August 27, 2011: Two Russian men died recently when a World War II era artillery shell went off as they examined it. The explosion took place in a forest outside the city of Kaliningrad, which was the German city of Konigsberg until it changed ownership at the end of World War II. Earlier this year, two Russian railroad workers were injured when they triggered a World War II era landmine outside St Petersburg.
Such incidents are rather more rare in Russia than in West Europe, despite the huge quantities of shells and bombs used during World War II. That’s because the war in Russia was fought over a vast area, much of which was not eventually built on, or even farmed. Such was not the case in Western Europe, where there has been a lot of new construction since the war, and that’s what often unearths these old explosives. But the worst problems take place on Pacific islands that were fought over during World War II.
For example, the U.S. has calculated that it will spend about $10 million a year over the next few years, to remove World War II era bombs and shells on Guam, as new bases for troops are constructed. The United States is in the process of transferring 8,600 marines from Okinawa to Guam. In addition, new facilities for warplanes and visiting warships are being built. All this is to be completed in the next four years.
The bomb disposal teams on Guam are still called out 4-5 times a week, 66 years after World War II ended. It's worse in some parts of Europe, where hundreds of World War II explosives are unearthed each year in Germany alone. Usually there are no casualties, as bomb disposal technicians are well trained and get lots of practice. But the fuzes that did not go off in the 1940s, are now getting old and more prone to detonation while being disabled. Detonating bombs in place is often expensive, because it means evacuating lots of people, and exposing homes and businesses to bomb damage.
It’s not just aircraft bombs. Most of the explosives unearthed are smaller items like grenades, mortar shells, rockets and mines. Many bombs, artillery and mortar shells (over ten percent, for some manufacturers) did not explode when they were supposed to, but just buried themselves into the ground. These shells are still full of explosives, and often have a fuze that, while defective, is often still capable of going off if disturbed. Other munitions were left in bunkers, or elsewhere on the battlefield, and got buried and lost. Most of these lost munitions eventually get found by farmers, or anyone digging up the ground for construction. Most large cities, Europe and the Pacific, that were heavily bombed cities during World War II, still suffer from construction crews unearthing unexploded bombs. Russian cities were not bombed nearly as much as German ones were, but a lot more artillery shells were fired by both Russian and German troops.
The problem goes back farther than World War II. Unexploded munitions from the World War I (which ended in 1918), and the American Civil War (which ended in 1865), are still showing up, and some of them are still deadly. Currently, over a thousand World War II munitions are discovered each year in Europe.