Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
In one city, more than 300 unexploded delayed-action bombs are hiding in the ground, putting its residents on edge.
Just over a mile from where a stretch of the Berlin Wall once stood in Germany’s capital city, the neighborhood of Rummelsburg was evacuated earlier this week after construction workers uncovered a 550-pound American bomb. The bomb, with its fuse still intact, had sat dormant for more than 70 years since the Allies dropped it during World War II.
This one had failed to detonate, and now, decades later, its corroding fuse could set it off at any time. Every year, at least one or two such bombs explode in Germany without warning, according to the 2015 film The Bomb Hunters, which documents the work of the KMBD—the bomb squad for the state of Brandenburg.
First reported by the Associated Press, the story of this latest discovery was picked up by a handful of media outlets worldwide. But to Germans, such findings are so frequent in certain cities that it’s hardly shocking anymore. In fact, the KMBD estimates that more than 2,000 tons of unexploded bombs are uncovered each year, according to Smithsonian magazine.
Many are found in Oranienburg, a city roughly an hour outside Berlin. “They have it so well figured out that the city has a very specific routine [to find and defuse bombs], and it's coordinated very well through their website,” says Berlin-based filmmaker Rick Minnich, who spent a year and a half filming The Bomb Hunters in Oranienburg. “People are just kind of like, ‘Oh, well, getting evacuated again.' And when schools get evacuated, sometimes kids get upset that their school is just outside the evacuation area, because then they have to go to school.”
The threat, however, lingers.
During the war, the U.S. and its allies showered Europe with 2.7 million tons of bombs, some of which had a delayed fuse so that they would detonate hours or even days after they landed. It was a terror tactic, designed to hinder the cities’ recovery. Half ended up in Germany, and what’s left today buried in German soil makes up the roughly 10 percent of bombs that never went off. Instead, they were left scattered as the country pursued aggressive post-war reconstruction efforts.
No one knows exactly where these bombs are lurking, and in the past they’ve turned up in a multitude of places: in people’s backyards, underneath railroad tracks, beneath highways, and near airports. Just last week, the German carmaker Volkswagen discovered a 550-pound bomb under its headquarters in the city of Wolfsburg, about 150 miles outside Berlin.
When a bomb is discovered, it can paralyze an entire city. In 2011, for example, the City of Koblenz came to a halt after authorities found a 10-foot bomb weighing two tons along the riverbank. Some 45,000 residents were evacuated, according to the New York Times. Jails, hospitals, hotels, and the city’s main train stations all had to be emptied, and authorities shut down a busy stretch of the highway. Temporary shelters were set up for the elderly and other vulnerable people.
Accidental discoveries have led to casualties, though it’s been rare. Still, when a bomb is found on private property, the consequences for the owner are sometimes devastating. In The Bomb Hunters, Minnich turned his camera on Gunthard ‘Paule’ Dietrich, a retired taxi driver who discovered a bomb in his back yard. When the KBMD came to defuse it, they ended up having to detonate it instead. The explosion blew up his house and destroyed everything he owned. Afterwards, Paule’s efforts to rebuild had to be put on hold because authorities suspected two more bombs were lurking in his neighbor’s yard.
Paule lives in Oranienburg, one of the heaviest-shelled towns in Germany during the war: 5,690 bombs were once dropped over just 45 minutes. The Allies had targeted the city’s military infrastructure—an airplane-manufacturing plant, Hitler’s arms depot, an atomic-research facility, and the railway station, which served as a transit hub for German soldiers heading toward the Eastern Front.
Today, according to the film, some 300 remain in the ground there, making Oranienburg the German city with the highest concentration of unexploded WWII bombs. “It's really extreme at the moment; they've been having a defusing about once a month this year because they found several bombs in one spot,” says Minnich. “They've been defusing them one at a time in full hazmat suits because the soil is radioactive. That's the area where the factory was, where the Nazis were doing their nuclear research.”
City officials began aggressively searching for them in 2008, launching systematic searches that involve drilling holes as deep as 30 feet all around town. To determine their approximate locations, researchers analyze hundreds of archival aerial photos taken shortly after the bombings, purchased from the U.S., the U.K., and Germany. The price: “A six-figure sum,” local expert Frank Ritter says in the video.
Germany isn’t the only country still suffering the volatile relics of wars past. Unexploded bombs from WWII and World War I have been found London, France, and Belgium. The threat of leftover bombs also lingers in the U.S. And among developing countries, Laos still feels the effects of the 2 million tons of bombs dropped on its provinces in the 1960s and 1970s, with at least 20,000 bomb-related casualties since the Vietnam War.
Meanwhile, civil war has left Southeast Asian countries like Cambodia and African nations like Angola and Mozambique with millions of landmines scattered throughout. Where the government hasn’t taken the initiative to clean up the land, nonprofits like APOPO, which trains rats to find landmines, have jumped in.
“If it's still such a problem from WWII, what about all the wars that have been fought since then?” asks Minnich. The sobering truth is that finding these bombs will go on for generations—and yet it’s still a race against the clock. The longer efforts to uncover them take, the more corroded and unstable bombs become.
Minnich recalls visiting the temporary shelters when German cities had to be evacuated. “It’s kind of a strange experience, because that’s where you sometimes find people who were little kids when the bombings took place,” Minnich recalls. “It’s like the war never ended.”