Sunday, 26 February 2012
On being Spineless…
Last night I saw for the first time a documentary entitled ‘Bomb Hunters’.
I knew from the Association of Ammunition Technicians that this documentary was in the pipeline and was produced some time ago but these sort of programmes take time to get as far south as I am. I am sure that you have all heard that old soldiers never die, they just get very boring so since my military career is now in the dark and distant past, I felt no reason to bang on about it to Marcia or any one of my new friends. Sometimes, though, it is impossible to ignore the indiscreet enquiry of a dinner guest so I usually restrict myself to a hopefully humorous anecdote before changing the subject.
Marcia and her brother were sitting on the sofa, the second largest piece of furniture we have managed to squeeze into our temporary accommodation and next to the bed, the largest bit of furniture when the programme came on. Before I could tame my tongue, I blurted out, ‘Blimey, that guy was one of my instructors!’ I was referring to Sidney Alford, one of the leading lights of the Institute of Explosive Engineers and the man who has probably had a hand in training every single bomb disposal officer for the last forty years and has been responsible for many of the innovations that kept, most of them at least, alive.
Marcia and Edu were enthralled. I found the programme vain, shallow and self promoting, not the qualities looked for in your average ATO. Its only saving grace was that it was as factual as such a short narrow brush stroke over decades of service by bomb disposal officers of all arms from inception to the enormous demands now being made of them could be.
I was mildly irritated, for example, at the suggestion that defusing aerially delivered bombs or magnetic underwater mines during the Second World War was essentially less risky than defusing Improvised Explosive Devices ‘because the operators had technical manuals’. In the Army I was trained to deal with IED’s and, yes, the programme authors are correct, there are no handbooks, no circuit diagrams save for the essentially historical technical information rushed round the detachments each time some new, yet more cunning type of device was successfully neutralised. The initiative lies always with the verdant imagination and skill of the often highly intelligent and well informed bomb maker. But such an outrageous contention denigrates the unsurpassable courage of those with little or no training, even less technical knowledge (despite the odd out of date manual) and specialist tools that were only developed in response to the death of yet another operator, many of whom dug down to these bombs knowing that there was every chance it wasn’t a ‘dud’ but was in perfect health and fitted with a variable time delay pistol behind which was probably an anti handling device.
I am in a position to make a direct comparison because although being trained to dispose of conventional munitions (for which we had detailed technical manuals and established procedures) and IED’s which required the mental set of a specially trained chess player, in Angola, with none of the experience and knowledge that Royal Engineer bomb disposal officers enjoy, I found myself having to deal with albeit (and thankfully) much simpler iron bombs tossed off Migs and Sukhois.
Having sought his advice, the ex East German equivalent of an ATO (and, therefore, ironically my former cold war enemy) explained how to defuse these things armed only with a basic tool kit comprising primarily of set of Allen Keys, a monkey wrench and a couple of screw drivers. He went on to say that these bombs were very reliable so if they had not gone off on impact, they were likely fitted with a time delay mechanism no more sophisticated than a glass ampoule of acid shattering on impact and a copper wire the thickness of which determined, as the acid ate through it, a delay of anything from half an hour to twenty four, although, he added as he took another swig of his whisky, he had seen some go off a bit quicker.
To qualify as an Ammunition Technical Officer I had undergo days of psychometric testing (to, according to the documentary, eliminate those motivated by self aggrandisement or possessed of a death wish) before attending the Royal Military College of Science and then undergoing more practical and theoretical training at the Army School of Ammunition. Now I was being taught to defuse aircraft bombs in a bar using the only visual training aids at our disposal, beer soaked napkins and a lead pencil. Clearly, the psychiatrist that examined my results all those years ago had overlooked something.
The final piece of advice he gave me was that sod’s law meant the bomb’s orientation after it had discarded its tail on impact (the presence of which on the surface was often the only indication we had of where to start looking and then digging) invariably meant the pistol pocket was on the lowest and most inaccessible side (if anything round can have a side) and that once I had loosened the annular ring , praying all the time the bomb would not settle suddenly onto me) I should watch out for a face full of acid. Further improving my confidence, he reminded me that the time delay itself was as powerful as a grenade so I should get rid of it as quickly as possible (he said ‘Ab in die Wüste’ meaning I should sling it into the desert pretty damn quick) but if I had survived thus far it was then merely a requirement to remove the bomb to a safe location before either detonating it or burning it out.
