“OWZAT!” BATTLEFIELD RECOVERY CAUGHT OUT OVER TREATMENT OF SKULL AND AMMO

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Three of the presenters of “Battlefield Recovery”playing with fire in Latvia
[Images: Discovery Channel Poland:  Fair use for the purpose of reporting and review]

Following further investigations and analysis  of episodes of the TV series “Battlefield Recovery” broadcast in Poland as “POSZUKIWACZE WOJENNYCH SKARBÓW”  [Seekers of War Treasure], thePipeLine can reveal evidence of three more alleged instances of unsafe and unethical practices during the recording of the TV series [aka Nazi War Diggers] by London based ClearStory Productions.  The location recording of “Battlefield Recovery” took place in Latvia and Poland during 2013 and the latest accusations all relate to sequences involving the recovery and treatment of ammunition, munitions and human remains which were shot in Latvia.  At the time the material in question was recorded, ClearStory claim they were were working under the supervision of personnel from the local organisation Legenda, and that all the work undertaken by their presenter team of US based dealer in Nazi era memorabilia, Craig Gottlieb and UK based metal detectorists Stephen Taylor, Kris Rodgers and Adrian Kostromski, was covered by appropriate licences and permits.  However, two of the sequences in question do not show any apparent intervention by personnel from Legenda or any other official, semi official or expert body and in the one intervention where Latvian Army EOD [Explosive Ordnance Disposal] operators are called in by Legenda, a member of the EOD team is shown apparently warning the TV crew that they are dangerously close to the location of an unexploded shell which was supposedly discovered by digger Kris Rodgers.

 

The first two allegations relates to apparently dangerous behaviour and practices involving the discovery of unexploded shells of two different types.

NWD Ep 2 Cannon Shel

[1]  In this sequence of images, taken from the third programme in the series as broadcast in Poland in the Autumn of 2015, presenter, metal detectorist Adrian Kostromski, first holds up what appears to be a dug up shell as fellow presenter Craig Gottleib looks on .  The shell is almost certainly a German 20 x 138B cannon shell as used by the German armed forces in various weapons during World War Two.

The UK Code of Practice for Responsible Metal Detecting states;

Do not attempt to move or interfere with any such explosives.”

thePipeLine also understands that were such an object to be suspected on an archaeological site work would cease, the object would not be touched let alone lifted and waived around.  Instead personnel would be moved away and  safety cordon would be established until professional EOD support could be called in to assess and deal with the situation safely.

 

Ger Cannon Shell Graphic

[2] The second image  shows an original, but inert, 20 x 138B shell, inserted into the image by thePipeLine for comparison with that dug up by the Battlefield Recovery team.  Again it should be noted the shell is being handled in direct contravention of the UK Code of Practice for Responsible Metal Detecting.  In addition the possession of an item of “live” explosive ammunition would be illegal in the UK.

NWD Ep 2 Prop 1

[3]  The third image, again taken unedited from the programme, shows presenter Stephen Taylor emptying propellant from the shell case into the palm of his hand .  The explosive shell itself appears to have been removed by Taylor who is shown twisting the head of the shell off of the shell case and the head can be seen between his first and second fingers.

This image indirectly demonstrates further potentially dangerous behaviour as the shell could have contained an explosive head capable of causing death or very serious injury and there is no sign of any professionally qualified EOD Operator in the sequence.  It is also unclear how or where the shell was disposed of.

 

 

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[4]  The propellant from the shell case is then placed onto the blade of a metal shovel and lit with a lighter by Craig Gottlieb, who asks Taylor “May I?” to which Taylor replies ” ‘Course you can.”.

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[5]  In the final image of the sequence, as the presenters look on, the material on the shovel is shown burning with a fast, bright yellow and orange flame consistent with it being the propellant from such a shell.

[Images 1-5, Discovery Channel Poland:  Fair use for the purpose of reporting and review]

thePipeLine showed these images and the video they are taken from, separately to two experts in historic ammunition, one of whom is also a highly experienced Explosive Ordnance Disposal [EOD] Officer.

