Considering the Luftwaffe deposited 24,000 tonnes of high explosives on this Green and Pleasant Land during the Second World War, it’s no wonder unexploded German bombs are still being uncovered over 70 years after the end of the conflict. Only yesterday, homes and schools in Brondesbury Park, north-west London had to be evacuated following the discovery of one such archive device on a building site. That these recurrent discoveries elicit a rapid response and the clearing of the neighbourhood demonstrates just how much weapons of mass destruction devised in the early 1940s retain their power to provoke panic in generations who weren’t even present at the time of the Blitz; they also demonstrate how the post-war generations continue to walk in their ancestors’ shoes.
British ports and major manufacturing centres were predictable targets for Goering’s fearsome air-force once the Blitzkrieg began; eventually, it even turned its attention to architectural beauty spots like Bath. However, special treatment was naturally reserved for the capital as it remained the key scalp in Nazi Germany’s plans for Britain throughout the bombing raids. If we take London alone for a moment, the level of destruction is staggering.
For example, on just one night in May 1941, hundreds of high explosive bombs and a hundred thousand incendiaries rained down on the capital, killing 1400 civilians in the process and leaving large areas of the metropolitan landscape utterly devastated. It was an especially bad night for the city’s landmarks: Westminster Abbey, the House of Commons, the British Museum, the Royal Naval College, the Law Courts, Westminster Hall, the Mansion House, the Palace of St James, the War Office, Westminster School, the Public Record Office, King’s Cross Station, The Temple Church, St Clement Danes, St Mary-le-Bow – all suffered hits; but just as many humble homes suffered from either direct hits or the resulting firestorms: 5,000 houses were lost, leaving 12,000 homeless. It actually took until 1942 before the enemy had killed more British soldiers in the field of conflict than they had women and children on the Home Front.
One discerns the level of dramatic transformation inflicted on the London landscape in some of the turn-of-the-50s Ealing classics that include scenes shot on location, such as ‘The Lavender Hill Mob’ or ‘The Blue Lamp’ – those vast open spaces in the centre of town that had yet to be built upon and render the capital almost unrecognisable as a consequence. But while the wreckage had been cleared away and left vacant for the developers to move in, it was all surface work. Beneath ground level, endless numbers of sleeping explosives remained, waiting for the call.
It wasn’t really until the 60s that the majority of the bombsites scattered across the capital were finally swallowed up by the sky-scraping office blocks and social housing projects that gradually created the modern metropolis blueprint we’re familiar with today. But, as with the rest of the country that had suffered excessive air-raids from 1940-44, the rebuilding operation was regularly halted for the odd day here and there, courtesy of a disturbed device that reminded those looking forwards that the legacy of the recent past was still under our feet.
Nobody can say for sure precisely how many unexploded German bombs are preserved in suspended animation below street level; but statistics published in 2009 reveal upwards of 15,000 bombs, grenades or mortar rounds were excavated from UK construction sites in just the two years from 2006-2008, which gives an indication of how substantial the amount of dangerous debris from the most relentless aerial pounding this country has ever received still is. Fortunately, the swift action of army bomb disposal experts has prevented any of these items doing the kind of damage they were designed for (and many indeed did at the time they were dropped), but the extent of precautions taken when one is uncovered speaks volumes as to awareness of the fact.
In 2015, one of our own that surfaced over in Euskirchen near Bonn claimed the life of a construction worker who inadvertently drove an excavation vehicle into it. Unexploded bombs of a century’s vintage are even occasionally stumbled upon in the fields of Northern France by farmers, something that goes to show how the impact of the world’s two most devastating global conflicts can continue to resonate down the decades.
Whenever an incident such as that which occurred in London yesterday occurs – as it so frequently does – history ceases to be an abstract concept for those not alive when it took place and becomes prescient again; the destructive potential inherent in a weapon forged in some Fatherland factory long before most of us (or even our parents) were a twinkle in the milkman’s eye suddenly catapults the past into the present in ways that words or pictures cannot.
More recent conflicts may have scattered lethal landmines in foreign fields that remain permanent hazards for children of this century; but the modern weaponry of warfare that essentially began a hundred years ago serves as a warning that, as with the radioactive discharge that clings to the soil of Hiroshima, the murderous machinery that has evolved to win a war doesn’t become obsolete when the peace treaties are signed – it stays among us and will still be here when we’re all long gone. Man has gifted immortality to his armoury. Now, that’s a sobering thought.
© The Editor