TIME ZONES : Two Hours With a German Ordnance Squad

Six Decades After War, Cleanup Is a Constant

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 31, 2007


Deep in the Pomeranian forest, hidden among the groves of scraggly pine and birch, the World War II bomb squad is hard at work.

At 11:15 on an overcast winter morning, Alfred Buchholz carefully guides his spade into the sandy loam on the forest floor, aiming for the exact spot where a co-worker's squawking magnetometer has signaled the presence of metal. He strikes something hard and bends down to grab an object the size of a softball, encrusted with corrosion and dirt.

It's a piece of an artillery shell, circa 1945. Buchholz shakes off the loose dirt and plunks it into a black plastic bucket, already half-filled with remnants of war. He stands back up and waits a few minutes for the metal detector, passing back and forth over the soil, to beep again. He repeats the routine -- with practiced caution -- hundreds of times a day.

The flatlands of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, a sparsely populated state that covers northeastern Germany, are still littered with thousands of tons of unexploded ordnance from the Nazi era. There are cluster bombs, mortar shells, hand grenades, rockets. Most were manufactured and abandoned by the Third Reich, but there are also plenty of aging but still potent explosives left here and in neighboring states by Soviet, U.S. and British forces.

For more than 60 years, German bomb squads have been cleaning up. They comb through the woods and dredge the ponds, sift through construction sites and back yards. There's no end in sight.

"In my lifetime, I will never see all the munitions cleaned up in this area of Germany," said Sebastian Dosdall, the boss of this bomb-disposal crew, clad in a pea-green jacket, work pants and metal-shanked boots. "It's hard to clear everything, everywhere."

Dosdall is 29. He learned about old munitions from his father, who has been in the bomb-removal business for 40 years. Hans-Joachim Dosdall was an official Sprengmeister, or demolition expert, under the old East German communist government. When the Berlin Wall tumbled, he embraced capitalism and founded a private company, GFKB, that today employs 120 people and scoops up dozens of tons of explosives a year on government contracts.

The buried bombs don't look lethal, but slice away the grimy outer shell and the insides are usually intact. Still, the vast majority are "stable," meaning it would take a sledgehammer blow or a torch to set them off.

"Most people think it's not too dangerous and that this stuff looks old, but you have to be careful," Dosdall explained as he gently inspected a freshly unearthed cluster bomb. Among the precautions: shatterproof glass on the window of the team's excavator.

Last year, more than 120 tons of wartime ordnance were dug up and safely detonated by bomb squads in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, according to the Munitions Recovery Service, a state agency.

"Of course, we could find much more, but we just don't have enough money to do all the work," said Fred Tribanek, director of the agency's local field office. The Nazis operated 10 ammunition factories in the area, he said, and the countryside is still scarred from the Red Army's advance on Berlin in early 1945.

In the district that he supervises, about 10,000 acres of public land still need clearing. The bomb squads covered 250 acres last year.

The job in the woods near the village of Fuerstensee is a big one. One of those 10 Nazi factories was here. Soviet soldiers who captured the area tried hastily to destroy the huge stores of bombs and shells they found, fearful the Germans could mount a counteroffensive and regain control of the ammo dumps. The Soviets' mass detonations destroyed some of the ordnance but scattered countless pieces in still-live form far into the surrounding forest, where they remain today.

Old photos show that the landscape here was ravaged by World War II; the forests were denuded and the blackened sandy soil looked like a lakeside beach. Gradually, the trees and underbrush returned and today it is a favorite place for hikers and mushroom pickers, many of whom ignore the danger signs warning of what's underfoot.

Since October, the six-man bomb squad has collected 44 tons of explosives here. Some shells lie just beneath the surface, while other caches are buried 30 feet deep.

At 12:20 p.m., the excavator burrows into a giant hole in the ground, lifting up scoops of soil for examination. Toralf Schley and Marko Krueger, two GFKB crew members, sift through the dirt with rakes and tongs as if digging for potatoes.

By 1:18, the crew has already filled three large metal containers, each containing about 1,000 pounds of munitions. A big red truck from the Munitions Recovery Service arrives from down an unpaved road and collects the ordnance for disposal at a central location, where controlled explosions are carried out twice a week.

The bomb squad takes a break for lunch. Then it's back to digging, one shell at a time.

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