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Dutch soil still holds plenty of live war-time ammunition

Work by bomb squad gets more dangerous

Tags: World War II

CULEMBORG, the Netherlands - Although the Second World War ended over fifty years ago, it claimed two more lives, recently. Those two victims, inhabitants of Boekel, were not even born in 1945. At another location, police confiscated live grenades from two collectors who had used metal detectors to try and locate ammunition in nearby fields. Only days earlier, the Dutch bomb disposal unit (EOD) successfully dismantled several heavy bombs at Breskens, located to the west in Zeeland, after a part of the population in that harbour town had been evacuated. Similar work by the EOD receives media attention virtually every week.

The provinces of Brabant and Zeeland are the most bomb and ammunition-infested in the Netherlands. Heavy see-saw battles and numerous aerial attacks by allied bombers left great quantities of un-detonated bombs and ammunition in Dutch soil. Much of this deadly material remains buried and undetected, and each shell is a virtual time-bomb waiting to go off as corrosion of the metal progresses.


Most ammunition-infested areas are near the hard-fought for road, popularly known as 'Hell's Highway,' between Eindhoven and Arnhem, along railways and around airports in Brabant. Aerial raids also have left a lot of heavy British bombs deep in the soft Dutch soil. Although many locations were reported and catalogued over the years, the EOD records some 3,500 new cases every year. Dutch officials estimate that about 125,000 tons of ammunition remains to be recovered, piece by piece.

At times, the EOD will be called in to clear a dumpsite. This year, dredging crews which were working in a Zeeland canal, discovered a great quantity of ammunition which had been dumped. For years, barges with freight had passed right over this ammunition graveyard, unaware of any danger. Danger to pleasure crafts traveling the canal had been even greater.

Dumpsites have been discovered in filled-in ditches or in densely treed areas such as the one on the Eerde estate near Ommen, a few years ago. Left with the job to clean up such sites, the EOD usually provides photographers a unique opportunity at a safe distance. At times, ammunition is detonated at an isolated North Sea beach location. Mines, torpedoes and other ammunition found or caught in nets, usually gets detonated at high sea by the specialized disposal unit of the Navy.


Although the EOD has a good safety record, the task of removing the detonator from live ammunition is now much more dangerous than a few years ago. How dangerous this work really is, was proven in Boekel when the two men - and collectors - were killed because they failed to remove the detonator from a highly explosive shell. Collectors are not the only ones at risk. With bomb mechanisms corroding, mere vibration just may trigger a spontaneous explosion. That especially puts operators of bulldozers, earthmovers and pile drivers in a precarious position on construction sites. Another group exposed to risks is that of farmers. Every spring report additional bomb sites are reported. When the soil defrosts after a cold winter, the fields reveal long-held secrets when the bombs are forced up from their hiding places. Operators of heavy machinery and farmers are not the ones everyone is concerned about: they generally report danger when they see it. It is the self-taught expert armed with a metal detector who is a danger to himself and his surroundings, when he hunts for his prize souvenirs.

Worse, other Dutchmen are totally oblivious of any danger. Recently, a desk sergeant nearly fainted, when an elderly man triumphantly planted a live grenade before him at the police station. Contrary to EOD advice, the man had taken this World War II souvenir, 'neatly' strapped to his bicycle, all the way across town while going through busy streets.

After fifty years, the EOD has still a lot of work to do. There are plenty of grenades, shells, bombs of every size and, yes, some of Hitler's 'ultimate' weapons, the V1 and V2 rockets, to be harvested from below tranquil meadows and potato patches.