b. 16/03/1928 Crawley, Sussex. d. 01/08/2006 Abingdon, Oxfordshire
DATE AND PLACE OF GC ACTION: 20/22/10/1971 Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Stephen George Styles (1928-2006), known as George, was born on 16th March 1928 in Crawley, Sussex, the son of Stephen and Grace Styles (nee Preston). His father worked as a bricklayer, and he had a sister, Joy. As a young boy, George suffered an accident which following complications, left him seriously ill. He was left having to learn how to walk again, and with the support of his maternal grandfather he achieved it. After elementary school, he earned a scholarship to Collyers Grammar School in Horsham. It was whilst he was at school that he met his future wife, Mary Woolgar. They married in 1952, and had a son and two daughters.
He was called up for National Service in 1946 and after officer cadet training was commissioned into the RAOC (now the Royal Logistics Corps) and posted to the Army's central ammunition depot at Kineton, near Banbury. In 1949 Styles obtained a regular commission and was seconded to the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry to gain infantry experience. He served with the 1st Battalion in the Malayan Emergency of 1949-51 and was Mentioned in Despatches.
Back home Styles studied for a degree in Engineering at the Royal Military College of Science before being posted back to Malaya to take command of the 28th Commonwealth Brigade Ordnance Field Park Regiment, based at Taiping. A posting to Germany with 1st British Corps followed before Styles moved to Northern Ireland in 1969 as deputy assistant director of ordnance services.
As the senior ammunition technical officer, Styles, then a major in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, was responsible for the supervision of Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) teams dealing with the increasing number of explosive devices used in the terrorist campaign. In September 1971 the first of what became known as IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) was discovered at Castlerobin, County Antrim. In the course of trying to dismantle it, one of Styles's close colleagues was killed.
What the IEDs lacked in power they made up for in ingenuity, and it became clear that their main purpose was to kill EOD members who tried to disarm them. When, eventually, one of these devices was recovered intact, the radiograph showed microswitches at the top and bottom of the box so that if it was lifted, tilted or the lid opened, the bomb would explode.
Styles gave the order for an identical model to be built with a light bulb substituted for the detonator. He took this device home and worked on it in his kitchen until the bulb lit up. "I would have been dead," he said later. But something that a science teacher had said during a lesson years before came back to him and, after a long night, he believed that he had found a way to deal with the IEDs - at least in theory.
On October 20th 1971 Styles was called to deal with a device that had been placed in a public telephone booth at the bar of the Europa Hotel, a 12-storey building in the centre of Belfast. Having made sure that the military and the police had cordoned off and evacuated the area, Styles, assisted by two RAOC officers, took charge of the operation of disarming and removing the bomb.
The radiograph showed that it contained more than 10 lb of explosive, and Styles realised that until the electrical circuit had been dealt with, the slightest false move might detonate it. He decided to disarm the bomb in stages, each one requiring meticulous planning and execution before he proceeded to the next. At last he was able to fix a line around the device and gingerly pull it a distance of some 18 ft before drawing it a further 30 ft out of the hotel and on to the pavement. The whole operation took seven hours and was completed successfully.
Styles refused to divulge details of his theory, proved under these testing conditions, but he recalled later how he had felt: "You couldn't avoid the feeling of menace each time you walked towards that telephone box. Inside it was enough energy to blow your head from your shoulders, your arms and legs from your trunk, and your trunk straight through the plate glass windows of the Europa."
He was sure that he knew the identity of the bomb-maker and was just as certain that the man would not take this defeat lying down but try again. Two days later Styles was called back to deal with a bomb containing a charge of almost 40 lb of explosive. After analysing the radiograph, Styles realised that the device had the same circuitry as the earlier IEDs, but this time a jumble of complex wiring and microswitches had been added to try to confuse the EOD team. Inscribed in small letters on it were "Tee-Hee, Hee-Hee, Ho-Ho, Ha-Ha". Styles's men worked for nine intense hours until the bomb was disarmed and removed, to the sound of Some Enchanted Evening wafting from the hotel's Muzak system, and then dismantled.
"Throughout each operation," his citation concluded, "Major Styles displayed a calm resolution in control and a degree of technical skill and personal bravery in circumstances of great danger far beyond the call of duty." Styles was invested with the George Cross by the Queen at Buckingham Palace on March 28th 1972.
In the year following the operations in the Europa Hotel, teams under Styles's command dismantled more than 1,000 explosive devices in Northern Ireland and destroyed as many more by controlled detonation. Valuable technical information was obtained over this period that would help to save the lives of operators confronted with these devices in the future.
On leaving Northern Ireland in 1972 Styles was promoted lieutenant-colonel and appointed chief ammunition technical officer (EOD), responsible for the RAOC bomb disposal teams throughout the world. When he attended a dinner for bomb disposal men back in the safety of the Ordnance Corps' training centre at Camberley, a pudding named Improvised Explosive Delight was on the menu.
After retiring from the Army in 1974 he served on the boards of several companies advising on anti-terrorist measures. For many years Styles campaigned energetically for a change in the design of commercial detonators in order to preclude their use in IEDs. His expertise in explosives was called upon in other fields. When construction at Dungeness nuclear power station was completed, the cost of dismantling the giant 1,100-ton crane was judged to be prohibitively expensive, and it was decided to demolish it. Because of the proximity to the power station, it was essential that the ground shock of the demolition be kept to a minimum.
Styles recommended collapsing the structure into an area of shingle to absorb the shock and detonating a series of charges to break the rigid joints of the crane while it was still falling. So light was the impact that a cup which had been placed on one of the legs of the crane remained undamaged. In 1975 he wrote “Bombs Have No Pity”, the publication of which was delayed for several months at the request of the judge in a Birmingham bomb trial.
Three years later Styles attracted more publicity when he complained, after taking part in the television documentary Death on the Rock about the shooting of three IRA men by the SAS, that it lacked balance. In retirement, Styles enjoyed rifle and game shooting and cataloguing his collection of rare cartridges.
George passed away, aged 78, in Abingdon, Oxfordshire on 1st August 2006. He was cremated at the Sussex and Surrey Crematorium in Crawley, and in accordance with his wishes, his ashes were scattered over his parents’s grave in Snell Hatch Cemetery, Crawley. Some of his ashes were also scattered over his grandparents’ grave in Belfast, Northern Ireland. George’s medal group including his GC, General Service Medal 1918-62 with “Malaya” clasp and Mentioned in Despatches oakleaf, General Service Medal 1962 with clasp “Northern Ireland”, QEII Silver Jubilee Medal 1977 and QEII Golden Jubilee Medal 2002 are on display in the Ashcroft Gallery at the Imperial War Museum, who also own his No 2 Dress Tunic, Sam Browne VC Belt and hat.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: LORD ASHCROFT GALLERY, IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM, LONDON.
BURIAL PLACE: SUSSEX AND SURREY CREMATORIUM, CRAWLEY, SUSSEX.
ASHES SCATTERED ON PARENTS GRAVE AT SNELL HATCH CEMETERY, CRAWLEY.
SECTION M GRAVE 18
Stephen George Styles' medals at the Lord Ashcroft Gallery, Imperial War Museum, London (December 2014).
The Europa Hotel in January 2017, the scene of Stephen Styles' George Cross action (Alastair Kennedy-Rose)
Please note images of the Styles family grave are courtesy of Paul Prendergast