Tag Archives: bomb disposal

The Complete George Cross by Kevin Brazier

I’ve always been fascinated by the George Cross as an award. Overshadowed by its more high-profile cousin, the Victoria Cross, the George Cross is the highest awardnfor bravery that isn’t in the face of the enemy. I’ve done a lot of research into Chief Petty Officer Reginald Ellingworth GC, a Royal Navy Bomb Disposal man who was awarded the George Cross posthumously after being blown up by a mine he was working on in 1940.

This book is a reference work describing the lives and actions of all of the men and women who have won the George Cross to date. There have been a total of 406 awards. There are some staggering statistics – no one has yet been awarded a bar, but several women have won the medal. The island of Malta was collectively awarded the medal in 1942, and in 1999 the George Cross was awarded to the Royal Ulster Constabulary. 14 Australians have won the GC, ten Canadians and a Tasmanian. The youngest recipient was just 15, and the oldest 61.

The George Cross was instituted in 1940 by King George VI, inspired by the bravery being shown by civilians and service personnel alike during the Blitz. Military decorations could normally only be awarded for action in the face of the enemy. As a result, many brave actions would have gone unrewarded without the institution of this new medal. In recent years it has come to prominence with a number of awards made for action in Afghanistan, including to Bomb Disposal personnel and Matthew Croucher, a Royal Marine who used himself and his Bergen to shield his comrades from an accidentally dropped Grenade.

Due to its unique criteria, the George Cross has also been awarded to civilians – including a Detective who protected Princess Anne from an attempted abduction in the centre of London. In fact of the 161 direct awards made since 1940, around 60 of them have been awarded to civilians. It has also been awarded to a number of women who worked undercover in occupied Europe during the war, with SOE or assisting in the repatriation of escaped Prisoners of War. 245 recipients of earlier bravery medals exchanged their awards for the George Cross.

I’ve often pondered whether there is a place in the modern military world for two separate awards, and whether the distinction of ‘in the face of the enemy’ is relevant today, in particular with the nature of warfare – is the calm, calculated bravery of a bomb disposal officer any less than an officer leading a bayonet charge, for example? It does seem as odd as the distinction between officers and men that used to appy to gallantry medals until the early 1990′s. Is there any reason why the George Cross should be in the shadow of the Victoria Cross? None that I can think of. In some ways I think that the George Cross is more representative of the unpredictable nature of twentieth century ‘total’ war, and of war amongst the peoples.

Whatever might happen in the future, whats certain is that the George Cross has a rich heritage, and some stories that are very humbling indeed. This is a brilliant book, that I found fascinating to read.

The Complete George Cross is published by Pen and Sword

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Danger UXB: The Heroic Story of the WWII Bomb Disposal Teams by James Owen

I’ve written in the past about my admiration for the Bomb Disposal men who work out in Helmand Province defusing IED’s. I also had the pleasure not long ago of reviewing the excellent book about UXB’s on Malta during the war. Its impossible not to be moved by the incredible bravery shown by these men. This book by James Owen is very much in the same vein.

The cover itself tells a story. A team of sappers are hauling on a huge bomb. One of the men, in apparent disdain for the danger that would never be allowed nowadays, is puffing nonchalantly on a cigarette while only inches away from a mass of high explosive. Somehow its a very British image – danger, hard work and a fag!

The story starts, though, with the German fuze expert at Rheinmetall before the war, working on developing new types of fuzes. This, the fuze, was essentially the major concern of the bomb disposal teams – to make the bomb safe by immobilising the one thing that coud cause the explosive to detonate. Given the multitude of conventional, delayed-action and anti-handling fuzes the Germans would use – some of which were directly calculated to kill the bomb disposal men themselves – they certainly had their work cut out. And they would be deployed in conventional bombs of all sizes, along with incendiaries, Parachute mines, butterfly bombs and the V1 and V2 flying bombs. Aside from being dangerous, unexploded bombs caused disruption do the the enforced closure of roads, railways lines, factories, and making thousands of people homeless, either temporarily or permanently.