As an aside, I was pretty rubbish at burning these things out once I had them somewhere safe as they always burnt to detonation so since I had to take all the precautions for a massive explosion, I thought I might as well just frag the bloody things. It was only when I was working in Nigeria years later that I ran into a guy who had done the same sort of stuff while, if anything, even less qualified than I was, and he told me how he used to pack champagne bottles to make shaped charges which would always initiate a successful burn. But then he came from a fashionable regiment and not a Corps so was probably more familiar with champagne bottles and their alternative uses than I was. Without going into the technical details, it won’t work with whisky bottles the only alternative uses for which I can think of is the advantage they give as a weapon in a drunken brawl.
I don’t think I am blessed with any particular form of courage. I know I am not. Lot’s of things scare the shit out of me. Heights. I cannot bear heights. You want to see my knees buckle and me wee my pants? Stick me up on a high building and ask me to look over the edge of a balcony. If it is high enough (more than three storeys) I’ll vomit as well. I feel vulnerable swimming in the sea ‘cos I’ve seen Jaws, and snakes scare the crap out of me. In fact, the older you get, the more nervous you become. Last time I was in UK and I saw the yobs dominating the pavements and park benches I was more scared than I was walking through the shanty towns of Luanda, Lagos or Johannesburg.
I didn’t particularly fancy digging down to something which left to its own devices would detonate destroying whatever remaining bits of essential infrastructure were left to a debilitated population, a population oblivious to this insidious threat who, assuming the raid was over would throng the streets and move back into the danger areas. Dealing with landmines was bad enough and they don’t go off unless you do something stupid or innocent, like step on them, or poke them too hard or fail to realise they are connected to something else. Scatterable munitions are small and rockets relatively so, so you can usually get away with blowing them up in situ or, if you really understand what you are dealing with and have balls the size of planets, you can collect them up and execute a controlled demolition. The local police used to collect the smaller stuff and bring it to me in buckets, which was as good for waking up as an ice cold shower, but the archetype big as bastard hell ticking bomb? I dealt with one which just as I got to it, a wall gave way and I and it clanged into a bloody dark as hell full of crap basement, my torch now buried in the collapsed tunnel. Adrenalin is brown and sticky but amazingly, the cellar stairway was clear and I scaled it faster than a burning rat up a drain pipe, leaking undies notwithstanding. But then someone had to go back down there again and finish the job.
I think it was probably the awful carnage of the First World War that raised if only a guarded recognition of what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. That young men, especially poorly trained and essentially unmotivated conscripted young men, would crack under awful stress is now no surprise and that they should be treated with compassion and given reasonable assistance seems, on the face of it, the least a decent society could offer.
I for one, however, believe that just as much as wrapping a child up in cotton wool produces wimps, some members of society over value their contribution and, more importantly, the rewards that should accrue to them when really all they deserve is a swift kick in the teeth and an uncompromised instruction to get on with it and for God’s sake stop whining.
‘Another great lesson […] has been the restatement, in terms that everyone who wishes can understand, of the old political axiom that every right carries a corresponding duty. […] It is well to have been reminded of it, for in the development of modern social ideas there has been an increasing tendency to look upon the state as a universal provider, from whom everything is to be expected, to whom as little as possible is to be given. Such a tendency is in direct conflict with our old national ideals and our old national character. It is subversive of discipline both in private and public life. It opens the way to political corruption and to all the social evils that have led to the decay of empires. It is destructive of that power to combine for the common good and for the maintenance of any idea above self.’
Clearly, Field Marshal Douglas Haig, 1st Earl Haig, KT, GCB, OM, GCVO, KCIE, ADC was prescient when he delivered this speech on the 14th of May 1919. It isn’t so much that his dire prediction of the decay of our society holds good today, it is more valid as an ‘I told you so’. The decay has long since set in and as inhabitants of UK plc, we are tenants of a house beset with woodworm, wet and dry rot, death watch beetle and even termites from abroad.
In the same vein, demonstrating prescience and naivety in equal measure, General Robertson stated ‘That he held strongly that the utmost should be done for the welfare of men and their families, and that they should be trusted not to abuse the privileges granted to them.’
