Two bomb disposal experts who risked their lives combating the most lethal threat facing British forces in Afghanistan have received the George Cross, one of the nation's highest honours.
Staff Sergeant Olaf Schmid, 30, died while trying to defuse a bomb while trapped in an alleyway, saving the lives of the rest of his team. He had already dismantled more than 70 IEDs (improvised explosive devices) during his tour.
Staff Sgt Kim Hughes, also 30, who had defused 80 IEDs, carried out "the single most outstanding act of explosive ordnance disposal ever recorded in Afghanistan" when he dismantled seven bombs in a minefield without any protective clothing. His action, during an attack which claimed the lives of three soldiers, enabled five others, seriously injured, to be dragged from the line of fire.
The men, who became friends while serving in Helmand, were awarded the George Cross for "selfless commitment and unswerving devotion to duty" which saved the lives of comrades. The head of the armed forces, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup described the men as "the bravest of the brave".
The Defence Secretary, Bob Ainsworth, was present at yesterday's awards in London. He had met S/Sgt Hughes once before, in Helmand, during a visit when the bomb disposal expert bluntly told him that more troops were needed on the ground.
"If you give us more troops we can form a counter-IED taskforce to train ground troops better," S/Sgt Hughes told Mr Ainsworth. The military has repeatedly complained that a lack of "boots on the ground" had meant that areas seized from the Taliban could not be held, allowing the insurgents to slip back and plant more bombs.
It was during such a clearance operation in August last year that a twin bomb strike left soldiers dead and injured. S/Sgt Hughes and his team were flown into what, said the citation for his George Cross, was "a harrowing and chaotic situation to extract the casualties and recover the bodies. Speed was absolutely essential if further lives were not to be lost."
S/Sgt Hughes, who did not put on protective clothing to save time, cleared a path for the injured while reassuring the wounded soldiers that help was on the way. He disarmed the seven devices while a firefight continued around him.
S/Sgt Hughes, from Telford, Shropshire, of the Royal Logistic Corps, said he was " amazed" to get the George Cross. "Me and my guys were tasked to get in, clear the other guys and recover. It was just a task to get on with and we got on with it. This was a day that had an horrendous ending and we just cracked on and dealt with what we needed to do.
"It is horrendous over there. You can't explain what it's like without physically being there yourself ... But if I was asked to go back, I'll go back."
The citation for S/Sgt Schmid, also of the Royal Logistic Corps, who lived in Winchester, Hampshire, stated that he had spent prolonged periods of his Afghan tour "in the gravest personal danger", trekking miles through dangerous terrain to tackle IEDs.
On one day last August he spent 11 hours in 45C heat dismantling a series of IEDs after a bomb disposal robot had been destroyed by a blast. On another occasion, in October, he put his life in danger for hours to defuse a radio-controlled bomb in a crowded bazaar.
S/Sgt Schmid's widow, Christina, who received a framed copy of her husband's citation said she was "absolutely overjoyed in getting this legendary award for my legendary husband. I am proud of my husband and truly thrilled. It is a fitting tribute for his outstanding bravery."
The honours are among 150 which have been awarded for acts of gallantry in the Afghan war in a year which saw British troops involved in ferocious fighting during Operation Panther's Claw. Lieutenant-Colonel Rupert Thorneloe, commanding officer, of the Welsh Guards who was killed during the mission, is expected to posthumously receive the Queen's Commendation for Valuable Service in a ceremony today.
Staff Sergeant Kim Hughes: 'Utterly selfless'
Extract from the George Cross citation for Staff Sergeant Kim Hughes, The Royal Logistic Corps
On 16 August 2009, south west of Sangin, during [a] casualty recovery, the stretcher-bearers initiated an improvised explosive device (IED) that resulted in two personnel being killed outright and four very serious casualties, one of whom later died. The area was an IED minefield, over-watched by the enemy and the section were stranded within it. S/Sgt Hughes and his team were called into this harrowing and chaotic situation to extract the casualties and recover the bodies. Speed was essential.
Without specialist protective clothing, Hughes set about clearing a path to the injured. On reaching the first badly injured soldier he discovered an IED within one metre. Hughes calmly carried out a manual neutralisation of the device; any error would have proved fatal. He discovered further IEDs and carried out manual neutralisation. His utterly selfless action enabled all casualties to be extracted and the bodies recovered. Dealing with any IED is dangerous; to deal with seven linked in a single circuit, in a mass casualty scenario, using manual neutralisation, is the single most outstanding act of explosive ordnance disposal ever recorded in Afghanistan. That he did it without 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:'Bravery well beyond the call of duty'
Extract from the George Cross citation for Staff Sergeant Olaf Schmid, The Royal Logistic Corps (killed in action)
Typically having to deploy on foot, precluding the option of specialist protective equipment and limiting the use of remote controlled vehicles, S/Sgt Schmid spent long periods of time in close proximity to improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and in the gravest personal danger. Before his death in action he responded to 42 IED tasks, personally dealing with 70 confirmed IEDs. A number of examples illustrate his bravery.
One clearance lasted 11 hours. It was physically, mentally and emotionally draining, but a road was opened and a company resupplied – entirely due to the heroic, selfless acts of Schmid.
On 8 October 2009 Schmid was tasked in Sangin district centre to deal with an artillery shell reported by unmentored Afghan Army soldiers. On arrival they led him, unsuspecting, to the device. He was now not only at grave personal risk but realised that the many unsuspecting civilians around him in the bustling bazaar were also in peril. Time was not on his side. He assessed that the shell was part of a live radio-controlled IED intended to cause maximum casualties in a well-populated area and over-watched by the bomber. Without any consideration for his own safety, Schmid immediately decided to neutralise the IED manually, at the highest personal risk. In an instant, Schmid made the most courageous decision possible, consciously placing his own life on the line to save the lives of countless Afghan civilians and demonstrating bravery well beyond the call of duty.
He was killed whilst dealing with a device in an alleyway with no safe route forward or back. Schmid's actions on that fateful day, when trapped with no means of escape, probably saved the lives of his team. These occasions are representative of the complexity and danger Schmid faced daily. His selfless gallantry, devotion to duty, and indefatigable courage displayed time and time again saved countless lives.