Latest News

World War II remains a part of daily life in bomb-laden Berlin

BERLIN—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 boulevard. 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."

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. Wegener said his office still picked up 10,000 a year, and that that was down from what it used to be. 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 Berlin. 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 U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld was scheduled to leave on. He moved up his departure to avoid being around at detonation.

Wegener laughs at bomb-detonation scenes in the movies, in which a Hollywood 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, Jaaf 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 around 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 explosives.

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 Berlin.

"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."


(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): GERMANY-BOMBS

Need to map

Related stories from McClatchy DC