Both experts confirmed the identification of the object as almost certainly a German 20 x 138B cannon shell, extensively used by the German armed forces during World War Two, particularly in Flak [anti aircraft] guns and in weapons mounted on light armoured fighting vehicles such as armoured cars and personnel carriers.

The experts also commented that in this example the fuse appeared to be missing, perhaps corroded away or knocked off when the shell was excavated.  Statistically this type of cannon shell was most likely to have mounted a high explosive projectile head.  Certainly the projectile head seems then to have been removed to allow the propellant to be emptied and burnt.

Both our experts agreed this was a highly dangerous stunt, which certainly should not be copied and which would be illegal in the UK as an unauthorised modification of an item of controlled ammunition by an unlicensed person.  None of the presenters have any known recognised qualification in the handling of ammunition and explosives.

One of our experts concluded that the sequence showed;

“A dangerous practice has taken place with a piece of high explosive ordnance.  It breaks just about every rule in the book!”

 

In a statement given in response to our earlier accusation that the series showed unsafe practices relating to ammunition and ordnance ClearStory Productions,  the producers of Battlefield Recovery, stated;

 “Naturally, our presenters erred on the side of caution with regard to the recovery and handling of potentially live ordnance.  Legenda, the agency concerned whose representatives were present, were satisfied it had sufficient experience of handling potentially live ordnance in its team and the Latvian army was on hand if required to assist.”

However, there is no-one from Legenda or the Latvian Army shown as being present in the scene described above and our experts are sceptical that a professionally qualified EOD Operator would have allowed such dangerous practices as letting untrained amateurs apparently recover, and even dismantle, a potentially “live” cannon shell and burn the propellant on camera.  Certainly Taylor appears to be the person in charge throughout the scene.  It is Taylor who removes the head from the shell and Taylor who gives Gottlieb permission to set fire to the propellant for the camera.

In another scene presenter Kris Rodgers is shown apparently uncovering an unexploded artillery shell.  In this case Latvian Army EOD are called in quite properly by a member of Legenda, who on this rare occasion in the series is shown to be working directly with the ClearStory presenters and taking charge of a potentially dangerous or sensitive situation.

However, there are two further examples of bad practice as regards EOD safety on display in the sequence.

First the directer shows a reverse angle shot of the diggers leaving the trench meaning the camera operator was standing almost directly on top of a suspected item of unexploded ordnance, or that the scene was re-created later once the shell was made safe.

Reverse angle leaving trench shell scene NWD Ep 3The reverse angle shot of the Battlefield Recovery diggers leaving the trench where the team has just uncovered an unexploded shell.  If the shell was still in situ at the time shot was recorded the camera operator has been placed in danger.
[Discovery Channel Poland:  Fair use for the purpose of reporting and review]

 

Second, when the Latvian Army EOD team is shown arriving an operator is shown moving the ClearStory crew back from the scene, begging the question why were the crew so close when the team had identified a danger and called in EOD?

thePipeLine’s EOD expert told us that the safe procedure for the discovery of such a large explosive device, enshrined in the safety protocols of a number of conflict archaeology projects, would have been for the ClearStory team to have already pulled back several hundred meters from the item, prevent anyone else going closer and wait for the local EOD team to arrive.

thePipeLine can also confirm that ClearStory Productions were given the contact details of a UK based EOD Operator who provides safety advice and expert liaison with local EOD assets, for archaeological projects, but the company seems to have chosen not to take up the opportunity to ensure the safety of it’s team with continuous, on-site advice from qualified experts.

 

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Latvian EOD move the ClearStory crew back to safety [but why were they so close in the first place?]
[Discovery Channel Poland:  Fair use for the purpose of reporting and review]

 

These are not, trivial issues.  thePipeline consulted the Health and Safety Executive and asked what responsibilities ClearStory had towards the safety of its workforce and what would have been the legal situation had there been an accident during the shoot in Latvia and Poland.  The H&SE  told us;

“… whilst [UK] health and safety law would not apply and HSE would not, therefore, have power to investigate, the civil law duty of care does still apply and if someone was shown to have been negligent a civil action could be brought for damages in relation to any injury caused by breach of that duty of care.”

