Are we losing the art of digging?

A member of 9 Parachute Squadron 23 Engineer Regiment keeps watch during the construction of the next phase of Route Trident in Helmand, Afghanistan. A digger is pictured moving the foundations of the road in the background.

In the last decade or more of operations in the Middle East, the enemy’s that British forces have faced had not had a great deal of indirect fire capability. Although Iraqi forces in 2003 certainly did have them and used them, they were relatively few in number. In Afghanistan, the majority of indirect fire threat was from mortars and recoilless rifles. To counter, investments in Counter Rockets and Mortars (C-RAM) capability were made; Base-ISTAR, EXACTOR, ground mounts for Phalanx CIWS and lightweight mortar detection radars for example. In addition to the active means of defending fixed locations against sporadic indirect fire, force protection engineering enjoyed a resurgence; HESCO, Defencell and Expeditionary Elevated Sangars for example.

Because operations were conducted from a fewer number of fixed locations they was no need to ‘dig in’.

Against an enemy with decent artillery in a manoeuvre operation things would be different; those familiar with German or even the potential of Russian artillery, when they stopped, they dug.

Whether that was a simple shell scrape, a gun pit, Milan trench with Chatham arch, Mexe Shelter or even using an IPK as something other than a basha, protection from artillery meant digging.

The reason I ask the question is because in all the media released by the MoD of recent exercises covering the ‘return to contingency operations’ theme, I can’t find any that show personnel in a two man trench, a shell scrape or non Hesco based fortification. Many of the UK training areas do not allow digging, for environmental protection and health reasons, unlike Kenya for example.

This doesn’t mean there hasn’t been of course which is why this post is asking a question, is the IPK still on issue, is digging shell scrapes a common occurrence in Battlegroup exercises, which training areas are personnel not allowed to dig in?

For those of a certain age, drink the nostalgia in!



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31 Responses

  1. Wasn’t the problem, that the very old training grounds are riddled with Field Latrines. When I was doing my Gunners training at RAF Honington. Their was a specific area at STANTA were you were allowed to dig proper Trenches. Everywhere else was off limits.

  2. @ DN

    A few times after Training. But we always had a JCB to hand!

    On a serious note. We had a safety briefing off STANTA’s Staff. We were forbidden to dig deep trenches, only in specific areas. Due to the fact that the site had been in Military Use for nearly a Hundred Years and it was one giant toilet. It was a Public Health Issue. It was so bad we had to have a Portaloo with us! That was Twenty Years ago mind!

  3. @Simon257

    Yeah latrines plus UXO have been the concerns with digging for a long time and Portaloo’s are standard now although I think those Jon bags we used in Afghan are a better alternative, Portaloo’s are disgusting if not kept on top of. I was asking as I think in the last decade we are losing the art of digging in, maybe not so much in terms of individual shell scrapes but in prepared defences, vehicle/gun pits plus anti-tank ditches etc.

  4. At the time, there had been an incident at another Training area. Can’t remember which one, though Otterburn comes to mind. Some poor sod was digging a a trench, and dug through into a Cesspit. Unfortunately the floor of the Trench collapsed and he went straight in and almost drowned!

    I would have thought that Trench Digging it would still be a part of Training whether Army, RAF Regt or the Royal Marines?

  5. I’m sure people will get back into the swing of things when the first rounds start falling. :)

    Your infantrymen still run around with ET tools?

  6. I seem to recall an incident in BATUS where a bloke lost a leg after hitting some UXO while digging in as well. During training I think everyone digs in (as in two man battle trenches) it’s the larger stuff that I think we have let slip.

  7. The quick digging in makes a little sense for reduction of line of sight (horizontal) silhouettes, but it’s not very effective against mortars or artillery. One of the effects of the cluster munitions ban is the inevitable comeback in force of proximity fuzes for HE airburst (comparable to their role in the 70’s). Only covered positions would be safe from this and kevlar blankets are exceedingly rare.

