Remembrance Sunday 2022 Lucy Lewis

Lucy Lewis, University Marshall, University of Cambridge; UK's first female bomb disposal expert

Psalm 121, Ephesians 6 11-20

Today is Remembrance Sunday.  A day when we remember all those lives lost to war.  In 1919, in the immediate aftermath of the Great War, the war to end all wars, it was proposed to hold a two minute pause, a complete suspension of all normal activity across the nation. 

Over a hundred years later the nation marks Remembrance Day with a two minute silence.  I, like many other veterans, mark a number of Remembrance days, there is 2nd June, the anniversary of the Mull of Kintyre Chinook crash which claimed the lives of the RAF crew and 25 of my colleagues.  There is 23rd August when the major who took my place when I retired was killed in an ambush in Iraq alongside his Sergeant Major and his driver and then there’s 24th June, a modern day Rorke’s Drift, when six military policemen led by Simon, my colleague in Northern Ireland, defended an Iraqi police station against a mob of 600 before they were over-run and killed.  Once upon a time the red poppies conjured images of solemn sepia studio photographs and a list of names on the church wall but now, for me, the poppies also invoke familiar faces, shared experiences and distinctive laughs - all lost to war and conflict. 

I became a Christian as an adult and was confirmed in the Academy Chapel at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst whilst an Officer Cadet.  A chapel filled with white marble arches and pillars; almost every inch is crammed with the names of former cadets lost to war.  It’s a sobering place for any would-be Army officer.  There was never any doubt that a life in the forces would bring a multitude of challenges and risks. The opening line of Psalm 121 reads “I lift my eyes to the hills - where does my help come from?”  What or who can we rely on for help in difficult times?  I felt then that with faith and direction from God I would find a safe path.

I began my military career, fresh out of Sandhurst, as a bomb disposal officer with the Royal Engineers.  I didn’t volunteer for the role – I was ‘voluntold’.  Once I’d recovered from the initial shock of discovering what my new job would entail I began to get excited about it.  I’d seen countless Hollywood films that demonstrate how it’s done - the hero, armed with only wire cutters discovers a large bomb with a digital clock helpfully counting down the seconds to detonation, he and it’s always a ‘he’, quickly unclips the cover to reveal a blue wire, a red wire and a small flashing light to show that it’s live.  It’s decision time…  One snip to the correct wire is all it takes to switch off the flashing light and the world is a safe place once again.  You just need to know which wire to cut first.  I was therefore disappointed to discover that it’s not quite like that in real life, in fact, I was taught to avoid cutting any colour wires at all and whenever I built a bomb to test others, I made all the wires red ones.  You really can’t place your trust in Hollywood; you need faith in something more reliable.  As the Psalm says “The Lord will keep you from all harm – he will watch over your life”.

Before beginning my training I somewhat naively assumed that I would be given a detailed step-by-step guide showing me how to defuse a bomb.  There is a step-by-step guide to many things in the Army so all I needed was the reassurance of an instruction book, preferably with pictures.  It turns out that there is no safe step-by-step method to defusing anything.  The bomb-makers are constantly innovating to stay one step ahead in the deadly competition between bomb designers and bomb disposal operators.  What worked yesterday may be the death of you today. 

As an illustrated manual wasn’t on offer to help me, I was taught a variety of techniques that might be applicable to the circumstances around me.  I was shown how to use equipment such as X-rays and tracked robots and yes, wire cutters, so that when the time came I could choose for myself which piece of kit might help and how I might approach the problem.  I was constantly reminded not to put my faith in any one piece of equipment since it may be destroyed by the first bomb and therefore not be available for the second or third one.  That in which we trust not only needs to be reliable it needs to be constant. 

Later, as a qualified Bomb Disposal Officer, I would take the ‘Long Walk’ that lonely journey towards a live bomb.  You go alone so only one life is at risk; it’s usually a few hundred metres but it always feels a very, very long way.  My first ‘Long Walk’ was in the middle of the night one cold February when I emerged from an armoured vehicle and walked towards a 40ft pipe mine deep in a trench I had just dug remotely.  There were a dozen people nearby but all were behind the safety that inches of steel armour plating can provide.  I wasn’t even wearing a helmet but despite being so exposed I didn’t feel defenceless.  I knew that God was with me every step of the way, he always will be.  The shield of faith protects us from a dangerous missile, that of uncertainty.  Keeping a shield of faith held high means doubt is deflected and is our reminder of the confidence that God provides for us, God protects us, God is faithful and constant.

Working in such a dangerous job I imagined that wearing a high-tech Kevlar bomb suit with its massive breastplate, strengthened helmet and thick visor would help me, I would feel protected, safe behind the heavy armour.  However, the bomb suit was designed to protect me from just a few ounces of explosive and not the 1000lb iron bombs I was training on.  I quickly discovered that the armoured suit wasn’t and still isn’t designed for women.  It really didn’t fit the female form and particularly not mine.  The chest plate was too long, so it hung down well below my hips, which prevented me from sitting or kneeling properly.  It was also too wide, so my arms stuck out like a scarecrow and when I bent forwards it overlapped and locked against the groin plate, so I just toppled over and head-butted the rocket I was trying to deal with.  The weight of it then slumped me sideways and I couldn’t manoeuvre either my arms or legs beneath me to get back up again so I was dragged to safety by the low-tech rope tied around my waist.  In the event I never wore the bomb suit on operations.  “Where does my help comes from?  My help comes from the Lord”.

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul recommends that we stand firm with the belt of truth buckled around our waist, the breastplate of righteousness in place and with feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.

We are told to put on the full armour of God to take our stand against the devil’s schemes.  Evil, like the bomb maker, is constantly innovating.  The full armour of man, not just physical armour but armour in every sense of the word, is sadly lacking, as many have come to realise over the last three years.   

As well as learning not to rush to cut the red wire, my bomb disposal training also taught me that I wouldn’t be defusing anything – the official term is ‘rendering safe’ so a plan to defuse a bomb becomes ‘a render safe procedure’. Rendering safe means more than the mere removal of danger, it implies security, reassurance and lasting peace, all of which the world needs now, more than ever.

We are gathered today with the armour of faith around us and the readiness to proclaim the gospel of peace.  Together we remember all those whose lives have been lost to war.  Christ, the Prince of peace, gave his life to render us safe. It is his example we should follow and develop our own render safe procedures to bring lasting peace.