An early summer morning, in a village called Ahlbach in the German state of Hesse. Inhabitants of the area are cozily tucked up in their beds, resting up for the day ahead. But this blissful scene is dramatically shattered rather abruptly. You see, all of a sudden, violent tremors are reverberating through floors and walls – and it’s not immediately clear what the cause of these shockwaves is.
In the wake of this earth-shattering incident, some police officers were ordered to track down its source. They soon ended up in a field used for growing crops which bore evidence of what was behind the tremors. Indeed, in this particular piece of farmland, the officers were now faced with a massive crater in the ground.
This hole had a diameter of about 33 feet and sank to a depth of about 14 feet. Indeed, anything capable of causing such a dent in the earth must surely have been quite powerful. But what had really caused it? Well, the authorities had their initial suspicions. But it wasn’t until later in the day that these thoughts were confirmed.
The tiny village of Ahlbach is situated in the west of Germany in an area dominated by agriculture. Indeed, the small settlement itself sits squarely in the middle of a patchwork of verdant fields full of an array of different crops. Ahlbach’s agricultural heritage is present its name, in fact – an “Ahl” being a small area for holding cattle.
The village, which is a district of the town of Limburg an der Lahn, is home to just over 1,000 residents. But despite being small in size, Ahlbach is big on history. Indeed, the village is mentioned in records as long ago as 772, while a cemetery dating about the year 500 has previously been discovered at the site. Other discoveries in Ahlbach, meanwhile, include a neolithic axe and an Iron Age urn.
The area was once home to a booming mining industry too. Yes, while small scale mining around the settlement had taken place prior to 1870, it was from this date that things really took off. It was then that the basalt quarry – that sits perched on the edge of the village – was opened up for extraction, and the mine ran for a century before eventually being discontinued. The quarry was subsequently flooded and transformed into a nature reserve, which the locals can still benefit from to this day.
But to understand what went on in Ahlbach in 2019, we have to go back to World War II. During the conflict, forces from both sides orchestrated attacks from the sky upon enemy areas. Indeed, military tacticians at the time were under the impression that such actions could prove effective in defeating the opposition. Targets in campaigns like these could range from seaports and railroads to manufacturing plants and even civilian areas. And perhaps due to Ahlbach’s quarry, the area saw its fair share of assaults during the war.
Attacks of this nature commenced right from the outset of World War II. Indeed, on the first day of September in 1939, German forces descended upon Poland. And as part of this invasion campaign, Germany’s air force – which was known as the Luftwaffe – dropped explosives upon Polish cities. However, as the conflict progressed, aerial bombardments were not merely instigated by Germany and its fellow Axis powers. In fact, the Allies were also known to employ such tactics. The U.K.’s Royal Air Force itself started to attack important sites across Germany’s lands in March 1940. And they weren’t the only ones.
After the United States entered the war, it too started to bomb Germany from the air. One major example of this occurred in the city of Dresden, one of the most prominent urban centers in Saxony. Here, a campaign undertaken by both the U.S. and British air forces proved absolutely devastating. Indeed, over three days starting on February 13, 1945, the British and Americans unleashed over 3,900 tons of incendiaries upon Dresden. As a result, a huge proportion of the city was wiped out – apparently around 1,600 acres of its center. Huge discrepancies in the estimated number of resulting deaths subsequently emerged, but the general consensus is that somewhere between 22,700 and 25,000 people perished.
According to Smithsonian magazine, the British and Americans released around 2.7 million tons of explosives upon the European continent from 1940 to 1945. And around 50 percent of this figure was targeted upon Germany alone. And so by the time of the country’s capitulation, many of its areas had been severely impaired.
In the aftermath of World War II, efforts to fix up Germany were quickly undertaken. But as the two separate states of West and East Germany were formed, a dangerous problem became apparent. Across the lands of the former Reich, countless bombs which had failed to explode were lying underground.
As well as the unexploded bombs, there were also dumps of ammunition littered about the region. And together, these frequently proved lethal even after the war had come to an end. Indeed, in June 1945, a hoard of armaments blew up in the city of Bremen, leaving 35 people dead and more than 50 others maimed.