    ECM cannot protect against proximity fuzes reliably. ECCM features are now commonplace, and optical proximity fuzes for mortars have been produced by Junghans and Noptel for a decade or two. RF proximity fuzes could be improved with electronic timing for minimum time before emissions commence. Electronic timing could also make the classic time fuzes more practical, particularly on hilly terrain if combined with digital maps.

  8. A Terrier can shift 300 t of soil in an hour… but there are only so many of them.

    Don’t know what kevlar blankets SO is refererring to, but one European country just ordered kevlar shields for use by their towed artillery crews (on the assumption that once dug in, and protected from the top view, too, the arty pieces themselves are quite resistant to the small airburst fragments ( small as in optimised for use against infantry).l

  9. @SO

    The biggest threat to trenches isn’t airburst. If you are unlucky and it explodes above you, too bad. But if it detonates in front or behind the trench, the walls generate a “shadow” that you can hide from shrapnel. Same with surface groundburst. The biggest threat from what I hear from artillery guys is an underground groundburst that shifts a lot of soil. This causes the walls of the trench to collapse inwards, sometimes burying the soldier.

    Besides artillery, trenches also work well as protection from small arms fire and grenades. A properly constructed fire trench would have grenade sumps that you can tamp a grenade explosion with by kicking it into the hole, so it isn’t totally useless.

  10. Oh, come on. 152 mm HE craters are about 20-50 sq metres large, while with airburst the same shell will ruin the day of everyone noch crouching in a breast-high trench on an area of more than 1000 sq metres (depending on angle of descent). Even crouching men in breast-high trench will be gone on an area of hundreds of square metres (the lethal blast radius is significant in itself!).

    152 mm airburst can be very high – not the typical 1-5 metres as with proximity-fuzed 81 mm HE mortar bombs. The typical artillery shell airburst altitude is up to 16 m (with 10 m as one nominal setting option on most fuzes, but with a variance of up to +/- 6 m with old or ‘Soviet/Russian’ proximity fuzes). Even PDSQ can explode that high if the HE strikes woodland.

  11. It is true that the first arty prox (VT) fuzes used in Dec 1944 did not have a mechanical time element to prevent early bursts. However, UK artillery introduced controlled VT in the early 1950s and has been using them ever since. CVT means the radar doesn’t switch on until a few seconds before impact, this reduces even further the hazard of early bursts over own troops, but more importantly reduces the effectiveness of enemy ECM against the fuze.

    You can’t make sweeping assertions about crater sizes. The nature of the ground is always a consideration. The second factor is whether the fuze is set of ‘instantaneous’ or ‘delay’. Obviously, with the later the shell goes deeper, but this doesn’t necessarily give a bigger crater. For example, 8 inch fuzed concrete piercing (a form of super-delay) fired into laterite ground produces almost no crater, the big column of dirt goes straight up and comes straight down to fill its own hole. In the same terrain a 155mm shell fuzed superquick gives a crater a bit less than 2 metres diameter and less than half a metre deep at is deepest point. Obviously terminal velocity is another factor in how far a shell penetrates, as is the angle of descent and the hardness of the ground, you don’t get much penetration in granite! (but you might get some fun ricochets if AoD is flat enough)

  12. SO all your shots assume an airburst with a straight line to the men. It doesn’t always happen.

    Not to mention the points Obsvr brought up too.

    I think the delayed fuses is one of the main reasons we switched from buried command posts to mobile ones. It is way too easy to collapse an underground structure these days, even the timber reinforced underground CPs, so they transited to a more mobile CP which also helps if your forces are advancing.

  13. I didn’t write abotu “always”, but about affected areas.

    The 15 cm calibre heavy howitzer was originally devised after tests in the early smokeless powder era found this calibre (with the external ballistics achieved then) found it capable of penetrating some serious field fortifications. Hvy FH have always been effective against all but the most deliberate field fortifications. That was their point. Light field howitzers were more efficient shrapnel and frag deliverers than heavy ones till the introduction of DPICM. And delaying fuzes were available from the earliest HE fuzes simply because safe PDSQ was mroe difficult to develop and produce than normal PD or even delay.

