Although the country has been at peace for three generations, German bomb-disposal squads are among the busiest in the world. Early one recent winter morning, Horst Reinhardt, chief of the Brandenburg state KMBD, told me that when he started in bomb disposal in , he never believed he would still be at it almost 30 years later. Yet his men discover more than tons of unexploded munitions every year and defuse an aerial bomb every two weeks or so.
And in one city in his district, the events of 70 years ago have ensured that unexploded bombs remain a daily menace. Yet, according to Reinhardt, Oranienburg is the most dangerous city in Germany. Between and p. Allied target lists had described one of those facilities as a gas-mask factory, but by early U. Although the March 15 attack was ostensibly aimed at the rail yards, it had been personally requested by the director of the Manhattan Project, Gen. Leslie Groves, who was determined to keep Nazi nuclear research out of the hands of rapidly advancing Russian troops. Of the 13 Allied air attacks eventually launched on the city, this one, the fourth within a year, was by far the heaviest and most destructive.
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As one squadron of Bs followed another into its run, almost five thousand and 1,pound bombs and more than incendiaries fell across the rail yards, the chemical factory and into the residential streets nearby. The first explosions started fires around the railroad station; by the time the final Bs began their attack, smoke from the burning city was so heavy the bombardiers had difficulty seeing where their bombs were falling. But where it cleared, the men of the First Air Division watched three concentrations of high explosives fall into houses near the road over the Lehnitzstrasse canal bridge, around a mile southeast of the rail station and a few hundred yards from one of the chemical factories.
These bomb loads were unlike almost any others the Eighth Air Force dropped over Germany during the war. The majority of the bombs were armed not with percussion fuses, which explode on impact, but with time-delay fuses, which both sides used throughout the war in order to extend the terror and chaos caused by aerial attacks. Army Air Force guidelines recommended fitting them in no more than 10 percent of bombs in any given attack.
But for reasons that have never become clear, almost every bomb dropped during the March 15 raid on Oranienburg was armed with one. The disks held back a spring-loaded firing pin, cocked behind a detonator. As the bomb fell, it tilted nose-down, and a windmill in the tail stabilizer began spinning in the slipstream, turning a crank that broke the glass capsule. The bomb was designed to hit the ground nose-down, so the acetone would drip toward the disks and begin eating through them.
This could take minutes or days, depending on the concentration of acetone and the number of disks the armorers had fitted into the fuse. When the last disk weakened and snapped, the spring was released, the firing pin struck the priming charge and—finally, unexpectedly—the bomb exploded.
Quickly reaching terminal velocity, it fell toward the southwest, missing the yards and the chemical plants. It fell instead toward the canal and the two bridges connecting Oranienburg and the suburb of Lehnitz, closing on a wedge of low-lying land framed by the embankments of Lehnitzstrasse and the railroad line. Before the war this had been a quiet spot beside the water, leading to four villas among the trees, parallel to a canal on Baumschulenweg.
But now it was occupied by anti-aircraft guns and a pair of narrow, wooden, single-story barracks built by the Wehrmacht. This was where the bomb finally found the earth—just missing the more westerly of the two barracks and plunging into the sandy soil at more than miles per hour. It bored down at an oblique angle before the violence of its passage tore the stabilizing fins away from the tail, when it abruptly angled upward until, its kinetic energy finally spent, the bomb and its M fuse came to rest: nose-up but still deep underground.
The city center was ablaze, the first of the delayed explosions had started: The Auergesellschaft plant would soon be destroyed and the rail yards tangled with wreckage. But the bomb beside the canal lay undisturbed.
Taken by gravity, it trickled harmlessly downward, away from the celluloid disks it was supposed to weaken. Less than two months later, Nazi leaders capitulated. As much as ten square miles of Berlin had been reduced to rubble. In the months following V-E Day that May, a woman who had been bombed out of her home there found her way, with her young son, out to Oranienburg, where she had a boyfriend.
The town was a constellation of yawning craters and gutted factories, but beside Lehnitzstrasse and not far from the canal, she found a small wooden barracks empty and intact. She moved in with her boyfriend and her son. Abandoned ammunition and unexploded bombs claimed their first postwar victims almost as soon as the last guns fell silent. In June , a cache of German anti-tank weapons exploded in Bremen, killing 35 and injuring 50; three months later in Hamburg, a buried American pound bomb with a time-delay fuse took the lives of the four technicians working to disarm it.
It was dangerous work done at close quarters, removing fuses with wrenches and hammers. He said he never felt fear during the defusing process. In the same way that a baker bakes bread, we defuse bombs. In the decades after the war, bombs, mines, grenades and artillery shells killed dozens of KMBD technicians and hundreds of civilians. Thousands of unexploded Allied bombs were excavated and defused.
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But many had been buried in rubble or simply entombed in concrete during wartime remediation and forgotten. In the postwar rush for reconstruction, nobody kept consistent information about where unexploded bombs had been made safe and removed. A systematic approach to finding them was officially regarded as impossible. When Reinhardt started work with the East German KMBD in , both he and his counterparts in the West usually found bombs the same way: one at a time, often during construction work. But the government of Hamburg had recently brokered an agreement to allow the states of West Germany access to the 5.
