because when most people think of incoming fire they imagine direct fire – bullets from rifles and machine guns whistling overhead or splashing into the ground, throwing up dust and small fragments.

My first experience was more in the nature of indirect fire, That is, projectiles lobbed in a parabolic arc at the target.  But in my case it wasn’t mortar bombs or artillery shells.  Nor was it the 107 mm rockets, common in Iraq and Afghanistan, that I mentioned in an earlier post.  It was bigger than that.  Bigger, even that the 240 mm rockets that were occasionally used in Iraq with devastating effect.  They were fired by Iraqis, though.  This was early in 1991. They were called Al Husseins, and they were an Iraqi development of the Russian Scud B short range ballistic missiles.

I was posted to 42 Ordnance Company RAOC in Colchester when Iraq threatened to invade Kuwait in 1990 . I remember thinking “They won’t do that”.  When they did, and American and British troops began deploying to Saudi Arabia, I said “They’ll just sit facing each other in the desert for six months or so, then they’ll go home”.  I also remember thinking “I won’t be sent”.  I was 20 years old at the time and my ability to predict events was clearly not well developed.

By the time hostilities opened I was in Saudi Arabia, detached to 62 Ordnance Company, who were operating what was grandly titled ‘Ordnance Depot Al Jubayl’. This was an area of desert, outside the Saudi port of the same name, not far from the city of Dharan.  US army engineers had graded the sand away, laid a tarmac surface and erected some buildings.  We then filled it with temporary buildings, ISO shipping containers and countless pallets of stores.  It was an impressive feat of engineering and logistics, accomplished in only a few days.  No one thought of providing any drainage. Why would they? We were in a desert, which are not known for their high levels of precipitation.

In January 1991, it rained for weeks on end.  Not drizzle, nor the tropical storms that finish as suddenly as they start.  I mean a relentless, heavy downpour that flooded everything.  Moving about the depot was slightly surreal, being surrounded by sandy desert but having to wade knee deep in cold water.  After a few days, shoots began to appear in the desert and a few days after that the sands took on the appearance of a neat lawn or tennis court. Maybe someone, somewhere, was trying to make us feel at home.

The coalition had issued Saddam Hussein with a deadline.  If he did not withdraw his forces from Kuwait by the 15th of January 1991, he would be forced out.  Saddam remained defiant, promising us ‘the mother of all battles’. We were confident that our forces would overcome his, but we were also aware of his missiles and their ability to carry a chemical payload.  Iraq had used chemical weapons against Iran and against Kurdish civilians at Halabjah in 1988.  Wherever we went our respirators – that’s a gas mask if you’re a civilian – were strapped to us, ready for immediate donning and our full Nuclear, Biological and Chemical (NBC) suits were always nearby.

The 15th came and went without event.  The 16th passed peacefully as well, from our perspective.  Elsewhere, people were busy preparing warplanes for the first bombing runs that night. On the early morning of the 17th I was asleep in our accommodation building.  Around 4 am the air attack alarm sounded, its rising and falling wail similar to a Second World War air raid siren.

“What cock has set that off?” I thought.  I was convinced that it was a drill.  It wasn’t.  Realising that everyone else in the room was donning their respirators, I fumbled around for mine.  I pulled it over my face, its cold black rubber, sticking to my skin.  I blew out hard, as was part of the drill, but didn’t shout ‘Gas Gas Gas’, which was also part of the drill, for fear of looking like a twat.  It is amazing where one’s priorities lie in situations like this.

Once the respirator was on, I pulled on the NBC suit.  I also plonked my helmet on my head, but it didn’t sit on properly because of the respirator. The chin strap wouldn’t reach far enough, either, so I had an extra piece of elastic that could stretch over the respirator to hold the helmet in place.  The S10 respirator and the Mk 6 helmet came into service at more or less the same time and I’m still amazed that the respective designers didn’t seem to talk to each other.

Once fully dressed, we moved off to the Collective Protection (ColPro) site, which sounds impressive, but was actually an ISO container, covered with chemical agent resistant material and good old fashioned sandbags.  We shuffled inside, lay down and, after a bit of chatting and waiting, fell sleep.  Well, I did anyway.  I don’t know what protective qualities the helmet would have had in this situation but, with my head in it at a certain angle, it made for an admirable pillow.  Looking back now, we were all very calm and relaxed.    I later learned that the alarm was sounded as a result of a false radar signal, possibly from US B-52 bombers, returning from delivering their loads over Iraq.  There were no incoming missiles that night but It didn’t stay like that for long and the process was repeated many times over the next month.  It may seem surprising, but I found it easy to sleep wearing a respirator, in a container, knowing that ballistic missiles were headed in my general direction.

The Iraqis fired their first missiles on the 20th of January.  Everyone called the missiles Scuds, although to be pedantic all but five were Al Husseins and the remaining five were Al Hijarah models.  Both were developments of the Russian Scud B, which was itself developed from the German V2 missile of the 1940s.  The Iraqis wanted longer range from their missiles and to do this they extended the missile’s airframe to accommodate larger fuel tanks.  The extra weight of the fuel meant that the warhead had to be smaller.  They were also less accurate. While an original Scud B could carry a 2,200 lb warhead over a range of 186 miles and deliver it to within half a mile of the target, an Al Hussein load was halved.  It carried a 1,100 lb warhead over more than 370 miles, but could only place it to within one or two miles of the target. With that level of accuracy it was an expensive way of delivering conventional high explosives, which is why a chemical warhead – or a nuclear one of you happened to have them – would make sense.  Iraq didn’t have nuclear weapons but they certainly had chemical ones.

A further problem was that, unlike later ballistic missiles which separated the warhead from the main airframe section when the boost phase was finished, the Scud and its derivatives carried the – mostly – empty airframe for the whole flight time.  I said mostly empty, because a missile that had expended all of its fuel could still be carrying in its tanks over a hundred kg of Inhibited Red Fuming Nitric Acid (IRFNA) which was used as an oxidiser and was almost as unpleasant as a chemical agent. Because of inadequate research and development, the extended Al Hussein missiles tended to break up in the last part of their flight, sending the airframe one way and the warhead another, reducing their accuracy even further. I hope you’ll forgive me this foray into technical detail, but there is a reason for it.

The first two missiles fired on the 20th were targeted at Dharan, but were engaged by American Patriot missiles and parts of them fell all over the place. In total, Iraq fired 88 missiles:  42 were launched towards Israel, in an attempt to break the US-Arab coalition and 46 were fired at Saudi Arabia. Of those 46, 19 landed in the Dharan/Al Jabayl area, which makes me feel quite special.