The response of the British Government and Armed Forces to the multitude of new problems during wartime was twofold – Ministries and Departments would argue and squabble over whose responsibility it was, and then, at least one committee would be formed, possibly more. Somewhere along the lines several stereotypical English eccentrics would become involved. Bomb Disposal was no exception. The Ministries of Home Security and Supply both had a hand in the research and policy behind disposal of unexploded bombs, but eventually it fell to the armed forces to provide the men to deal with the problem. Particularly during the height of the blitz the men had to learn very quickly indeed.

The men on the ground may have been focussed on the task in hand, but mandarins and whitehall warriors were arguing over petty squabbles, as so often in British history. The RAF refused to give details to the other services of the workings of British bombs. Bomb Disposal duties were strictly parochial too – the RAF handled bombs on airfields, the Royal Navy took care of bombs in water and Dockyards, and the Army everywhere else. Yet the Navy were called in to deal with parachute mines that fell on land, due to their expertise with mines. Its not mentioned in this book, but Chief Petty Officer Reginald Ellingworth GC from Portsmouth was killed in 1940 defusing a parachute mine in Dagenham.

One important aspect that Owen does very well to stress is the relationship between the sharp end and the scientists working in the background. Each new fuse that the German’s deployed – of which there were many, in increasing complexity – required a solution to make it safe. The various contraptions and techniques that were developed are testament to the ingenuity of British science and technology at war. For me, the unsung hero in the book is John Hudson. Drafted into a Royal Engineer Bomb Disposal unit, he submitted a paper to his superiors pointing out his opinions. Having made an impression he was seconded to the UXB Headquarters in London to work as a link between the scientists and the bomb disposal sections. His own personal bravery is shown by how having devised a method of dealing with a new type of fuse, he insisted on being the first to trial it, so as not to endanger others if his method proved no to work.

Sadly not all involved in Bomb Disposal seem to have had the same professionalism. The Earl of Suffolk himself operated as a kind of bomb-disposer-at-large, complete with his own van. Despite his lack of experience in the field, and evidence of a cavalier attitude to safety, he was tasked with retrieving important parts from bombs for experts to study. Eventually the Earl was killed by an explosion, along with a number of Sappers who were assisting. It is hard to escape the conclusion that he should not have been allowed to work defusing bombs – surely its no field for a maverick amateur. Its possible, maybe, that in a Britain still very much deferential to class, no-one wanted or felt able to stop him?

For me, the most poignant episode in the book is the story surrounding the famous bomb that almost destroyed St Pauls Cathedral during the Blitz. The man concerned – Robert Davies – undoubtedly performed a brave deed, but it transpired afterwards that he had been accepting money from civilians and pocketing it for himself, stealing from dead men’s possessions and bouncing cheques. He was eventually awarded the first ever George Cross, but even then, according to James Owen, controversy reigns. It seems that members of his section had over-egged their accounts, which followed through into the press and Davies’ citation for the George Cross. A lesson, if any is needed, that brave men are not always completely scrupulous, and by the same token, crooks can be brave.

This is a compelling story, well told and immensely readable. And like all good books, its inspiring – its impossible not to feel the ice-cool bravery of the bomb disposal men. And on a personal level, it makes me feel inspired to take a closer look at what bomb disposal efforts must have taken place during the wartime bombing of Portsmouth.

Danger UXB: The Heroic Story of the WWII Bomb Disposal Teams is published by Little, Brown Book Group

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UXB Malta: Royal Engineers Bomb Disposal 1940-44 by S.A.M. Hudson

Bomb Disposal has got a pretty high profile at the moment, what with the recent award of the George Cross to two British Army Bomb Disposal experts, and the film The Hurt Locker. Therefore its probably as apprpopriate a time as any to take a look at the incredibly brave men who worked on Bomb Disposal in Malta during the Second World War, and this book dedicated to telling their story.