Between and , ACIU pilots flew thousands of reconnaissance missions before and after every raid by Allied bombers, taking millions of stereoscopic photographs that revealed both where the attacks could be directed and then how successful they had proved. Those images held clues to where bombs had landed but never detonated—a small, circular hole, for example, in an otherwise consistent line of ragged craters. Defense Intelligence Agency by an enterprising American intelligence officer based in Germany, who had hoped to sell them privately to the German government for his own profit.
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When he failed, he sold 60, of them to the teacher for a few pfennigs each. Carls, sensing a business opportunity, snapped them up for a deutsche mark apiece. Convinced there must be more, held somewhere in the United States, Carls established a company, Luftbilddatenbank. With the help of archivists in Britain and the States, he brought to light hundreds of cans of aerial reconnaissance film that had gone unexamined for decades.
Supplementing the photographs and the sortie plots with local histories and police records, contemporary eyewitness testimony and the detailed records of bombing missions held at the Air Force Historical Research Agency at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama, Carls was able to build a chronology of everything that had happened to a given patch of land between and Examining the photographs using a stereoscope, which makes the images appear in 3-D, Carls could see where bombs had fallen, where they had exploded and where they may not have.
He closed in on an L-shaped cul-de-sac in Oranienburg, in the area between Lehnitzstrasse and the canal. On the other monitor, he used the geolocation data of the address to summon a list of more than aerial photographs of the area shot by Allied reconnaissance pilots and scrolled through them until he found the ones he needed. A week after the March 15 raid, photographs and were taken from 27, feet over Oranienburg, a fraction of a second apart. They showed the scene near the canal in sharp monochromatic detail, the curve of the Lehnitzstrasse bridge and the bare branches of the trees on Baumschulenweg tracing fine shadows on the water and the pale ground beyond.
Then Kroeckel used Photoshop to tint one picture in cyan and the other in magenta, and combined them into a single image. I put on a pair of cardboard 3-D glasses, and the landscape rose toward me: upended matchbox shapes of roofless houses; a chunk of earth bitten out of the Lehnitzstrasse embankment; a giant, perfectly circular crater in the middle of Baumschulenweg.
Yet we could see no sign of a dormant 1,bomb concealed in the ruins of the neighborhood, where, soon after the photograph was taken, a woman would find a home for herself and her family. Kroeckel explained that even an image as stark as this one could not reveal everything about the landscape below. Paule Dietrich bought the house on the cul-de-sac in Oranienburg in He and the German Democratic Republic had been born on the same day, October 7, , and for a while the coincidence seemed auspicious.
At 20, he and the others were guests at the opening of the Berlin TV tower, the tallest building in all of Germany. Over the next 20 years, the Republic was good to Dietrich. He drove buses and subway trains for the Berlin transit authority. He was given an apartment in the city, and he became a taxi driver. He added to the savings the president had given him, and on an abandoned piece of land in Falkensee, in the countryside outside the city, he built a summer bungalow.
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But in , Dietrich turned 40, the Berlin Wall fell and his Ostmarks became worthless overnight. Three years later, the rightful owners of the land in Falkensee returned from the West to reclaim it. It needed a lot of work, but it was right by the water. Dietrich sold his car and mobile home to buy it and began working on it whenever he could. His girlfriend and Willi, their only son, joined him, and slowly the house came together. By , it was finished—plastered, weatherproofed and insulated, with a garage, a new bathroom and a brick fireplace. Dietrich began living there full-time from May to December and planned to move in permanently when he retired.
Like everyone else in Oranienburg, he knew the city had been bombed during the war, but so had a lot of places in Germany. But nobody, not even the dog and its walker, had been seriously injured. Most people simply preferred not to think about it. The state of Brandenburg, however, knew Oranienburg presented a unique problem. In , the state Ministry of the Interior commissioned Wolfgang Spyra of the Brandenburg University of Technology to determine how many unexploded bombs might remain in the city and where they might be. Two years later, Spyra delivered a page report revealing not only the huge number of time bombs dropped on the city on March 15, , but also the unusually high proportion of them that had failed to go off.
That was a function of local geology and the angle at which some bombs hit the ground: Hundreds of them had plunged nose-first into the sandy soil but then had come to rest nose-up, disabling their chemical fuses.
So bombs had begun to go off spontaneously. In January , Paule Dietrich read in the newspaper that the city of Oranienburg was going to start looking for bombs in his neighborhood.
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He had to fill out some forms, and in July, city contractors arrived. They drilled 38 holes in his yard, each more than 30 feet deep, and dropped a magnetometer into every one. It took two weeks. A month later, they drilled more holes in back of the house.
It was nine in the morning on October 7, —the day Dietrich turned 64—when a delegation of city officials arrived at his front gate. They marked the spot beside the house with an orange traffic cone and prepared to pump out groundwater from around it. There was no sense of the 'glory' of battle - virtually all sympathized with the victims, the innocent.
The competition challenged teachers and children to explore a story about conflict and bring it to life with their pictures, giving them a unique opportunity to understand how a disaster like this might affect families and communities involved. Rebecca Swist, a ShelterBox emergency response team member told attendees in words and pictures, the story of 12 year old Ahkmed, who used to live in Damascus. When a bomb dropped on his house he and his brothers were forced to run away, walking for six days to get to a place where they would be safe - a refugee camp on the Syrian border.