By Marion van der Kraats
Around 20,000 bombs rained down on Oranienburg, a city just to the north of Berlin during World War II, targeting its chemical industry, aircraft factory and a uranium processing plant that was part of Hitler’s nuclear programme.
Many bombs had chemical timers set to detonate the bombs hours or even days after impact. Those fuses frequently failed, and the city is now battling a legacy of unexploded ordnance.
Around 2,000 died in the US Air Force raids by Flying Fortress aircraft, which were aimed to ensure that the uranium plant did not fall intact into Soviet hands when the Red Army took Berlin. The heaviest bombardment took place on March 15, 1945, just two months before the war’s end.
Around half the dead were slave workers or inmates of the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp.
Every time that one of the unexploded bombs is found and made safe, the city’s sirens sound another all-clear.
“People breathe easy again. It’s a sign that we’ve managed it again,” says Mayor Hans-Joachim Laesicke.
The city’s population of 43,650 have grown used to the howl of the sirens, since they must be tested every Saturday. Many other German cities have shut down their warning systems since the end of the Cold War, but not Oranienburg.
More than 180 of the unexploded bombs — called “Blindgaenger” in German — have been found since German unification in 1991. More than 100 of them weighed at least 250 kilograms. The chemical timers increase the hazards considerably.
“They can go off at any time without any obvious cause,” says Peter Ewler, 51, of the KMBD bomb disposal service.
“This concentration of long-duration fuses is unique in Germany,” says André Mueller, a technical expert with the KMBD.
Ordnance expert Wolfgang Spyra of Cottbus Technical University estimated in a 2008 report that there were still around 300 of these bombs lying hidden in the earth under the city.
The hazards of dealing with them were illustrated when one went off in Goettingen in western Germany in 2010, claiming the lives of three experienced bomb disposal experts.
Following the Spyra report, the city authorities have launched a systematic search, drilling holes all over Oranienburg and surroundings, some of them in the cellars of houses.
These boreholes go down up to nine metres, spaced 1.5 metres apart. No building project is initiated without this time-consuming and expensive exercise, after which an “ordnance-free certificate” is issued.
The KMBD is constantly testing new technology.
“The aim is to find a device that can show for sure that it is a bomb,” says Ewler.
“To date it has been impossible to distinguish between a bomb and a gas cannister. That’s why the drilling is necessary.”
“Young families that want to settle here and build a house are often shocked,” Laesicke says. “New residents have a quite different attitude to the threat than do established residents,” he says.
Over the past three years, some 165,000 square metres have been probed at a cost of 1.6 million euros (1.7 million dollars).
On its own land in the city, the state-owned national rail company Deutsche Bahn found seven Blindgaenger, one of which had to be detonated on site.
Oranienburgers have got used to the routine of cordoning off, evacuation and fearing for their homes and lives. “I’m sometimes amazed at how calm the people are,” Laesicke says.
There was a touch-and-go incident in December 2013, when a bomb at a depth of 4.5 metres between two residential blocks had to be detonated on site, because making it safe was impossible.
The bomb disposal expert Horst Reinhardt, now 62 and retired, was worried, despite his 41 years of service. “We have little room for protective measures,” he said at the time.
Two weeks earlier, a small house had been destroyed in a controlled detonation and other buildings damaged.
In August 2012, the planned detonation of a 250-kilogram bomb caused millions of euros in damage in Munich.
“When we have to detonate on site, there is enormous psychological pressure,” Ewler says. “The aim is to limit the destruction to a minimum.”
The age of the bombs and their fuses makes the situation even more hazardous. In more than 40 per cent of the cases the condition of the chemical fuses means that the possibility of sudden detonation has to be taken into account.
Since the fatal accident in Goettingen, the Oranienburg experts no longer touch the bombs, resorting to water-jet cutting technology.
“It helps to ensure that we are only close to the bomb for a brief period,” Mueller says.
Oranienburg sets aside some 2 million euros yearly for bomb disposal, a large amount for a city of its size. This year it has had to take out a loan for the first time.
“Without the bombs, we wouldn’t need it,” says Laesicke. — DPA
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