  14. @as

    The ‘light mobile digger’ was withdrawn in the late 80’s early 90’s? it wasn’t that good by all accounts being very unreliable.

  15. With the ‘light mobile digger’ is there a modern equivalent bit of kit that is just for trench digging?
    There are lots of diggers in service but is there something that could get the job started and would be quicker then a digger.
    The other option is to not dig in and build above ground with Hesco bags.

  16. there a loads of films on youtube showing all the mad stuff the Russians used to have, here’s a short one, the smaller one seems to crack out a decent infrantry trench in double quick time

  17. I told you guys about the gravedigger in my uncle’s platoon before didn’t I? :)

    Nothing beats a pro who does it everyday. lol

  18. Actually explosive digging is not quicker than a specialist ‘tool’ like the light mobile digger, even allowing for time spent removing topping before actually digging. With explosives you first have to sink a set of small shafts for the HE, then after the bang you have to shovel out a lot of dirt and trim up the hole and tidy up the surrounds to make it less obvious.

  19. I actually remember the cratering course, first you have a “conical charge” on a tripod, basically a Munroe effect charge on a tripod which you fire off. Then you lower the “main charge”, I remember it was an old milk tin filled with TNT flakes and a lid with a hole punched through and det cord threaded through it and secured with a knot tied inside. Lower the tin, fill and tamp the hole and run like F. *Boom!* instant crater.

    Come to think of it, I never really got to find out about what happened to the milk tin.

    Ah those were the days. Fun with improvised charges. I still remember the “TNT-filled sock door opener”.

    “You hang this around the doorknob, fire it off, then kick the door in.”
    “Sir, which piece of the door do we kick? That one? That one? Or that one over there?”
    Apparently they were working on the principle of “Calculate enough. Then double the amount.” :) It helped that it was a door that was removed for a demonstration, no frame to keep it intact.

  20. @as

    There is not a specific piece of equipment for entrenching any more but the type of vehicles such as the LMD and the ones shown in the video posted are not very versatile whereas a JCB or excavator etc is useful for a number of jobs plus they are not really any slower than the dedicated entrenching equipment. Hesco is really only used as force protection as the quantities of fill material required are quite substantial when compared to excavating a fire trench or mortar pit.


    Explosive digging is not used that often to excavate field defences and generally only in ground that is too difficult to excavate with conventional methods.

  21. Sorry to come in a week late.

    Interesting post. I was wondering on the effect of aerobic explosives on field defences. I ask because from the rumour mill the Iraqi field defences on the Kuwait border in GW1 were destroyed by Gas/Air bombs that were dropped to detonate minefields. My understanding is NATO kept aerobic explosives secret from the USSR and the Russians who were using it in Afghanistan kept it secret from NATO. But as I said rumour and inference.

    Not rumour or gossip was the low serviceability of the LMD which was a lash up of a vertically mounted coal digger on a slewing mount with a commercial conveyor, the whole equipment required IIRRC eight different hydraulic fluids. Impressive on demonstrations on sandy soils.

    As DN said Explosive Digging takes out the pick work by loosening hard ground, the loosened ground still needs to be shovelled out.

  22. ^ yes, and the first time they were deployed against manned targets was when the Russians used them in Grozny, to avoid losing (again). Guess who was the Prime Minister who won the (2nd) war, and then rode the wave of public acceptance?

    Human rights organisations of course raised the red flag, but anyone who was an eye witness just kept disappearing… funny that?

  23. ACC,

    So cynical, I am sure it was just a series of coincidental accidents, like that poor gentleman whose sushi turned out to be full of polonium, or that other poor guy in Moscow who just happened to walk into some AK bullets as he was out and about.

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