Published in Britain at War in August 2022.
Staff Sergeant Olaf Sean George Schmid GC
For decades, I have admired what I call the “cold courage” of bomb disposal experts. They repeatedly face incredible dangers, having to make life-or-death decisions as they deal with bombs and other explosive devices that are designed to kill and maim. Few bomb disposal officers have ever been confronted with such an arduous tour of duty as that faced by Staff Sergeant Olaf “Oz” Schmid in Afghanistan in 2009, and the levels of gallantry that he displayed day in and day out simply defy belief. I am the proud custodian of the Schmid medal group having purchased it privately a few years ago.
Olaf Sean George Schmid was born in Truro, Cornwall, on June 11 1979. The elder of two sons with an older stepbrother, he was the son of a German mother and a Swedish father who had moved to Cornwall to own and run a hotel. Young Schmid attended Polwhele School and Penair School, both in Truro, and became head chorister at Truro Cathedral in 1993.
He left school at 16 and first worked as a chef serving with the Royal Logistic Corps (RLC). However, he later took an interest in bomb disposal work and was posted to 11 Explosive Ordnance Disposal Regiment, RLC. He was deployed to Northern Ireland, Bosnia and the Falklands, working his way up from an ammunition technician. In addition, he became commando-and paratrooper-trained. Married in 2007 and with a young stepson, he passed his high-threat improvised explosive device disposal (IEDD) course in 2008, was promoted to Staff Sergeant and joined 11 Explosive Ordnance Disposal Regiment, RLC. During his subsequent deployment to Afghanistan, he served with 821 Squadron Alpha Troop, which provided bomb disposal capability for Special Forces.
Schmid, who was known to his comrades as ‘Oz’, went to Helmand Province in June 2009 at the time when Taliban activity against the British forces was at a peak. The threat of IEDs had increased by some 400 per cent compared with 18 months earlier. Schmid deployed during Operation Panther’s Claw and immediately went into the fray in what the Army described as one of “the most physically draining, mentally intense and hazardous jobs in Helmand”.
Schmid usually had to deploy on foot which meant he rarely had the luxury of using remote-controlled vehicles, while the intense heat meant he often decided against wearing specialist protective clothing. He spent long periods in close proximity to victim operated improvised explosive devices (VOIEDs), meaning he was constantly in great personal danger. During his five months in Helmand, Schmid responded to 42 IED tasks (alerts) and personally dealt with 70 confirmed IEDs. On numerous occasions, Schmid showed quite exceptional courage to help his comrades, but three incidents perhaps stand out from the rest.
An infantry company based in Wishtan Province became isolated by a substantial minefield and the infamous Pharmacy Road, the only resupply route, was blocked by two vehicles that had been blown up by IEDs. Intelligence, first-hand experience and unexplained explosions indicated the whole area was laced with IEDs. Schmid started work at 8 a.m. on August 9 2009 in temperatures of 45 degrees C. Within 100 metres, he found and cleared the first IED. Then, when he was within 100 metres of the two vehicles, he decided to use a remote controlled vehicles (RCV) and remote explosive clearance devices. The RCV hit an IED and was destroyed yet Schmid pressed forward well inside the lethal arc of the device and manually placed explosive charges, clearing a route to within five metres of the abandoned vehicles. Schmid’s team then moved to clear a compound adjacent to the two vehicles in order to drag them off the road.
After a second IED was found, Schmid made a second manual approach and quickly disposed of the device. A fresh approach was made – using explosives – so that the two vehicles could be dragged clear. It was Schmid who painstakingly cleared the route up to both vehicles during a one-hour stint in which he used only his eyesight and his knowledge of enemy tactics. Schmid decided against explosive clearance and instead put heavy chains on the stricken vehicles, which were likely to be booby-trapped, to drag them clear. As the light faded, Schmid then led a high-risk clearance of the road where the vehicles had been, manually disposing of two further IEDs. The entire clearance took 11 physically, mentally and emotionally draining hours, but the road was finally reopened and the company resupplied. The success of the operation was largely due to one courageous, selfless man: Olaf Schmid.
On October 8 2009, Schmid was dispatched to Sangin District Centre to deal with an unexploded artillery shell reported by Afghan National Army (ANA) troops. On arrival, Schmid was led directly to the device where he realised that he, the soldiers and civilians in the bustling bazaar were all in great danger. The danger intensified when Schmid assessed that it was a radio-controlled IED which meant there was a strong likelihood that the enemy was watching and a bomber was choosing when to detonate it. Schmid immediately decided to neutralise the bomb manually – a tactic only to be employed in the gravest circumstances and at huge risk to the operator. Schmid, whose action was a success, had put his own life on the line again to save the lives of numerous Afghan civilians.