Robertson was bang on. We needed a welfare safety net to take care of those who contributed selflessly to their country and its residents, and I suppose we can forgive him the fact that having grown up in a society that both knew how to spell Integrity and understood its import, it never occurred to him that his trust could so easily be betrayed. We are now cursed with a disparate community for which honesty, service and integrity are wholly alien and is led by the corrupt politicians predicted nearly a hundred years ago.
Society is less interested in mutual co-operation than individual gain. Rats fighting each other to get their noses into the corn sacks that are our security for hard times, or climbing over each other to abandon a sinking ship when those lean times inevitably arrive. Arguably no longer a society, a definable entity the members of which willingly accepting a form of mutually agreed governance for the common good with the implicit self sacrifice often required, but more a return to a survival of the fittest, in modern society a case of who steals the most and works less thereby getting an easier deal is somehow ‘cooler’. The gloating in the wine bar about the magic deal just pulled down.
Courage can be expressed or is evidenced in many forms. Are the medical staff who work exhausted through one shift after another to patch together the young men, now horribly wounded, who charged with insane bravery an enemy position any less courageous than the rather battered remnants of humanity they are now treating? Is the fireman who with scant regard for his own life entered a burning building to rescue a child no less deserving of the nation’s highest accolade? Why is it that only serving military personnel can be awarded a Victoria Cross and civvies have to make do with a George Cross? Why should such recognition not carry a financial reward? Perhaps a generous annuity merely for having done one’s job? After all, if London Transport employees feel they deserve recognition merely for driving fuller buses and trains during the Olympics I think we should introduce a new supertax on those who hold down any kind of remunerable employment to fund a ‘get out of bed’ incentive. Naturally, captains of business should receive rewards independent of performance.
The term ‘Hero’ means little now. If I walk down any suburban sidewalk and am attacked by a dog, I am a ‘victim’ and will immediately engage a lawyer in the invariably successful pursuit of compensation. A postman if barked at through a letter box will be a ‘hero’ and also engage a lawyer to sue his employers. Firemen will demand compensation because ‘it was jolly hot inside that burning building and we saw dead bodies’ and will be described as heroes. Policeman will complain that some unruly brute resisted arrest and called them something nasty. Dustbin men will quite rightly refuse to handle the dirty, filthy contaminated waste from equally filthy capitalist swine in their three bed semis unless it has been safely packaged in a manner commensurate with the intellectual capacity they would have acquired at school if they hadn’t played truant so often. An office worker will slip on a damp washroom floor or trip on a blindingly obvious cable and claim like everyone else, they are suffering from stress, a heroically endured condition unique to public servants and one wholly inapplicable to the majority of society who wilfully endure lives of quiet desperation (those in or genuinely seeking gainful employment). The rest are either on the take or trashing society or both. The really genuine hardship cases, of course, slip to the bottom of an administrative bureaucratic nightmare.
Real heroes are very thin on the ground. Nowadays just doing your job with all its inherent risks is classed as heroic and if, God forbid, you are hurt or traumatised in its execution, you are somehow entitled to lifelong support.
Haig summed it up far more eloquently than I ever could, suffice to say the attitude now endemic in our society is little more than that of a street side beggar confident that the state has castrated the courts, immigration control and mandated that every passing taxpayer must give a percentage of his hard earned cash. The rot has permeated not just general society but also the establishment, our politicians and even the military.
I cannot and would not even presume to give you the definition of a hero or try describe the unique qualities that set him apart from other ordinary men since I have never met one but I am willing to have a bash at describing a good citizen, or a good soldier, by paraphrasing Generals Haig and Robertson:
Every right carries a corresponding duty. Everything should be done to ensure the welfare of a man and his family and they should be trusted not to abuse the privilege.
It's Duty. You know? There is no reward. For the sake of the common good, you just do it.
Now for an anecdote. I still haven’t had the courage to tell Marcia that I shall deplete our already straightened reserves by building a clinic for the community hence the title of this post: Spineless. I really am the biggest coward on earth. Back in time to 1987…
I received a phone call from the tasking authority, the Joint Service Explosive Ordnance Disposal Reporting Centre in the middle of the night telling me to go to Felixstowe, a port on the East Anglian coast to deal with some sort of mine. Now a mine is considered a ‘Conventional Munition’ rather than an ‘Improvised Explosive Device’ and as such, had probably been there since the Second World War which was the last time live munitions were distributed gaily and with considerable abandon around the countryside in anticipation of a Nazi invasion. So there was no rush. If It had been there nearly fifty years, so long as no one poked it with a big stick or played football with it, it wasn’t going to go off and I could return to a decent night’s sleep, and deal with it after breakfast.
