What lies beneath: Army's bomb-disposal teams in training

Home-made explosives are the Taliban's deadliest weapon. So what type of person chooses to fight these unseen enemies to protect their comrades? Terri Judd travels to Oxfordshire to meet them
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On a deserted piece of scrubland last week a group of men lumbered slowly around like ungainly astronauts in their seven stone bomb disposal suits, quietly dismantling devices.

Their methodical, focused approach belied the urgency of their work. For it is here, at the Oxfordshire headquarters of 11 EOD Regiment, where the battle of wits with the Taliban begins.

Two weeks ago, the American Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organisation said Taliban fighters had more than doubled the number of bombs they used against Nato forces last year, with each one, on average, causing 50 per cent more casualties than in 2007.

About 80 per cent of the British soldiers who die in Helmand are killed by bombs. Last summer 19 Light Brigade came across 1,800 and it is the job of 11 EOD Royal Logistic Corps – with its emblem of Felix, the cat with nine lives – to tackle the onslaught.

Hands in pockets, hunched against the wind, Staff Quartermaster Sergeant Andy Goodwin, 33, was undoubtedly missing Afghanistan's warmer climes. Just six weeks out of an exhausting and relentless tour in Helmand, he had already volunteered to return while currently training other soldiers.

"I have to be their guiding conscience and say 'No you are not going out now'. They are always volunteering," said Warrant Officer Martin Laverack. "They are the only people that can do it. If they don't get out and do that job who is going to look out for the guys out there?"

"The last day of the tour, you couldn't pay me £100,000 to go back in. But I would go back now if it was not for my family. It would devastate them," said Staff Quartermaster Sergeant Jon Froom, 37.

Even injury does not deter them. Captain Dan Read, 31, who was killed in January, had insisted on returning to Helmand after being wounded.

British soldiers are trained to keep a constant eye out for bombs – troops with detectors walk ahead of every patrol. When one is found, aware that it could be part of a "daisy chain" of devices, the area is cordoned off and the bomb disposal team is called in.

Within the disposal team is a No1 operative, a No2 who assists, a Royal Signals soldier to block any remote control signals, and an infantry escort. They work alongside the Royal Engineer search teams, who they insist do not get enough recognition and, like 11 EOD Regiment, have also paid a heavy price in casualties.

When a bomb is found, it is the job of the ATO, or ammuntitions experts, to dismantle it, rather than simply explode it, because to defeat the bomb-maker and learn how he works they need the forensic evidence.

It takes years for a soldier to make the grade as a high threat operative and the course has one of the highest failure rates in the British Army. A decade ago nobody realised how many would be needed, first in Iraq and then Afghanistan, and they are rotating through the operational theatre at head spinning speed.

They are still working in Northern Ireland and dealing with almost 3,000 tasks on the UK mainland each year – everything from old Second World War munitions to the work of criminals and misguided students who have cooked up explosives.

The personality of the men and women who choose one of the most dangerous professions in the world, is varied but all seem to have a black sense of humour and an innate sense of calm.

"I am probably a bit laid back," said SQMS Froom with obvious understatement. "If I turned up at a job flapping like billy-o what would that say if the ATO looked worried?

"During the long walk my heart rate is normal. It is not beating any faster. When I am with the infantry moving around in the back of a vehicle, I don't necessarily feel safe. I feel trapped. But when I get out it is my ball game. I know how to defeat a device. At the incident control point I will calm the team down with a laugh and joke, tell them that when it all goes wrong you catch my eyeball and you catch my foot."

SQMS Goodwin agreed: "All I am concentrating on is down the road, the [bomb] I am going to and what other threats there are in the area. We have moved on massively from Northern Ireland. Now you are in a 360 degree battlefield."

To do the job, these men and women must be tested to see if they have suitable characters. "We need a man who doesn't take too many risks but is not overly safe," said Major Kier Head.

In later years they triumphed over the bombs in Northern Ireland. In six years in Iraq they lost one man, and Captain Peter Norton GC suffered terrible injuries including the loss of a leg. But the odds appear stacked against them in Afghanistan, not only in numbers but in the volatile, shoddily-made devices they are dealing with and the fact they often have to work with bullets "splashing" around them.

In just over a year, four of this small group – Warrant Officer Gaz O'Donnell, 40, Captain Dan Shepherd, 28, Staff Sergeant Oz Schmid, 30, and Captain Read – have been killed and Warrant Officer Ken Bellringer, 38, suffered catastrophic injuries including the loss of both of his legs.

Describing it as a "game of extreme chess", Major Chris Hunter, who retired from 11 EOD and wrote his autobiography Eight Lives Down about his time in Iraq, explained the highs and lows of the job: "You turn up at a scene of carnage, at best [there is] dried blood and lots of destruction, at worse there are people who have died, women and children. You see a scene like that and you can't help dwelling on it.

"The next day you go to deal with a device and you think yesterday I saw this terrible scene but we, the team, have stopped that from happening again."

For decades the makeshift bomb has been the favoured weapon of terrorists but it was in Northern Ireland that the British coined the term Improvised Explosive Device (IED) as it battled against an onslaught from the IRA.

Counter IED techniques are now one of the key elements of training and a British army team in Helmand is constantly feeding back information to the Operational Training and Advisory Group (Optag) headquarters.

The very nature of the homemade bomb, typically an explosive charge, a detonator, and an initiation system, makes it unpredictable. The IED teams, often travelling by helicopter or on foot, can only bring the equipment they carry. This means lugging gear equivalent to 70 per cent of their own body weight often in heats too extreme for the bomb disposal suit.

"Afghanistan has been a quantum shift. The volume has doubled from what we saw in Iraq and that was 10 times what you saw in Northern Ireland," Major Hunter said. "The volume of devices and the sheer physical and mental pressure that any moment you could be attacked by small arms fire, mortars and rockets makes it really, really challenging. Many of them are fairly exhausted."

Until now these men and women have worked in quiet anonymity, largely because they were the target of terrorists in Northern Ireland, but The Hurt Locker – a film they dismiss as "clichéd and cheesy" – has thrust them into public view. It is a spotlight this regiment finds deeply uncomfortable.

"I tell people I am a water cress farmer," said WO1 Laverack.

But Major Rob Philipson-Stow, of the Household Cavalry Regiment, recently insisted they were the "real heroes of this campaign".

Captain Wayne Owers, who was awarded the Queen's Gallantry Medal last month, dealt with 93 bombs during his six-month tour. Staff Sergeant Olaf Schmid found 31 in one day before he was killed. He was awarded the George Cross, equivalent to a Victoria Cross, along with Staff Sergeant Kim Hughes.

On a day when three soldiers lost their lives, SSgt Hughes went to the aid of the wounded trapped in an IED field watched over by the enemy. He worked without protective clothing to clear a path, offering constant reassurance as he dismantled seven bombs.

His medal citation read: "Dealing with any form of IED is dangerous; to deal with seven VO (victim operated) IEDs 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."

SSgt Hughes responded: "I was just doing my job." As WO1 Laverack says: "Every single one insists they are ordinary guys doing an ordinary job."