In other words, had there been an accident at any time during recording, Latvian or Polish Health and Safety Law would apply.  However, crucially, ClearStory could also have been open to potential civil action in the UK on grounds of negligence.

thePipeLine has already exposed potentially highly dangerous excavation practices shown in the series and as here, an apparently casual and, in the words of experts, “potentially lethal” approach to the handling of ammunition and ordnance.  ClearStory’s insurance company might then have some thoughts about their being exposed to that potential liability, as might the insurance industry as a whole if any production company tries to make a similar series without clear safety protocols and properly qualified safety cover in place in future.

 

 

The third new allegation relates to the way the digging out of the skull of what appears to be a German soldier is portrayed.

In this sequence of images taken from twenty four minutes into the running time of Episode Three as shown in Poland.

The sequence begins with presenter Stephen Taylor apparently metal detecting in an open woodland setting.  He appears to get a signal and he and Craig Gottleib begin to dig, with Mr Taylor seeming to do most of the work.  At this point there is no deep excavation and there are no trees in the immediate area of the excavation.

The scene then cuts away to fellow presenter Kris Rodgers who is called over to Gottlieb and Taylor.

This scene has clearly been inserted to cover time passing and a shift in location because when Mr Rodgers arrives at the Taylor Gottlieb hole, there are trees and fallen trees close to the excavation and the excavation itself has reached a depth of some 30cm.  An apparently complete German WW2 infantry helmet is visible in the hole.

The helmet appears to have been completely cleared around and is lying on a waterlogged layer.  What is not clear is who actually undertook that excavation, although the crudeness of the hole is consistent with other work done by the ClearStory presenters in earlier and subsequent scenes.

 

NWD Ep 3 Skull Tip 1

[Discovery Channel Poland:  Fair use for the purpose of reporting and review]

[1]  A German army helmet is apparently excavated from a waterlogged layer.  In this image a small section of apparently human jaw complete with several teeth can be identified bottom centre left of frame.

As the helmet is lifted a subtitle states in Polish;

“Program ukazuje fragmenty dluzszych prac, prowadzonych na podstawie specjalnego zezwolenia. Miejsce poszukiwan i znaleziska zostaly udokumentowane i objete ochrona.”

In translation;

“The programme shows excerpts of longer works carried out on the basis of a special permit. The location of searches were documented and protected.”

While not having any direct link to the images on screen, this would appear to be an attempt to reassure the audience and head off possible criticism of what follows.

The programme director then deliberately sets up what is going to happen next for the audience by cutting to a piece to camera where Mr Taylor says it is “always going through your mind” that if you find a helmet it might contain a human skull inside.  This is quite true.  Anyone who works on excavations in a battlefield context learns that any item of clothing which is found, from boots to helmet and everything in between, could contain human remains.  Brutally put, that is what high explosive does to the bodies of people.

The standard archaeological procedure would be to carefully clear around such a find, to place it in its context and see if there are other human remains or finds of artifacts  in association.  Then  the entire assemblage would be photographed and recorded.  It would be standard practice to excavate such a find under forensic conditions, perhaps even removing an item as a block and excavating in the item in the laboratory, in order to preserve possible evidence of identity, potential DNA evidence and evidence of cause of death, but that is not what happens in Battlefield Recovery.

 

 

NWD Ep 3 Skull Tip 2

[Discovery Channel Poland:  Fair use for the purpose of reporting and review]

[2]  The helmet is lifted by Craig Gottleib as Stephen Taylor moves a tray lined with a plastic bag under the helmet.

 

When the image of what follows was Tweeted by thePipeLine one leading battlefield archaeologist Tweeted in response an incredulous “FFS”.

 

 

NWD Ep 3 Skull Tip 3

[Discovery Channel Poland:  Fair use for the purpose of reporting and review]

[3]  Owzat!  Craig Gottlieb tips the contents of the helmet out, a human skull, and it is caught, crouching in the slips, by Stephen Taylor.  With that ability to catch round objects Mr Taylor can expect a call up to the England cricket team sooner than any request to join a mainstream battlefield archaeology project.