The lads, and ladies, that manned the JSEODRC, especially at night, were at the most just corporal signallers responding to requests for EOD assistance from police forces all around the country. They were nowhere near as well trained as us bomb disposal experts and you can imagine how they felt at waking up a Captain in the middle of the night but if my name was on the duty list, it was their duty to ring me. No matter how crap it was.
JSEODRC was a good system. It stopped every Tom, Dick and Harry from contacting a very thin and often overstretched resource directly (in what we called the ‘silly season’ we received a hundred taskings a month) and it also allowed JSEODRC to task the most appropriate team.
I explained to the kid on the end of the line that this was a CMD task and not a blue light job (I was still thinking of the rest of the night in bed followed by a decent breakfast) when he asked me to ring Felixstowe nick directly. This was unusual.
‘Tide’s going out see and we just found it there. Big bugger ‘nall. We were lucky cos Charlie wuz on shift and he lives down sea front so guz ‘ome that way and he saw it.’
‘Saw what?’ I said.
‘I dunno. Charlie sez it’s a beach mine. He seen em before when they were clearing the beaches at end of war. Sez they mek a hell of a bang’
‘Alright, cordon that area off with a few Constables and I will be there at first light to deal with it’
‘No, that’s no good, it’s the spring tide see?’
No, I didn’t bloody see (or sea) but it was my duty to find out.
Much of the level of the land on which Felixstowe had been built was, like most of Holland and all my land here in Angola either just at or slightly below sea level. Unlike me now, Felixstowe town council had the funds to invest in some pretty spectacular sea defences which were now threatened by a bloody great beach mine which, on the only authority they had, our Constable Charlie, they where convinced would make one hell of a bang. The duty Sergeant then went on to say that they had woken up the Mayor and the Chief Constable and that the Chief Constable had ordered all off shift policemen to report back for duty and that the Mayor had woken up the council to initiate the emergency flood plans.
I thought it only sporting that the Army should attend as well so tasked my team.
On arrival, the problem was immediately obvious. It was a type C beach mine containing 25 lbs of Amatol that were hurriedly laid when the threat of invasion was imminent and between 1943 and 1947 a 151 men died trying to remove them. This one was sitting right on the bottom step of the sea defences. I could just blow it in situ as I really felt that an untamped detonation would see the blast directed out to sea but had to confess I wasn’t entirely sure I could guarantee the structural integrity of the sea defences thereafter, defences about to be tested by some severe tides and all the time the tide was now coming in and I had a Mayor and a Chief Constable and their considerable entourages breathing all over me. Talk about deciding under pressure. Speaking of pressure, I knew from the books that a type C anti tank mine required 50 lbs of pressure to set it off but that with corrosion of the mechanism this could be reduced to 4 lbs ‘or less’.
Standard Operating Procedures dictated that I waited until daylight, had the area cordoned off and then blew it in situ. Under these circumstances, the police where always very hospitable and would offer me and my number two a berth in their cells and I could claim NRSA, the Nightly Rate of Subsistence Allowance of nearly forty quid. A nice night’s work in other words but even I could see that ignoring the mine until a particularly vicious tide had had all night to rattle this thing against the sea defences was hardly professional and that just blowing it in situ sort of defeated the object of calling me out in the first place, especially when just behind the sea wall was a beautifully constructed, glass fronted edifice all the panes of which were guaranteed to be history a nano second after the bang and possibly under water, along with much of the rest of the town, a few minutes later.
The sea defences where a series of concrete steps and I knew that I could walk along them about half a mile to the end carrying the mine and then I would reach a shingle bar where I could leave the mine and deal with it in the morning. It was three in the morning so there was no one on the sea front so if the worst happened, most of the blast would be directed upwards and since I would be holding the mine, there would be no intimate contact between it and the sea defences so most of the blast would be dissipated.
I explained to the police what I intended to do and that I wanted a rolling road block to run along the sea front above me as I walked.
My Number Two, Andy Grey, dived into the back of the bomb wagon and emerged carrying the spare 5 shot semi automatic 12 bore Browning shotgun we had as part of the team kit and started to load it.
‘What do you want that for?’ asked a copper.
‘If he Fuck’s up,’ said Andy pointing at me, ‘I’ll keep the Seagulls away’