Obituary: Lt-Col Mike Watkins

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The Independent Culture
MIKE WATKINS was one of a rare breed of soldiers who specialised in that most dangerous of peacetime roles, bomb disposal. He was an intellectual and an enthusiast who dedicated his life to the business of explosive ordnance investigation, including service tours in Northern Ireland and helping to find the explosive source of the Lockerbie disaster.

Even for a man who had chosen an extraordinary career, Watkins earned a reputation as a remarkable operator in the dangerous field of ammunition and bomb disposal. Many of those who knew him well have called him visionary and compassionate - the very stuff of a modern, unsung hero. His work to make safe military ammunition from previous generations only added to his reputation as a driving force in this often secretive world.

Born in Newport, Monmouthshire, in 1947, it was at Monmouth Grammar School that Watkins decided on the British Army as a career. He joined the Royal Army Ordnance Corps as a private soldier in 1962 and progressed through the ranks rapidly. After three years' apprenticeship and trade training at Feltham, in Middlesex, and Didcot, Oxfordshire, Watkins was promoted corporal.

In 1966, he undertook the arduous P Company parachute training, gaining his wings at RAF Abingdon and spending three years with 16 Parachute Brigade at Aldershot, where he was promoted to sergeant. He honed his EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) experience at the British army's Ammunition Inspectorate at Wilton, near Salisbury, before moving to the then home of ammunition technology at Bramley Camp, near Basingstoke. During this time, he also held a war role with 47 Air Despatch Squadron, capitalising on his airborne experience.

By this time, the Army's expertise in EOD was almost on daily call in Northern Ireland. Terrorist bombs were a regular threat to normal life in the Province and soldiers like Mike Watkins were daily risking their lives to defuse home-made bombs and bobby-traps. Watkins and his colleagues have gone without true public awareness because of the nature of the job, which in these early days was like venturing into the unknown. Watkins served in Omagh in 1974 and received his first Mention in Despatches - a second followed four years later during one of two emergency tours in Belfast and South Armagh.

By this time, Watkins had been promoted Warrant Officer Class Two. A desire to use his expertise for the general good had already become apparent. Even before his work in Northern Ireland, he had secured a posting to the British Solomon Islands in 1973 to spend seven months to help dispose of ammunition and aerial bombs left behind by Japanese and US forces in the Second World War; making safe the rural areas of these beautiful islands for agriculture and tourism.

Recognising his expertise and leadership skills, the Army commissioned Watkins in 1980 and as a Lieutenant he was posted to 6 Field Force at Aldershot. Within nine months, he was promoted Captain and began training as an Ammunition Technical Officer (ATO), an army bomb disposal expert.

ATOs work in dangerous conditions to defuse devices often fabricated with anti-handling devices - booby traps - designed to kill or main the bomb disposal expert. The very nature of this work is secretive and those who carry it out often need to work under cover. Occasionally, television or newspaper pictures will show army personnel in protective clothing walking purposefully towards a car or building thought to contain a bomb. That's all the public recognition ATOs receive, yet their work has been vital in the towns, cities and rural communities of the United Kingdom where explosives have been placed or discarded.

After two further years of such work in Northern Ireland, Watkins was appointed MBE for his work in the Province and promoted again, to Major in 1986. Then came an important posting as the Senior Ammunition Technical Officer to the Falkland Islands, where he directed a tri-service team clearing explosives, including the legacy of Argentine landmines, left behind after the 1982 invasion.

To use his considerable experience further, the Army posted him to the Ministry of Defence in London in 1990 to oversee the procurement of the specialist equipment and requirements for bomb, landmine and ammunition disposal. Using his experience of bomb disposal around the world, Watkins was able to shape research carried out by the Defence Evaluation & Research Agency and commercial industry into making better, safer equipment to aid the bomb disposal expert.

In 1992, he returned to Didcot as a Lieutenant-Colonel and took over responsibility for explosives safety and licensing policy within the armed forces. Despite his new position as Head of Explosive Ordnance Disposal at the Directorate of Land Service Ammunition, Royal Logistics Corps, Watkins still found time for his hobbies.

He died tragically, buried under a roof fall, when exploring the maze of tunnels dug by British, Canadian, French and German troops under the trenches of Vimy Ridge, on the Somme battlefield, near Arras in the First World War.

Watkins was no stranger to the 20 miles of tunnels of Vimy Ridge. Earlier this year, as a member of the Durand Group which explores the tunnels on behalf of the French and Canadian governments, he took part in making safe over three tons of deteriorated explosives which threaten the Canadian War Memorial on the surface above. It was the first such disarming to be carried out in the tunnels since 1918. Watkins saw such work, not strictly his army role, although supported by the Ministry of Defence, as an important task for future generations to be able to enjoy the famous First World War battlefield in safety.

His death is a blow to those researching the tunnels. Watkins had teamed with the television producer Marc Sinden to make a documentary series about the tunnels, which are also vividly described in Sebastian Faulks's award-winning novel Birdsong.

His breath of experience and wealth of knowledge, linked to a kind and compassionate nature, made Mike Watkins a father-figure to many a young soldier. He still found time for hang-gliding, veteran rugby, skiing and motor sport.

Michael Keith Watkins, born Newport, Monmouthshire 3 July 1947; MBE 1984; married 1989 Rowena Drage (one son); died Vimy Ridge, France 11 August 1998.