Shortly after this tragic incident, a bomb concealed under the ground in Hamburg was uncovered. Weighing in at around 500 pounds, this American shell undoubtedly posed a big threat to the city’s inhabitants. So brave specialists set to work trying to deactivate it – but sadly, they failed. All four of the team working on the bomb consequently lost their lives.
Even today – more than seven decades after World War II concluded – unexploded bombs and munitions are a threat to German civilians. In fact, the country’s bomb disposal unit is said to be among the most active on Earth. On average, the Kampfmittelbeseitigungsdienst (KMBD), as this entity is known, apparently defuses one bomb every fortnight or so.
KMBD expert Horst Reinhardt has been doing this line of work since 1986. In 2016 Reinhardt spoke to Smithsonian magazine about his work, reflecting upon the sheer number of bombs still being discovered. He even expressed his surprise at still being a part of a bomb disposal unit after so many years.
At the time of his interview with Smithsonian, Reinhardt and his colleagues were apparently still faced with disposing of an old air-dropped piece of ordnance roughly once every second week. All in all, this would amount to more than 500 tons of undetonated weaponry annually. In his own words, “People simply don’t know that there’s still that many bombs under the ground.”
As tragic instances such as the explosion in Hamburg from 1945 have proven, bomb disposal can be a risky occupation. And the intense, stressful work might not necessarily suit everybody. As veteran specialist Reinhardt put it to Smithsonian magazine back in 2016, “You need a clear head. And calm hands.”
Reinhardt went on to claim that he was never stricken by dread or panic when performing his task. In fact, he passed it off as a job like any other. “If you’re afraid, you can’t do it,” he said. “For us, it’s a completely normal job. In the same way that a baker bakes bread, we defuse bombs.”
But it might be said that this was perhaps something of an understatement on the part of Reinhardt. After all, concealed explosives left over from the war have been responsible for the deaths of numerous KMBD specialists. And that’s to say nothing of the civilian casualties, of which there have reportedly been hundreds.
Given that the ratio of bombs dropped by the Allies that didn’t actually blow up has been estimated at about one in ten, it shouldn’t be altogether surprising that they continue to pose such a threat. But the sheer rate of discovery might come as a bit of a shock, fully 70 years after the end of the conflict. In fact, it seems that 2019 has had more than its fair share of unexploded bomb discoveries.
In May 2019 alone, there were reportedly no fewer than 19 alerts issued in relation to newly discovered wartime explosives. And many of these came from highly populated urban centers, such as Berlin, Dortmund and Hamburg. Counterintuitively and worryingly, it even seems that instances of this nature might be on the rise.
Given that so much time has now elapsed since the end of the war, it’s perhaps a little bewildering that bombs are being found at such a high rate. But a plausible theory as to why this is has been suggested. Indeed, this train of thought states that an increase in construction throughout Germany is to blame.
Since the spring of 2018, Germany has by all accounts seen something of a surge in housing construction. Indeed, it’s been reported that the number of building projects increased by over 11 percent between March 2018 and March 2019. But this also means that workers might be more likely to inadvertently stumble across dangerous hidden wartime relics.
As land is dug up in Germany for the purposes of development, explosives lying underground might easily become exposed. And frighteningly, it’s estimated that there are potentially many more yet to be uncovered. After all, it’s thought that just under 1.5 million bombs were unleashed upon the country during World War II.
But while bombs are being discovered on building sites, sometimes they also have a tendency to announce their existence of their own accord. In other words, they might simply blow up without any human interference. After all, the explosives are getting quite old now, and it’s thought that some are becoming increasingly unstable.
As they age, bombs’ chemical detonators can deteriorate – potentially leading to an explosion. Indeed, there are numerous examples of this having happened. For example one town called Oranienburg, situated about an hour’s drive from Berlin, has been particularly prone to such incidents. Here, five such out-of-the-blue blasts have occurred in the 43 years leading up to 2013.
