Durness village, on Scotland’s remote north-west coast, is almost deafeningly quiet and really beautiful. It’s popular swith visitors, attracted by the rugged Highland scenery and abundant wildlife. But if you visit when the military are around, things are slightly different.
By ‘different’, think 105mm light field guns, low-flying jets and all sizes of gunboats offshore, each lobbing a variety of high-explosive ordnance on to a small, rocky islet a few miles away across the bay. This is the Cape Wrath Live Firing Range, a regularly used training location for the military from various countries. Land Rovers play a significant role in making all of this happen safely.
Among the countries on exercise when I visited were Germany, France, USA and Britain. Controlling all of this – and safely co-ordinating single or multiple firing – is the Range Manager, Comdt. Dave Halpen. Dave lives in Dornoch over on the east coast and travels across – on one of the most scenic commutes imaginable – to manage the various activities.
It’s a job with great responsibility. Safety is paramount, and when you see what
a large shell from a frigate can do, you’ll understand why.
Just occasionally, they undertake synchronised firing, ie when the 105mm field guns, jets and naval ships all lay down fire in a co-ordinated pattern on one spot. ‘Devastating’ is the only word for it.
The range is controlled from a tower on Faraid Head, reached by crossing a couple of miles of magnificent beach and dunes. Because of its military use, a few hundred yards of the steeper hill track have been metalled for protection, but most of the access route is over deep, soft sand. Dave uses a 90 Td5
to ensure he makes it across the beach and up to the clifftop.
From here, his team have a commanding view of the field guns below, ships offshore, jets zipping across and – most importantly – the spot where
all the munitions land. One of their main tasks is to count the number of hits and estimate how many rounds may not have detonated so they can be cleared later.
The effect of all this activity on the area is interesting. The seabird community, mostly fulmars and puffins, become used to the muffled booms and get on with the business of raising their young.
Durness village benefits greatly.
Up to 200 people are involved in the exercises, more than 100 of whom stay in local B&Bs and hotels. All the fuel for the multitude of vehicles is bought locally, and several jobs are created for local residents.
Conscious of their environmental responsibilities, all those involved are under strict instructions to minimise environmental damage. As such, there are few places in the UK where birdwatchers may stand fairly close to a 105mm cannon firing live rounds, then turn to watch puffins come ashore to feed their young.
But this is only part of the story – the easy and relatively safe part. Fact is, what goes up must come down. And, around here, if it doesn’t explode, it usually comes down in the water. Later in the year it’s the job
of the lads from the Northern Dive Group (NDG), based in Faslane near Glasgow, to don their wetsuits and
scour the bay for the unexploded rounds and dispose of them safely, by making sure that they do blow up. As the surrounding area is used by fishermen, it’s
a crucial job.
And the Northern Dive Group have
a fleet of four
Land Rover 110 Td5s to transport themselves and their mountain of gear about.
I joined the lads of the NDG for their annual EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) session in Durness. As Team leader Troy Beechinor explained, working out of HM Naval Base Clyde, near Glasgow, their ‘patch’ covers all Scotland and part of northern England. It involves disposing of anything dangerous found up to the high water mark.
Troy, a member of the Canadian forces on secondment here, is also the proud owner of a Series III. He explained that his team are emphatically not divers who clear bombs, but bomb disposal experts who use whatever methods are appropriate to reach their work location – and if potentially hazardous materials are in the water, they need to dive to dispose of them.
All the team are highly trained in diving techniques and in explosive ordnance disposal; and it goes without saying they’re also exceptionally well disciplined. But with this particular job, the discipline goes much further than normal. In high-risk situations such as bomb disposal, consideration of your own and your colleague’s welfare is paramount. If you combine such work with diving – itself incredibly dangerous – you have a work situation that goes way off the Richter scale of risk-assessment.
To ensure team safety, every aspect of their work is rigorously supervised, each team member handles a specific task and task responsibility is on a rota so everyone is multi-skilled.
Troy showed me the kit they use: nearly all of it is commercially available ‘ordinary’ dive gear – nothing fancy. This goes for their vehicles, too. Their Land Rovers are basically standard with some slight interior modifications, and do the job they need them for without fuss.
Specific 4x4 driver training ensures each team has at least one member who is skilled in off-road driving but, as the majority of devices they’re asked to deal with are found by the general public, they’re usually in easily accessible locations.
Several of the team mentioned how pleased they are with the Td5s, after a spell of using Pinzgauers just didn’t work out: the combined load of dive kit, inflatable and four well-built team members was more than the Austrian vehicle could cope with.
And, as one team member explained with a hint of embarrassment: ‘Trying to do a blue-light response to a potentially lethal device at 35mph, which is all we could manage uphill with a full load using the Pinzgauers, isn’t exactly going to set records for response times.’
He went on to praise the acceleration and reliability of the Td5s, which combine load-carrying and off-road ability with relative comfort – important when your patch covers such a vast chunk of Britain.
The Land Rovers are completely stock underneath, with custom Brownchurch racks on top, a Warn winch upfront and a full complement of flashing lights. Interior mods include the dash-mounted radio fittings and, as OIC Beechinor explained, a really vital extended metal cubby box. This is designed specifically to hold detonators, deliberately well separated from the metal case bolted into the back where the explosives are stored…
The NDG role is wide-ranging, and it doesn’t always involve high explosives – a fact the lads are really proud of. They get great satisfaction from their broad portfolio of work, including supporting the Royal Navy fleet in various ways, whether it’s undersea surveys of hulls, underwater protection in hostile waters during conflict situations, or underwater engineering tasks.
In addition, they’re active participants in the UK Submarine Rescue Programme, on call whenever and wherever required to ensure an important extra margin of safety for both military and civilian submariners.
And there’s always the need to assist the civil authorities with recovery tasks, which may involve objects such as knives, guns or drugs – or even human remains from accidents or murder scenes.
For a very welcome change of scene they do a lot of PR work with schools, and are popular performers in the tug o’ war at Durness Highland Games, marking the end of their EOD session in the area.
It’s clear that the team take great pride in the work they do, and equally clear that they regard their Land Rovers as more than just tools. They don’t fuss over them unduly: basic servicing is all they need. So far they’ve never been let down.
As one NDG member said: ‘We’re the best at what we do, so we choose the best kit for our work. That’s why I’m pleased we’ve got Land Rovers.’
I came away from my visit to the NDG enormously impressed by their commitment and professionalism, and proud that our favourite off-road vehicles are playing such a vital role in supporting their difficult and dangerous work.
This feature appeared in the April 2009 issue of LRO. Current and Back issues are available to download on digital devices here. Please note, we only hold stocks of the the last three back issues.