[Lead Image: thePipeLine]
Fresh questions are being asked about the danger of metal detecting on former military training areas and whether formal training, or even licencing are required to better enable metal detectorists to recognise and properly manage finds of unexploded ordnance. The questions arise following an incident at Lockerbie Golf Club on the Scottish border on 1 December where a local metal detectorist apparently dug up and then failed to report the find of a potentially dangerous and unstable unexploded mortar bomb to the Police for almost twenty four hours, contrary to Police advice and the Code of Practice for Responsible Metal Detecting. Following severe criticism on social media the find was eventually reported by the detectorist and disposed of safely by an Explosive Ordnance Disposal [EOD] team.
According to posts on Facebook timed at 13.43 on Wednesday 1 December, local man Mr Sean Armstrong was metal detecting on land later discovered to be belonging to Lockerbie Golf Club.
The land is understood to have been used previously for military training, including by the Black Watch regiment, and photographs published by Mr Armstrong on social media suggest that he found a mortar bomb of a type used by the British Army during World War Two and after.
The Code of Practice for Responsible Metal Detecting requires that metal detectorists who find such items do not disturb them in any way, but instead respond by,
“Calling the Police or HM Coastguard, and notifying the landowner/occupier, if you find anything that may be a live explosive, device or other ordnance.”
The code also tells detectorists,
“Do not attempt to move or interfere with any such explosives. Mark the site carefully and report the find to the local police and the landowner.”
However, at least initially, Mr Armstrong appears to have ignored the code by failing to report the find to either the land owner or the police.
By his own account on Facebook, he also broke the code by first excavating and then moving the object,
“…carrying it the hundred feet too put in a safe place.”
After being challenged on Facebook by a local woman, who said she thought such finds had to be reported, Mr Armstrong responded,
“…no not a threat to anyone nobody will find it.”
However, after considerable criticism of his actions on Facebook and Twitter, the following day Mr Armstrong changed the story reporting,
“…all above board, illumination flare disposed of.”
This led to the question that, if the object had been identified and “disposed of” in a manner which was “above board”, how had this been accomplished?
Given the apparently contradictory accounts on Social Media, the mortar bomb appears to have both been hidden, and “disposed of”, thePipeLine approached Police Scotland and asked them to confirm where the incident had taken place, when the suspicious item had been reported and how the incident had been resolved.
A spokesperson told us,
“Around 9.40am on Thursday, 2 December, 2021, police were made aware of an unexploded ordnance device at Lockerbie Golf Club. Officers attended and the EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) were contacted and attended. The item was made safe.”
Given that Police Scotland had confirmed that the object Mr Armstrong had found had not been reported to the Police for almost twenty four hours, thePipeLine approached Mr Armstrong for comment.
Initially he told us that he had full permission to detect on the land, adding that the find was reported and removed by the appropriate people, that is the EOD team and that nobody had been at risk except himself.
However, this last point is not quite true.
While possibly an illuminating round, what Mr Armstrong found is not, as he described it, a flare , which are normally fired from a hand held flare pistol. In fact it is a round designed to be fired from a mortar and is thus much more powerful, and potentially much more dangerous.
A military illumination, or smoke bomb of the type found by Mr Armstrong usually contains white phosphorous and had it exploded, the device could have caused severe burns of a type which are often deep, painful and difficult to treat, requiring a long stay in hospital.
White Phosporous , or “Willie Pete” in World War Two military slang, has a particularly dangerous ability to self ignite when exposed to air, as it could have done at any time when being dug out by Mr Armstrong.
As well as burning at a temperature of 2,760 degrees Celsius (5,000 degrees Fahrenheit), to produce a bright white light used to illuminate a battlefield at night, WP rounds also produce billows of dense white smoke, hence its alternative use in generating smoke screens, to mask the movement of troops on a battlefield.
And of course, however well hidden, another person, or an animal, could have uncovered the object after Mr Armstrong left it, causing it to function with the same extremely dangerous results. While whoever might have attempted to provide first aid risked contamination by the burning chemical which is easily transferred to clothing or skin.
Given how potentially dangerous such a device is we asked Mr Armstrong if he now accepted he had made a mistake in moving the object and then failing to report it for almost a day.
“I do now,!” he told us, explaining that his initial actions might be explained by his shock at finding the object.
“I had every intention of reporting it.” he said, although he agreed he could have been have been more prompt in his reporting.
He also maintained that he had put the object in, what he described as, “a safe place” so as not to harm anyone.
However, it must be stressed once again that this is not the action recommended by either the Code of Practice for Responsible Metal Detecting, or the Police.
The spokesperson for Police Scotland told us that,
“We would advise anyone who comes across any suspicious items or ordnance items not to touch them and to contact the emergency services.”
The risk of finding discarded ordnance and ammunition while metal detecting is higher than might be imagined.
The British Isle are covered with former military training and defence areas from both World Wars, few of which are fully mapped and most involved training with live ammunition, up to and including artillery shells and air dropped bombs and rockets and the incident involving Mr Armstrong is only the latest in a series of such incidents where finds by metal detectorists and magnet fishers have led to call outs for the Police and military EOD teams, and disruption for local people.
For example, in December 2020 angler and magnet fisher Che Williams pulled nineteen World War Two vintage hand grenades out of the River Tame near Sutton Coldfield in the West Midlands, some with pins still in place. At first Williams took the devices home in a carrier bag before a conversation on Facebook convinced the father of two to call the Police.
There is even a sub group of metal detectorists who deliberately set out to find military objects.
In one of the most high profile of recent cases, in September 2016 leading metal detectorist and militaria collector Alan Tissington of the, so called, Extreme Relic Hunters group, pleaded guilty to three charges of possessing ammunition without a certificate and three of possessing prohibited ammunition at St Albans Crown Court.
Judge Jonathan Carroll imposed a twelve month community order on Mr Tissington, with the conditions that he carried out 150 hours of unpaid work and paid £1,500 prosecution costs.
While the Crown was unable to proceed with further, potentially more serious, charges because of inadequate record keeping, Detective Inspector Pete Frost, of Hertfordshire Police, said in reaction to the case,
“The munitions discovered that day [during the raid on Mr Tissington’s house] were determined to be potentially very dangerous by Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal experts, who recommended that they were immediately destroyed.”
It is such incidents which lead critics of metal detecting to call for the formal training of detectorists, and potentially for bans on detecting on former military sites on safety grounds, unless it is part of a formal archaeological project with proper supervision and safety protocols in place.
thePipeLine has approached Lockerbie Golf Club to ask if the club was concerned at the find of the mortar bomb and whether it would warn its staff and members to be on the look out for further finds of unexploded ordnance and reduce the risk of such finds by banning metal detecting on club land.
We have not yet received a reply.