UK’s First Female Bomb Disposal Expert gives Talk to WI in Wansford

Stibbington & Wansford Women’s Institute welcomed a very different presenter to its monthly meeting on Tuesday, 12 July 2022. Previous WI presentations on subjects such as beekeeping, designing knitting patterns and cultivating blueberries entered a whole new genre with a talk given by Lucy Lewis, the UK’s first female bomb disposal expert. Given that WI presentations aim to educate, you may wonder if the subject of bomb disposal was likely to be of use to her audience but, after listening to the presentation, perhaps the main lesson to be learned from Lucy was that a self-disciplined and focused mind can do anything.
Lucy’s bomb disposal days were just over 20 years ago but the publication of her book ‘Lighting the Fuse’ published by Orion in 2021 has led her to present to groups those years of her life when her work in bomb disposal could be compared to a scary game of ‘Russian roulette’ and, in her words, she was lucky. I note that her book is not only dedicated to her family but also to a colleague who was not so lucky and whose life ended at the age of 29.
The path that took her there was clearly a sense of adventure which developed through her time travelling around South America, sailing up the Amazon and then embarking upon a 2-year voyage around the world in a tall ship, the Zebu, with Operation Raleigh during which time Lucy never quite developed sea legs and was constantly nauseous. After that, life back in the UK seemed rather dull working in airport security and so, after a stint with the Territorial Army in 1988, Lucy rather incredulously (her word) found herself arriving at Sandhurst for officer cadet training after being selected as one of 48 women in her year alongside 380 men. Lucy gave an account of her time at Sandhurst with hilarious stories of how she and her fellow officer cadets survived the training college’s formal dinners where the high jinks of all ranks were the order of the day, presumably designed to test creativity and resilience, as well as her disasters in learning how to use a gun as their standard provision of a Browning 9mm pistol is designed to accommodate a larger, man’s hand. She was also able to get through a total of 7 ironing boards during her time there because of the Army’s stringent rules on officer uniforms with the expectation to have impeccably ironed shirts, skirts and trousers. Lucy went on to learn how to defuse and wire mines, defuse bombs, deal with chemical weapons, how best to cross a minefield (by crawling through it rather than round it), blow up bridges, and how to wire a fridge for maximum effect on opening its door (I liked her up to that point!).
Lucy went on to serve with the Women’s Royal Army Corps and the Royal Military Police. She served in Northern Ireland (her most challenging time), Cyprus, Germany, the UK and also worked in Jordan on a special project for the Jordanian Royal Family. Her talk referenced the many bombs that remain deep under cover in London and explained that the complexity of bombs today is more challenging than those of WW1 and WW2 when they were conveniently coded on their casing and easier to identify.
Life after bomb disposal has led Lucy to be appointed Cambridge University Marshall in 2018, and she was the first women to hold the role since it was established on 7 December 1620. Part of the role of the University Marshall is to participate in Cambridge University graduation ceremonies and to carry a 400-year-old mace. In her words, Lucy describes the ceremonies as a piece of theatre which is conducted entirely in Latin. It sounds a world away from her days in bomb disposal with the risks that she and her colleagues were trained and willing to take. In her book’s acknowledgements Lucy thanked the Zebu, the tall ship that took her round the world, and her fellow venturers who sparked something in her all those years ago teaching her that she was capable of more. Well done, Lucy – and thank you for coming to Wansford!
Marie Lewis
Stibbington & Wansford WI