The Center for Land Use Interpretation Newsletter

Cultural Exchange Through Bombing Program


106 The Center presented an updated version of the Nellis Range exhibit at the IBID Gallery, in London. CLUI photo

Britain Bombs America, America Bombs Britain (Britain Bombs Britain, America Bombs America): A Cultural Exchange Through Bombing is a recent CLUI program, which included exhibits in London and Los Angeles. Created with the Curating Contemporary Art department at the Royal College of Art, the bi-national program was exhibited in the Fall of 2003.

Entitled The Nellis Range Complex: A Global Bombing Microcosm, the UK-sited exhibit described and depicted the largest bombing range in the US, the Nellis Range Complex in southern Nevada, a place where the UK’s Royal Air Force trains, dropping practice bombs on the landscape of the US desert. The exhibit was put together from CLUI Archive images, video, maps and text, with graduate students from the Royal College of Art, based in London, and was on public display at the Ibid gallery in October, 2003. Representing the second half of the program, the US-sited exhibit, called Bomba Povera: A Characterization of the Wash Bombing Range, depicts and describes the largest and busiest bombing range in the UK, a place often used by the US Air Force for target practice - a part of Britain that is bombed by the USA, on a regular basis. The exhibit was presented in an electronic format on two wall mounted monitors at the CLUI in Los Angeles in December.

This bi-national exhibit program was intended to bring these two nations even closer together, by examining the lengths to which their partnership extends. In the days of the Cold War, where the US and the USSR bombed themselves extensively, instead of each other, the UK detonated a couple dozen nuclear devices of their own in the Nevada desert. In the “single superpower” era, the relationship between the US and the UK has developed further, so that now both nations bomb each other, before heading outside their respective territories to do it unto others for real.

The two ranges, each one superlatively the “largest and busiest” in each of their respective countries, have more differences than similarities. These differences are an expression of the different characters of the two nations, in terms of their physical landscape, if not their politics. Since our readers have heard about the Nellis Range in previous issues of this newsletter, and may even have come on our circumnavigation of the Range in 1999, or seen the exhibit, which is on permanent display, 24 hours a day in Wendover, Utah, we will leave the details of this updated version of the range exhibit out of this space, and focus instead on the “terra incognita” of the Wash bombing range, in southern England.

Site Report: The Wash Bombing Range

711 The airspace over most of the wash is designated as a military operations area, and civil aviation through this space is discouraged. A red box indicates a “noise sensitive area” to be avoided by pilots, near Hunstanton, the Queen’s beach hut. CLUI photo of MOD map

The Wash Bombing Range in Lincolnshire, is one of four bombing ranges in the UK. The others - Tain, on the Moray Firth in Scotland, Pembrey Sands on the South Wales coast, and Donna Nook on the northeast coast of Yorkshireare on the fringes of the country. The Wash, the busiest of them all, is just three hours by car from London. It is on the east coast of Great Britain, on the southern and northwestern shores of a large muddy bay called the Wash. It is composed of two separate target complexes, at Wainfleet and Holbeach, each with separate administration and scoring facilities. Holbeach, the larger of the two has been in operation since 1929, and used by Americans since WWII.

Beyond the gate is the administrative area, with three office and maintenance buildings. Since most of the users of the range never set foot on it, local staffing needs are small. Around 16 people work at the range, and not all at the same time. The administrative area is on the protected side of a levee. The range is all on the seaward side of the levee, and is accessed by a road travelling along its top. There are four scoring booths on the levee, which are occupied when bombing runs are in session. Inside each booth, an observer records the location of the impact using a compass scope, and radios the coordinates to the main tower, the focal point of the range, from which all of the targets are visible. Inside the tower, a master scorer enters the coordinates from each booth into a log. An Air Force officer watches over the activities from the tower and communicates with the pilots and air traffic control.

The range is used on the average of 90 passes per day, five days a week, with occasional weekend and nighttime use. Squadrons come from bases all over the UK, and may use the range intensively for a few days, then the range may sit idle for a few days.

Full explosive ordnance is not generally used on the range. Instead, fighter jets drop practice bombs that have a small explosion to indicate the impact point on the target. Some targets are for strafing with bullets, while others are concentric circles that form bulls-eyes for small bombs.

Holbeach has nine primary targets. Two are bulls-eye type, with wide circles delineated with old tires, painted white. At the center is a target object, usually made of industrial plastic pickle barrels, which the Ministry of Defense buys in bulk from a local pickling plant. The barrels are also used to mark flightpaths to the targets, and to mark targets that become submerged at high tide.

Three targets are for strafing by helicopters and jets. The main jet strafing target has a pair of nets with a red fabric centers. Because the impact of the bullets are too numerous and small to see, a hit is detected by a group of microphones that pick up the distinct sound of bullets passing through the fabric. The equipment is inside a fiberglass box, protected by an earthen berm.

On Friday afternoons the range is shut down for clean up crews who come with tractors and carts to pick up the bombs and fragments, and to repair the targets. Bomb remains are collected in carts and stored on site, then shipped away for disposal and recycling. The used American practice bombs are kept separately in a locked cage.

A number of brightly painted pyramidal forms on the range are fixed points on the ground, easily detected by the reflected radar on board oncoming aircraft, navigating towards the targets. Further out into the mud of low tide, are the boat targets and the heavy bomb target. A pair of joined barges are a “sea convoy” target, which is bombed and strafed. The current “freighter” target is a recent replacement for the old ship, which was so shot full of holes that it had disintegrated. The new boat was bought from a shipyard, for 500 pounds, and towed to this location.

The “heavyweight” bomb target is marked by a haphazard ring of scaffolding and pickle barrels. This is where the full size cement-filled bombs can be dropped. Weighing up to half a ton each, they form craters where they land, and burrow deeply into the mud.

In a remarkable contrast with the US counterpart, the Nellis Range, where few civilian outsiders ever enter the secured and restricted bombing areas, at Wash the area is unfenced and accessible to the public. In fact, British law permits anyone to visit this stretch of coastline. One of the jobs of the observers and scorers is to make sure that no civilians are in harms way on the range before a bombing run begins. If people are present, walking their dog or picnickingboth of which happen therethe Air Force can only ask the people to leave. If this fails to be effectivewhich has also happeneda jet’s low pass with afterburners on has been known to be persuasive. 

712 Curatorial students from the Royal College of Art, London, at the Heavy Bomb Target, Wash Bombing Range, with Squadron Leader John Beard in the center. Targets at times evoke a ritualistic or totemic space, appropriate as indeed the target areas are centers of intensely focussed attention and energy. CLUI photo