Opinion

"One wrong move and you’ll turn into red mist”: What it's like to be a bomb disposal expert on the front line

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Kim Hughes
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This is how tea is the hidden power behind the British Army

In 2010, Warrant Officer Class 1 Kim Hughes, 38, of the Royal Logistic Corps, was awarded the George Cross for defusing seven IEDs without protective clothing. His citation called it the “single most outstanding act of explosive ordnance disposal ever recorded in Afghanistan”. Here’s his story

The British Army is powered by tea. Ask any soldier. No matter where you go in the world, you’ll find a squaddie with the equipment to make a brew. It’s an essential part of every soldier’s kit. You’ve got your ammo and your guns and your weapons systems, but just as important as any of that are teabags, a mini-stove and powdered milk.

There were times in Afghanistan where I’d get back to base after diffusing devices, absolutely chinstrapped. I’ve sat down against some old compound wall to get my head around what I’ve just done that day. Then one of the guys brings a brew, because he knows I’m knackered and in need of a morale boost – no matter how crap the day has been, a warm brew will sort me out. And I’ve had my share of crap days on the job.

That’s not to say I don’t enjoy being a bomb-disposal operator; I absolutely love it.

But it is, of course, a risky job.

No matter how much you train, curve balls can – and will – always come at you. One wrong move, and you’ll instantly turn into red mist.

Never were I and my team in more danger than on 16 August 2009. We were tasked to support the 2 Rifles Battlegroup in clearing a route, southwest of Sangin, in Afghanistan’s Helmand province. We got up early to have a quick tea before leaving the patrol base before first light.

We walked for about 25 minutes through the darkness. Suddenly, the dawn silence was ripped apart by an almighty explosion, about 100m ahead. We hit the ground, waiting for an attack. But it didn’t come. Then, word reached us that there was a casualty. But before we could assess the danger, there was a second explosion. That’s when we realised something had gone drastically wrong.

We were called forward to help. I arrived at a dried riverbed, to be confronted by a scene of complete chaos. There were soldiers’ bodies on the battlefield in front of us, men screaming, others begging for help. Just up ahead, I saw a red mass.

I couldn’t work out what it was at first, until a hand rose from it. I then realised that it was what was left of a soldier who had been blown up.

It was immediately clear that the lead searcher had stepped on a pressure-plate IED and lost both his legs. When they put him on a stretcher, one of the stretcher bearers stood on a second device, killing both stretcher bearers outright. The female medic who was giving him first aid got blown about 20m off to one side.

One of my guys got to her, saw her leg was hanging off, and began applying first aid. That’s when he saw another device right next to her; another pressure plate with wires and 20kg of explosives beneath it. We were bang in the middle of a minefield.

There was no time to put on protective clothing, deploy a robot or set up a cordon, as we would under normal circumstances. She was so close to the device, it had to be dealt with there and then.

My team went in search of other devices while I knelt over the one we’d found to assess the threat. Using my £1.99 paintbrush from B&Q, I dusted the sand away to get a better view, while also searching around it with my metal detector. As I uncovered the device, I began to see how it worked. You see, no two IEDs are the same – you have to treat each one separately. The moment you lose respect for a device is when things go wrong. I made various cuts in the circuit using wire cutters to make it safe.

Then one of my guys shouted, “Kim, I’ve found another.” I went to deal with that. Then another guy found another. Then another. This went on until we’d found a total of seven devices in the ground, all linked to a single circuit. Speed was absolutely essential if further lives were not to be lost.

In that moment, the device is your only enemy – not the guy who planted it, not the army he fights for. You have to defeat the bomb, cut by cut.

Forty-five minutes later, I had rendered seven devices safe, by hand. But let me make something clear: this was a massive team effort, not just me.

We managed to evacuate the casualties, although unfortunately the guy who got blown up twice died en route to hospital. Then we had to recover the bodies of the two stretcher bearers killed in action.

By the time we’d finished clearing the area, it was 8am and the sun was quite high in the sky. As I looked over the riverbed, I could see even more devices in the ground. They were everywhere. We couldn’t go any further. The operation had to be scrapped.

When we got back to base, my team and I sat down in our accommodation in shell-shocked silence. It truly had been a sh*t morning. Then one of the younger lads piped up: “Shall I get the brews on?”

By the afternoon, we were back out in the field, doing it all over again.

Interview: Matt Blake

Kim’s memoir Painting The Sand is out now, £8.99 (Simon & Schuster)

(Illustration: Drawn by Adam)