Unexploded Ordnance in Germany

The dangerous legacy of World War II

Man-Size Missile
Thousands of bombs have not been detonated. Viktor Temin-Hulton Archive@gettyimages.de

Although World War II ended 70 years ago, the legacy of this devastating war is still present in everyday life in Germany. The country and its cities have mostly been bombed into ashes by British and American bombers. The so-called Luftkrieg has not only claimed thousands of lives but has also left wide devastation all over the country.

The cities have all been rebuilt until today, but the backlash of the bombings is still a struggle with countless unexploded bombs that lie in the underground.

On average, there are 15 unexploded ordnances discovered in Germany every day. Most of them, though, are rather small shells or less dangerous objects, but between all those objects, there are also many big shells and, of course, bombs that are discovered every year. In 1945, over 500.000 tons of bombs were dropped over Germany - and many did not explode.

Especially in Berlin, thousands of shells, bombs, and grenades are suspected in the underground (here, you can see how Berlin looked just after the war ended). The Battle of Berlin in 1945 is one cause, but of course, the German capital has also been bombed countless times over the years. The major and industrial cities of Germany have, of course, been the target of heavy bombings, but also in smaller towns, UXOs are discovered once in a while. Whereas the ammunition depots of the Nazis were known, the targets of the allies and the Russians were not for many years.

Though, the Russian shells are way more rare than the British and American ones because the Soviet Union did not participate in the aerial warfare. That is why every construction work site in a German city bears the danger of finding a bomb. After the German reunification, though, the plans of the bombings have been handed over to the German authorities by the allies that made the discovering of the so-called Blindgänger more easily.

Every German Bundesland has its own Kampfmittelbeseitigungsdienst (bomb disposal squad), which does not only dispose the ammunition but also searches for these by using magnetic devices. Experts suspect that about 100.000 of those bombs still have not been discovered. Once in a while, some are found during constructions in most of the German cities and are not reported as national news. It is just too common of an occurrence to report about. But of course, there have been exceptions – especially when one of the UXOs goes off. This happened, for example, on June 1st, 2010, when in Göttingen, an American 1.000 lbs bomb detonated uncontrolled just one hour before the planned disposal. Three people died, and six were injured, but most of the time, the disposals succeed because the German specialists have a lot of experience. The way of proceeding differs from case to case when a bomb is found. All of them have in common the fact that first, the type and the origin have to be found out. With that information, the disposal team and the police can decide whether the area has to be evacuated. Further, it can be decided if the bomb can be transported to a safe place or if it has to be disposed on site.

Sometimes, both options are impossible. In this case, it has to be blown up.

One of the best-documented cases happened in Munich in 2012. A 500 lb aerial bomb lay just under the Pub "Schwabinger 7" for about 70 years. It was discovered when the pub was torn down, and because of the bomb's condition, there was no other way than blowing it up in a controlled way. When this happened, the sound of the explosion could be heard all over Munich, and even the fireball was visible from far away (here, you can watch the explosion). In spite of all the precautions, many bordering buildings were set on fire,  and all the windows on the street where shattered.  

In other cases, people may be very happy that bombs are being disposed of instead of having a huge explosion destroy an entire block, such as the inhabitants of Koblenz in December 2011.

A British Blockbuster bomb weighing 1.8 tons was found in the Rhine River. Blockbusters have been used during air raids to blow off the roofs on entire blocks to prepare the houses to be set on fire. This might have happened if this bomb had gone off. Luckily, it was disposed of on-site. Nevertheless, the 45.000 people of Koblenz had to be evacuated during the procedure, making it the largest evacuation in Germany since the war ended. However, it wasn't the biggest UXO ever found in Germany. In 1958, a British Tallboy bomb was discovered in the Sorpe Dam, containing nearly 12.000 pounds of explosives.

Yearly, over 50.000 unexploded ordnances are disposed of all over Germany, but there are still countless bombs waiting in the underground. In some cases, the water, the mud, and the rust render them harmless; in other cases, it makes them unpredictable. They are relics of war most Germans have more or less gotten used to.