Monday 23 October 2017

John Gaff

Bomb disposal expert in NI who defused a booby-trapped device and was awarded a George Medal

Lieutenant-Colonel John Gaff , who has died aged 86, was in overall command of all bomb disposal units during his posting to Northern Ireland in the Seventies and was awarded a George Medal.

In 1974 Gaff was posted to the North as Chief Ammunition Technical Officer and was the Explosives Ordnance Disposal adviser to the General Officer Commanding Northern Ireland during one of the most active periods of the insurgency.

On March 21, he was summoned to the railway signal box at Dunloy Halt, where three armed men had placed a bomb; a second bomb was on the railway track. He quickly defused the bomb on the track. The bomb in the signal box, however, was suspected to be booby-trapped. For nearly eight hours Gaff investigated every inch of the site despite the great danger.

Then he noticed a small bump under a piece of linoleum in a stairwell in the signal box building. This turned out to be the booby trap pressure switch. Gaff had to place disruptive equipment alongside the pressure switch, knowing that the slightest pressure in the wrong place would detonate the device.

After the booby trap circuit had been disrupted, he found 70lb of explosive charge under the stairs. The successful neutralisation of the bomb, after nearly 15 hours of hazardous work, avoided damage to the signal box and kept open a vitally important railway line.

Gaff was awarded a George Medal "for the outstanding personal courage and devotion to duty which he demonstrated throughout his tour of NI in an extremely hazardous and highly technical field of operations".

John Maurice Gaff was born at Guildford, England, on May 27, 1927, and educated at the Royal Grammar School in the town. His sense of adventure was evident early on. Aged 10, he used up a week's pocket money for his first trip in an aeroplane, a 30-minute flight in a De Havilland Dragon Rapide.

When in his teens he fashioned a snorkel out of an Army gas mask, tied two bricks around his waist and, with a friend in a ferry boat holding the hose through which he was breathing, walked along the bed of the river Wey.

In 1944 he volunteered to join the Army and, in 1946, was commissioned into the Queen's Royal Regiment. Shortly after being posted to the 1/6th Battalion in Palestine, he transferred to the Parachute Regiment and joined 9 Parachute Battalion.

Gaff's battalion, renamed 8/9 Para Battalion, returned to England in 1948. He was then posted to the Demonstration & Experimental Company at Netheravon.

After a posting to RAF Cardington, where he trained parachute territorials in balloon descents, Gaff obtained a regular commission in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps and qualified as an Inspecting Ordnance Officer -- later designated Ammunition Technical Officer.

He served at a base ammunition depot at Singapore during the Malaya Emergency. He returned to Britain in 1957 for a series of home appointments, interspersed with postings to Berlin and Westphalia.

In 1974, he was sent to Northern Ireland. Rapid development of equipment and methods of response became essential in the face of constant changes in IRA tactics. Much time and effort was employed in countering car bombs and the kidnapping of car drivers and their families.

Cars were driven into barracks and drivers ordered to throw away the keys. Gaff organised the construction of "panic pits" which allowed the driver to get clear from the car before it exploded.

On one occasion, Gaff became stuck in a petrol tanker with an unexploded device, but extricated himself by stripping down to his underclothes and squeezing through the inspection hatch.

In May 1975, after 31 years' service, Gaff resigned from the Army and set up a consultancy offering training and equipment for bomb disposal.

In 1998 he sold the business and became secretary and treasurer of the Gallantry Medallists' League. He was later elected president, a position he held for six years. He also worked as divisional secretary for SSAFA Forces Help.

John Gaff died on November 28, 2013. He had married, in 1950, Christine Brown, who survives him with their daughter and two sons.

Irish Independent

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News