In the summer of 2009 I was considering giving up working in the demining sector and began to look for something closer to home. Despite my love for the work I’d grown weary of travel and spending long periods away from home. I jokingly said to Cheryl that the only thing likely to get me back in the field would be if there was a contract to clear the minefields in the Falkland Islands. The Falklands were always special to us; we had both done prolonged tours down south and that’s where we had met. I had spent a total of 28 months in the Falklands as the RE WO2 QMSI Mines between 1996 and 1999; Cheryl had served down there as a Radiographer with the RAMC on 5 occasions including a 13 month tour. My job as QMSI Mines had always left me curious as to the actual contents of the 117 remaining minefields particularly those with so called ‘accurate’ records and since leaving the army in 2000 I had keenly followed any rumour of clearance.
As a signatory of the 1999 Mine Ban Treaty, the UK had an obligation to clear all of it’s territories of anti-personnel landmines by 2010. The UK had delayed clearance of the Falklands and began the process of applying for a 10 year extension to the treaty based on several factors; the 117 remaining minefields are known and fenced; the minefields present no significant hazard to civilians and there has never been an accident involving a civilian; the minefields do not represent a loss of useable land; clearance of the Falklands would be exceptionally arduous given the nature of the terrain, the weather and the presence of minimum metal mines which are extremely difficult to detect. However, many international organisations including the United Nations (UN) and the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) believed that giving the UK a treaty extension without starting clearance would represent a severe setback to the Treaty, particularly in poor developing countries; if the UK could not meet it’s treaty obligations then what chance Angola, Mozambique, Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos? The payoff for a treaty extension would be a pilot project to clear 4 minefields in Falklands funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) using money separate to that donated by the UK for humanitarian demining world-wide.
So in the summer of 2009 I heard from friends that the project would be going ahead in the Austral summer and sent off my CV to the four companies bidding for the contract. It soon became clear that BACTEC International Ltd were the clear favourites to win the contract and that they would be keen to employ me as the Operations Manager for the project. I had worked for BACTEC previously in Kosovo, Lebanon and the UK and began to look forward to what I knew would be a very challenging and interesting job. In October of 2009 BACTEC were awarded the contract by the FCO and myself and the Project Manager, Roger Gagen (also a former RE WO2 and a personal friend) were summoned to BACTEC head office in Rochester to begin the planning of the project.
Roger deployed to the Falklands a week before me as BACTEC had kindly allowed me time to attend the BLESMA Red Sea diving trip and I arrived in Stanley on the 1st November. After meetings with the Falkland Islands Demining Project Office (FIDPO, staffed by two former RE officers Robin Swanson and Guy Marot), the Falkland Islands Government (FIG), elected council and various other agencies (police, medical services, fire service, air authority, customs, highways, planning office and conservation) we began to plan the refresher training for the demining teams and the clearance of the four minefields; MF8 at Surf Bay, MF25 at Sapper Hill, MF11 at Goose Green and MF8 (W) at Fox Bay. Each of these minefields would represent a different and significant challenge.
The Surf Bay minefield stretched across the neck of the Pembroke peninsular with the main road to Stanley airport running through it and was well documented with what appeared to be a detailed minefield record. This minefield had been laid over a number of days in April 1982 to prevent British forces from approaching Stanley from the direction of the airport or landing at Surf Bay. It was the most densely mined area in the Falklands representing almost 5% of the mines laid in the islands and contained over a 1000 Italian made SB81 anti-tank (AT) and SB33 anti-personnel (AP) mines. Both types of mine are well constructed, known to be in very good condition and contain only minimum amounts of metal making them difficult to locate. The mines had been laid in rows and panels; a panel of mines would contain 2-6 rows of mines, a row containing either 8 AP or 8 AT mines. That said most of the rows at Surf Bay had been laid as mixed rows and contained 8 AT and 7 AP mines. There had also been 4 SB81 AT mines laid in the ditches either side of the road with 3 being removed post conflict as well as booby traps which may have also been lifted in 1982. The terrain of the minefield was also varied stretching from the muddy beach on the Canache, across dense peat, a large expanse of bog and into large sand dunes on the Surf Bay side. Surf Bay is also a popular area for people to visit so it was inevitable that there would be disruption to local activities when the road and beach was closed during work. The area is also home to nesting birds and rare plants and a plan had to be in place to protect these as well as, to the best of our ability, restore the area to its original state; a massive task and one that would prove to be more challenging than expected!