Of course, Oranienburg is far from the only place in Germany which has had to deal with seemingly spontaneous explosions. But, nonetheless, when inhabitants of Ahlbach were torn from their slumber by an apparent blast in June 2019, the situation wasn’t immediately clear. After all, contemporary BBC reports stated that the vibrations felt by locals that early morning were so strong as to actually qualify as an earthquake.
The online world came to life in the wake of the explosion, with some claiming that a meteorite falling to Earth was to blame. However, this suggestion was swiftly refuted by an expert in the field. Indeed, speaking to newspaper the Frankfurter Neue Presse, the European Space Agency’s Rüdiger Jehn attempted to put this theory to bed.
Jehn informed the publication that the on-site evidence suggested that a meteorite could not have been responsible for the explosion. As he pointed out, “A great deal of heat is released during an asteroid impact.” And there were apparently no signs of such extreme temperatures having been present at the crater.
The explosion apparently occurred just a number of minutes before 4:00 a.m. on June 23, 2019. Subsequent accounts of the incident have reported that the resulting tremor was actually recorded as an earthquake measuring 1.7 on the Richter scale. And in the wake of such an intense blast in the early hours, one might guess at the ensuing confusion.
At first, authorities reportedly stated that there was “no definitive indication” that the blast had been the result of a World War II bomb going off. But subsequent investigations seemed to clear up any doubts over this having been the case. Indeed, it was soon proclaimed “with almost absolute certainty” that the detonation had been from a bomb.
Specialists studying the blast site in the field suggested that the explosive had once weighed around 550lbs. The bomb was likely to have been jettisoned onto the Ahlbach field by an Allied aircraft at some point during World War II. After all, the general vicinity in and around the blast site would have been a prime target.
According to reports, the Germans managed multiple war-related facilities in this general region during wartime. One example, in fact, was an airbase known as the Limburg Airfield. The Luftwaffe constructed this base in 1944, primarily as a means of defending a nearby railway from bombing raids. Moreover, many of the Allied aerial attacks during the war were rather imprecise. It’s believed that many bombs fell several miles from their intended target, in fact. And it’s therefore reasonable to assume that the bomb in the field at Ahlbach was one such errant piece of ordnance.
A local spokesman by the name of Johannes Laubach explained why the area around Ahlbach might’ve been the focus of Allied raids. “With the former railway depot, we were quite a bomb target at the end of the Second World War,” he told news website Hessenschau. “We can be glad that the farmer was not in the field.”
The explosion itself is thought to have occurred because of the degradation of the device’s chemical detonator. Although unusual, this is by no means an unheard-of event, with German news broadcaster Deutsche Welle (DW) reporting that on average, such incidents occurred once or twice a year. An engineer from the Brandenburg University of Technology by the name of Wolfgang Spyra spoke to DW to elaborate.
According to Sypra, “In the case of bombs with chemical detonators, the materials of the detonator decompose over a long period of time.” This breakdown of the detonator’s components, it’s thought, would have been responsible for the bomb igniting. And with that came the explosion and the huge resulting crater.
Despite the sheer scale of the explosion, there were thankfully no reports of anyone having been killed or injured. And given that the resulting crater was some 33 feet across and 14 feet in depth, this was fortunate. Indeed, if the explosion had occurred in an urban center instead of a field, then things might have been very different.
But even though nobody was hurt on this particular occasion, unexploded bombs nonetheless remain a constant menace for Germany’s citizens. In fact, they’ve proven to be problematic as recently as September 2, 2019. On this date, more than 15,000 inhabitants of the city of Hanover had to be moved to safety after a bomb was discovered during building works.
During his 2016 interview with Smithsonian, veteran bomb disposal specialist Horst Reinhardt was nearing his retirement. And so, after a long career working in the field, he was in as good a position as anyone else to reflect upon the state of Germany’s lands. And his outlook for the future wasn’t especially cheery.
“There will still be bombs 200 years from now,” Reinhardt told the magazine, noting how difficult it was to clear his homeland of unexploded bombs. “It’s becoming increasingly difficult. At this point, we’ve dealt with all the open spaces. But now it’s the houses, the factories. We have to look directly underneath the houses.”