Peace Time: Still Paying For World War II


January 21, 2014: In Western Russia (Kaliningrad) police arrested a man in 2013 who was trying to sell five 81mm mortar shells he had found. He found six, but tested one by tossing it in a fire, taking cover and then noting that the 65 year old shell exploded. These shells weigh 4-5 kg (8.8-11 pounds) and about twenty percent of that is explosives (most of it high explosives, the rest propellant). In most parts of Russia the local governments offer a reward for people who turn in ancient munitions, or better yet, don’t try and move the stuff and just report the location. But this guy either didn’t know about the rewards or figured he could make more by selling the five shells. Most people had better sense than to buy elderly munitions and word of the sales activity eventually got to the police. These rewards are not the only continuing cost of World War II. There are also the heavy expenses for special teams of technicians who can safely remove these ancient but still deadly munitions.

With all the post-Cold War construction going on around Kaliningrad a lot of old munitions are being found. In 2013 two men died when a World War II era artillery shell went off as they examined it in a forest outside the city, which was the German city of Konigsberg until it changed ownership at the end of World War II. Earlier in 2013 two railroad workers were injured when they triggered a World War II era landmine outside St Petersburg (formerly Leningrad).

Such incidents are still rather less frequent in Russia than in West Europe, despite the huge quantities of shells and bombs used in Russia 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 after the war. Such was not the case in more densely populated Western Europe, where there has been a lot of new construction since the war, and that’s what often unearths these old explosives. Russia is now getting its long-delayed (by 70 years of communist rule) building boom, and farmers are now allowed to go into business for themselves, so lots more land is being planted. In the areas west of Leningrad, Moscow and Stalingrad (now Volgograd), where the heaviest fighting took place during World War II, there are lots of unexploded bombs and shells waiting to be found.

But some of the worst problems take place on Pacific islands that were fought over during World War II. For example, the U.S. is spending over $50 million to remove World War II era bombs and shells on Guam, as new bases for troops are constructed. Over the last few years the bomb disposal teams on Guam were called out 4-5 times a week, 70 years after World War II ended. These small islands had far more bombs and shells used on them that the comparatively vast areas of Europe.

Europe, where hundreds of World War II explosives are unearthed, has one problem Russia sees little; large bombs that did not go off when dropped during the war and are still being found. But the fuzes that did not go off in the 1940s are now getting old and more prone to detonation while being disabled or simply moved. Detonating bombs in place is often expensive, because it means evacuating lots of people, and exposing homes and businesses to bomb damage. The densely backed cities of Germany got hit heavily by the heavy bombers, something that rarely happened in Russia.

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. In Russian cities you tend to find lots of 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.



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