In German, an unexploded bomb is called a blindgänger, and they’re just about everywhere, even now. They still take their toll here and there, and in strange ways.
Not long ago, a man found a lump of brownish rock while he was jogging along the Rhine. It was a pretty thing, glossy like amber. He slipped it into his pocket, got into his car and began the drive home. Somewhere along the way, he burst into flames.
He hadn’t found amber. He found phosphorus. Those bombs spread fire that can reignite even after being extinguished with water. Nasty stuff. The bit of it the man found had lain in the Rhine all these decades, and came to the surface now because the water levels are extremely low. Once the phosphorus dried and warmed to a certain temperature in the man’s car, it ignited 70 years after the war ended.
Evacuations to disarm World War II bombs are so common, my husband insists it was a legitimate excuse for why a kid didn’t do his schoolwork, the postwar German version of “the dog ate my homework.” I don’t know about that — I’ve lived here 15 years and was never evacuated — but there does seem to be an evacuation going on somewhere in Germany pretty much all the time.
And no wonder, when you see the number of bombs experts think are still in the ground — about 100,000 across the country. North Rhine-Westphalia, where I live, is the most populous and formerly the most industrialized state in Germany. It lies on the western border. Those were the right factors to make NRW target #1 for allied bombers. Half of the 1.3 million tons of explosives tossed on Germany landed in the industrial regions of NRW. Last year, explosives teams disarmed 927 bombs. 264 of them weighed more than 50 kilograms.
And so, people have to be vigilant when digging in cities or forests all over the country. Though there are reports of children who find things like grenades and bring them home (a recent news story; I’d be horrified if my daughters brought back a WW II grenade!), most people don’t have as much bad luck as the man by the Rhine. Last I heard, he endured severe burns, but he lived.