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JANUARY 22, 2013 5:20PM

"Ticking bomb" showcases a murderous legacy of World War II

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World War II bomb

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.





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Excellent post. Like you say, I had no idea any of this was happening.
That of course is an issue in Northern France too, if fortunately, the peace generated by a Franco-German alliance, in the context of Anglo-American alliance, and all under the umbrella of NATO and European integration to date has kept the peace, both within Western Europe, and most importantly, with Ivan, if Ivan is a part of Western Europe too, if a unique part, as to Eurasian identity as well.
And yes, like Led Zeppelin said in Battle of Evermore, the pain of war cannot exceed the woe of aftermath. Careful over there Alan :).
Thanks, Toritto and Dr Stuart.

Don, I almost expected you to say, like Madeleine Albright, that, considering the long-term outcome, "it was worth it." Perhaps it was all worth it, but since, like William Faulkner, I believe that "the past isn't dead, it isn't even past," I try to avoid such judgments whenever possible.
Now this is what I call a post worth reading. It told me something I didn't know. Thank you Alan.
Interesting story Alan. I should point out the Germans were dropping delayed-action bombs on the UK too, starting earlier in the war. German ordnance still turns up in Britain as well. I grew up in the north of Scotland, and used to play in a 30 foot wide bomb crater in a field on our farm. A large *British* bomb (probably shaken loose after failing to release properly) turned up in summer 1954, when I was still a baby, and since it was far from homes it was detonated in situ. It blew out all the windows on a neighboring farm who had not been warned!
Thanks for that, GeeBee. What a horrible legacy. It's almost enough to put you off war altogether, isn't it? I wish...
Another part of the legacy is my mother being paranoid about anything I picked up on the beach as a kid - mines would occasionally wash up as late as the mid sixties. My sister's best friend's grandfather was killed by one during the war, as a Home Guard volunteer left to guard it overnight until the disposal guys could come and defuse it. Some time in the night it went off.
And yes it all would rather put one off the whole idea of war. My dad's brother served in a British mobile med unit in N Africa - think Alan Alda, only shorter, with a Scottish accent. Some of his stories would make your hair curl.
Wow... One story we only rarely hear about concerns all those millions of shells and chemical weapons dumped in the North Sea after World Wars I and II, slowly rusting away - never mind all the Soviet nuclear waste and gawd knows what else is out there. Compared to those nightmares, the mines washed up on shore and the German delayed fuse bombs are small potatoes indeed.
Yes, I can imagine. My own Dad was in the US Army, 70th Infantry Division, on the Western Front in early 1945. Plenty of stories there. Definitely put me off war forever.
southeast asia remains an 'active' monument to american war crimes, much more than the 3rd reich. there was at least a good reason for going to war against hitler, while the war in asia was of american manufacture from start to finish.

one lesson to take away from the european war is this: there is no such thing as 'innocent civilians.'
Thank you for writing this one, Alan; Yep, I needed to know. R
Well-done, Alan. I didn't know much about the situation in Germany before, but was aware of the unexploded ordnance still turning up in First War battlefields in France and Flanders.

Then there's the contamination from depeleted uranium in armour-piercing shells from the first Gulf War (and no doubt the second). Not to mention still-active landmines everywhere.

Yeah, war: The gift that keeps on giving.
Your story is more gripping and fear provoking than Stephen King style fiction, Alan.

Sorry you folk have to live with this danger. I wish you all well.
news you can't get anywhere else
[r] alan! wow. my jaw is still on the floor for this one. WHAT ARE THEY THINKING???? WHO INVENTS THESE THINGS. HOW DIABOLICAL. ANYTHING GOES.

Bombs still blowing up in Viet Nam, too, right? Nova did a show on drones. The inventor explained that he did not foresee them carrying bombs. But he didn't come out and say it was a bad thing.

I need to watch the second half of the show but I got bummed out by the relentlessness of science being used for massive evil. best, libby
Point well taken - wars are bad, and WW II was the worst of them. Still, I'm happy the nazis were defeated. Sure, they didn't kill as many innocent people as Marxism did, but they did kill millions upon millions, and they would have kept killing had they not been defeated.
And our tax dollars go toward making better bombs that kill more effectively. Thank you for this enlightening article. Congrats on a well deserved EP.