Security shock at dawn in Lahr

MARK NICHOLS July 20 1987

Security shock at dawn in Lahr

MARK NICHOLS July 20 1987

Security shock at dawn in Lahr

As military officers first reconstructed events, the intruder— or intruders—operating under cover of darkness, probably crossed an open field from a busy highway, cut through two perimeter chain link fences and then put a detonating wire in contact with fuel stored on the Canadian Forces Base outside of Lahr, West Germany. Early indications were that an electric pulse sent through the wire at dawn then triggered the explosion that blasted a fireball 650 feet into the air and set off a series of secondary blasts.

The explosions and resulting fire in the fuel dump on July 6 caused no deaths. Many from the base were on a long-weekend leave for a belated Canada Day holiday. But the conflagration destroyed 62,000 litres of fuel and four military cargo vehicles, causing total damage that officers said may run to more than $4 million. It was the first major peacetime attack on a Canadian military base in Europe, but it followed a long series of attacks on Western European military installations. The base’s security arrangements—

and the ease with which the sabotage was committed—raised disturbing questions about the defence of Canada’s bases at home and abroad. Defence Minister Perrin Beatty, who was in Washington for talks with U.S. Defence Secretary Caspar Weinberger shortly after the incident, told reporters, “We are examining security measures right now.” Added Beatty: “There will be a board of inquiry looking at Lahr to get to the bottom of the facts and it will be making recommendations to us.”

As an inquiry by Canadian Armed Forces experts and West German criminal investigation police got under way, one of the key questions that emerged was why at least two security units assigned to carry out routine checks in the area of the blast had failed to prevent the sabotage. As well, there were indications that whoever detonated the explosion had a working knowledge of the camp’s layout and security procedures—and may even have set off the blast to draw dramatic attention to the inadequacy of base security. Indeed, while the physical evi-

dence pointed to penetration from outside the camp, investigators later leaned toward a theory that the blast might have been engineered from the inside. Said Maj.-Gen. John Sharpe, commander of Canadian Forces Europe: “We have not concluded that someone gained access from outside.” But it was clear that security measures failed to prevent the damage at the sprawling base on the edge of the Black Forest in southwestern Germany—despite a series of terrorist attacks on NATO establishments in Europe over the past two years. In March a car bomb blew up at a British base in Rheindahlen, injuring 31 people. In one of the most serious attacks, two Americans were killed and 20 other people injured when a car bomb exploded at the U.S. Rhine-Main airbase near Frankfurt in August, 1985.

On the morning of the explosion at Lahr, the fuel dump was being guarded by a below-strength security unit of the Royal Canadian Dragoons (RCD) tank regiment, while another patrol made occasional tours along the perimeter road. And officials at the base

said that, as a matter of policy, the men on patrol were not necessarily issued with ammunition for the light automatic weapons they carried. To obtain bullets in an emergency, the troops would have had to contact their commanding officer. The base is home to about 5,000 Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) service people, including the members of tank and artillery regiments, a helicopter and infantry squadron, combat engineering and field ambulance units and clerical and support personnel.

The fact that no terrorist group publicly claimed responsibility after the blast reinforced the theory that the sabotage might have been carried out by insiders. “We don’t believe it was a terrorist-motivated act,” a senior officer told Maclean's. Instead, the officer suggested, the attack may have been “an act of disgruntlement,” perhaps by someone who “might want to point out that it is easy to breach security at that particular point.” Whatever its motivation, the attack was far from casual. Declared the vicechief of defence staff,

Lt.-Gen. J. E. Vance, in Ottawa: “This was not done by somebody who didn’t know what he was doing. It was a rather military-type operation and done in a professional fashion.”

As base maintenance crews worked to clean up the blast debris, senior defence spokesmen closed ranks to deflect any criticism of the security measures in place at Lahr. “There was nothing to suggest the base was a target,” said an official in Beatty’s Ottawa office. Routine base security, the official added, “admittedly was not particularly intense, but seemed to be adequate.”

That it was, in fact, inadequate in heading off sabotage became apparent when Warrant Officer Eric Scott, 39, of Dartmouth, N.S., head of the RCD sector’s six-man security detail, heard the first explosive detonation at about 5:30 a.m. on July 6. Within seconds, more explosions erupted as fuel cans burst and fire began to rage inside the fuel compound within a dispersal areaknown as a “Marguerite,” from the time when Lahr was a French airbase. Working amid the inferno, security men and other soldiers attached towlines to three of the seven M548 half-

track cargo vehicles inside the dump and used a tank to haul them to safety.

But the explosions and fire destroyed four other transport vehicles, and stocks of diesel fuel, gasoline and lubricating oil. It took the 23 Canadian Forces firemen from the base station, supported by other personnel, nearly two hours to bring the blaze under

control. One firefighter, Master Cpl. Blaise O’Rourke, 32, of Sydney, N.S., was treated in hospital for smoke inhalation and released.

Assigned to guard the area before the explosions were a patrol on the camp perimeter and a detail in the fuel dump sector itself. The watch on the perimeter road was conducted by a motorized patrol of military police. But it emerged early in the investigation that the last patrol to check the area around the fuel dump passed along the perimeter road at 4 a.m.—a full 90 minutes before the blast. Officials at the base said that normally the patrol would pass along the perimeter frequently. But they also said that the timing was deliberately random, and insisted that the patrol that night had not been at fault. They said that the patrol might have been concentrating on other areas in the camp, such as the ammunition dumps and tank shelters.

As well, there were indications that the patrol’s night vision was severely limited. The Canadian base is apparently not equipped with night observa-

tion binoculars. “At that hour of the morning,” noted Cmdr. Barry Frewer, head of public affairs in Europe, “to see a wire or a hole in the fence would be very difficult, unless you were specifically keeping your eye open for that.”

That left open the question of why the security detail on duty inside the North Marguerite sector did not spot an intrusion. One reason may have been that a blast wall around the dump would make it difficult to see anyone approaching from the autobahn. As well, the security patrol that night was made up of only seven men, rather than the usual complement of 10, which Frewer said was due to a personnel shortage caused by a transfer of forces. In an operation named Springbok-Coronet, the Dragoons, who have been based at Lahr for almost 20 years, are in the process of changing places with the 8th Canadian Hussars, another armored unit previously based at Camp Petawawa, 135 km northwest of Ottawa.

For his part, base commander Col. Charles Emond, a 43year-old Ottawa native, insisted that camp security at Lahr was adequate at the time of the explosion. Indeed, Emond argued against devoting more resources to the protection of camps like Lahr, on grounds that it would “divert men, equipment and funds away from Canada’s bigger concern in NATO—the security of Western Europe.”

Still, Emond also said that he had ordered the camp’s guard system beefed up to meet what base officials now regard as a “higher degree of threat.” While some of the Canadian servicemen and their families in the area said that they regarded the explosion as a mysterious, isolated incident, CAF officers had not ruled out the possibility that the Canadian military might have become the object of a terrorist campaign. Such a turn of events would decisively shatter the base’s peaceful way of life—and its complacent attitude toward base security.