Nick Nice: Can-do bomb disposal officer always cool in the face of danger
Monday 31 December 2007
Nicholas John Nice, bomb disposal officer: born Chelmsford, Essex 7 August 1946; MBE 1989; married 1968 Ann Marie Pomfret (one son, one daughter); died Banbury, Oxfordshire 25 December 2007.
Nick Nice was one of the most highly regarded bomb disposal experts of his generation. To see him in a room was to feel completely safe. He was a big man and, at first sight, it did not seem likely that his hands were made for delicate or refined work. According to Nice himself, however, the manual dexterity required for dismantling booby-trapped bombs is similar to that needed to change an electrical plug; he did not dwell on the hazards and responsibilities of his job.
Nick Nice was born in Chelmsford in 1946; his mother was a nurse and his father, who died when Nick was 15, was a musician. He trained at first as a butcher, but, having abandoned work in an uncle's butchery chain, he became an army caterer and saw ordinary street patrol duty in Northern Ireland, beginning in 1972. Retrained in explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) by the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, he was back in Northern Ireland during the Seventies and early Eighties, dealing with the terror of IRA bombs. Insofar as you could get Nick to talk about these things, he would volunteer that the IRA were extremely ingenious. A soldier for most of his career, towards the end of his 22 years in the army he became Warrant Officer, Class 1 and was known as "Mr Nice", which he could be, when he felt like it.
During the 1980s, Nice trained EOD specialists in the UK, Oman and Zimbabwe and he especially relished his overseas tours of duty. In Bulawayo in 1982-83, he became fond of Joshua Nkomo, the ZAPU leader, during the period when the African politician was losing his dangerous battle with Mugabe and his ruling party. Such a friendship was typical of Nice's indifference to diplomatic niceties, or even his own career. He wouldn't often admit it, but he loved the Army and even its pomp. His bosses kept reporting that he was officer material, but one way or the other, the commission never happened. Probably he simply wasn't clubbable in the right way. He had an insatiable taste for social life, but it was catholic to the point of carelessness. More quietly, at home in Banbury (near a famous ordnance depot) or in much more exotic places, he was very happy propping up a bar, Marlboro in hand. In the end, after an unfulfilling and short five years' retirement, drink more or less did for him.
No-one is immune to the wear and tear of the kind of life he lived. Still, for much of his career, he did seem indomitable, and was proud of it. He was also capable of tact and was occasionally singled out for sensitive assignments with special forces of one kind and another.
Just after the first Gulf War, Nice's role was to liaise with the much larger US EOD teams based in a series of warehouses on the edge of a Kuwait City rendered temporarily Stone Age. He did himself rather well, occupying a spacious if improvised office-cum-bed-sitter in which it was usually possible to get highly prized and wholly illicit whiskey. His colonel talked of him with some awe. His American colleagues were clearly aware that they were dealing with the mother of all Brits. He could get pretty well anything one wanted, a proposition which was tested when a journalist required a helicopter to ferry him and a photographer around the burning oilfields. Three phone calls, the last of which was to a mate on a Royal Navy ship, and a Sea King was soon pounding its way through the near-impenetrable smoke, on temporary taxi service.
Though he could be snooty about officers, the US special forces, and even the SAS, Nice liked nearly everyone, and he and his infinitely forbearing wife Ann Marie had a wide and closely supportive circle in Oxfordshire, including a farrier, a horticulturalist, farmers, an expat Saudi and a shotgun dealer. For a while, he had an antiques stall in Banbury, but he didn't quite pull it off commercially. For some time, he was in love with a horse and the restored cart it pulled through the local lanes. He was a born countryman.
But it is hard to deny that he lived for his dangerous work. In 1989, he was appointed MBE for (his family guessed) his work in disposing of a dangerous cache of First World War mustard gas found at Bramley, the old Army School of Ammunition near Basingstoke. It was part of his enquiring nature to be interested in the history of his craft, and he much admired the 1982 book on chemical and germ warfare A Higher Form of Killing, by Robert Harris and Jeremy Paxman. Towards the end of his service, it was clear to him that an EOD specialist needed to understand every kind of "dirty" bomb, whether chemical, biological or nuclear.
In 1992, he went to work for the Metropolitan Police's anti-terrorist squad, just by the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall. In 1994, he was admired for his handling of several IRA incendiary devices left in Oxford Street. Off-duty, the Red Lion, opposite the Houses of Parliament, became a second home. At work, he shared a room with another officer, a pair of desks and the disreputable sofa on which they snatched rest. There was a display comprising an AK47, hand grenade and assorted shrapnel to remind him of soldiering.
Up the road, in Soho, there were several restaurants where his money didn't seem to be much use, at least after he was pictured in the papers with the Prince of Wales following the IRA's February 1996 Canary Wharf bomb outrage. He had arrived at that "shout" with his usual driver in their usual Range Rover, both the latter being damaged in the explosion of a 1,000lb bomb 80 metres from their vantage point. Nice said he nearly finished them all off when he thought to light up a steadying cigarette, before someone decided that the rushing noise nearby might be a burst gas main. There were some fierce exchanges with uniform branch during which Mr Nice felt he had to turn nasty on the need for immediate evacuation. A month or two later, that April, he had another shaker when called to the biggest IRA Semtex device ever deployed on the mainland. It had been planted at Hammersmith Bridge: there were civilians around, which complicated things. Nice was in time to hear the detonator pop, and to be heartily glad that the rest of the bomb malfunctioned.
It wasn't obvious, but Nick Nice was a very committed as well as a passionate and intelligent man. He was well-known for mentoring the younger people around him. He trained the Met police drivers who were paired up with the EOD specialists so that they could, for instance, work the X-ray and robot equipment in the back of the car. It meant the teams were much more like partnerships, and were more effective.
In the wake of the Kosovo war, in July 1999 Nice joined the teams investigating mass graves and it is a fair guess that those weeks finally shredded what little remained of his nerves. He and his colleagues had miserably sordid work to do, and Nice defused at least a couple of grenades used to booby-trap burial grounds. Typically, the locals made a big impression on him.
He suffered some sort of breakdown and retired in 2002. No-one really knows what this extraordinary person felt. He said that talking about it would probably make the work impossible. In later years, when talking might have helped, it was too late to open up, and a great teacher and inspiration was lost to his profession.
Richard D. North
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