More than 60 years after the war’s end, removing unexploded bombs, grenades and artillery shells remains a full-time task for police and private companies across Germany. It’s an occurrence so common that police explosives experts Thomas Mehlhorn and Joerg Neumann can joke about their delicate job as they sift warm pieces of shrapnel from wet dirt reeking of sulfur.
Workers recover rusted shells from World War II at a sports field in Berlin last month. Companies uncover an average of 87 tons of weaponry in Germany each year at the sites of public and private projects. (Photo by Michael Sohn/Associated Press)
“When the weather isn’t as bad as it is today, of course this job is fun,” Mehlhorn said. “It beats writing traffic tickets,” Neumann said.
In Berlin, an average of 900 explosive cleanup operations take place each year. Of these, about 100 unexploded bombs are deemed too dangerous for removal–a job for Sprengmeister (explosives expert) like Mehlhorn and Neumann, who blow them up on site.
On a soggy Tuesday in August, workers from the Heinrich Heides GmbH uncovered the antitank weapon during a typical day at the government-funded project to ensure the safety of public land. Often, it is construction or road workers who find the bombs. “There are weapons of all kinds lying hidden everywhere in the ground,” said Fritjof Luetzen, who heads hazardous waste and military ordnance disposal for Berlin. “Everyone who works in construction knows that if they spot something cylindrical or suspicious in the ground to drop everything and call the police.”
Watch your step
British and U.S. bombers dropped almost 2.7 million tons of bombs on Germany during World War II. Many went wide of their targets and did not go off, a buried legacy that affects construction, forestry, farming and fisheries.
Other relics from the war, such as these gas masks, also are uncovered on a regular basis. Rusty guns, helmets and knives are common finds. (Photo by Michael Sohn/Associated Press)
Berlin, which was heavily bombed throughout the war and then captured by the Soviet army in May 1945, has the most hidden bombs. The entire city is categorized as potentially dangerous.
The problem gets trickier with time, as bombs corrode and destabilize. In an ongoing effort to find and remove the unpredictable relics, Luetzen’s office pays private companies $2.87 million each year. The companies uncover an average of 87 tons of weaponry each year in public and private projects. In 2004, workers found 160 bombs, 2,400 grenades, 1,500 explosive devices and 2,700 guns and other weapons.
It’s not uncommon for entire neighborhoods and thousands of residents to be evacuated so workers can remove an old bomb. Most discoveries, like the 1-ton Soviet bomb found at a construction site in Berlin’s Lichterfeld suburb in July, are defused without incident.
While construction companies are not required to have their sites surveyed for bombs, most prefer to avoid accidents like one that killed three construction workers, injured eight bystanders, and tore through buildings and cars in 1994.
A road worker was killed near Frankfurt in October 2006 when the cutting machine he was operating hit a bomb. Bombs crop up in other countries. More than 1,000 people were evacuated from a Warsaw, Poland, neighborhood in June when a 1.5-ton bomb was found on a construction site. Three Dutch fishermen were killed in 2005 when they netted what was believed to have been a bomb or mine from the war.
Britain also is working to defuse the deadly legacy of World War II, and hundreds of unexploded bombs from Hitler’s blitz are thought to be buried across the country. In July, police cordoned off part of the city’s Canary Wharf when construction workers unearthed an unexploded bomb there.
Britain’s Ministry of Defense said its bomb squads would almost certainly have a lot more work to do in the run up to the 2012 Olympics, which are being held in east London. The area hosted much of the city’s docks and heavy industry and saw particularly heavy bombing during the blitz.
Knowing where to look
The Berlin Senate Department for Urban Development hires a private company to survey a site, a practice that experts estimate will keep weapons removal companies in business into the 22nd Century. Once they’re hired, companies like Heinrich Hirdes consult the city’s archive of historical documents and wartime aerial photos to determine which parts of a site are at risk.
The archive has two full-time employees who study the photos, taken by Allied planes during the bombing campaigns and acquired from the Americans for about $80 each. Researchers can tell whether certain bombs exploded by examining the smoke patterns in the photos, giving workers an idea of where to look.
Company employees know from their research that the woods they’re surveying were in the path of Russian soldiers as they approached Berlin and began combing the area with powerful metal detectors. Small holes pock the ground where workers have unearthed rusty helmets, combat knives, artillery shells and bombs. Their work is entered into a computer system that records bomb disposal work in the city.
Weapons removal projects go on across Berlin year-round, but residents aren’t likely to know about them, even if they’re next door. “The key to this work is discretion,” said Holger Kroenert, the Senate Department for Urban Development’s weapons disposal expert. “It piques too much interest and can be dangerous.”
In addition to live bombs and artillery shells, the first two hours at a sport park cleanup in Berlin’s Neukoelln district, for instance, yields a dozen gas masks, combat knives, and a 1930s cigarette machine–six cigarettes for 20 pfennig. “Collectors would love to get their hands on the artifacts that workers dig up every day,” Kroenert said.