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Almost every day somewhere in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) an area has to be evacuated because a bomb has been found. This means that nobody is allowed to stay in the restricted area. Depending on the size of the bomb, this restricted area can have a radius of 50 meters to one kilometer.

In a city like Cologne, several thousand people are quickly affected. While leaving the danger area, the explosive ordnance disposal teams make their way to the bomb.

The duds are usually discovered during construction work, there are several hundred every year. In 2018 it was almost 3,000. Several decades after the end of Second World War, it is surprising at first that so many duds are still in the ground put.

But it becomes understandable when you consider the incredible mass of bombs dropped on NRW: 700,000 tons. And a large part did not explode directly and was not cleared away later either, but fell into oblivion and slumbers in the earth as an explosive danger to this day.

Where do you need to evacuate?

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By Ulrich Grunewald.

To put it simply, a typical aerial bomb consists of two parts: a small detonator, about the size of a bubble bottle, and the one with the Explosives TNT-filled bomb body. Separately, both parts are relatively harmless. They only become a deadly danger in the connection, i.e. when the detonator detonates the explosives. The aim of the defusing is therefore to separate both parts from each other.

So that the detonator does not trigger, the explosive ordnance disposal company must first know what type of detonator it is. And since the bomb is usually lying somewhere in the dirt, difficult to access and half rusted, he usually feels the detonator. It is therefore necessary to have a sure instinct.

There are two types of detonators: impact detonators and long-term detonators. Impact fuzes have a movable firing pin that is held in place by a spring. When the bomb hits, the firing pin zooms forward and strikes a primer, much like toy guns. This primer triggers a series of booster charges that eventually ignite the bomb’s TNT.

However, the aerial bombs often did not fall vertically, but slightly sideways. If they then hit the ground at an angle, the firing pin did not receive the impulse in the direction of the firing plate and did not trigger a chain reaction. The bomb became a dud.

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If this dud is moved today and maybe even falls on the tip, then a fall height of just a few centimeters is enough and the firing pin takes its deadly path.

Is it an impact fuse or a long-time fuse?

The long-term detonators are even more dangerous. The firing pin is cocked by a spring and is only held in place by a celluloid plastic retaining ring. In front of it is a small glass container filled with the caustic liquid acetone.

When the bomb is dropped, this glass container is destroyed and the acetone begins to dissolve the retaining ring. Depending on the thickness of the ring, it can then take hours or days for the firing pin to etch free, hit the primer, and detonate the bomb.

However, if the bomb hits at an angle or ends up point-up, only a portion of the Acteon will reach the retaining ring. It can then take several decades for this to give way. And that happens quite spontaneously, without shock or outside interference. Such a self-detonation occurs in Germany about once a year.

Because the condition of the safety ring cannot be seen from the outside, bombs with long-term detonators are particularly dangerous for explosive ordnance disposal companies. Even a small movement of the bomb can cause an almost dissolved safety ring to lose its last hold and lead to an explosion.

Insidious late effect: long-term detonator

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By Jakob Kneser.

As soon as it is clear which detonator is involved, the explosive ordnance disposal company can start thinking about defusing it. If it is a simpler impact detonator without additional fuses, he can often simply unscrew the detonator with a pipe wrench.

But there are also impact fuses that are prepared with additional mechanics in such a way that the firing pin also fires when the fuse is unscrewed. Then, for example, the rotation impulse device is used, which the explosive ordnance disposal companies also call “missile clamp”. The flat rectangular frame is clamped to the igniter with screws.

A tube with a propellant charge is attached to two opposite sides, similar to a New Year’s Eve rocket – hence the name rocket clamp. The explosive ordnance disposal company detonates them from a safe distance. The rocket clamp then twists the fuse out of the bomb so quickly that the firing pin misses.

For long-term detonators, explosive ordnance disposal companies like to use the water jet cutter. Water is pushed through a small nozzle at high pressure. The beam is so hard that it can even cut through steel. The device is placed in front of the detonator and controlled remotely. The vibrations are relatively low, so that the safety ring is hardly additionally loaded and the detonator does not trigger.

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Sometimes, however, only new explosives will help against old explosives. The bomb is detonated in a controlled manner using modern plastic explosives. The ordnance disposal officers also call this defusing.

To dampen the force of the explosion, the bomb is then enclosed in straw, sand or water, thereby insulating it . This is to minimize damage. But as good as “controlled demolition” sounds, the only thing that the explosive ordnance disposal team really checks is the time.

Sometimes you have to blast in a controlled manner

“I am very aware that this can be my last bomb every time. And it doesn’t matter whether I’m defusing a 50-kilo bomb or a 1,000-kilo bomb: if things go wrong, the result is always the same for me,” says Karl-Heinz Clemens. He is an experienced explosive ordnance disposal and a calm, level-headed person – but you can still see his concentration during a defuse.

And it’s noticeable that he’s not wearing a special protective suit. The reason is as simple as it is frightening: if a bomb goes off while he’s working on it, nothing can protect him. The explosive power is simply too great.

What bothers Clemens and his colleagues the most are people who refuse to leave the restricted area. They mess up the schedule and add more danger. Because the defusing may only begin when all bystanders have really left the restricted area.

But if people don’t leave their homes and first have to be painstakingly collected by the Police, then the explosive ordnance disposal company has to wait idly. The start of the defusing is then quickly postponed by several hours and is suddenly in the middle of the night. The explosive ordnance disposal company then not only has to contend with the dud, but also with darkness and fatigue.

Oranienburg’s Dangerous Legacy

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04:03 min.
Available until 10/18/2024.
By Kerstin Founder.

(First published 2019. Last updated 2019-10-08)

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