May 25, 2013:
The post-Cold War prosperity did not hit Russia until the last decade and now there’s quite a building boom going on all over the country. In cities that were subject to a lot of fighting during World War II, this is causing problems. For example, on May 8th construction workers preparing the foundation for a high-rise building in Moscow came across two unexploded artillery shells from World War II. Bomb disposal teams were brought in to safely remove the shells, one of which still had a fuze attached.
This area (northwest Moscow) briefly came under German artillery fire in late 1941, and enemy shells are not the only problem. Russia was prepared for a fight and two years ago another construction crew found evidence of that as they uncovered an ammo storage bunker buried by a German bombing attack. This bunker contained several hundred Russian 76mm and 152mm artillery shells. The bomb disposal teams were busy for quite a while excavating and safely disposing of all of that.
At the same time that large numbers of old shells were being cleared, two men died when a World War II era artillery shell went off as they examined it in a forest outside the city of Kaliningrad, which was the German city of Konigsberg until it changed ownership at the end of World War II. Earlier that year two railroad workers were injured when they triggered a World War II era landmine outside St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad).
Such incidents are still rather more rare in Russia than in West Europe, despite the huge quantities of shells and bombs used in Russia during World War II. That’s because the war in Russia was fought over a vast area, much of which was not eventually built on, or even farmed, after the war. Such was not the case in more densely populated Western Europe, where there has been a lot of new construction since the war, and that’s what often unearths these old explosives. Russia is now getting its long-delayed (by 70 years of communist rule) building boom, and farmers are now allowed to go into business for themselves, so a lot more land is being planted. In the areas west of Leningrad, Moscow, and Stalingrad (now Volgograd), where the heaviest fighting took place during World War II, there are a lot of unexploded bombs and shells waiting to be found.
But some of the worst problems take place on Pacific islands that were fought over during World War II. For example, the U.S. is spending over $50 million to remove World War II era bombs and shells on Guam, as new bases for troops are constructed. Over the last few years the bomb disposal teams on Guam were called out 4-5 times a week, 70 years after World War II ended. These small islands had far more bombs and shells used on them than the comparatively vast areas of Europe.
It's still pretty bad in some parts of Europe, where hundreds of World War II explosives are unearthed each year in Germany alone. Usually there are no casualties, as bomb disposal technicians are well trained and get a lot of practice. But the fuzes that did not go off in the 1940s are now getting old and more prone to detonation while being disabled or simply moved. Detonating bombs in place is often expensive because it means evacuating a lot of people and exposing homes and businesses to bomb damage. The densely backed cities of Germany got hit heavily, some both by bombers and Russian ground forces.
It’s not just aircraft bombs. Most of the explosives unearthed are smaller items like grenades, mortar shells, rockets, and mines. Many bombs, artillery, and mortar shells (over ten percent, for some manufacturers) did not explode when they were supposed to but just buried themselves into the ground. These shells are still full of explosives and often have a fuze that, while defective, is often still capable of going off if disturbed. Other munitions were left in bunkers, or elsewhere on the battlefield, and got buried and lost. Most of these lost munitions eventually get found by farmers, or anyone digging up the ground for construction. Most large cities, in Europe and the Pacific, that were heavily bombed cities during World War II still suffer from construction crews unearthing unexploded bombs. Russian cities were not bombed nearly as much as German ones were, but a lot more artillery shells were fired by both Russian and German troops.
The problem goes back farther than World War II. Unexploded munitions from the World War I (which ended in 1918) and the American Civil War (which ended in 1865) are still showing up, and some of them are still deadly. Currently, over a thousand World War II munitions are discovered each year in Europe.