Is Unexploded Ordnance Still Relevant to Life in the UK?

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Police service Unexploded Ordnance safety demonstration, Emergency Services Family Event, Portsmouth, Hampshire, England. Image by A.Howse
Police service Unexploded Ordnance safety demonstration, Emergency Services Family Event, Portsmouth, Hampshire, England. Image by A.Howse

What is Unexploded Ordnance?

The United Kingdom’s parliamentary government website describes unexploded ordnance as “explosive weapons that did not detonate when they were employed and still pose a risk of detonation.” (1)

It is estimated that there are 100,000 tonnes of unexploded material lying in the sea (marine environment) and on land around the British Isles from World War I and World War II. There are two ways of dealing with items that are discovered, still containing a powerful charge. High Order detonation which is exploding the found object with extra detonation. Low Order detonation involves firing a small charge at the explosive causing it to burn out without detonating. (1)

Although many teams of specially army personnel were dedicated to clearing any unused mines or other dangerous items left during the international conflicts of the early in the 20th century, it was not possible to uncover every potentially life-threatening device. Unexploded ordnance or UXO is still to the present day often found in Great Britain, primarily in areas that were significant during World War I and World War II.

As well as the risk of explosion, chemical leakage and environmental pollution can occur from items originally prepared for armed combat. Specialist private commercial services can also be contacted to make any area safe. An example of this type of security company is Brimstone and also 1st Line Defence based in Hertfordshire who provide free factsheets on their site. (3)

“Some of the most densely bombed cities included Birmingham, Bristol, Coventry, Exeter, Glasgow, Liverpool, London, Plymouth, Southampton and Portsmouth, with the areas most at risk from being bombed being docks, airfields, major cities, manufacturing sites and industrial centres.” advises Brimstone specialist UXO handlers, on their website. (4)

Specialist agencies agree that UXO’s can still be found today and could appear in a variety of sizes and designs. These may include: WW2 high explosive bombs, WW2 incendiary bombs, parachute mines, rockets, projectiles, grenades, landmines and mortars according to Brimstone.

What should you do if you suspect you have found a UXO?

Members of the public are reminded that if any suspicious package is found, even if it is small, it is best to keep well away from the object and call the police for assistance, following any instructions given by police (like evacuating the area).

The UK government’s Defence Infrastructure Organisation provides guidance regarding procedures to ensure the health and safety of workers and members of the public who may be using ex-Ministry of Defence land for new purposes and constructing new developments. This includes directions of how to contact an Explosive Ordnance Clearance team if an UXO is discovered unexpectedly. (2)

Police Force’s around the country provide information and education about this aspect of keeping the public safe, in order to inform local citizens about the dangers and what they should do. In September Hampshire and Dorset emergency services held a special family style event in Portsmouth harbour to demonstrate and celebrate the unique role that the police force, fire and medical emergency departments play in our communities in the UK. Experts from the emergency services were on hand to talk to the public about health and safety and the excellent work that all the emergency services do every day and night.

In January an unexploded World War Two device was found in the Isleham Marina area of Mildenhall in Suffolk. The police dispersed the area and ensured bomb disposal experts diffused the object so residents could return to their homes safely. (5)

Do UXO pose a threat in the UK?

Although the UK has experienced nearly a century of peace on its countryside, shores and waters UXO still remains an ongoing but relatively rare threat to people working on construction projects or men, women and children simply exploring the great outdoors.

A report by Matt MacDonald construction experts advising on the development of Bank station in London in 2011 warns that: “In recent decades there have been several incidents in Europe where Allied UXBs have been detonated with at least three incidents causing fatalities. Although no fatal incidents related to UXB (unexploded bombs) have occurred in the UK in recent years, data from the Explosive Ordnance Disposal industry show that from 2006 to 2009 approximately 15,000 items of ordnance ranging from aerial delivered bombs to Land Service Ammunition (such as mortar rounds and grenades) have been removed from construction sites.” (6)

The Matt MacDonald report for London Underground continues to state how “It is estimated (between 2006 and 2009) that about 5% were live and still fully functioning. The number of items of Small Arms Ammunition recovered during this period possibly runs into tens of thousands.”

Key points to remember about UXO in the UK

If you or anyone else that you know is working on a construction site or private property redevelopment along the south and east coast of England (or any of the areas mentioned above that are known to contain UXO’s) it is wise to enquire about if the area has been health and safety assessed for the presence of UXO before digging or using any electrical tools or mechanical equipment. If unsure consult an expert to assess the area in advance of commencing works.

Ordtek provide UXO risk management and are based in Norfolk and have an interactive map of affected areas in and around the United Kingdom, the Channel and neighbouring countries, on their website. (7)

In the unlikely event that you are out exploring the coastal waters, seaside or countryside and you come across an item of any size that looks like it could be a possible UXO, quickly move away and stand well back and if there is no immediate danger then call the non-urgent enquiries UK police telephone hotline by dialling 101.

 

(1) ‘Low Order deflagration for UXO disposal for the commercial sphere Unexploded Ordnance’ Parliament UK website, 2 November 2023 Unexploded Ordnance’ Parliament UK website

(2) Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO) Policy Instruction, Guidance for Unexploded Ordnance in Infrastructure Activities, 2 November 2023 Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO) Policy Instruction, Guidance for Unexploded Ordnance in Infrastructure

(3) 1st line Defence risk management, Mitigate the risk of UXO on your project, 2 November 2023 1st line Defence risk management, Mitigate the risk of UXO

(4) ‘What is Unexploded Ordnance (UXO)?’ Brimstone, 4 September 2023 ‘What is Unexploded Ordnance (UXO)?’ Brimstone

(5) ‘Unexploded WW2 device found in Mildenhall basement’, BBC News, 24 January 2023 ‘Unexploded WW2 device found in Mildenhall basement’, BBC News

(6) ‘MACC UXO Threat Assessment, Report For London Underground’, 2 November 2011 (6) ‘MACC UXO Threat Assessment, Report For London Underground’

(7) ‘Ordtek Mine Map, Offshore UXO contamination’, 2 November 2023 ‘Ordtek Mine Map, Offshore UXO contamination’