Two of these incidents stick in my mind.  On the 25th of February, a missile struck a US accommodation block in Dharan, killing 27 soldiers and injuring about a hundred others.

Nine days earlier, one landed considerably closer to home.  I was on ‘stag’ – sentry duty – in a sangar made, like everything else, from a sandbagged ISO container.  It was dark and I was young and I half hoped that the ill formed shapes I could barely discern in the desert in front of me were approaching Iraqi saboteurs.  I was quite keen to use the General Purpose Machine Gun. As Thucydides noted in the 5th century BC, “there were great numbers of young men who had never been in a war and were consequently far from unwilling to join in this one”.

It was 2 am.  I didn’t know it at the time, but the Patriot batteries were down for maintenance. There was no warning.  I heard a very loud explosion which seemed to come from directly above me.  I gripped the machine gun, expecting to see figures approaching, but the shapes stayed still, mainly because they were just bushes.  Then the air attack alarm sounded.  I was already wearing an NBC suit, so I quickly donned my respirator.  I checked the detector paper that we used to register the presence of a chemical agent.  I had checked them hundreds of times over the last month and they always looked the same – plain and slightly dog eared.  This time something was different.  There was a faint speckling of blue on the grey-green paper.  It was very fine and barely discernible, but it was definitely there.  I reported this on the radio and followed this up when I was relieved.  I expected everyone to be agog at my discovery but other sentry positions had already reported a change in their detector paper. Some had seen not light sprinklings of suspicious substances but dirty great splashes of sticky noxious liquid.

After being checked for contamination, I went to the ColPro container and resumed my favourite position.  When I emerged in the morning I expected to see a flurry of NBC related activity, but everything was as normal.  We were told there was no chemical attack.  “So what was that big bang and the discolouration on the detector paper?” we asked.  No firm answer was given, but there were rumours of a light plane being shot down by accident and spreading its fuel all over the place before it crashed.  I distinctly remember thinking “that’s bollocks”.

As it happened, on this occasion I was right about something.  What had happened was that an Al Hussein had broken up in flight over the depot, spreading its residual load of IRFNA over the area and it was that that had caused the detector paper to change.  More sophisticated chemical tests proved negative and electronic detection equipment had eventually identified the offending substance.  The missile’s high explosive warhead carried on and landed in the sea, a few metres from the British ammunition depot at Al Jubayl port.  An EOD team later recovered it.

An RAOC EOD team also dealt with an unexploded Al Hussein in Riyadh.  I’m told that when they arrived they found an American team working at one end of the missile and a French team at the other, with neither talking to each other.  They cleared them both away and successfully rendered it safe.

Saddam never did deploy chemical weapons against the coalition.  There were numerous reasons for this, but one is that he feared that the Americans would respond to a chemical attack with a nuclear one.  Deterrence is one of those things that can’t normally be detected working.  One normally only knows when it fails, as it did when Iraq invaded Kuwait.  This was one of those rare occasions when nuclear deterrence can be demonstrated to have worked.

After I came home I found a pub in Shoreditch in east London called The Flying Scud. It was named after a sailing ship. Like so many other traditional London boozers it is gone now, but I’ll always fondly remember them for the free beer they plied me with when I told them about their namesake in the desert.

Barrack Bluster

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I wasn’t a very good No 2, if the truth be told.  I could postulate on the reasons for this, but they don’t matter now and I suppose they didn’t matter much to Dave, who I was No 2 for.

If that doesn’t make much sense then let me explain.  The basic building block of an IED Disposal team is a pair of people, called the No 1 and the No 2.  The No 1 is an Ammunition Technical Officer (ATO), or Ammunition Technician (AT). If it is an ATO, he or she is most commonly a Captain but sometimes a Major.  If it is an AT, he or she could be any rank from a Sergeant to a Warrant Officer Class One.

The No 1 is often referred to as ‘ATO’, whether they are an officer or not, as the qualification level is the same. He or she commands the team, makes the threat assessment and the decisions based on that and, ultimately, walks down the road and deals with the device.

The No 2 is usually a Corporal or Lance Corporal and may be an AT or a driver.  His or her job is to make everything work for the No 1.  The No 2 operates the Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV), which is sometimes called the robot.  For most of my career, the main ROV was from the venerable ‘Wheelbarrow’ family.  The No 2 also maintains and drives the vehicle and prepares and operates all of the other weapons, explosives and equipment that is carried on it.  And there is a lot of it.  As is the way of the world, if everything works as it should, no one really notices. If it doesn’t, the immediate action drill is to blame the No 2.  To be fair, it usually was my fault.

In a benign environment such as Great Britain, the team just consists of the No 1 and No 2, although other assets can be tasked as and when they are needed.  In a ‘High Threat’ theatre, such as Northern Ireland, Iraq or Afghanistan, the team also has a Royal Signals Electronic Counter Measures (ECM) operator, who is known as the ‘bleep’. His or her job it is detect and jam the signals used by radio controlled IEDs.  As I understand it, this ECM stuff works using some form of witchcraft.  The bleep is so called simply because the very early, 1970s vintage, ECM equipment made bleeping noises. Finally there is an infantry escort who, for want of a less dramatic term, is the team’s bodyguard.

An IEDD team could also operate with a Royal Engineers Search Team, mainly made up of blokes called Ginge, who had the unenviable and often unrecognised task of searching for concealed IEDs.

I mentioned Northern Ireland.  I was there in the spring of 1994.  You may recall that the Provisional IRA announced their ceasefire on the 31st of August 1994. This happened to be my 24th birthday and was just after I finished my tour. I like to think that these three facts must be connected, but Messrs G. Adams and P. O’ Neill may disagree. Some sources have stated that Gerry Adams had decided that the ‘armed struggle’ wasn’t working and would need to be called off as early as 1986, but actually making that happen was easier said than done.  For the hard core of Irish Republicans who had grown up in the 1970s and 80s, fighting the British wasn’t just a means to a political end or a step on the path to an abstract ideal of a mythical Irish Republic. It was an end in itself and a way of life. Even when the IRA leadership was convinced to call a halt, they knew that their campaign couldn’t dribble to an inconsequential end. To extract the maximum political capital from it, and to keep their membership in line, they needed it to – quite literally – go out with a bang.

