Navy divers blow up Welsh wartime bombs

This is the potentially-deadly haul of wartime bombs, shells and flares rendered safe by Royal Navy bomb disposal experts.

Divers from Plymouth and Portsmouth hit the ranges of the Gower Peninsula west of Swansea to continue a 60-year mission to clear the Welsh countryside of unexploded ordnance.

Loud bangs and reverberations shook this otherwise peaceful part of the country, with thick plumes of black smoke rising over the sands as the disposal teams blew up the haul.

Ahead of the arrival of the divers – all highly-qualified explosive ordnance disposal experts – teams from the Defence Infrastructure Organisation scour the ranges looking for unexploded munitions, before marking them with pinpoint accuracy using GPS satellites.

On top of providing extra training, this operation is key to reducing the threat posed by old ordnance which could be hazardous to the general public.

Lieutenant Commander Sean Heaton

Government scientists from DSTL recording everything found on site before the divers – drawn from Southern Diving Units 1 (Devonport) and 2 (Portsmouth) – begin the laborious task of rendering the objects safe.

Divers don full protective suits and carry respirators, making the manual task of lifting and shifting the ammunition even more challenging.

Due to many decades of exposure to the cold, salty and wet conditions, most of the internal explosives have been destroyed, while the outer casings are all encrusted in a hard compound built up over the years, caused by the metal’s reaction to its surroundings.

This can sometimes make the munitions difficult to identify – but after carefully removing just a small amount of the compound, a skilled eye can identify the type and age of the explosive device.

All of which makes for excellent training for the divers.

“Gower is a great opportunity for continuation training and practising drills,” said Chief Petty Officer Diver Andrew ‘Tex’ Marshall, a regular visitor to the Gower Peninsula. “The nature of our job is often to react to finding, identifying and subsequently destroying WW2 ordnance found by the public, across the country.”

Most of the munitions found are mortar bombs and high-explosive shells. But occasionally the divers come across chemical or smoke shell, such as phosphorous mortar rounds – also known as illuminating mortars – used to light up swathes of the battlefield.

The phosphorous ignites on contact with oxygen, burning very brightly at a temperature of around 900˚C. The best way of neutralising them is to burn out their explosive cores.

Any shrapnel and non-explosive shells are taken away and melted down, while the unexploded ordnance is taken down to a designated part of the beach and detonated safely – resulting in bangs which can be heard several miles away across the water.

“In peacetime skills can fade with a lack of practice, which is why tasks like this on the Gower are so important for the Royal Navy bomb disposal teams,” said Lieutenant Commander Sean ‘Central’ Heaton, in overall charge of the Plymouth and Portsmouth diving units.

“On top of providing extra training, this operation is key to reducing the threat posed by old ordnance which could be hazardous to the general public.”