From bomb-disposal to preaching Christ
The military clearance diver is used to working in dark, cold and hazardous conditions. He invariably works alone in dealing with unpredictable explosive ordnances (usually underwater mines) while operating his complex breathing apparatus. A combination of extensive training, experience and meticulous attention to tried and tested procedures, have developed a hard-won capability with an impressive record of operational success.
Every incident, however, brings its own unique challenges. One miserable Friday evening in late November, the call came to a suspected ‘bomb’ in the deep-water sump of a working gasometer in the East London gasworks at Beckton. The stage for this drama had been set many years before I was born. The German 500kg SC (Sprengbombe Cylindrisch) bomb had failed to detonate as it passed through Gasometer 4 at Beckton in 1941. It had remained unnoticed until the broken nose section wrought a small hole in the skin of the holder, forty feet down in the deep sump of the gasworks.
As the bomb-disposal commander and leader of the clearance diving team, I had a very short space of time to develop a safe and rational plan to resolve numerous complex issues in which the consequences of a bad decision were very serious indeed. Roads were closed, houses and shops were evacuated and cordons established. Using an improvised air-lock entry, my small team entered the massive, cavernous and filthy, odorous gasometer.
The initial dive took me deliberately quickly through a layer of old oil and scum at the surface and into slightly less contaminated water beneath. Unfortunately, some of this surface gunge caused a malfunction in my breathing apparatus: my first breath ingested a lung-full of the foul mixture through which I was diving.
Close to panic, 10 metres below and conscious that my colleagues at the surface were blissfully unaware of my crisis, I found myself praying, handing the whole situation to a God I had never previously acknowledged. What a great sense of peace and composure as I knew that my creator God was not going to let this end in my drowning. Almost involuntarily, I regurgitated everything I could, and then some more, while holding firm to the mouthpiece in my teeth. The effect was to clear the contamination from around the offending diaphragm in the demand valve, allowing it to seal correctly and deliver the most welcome blast of clean air from the cylinders.
The beginnings of faith
‘Good drills, Boss,’ was the verdict of my fellow divers sometime later. But I know in my heart that God had answered my prayers and saved me that day. I know that because it wasn’t simply a physical rescue, I was a changed man spiritually. I knew that my God had purposed his call to me in that desperate moment. God had prepared me for all of this and his name should be given the glory for it. That sense of God’s call was with me from that moment: it is still with me today.
After the event (which was highly successful) I was full of my new-found faith. Having ‘found God’ as a moderately senior officer in the British Army, I am certain I was a ‘pain’ to some, and the object of some ridicule to others. Good Christian friends were very pleased to see the change in my lifestyle and character. Through them, I was soon to realise that I was still missing something of fundamental importance. I had not really ‘found’ God, merely learned that he was real, relevant and that he cared, even for me.
Not long afterwards, I was deployed on a second tour to the Falkland Islands for six months. Looking after those old minefields and a few other staff duties did not keep me very busy. It was a great opportunity to attach myself to a Bible study group meeting next to the chapel in the new military complex. Two young RAF lads were running the studies, and I sat at the back. I wanted to get a proper understanding of the claims and convictions of this Christian faith before making any commitment.
It did not take long. Within two months, I was the one sitting at the front running the study. The RAF lads had returned to the UK, and I was asked to take it on. There is truth in the adage that there is no better way to learn than to teach. Not that it was without some difficult questioning on my part. Most importantly, I learned that I was a sinner with no way of reconciliation to God except through Christ Jesus, who went to the cross and died, bearing the full penalty for all human sin, including my own. Only through him could I be forgiven and be brought to an everlasting relationship with God.
I have relished learning and growing in Christ through God’s amazing Word. The book of Romans was the first book of the Bible I read, and remains something of a favourite, for my own development and in teaching the gospel to others. Crucially I came to Romans 10:9 as my personal prayer of commitment that December evening in 1988.
If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
Having become a true Christian, I’m sure I was still a real pain to some, but I sensed I was less ridiculed than before and taken more seriously by most. The expectation was for me ‘to leave the Army and become a vicar.’ But, back to the call in the gasometer, I knew I was where God wanted me to be, and I remained in the great privileged mission field of the Bomb Disposal community in the British Army. God had a plan to bring many to faith as we coped with the most demanding operations, culminating in the Taliban IED (improvised explosive device) threat in Afghanistan. We came through for the Lord.