So in the early 1990s 321 EOD Squadron RLC (It had been 321 EOD Company RAOC until the formation of the RLC in 1993) was having a busy time.  There was a sustained campaign of vehicle borne IEDs – mainly deployed in vans and trucks – in town centres across the province.  In addition to this, the IRA attacked security forces (SF) bases with improvised mortars.  The most recent incarnation was made using a large propane gas cylinder.  These were filled with home made explosives and could fly for up to 275 metres, although the actual ranges they were used at was usually much shorter.  They were launched from a baseplate that was usually concealed within a van or truck or, in some cases, fixed to the back of a tractor and covered with a hay bale.  They were usually used singly, but on several occasions multiple tubes were fitted to the same vehicle and, in one case, ten such mortars were fired from the back of a tipper truck.  We called these weapons the Mark 15 improvised mortar.  PIRA and their supporters called them Barrack Busters.

I had been in Northern Ireland for a few weeks.  I was No 2 on the team.  The No 1 was Dave, an avuncular Scotsman.  The bleep was Doobs, who had done a few EOD tours in Northern Ireland before.  We lived in Bessbrook Mill, which was a former Victorian linen mill.  We probably had the best accommodation in the whole mill, but it was still pretty grim.  Four storeys high and built from grey stone, surrounded by grey concrete and set against a grey South Armagh sky, it was somewhat unimaginatively known as Castle Greyskull.  Still, it was better than Crossmaglen.

Crossmaglen, which was known to the army, with its love of three letter abbreviations (TLAs) as XMG, is a South Armagh border village that is on the wrong side of the border.  Few people there, if any, want to be part of the United Kingdom  and even less wanted the army there.  If any of them did, I imagine it was safest for them to keep their own counsel.  XMG SF base was just as drab as Bessbrook but had the added spice of being a favourite PIRA target. Although Bessbrook Mill had been attacked a few times over the years, XMG was hit regularly.

The 19th of March 1994 was one such occasion.  I was lying on my bed writing a letter when the tasking message arrived.  ‘Explosion XMG. Suspected Mortar’.  Initial reports said that a helicopter had been brought down, which we were somewhat sceptical about. It was dark by this time, so it was decided that we would move at first light.  We spent the night cross loading our kit, from the Transit vans we used on the rare occasions that we would move by road, to the heli-portable vehicles known as Blackboards. This kit included the Wheelbarrow ROV, which needed a special pair of ramps to be driven onto the Blackboard.

I had experienced problems with Blackboard ramps before.  It was on an operation a week previously.  As I drove my Blackboard out of the garage I saw a set of ramps leaning up against the wall and I remember thinking “I didn’t know we had a spare set of ramps”.  We didn’t.  They were my ramps, as I found out when we arrived at the task and I went to unload the Wheelbarrow.  I went over to Dave and said, shamefacedly, “Boss, we’ve got a problem”.  Years later, Dave told me that he came to dread that phrase.  Every time I forgot something, something didn’t work, or I got the Wheelbarrow stuck it was announced with “Boss, we’ve got a problem”.  Dave explained a way of getting the Wheelbarrow off without ramps, but it needed the combined muscle of the EOD team and a Royal Engineers Search Team to lift it back on again.

I digress.  On the morning of the 20th we lifted off from Bessbrook which, at that time, was the world’s busiest heliport.  We were carried in Puma helicopters, with the Blackboards underslung like huge conkers. As we flew over Crossmaglen SF base, we saw the two foot high letters, painted in cream against a brown background along the edge of the helipad, that read “Don’t worry. Be happy.  Welcome to XMG”.  That always made me smile.

We landed in a field just outside Crossmaglen and from there made our way to the Incident Control Point, where we set up our kit.  It was a long task, so I won’t bore you with all of the details, but a few things stand out.

First of all I stabbed myself in the finger.  I had a scalpel in the side pouch of my chest webbing that had poked though.  As I folded my arms I impaled my digit on the blade.  Our first aid kit was full of field dressings, tourniquets and morpine, but had no sticking plasters so we had to improvise one from black tape and blue paper towels.  Having seen and experienced several such incidents since then I have formed the opinion that scalpels are probably the most dangerous thing about bomb disposal.

We dealt with the baseplate vehicle first and treated it with suspicion.  The last time a Mk 15 mortar had been used in Crossmaglen, the baseplate van had a secondary IED concealed within the dashboard which exploded after the van had been recovered to the SF base. The ATO, WO1 Bob McLelland, and another soldier were seriously injured.

The launch tube had been attached to the rear of a tractor which was hidden in a barn.  Dave searched the tractor for any more IEDs and, finding none, wanted to move it with a tow rope.  There was another tractor in the way so he searched that as well but the way it was parked meant that a tow rope could not be used.  It had to be moved, so Dave got me to sit in the driver’s seat and steer it while he pushed it.  I’ll admit that this was one of the few times that I ever felt scared.  I had every confidence that Dave had searched the tractor thoroughly, but so had Bob McLelland before he climbed into that van.  It was more the fact that, while sitting there, I had time to imagine what could go wrong – and was trusting someone else. I would have felt the same no matter who had searched the tractor.

I needn’t have worried.  There was nothing else there.  However, rather than recover the whole baseplate vehicle for forensic examination, as had been done previously, Dave simply removed the baseplate itself and left the tractor in position.  The owner of the barn asked why we weren’t taking it away.  Dave replied “Get the IRA to do it”.

When we got into XMG base there was indeed the remains of a dead helicopter sitting on the pad. It was an Army Air Corps Lynx and was completely burnt out.  All that remained in any identifiable form was the tail section, which had separated from the fuselage, and the rotor blades.  Amazingly, the three crew members and one passenger had got out with only light injuries.

It transpired that the helicopter had been delivering an underslung load. As it hovered at about twenty feet, a power cut occurred that affected the whole village.  At the same time a small explosion was heard, which was the launching of the mortar bomb.  A few seconds later the bomb struck the helicopter on the rotor blades and tail.  The helicopter dropped to the ground and then caught fire.  It was a lucky but also very well planned strike by PIRA.  The method of firing the mortar at exactly the right time was ingenious.  The firing pack was a form of collapsing circuit, meaning that when one part of the circuit was cut, power flowed to another.   In this case, one part was plugged into the mains supply.  PIRA watched the Lynx come in and then somehow forced a power cut – we still don’t know how – which caused the circuit to collapse and fire the mortar. This technique had been used once before, in 1983, in again in 1994, when it was used to bring down a Puma helicopter.