The minefield at Sapper Hill was relatively straight forward in demining terms but would be made difficult by the Spanish P-4-B AP mines laid there as well as the area becoming constantly flooded and being overgrown with fibrous rooted thick vegetation. The Argentine record showed that 190 mines had been laid in May 1982 in 8 panels each containing three rows of mines. The P-4-B mines contained minimum metal and were almost impossible to detect using a mine detector. The minefield was about 300m north of the main MPA road and just west of Sapper Hill meaning that clearance could take place with minimum disruption to traffic. However, the area south of the minefield and down to the MPA road needed to be searched as this had been subjected to a British BL-755 cluster munitions attack.
There are no Argentine records for any of the minefields at Goose Green and the only documentation that exists is British reports written post conflict as well as anecdotal evidence. MF11 lay on a promontory of land to the east of the settlement and evidence suggested that it had been cleared of mines by Argentine POW directly after the battle. What was known is that some 6 weeks later a Mercedes jeep driven by soldiers of the QOH drove onto the promontory and struck an anti-tank mine. Additionally there was evidence of a BL-755 cluster munitions strike in this area with debris remaining. The challenge of this site was it was at distance from Stanley and therefore the clearance team would have to work remote from the project office. The site had also been used as a rubbish tip for many years prior to the conflict and was littered with metallic scrap. The plan for this site was to clear the areas where AP and AT mines were known to be laid as well as a 100% area clearance of cluster munitions.
As with Goose Green, no Argentine records exist for the minefields on West Falkland and the only documentation for the minefield at Fox Bay suggested that there were no mines in MF8 (W) but that it was fenced due to the possible presence of cluster munitions. This minefield shared some of the challenges of the minefield at Goose Green; the team would be working remote from the Stanley office and would need to be flown out and a safety vehicle and stores delivered by the ferry. One area of the minefield had also been used as a tip and there was decades of metal scrap to be processed, moved and piled for removal.
It soon became clear to us that the project would likely take longer than the 4 months that had been planned. Our initial trials with mine detectors had shown that at best the Italian mines could be detected to a depth of 12cm and the Spanish to only 5cm. Given the amount of vegetation growth over the last 27 years and that the required contract clearance depth was 20cm this was disturbing news. It was also becoming blatantly obvious that summer was not exactly upon us; our initial trials were carried out in howling wind, driving rain and freezing snow! It was to be one of the worst summers in the Falklands in living memory and many working days would be lost to the weather with little respite until February.
On the 7th November our three Zimbabwean demining teams arrived looking exceptionally cold and confused as they stepped off the flight from Chile at MPA. Most of the 3 supervisors, 6 team leaders, 24 deminers and 4 medics had worked for BACTEC for a number of years but mostly in countries where the biggest problem was the heat! The challenge for these guys was enormous and one which they were to prove they more than capable of embracing. The teams were housed in Lookout Lodge on the outskirts of Stanley and soon settled into Falkland life, some joining the local church congregations others making friends with local families who took them on trips out and provided the occasional Sunday lunch. It was refreshing to see how the majority of the local population accepted the deminers into the community, into their hearts and into their homes.
After a 2 week intensive refresher training course demining began at Surf Bay and Sapper Hill on 2nd December. Whilst it was known that the mines were some distance from the British erected fences, it was still necessary to clear from the fences into the minefield. Because of the difficulty in detecting minimum metal mines two different methodologies were employed; at Surf Bay a layered search method was used where the deminer cleared a 1m area in front of him with a mine detector. Once clear he would then excavate that area with hand tools down to 10cm and then clear the lower layer with the mine detector. This ensured that the ground was cleared down to contract depth; at Sapper Hill the minefield was cleared using a full excavation technique where the area in front of the deminer was cleared using a detector and then he would carefully excavate the ground using hand tools down to 20cm. Both these methodologies were extremely slow and at the start of demining only 1 sq m per man per day was being cleared as opposed to the expected 20 sq m a day. Our Gantt chart began to look quite alarming and at one stage we were heading for a finish date sometime in 2012!
The weather never improved throughout the first few weeks and demining continued at a frustratingly slow pace although he deminers never once lost faith in what they were doing or their ability to complete the job. The first mine, an SB33 AP mine, was located at Surf Bay on 10th December with the first P-4-B AP mine being located 5 days later at Sapper Hill. Once the first mines are found the deminers then turn left or right and begin the slow process of clearing along the row of mines. After finding 2 or 3 mines in a row, the deminers confidence improves and the whole process was able to speed up.
