With the future of Ashchurch’s army base to be consulted on, reporter Emily Cleland gets an exclusive look behind the scenes.
WHEN it comes to equipment for troops on the frontline it’s the small details which can be the difference between life and death.
With 30 years of experience behind him, Chris Taylor knows exactly what he is looking for when he is checking out a vehicle destined for Afghanistan.
Surrounded by the towering bulk of armoured vehicles, he described his job as doing an MOT with extra quality on top.
The 56-year-old equipment examiner said: “The best bit about the job is knowing you are getting vehicles which are going out which are good quality by the time they leave here and are capable of doing the job they are meant to do. The equipment is really needed. The satisfaction of the job is knowing what you’re doing is worthwhile.”
The warehouse which he works in at the Ashchurch site is not dissimilar to the average garage down the road.
With the sound of revving engines and the smell of oil, it’s easy to imagine you’re in one until taking in the colossal scale of the vehicles being tinkered with.
These aren’t Peugeots and Rovers being worked on but Huskies, Jackals, Vikings, Coyotes and more.
They seem almost extraterrestrial caged in a warehouse in rural Gloucestershire for essential repairs, maintenance and upgrades.
Although there are similarities with a garage on civvy street, walking around the pristine site there is no doubt this is a military set-up. There is no radio blaring, calendars on the walls or tool boxes lying around.
There is a real sense of purpose and focus amongst the military personnel and civilians whose immaculate turnout reflects the minute attention to detail which goes into their work.
A total of 18 military personnel work alongside about 280 civilians on the vast site which has more than a quarter of a million square metres of storage. At some point every vehicle which goes to Afghanistan will have been through the Gloucestershire base.
They may be more than 3,500 miles from the action but the people who work there know how intertwined their work is with the military effort in the war-torn country.
Vehicle fitter and examiner Paul Withers, who has worked at the site for 17 years, said: “We’re supporting the troops on the frontline so we’re proud of the work we do and want to get the vehicles in as fit a state as possible to get them over there for them.”
The amount of work has increased with operations in Afghanistan. Staff can work seven days a week and drop their holiday plans at the last minute if an urgent request comes in.
Captain Phil Hawkins MBE, operations and plans officer at Ashchurch, said: “Over the last two-and-a-half years there has been a big change in activity here in response to operational requirements. The work load has doubled and it’s more complex.
“Instead of just dealing with a normal truck we’re now dealing with a vehicle with complex systems on it and the range of vehicles has increased as well. Training is key.
“We always try to be in front of the game to make sure staff have been trained before new vehicles arrive,” he says.
The site is not just colossal in its set-up but also in terms of the number of vehicles which pass through.
In the last year more than 8,500 vehicles rolled through its gates, just off the M5.
A total of 835 have left destined for operational theatres – the majority going to Afghanistan but others being sent to Iraq and the Falklands. The site also carries out routine work on vehicles used by the Army all over the world.
With a railway station in Ashchurch and its proximity to the motorway, the base is well placed for dispatching vehicles.
Those destined for the frontline leave the country via RAF Brize Norton or by sea from Marchwood – an Army base near Southampton. Others are sent elsewhere for training.
The site dispatches vehicles to the frontline and gets vehicles back for repairs, maintenance or disposal.
As Major Mark Wilson, head of the base at Ashchurch, puts it: “We do from cradle to grave.”
Of the vehicles which go through the site, some are new and in need of specialist adaptations, others need repairing, upgrading or disposing of and some, which aren’t currently needed, are stored and looked after to free up the time of soldiers who would otherwise have to maintain them. Many of these are placed in one of four controlled humidity environment stores – which prevent rust and decay.
Claims made last summer that desperately-needed vehicles were sitting there idle, were dismissed as inaccurate at the site.
Major Wilson said: “If the vehicles are needed in theatre then they go. The vehicles are not held up here. If vehicles are needed in theatre they get processed very quickly. They are our priority.”
Next financial year a total of 1,000 new vehicles are expected to be processed through the site – to be used in support of operations or operational training.
One thousand are also expected to come back from Afghanistan for upgrades, refurbishment or to be disposed of.
Major Wilson added: “Now Afghanistan has been going for some while, the fleet is going to get tired so we’re going to get a bow wave coming through this year as opposed to a trickle.”
Last year the Ministry of Defence told workers the Ashchurch site could shut as part of a wider defence efficiency programme.
In an interview with The Citizen earlier this year, Armed Forces Minister Bill Rammell said any changes made to the base would be done in consultation with workers and local people.
Staff at the site appear to be more focused with the importance of the job in hand than what may lie ahead.
As technical services workshop manager Ollie Nolan said: “I’m not thinking about the future of the site. I’m thinking about supporting the troops on the frontline. People are more preoccupied with that.”
272,000 sq metres covered storage.
47,000 sq metres external storage.
47,000 sq metres controlled humidity environment storage.
5,000 sq metres rail loading area.
10,000 to 12,000 vehicles to be stored (dependent on size) at any one time.
5.6km of perimeter fence.
Site has 18 military staff, about 280 civilian staff and about 450 contractors.
It is the only MoD vehicle storage depot of its kind.
Some of the vehicles which pass through Ashchurch include:
Operates on the frontline. It is a logistic support vehicle which can carry up to one tonne of kit right to the frontline. It carries combat supplies – water, fuel, ammunition and rations.
A weapon-mounted patrol vehicle which is armoured. Used by soldiers on patrol on the frontline.
Lightweight fast vehicles which can be used to quickly recover combat supplies dropped by helicopter. Used on the frontline.
An up armoured patrol vehicle used on the frontline. A general purpose vehicle used in Forward Operating Bases.
A patrol vehicle which has got tracks as opposed to wheels. It is gun-mounted and used in a similar way to the Jackal.