Military bomb disposal experts have spent the past month clearing almost 1,000 items of unexploded ordnance (UXO) on Cowden Sands – a beach in Yorkshire, UK – that was previously used as an RAF bombing range.

Coastal erosion is now revealing practice bombs and other explosive devices that have been buried in the cliff face for years, and there’s been reports of coastguards being called out on a number of occasions after members of the public found unexploded bombs on the beach.

Troop Commander, Second Lieutenant Sam Turner, said: “Ministry of Defence explosive ordnance clearance teams have attended the beach on numerous occasions to make the beach safe for the public, but recent erosion has revealed a significant pocket of buried unexploded ordnance which has fallen onto the beach and now needs to be removed.”

“The safety of the public is always our first priority. Warning signs have been put up and red flags are visible. The public are reminded to adhere to the warning signs and not to pick up or remove any objects.”

The removal work originally began 13th July and the bomb disposal teams have already found approximately 1,000 items of UXO and made them safe. They are aiming to complete the task by 12th August, with a long-term plan to manage the risk of UXO on the beach now being developed.

The range targets were located at the top of a cliff on Cowden Sands, which is situated on the UK’s fastest eroding coastline, and this has recently led to significant amounts of UXO being exposed on the beach itself.

The majority of UXO had been practice bombs, aircraft projectiles and land service ammunition, such as the historic two-inch mortar – also known as the two-inch ‘howitzer’.

Second Lieutenant Sam Turner added: “The weather determines how much work the team has, because things can change overnight as to what new items are unearthed. At one point, we thought we had completed the task, but then 170 items appeared overnight with the next tide.”

History of Cowden Sands

Opening as an air gunnery range in 1959, RAF Cowden Sands originally comprised of nine gunnery range shelters, and was intended to provide a variety of target and training opportunities for pilots to engage in air-to-ground firing and bombing.

The range however, did not begin life as an RAF range, having been established in 1939 as a Royal Artillery and Royal Armoured Corps tank gunnery range.

In this capacity the range was used to assess the long-range marksmanship of tank gunners, engaging targets on the move as well as the effectiveness of tank commanders.

The range was also allotted for use by local Home Guard units, who likely took advantage of the requisitioned land for training, potentially involving mortars, light artillery or other exotic explosives unique to the Home Guard. At this time the range comprised of two target railways, 12 range dug outs, a range control tower and numerous concrete tank firing plinths.

By 1953, 200 acres of clifftops was purchased by the War Office and became known as RAF Cowden Sands. During this time the range was used by numerous aircraft and units, including both fighter and bomber aircraft.

Sadly several crashes took place surrounding the range including the crash of Hawker Hunter XE604, which stalled after carrying out a rocket strike on the range in March 1961.

The range was also used by Avro Vulcans training prior to Operation Black Buck, the bombing of Port Stanley Airport during the 1982 Falklands war.

The facilities were also shared with USAF units including those operating the Fairchild Republic A10 ‘Warthog’, a specialist ground attack aircraft that served with distinction in the 1990 Gulf War.

The range finally closed in 1998 owing to coastal erosion and is now regularly visited by EOD/UXO units, and at one time was administered by 5131 BD Squadron who carried out weekly demolitions of munitions found at the range and beach.

Back in September 2000, RAF EOD stated that:

“The locals are well aware this is a danger area, but it’s the tourists we’re worried about. We’ve had reports of people picking these things up and taking them home as souvenirs, and we’re pleading with anyone who has done so to call the police.”1

Please be aware that it is against the law to pick up military materials from Cowden Sands / Mappleton Beach under the Royal Air Force Cowden Byelaws 1977.

During the summer months when beaches are more busy please be extra careful, and if you do see any items of UXO or encounter anyone near one – please call the police or emergency services to assist you and remember not to touch or move anything!

Need help with Unexploded Ordnance?

1st Line Defence provide a range of UXO Services serving the UK and overseas, and if you would like more information about how to minimise risk your current or future site projects – contact one of our friendly Sales Team on +44 (0) 1992 245020 or email and we’ll be happy to help.

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