Nobody Knows How Many Unexploded Bombs Are Hidden Under Berlin
In the thick of WWII, Allied pilots dropped some 2 million tons of bombs on German soil. Most of the bombs exploded, but up to 15 percent were duds and failed to detonate on impact. Today, these unexploded relics lie waiting.
The Reichstag after the Allied bombing of Berlin (Photo via)
In the thick of WWII, Allied pilots dropped some 2 million tons (estimates vary) of bombs on German soil. Most of the bombs exploded, but up to 15 percent were duds and failed to detonate on impact. Today, these unexploded relics lie waiting. Experts figure that up to 250,000 live bombs remain scattered around Germany, and barely a week goes by without a bomb squad being summoned to one of them—unearthed, perhaps, by a hapless construction worker or a farmer tending to his fields.
Authorities take precautions, but there are still accidents. Bombs go off suddenly and sometimes people die. Though most of the Great War’s combatants are long dead, WWII’s casualty list keeps growing. Over the last few years, the presence of unexploded ordnance (UXO) has become a more pressing problem. As WWII bombs grow old, their stabilizing agents begin to decompose and they become sensitive to the tiniest of tremors. As this happens, the risk of spontaneous explosion increases.
This situation isn't unique to rural backwaters, either. Berlin, which was bombed to shit between 1940 and 1945, hosts an estimated 2,000 to 4,000 unexploded bombs (in addition to loads of unexploded grenades, rockets, artillery shells, mortars, mines, etc.) with around ten to 15 live bombs found in the capital each year.
Those numbers are why Berlin has its own six-person government team devoted solely to the task of hunting down unexploded bombs before they corrode to the point of explosion.
Potsdamer Platz in 1945 after Allied bombing (Photo via)
On a recent weekday in Berlin I found myself squinting at an aerial photograph of the city’s central Potsdamer Platz, taken in May of 1945. The image was captured by a British Royal Air Force (RAF) bomber—likely before unloading a crate of explosives over the capital—and has since been digitized, dotted with bright red circles to signify every spot where a bomb has been discovered.
“Could there still be bombs here? In the middle of Potsdamer Platz?” I asked.
Hubertus Hartmann, a government-employed surveyor, smiled.
“What if they just built a road on top of one?”
Hartmann shrugged: “It’s a problem.”
Hartmann has prepared thousands of photos just like these, which together map out much of Berlin. His red dots vary in size; the big dots mark huge craters where bombs already detonated, while the small dots tag barely visible sites where, perhaps, a dud bomb landed. Three weeks before we met, Hartmann had spotted a suspicious marking on a photo of East Berlin. “We said, 'Maybe there is a bomb here.' We checked, and there was a bomb.”
Berlin’s office for Identification and Recovery of Ordnance is housed within the state’s urban-planning department on a downtown street not far from the majestic Brandenburg Gate. Inside, the office walls are plastered with yellowing municipal maps. Down the hall, the remnants of a 500-pound bomb sits in the corner of a darkly lit room.
The team itself is composed of tidy middle-aged German men—engineers, surveyors, and a regulatory guy, the kind of business-minded bureaucrats you probably wouldn't picture strutting around the Hurt Locker DVD case. A lot of their time is spent liaising with police and engineers, and dealing with requests from Berliners who want to ensure that building sites are bomb-free.
The root of their work lies in old aerial photographs that were taken in the 1940s by Allied warplanes; the office owns around 10,000 images and is looking for more. As of now, all the photos come from Britain and America. Moscow has some too, but it won't fork them over. “We don’t have one Russian picture,” the office’s Frank Künzling laments. “Russians… it’s a different point of view.”
But the Berlin authorities, by their own admission, fall far short of rendering the city free of deadly explosives. “Our orders are to look for high-risk situations, but not to declare a space bomb-free,” explains Tobias Hinzmann, another member of the department. “If somebody would like to build a kindergarten… he should do more.” Landowners who want a thorough search of their property must pay out of pocket.
Indeed, the issue of funding is a touchy one. Money squabbles generally stem from a single question: When a bomb is dropped on a city, whom does it belong to?
As it stands today, Germany’s federal government only accepts responsibility for German bombs. This means that if a German bomb is found in Berlin, the feds will pay for its removal; but if a British or American or Russian bomb is spotted, the state must foot the bill (unless the bomb was found during a privately funded investigation, in which case the landowner sometimes pays). “It’s a little bit crazy,” Künzling admits. And each state is crazy in its own way—regions fund their own bomb-hunting squads with their own rules, and these departments rarely communicate.