By the end of October, Schmid was involved in an operation near Forward Operating Base (FOB) Jackson, which was in Battle Group North’s area. On October 31 2009, Schmid had already dealt with three IEDs when a searcher discovered a command wire running down the alleyway they were using. Schmid and his team were trapped in the alleyway, not knowing in which direction the IED had been placed. Schmid seized the initiative and eventually traced the wire to a complex command wire IED which incorporated three linked and buried main charges. As he dealt with the device, it exploded, killing him. He had sacrificed his life – aged 30 – for the sake of his comrades.
Perhaps the most moving of many tributes to Schmid came from Lieutenant Colonel Robert Thomson, the Commanding Officer of 2 Rifles Battle Group, who said: “Staff Sergeant Oz Schmid was simply the bravest and most courageous man I have ever met. Under relentless IED and small arms attacks he stood taller than the tallest…Every single company in 2 Rifles adored working with him. I adored working with him. No matter how difficult or lethal the task which lay in front of us, he was the man who only saw solutions. He saved lives in 2 Rifles time after time and for that he will retain a very special place in every heart of every Rifleman in our extraordinary Battle Group. Superlatives do not do the man justice. Better than the best. Better than the best of the best.”
Christina Schmid, the victim’s widow and the mother of his five-year-old stepson Laird, said after her husband’s death: “Oz was a phenomenal husband and loving father who was cruelly murdered on his last day of a relentless five-month tour. He was my best friend and soulmate. The pain of losing him is overwhelming. I take comfort knowing he saved countless lives with his hard work. I am so proud of him.”
Mrs Schmid became hugely respected nationwide with her show of defiance when Schmid’s remains were flown back to Britain and his coffin was paraded through Wootton Bassett, Wiltshire. She stood proudly in the High Street as the hearse carrying his coffin passed the war memorial.
On November 24 2009, more than 1,000 family, friends, comrades and admirers attended the funeral service for Schmid at Truro Cathedral. Mrs Schmid said her husband had believed in “traditional warrior values” and had wanted to protect the country he loved. “Olaf lived and stood for something he believed in. And in the end he paid the ultimate sacrifice for those beliefs.”
Schmid’s GC was announced on March 18 2010 – one day ahead of it being formally published in the London Gazette – when the citation ended: “His selfless gallantry, his devotion to duty, and his indefatigable courage displayed time and time again saved countless military and civilian lives and is worthy of the highest recognition.”
In May 2010, Mrs Schmid presented a Panorama television programme, A Very British Hero, which questioned whether the Army had failed in its duty of care to her late husband. In the programme, she revealed the contents of a letter from her husband written shortly before he died. It read: “Staying alive is like a lottery and patrolling the Afghan badlands is playing Russian roulette with your feet.”
In June 2010, Mrs Schmid received her husband’s GC from the Queen at Buckingham Palace. She was accompanied to the private ceremony by her then six-year-old son and her parents. Afterwards, Mrs Schmid released a statement quoting Thucydides, the Greek historian: ‘The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out to meet it.” She added: “The George Cross serves as a reminder of all the endurance and sacrifice of all our servicemen and women out there on the ground now. In heralding and awarding Oz, one soldier, I hope it serves to raise the status of each and every one of them.”
In an interview with me for my book George Cross Heroes, conducted after she received her husband’s posthumous award, Mrs Schmid described how she was so determined to show pride and defiance – rather than break down in tears – when her husband’s body was repatriated to Britain. “It was an absolute promise to Oz. He had told me numerous times during his last tour that the likelihood was he was not coming back. When we moved house during the tour, he even said: ‘Don’t unpack my stuff. The likelihood is that I am not coming back.” He also said: “Will you go to Wootton Bassett if I come in [dead]? I want you to stand there and be bloody proud that I am your husband and that you supported me in all the adversity. Even if I am blown up, I want you to show that our love has not been blown up.’ And I said: ‘Yes. I will be there’.”
She said the passing of time made it harder, not easier, to come to terms with her husband’s death. The couple had been planning a new life in Schmid’s home county of Cornwall before he was killed. She said of her late husband, “He told me, ‘Men walk away with medals but I just want to walk away with my life – and my legs – from this tour.’ But it was not to be.”