“Here, put these gloves on first. We must have some rules.” With that, ordnance expert Peter Ewler grins, then allows me to dip my hands into a bin of high explosives and lift out a 50-pound unexploded bomb.
The rusted thing, from World War II, is of Russian origin and was found near the Polish-German border. If my hand slips, the concrete storage bunker we’re in probably would blow up.
Unexploded bombs are still big business in Germany. Almost two million tons were dropped there by the U.S., Russia and Britain during World War II. An estimated 10 percent to 15 percent never exploded and now, seven decades later, are prolonging war into the 21st century.
In Brandenburg alone, the area surrounding Berlin that I visited and the most infested of Germany’s states, around 350 tons of unexploded munitions are destroyed annually, including grenades, mortars, artillery shells, mines and aerial bombs. Some are found in fields, others in residential areas near homes and schools built after the war.
Wilfried Kramer oversees the War Ordnance Disposal Service in Brandenburg. He operates with an annual budget of just 13 million euros ($18.4 million), 8 million of which goes to private subcontractors, the rest to a staff of 66 field workers and technicians, including overhead.
How do they find the bombs? Some 70 percent are identified using U.S. and U.K. air-reconnaissance photos taken after bombing runs during the war. Since Germany reunited, Kramer’s unit has purchased 19,100 of them. Telltale blips near large craters show where aerial bombs, especially heavier ones, landed and never exploded.
The most dangerous ones were set to explode between 1 to 144 hours after landing to create prolonged chaos. The problem is that many landed in the wrong position for the acetone “long-delay” fuses to work properly, and are still live.
Heino Borchert is responsible for Oranienburg, a particularly problematic area. Because the Allies thought the Nazis were developing an atomic bomb there, raids by U.S and U.K. bombers blasted the place. The theory was that even if Germany didn’t complete a nuclear device, the Russians might capture the area before the Allies and acquire the technology.
Borchert took me to a residential area with unexploded bombs still in the ground. Three of five --- one 550 pound and two 1,100 pound U.S. monsters -- already had been found and detonated. Large craters filled with water marked the holes.
Two more nearby still are being hunted. I walked over and stood on one site, full of gray plastic pipe probes drilled down, knowing something that could take out half a city block was likely below me. It was unsettling, and within a stone’s throw of nearby houses. Borchert said that when homeowners see his crew, in fact, it’s like meeting the grim reaper.
When a bomb is judged stable enough for transport, it’s brought to a central munitions complex in Kummersdorf. Some dismantling is still done by hand there, but more often now detonator and fuse removal is achieved using remote-controlled saws. We watched on a video camera from a separate control room as a Russian grenade was successfully sliced in half.
When enough ordnance accumulates (25 tons to 35 tons), the facility stages detonations on a large open pit of sand. Guido Kuschinsky, who runs the place, says his wife is always glad when he returns at night.
“She makes me call after every detonation,” he says. Even though their bravery merits reward, these guys don’t show up on rich lists. The average senior “fire worker” earns 30,000 euros annually.
Kuschinsky then leads me to the most dangerous area, a concrete bunker where the live bombs are stored. First I must sign a paper, in German, releasing authorities from liability should one explode. It happens. Kuschinsky tells of a friend he lost in this room when a small device went off. When asked if he has had close calls himself, he shakes his head, says he doesn’t want to talk about it.
For the last part of my trip, we drove to the Polish border to meet with Ewler. He was waiting in a grassy field near the Oder River, the final stand of the German army against charging Russians. One of his workers was busy surveying the ground with a metal detector. Suddenly he stopped, and another came over and began digging, carefully.
Sure enough, a few feet below a small rusted device was visible. Ewler pointed out that the fuse was missing but not the detonator, making it unstable for transport.
A plastic explosive was buried along with the 82-millimeter Russian mortar shell. We all retreated to about 275 yards. After a short countdown, a small radio sent the signal. In a magnificent show, the shell --- along with other ordnance found earlier -- shot earth and smoke 100 feet into the air. A boom followed. I began to feel like Jeremy Renner in the movie “The Hurt Locker.”
But this isn’t Hollywood. Ewler lost three friends last year when a 1,100 pound bomb blew in Gottingen. Sad as that was, he’s circumspect. He said that if a bomb does go off, he hopes it’s a big one because he doesn’t want to suffer.
Even though World War II is now 66 years gone, it may never be over for these fire workers. As technology improves, so do methods for detecting bombs. While thousands have been found, thousands more lie in wait. And the longer they wait, the more dangerous they become. TNT never decays, but the stabilizing agent in the explosive does.
Left to their own devices, the bombs eventually explode on their own. It’s happening already. Phosphorous ordnance will ignite spontaneously, causing wildfires. Fire departments won’t go in sometimes for fear of other (bigger) bombs exploding too.
Germany is still in a war, only it is with time.
(James M. Clash writes on adventure for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)