21 Feb 2011

Afghanistan: life with the bomb hunters

As new evidence emerges about bomb disposal expert Olaf Schmid’s death, Sean Rayment, author of Bomb Hunters, writes about his time with the team in “one of the most dangerous places on earth”.

Bomb expert Olaf Schimd who was killed in October 2009.

I arrived at Camp Bastion in Helmand four days after Staff Sergeant Olaf “Oz” Schmid was killed while attempting to neutralise an improvised explosive device in the town of Sangin, Afghanistan, arguably one of the most dangerous places on earth.

That week in early November 2009 remains one of the bloodiest for the British Army since its arrival in Helmand in March 2006. Three days after SSgt Schmid was killed, five members of the Grenadier Guards battle group were shot dead by an Afghan police officer they had been helping to train.

I knew something was obviously amiss if counter IED operators were collapsing through fatigue.

Before the week’s end another two soldiers would also die in IED blasts.

A pervading sense of loss hung heavily over Camp Bastion in those dark days and it was difficult, as a journalist, not to be caught up in the emotional maelstrom which had descended on the base.


As I waited for a helicopter to fly me out to the front line, I was invited to attend an impromptu memorial service for SSgt Schmid. Stories of his heroic feats had already began to circulate amongst the troops and I think many of those who didn’t know him personally, like me, felt compelled to say goodbye. The service began as a sombre affair and many of those who attended had eyes reddened by sadness. As the sun slowly slipped beneath the desert horizon, however, tears were soon replaced by laughter as those who knew “Oz” lined up to talk of his heroic deeds, irrepressible character and his unprintable but hilarious expressions which helped keep moral high.

Read more - Olaf Schmid: did 'tiredness' kill Afghanistan bomb expert?

But it also emerged during the service that a few weeks earlier, SSgt Schmid had fainted while attending a memorial for another soldier killed while on patrol in Sangin. Back then my knowledge of bomb disposal was limited but I had enough of an understanding to know that something was obviously amiss if counter IED (CIED) operators, like SSgt Schmid were collapsing through fatigue and illness.

I later learnt that the very next day after collapsing, SSgt Schmid was back out on the ground in the Helmand badlands defusing bombs and pitting his wits against those of the Taliban, such were the demands on bomb disposal teams.

‘Close to losing the war’

In 2009, Britain was close to losing the war in Helmand. Vast swathes of the province had been seeded with thousands of IEDs – the Taliban’s weapon of choice – and death or mutilation lurked around every corner in every hamlet. Between the beginning of July 2009 until the end March 2010, 109 British soldiers were killed in southern Afghanistan and of those 83 died from wounds sustained in IED blasts.

The bomb disposal units, which are composed of a four-man IED disposal team and a search man search units – were in the front-line into what had turned into a brutal and dirty war.

In 2009 there were just ten CIED teams to service an area of 22,620 square miles with a civilian population of 1.4 million and where around 9,000 British troops were based. These hard-pressed units were responsible for keeping routes open and ensuring isolated bases could be resupplied – but it was a mission which came with a heavy price.

During that nine-month period, three bomb disposal experts were killed and a fourth sustained life-changing injuries. In the same period four members of high-risk search teams were also killed and several more were seriously injured. It was an attrition rate which had not been experienced by the bomb disposal teams since the violent days of the Troubles in the 1970s.


In the thick of this battle stood SSgt Olaf Schmid, who, in October 2009, was based in Sangin, one of the epicentres of bomb-making in Helmand.

Sangin was rightly regarded as a “hell-hole” by the majority of soldiers who served there but that was not the view of SSgt Schmid.

“Oz loved Sangin,” SSgt Gareth Wood, a fellow operator, told me.

“That was a measure of the man he was. No one wanted to go to Sangin, but Oz loved the challenge.”

Read more: Channel 4 News Special Report on the war in Afghanistan

Across Helmand, IED disposal teams were neutralising bombs every day, some were defusing up to ten a day. In November 2009, SSgt Karl Ley defused 28 bombs in three days, 14 of which were “cleared” in one eight hour period. He was subsequently awarded the George Medal. By comparison, during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, bomb disposal teams would, perhaps, defuse one or two bombs a week. What was once regarded as extraordinary in Helmand, had become ordinary and it is now widely believed that many of the CIED operators in Helmand during 2009 had become “ambivalent to risk”.

The last mission

At his inquest last week it transpired that SSgt Schmid appeared to be in a rush during the last mission which ended his life. He had already defused 64 IEDs and had just one more job to complete on the day before embarking on a two-week break, known as rest and recuperation (R and R).

In my experience of half a dozen embeds with the British Army in Afghanistan, soldiers are usually pulled out of the front-line and sent back to Camp Bastion to begin the arduous journey back to the UK several days before there R and R begins.

The two-week break is vital for morale. Most soldiers can reel off in an instant how many days they have left until their R and R and will state in colourful detail how they intend to spend it. Most battlegroups do not like having soldiers taking part in operations when their R and R is just days away – it can be a distraction and in Helmand that can prove fatal.

The pressure on the bomb disposal teams was unrelenting and rules and procedures designed to protect the teams from being overworked were ignored.

Flights out of Helmand are subject to short notice delays and soldiers like to maximise their chances of having the full two weeks with the families by getting out of Helmand on the right flight at the right time.

From the evidence at the inquest SSgt Schmid was clearly in a hurry on the day he was killed. He had already defused two bombs and was working on a third as the light began to fail. Bomb disposal is never conducted at night in Helmand because it is simply too dangerous. Had he been forced to return to defuse the bomb the following morning, he might have jeopardised his chances of making his flight out of Sangin and subsequently back home.


In an ideal world another bomb disposal team would have been flown in a few days earlier to relieve SSgt Schmid but in 2009 the number of bomb disposal officers was at 50 per cent of its desired level.

The pressure on the bomb disposal teams was unrelenting and rules and procedures designed to protect the teams from being overworked were ignored because the volume of attacks against British troops had surged beyond all expectation.

Read more from Channel 4 News on Olaf Schmid's final hours

In August 2009, SSgt Kim Hughes, another counter-IED operator, had just returned from R and R and was settling back into life in Camp Bastion when his team was sent into Sangin to replace SSgt Schmid’s unit who were unable to take part in an operation after they had all succumbed to diarrhoea and vomiting sickness.

Initially the plan was to keep SSgt Hughes’ team in Camp Bastion for a week in order that they could reacclimatised to the cruel heat of the Helmand summer where temperatures often reached 45C. But there were no other teams available and SSgt Hughes team was pitched into battle. Forty-eight hours earlier most of the soldiers had been relaxing with there families or having one last pint in the pub before returning to the front-line. Hardly the best preparation for a military operation into one of the most dangerous places on earth.


The operation SSgt Hughes was supporting turned into a tragedy in which three soldiers were killed and several more were injured. The staff sergeant was forced to perform what was described as the “single most outstanding act of explosive ordnance disposal ever recorded in Afghanistan”, in order to save the lives of his comrades. The following day he under took another mission to recover the bodies of two dead soldiers who had been killed in an explosion in another part of Sangin.

SSgt Hughes and SSgt Schmid were close friends and both were awarded the George Cross. The difference between the two men is that one was lucky and survived the war and the other was not.

Sean Rayment is the defence correspondent of The Sunday Telegraph and author of the book, Bomb Hunters, published by Harper Collins.