Archivists are key to finding unexploded WWII bombs

  • Published
  • By Carl Bergquist
  • Air University Public Affairs
A division manager for a survey company in Dresden, Germany, often turns to the Air Force Historical Research Agency when companies want to develop land in Germany.

The manager, Dietmar Staude, is a geologist and explosive ordnance disposal expert who has studied the records of the British government, the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and AFHRA here at Maxwell since the late 1990s. His research helps determine if areas in Germany scheduled for development are safe from unexploded ordnance, or UXOs, left by bombers during World War II.

Mr. Staude became involved in his present profession through interests he developed in college and through opportunity. One of his college professors showed him a stereo photo of the bombing of Dresden during the war which sparked his curiosity.

"After college, before doing this job, I was a geologist with a Russian uranium mine in East Germany," he said. "During college, I was shown aerial photos of areas of Germany that were bombed during the war, and also given nearly two years of training in safety of coal mines and other exploration sites and photo interpretation. My job and the training just came together, and what I do is very rewarding because we are able to find most of the duds."

Realizing that bombs could hide under the earth and learning how to spot the hidden ones opened the door to new-found interests for the archivist.

"That developed an interest on my part in the identification and disposal of bombs left in Germany from World War II," Mr. Staude said. "It also reminded me there were old aerial photos of where Germany was bombed during the war, and I discovered they could be helpful in identifying possible sites of unexploded bombs."

Because of the heavy saturation bombing in Germany during the war, many states in the country require a survey for UXOs prior to development, Mr. Staude said. He feels his research makes a substantial difference in safety at construction sites but, despite his efforts, about twice a year accidents occur that cause damage or loss of life.

"These accidents are usually due to not taking enough care in digging up areas where a signal is detected," he said. "It is most important in my work not to be afraid, but you must have a respect for the bombs. If you get to a point where you think you have seen or know it all, you will be dead."

Archivists for AFHRA help Mr. Staude in many ways, said fellow archivist Archie DiFante. Remotely, they can answer his questions via e-mail regarding what the agency has in archive. Also, when high-quality copies of photographs are needed, they can reproduce the photos to specified resolutions and, if the files are too big to e-mail, mail them out on a disk, he added.

"We are also here to help him with his research during his visits to the agency," Mr. DiFante said. "Our records on this subject begin with World War II and extend to the present, and they include the mission reports and the target folders that explain what areas were targeted; did they hit the targets; and what damage was done."

The records also include details like routes taken to the target; how many bombs were dropped; what type of bombs were used; and most importantly, what type of fuses were used on the weapons, he said. Some of the bombs used delayed-action fuses that result in additional danger to construction crews.

"We actually helped solve a mystery a few years ago as to whether there were unexploded ordnance in an area about to be developed," Mr. DiFante said. "The area had more or less been cleared as safe, but we were able to show there could be duds there. In the end, they did find one."

Mr. Staude said this trip to AFHRA was on behalf of three clients. One is a company developing an area that was a synthetic oil works during the war; another company wants to build on land that was a vehicle factory in Belgium; and the third client wants to develop land that was a copper mine near Hamburg, Germany.

"My first visit in 1999 was for a single client, but since then I usually have more than one. This time, one of my clients wants to build in an area that wasn't a target but was between two other targets and could have received overflow bombs during raids," he said. "Most of our clients are large companies, but occasionally I have smaller companies or even individuals."

Sometimes photographs are the only way to tell if an area was bombed because so many of the mission records were destroyed after the war, Mr. Staude said. If it wasn't for AFHRA, which he discovered through the British government, they might not have any evidence of what happened at certain locations.

"The archive at AFHRA is very important to my job, and the agency has a better system than the Washington archive," he said. "This is important to me because I like my work. My wife doesn't. She says that it isn't necessary for me to play with old ammunition."