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Pacific Historian
Jun 4, 2005
Orange County, CA
This makes for a good read.

Sunday, January 29, 2006
Berlin still uncovering WWII-era bombs
By Matthew Schofield

Dirk Wegener heads Berlin's bomb-disposal squad. His office receives
10,000 calls for help a year.

World War II ended 60 years ago, but it doesn't always feel
that way to the people of Berlin, whose lives are disrupted
regularly by bombs left over from that conflict.

Take, for example, what happened just a few weeks ago at the packed
Christmas market along Unter den Linden, Berlin's most famous

Thousands of people were bustling along the street when a backhoe
operator at a construction site heard his machine scrape metal. As
the clay fell away, the machine's scoop revealed a rusty, cigar-
shaped tube as wide and tall as a human torso.

The worker called for help. A police officer called the office of
Dirk Wegener, who heads Berlin's bomb-disposal squad. "We think we
have something for you," he said. "A bomb. A big bomb."

No surprise

For Wegener, who's worked in the bomb-disposal unit for 18 years, it
wasn't a surprise. His office receives 10,000 such calls a year.
"Evacuate the area, and we'll be there as soon as we can," he said.

Allied bombs first crashed into Berlin in 1941. But it wasn't until
the autumn of 1943 when Nazi forces had overextended themselves by
fighting in northern Africa, Europe and the Soviet Union that they
started falling like rain.

The Allies dropped about 50,000 tons of bombs on Berlin during that
time; Wegener says that averaged out to more than 1,000 a day for
about 18 months.

Many of them German estimates say 10 percent didn't explode. At
the end of the war, Germans guessed there were 50,000 large,
unexploded bombs throughout Berlin.

There were hundreds of thousands more smaller explosives. There's
still enough work for six full-time jobs dedicated to old bombs.

Behind Wegener's desk in a cluttered office surrounded by a 10-foot-
high earthen berm in Berlin's Grunewald forest is a large map of

A colored pin marks where every major bomb has been found, from a
2,000-pounder in May 2002 to a cluster of 25 pins in the Muggelsee
neighborhood marking bombs dropped there by Luftwaffe pilots
defending Berlin from Russian troops.

Outside the office are rusted artillery shells stacked like
cordwood, waist-high boxes of hand grenades Nazi, Soviet, British,
American and a smattering of mines.

Explosives smaller than 100 pounds don't merit pins, Wegener
said. "We call those hand bombs; things we can pick up with our
hands and move," he said.

Of the bombs found around Berlin last year, only eight were large
enough to merit colored pins. One was on the grounds of Tegel
International Airport, next to the runway that Secretary of Defense
Donald Rumsfeld was scheduled to leave on. He moved up his departure
to avoid being around at detonation.

Movie-scene fiction

Wegener laughs at bomb-detonation scenes in the movies, in which an
actor screws down a thick cover and detonates a bomb or a hero cuts
the wires and saves the day. In reality, a metal cover would become
extra shrapnel, and World War II-vintage bombs don't have wires.

The secret to bomb disposal, Wegener said, is figuring out how to
separate the fuse from the explosives it was meant to set off.

That proved to be a challenge with the bomb on Unter den Linden.

The first bomb technician on the scene, Detlef Jaab, recognized that
the bomb in the pit was either British or American, and big at
least 1,000 pounds. If it went off, it not only would destroy the
statue of Friedrich the Great just beyond the pit but also would
shatter windows blocks away and perhaps topple buildings on either
side of the street. He called Wegener for help.

By the time Wegener arrived, Jaab had identified the bomb as a
British-made GP 1000, made up of 500 pounds of explosives half the
weight of the bomb and a chemical-detonation switch. The switch
consisted of a glass ampule of acid designed to dissolve a plastic
disk that was holding back a bolt. When the disk is gone, the bolt
slams into 3 pounds of explosives that then trigger the bomb.

This bomb had lasted 60 years, Wegener said, because it had landed
point up, meaning the acid hadn't been tipped onto the plastic. Had
the backhoe operator accidentally tipped the bomb, he and the rest
of the construction crew probably would have been vaporized.

Wegener decided it would be too dangerous to move the bomb; he'd
have to defuse it where it lay. Since 1945, at least two bomb-squad
members a year have died defusing similar bombs in Germany.

Wegener and his team members fetched their toolboxes and crawled
into the pit. Wegener took out a power drill and a specially
hardened drill bit. Picking a spot about a foot from the bottom of
the bomb, just above the fuse, he drilled through the inch-thick
outer shell and 6 inches into the bomb's explosives.

Into this hole he slipped a tiny amount 1.2 grams of high-grade

His plan was that when this bit of explosives went off, it would
create enough force to pop the fuse out of the back of the bomb but
not enough to set off the bomb.

It's his favorite method and he's never lost a man using it, partly
because he and his crew can be safely away from the bomb when the
small charge goes off.

The fuse popped out just as planned, and the explosives not so
dangerous without a fuse ready to ignite them were hoisted onto a
waiting truck and taken back to the berm in the forest.

Wegener estimated that another 2,000 to 3,000 such bombs remain in

"I like to tell people that every time you turn a spade in the
garden, you can uncover a bomb," he said. "I know that for most
people, the war has been over for a long time. But here, and
especially for me, it's a part of daily life."

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company
I heard, years ago, that in Naples this was a slight problem still. They were restoring or rebuilding a old building in downtown Naples. A back-hoe operator saw what looked like imbeded in the earth a metal plate so he pushed on it, banged on it but it would not budge. Finally the project engineer, who was a armorer in the war, came over and recoginized the metal plate for what is was, a US 500lb GP bomb, unexploded of course.

Needless to say the back-hoe operator asked and was granted the rest of the day off.

Heard it on NPR about 10 years ago and it has stayed with me.


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