The Mk 15 mortar was last used in 2001 but, in Northern Ireland, the name Barrack Buster lives on.  Supermarkets sell cheap cider in three litre plastic bottles that have a similar shape to the large improvised mortars, and some Belfast wag – of which there are many – applied the name to their favourite tipple.  So, if you visit Northern Ireland and hear someone tell you that they’re going to get a couple of Barrack Busters, they’re probably just having a quiet night indoors in front of the TV.  Probably …….

Upside Down In A Minefield Because Of An Invisible Monster

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People don’t talk about Bosnia much these days, but when they do they probably think of the terrible civil war and that most grim of euphemisms, ‘ethnic cleansing’.  My experience was less traumatic.  When I think of Bosnia, I think of pivo.  Pivo, if you’re not familiar with Slavic languages, is the word for beer.

Throughout my army career I seemed to have had the unintentional knack of just missing the really bad stuff.  I was in Bosnia as part of the NATO Stabilisation Force – SFOR. Before that there was IFOR – the NATO force that implemented the Dayton peace agreement.  And before that British troops were on a hopeless UN mission to keep the peace between factions that weren’t really interested in being friends.  By the time I arrived, it was all over bar the shouting.

It wasn’t exactly fraternal man-hugs all round, though.  Evidence of the recently finished fighting was everywhere: Bullet riddled buildings, twisted bridges and desolate villages that had obviously been emptied not by fighting but by deliberate ‘cleansing’.  Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims lived in separate communities, not engaged in open hostilities but eying each other with suspicion and fear.  Danger still existed in the form of mines and booby traps.  They weren’t everywhere, as some suggested, but they could be anywhere which was somehow worse. 

I was a Corporal in the Ammunition Inspectorate, based in the Bosnian Serb town of Sipovo.  We looked after the army’s munitions and explosives and we also had an EOD role, although the Royal Engineers had most of that sewn up (if you haven’t guessed so far, there exists a long running rivalry between RLC and RE EOD). We also had a remit to inspect the munitions stockpiles of the former warring factions.  Because of this we had the privilege of being ‘free running’.  Most units could only move in carefully co-ordinated convoys, but we could jump into our Land Rovers and go.  Of course, such latitude was open to abuse. It is with considerable personal and professional pride that I can state that we milked it for all it was worth.

The downside to this freedom was that, in order to get about, we had to negotiate the woeful Balkan roads.  They meandered their pot holed and perilous way around hill and mountain, bounded by cliff faces on one side and sheer drops on the other.  Where there were no precipices to fall from, the roads were hemmed by deep, steep sided drainage ditches.  The locals seemed to have two forms of driving. Painfully slow or recklessly fast.  Rules, road signs, white lines, if they existed at all, were no more than an amusing distraction to the rural Bosnian driver as he erratically careered across the country in his dilapidated Yugo 45. The biggest killer for British troops in Bosnia wasn’t warring factions or mines, but road traffic accidents.

The worst of these roads was Route Cuckoo, which ran from Sipovo to Glamoc.  Cuckoo started off as a wide metalled road, but as it left Sipovo it narrowed and after a few miles the surface turned from tarmac to loose dirt.  It undulated, twisted and narrowed some more.  There were wide sweeping curves, ninety degree bends and the odd hairpin. We were young and daft and thought ourselves invincible.  Despite the many entirely justified warnings about the dangers of speeding in Bosnia, we would try to cover the distance  as quickly as possible.  You can gauge our mentality from the nickname we applied to the route: Rally Stage Cuckoo.

The valleys around Glamoc were used as a gunnery range.  Here we could observe artillery guns, main battle tanks and Apache helicopters all dischargng their weapons into some unfortunate hillside.  Sometimes this was done purely for training purposes. At other times commanders of the former warring factions were invited along to see a firepower demonstration.  The express, but implied, purpose of these was to say to these hard bitten men “don’t mess with NATO’, and it seemed to work.

Glamoc was also home to a Royal Artillery regiment.  They like shouting in the artillery and, it seems, they like lawns.  I was once shouted at by a very irate Staff Sergeant at Glamoc for standing on some mud.

“Get off the grass” he bellowed.

I looked around me, but the nearest blade of greenery was over a hundred metres away. All around me was brown gloop.

“What grass, Staff?” I said. This made him angry.

“That grass, there, that you’re standing on.  Get off it!”

“But its just some mud” I whimpered.  Then I noticed that the patch of mud was right outside the regimental HQ and was bordered by a line of small, uniformly sized pebbles that some lunatic had painted white.  Or, more likely, had ordered some poor gunner to paint.  I immediately grasped the seriousness of the situation.  Someone, somewhere, had deemed this barren piece of earth to be the regimental lawn.  The Staff Sergeant’s face had become a deep shade of bell-end purple which, on reflection, was wholly appropriate.

“Getoffthefuckinggrassyafuckinglittlefucingfucker”

Remembering my early lesson about only fighting the battles that you can win, I got off the ‘grass’.  Deploying the weapons of logic and reason here would have been futile.

One evening Paul, my Staff Sergeant, told me that we were going to Glamoc the next day.  It was to be an early start and, although he was as partial to a bottle of pivo as anyone, Paul wasn’t a fool. He told me to make sure I was fit to drive in the morning.  I, of course, took his sage advice and comprehensively ignored it.  I went to a civilian contractor’s bar where I spent far too long trying, and failing, to make friends with one of the girls from the postal section.

I overslept in the morning.  Paul wasn’t happy at having to come and wake me.  He wasn’t shouty angry but he was bubbling away just under the surface and I didn’t want to make things worse.  I had a hangover that would have killed six or seven civilians but I couldn’t admit that I didn’t feel like driving.  He had warned me, I had ignored him and he was incandescent with me already.  So I drove.  I couldn’t drive like a pussy, either, as he would know I wasn’t up to it.  That was my logic at the time, anyway.  So I hammered it.  By the time we got to the dirt surface section I felt a bit more confident.  There were a few minor skids on the gravel, but that wasn’t unusual and I managed to correct them. I was starting to feel pretty smug.  I had got away with it.

On one bend I thought that something was about to run out in front of us.  On reflections I most probably imagined it.  However, to avoid this invisible monster I swerved. The back end stepped out.  I steered in some opposite lock but overdid it, and the rear swung the other way. So I over corrected that and we fishtailed like a big four wheeled fishy thing.  The Land Rover began to roll.  People often say that, in a crash, everything runs in slow motion but it wasn’t like that for me.  It just went: skid, skid, skid, skid, sky, ground, sky, ground, sky, ground. Ground.  We came to rest upside down in a drainage ditch.  We were both wearing seat belts and were left hanging from the seats like a pair of bats.  Paul, like everyone, is taller than me and his head was just touching the ceiling.  I had a bit of airspace between my head and the ground. I remember feeling completely calm.