After Italy entered the war in 1940 Malta became strategically important; a thorn in the side of Axis ambitions in the Mediterranean. From Malta British bombers could attack Italy and convoys heading for North Africa. Converesely, Malta also acted as a staging post for Allied Convoys. Therefore the Italians and Germans launched repeated and concerted attempts to obliterate Malta. Particularly between 1940 and 1942, for its size Malta was the most bombed place on earth. And with 15% of bombs failing to explode, there was much work for the Bomb Disposal teams.

Yet it was by no means a simple matter of exploding the bombs. Obviously this could not always be done. And with the wide array of bombs – from the tiny but deadly incendiaries and ‘butterfly bombs’ to the giant Hermann and Satan bombs – and the complex fuzes – anti-handing, delayed activation, for example – every job seems to have presented its own challenges. And with many bombs impacting and penetrating feet into the ground, digging them out was often hard work.

What is really incredible to read, is that despite years of frenetic work dealing with hundreds of bombs, none of Malta’s Bomb Disposal Engineers were killed on he job – testament indeed to their professionalism. And when we consider that for most of the war the team consisted of two young officers in their early twenties and but a handful of men, their service seems all the more sterling.

What stands out for me most of all is how evocative the book is. It is impossible not to read the countless stories and reflect on whether you could display that kind of steely cold bravery, all day every day for months indeed years on end. Yes, Bomb Disposal takes a particular kind of courage – the infantryman in the second world war might experience short, sharp periods of battle, and maybe the occasional prolonged fight. But the Bomb Disposal Sappers in Malta were dealing with countless incidents every day that could have killed them at any second.

This book is fine tribute to those remarkably brave men who saved many lives. Hudson more than does justice to these incredible human beings. And there are such strong parallels with the men out in Afghanistan right now dealing with IED’s.

UXB Malta: Royal Engineers Bomb Disposal 1940-44 is published by The History Press

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Bomb Disposal experts awarded George Cross


Two British Army Bomb Disposal experts have been awarded the George Cross, Britain’s highest award for bravery not in the face of the enemy.

Staff Sergeant Olaf Schmid and Staff Sergeant Kim Hughers, of the Royal Logistics Corps, was deployed to Afghanistan in March 2009. As High Threat Improvised Explosive Device Disposal operators, Schmid and Hughes were in the forefront of the battle against the lethal threat that IED’s represent.

Staff Sergeant Kim Hughes

Staff Sergeantt Hughes’s actions are described in his citation as “the single most outstanding act of explosive ordnance disposal ever recorded in Afghanistan.” In one incident on 16 August 2009, Hughes was tasked to clear a route near Sangin in Helmand. One soldier was seriously injured by an IED, and as he was being recovered another IED detonated and killed two more soldiers. The area was effectively an IED minefield, overlooked by the enemy. Hughes and his team were called in to deal with the devices. They left behind protective clothing in order to save time. Upon reaching the first casualty Hughes discovered a further IED, and calmly carried out a manual neutralisation. His citation states “It was an extraordinary act.”

“Dealing with any form of IED is dangerous; to deal with seven IEDs linked in a single circuit, in a mass casualty scenario, using manual neutralisation techniques once, never mind three times, is the single most outstanding act of explosive ordnance disposal ever recorded in Afghanistan. That he did it without the security of specialist protective clothing serves even more to demonstrate his outstanding gallantry. Hughes is unequivocally deserving of the highest level of public recognition.”

Staff Sergeant Olaf Schmid

After deploying to Helman in June 2009, Staff Sergeant Schmid personally dealt with 70 IED’s. He spent long periods of time in close proximity to IEDs and in the gravest personal danger. Before his death in action he responded to 42 IED tasks. One incident involved an 11 hour operation to clear an area, after an infantry company had had several of their vehicles blown up by IED’s.

