Special Kind of Courage: 321 EOD Squadron – Battling the Bombers
Chris Ryder
Methuen, 2006, 334 pages, $19.95

“Bombs: Taliban’s Weapon of Choice” screams a news headline! The deaths of 19 of the 22 Canadians killed on Afghan duty in 2007 (as of July 4) have been the result of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), a statistic that makes Chris Ryder’s book on the British unit responsible for disposal of IEDs in Northern Ireland such a timely read.

The length of the conflict in Northern Ireland, still not terminated for some, is instructive.

The 321 Explosive Ordnance Disposal Squadron – now of the Royal Logistics Corps but originally a Royal Army Ordnance Corps (RAOC) unit before Army re-organization in 1993 – was formed in 1968 long after the first bombs had taken their toll in the UK. Its first deployment was to the Caribbean, but by 1971 the squadron was very much part of the UK government’s fight in Northern Ireland.

As of 2005, 321 EOD Squadron had dealt with 54,000 callouts in Northern Ireland. Over 1000 Ammunition Technical Officers or Ammunition Technicians served with the unit there. Surprising to some, this RAOC unit may be the most decorated in the British Army during any period of so-called “peacetime,” including two George Crosses, thirty-six George Medals, seventy-five Queen’s Gallantry Medals, 117 mentions in dispatches and eighteen Queen’s Commendations for Brave Conduct. Ryder’s book tells some of the stories behind this amazing record of what many consider a non-combat unit. Truly, a special kind of courage was called for; twenty members of the squadron were killed in Northern Ireland.

The book provides context for the use of IEDs in the Northern Ireland climate of the time and covers a “turf war” between the Royal Engineers and RAOC over who would provide the bomb disposal capability.

Intertwined with the personal anecdotes of individuals is an account of the neverending matching of minds between the “bomber” and the soldier who had to dispose of the bomber’s product. The lethal nature of the “coffee jar bomb” and a countermeasure is but one example of how such improvisations were met with further adaptations.

Ryder also describes in detail the creativity of IED delivery, including the use of an explosives-loaded, driverless delivery van, its rubber tires removed, sent down railway tracks on its rims to ultimately explode beside a military post.

The Taliban may find it difficult to imitate these particular examples, but the dedication of IRA operatives to finding means of killing through use of IEDs that defeated countermeasures seems to have already been emulated in Kandahar, whether by chance or deliberately.

Interspersed with personal details, which provide a sense of the actual disposal of IEDs, is an account of how one terrorist group engaged in an arms race using improvised technology against the scientific resources of a highly developed and experienced government. While it appears that the struggle has almost ceased, it is important to note that events outside this special conflict dictated the termination of the IRA bomber attacks, not 321 EOD Squadron’s award winning performance over 35 years.

The tools for improvisation and the Afghan situation are much different than Northern Ireland, but Ryder’s book does provide an important example of “the war within a war that is countering IEDs.”

Roy Thomas, MSC, CD, MA (RMC) spent a year at the RAC Armour School, Bovington, Dorset, in 1974, which was the subject of an IRA Bomb Threat. An IRA roadside bomb in Northern Ireland later killed a colleague from his course.

Rilla of Ingleside
L.M. Montgomery
Several publishers

There is no better review of this book than within the pages of an autobiography written by Canada’s only Governor General to date to visit Afghanistan.

Commenting on the Anne of Green Gables books by L.M. Montgomery, Adrienne Clarkson wrote in her book, Heart Matters:

“The last book of the series, Rilla of Ingleside, was my introduction to Canada’s role in the First World War. That story of sacrifice, heroism, and loss was told so beautifully through the eyes of Anne’s youngest child and of their housekeeper, Susan, who is like a Greek chorus of the commonsensical Canadian through the whole four terrible years when Jem and Walter, Anne’s two oldest sons, join the Canadian Expeditionary Force and fight in France, Walter never to return. Each battle provides chapters of understanding about what Canadians were going through when their men were fighting overseas.”

-Roy Thomas, MSC, CD, MA (RMC)