“Are you OK?” I asked.  To be honest I wasn’t really expecting him to answer.

“Yeah” he said in his scouse accent.  “No thanks to you, though, you twat”.

To be fair, I couldn’t argue with him on that point.  I unclipped my seat belt and fell the few inches below me.  My head hit the ceiling with a thud.

“Owww” I whined, like a little girl.

“I’ve got acid dripping down my back” Paul stated. In a military Land Rover, the battery is situated underneath the passenger seat.  He didn’t seem very pleased about this new development but still somehow remained composed. I wriggled out of the driver’s door window . There was a path that had been made by the Land Rover on its inverted journey, so I scrambled up it onto the road. Paul climbed out onto the upturned vehicle and jumped on to the road.

We both stood there in silence for a few minutes, staring at the upturned wreck of the Land Rover wedged in the ditch.  I asked Paul if he was OK again.  He had a few bruises and minor cuts.  I didn’t have a single scratch or bump on me.  Not one.  We had both had an astonishing escape.  Even more surprisingly, Paul, although not his usual garrulous self, was still calm despite the fact that my compounded stupidity and ill judgement had nearly killed him. 

Then I said “perhaps if we pushed it back onto its wheels, we could drive it back into camp ….”

This was a mistake.  After a whole morning of keeping his cool in the most trying of circumstances, Paul finally erupted.  The gunner with ‘lawn rage’ was like a pussycat compared to the thing that Paul became.  Imagine, if you will, a volcano crossed with a Tasmanian Devil, but with a Liverpool accent. I’m quite good at swearing but I learnt some new terms that morning. 

Eventually Paul regained his composure and we contacted HQ.  They dispatched a recovery crew and, to our eternal embarrassment, a Royal Engineers bomb disposal team.  This was standard procedure whenever a vehicle went off the road in Bosnia.  While we waited for the sappers to arrive, I wondered if one of them would be called Ginge.  In any group of Royal Engineers, there always seems to be a big bloke called Ginge.  This was no exception. For many years I have had my suspicions that someone in the army’s recruiting organisation has had a secret policy of directing all of the ginger haired people into the Royal Engineers, for reason known only to themselves. 

When they arrived there wasn’t really anything for Ginge and his mate to do, apart from gloat.  They could hardly conceal their glee as they told us that the area we were in was definitely mined.  “Oh yes” Ginge crowed “no doubt about it.  Mines all over the place here”.

We had already taken the appropriate steps to prepare for the RE EOD team’s arrival.  After ensuring we had a safe area to work in, we removed all of the RLC and ATO signs from our Land Rover.  This was so that the sappers wouldn’t be able to claim them as trophies for their bar.  We would have done the same to them if the tables had been turned.  That is the kind of important stuff that matters.

Baghdad is quite nice.

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On my last tour in Iraq I served as a Weapons Intelligence Section Warrant Officer in Basra.  This was a pretty cool job, but don’t let the word ‘intelligence’ fool you into thinking I was involved in any sneaky beaky special forces spying nonsense.  Intelligence, in this case, carries its traditional military meaning  – that of trying to work out what the enemy is up to.  In places like Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan that usually means what he can and can’t do, and what he intends to do, with IEDs, as well as conventional weaponry and munitions.  That is why it is led by Royal Logistic Corps Ammunition Technicians and Ammunition Technical Officers.

Typically, if an EOD team had rendered a device safe, my team would go out and recover it and then carry out the first line exploitation.  What that really means is giving it a poke and a look to see if we could figure out how it worked and what the baddies were trying to do with it.  Similarly, if an explosion had taken place, we would go out and try to deduce what had occurred and why.  Any evidence we recovered, be it intact IEDs or post explosion fragments, would be examined by us then sent to the Combined Explosives Exploitation Cell in Baghdad.  This was abbreviated to CEXC and, in one of the US military’s more ambitious nomenclature related adventures, was pronounced ‘sexy’.

This tour was in 2007 and 2008 and by that time British forces had withdrawn from Basra city and were living in and working from the Combined Operating Base (COB) at Basra Airport.  The COB was a much more pleasant place to be than Basra Palace had been, but here ‘pleasant’ is all relative.  That seven star hotel in Dubai didn’t have much to worry about in terms of competition.  It was hot and dusty, but everywhere in Iraq is.  We were subjected to frequent Indirect Fire (IDF) – ie rocket – attacks but by the time I was there, IDF wasn’t quite as intense as it had been a few months earlier.  If anything it was a nuisance rather than a danger.  The worst thing about the COB was the open sewer that ran right through the middle of it, adjacent to the main road.  They say you never really get used to the smell of death.  That may well be true, but luckily I never had enough exposure to it to decide if I was used to it or not.  However, I can say with absolute certainty, formed by quotidian routine, that you never become accustomed to the stench of human shit.

For a while, the IDF grew heavier and the smell of faeces became more intense, although I cannot say if these two phenomena were linked.  So it was with some interest that we learned that a colleague in the UK needed to obtain a Russian made DShk heavy machine gun for a trial of some sort.  By coincidence, another colleague – a British ATO attached to CEXC  – mentioned that he happened to have a big Russian machine gun in his office that he was getting bored of tripping over.  Before you could say cyclotrimethylenetrinitramine a plan was devised that consisted of three of us flying to Baghdad to recover the machine gun and to deliver some IED parts to CEXC.  Although we really did want to help our colleague in his mysterious trial, what we really, really, wanted was a few days away from the COB and the all pervading aroma of jobbies.

The day came and we tipped up to the airhead to await the RAF transport flight.  With me were Dom, an ATO who was the senior EOD staff officer in the Divisional HQ, and Chas, who was the Royal Signals Electronic Counter Measures advisor.  Dom is a much more outgoing character than I am and within a few minutes he had struck up a conversation with an Iraqi gentleman who was wearing a military flying suit adorned with pilot’s wings.  “Are you a pilot?” Dom asked  in a rare moment of perspicacity.  The gentleman confirmed that he was, so Dom asked him what aircraft he had learnt to fly in. “A Russian Hind-D helicopter gunship” he replied.  We were not expecting this.  Dom, who was widely regarded for his tact then said “I bet you hate the British”.  The pilot smiled a slightly bemused smile and said “No, I love the British”. We were not expecting that either and this opened the floodgates to what was probably the second worst interrogation the poor chap had ever experienced.  His story astounded us.