With a demining team working at Surf Bay and another at Sapper Hill the third team was trained as a Battle Area Clearance (BAC) team and began to search the area south of Sapper Hill looking for BL-755 cluster munitions. This task was relatively straight forward; the area is divided up into boxes 50m x 50m and then further divided into search lanes. The searcher then walks the lane with a locator and marks all significant metallic signals. Unlike mine clearance the searcher can proceed along his lane and then go back to excavate and investigate signals as buried cluster munitions or unexploded ordnance (UXO) is unlikely to detonate when walked over. The area had been heavily shelled and much time was spent digging up shrapnel and the remains of military equipment (an old GPMG and parts of FN rifles were found). Two BL-755 cluster munitions were located in this area, one being in near perfect condition as well as an unidentified rifle grenade.
The weather, terrain and mine types had seriously taken its toll on clearance and by the end of December we had located and destroyed less than 80 mines at Surf Bay and only 12 at Sapper Hill. It was clear that the project was not going to be complete before the winter set in unless drastic action was taken. In January methodologies were altered to allow more deminers to work in the field given that safety distances could be reduced (the soil conditions and small amounts of explosive in mines with little fragmentation value allowed this), more specialised equipment arrived from UK and a fourth team of deminers arrived from Lebanon. The team of Lebanese were specialists in BAC having worked on cluster munitions strike areas in their own country and they took on the BAC task at Sapper Hill prior to deploying to Goose Green and then Fox Bay.
By the end of January we saw an increase in clearance rates and it wasn’t long before up to 30 mines a day were being found. The 190th, and final, P-4-B AP mine was found at Sapper Hill on 5th March and this was a massive morale boost to the team. In this minefield no mine had been found deeper than 12cm with 97% of mines located 8cm or shallower, some on the surface. This did not mean clearance was complete as only the mine rows had been cleared. The team then spent the next few weeks processing and clearing all the land within the minefield fence as well as a DGPS survey of all mines, row markers and other significant minefield information. The team also spent time on vegetation remediation as the minefield now resembled a well ploughed field! On 25th March 2010 a public confidence demonstration took place with all deminers and the DPO staff walking the cleared area followed by a quick game of football to demonstrate confidence in clearance. The Governor and representatives of the FCO were then invited to walk the area as an additional show of confidence. The Sapper Hill clearance had taken 77 gruelling days of work and, in my experience, was one of the toughest demining tasks I had been involved in; 1 day to lay and two and a half months to lift!
Once the task at Sapper Hill was complete it allowed us to release additional deminers to Surf Bay so that the clearance there could be speeded up. At the same time the Lebanese team had deployed to Goose Green and were clearing MF11. We were now getting the good weather that we had expected over December and January and, thankfully, we were on track to finish the project before the onset of winter. Three clearance methodologies were used at Goose Green; full excavation on the area where it was known that the AT mines had been placed (these were known to have been Spanish C-3-B with next to no metal content); mine detector search in the area that AP mines had been laid (these were known to have been Israeli No4 mines containing substantial metal; an old ‘friend’ who had taken my leg back in 2002 in Lebanon!); the whole area was then subjected to a BAC search to locate BL-755 cluster munitions or UXO. This work was made difficult by the amount of scrap metal on the promontory, all of which was excavated and piled in a cleared area for future removal. Additionally, at the lowest tide, a visual search was carried out to confirm there was no BL-755 on the beach or in the inter-tidal area. The task was completed after 21 days with no mines or UXO located and a public confidence demonstration took place on 17th April 2010 with the demining team and DPO staff walking the minefield whilst I raced around it in my hired Toyota Landcruiser.
After Goose Green all but 4 of the Lebanese deminers returned home. The remaining Lebanese then flew to Fox Bay with 4 of the Zimbabwean deminers to begin clearance of MF8 (W). This would be a relatively straight forward task as we knew that some clearance had already taken place post conflict and were effectively clearing a ‘suspect’ area rather than a minefield. The first part of the work was to carry out survey of the whole area and much evidence of a cluster munitions strike was found as well as evidence of clearance (demolition pits and remains of demolition accessories). The beach area proved to be most problematic with much scrap metal to be moved and piled before any instrument search could take place. The task took only 2 weeks with nothing found. By the end of it our deminers had made firm friends in Fox Bay and were treated as part of the community. The settlement manager had agreed that during their stay one of the deminers (a trained Halal butcher) would be able to slaughter the team’s meat. I was told by a local farmer that never in his entire life had he witnessed a sheep die so quickly and without fuss!
