Grandstand view for Russians at Army's 'big bang': Peter Dunn reports from a military range that has turned into a graveyard for British battle tanks

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The Independent Online
THREE Chieftain tanks were blown 200 feet into the sky above Dorset yesterday to stop them being used in a future war against the Bolshevik hordes.

The explosion, on the military firing range at Lulworth Cove, was witnessed by a delegation of Russian army officers who turned up for the occasion in a bus labelled 'Good News Coaches'.

The big bang - a simultaneous triple flash followed by a thunderous rolling boom - was part of a 15-month exercise to scale down Britain's firepower under the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty.

The Russians were there, checking tank chassis numbers against the real thing, to make sure no one cheated.

Britain's target of eliminating 183 tanks, 30 armoured combat vehicles and four attack helicopters has been vigorously kick-started since the Russian observers arrived on Monday. A graveyard of 40 shattered Chieftains, earmarked now for target practice, already litters the serene moorland acres occupied by the Army above Lulworth Cove.

The combat-suited Russians, led by the enigmatic gold-toothed Colonel Sergei Slepnev, seemed animated by the sight of things being blown up.

Their leisure hours this week are being filled by what the Army calls 'a cultural programme' of visits, including trips to Eldridge Pope's brewery in Dorchester and the tank museum at Bovington, a paddle in Lulworth Cove and a ride in a Royal Marine landing craft at Poole.

Broader questions about the future of military firing ranges post-glasnost went unanswered.

Colonel Bryan Gordon-Smith, from the War Office, had to be rescued by Rachel Joint, an MoD spokeswoman, when he was asked at yesterday's press briefing: 'Now that we haven't got any enemies and you're blowing up our tanks, when will places like Lulworth and Dartmoor be returned to the public?'

'I think that question's beyond the remit of the people here,' Miss Joint said crisply. 'I think that question's more for the politicians.'

Sergeant 'Dagger' Sword, 13 years in the Queen's Own Hussars and a gunnery instructor at Lulworth, had no such inhibitions as he escorted a truckload of media personnel to the tank destruction site.

'Best nature reserve in Britain,' he declared, gazing fondly out across a rural panorama of rusty tank hulks and notices about unexploded shells. 'Give it back to the public and next year all the nature's gone. It's got all kinds of wildlife out there - deer, badgers, birds of prey, lots of hawks; and we look after 'em all,' Sgt Sword said.

At this point the truck passed a military rubbish tip garnished with bright red three piece suites. The sergeant never faltered.

'You get more rubbish than that on council estates,' he said.

(Photographs omitted)