Defusing Berlin's WWII bomb legacy

By Stephen Evans
BBC News, Berlin


There are some jobs that are more demanding than others. And being a bomb disposal man in Berlin has to be at the more demanding end of the spectrum.

Ralf Kirschnick gets called out several times a month to stand over a lump of death which failed to explode more than six decades ago.

His job is to make bombs safe, either by leaving a detonator and walking a long way away before exploding the whole lot, or - if it is too close to people and property - by defusing it.

image captionThe Allies dropped about 465,000 tonnes of explosives on Berlin during WWII

He does not wear protective clothing because he says it would do nothing to protect him from an exploding bomb dropped on the city in air-raids during World War II.

It is not a job that gets easier, because the longer the time that's elapsed since 1945, the more the rust has been able to work.

Nor is it a job where the workload gets any lighter, because the fierce pace of building in Berlin means new potential hazards are always uncovered.

No bravado

The Allies dropped a mountain of bombs on Berlin. About 465,000 tons of explosives hit the ground, and about one in eight bombs did not explode.

Ralf Kirschnick says that the reason for the high proportion of unexploded ordinance is that the British and Americans tested their bombs in a part of Scotland with particularly hard ground.

image captionThree bomb disposal experts died in Gottingen last year

When they tried them out on the softer earth of Berlin, they sank into the ground - until today's property developers came along.

It means that all major project sites have to be inspected for unexploded bombs, be it the dredging of a canal or the construction of an office. If anything suspicious is found, Mr Kirschnick's the man.

He has the right temperament. Ask him for a picture, and he will tell you that bomb disposal people don't like having their pictures in the media. The danger is that they then start to get full of themselves, and that leads to bravado, a fatal attribute in a bomb disposer.

And if you ask him how many bombs he has disposed of, he will say that he knows but he will not tell you. Everybody in the team, he says, knows how many everybody else has done but they keep it secret for fear of starting a competition, even an unspoken, friendly one.

Competition means potentially taking a fatal bit of extra risk.

According to Spiegel Online, more than 600 tonnes of old munitions from the two world wars and from Soviet army exercises during the period that Germany was divided, are discovered every year.

Patron saint

Mr Kirschnick knows everything there is to know about bombs dropped in World War II. The British had 98 different kinds of bomb fuses, he says, and 123 types of bomb. Some were booby-trapped, he says, to catch out wartime bomb disposal experts.

"Fuse 35 and 37 were booby-trapped, but we know how to screw the fuses out of the bombs," he says.

Russian bombs were often, in fact, German bombs, picked up by the Red Army as it swept westward, and then fitted with Russian fuses and sent back home to be loaded on to Russian planes.

His office is in an old military complex in the town of Wundsdorf, in the forests to the south of Berlin. In the corridor outside, there is a statue of a saint in an alcove.

She is Santa Barbara, the patron saint of miners and of those who deal with explosives.

It is his nod to superstition - or to belief, if you believe. Inside the office, he keeps the more mundane tools of his trade: wrenches and aerial photographs of Berlin taken by the British and US air forces.

He spreads old maps over his desk and points out the armaments factories to the north of the city in Oranienburg, and the bomb craters - and, true enough, Oranienburg is a prime source of work today.

He then shows me a concentration camp for slave labourers and points out the absence of craters because the Allies avoided bombing it. And, true enough, that is not where his work is today.

More than a job

The job takes a high personal toll. Last year, three bomb disposal people were killed on the job in the central German city of Gottingen.

Many of the members of the team have been married more than once. It is not the sort of job which spouses find easy.

The men - they are usually men - need a particular mind-set. They need to be able to blank out distraction: "If you're arguing with your wife and two hours later you have to do this job, you have to say, 'No, don't think about the argument with the wife - now, it's the job and you will live'. If you can't blank it, you aren't right in the job.

"I am afraid, just like you," he says.

How many times has he felt that he was about to die?

"I think I have had that feeling three or four times. But you don't think about it at that moment. You do the work and one day later or two days later, you think that was not nice."

Is it just a job?

"If it was just a job, you would die".