It’s been 74 years since World War II ended, but the bombs that fell on German cities decades ago still pose dangers today at a surprising rate.
Barely a week goes by without news of an unexploded World War II bomb, shell, or grenade, being discovered and defused by Germany’s bomb disposal experts. Last month, there were even more than usual, with at least 19 bomb alerts across the country, in the cities of Cologne, Berlin, Hamburg, Stuttgart, Augsburg, Dortmund, Essen, Münster, Halle, Rheinberg, Bochum, Potsdam, Freiburg im Breisgau, Xanten, Erfurt, and Gelsenkirchen, as well as in the countryside near Berlin and near Bremen, and, alarmingly for drivers, close to the Autobahn near Nuremberg.
While every decade since the war has been peppered with such incidents, the cause of the apparent recent spike is a decidedly contemporary phenomenon. A nationwide construction boom is encouraging new excavations of brownfield sites, which have a tendency to discharge unwelcome surprises as they are excavated.
Germany is not alone in Europe in having to worry about decades-old unexploded ordnance. London had a scare at the end of May, for example, in which a suspected old bomb in the Thames turned out to be a giant Christmas bauble. Police were not wrong to take the threat seriously, however—earlier in the month a genuine World War II bomb was discovered unexploded in Kingston, Southwest London.
Germany’s sheer volume of still-active ordnance nonetheless puts it in a league of its own. So common are such incidents that reporting on them rarely goes further than the local media. Indeed, they’re so much a part of the landscape that a World War II bomb even featured as a murder weapon in a March episode of the popular, long-running TV crime series Tatort (“Crime Scene”) without coming across as especially far-fetched.
Germany is used to dealing with such incidents, but they’re also creating a fresh ripple of concern. As this month’s trawl suggests, discoveries are becoming more numerous, while the unexploded ordnance still left in the ground may actually be getting more dangerous as it ages.
There could still be a lot of them out there. According to Jens Wehner, historian at the Dresden military museum, between 1.3 and 1.4 million bombs were dropped on Germany’s current territory during World War II. It’s estimated that around 10 percent of these did not explode on impact, but not clear what proportion of those remain in the field today.
It appears to be substantial, though. In the state of Brandenburg, which surrounds Berlin, disposal teams recovered 296 tonnes of old bombs in 2018 alone. As these weapons get older, their chemical detonators—which were always somewhat volatile—become less stable, occasionally to the point where the bombs self-detonate. The small exurban town of Oranienburg, part of Brandenburg and not far from Berlin, witnessed five self-detonations between 1970 and 2013. There is also a risk posed by forest fires, as the heat generated can spark dormant explosives that lie just below ground.
The number of discoveries seems to be curving upward right now because Germany is going through a building boom. Facing a housing shortage, Germany’s construction industry continues to grow: In the 12 months prior to March 2019, the number of new construction contracts rose by 11.3 percent. Not infrequently, these new constructions involve brownfield sites, and digging into the vast layers of rubble created by allied bombardment that lie beneath the surface of many German cities. Given the huge tonnage of bombs dropped on the country, it’s perhaps not surprising that a good number have lingered.
Mostly they are a nuisance. They provoke evacuations, like one last year that forced 9,000 people in Dresden to leave their homes. Sometimes they cause damage, like the glass and roofs ripped up by a controlled detonation in Regensburg in April. As a result, bomb sweeping is a pretty standard part of German planning procedures, with most sites requiring a careful look at aerial photographs and a computer probe for ordnance before work begins.
Such searches are vital. These bombs can still be as fatal as they were intended to be. Sometimes people lose their lives to this long-settled conflict, such as in Göttingen in 2010, when three disposal officers were killed and two injured in the line of duty while attempting to stage a controlled detonation.
It is unquestionably strange to live in a place where the ground can spontaneously erupt due to conflicts that have long since ended. It’s surely a tribute to the professionalism of Germany’s bomb disposal services that, with tragedies like Göttingen’s relatively rare, ordinary Germans are able to treat the danger lurking in their subsoil as little more than a planning and construction headache.
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