On another occasion, Schmid was in Sangin District Centre to deal with an artillery shell. On arrival he immediately realised that many civilians around him in the bustling bazaar were in peril. He quickly assessed that the shell was part of a Radio Controlled IED intended to cause maximum casualties in a well populated area. The nature of the device also meant it was almost certainly over-watched by the bomber controlling it. Without any consideration for his own safety Schmid immediately decided to neutralise the IED manually. To do this he employed a render safe procedure that should only ever be employed in the gravest of circumstances and which is conducted at the highest personal risk to the operator. In an instant, he made the most courageous decision possible, consciously placing his own life on the line in order to save the lives of countless Afghan civilians and demonstrating bravery of the highest order and well beyond the call of duty.

Staff Sergeant Schmid was killed during an operation near Forward Operating Base JACKSON. Having dealt with three IEDs already that day, he and his team were transiting to another compound when a command wire was discovered running down the alleyway they were in. SSgt Schmid and his team were trapped with no safe route forward or back as they did not know in which direction the IED was situated. Knowing that his team were in danger, he immediately took action to reduce the hazard. SSgt Schmid eventually traced the wire to a complex IED with three linked buried main charges. He was killed whilst dealing with the device.

His citation states:

“Schmid’s actions on that fateful day, when trapped in an alleyway with no safe means of escape, probably saved the lives of his team. These occasions are representative of the complexity and danger that Schmid had faced daily throughout his four month tour. His selfless gallantry, his devotion to duty, and his indefatigable courage displayed time and time again saved countless military and civilian lives and is worthy of the highest recognition.”

Time to change medal criteria?

For us mere mortals, it is almost impossible to comprehend the bravery and nerves of steel needed to work in Bomb Disposal. The awards of the George Cross to Staff Sergeants Schmid and Hughes are richly deserved, and not only a fitting tribute to them but their colleagues too. Among all the controversy about Defence funding, we should remember that the British Army can call on some of the most professional experts in the world when it comes to specialist tasks such as Bomb Disposal.

In previous times, the lines between ‘combat’ and ‘non combat’ were relatively clear. But in a world of increasingly unconventional warfare, can we truly draw a line between bravery that is under enemy fire and that which isnt? The inference of ‘not under enemy fire’ is that it is not quite so deserving. But IED’s ARE the Taliban’s way of fighting. Particularly with the case of Staff Sergeant Hughes, the press release on the MOD website states that the incident took place in the presence of the enemy, and that British soldiers had to fire shots to keep their heads down. If thats not in the face of the enemy, then what is? Is dealing with an IED less brave than a conventional pitched battle?

A similar case took place last year, when Royal Marine Lance Corporal Matt Croucher jumped on a grenade that had accidentally activated. His rucksack shielded him from the blast, but he saved the lives of his comrades at the risk of his own. Yet because there were no enemy present, somehow it is seemed slightly less brave. Clearly, if a token Taliban fighter had been so much as standing nearby firing into the air, Croucher would have been awared a Victoria Cross.

In 1993 the Government reformed the Gallantry Medal system, to remove distinctions between officers and men. And quite rightly too – an act of bravery is an act of bravery, and it should not matter whether it was performed by a Private or a General. Much as the 1993 review took account of the fact that class should not be an issue in the modern age, is it now time to review the caveat of ‘under enemy fire’? The nature of warfare has changed considerably, and if we are going to expect our men and women to go int harms way, we should ensure that we honour them properly.

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RAF Bomb Disposal – Corporal Roy Henley

The vast majority of Portsmouth men who served in the RAF in the Second World War died serving in Bomber Command. A few more died while flying Spitfires or Hurricanes, or Lockheed Hudsons in the Coastal role.

But Corporal Roy Henley, 23 and from Fratton, was serving with 6225 Bomb Disposal Flight. 3 Special RAF Bomb Disposal Squadrons were formed, consisting of 8 flights, to provide bomb disposal support during Operation Overlord, the invasion of Europe.

Corporal Henley’s unit was sent to Normandy on 7 June 1944, D+1. At 0400 the Landing Craft that they were in was engaged by German shore batteries and an E-Boat. The Landing Craft sank within 2 minutes, and Seven men were killed. 90% of their equipment was lost.

Corporal Henley was presumably lost at sea, as he is listed on the Runnymede Memorial, where all RAF personnel who have no known grave are remembered.

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