 

 

NWD Ep 3 Skull Tip 4

[Discovery Channel Poland:  Fair use for the purpose of reporting and review]

[4]  Craig Gottlieb and Stephen Taylor then display the skull for the camera and in full HD close up Craig Gottlieb holds the nasel bone, which has separated, up to the rest of the skull.  It is unclear from the image, but the skull clearly came from a wet environment and it is possible organic material such as hair remains attached.

 

 

NWD Ep 3 Skull Tip5

[Discovery Channel Poland:  Fair use for the purpose of reporting and review]

[5] The film then cuts away to a medium close up showing Craig Gottleib and Stephen Taylor holding the skull and Kris Rodgers looking on.  At no point in the sequence is anyone from Legenda included in the shot.

Critics of the series argue that far from treating the missing war dead with honour, this sequence is voyeuristic and exploitative to the point of being grotesque, as nothing is learned from the depiction of this recovery which in technical terms is crude in the extreme and the sequence seems to have been deliberately constructed to emphasise the shock value of the reveal of the skull.

It is also pointed out that at one moment presenter Craig Gottleib appears visibly distressed, but at other times he appears happy to handle the skull in close up for the camera and even tip it out into Stephen Taylor’s hands.

 

The controversial sequence continues showing the reactions of the presenters to the find of the skull and the apparent excavation of a potentially highly dangerous German stick grenade, as described previously in thePipeLine.

Further human remains are apparently also recovered and the sequence ends with the finding of half of a German “Erkennungsmarke” or dogtag, apparently in association with the other remains although given the piecemeal way the remains are dug up that association cannot be proven.

The fact the tag is broken in half indicates the death of the soldier was probably recorded at the time with the soldiers comrades, or a burial party, retaining the other half, although as Craig Gottleib rightly says in the film, given the carnage and confusion of the fighting in Latvia during 1944/1944, this information may not have been centrally recorded, or passed to the soldiers family.

The dog tag is blurred by the producers so that the identity number and regiment/unit identification cannot be read, but many archaeologists would argue that this is the first real example of ethical practice in the entire sequence.

Here battlefield archaeologists would also note that the soldier dug up in this sequence been British, or from the Commonwealth this entire scene would not be permitted under Ministry of Defence and Commonwealth War Graves Commission practice for showing injured and deceased personnel, in case living relatives saw it and were upset or offended.  This fact lays ClearStory and Channel 5 open to the accusations of cynicism and double standards, being apparently content to exploit explicit close ups of the crudely dug up remains of German and Russian soldiers for entertainment and ratings, where they would not even be allowed to record for broadcast similar scenes relating to the remains of British troops.

 

 

thePipeLine sent these images to Channel 5 and to ClearStory Productions and asked them to comment on whether they felt these sequences portrayed safe, sensitive behaviour which depicted the dead with honour and were compliant with the Ofcom code which prohibits dangerous imitable behaviour, especially before the 9pm watershed.  A spokesperson for Channel 5 told us;

“We’re satisfied that the programme complies with the Ofcom Broadcasting Code.”

Adding,

“…we won’t be providing further comment at this time.”

ClearStory Productions have not replied at all, although an earlier statement published by the company on its website claims;

The production team, cast and the local organizations we worked with made these films for a positive purpose – to recover battlefield artifacts, hand over excavated items to authorities for safe keeping and bury the dead with honour.

An earlier press release from the company also claimed that;

“Over the course of four fascinating episodes, the recovery team tracks down, unearths and preserves hundreds of World War II artefacts and uncovers the remains of German and Soviet soldiers missing in action, in the process throwing new light on some of the bloodiest battles the world has known and enabling the fallen to be buried with due honour.”

However, having contacted the authorities in Latvia thePipeLine can confirm that the sum total of artefacts accessioned and preserved in the Latvian War Museum as a result of the recording of “Battlefield Recovery” by ClearStory Productions is just five.