Bomb disposal squadron’s heroic mission to save lives
The motto of the 5131 Bomb Disposal Squadron, based at RAF Wittering, is E Nocentibus Innocentia - to make the harmful harmless.
Members of the squadron, which is the military lead for air-dropped munitions, carry out a unique role both at home and overseas. They are called to deal with all manner of potentially explosive devices, each of which presents a new challenge and a situation that could escalate very quickly.
These challenges are often what makes the job so appealing to those who do it. And their qualifications and constant training, both in a dedicated area with RAF Wittering and across the UK, ensures all members of 5131 (BD) Sqn remain calm and considered at all times.
In charge is Squadron Leader Mike Stocks.
“Our principals are the preservation of life, both of the public and of servicemen and women,” he said; a point he repeatedly stresses. “The idea is to work with our civil partners to return the situation to normal as soon as possible.”
The squadron has two main roles in the UK: conventional munition disposal, or CMD, and improvised explosive device, or IED. Both teams can cover the whole of the UK and will also be stationed overseas if required.
The team that most people will have seen, and that is often mentioned in the Mercury, is CMD. They deal with conventional munitions such as grenades and mortar shells, going up to aircraft ordnance and all things in between. Members of the team will answer a call in their 4x4 packed with equipment to deal with a range of situations.
Sergeant Keith Frost is part of the CMD team. “We carry a full X-ray kit and will use that before picking anything up to see if it’s live,” he said. “Live means containing explosives with a means of initiating them. If it’s live and unsafe to move, that’s when we need to look into using our equipment and possibly doing a controlled explosion.
“If we confirm that it’s inert then we go through the process to get rid of it and get it demilitarised.”
The job of the CMD team is incredibly varied, and no two call-outs are the same.
Sgt Frost said: “We recently found a hand grenade out towards Northampton. We moved it a short distance to a friendly farmer’s field. We destroyed it on his land.
“We rely on the police for relationships in the local area. We will always try to take it to an area that will cause as little impact as possible.”
Each call-out is a high-pressure situation, but the training that members of 5131 (BD) Sqn receive means they are able to stay calm whatever the circumstances.
Sgt Frost said: “It is a challenge. For me the biggest thing is returning the situation back to normal. That’s where I get my smile from. The systems we have in place and the training we have reduce the risk in a risky situation. The message from us and the police and emergency services is consistent. Don’t touch it, don’t move it and call the police. Every single time.”
His message is echoed by Sqn Ldr Stocks. He said: “Explosives do not improve with age. Only a qualified person can make an assessment.”
Members of the IED team undergo the same training but face different challenges to their CMD counterparts. Their equipment includes the Cutlass remote controlled robot, an incredibly advanced machine capable of disarming explosive devices and traversing a variety of terrains and situations.
Sgt Miles Truscott, who has experience with both teams, said: “The IED team deal with high-end situations, such as international terrorist organisations setting out to harm and kill people, criminal gangs using explosives to protect items like drugs and even things like a college student who decided they are going to make a bomb and see what happens. Luckily a lot of calls turn out to be hoaxes but we have to have the capability to deal with these devices.”
The team includes Flight Lieutenant Leanne Martin, the first woman to become a fully-qualified bomb disposal squadron member in the RAF. Explaining how her team operates, she said: “We would firstask a witness to draw a map of where the item is. We need to know where the robot is going to go and establish whether it can get in.”
Sgt Truscott added: “The impact of people being evacuated out of their homes is a massive pressure. But that takes a lower priority over the preservation of life and property. We are afforded as much time as we need to deal with these items.”
Members of 5131 (BD) Sqn always begin their RAF careers as armourers. You can find out more about the role at www.raf.mod.uk/recruitment/roles/technical-and-engineering/weapon-technician. Sgt Truscott took that path and believes moving to bomb disposal was a natural move.
He said: “I joined up as a weapons technician and armourer because I was interested in weapons systems. It was a natural move across to 5131. I have been in the squadron since 2006, on and off.
“I definitely enjoy the job. You invest a lot of time into it. The challenge of the situations is very rewarding.”
Through all the challenges they face the message that comes from members of 5131 (BD) Sqn is the same: if you find something that looks like it could be an explosive, don’t touch it. Call the police and leave it well alone.