He had been a professional pilot in the Iraqi Air Force, flying Hind D gunships in the Iran-Iraq war.  During the first Gulf war, he said his squadron was arraigned against the British 1st Armoured Division, but was never called into action.  Dom asked him if he would have attacked our forces if ordered to and he replied “of course”. 

 After the Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, the Shi’ites in the south and the Kurds in the north rose in rebellion.  When no western help came, Saddam Hussein crushed them with the utmost brutality (I know this because I served on Op HAVEN, which was the Kurdish relief operation of 1991).  Our pilot was a Sunni, so he took no part in the risings.  Instead, he was ordered to take his helicopter and deal with a group of rebels.  He took off as ordered, fully expecting – and willing – to take action against armed insurgents.  Instead what he found at the target location was a large crowd of unarmed civilians.  They were protesting, but not fighting.  Thinking a mistake had been made, he turned his gunship around and returned to base.  When he arrived his commander was furious.  He wanted to know why the pilot had not engaged the enemy.  Casting aside protestations that the crowd were unarmed civilians, he warned the pilot that disloyalty was a dangerous trait. 

Soon, the pilot was ordered into action in similar circumstances.  Again the target was described as a band of rebels and again they turned out to be unarmed civilians.  He got on to his radio to tell his HQ of their mistake.  There was no mistake, he was told.  The rebellion was to be crushed and that meant massacring crowds of civilians.  And again the pilot turned his Hind around and flew it home without firing a shot. 

When he landed he was arrested.  After he was arrested he was tortured.  And after he was tortured he was thrown in jail, where he remained for the next twelve years until, in 2003, the advancing British Army freed him.  That was why he loved the British.  That, and the fact that we didn’t fire on crowds of civilians. 

I only have his word that this tale is true, but nothing about him gave me any reason to doubt it.  He wasn’t boastful.  He wasn’t evasive.  He didn’t want anything from us. He just calmly and matter of factly told his story.  We all shook his hand.

After we bid farewell to the Iraqi pilot we then faced the trial that is the RAF movement staff and the RAF Police.  I stepped up to the security checkpoint.  The RAF Policeman asked me if I had any knives or sharp objects in my possession.  I told him I had a Gerber multi-tool. 

“Oh! Do you?” he said.  He seemed quite pleased with himself. “Well, I’m going to have to confiscate it”. 

I asked him why. 

“Civil aviation rules” he said with what appeared to be some pride.  “You can’t take bladed weapons onto a plane.  You know, since 9/11”

“But its not a civil aviation flight.  It’s a military flight” I protested. “Everyone on it is in the armed forces.”

“Doesn’t matter” he said “Rules is rules”

So I gave him my multi-tool, and Dom and Chas handed over theirs too.

“What about these then? I asked.

“What about what?”

“These” I said, pointing to our personal weapons.  Chas and Dom both had an SA80 5.56 mm assault rifle and a Browning 9mm pistol each.  I, for reasons that are too dull to recount here, had a HK-53 5.56mm sub machine gun and a SIG 9mm pistol.  We were each carrying 200 rounds of ammunition. In addition we had a bag full of bomb components, taken from real IEDs.

“Oh, they’re fine” said the copper.  “Its just knives you can’t take on”.

So, in a stare of some bewilderment and armed to the teeth, minus sharp things, we boarded the Hercules bound for Baghdad. 

The same thing happened on the return journey, only that time we were carrying a heavy machine gun as well.  As it turned out, it was the wrong kind of machine gun – an SGT-43 rather than the DShK that was wanted.  But no matter.  We had a very pleasant few days in Baghdad and, lets be honest, that’s not a sentence you read every day.

And How It All Ended.

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I spent my last working week in the army on duty.  This isn’t that unusual as I, and nearly everyone else in the Regiment, spent a lot of weeks on duty. 

I should explain what I mean by ‘duty’.  In most army units, a ‘duty’ means being on guard if you are a Private soldier or a Junior NCO.  A guard duty is one of military life’s great bores and mainly involves many hours of standing on a gate checking ID cards and searching cars or, worse still, watching someone else check them. 

These days much of the burden of guard duties has been lifted by the deployment of the Ministry of Defence Guard Service (MGS), who are all civilians but has many ex soldiers in their ranks, and the Military Provost Guard Service (MPGS), which is part of the army but a bit like Dad’s army in that it is made up of retired servicemen.  It is not uncommon to find ex Sergeant Majors ‘stagging on’ the gate as Lance Corporals in the MPGS.  This is something of a mystery to me, because most soldiers spend a good chunk of their careers hoping that they are not placed on guard.  To then leave the regular army in order to find permanent employment as the bloke on the gate just seems perverse.

If you are a senior NCO or officer ‘duty’ usually means being the duty sergeant or duty officer.  This is an administrative and supervisory duty that, while not as onerous as being on guard, is usually regarded with horror by all but the most officious and unimaginative.

My unit was different.  We didn’t do guard duties and only rarely did duty sergeant or officer.  We, being 11 Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Regiment of the Royal Logistic Corps (RLC), did EOD duties.  Unlike guard or duty officer, which normally last for 24 hours, EOD duties normally last for a week.  Generally, you take over the duty phone or pager (depending on your vintage) on a Monday morning and are then available for tasking to any EOD incident that may occur over the next seven days.  I say seven days but, because of a lack of manpower, it was – and I daresay still is – common for duties to run for weeks on end.  I spent several periods of six to eight weeks on duty and I know I wasn’t alone. 

You might think that being on duty in 11 EOD Regiment wasn’t that bad and, to my mind anyway, it wasn’t.  But one didn’t spend all of the time sitting around, drinking coffee and dreaming up new and imaginative ways of impressing women with tales of derring-do while you waited for the call that never came. 

For a start, you had your day job to do and your day job, as an Ammunition Technician or Ammunition Technical Officer, was looking after the army’s own ammunition and explosives.  This could range from carrying out ammunition inspections (really quite dull) to investigating accidents involving munitions (quite interesting, actually) and destroying stocks of unserviceable explosives by demolition – that is, blowing things up (cool).

And the calls did come. Every year in the UK there are around 2500 EOD call outs.  I bet you didn’t know that.  Of these, around 2000 are Conventional Munition Disposal (CMD) tasks – that is items of manufactured military ordnance.  Most of these call outs turn out to be genuine.  There are also around 500 Improvised Explosive Device Disposal (IEDD) tasks – that is suspected terrorist or criminal devices, or the classic unattended bags and cars.  Most of these turn out to be hoaxes or false alarms, but enough are genuine to keep you on your toes. 

