Sunday, 29 March 2015

Danger UXB!

The Evening Standard's take on last week's unexploded bomb

The recent discovery of an unexploded Luftwaffe 250 kg bomb in Bermondsey suddenly brought the Blitz back to the forefront of the news, with headlines such as the one above in the London Evening Standard being fairly typical, as were the inaccuracies in the reporting, which saw the bomb varying in size from 1000 lbs, to 1000 kgs, with just about every size in between coming into the equation. Both Neil and I were surprised to receive late night phone calls from a reporter at the Standard and whilst we couldn't provide details of the actual bomb type, Neil was able to offer his opinions on when the bomb was likely to have been dropped and to give the newspaper a little insight into the background of the raid in question, which in his informed view, was probably on the night of 10th/11th May 1941 - the last raid of the Night Blitz on London and also the heaviest and one in which Bermondsey in particular suffered.

Whilst the press rightly focused on the disturbance and potential dangers caused by the discovery of this weapon, they also correctly paid attention to the work of the Army's Bomb Disposal Service, part of the Royal Engineers, who are the descendents of the Bomb Disposal Squads established during the Second World War to cope with the ever increasing amounts of unexploded German ordnance. This varied from the small 'Butterfly', anti-personnel bombs and 1 kg incendiaries, right up to the largest 1,000 kgs bombs, nicknamed the 'Hermann' because of it's rotund appearance similar to that of Hermann Goring, head of the Luftwaffe during the War. The only bombs not handled by the Army squads were the Parachute Mines, which being adapted naval mines, were dealt with by the Royal Navy's specialist teams.

Blitzwalkers' opinion is...
The work of the Bomb Disposal teams didn't end with the coming of peace in 1945; unexploded German ordnance is still unearthed with alarming regularity. A 'Hermann' was dredged from the River Lea in London's East End in 2008 and after the fuze was removed and much of the explosive steamed out, the remains of the bomb were detonated in situ. The Bermondsey bomb is just the most recent example of unexploded ordnance to be found in London and the truth is that nobody really knows exactly how many bombs are still waiting to be discovered. 

It isn't just in London that these bombs are unearthed - in 2009 a smaller but still potentially lethal bomb, was discovered during building work in Plymouth and eventually made safe. Other bombs have been found in Liverpool in 2006, in Portsmouth in 2013 and in Bristol in 2012, all cities that were bombed heavily during the Blitz of 1940-41. Add to this, the occasional naval mine which has to be dealt with by the Royal Navy's clearance divers, it is clear that the problem of unexploded Second World War German ordnance is not something that will go away any time soon.

This is not just a peculiarly British problem either; in Germany unexploded bombs dropped by the RAF and the USAAF are still regularly being discovered in German cities and other locations across the country, testament to the enormous punishment meted out to German cities, mainly as part of the RAF's night area bombing campaign.

Unexploded RAF bomb, now safely on display in Hamburg (Author's photo)

In September 2014, a 4,000 lb British 'Cookie' blast bomb was discovered in the town of Seeize, close to Hannover and although the bomb was safely defused, major disruption was caused and in December 2011, another 'Cookie' was discovered in the River Rhine at Koblenz alongside an unexploded American 250 lb bomb that had fallen in a separate raid. The bombs were only discovered due to unusually low river levels caused by lack of rainfall and could easily have lain there undisturbed for another seventy years. 

Unexploded Bomb Warning - 1940 style (author's collection)

All of the bombs mentioned thus far were safely disposed of but these stories do not always have such a happy ending. In January 2014, a construction worker in Euskirchen accidentally disturbed an unexploded 'Cookie' with his mechanical digger and was killed in the resulting explosion and in 2010 in Goettingen, three men were killed and another seriously injured when they attempted to move an unexploded bomb. A further incident in 2006 saw another construction worker engaged on Autobahn repairs killed when he inadvertently drove his digger over an RAF bomb which exploded, throwing the digger some sixty feet into the air.

Given that the Allies dropped some 2.7 million tonnes of high explosive plus in the region of 8 million incendiaries on Germany, and that by the law of averages, there will have been many 'duds' amongst these, it is clear that there will be a major problem in Germany dealing with these unexploded devices for many years to come. As the years pass, these bombs will continue to present a threat and will probably become ever more dangerous to the unsuspecting person that stumbles across them.

Printed Sources:

London Evening Standard (cuttings shown)

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