A US bombing raid over a German city (Photo via)
In Berlin, the ordnance investigation department uncovers up to 15 live bombs a year. The work is usually done quietly and doesn’t hit headlines, but that’s not always the case. Last April, news outlets the world over gawked when city authorities uncovered a 220-pound Soviet bomb just six feet away from a running rail line. Hundreds were evacuated and schools were shut while the bomb was defused.
Of course, that’s nothing compared with what happened in 2011, when Germany staged the largest bomb-related evacuation since WWII. In Koblenz, a western city on the banks of the Rhine, technicians found a gigantic 1.8-ton bomb in the riverbed. Before technicians could begin their work, 45,000 people had to be cleared from the area, which involved emptying two hospitals and a jail.
A few times a year Berlin police take a bunch of unexploded ordnance to a bunker deep within the city’s central Grunewald Forest, before shutting down the highways and clearing the airspace for half an hour so that they can safely blow it all up.
Between 1940 and 45, bombs fell like raindrops over Berlin. At first, Allied bombing raids were largely tactical, aimed at wiping out critical military and economic targets. But as the years dragged on, bombings of civilian areas became more frequent. Britain’s RAF War Manual explained, “Although the bombardment of suitable objects should result in considerable material damage and loss, the most important and far-reaching effect of air bombardment is its moral effect.”
The official goal, in other words, was to make ordinary Germans feel the pain. And it worked; hundreds of thousands of Germans died as a result of the air raids, and many more were injured or left homeless. Seventy years later, it’s a good time to be an engineer in the bomb-defusing game. Indeed, Germany is now home to a meaty industry of private ordnance-disposal consultants and specialty technicians.
An English bomb-disposal team extinguishing German incendiary air bombs (Photo via)
Modern bomb disposal itself was born during WWII. When London was set ablaze by Luftwaffe bombs during the Blitz, British officials decided to train engineers to defuse unexploded devices. The United States did the same. Over time, the need for such technicians increased as Germany began producing more and more sophisticated bombs.
Today, industry leaders form a macho clique, whose technicians sometimes eschew safety gear while on the job, because what good would a protective suit be in the face of a 1,100-pound explosive?
One of Germany’s best bomb consultants is Dr. Rainald Häber, whose firm, Mull und Partner Ingenieurgesellschaft mbH, is used by the Berlin government. “I’m 70 years old,” Häber told me, “and I’ve been working in this field all my life.” Foreign stints have taken him across Africa and into Japan, where he searched for waterlogged WWII bombs along the coastline.
When a bomb is found in Berlin, Häber explained, technicians usually try to defuse it. They may drill holes into the bomb and unscrew the fuse, or use a water beam to chop the bomb in two—and then cut out the fuse. They may even use a smidge of high-grade explosive to pop out the fuse without setting off the bomb.
In movies, sweaty bomb technicians are often depicted as bent over a mass of wires, silently agonizing over whether to cut the yellow or the red one. But WWII bombs don’t have wires. If a bomb is stable enough to transport, it might instead be towed away and then detonated in a controlled environment. Other times, if a bomb is found in the middle of an empty field, technicians blow it up then and there. There’s no standard procedure; it varies from bomb to bomb.
Hitler glumly inspecting bomb damage in 1944 (Photo via)
The worst kind of bomb to encounter is undoubtedly the “chemical long-term detonator bomb.” During WWII, Allies pioneered a kind of bomb that did not detonate on impact, but rather exploded hours or even days after it hit the ground. By the time the bomb went off, Germans would have come out of their bomb shelters, the idea being to terrorize the population and yield maximum carnage.
These chemical bombs contained a vial of acetone that, over the course of several hours, would corrode the celluloid ring holding the bomb’s detonator in place. When the celluloid dissolved, the detonator would spring forward and then BAM. But here’s the thing: If a chemical long-term detonator bomb lands on the wrong angle, the acetone drips the wrong way and the reaction does not take place.
Today, these bombs are fragile as hell; sometimes they “self-detonate” for no apparent reason.
Moreover, as the bombs age, it becomes too dangerous to defuse them, and engineers are left with no choice but to blow them up on site. So what happens if a chemical long-term detonator bomb is found in a big city? Such was the case in 2012, when a 550-pound American explosive was found in Munich. Thousands of residents were evacuated before the bomb was exploded. The resulting firebomb set neighboring buildings on fire.
What has experts fretting now is the possibility that, some day very soon, all remaining WWII bombs will have to be detonated instead of defused. In this case, Germans might have to grow accustomed to explosions on their bustling city streets.
Meanwhile, the ordnance department in Berlin is chugging along. Standing before his wall-sized map of the city, the department’s Künzling rues, “It’s a hard price to pay for the war.”
Follow Katie Engelhart on Twitter.