Of course, 11 EOD Regiment RLC don’t deal with them all.  The Royal Navy Diving Units deal with anything that appears to be of naval origin or is found below the high water mark.  That makes up for about 25% of all EOD activity and, frankly, they’re welcome to it.  The job can be difficult enough without having to do it in freezing murky water with condoms and turds bobbing about in it. The Royal Air Force deal with ‘friendly’ air dropped bombs.  Just how any unexploded bomb could be described as ‘friendly’ remains a mystery, but if it came from one our planes it is only right that it should be dealt with by the people who put it there in the first place. That accounts for about 2% of all EOD activity. The Royal Engineers deal with enemy air dropped bombs and that accounts for about 1% or less of EOD activity.  11 EOD Regiment RLC, who have teams spread across the country, do the remaining 72%.

When not on task, one had to be immediately deployable, which meant not straying more than a few minutes drive from work, 24 hours a day for as long as you were on duty.  This wasn’t too bad if you were having a busy period.  If the truth be told, we like screaming around the countryside with blue lights flashing and sirens wailing in order to arrive some place where you would use explosives or perhaps a remotely operated vehicle. Despite what you might think, bomb disposal is usually fun.  It was much more tedious in a dry period when no jobs came in.  You had the inconvenience of not being able to go anywhere but without the occasional bit of fun and excitement to provide relief.

That was how my last working week in the army was going.  I had been on duty the week before, but a friend had asked me to stand in for him and I agreed.  It was turning into a slow week.  Then, on the 2nd of June 2011,  the phone rang. “IED. Watford. Device attached to a person”. 

Now, this was unusual.  Situations where someone’s life is in imminent danger and they cannot be removed from the danger area are referred to as Category A – or Cat A – tasks.  I’ve done over a thousand operational EOD tasks of all kinds, but had never a Cat A.  In fact I only know of a few people who have. 

When I arrived at the scene, the situation was confused.  All that could be immediately ascertained was that there was a man in the Co-Operative bank in Market Street with a suspect device attached to him.  It was not known if he was alone.  There was some mention of hostages.  No one knew if he was a victim or a perpetrator.  None of the bank staff or customers who had witnessed the events unfold were present at the scene, having been taken elsewhere by the police. The police had evacuated the area and placed a cordon around the bank.  However, it was not known if we had a kidnapper and hostage, a victim with a bomb attached to him or a potential suicide bomber.

The police were reluctant to do anything until they had the full picture.  This was understandable, but it seemed, to me at least, that little effort was being made to obtain the full picture.  There was a lot of standing around though.

Eventually it emerged that the man in the bank was a bank employee called Muhammed Qasim Salam and he was alone.  Witnesses said that another man had entered the bank and took Salam to a side room.  When the pair emerged, Salam announced that the man had threatened him with a gun, placed a bomb around his ankle and forced him to empty the safe.

From the Incident Control Point, Salam could be seen walking around the bank, and using the bank’s telephone.  We arranged for the bank manager to call Salam, who told him the tale of the man with the gun.  We didn’t believe him and the whole thing sounded like an elaborate inside job.

By the time I had arrived at that assessment and was devising a plan to approach, the Squadron Duty Officer had arrived and he had tasked a team of EOD operators who are specially trained for incidents like this.  They arrived soon afterwards and it was they who made the first approach to the bank, under cover of a police firearms team.  They removed the device from Salam and he was placed under arrest.  All that remained for me to do was X-Ray it to confirm that it was what we thought it was – a hoax.  It was.

Eventually Salam was sentenced to six years in prison, while the other man, Faizan Rehman, and a third accomplice, Imran Khalifa, received five years each for their part in the robbery.

Readers who haven’t been EOD operators may be surprised to learn that I was bitterly disappointed that it wasn’t me who made that first approach.  Most operators develop a feeling of ‘owning’ a particular task.  This was ‘my’ job and I wanted to see it through.  I knew that my boss made the right decision and deployed the most appropriate assets for the job.  I knew that, but it didn’t change the way I felt.  Not long after I handed in my ID card and formally left the army after 24 years, knowing that I would probably never get another opportunity for a Cat A job.  I say probably.  You never know where I might end up ……

How It All Started

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It was all Iain’s fault.  Iain is my oldest brother and whatever he did, I did.  I have another brother and two sisters, but there is no need to drag their names into this sorry tale.

Iain was always interested in army stuff. As a child, he read such esteemed publications as Warlord and Victor comics, not to mention the long running and historically and linguistically accurate Commando series.  So I read them too.  Many years later, when I was posted to Germany, I was somewhat surprised to find that the terms ‘Gott in Himmell’ and ‘Schweinhund’ do not form the very  foundation stones of the German language.

Iain was also into Action Man and Airfix models of tanks and planes.  So I was too.  I was also interested in dinosaurs, long before they were cool, but eventually I found that I was more captivated by Panzerkampfwagens than Styracosaurs  – maybe because I knew that one day I might get to see a real moving tank.  Perhaps I was more career minded than I knew:  There are far more openings for soldiers than palaeontologists.

Then Iain joined the Army Cadet Force.  This is a fine organisation that takes young people from deprived areas who might be drawn into crime, and teaches them how to use guns.  So, obviously I joined too, at Iain’s suggestion.  By that time he had already joined the regular army, so you can guess what was coming next for me.

On the 14th of April 1987 I found myself at an army recruitment office to the rear of South Africa House in Trafalgar Square.  A kindly old Major took my attestation, where I swore allegiance to Her Majesty the Queen, her heirs, successors and generals and officers set above me.  Or words to that effect.  I was most disappointed to find that I was not issued with the Queen’s shilling, even though I didn’t really know what a shilling was. I was to report to my training unit two weeks later.

I had been given the option of joining something sensible, like the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers or the Army Catering Corps, where I might have learned a trade that would stand me in good stead when I returned to civilian life.  More importantly, career choices like those would have kept me working in the warm and dry, with the bare minimum of running about like an idiot with half the world on my back and spending a lot of time making like a bush.

But no.  I, in my youthful zeal, opted to join the Parachute Regiment.  Now, the maroon machine is a fine body of fierce fighting men who are not to be trifled with, either on the battlefield or in a bar in Aldershot or Colchester.  They are renowned for their fitness and aggression.  But you don’t earn a reputation like that by sitting around on soft furnishings, nurturing one another’s feelings and writing risk assessments.

