Interview with Hamish de Bretton-Gordon

Chemical weapons expert turned Cambridge don reflects on conspiracy theorists in academia, making safe a 60-tonne bomb with science and breaking the world press-up record

June 10, 2021
Hamish de Bretton-Gordon

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon was formerly commanding officer of the British Army’s Joint Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Regiment. He is currently a visiting fellow at Magdalene College, Cambridge. His memoir, Chemical Warrior: Syria, Salisbury and saving lives at war, was published in paperback last month.

Where and when were you born?
Crowborough, East Sussex in September 1963.

How has this shaped you?
It didn’t. What is more important is that I’m from a very military, nomadic family – I was a soldier for 23 years; both of my grandfathers were soldiers; and two of my great-grandfathers were soldiers. With my parents living abroad, I went away to boarding school in Kent aged six until I was nearly 19 and had a fantastic time.

What type of undergraduate were you?
One of the ironies of being a fellow at Magdalene is that I was a hopeless student – I have a couple of O levels and two poor A levels to rub together, and a third-class degree in agriculture from the University of Reading. I knew I was joining the army, so university was a means to an end – I was only interested in playing rugby and rowing.

You later took an MSc at the Australian Defence College. Did you have time for sport then?
I did. As I was very good at rugby, I ended up playing semi-professional Aussie rules football, which seemed to fit the bill for a Pom in Melbourne.

Nevertheless, you seem to have made good use of your scientific training while in the army.
I have had two good scientific ideas in my life – both while I was in Afghanistan. One involved a massive fertiliser bomb that was found in a cellar near an army base – if it had gone off, it would been equivalent to about 60 tonnes of TNT and would have killed thousands. To synthesise poppies into heroin, you need a huge amount of toxic chemicals, and they were left bubbling away, so I was asked to sort it. I figured if we had large amounts of acids and alkalines, we could mix them together to create pH7. It was a risk, but it worked, and we just chucked it all in the river. The other involved using PCR tests to link DNA found on bombs and bullets to terrorist suspects. Previously we were sending swabs back to the UK, which took 14 days; but using mobile PCR machines in Afghanistan we reduced this process to a couple of days.

Why did you leave the army?
I’d seen a confidential report that said I was a ‘brilliant commander but a maverick’. Once the Ministry of Defence had marked you that way, you’re finished. Or used to be – they actually want more mavericks these days.

Since leaving the army, you have trained doctors in Syria to collect evidence of chemical weapons attacks. Was it possible to involve scientists or academics in this work, too?
One of the great tragedies of this war is that so many Syrian academics have fled or been killed. Syria’s population, before the conflict, was highly educated, with a huge number of brilliant medical people. Now that diaspora, many of whom work in the NHS or in Turkey, is still helping Syrians – but will we ever be able to convince them to go back? I hope so.

Why is it so important to collect this evidence?
The trouble with any crime scene is that unless it is secured almost immediately, it is very easy for people to adjust, move or add to evidence. But if you want the United Nations or anyone to do anything, you need evidence with a custodial chain. If there is any break in it, or anything has been done wrong, the evidence is worthless. I was asking people to do very dangerous things to get samples out. Many who have done amazingly brave things will never get any recognition apart from the fact that they helped the Syrian people, and I believe we have made a difference.

Is it not time to recognise that Bashar al-Assad has won the Syrian conflict?
I think the Syrian people are being let down by the international community. As a soldier, I fought in Iraq many times, and in Afghanistan – for what, in retrospect, weren’t very good reasons – but Syria is a Mediterranean country, where the Islamic State grew up and where jihadi terror that affects us back in the UK has taken root. When we had an opportunity in 2013 to do something, we didn’t, and Assad has now killed at least half a million of his own people. Anything we can do to help pick up the pieces is important.

What are you working on at Magdalene?
We’re looking at humanitarian aid from a military perspective. Sometimes soldiers are needed to cut off the head of a snake, but as we saw in Afghanistan, we also need to feed, treat and administer all these people. If I had my way, the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign Office and aid agencies would be more closely aligned on rebuilding efforts. I’m also looking at biosecurity and setting up capabilities to prevent the next pandemic by putting my bioweapons experience to bear on this issue.

What do you make of the false claims made against you by academics – including that you’ve fabricated evidence of chemical weapons use and that you’re a spy?
I’ve coined them the useful idiots. There are professors at UK universities spouting Russian and Syrian propaganda. One would expect sensible, educated people to see through it, but they don’t. The problem is that there is a real quality in quantity; if you say things often enough, people start believing it.

Tell us something unusual about yourself.
I once held the world record for press-ups – 4,489 in three hours. It was after the first Gulf War and we were stuck in the desert for three months. I’d watched a documentary about a prisoner who’d been sent to jail for three years and decided to break the press-up record; on his last day inside, he did it. I got a load of soldiers and trained them up to attempt the record; bizarrely no one else got anywhere near it, but I flew through it.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com


Appointments

Ken Sloan has been named the next vice-chancellor of Harper Adams University. Professor Sloan will join the agricultural institution in November, succeeding David Llewellyn, who is retiring after 12 years as vice-chancellor. He is currently deputy vice-chancellor (enterprise and governance) at Monash University in Melbourne, and previously served as registrar and chief operating officer at the University of Warwick. “To have the opportunity to lead a university that has a mission to provide sustainable means to feed the growing global population will be a privilege,” Professor Sloan said.

Christopher Chao is joining Hong Kong Polytechnic University as vice-president (research and innovation) at the start of September. He is currently dean of engineering and chair professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Hong Kong, having earlier spent more than 20 years at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, including as head of the department of mechanical and aerospace engineering. Jin-Guang Teng, PolyU’s president, hailed Professor Chao as “an enthusiastic researcher, a distinguished scholar and a visionary academic leader”.

Leon Terry has been promoted to pro vice-chancellor for research and innovation at Cranfield University. He is currently director of environment and agrifood at the institution. Cranfield’s School of Management has also named Kevin Morrell, currently professor of strategy at Durham University, its inaugural Rowlands chair of transformational strategy.

Vicki Stott will be the next chief executive of the UK’s Quality Assurance Agency and will succeed Douglas Blackstock when he steps down in the autumn. She is currently the QAA’s executive director of operations and deputy chief executive.

Gerard Olinger has been appointed vice-president for student affairs at the University of Notre Dame. He previously held the same role at the University of Portland, and is currently Notre Dame’s vice-president for mission engagement and church affairs.

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