"Ticking bomb" showcases a murderous legacy of World War II
Bitter harvest: Experts defuse a World War II aerial bomb in Koblenz, Germany, in 2011, requiring the evacuation of 45,000 residents (Source: wiki)
A PARTICULARLY MESSY BUREAUCRATIC tangle in the western German town of Duisburg is giving a new meaning to the famous “ticking bomb scenario.” It seems that a brand-new residential duplex may have been constructed on top of a British aerial bomb dropped on this industrial city during World War II. The builders applied for an ordnance sweep too late in the process, and now the residents are afraid that their domicile will “go ballistic” at a moment’s notice.
An ordnance sweep, which involves searching for artillery shells or unexploded bombs, is mandatory for new construction in Germany. That's not surprising in a country that was bombed as mercilessly as this one, right? But there’s more to the story than that. What few people outside this country realize is that the British and Americans came up with what they thought was a really clever idea back during World War II: Since the Germans regularly got their factories and train lines back up to speed soon after a bomb attack, thus neutralizing the campaign’s effectiveness, why not equip bombs with delayed fuses? That way, the bombs would go off hours or even days after they were dropped, thus killing first responders and delaying the reconstruction process. Sort of like what we do to civilians with our drones and "Hellfire missiles" in Afghanistan and Pakistan today, come to think of it.
The British and American bombing campaign killed up to 600,000 civilians in the German Reich itself, and many thousands more in the occupied territories, particularly in France. For those tempted to respond that this indiscriminate bombing "served the bloody Germans right" for Auschwitz, Leningrad, and Omaha beach, let me point out that the Nazis provided their citizens with an effective network of bomb shelters. This means that those most likely to be killed by an Allied bomb were Jews and foreign slave laborers, who were prohibited from taking refuge there. One seldom hears much about this aspect of the story. I wonder why?
By May 8, 1945, the Allies had dropped about 1.9 million tons of bombs on German territory during the war,* including about 20,000 weapons with delayed action fuses. But they were too clever by half: Between five and fifteen percent of these bombs either had faulty fuses or else they hit the ground in such a way as to make them malfunction. Sometimes the bombs went off months or years later, and in many thousands of cases not at all – until some hapless gardener or construction worker happened upon them. This is what happened in Berlin in 1994, when three construction workers were blown to ribbons while digging a foundation three meters away from the resting place of an American bomb. Fourteen workers were seriously injured and nearby houses were nearly demolished by the shock wave. Specialists have defused over 7,500 bombs in the capital since 1947, and an estimated 3,000-4,000 are still lying about somewhere – most of them in East Berlin, where the communist government simply couldn’t afford a thorough search.
One bomb blew up spontaneously in a suburban neighborhood in 1983, after its chemical fuse finally finished burning through, forty years after it was dropped. One particularly heavy bomb remained hidden beneath the concrete of Berlin's Olympic Stadium until it was discovered during renovation work in 2002. In 2000 and 2002, bomb crews located two one-ton “apartment block buster” bombs, specifically designed to murder civilians. In 2004, they defused or exploded a record 160 Allied bombs within the city limits. To date, Berlin bomb crews alone have removed and destroyed over 1.8 million units of ordnance, ranging from massive aerial mines to shells and hand grenades.
It’s the same across the country, where bomb alerts regularly shut down entire cities. On average, fifteen bombs are still discovered every day. Workers were in such a hurry to fill bomb craters and rebuild roads after the war that they didn’t always have time to check for unexploded ordnance. Duisburg itself was shut down just last November, as 7,000 people were moved out of danger while a bomb crew removed and detonated a half-ton delayed fuse bomb.
The latest scare may call for similarly dramatic measures. Since aerial photos taken soon after the war only hint at the presence of a bomb, no one can be sure if the new house is sitting on one until the whole structure is torn down and the foundation is broken open. Wouldn’t you love to be the guy handling the jackhammer that day?
The builders claim they did nothing illegal by not waiting for the all-clear, and it is likely that the case will busy the courts for a while. But the story also serves as yet another reminder of the reality of karma. Clever ideas – particularly technical “quick fixes” to military problems – have a way of coming back and biting us all in the backside. This time around, it would be nice if it didn't take us seventy years to figure that out.
*If 1.9 million tons of bombs sounds like a lot, the US Air Force later dropped some 7 million tons of bombs over Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, plus vast quantities of toxic herbicides such as Agent Orange. Lots of Nazis in those unfortunate countries, I guess.