On 28th April 1987 I stumbled from the train at Brookwood station, encumbered by a bag that was far too large because it was stuffed with things that I thought would come in handy, but didn’t.  I, and a few other new recruits were met by Lance Sergeant ‘Taff’.  He was the first real paratrooper I had seen and I’ll never forget his lilting Welsh voice as he greeted us with a friendly and welcoming “get in the van you little bastards”.

It was a short drive to Pirbright, which was then the home of the Guards Depot.  For some reason, which I never discovered, the Junior Parachute Company was located there and not in Aldershot with the rest of Depot PARA.  This caused a problem for us recruits.  Guardsmen are without doubt the smartest soldiers in the army.  I mean smartest in appearance, not as in cerebral agility. You don’t earn that reputation by not spending ages cleaning and polishing things and marching up and down the square.  Paratroopers are – and I mean this in its most literal sense – insanely competitive.  So not only did we have to become the fittest and most aggressive recruits, we had to be the shiniest and best at drill as well.  Marvellous.

We were divided into sections, each with a section commander who would be our mother, our father and our worst nightmare for the next 26 weeks.  There was ‘Taff’ who I’ve mentioned already.  There was ‘Paul’ who was short and looked like he was made of tightly wound wire.  There was ‘Smudge’ who was as close as a human being can be to a caricature of a 1980s Para.  And there was ‘Laurie’ who was a monster of a man whose eyes bulged out of his skull whenever he shouted.  And he shouted a lot.  (Of course we didn’t call them by their first names.  I think if we had attempted it we would have been killed).  I secretly hoped I wouldn’t be put in ‘Laurie’s section, as I suspect everyone else did.  Of course I was put in ‘Laurie’s section.

The platoon Sergeant was Steve Parker.  He had a 1980s army issue moustache and I have never, ever, heard anyone swear as much as he could.  Its not that he was angry or shouty, like ‘Laurie’ was.  Nor did he lack vocabulary or eloquence – far from it.  He just knew a lot of swear words and liked using them.  He also knew what effective communication was.  Every other word may have begun with an F but I was never left in any doubt about what he meant.

The final thing that struck me about the first day was being issued with a platoon tracksuit.  It was a maroon two piece number with light blue stripes down the arms and legs.  Made of the finest polyester, it would have been a danger to wear around explosives or flammable liquids.  I say ‘issued’. What I mean is ordered to buy.  So one of the first things the army did was take some money from me for things I didn’t want.  We were told, rather firmly, that we didn’t have to buy a tracksuit, but if we didn’t we would have to wear uniform when everyone  else was in their tracksuits.  I think we all instinctively knew two things:  That we didn’t want to be the odd man out and that if we were the odd man out, life would become difficult.  Of course any one of us could have stuck to our principles and refused to buy the ghastly garments.  They couldn’t have forced us to.  There are times in your life when you simply must stand up for what is right.  But this wasn’t one of them and none of us did.  As I lay in my horrible army scratcher that night, waiting for the talentless oaf with the bugle to finish his half learnt rendition of The Last Post directly outside my window,  I realised that we had all learnt a valuable military lesson that day:  Only fight the battles that you think you can win.

I finished my 26 weeks training as a Junior Para, passing out on the 4th of November 1987, but I never became a paratrooper.  Instead I transferred to the Royal Army Ordnance Corps in search of that missed opportunity for an easy life in the warm and dry.   People often asked why I transferred and for a while I said the usual trite things like “it wasn’t for me” or “I wanted a trade” but although both of those things were true, they were not the real reasons.  The real reasons, as I and everyone who asked the question knew, was that it was too hard and I wasn’t fit enough.  So I picked a battle I could win.

Twenty five years later, after we had both retired from the army, I met Steve Parker again. It was no surprise to learn that he had gone on to be a Regimental Sergeant Major.   Now, his moustache was gone and his hair was greyer and he hardly swore at all.  But if he had turned on the platoon sergeant act again I would have leapt to attention. He and his team of instructors gave me the hardest possible start to my army career. I mean that as a compliment  because, being so hard for me, it was the best possible start.

Welcome to Explosive Ordinary

Hello and welcome to my blog site thing.

My name is Bruce Cochrane, although many people know me as ‘Eddie’.  You might want to know all about me and what business I have writing this blog.  Or, perhaps more likely, you don’t.  But I’m going to tell you anyway, because I’m like that.

I am a short, bald, rude, lazy, selfish, drunken scoundrel with a face like a dropped pie. I’m also an utter rotter, a bounder, a cad and quite possibly a nefarious rapscallion as well.

I have a lazy horse, an unruly dog and an extensive collection of rubbish old cars which I like to neglect.  More about these later.

I devote my very existence to the conspicuous consumption of beer and curry. When not immersed in ale and vindaloo I like to practise my swearing skills, developing ever more creative permutations of foul mouthed profanity.

I recently came to the end of a long and moderately successful career in the British Army that mainly involved me sticking my little chipolata like fingers into other people’s bombs and training like-minded fools to do the same.

I’ve also recently completed an MPhil degree in an area of study so obscure that no one could effectively examine me on it.  It was about how we got to do bomb disposal the way in which we do, if you must know.  Its not all of that ‘red wire/blue wire’ stuff that you see on TV.  It was once, but we lost a lot of good men in Northern Ireland doing that and my predecessors had to find a better way.  The way that they found informs and influences how we deal with Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) to this day.  I wanted to document how these lessons were learnt before the collective memory was lost.

Although I have left the army I maintain close links with my friends and former colleagues who are still serving.  I now work in a closely related field, advising and training clients on explosives and Explosive Ordnance Disposal.  So explosives are ordinary to me.  I’ve spent most of my working life working with – and against – them.  And of course its a very poor attempt at word play with the phrase ‘explosive ordnance’.

I’m also a stand up comedian, a public speaker and a writer. You should book me.

So what is this blog about, then?  Well, its simply an attempt to get a few ideas out of my head and on to a screen.  There will be some anecdotes from my career.  There will be some opinions – on technical and military matters, on how I see the word we live in, as well as the very occasional foray into politics and current affairs.

There will also be random musings on the things that affect me on a daily basis – like my love for old and characterful cars that is hampered by the near catastrophic discrepancy between my mechanical ambitions and mechanical talent.   Or how living with a huge dog – a Rhodesian Ridgeback called Dennis The Menace – can both help and hinder one’s social and romantic life.  And how I am continually bewildered by people who tell me that walking onto a stage to tell jokes requires some form of bravery.

So I hope you enjoy reading it at least a third as much as I’m going to enjoy writing it.