by Giles Watling MP

EVER since I was a boy, like many others in our area, I wondered what those mysterious bangs and consequent vibrations were coming from across the sea to our Tendring coastline.

They came from the south, not regularly but now and then. Some bangs were bigger than others and sometimes they resembled the onset of a thunderstorm.

In time I was told that they came from a secret MOD site on Foulness Island to the east of Southend and almost directly south of us across the sea. This fired my imagination, but I pretty much left it at that, I probably would never know the truth.

So again like many other long term residents, I just accepted the odd bang as a part of the living on the Tendring coast experience and didn’t pay them any heed. But then I became the MP for Clacton.

In my postbag I received a couple of complaints about the site, so I determined to make enquiries. I wrote to QinetiQ, the company which now runs the operations there, and they have been good enough to invite me to a briefing and a tour of the site. My first impressions were of a secure site that carried out clandestine operations.

The security was extremely tight. However this impression soon gave way to an understanding that this site, far from being overly secretive, was keen to show off its wares and demonstrate how useful its activities are to keep our armed forces safe. In fact all the security surrounding the site is primarily in the interests of safety.

Yes, they do deal with high explosives and they have two main functions. One, to test the performance of the munitions which have to be at the cutting edge to give our service men and women the best tools which won’t blow up in their faces, or indeed fail to work.

Two, they dispose of time expired munitions, which of course must be stockpiled in case of sudden need. Some can be burned down and some for technical and paradoxically safety reasons, have to be disposed of in a controlled explosion.

Clacton and Frinton Gazette: Giles Watling at the MOD site on Foulness Island

  • Press the button: Giles Watling at the MOD site on Foulness Island 

During the comprehensive briefing I learned how the staff worked hard to keep the effect of their very necessary work to a minimum. Weather, shipping and many other considerations are taken into account, and before there are any firings a test is carried out at ten percent power to calculate the effect of a full test. Only when the staff are completely satisfied over safety and noise repercussions will a firing take place.

Why Foulness? That is an oft heard question. Well, it’s been used for over 150 years because of its remote location and when, early in the twentieth century, most suchlike military bases were moved further west – for obvious reasons – Foulness remained as the site of choice because of one unique characteristic – Maplin Sands. Here they can fire a shell many kilometres at an angle into five meters of water where it will land in soft sand at the bottom, and then, some hours later when the tide has receded, tracked vehicles can go out to recover undamaged shells for examination.

On the day I visited, there was a test of a new casing to a 155 millimetre shell. Three shots were fired at five minute intervals. All successful and yes, I admit, I fired one of them. 155 millimetre shells are about the biggest bangs you are ever likely to get from Foulness and that is why it happens so rarely. They only do what is absolutely necessary. They want to ensure that if any errors occur, they will occur at Foulness under controlled conditions without harm.

This site is unique, there isn’t another site anywhere else in the UK that is able to carry out the work they do, right here in Essex. Not only is this site unique, what they do will undoubtedly save our soldiers lives on the front line.

It is worth noting that since QinetiQ took over in 2001, complaints about activity have fallen from nearly 1,000 per year down to an average of 66 over the last five years. I think that has to do with communications and great care.

To be kept abreast of the not-so-secret goings on at Foulness, go to twitter.com.