With Sapper Hill, Fox Bay and Goose Green complete it was time to concentrate all of our efforts on Surf Bay. By this time we had located just about all the mine panels and cleared almost all the rows; we had even located the ‘missing’ SB81 AT mine from one of the ditches at the side of the road. Deminers were now concentrating in clearing the area around the panels and between rows for completion. The only part of the minefield for which a detailed sketch did not exist was 2 panels of SB81 AT mines (each of 2 rows of 8 mines) laid on what was the beach in 1982. This was now an area of huge sand dunes and thick marram grass and our initial investigation proved that the mines would be too deep to locate manually. We had already prepared a 360 excavator with an armoured cab and trained an operator and team for mechanical demining. Sifting large amounts of sand whilst looking for landmines is a slow process which requires immense skill and concentration as it is easy to miss a mine. A missed mine means that sand has to be resifted until it is located. Initial work had begun in February and some of the mines had been located at 2m depth but it was clear that the second panel of mines would be deeper. The work progressed slowly and there were two occasions when mines were missed and the team had to process the already cleared sand for a second time. Eventually all 32 of the remaining mines were recovered, some as deep as 4m, and the task completed.
Like Sapper Hill the whole area was subjected to a DGPS survey showing exactly where every mine had been located as well as other relevant information. The vegetation and sand dunes were reinstated to the best of our ability and a public confidence demonstration took place on 4th June 2010. The minefield at Surf Bay had taken 146 days to clear and, like MF25 at Sapper Hill, was exceptionally difficult in terms of demining. Apart from the mines found there were several grenades (the remains of booby traps) and two full FN rifle magazines as well as a complete container of 7.62mm ammunition. Our final demolition of mines at Surf Bay was auctioned off on Falkland Islands Radio Service (FIRS) with the winning bidder getting the opportunity to fire the demolition. BACTEC promised to match the winning bid with half going to the local charity Cancer Support & Awareness Trust and half to BLESMA and each received £500.
The final part of the task was to remove the minefield signs from all four of the cleared areas. The fences at MF11 Goose Green and MF8 (W) were also removed but the fences at MF25 Sapper Hill and MF8 Surf Bay were left in place. This is to allow these two areas to be monitored over the next two years to assess the environmental impact on vegetation and wildlife although it is believed that both areas will easily regenerate.
The demining project in the Falkland Islands is certainly one of the most challenging projects that I have been involved in; that it was achieved in such awful conditions and against mines that were difficult to detect was a testimony to the professionalism of the Zimbabwean and Lebanese deminers. It was also interesting that we were able to finally compare the written records of the Argentine mine layers with what we actually encountered on the ground; the two minefield records for Sapper Hill and Surf Bay proved to be fairly accurate and made clearance much the easier. But there are many of the minefields in the Falklands that do not have a written record and therefore future demining would be made much more difficult but not impossible. It was also interesting to see the condition of the mines after 27 years in the ground. All the mines found at Surf Bay were found to be in excellent condition giving the appearance of having been laid recently. The mines at Sapper Hill were expected to be found in poorer condition (cheaper, less well made mines) but were also found in good condition.
There were many lows on this project but there were also a whole lot of highs. It was a fantastic opportunity to revisit a place that I hold dear in my heart and a chance to meet up with old friends. At first it was difficult to convince the majority of the locals of the benefits of clearance; most were opposed to the idea based on the fact that the money should have been spent elsewhere in countries where landmines have a real impact. Never having had a civilian casualty they were also concerned that the deminers might be injured during clearance. It took time but we were eventually able to win over the majority of the population with well balanced public presentations to prove that the money would not have been spent elsewhere and that the clearance would be done to standards exceeding International Mine Action Standards. Another testimony to our deminers professionalism was that we never had an accident; there was one incident where an SB33 AP mine detonated during excavation but the deminer was uninjured due to personal protection equipment (mine visor, mine protection apron and Kevlar impregnated gloves) worn by all deminers.
I was also able to arrange for Cheryl to visit for a three week period, although I didn’t see much of her as she was constantly out during the day looking for wildlife and out during the evening with friends! And of course I also got my BLESMAG personally delivered at MF8 Surf Bay when the Assistant General Secretary visited the Islands! Another high for both Roger and myself was meeting the visiting veterans and hearing their stories over a beer or three. We were also able to attend the Remembrance Parade in Stanley as well as two receptions at Government House which had been arranged for all those involved in the demining project.
All in all this was a tough project but one which I will always look back on with pride; if another opportunity arose for me to be employed in a future project in the Falklands I would not hesitate to get involved … glutton that I am