George Cross for 'bravest' bomb heroes

Two Army bomb disposal experts were hailed as "the bravest of the brave" today after being awarded the George Cross for their incredible heroism in Afghanistan.

Close friends Staff Sergeant Olaf Schmid, 30, and Staff Sergeant Kim Hughes, 30, will receive the honour after making safe scores of Taliban improvised explosive devices (IEDs) - many by hand.

Staff Sgt Schmid, known as Oz, who was born in Truro, Cornwall, and lived in Winchester, Hampshire, was killed attempting to disarm a bomb in the deadly Sangin area of Helmand Province in October.

During his time in Afghanistan he personally dealt with 70 IEDs, saving the lives of many of his comrades and Afghan civilians.

Staff Sgt Hughes, from Telford, Shropshire, was honoured for what was described as "the single most outstanding act of explosive ordnance disposal ever recorded in Afghanistan".

On one day last summer he dismantled seven IEDs in a minefield in Sangin by hand without any protective clothing so five seriously wounded soldiers and the bodies of two dead comrades could be recovered.

Sitting next to Staff Sgt Schmid's widow, Christina, Staff Sgt Hughes paid tribute to his friend.

He said: "To be honoured, to be sat here with Chrissie, to know that I've achieved the award and Oz has achieved that award, is out of this world to be honest. It's really good."

Staff Sgt Hughes caused a stir in October when he told Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth, on a visit to Afghanistan, that more troops were needed on the ground.

The George Cross ranks along with the Victoria Cross as Britain's highest award for bravery.

It is presented to civilians and members of the armed forces who carry out acts of great heroism not in the presence of the enemy.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, Chief of the Defence Staff, said the two soldiers were "exceptions in an already exceptional group, the bravest of the brave".

He said: "As one of our top two operational honours, the George Cross is awarded only rarely. Its recipients must have displayed the very highest levels of gallantry.

"The actions of Staff Sgt Hughes and the late Staff Sgt Schmid meet this most demanding test in full measure.

"Their selfless commitment, unswerving devotion to duty and unsurpassed courage are both awe-inspiring and humbling."