A massive bomb is discovered in a busy city. The residents fear for their lives. They flee their homes and take shelter in a mass evacuation center. Yet this isn’t Europe at the height of WWII. It’s 2020, and experts are doing everything they can to try and defuse the Tallboy explosive. BANG! Just like that, the bomb goes off – leaving both the ground and the team shaking.
Shockingly, the bomb had been hiding in plain sight for 75 years – hauntingly close to the people living in the Polish city of Świnoujście. It was dropped in WWII, when Britain’s famed Dambuster bomber squadron launched a brutal attack on a German ship moored off the coast. And while the majority of the explosives hit their mark, this one sank – undetonated – to the bottom of the canal.
You’d think living near any type of dormant explosive would be enough to jangle the nerves. But this is no ordinary weapon that threatened the population of Świnoujście. Beneath the waters of the Piast Canal lurked a sleeping Tallboy – a device popularly known as an earthquake bomb. And believe us, the explosive is suitably named.
The Allies dropped more than 850 Tallboys on enemy targets during WWII – wreaking widespread devastation across Europe. Yet not all of the bombs exploded on impact. And in 2019 one was discovered during work on the Piast Canal, which sits beside the German border. Military divers then began the painstaking process of defusing the bomb – though, as we know, the process didn’t go to plan.
Yes, three quarters of a century after it was dropped, the bomb beneath the Piatz Canal exploded – just as the experts were working to defuse it. And in the aftermath of the devastating eruption, there was one question on everybody’s lips: how did the device remain so powerful after so many years?
The answer lies in the work of the famous British engineer Barnes Wallis. Wallis began his career designing the airships and airplanes that characterized the early days of flight. But when WWII broke out in 1939, he decided to apply his talents to the art of combat instead. A proponent of tactical bombing, the expert believed that the development of devastating explosives would be key to defeating the Axis forces.
Creative and ambitious, Wallis dedicated himself to developing technology that would help bring the Axis powers to their knees. When the British government set its sights on destroying German dams, for instance, the engineer was determined to figure out the best approach. But the chosen target – the Möhne Reservoir some 30 miles outside Dortmund – posed a big challenge.
The dam that the Allies wanted to attack stood around 130 feet tall and was in places more than 100 feet thick. Even so, the eponymous engineer came up with a plan to breach the structure – using little more than a volley of large explosives. But hitting the target from the sky would have been practically impossible. And so the idea of an attack on Möhne was shelved.
Though Wallis would not take no for an answer and continued to dream up plans for a feasible attack. If the explosives could not be dropped from above, he reasoned, perhaps they could be skimmed across the water towards the target? By experimenting with marbles, the engineer eventually came up with the idea of a bouncing bomb.
Although it might have sounded ridiculous, Wallis’ idea worked. And the plan to launch an attack on German dams was back on the table. Just after midnight on May 17, 1943, the Royal Air Force No. 617 Squadron dropped a series of bouncing bombs above the Möhne Reservoir. Eventually, they succeeded in breaching the massive structure.
Later, the squadron also managed to bomb a hole in the Edersee Dam – some 80 miles south-east of Möhne. Thanks to Wallis’ weapons, German resources were directed towards rebuilding destroyed infrastructure and away from the war effort. And even though more than 1,500 innocent civilians died, the attacks are generally viewed as heroic today.
The Dambusters’ attacks secured Wallis’ reputation, too. And this enabled him to revisit ideas that had initially been rejected. Among these was an invention dubbed the earthquake bomb: a large explosive designed to burrow deep below the target and detonate underground. Afterward, the engineer believed, the shockwave would create widespread devastation.
Wallis originally envisaged a huge, ten-ton bomb that would be dropped on the enemy from a height of 40,000 feet, his foundation explained. But this scheme was too ambitious for the technology available at the time. Instead, he settled for an explosive weighing six tons – designed to be released from 18,000 feet.
Given the nickname Tallboy, Wallis’ ambitious new weapon was first put to the test in France on the night of June 8, 1944. The target was the Saumur railway tunnel – a vital lifeline connecting southern and northern France. Just days earlier, the Allies had landed on the beaches of Normandy, and the bombers were tasked with cutting off access to the invasion site.
The 617 Squadron would be about to make history once again as it took to the skies over the Loire with 19 Tallboy bombs. And sure enough, its mission devastated the railway line and stopped German troops from being able to travel north to fight off the Allies. From that point onwards, Wallis’ invention played a central role in the British war effort – destroying targets across western Europe.
Yes, as WWII progressed, the Allies dropped hundreds of Tallboy bombs on enemy targets – destroying buildings, battleships and infrastructure alike. It eventually became obvious that the Axis powers were going to lose. But the conflict across Europe would continue for nearly a year after the Allied invasion of northern France. And in countries like Poland – where the unexploded device would later be discovered – the fighting was particularly fierce.
In mid-January 1945 the Soviet Union had begun its advance into Poland – prompting a mass exodus of German citizens. And by March many of them had gathered in Świnoujście on the north-west coast. Before the refugees could escape across the Baltic Sea, though, the United States Army Air Force launched a brutal attack and thousands of civilians were killed.
Despite relentless assaults from the Allies, the Axis powers continued to fight. And on the Piast Canal outside Świnoujście, the German cruiser Lϋtzow was deployed as part of a last-ditch effort to hold off the Soviets. But the Nazis suffered a serious blow on April 16, 1945, when the Dambusters carried out yet another devastating aerial attack.
This time, the 617 Squadron dropped 12 Tallboys from Lancaster bombers onto the anchored Lϋtzow. Things didn’t exactly go to plan. According to reports, one of the aircraft got into difficulties and ended up crashing on nearby Karsibor Island. And if that wasn’t bad enough, one of the explosives failed to detonate – sinking dormant into the Piast Canal. That one would come back to bite, though, as we already know.
One of the other Tallboys did manage to land directly on the Lϋtzow, while several others landed close to the mark. Having sustained extensive damage in the blasts, the vessel sank to the bottom of the canal – leaving just its deck jutting out above the water. For weeks afterward, the Germans continued to use this exposed section as a gun turret. But ultimately, the ship was later scuppered and sold as scrap.
Less than a month after the Dambusters’ attack on the Lϋtzow, Germany surrendered, and the war in Europe finally came to an end. The bombs dropped over the Piast Canal, as it turned out, would be among the last Tallboys ever deployed. But the story of Wallis’ deadly explosives did not end there.
Fast forward almost 75 years, and Świnoujście has become a popular tourist resort. Instead of refugees desperate to flee across the Baltic Sea, the city is filled with people enjoying relaxing holidays by the coast. Yet in September 2019 workers discovered something that would shatter this peaceful idyll and bring back the horrors of WWII.
That month, a project was underway to deepen the waterway outside Świnoujście. But as the canal was being dredged, a long-forgotten secret emerged – the unexploded Tallboy that had been dropped on the Lϋtzow during the war. It was reportedly the biggest dormant WWII device ever discovered in Poland, so it must have been a startling sight. But would the bomb still pose a risk to the public so many years after it had been dropped?
For almost a year after it was discovered, the Tallboy remained at the bottom of the Piast Canal – its existence looming ominously over the city. Then in October 2020 work to defuse the dormant bomb finally began. But before experts could start the painstaking work, they needed to secure the area. And according to CNN, that meant temporarily turfing over 750 people from their homes.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of the residents of Świnoujście were taken aback by the extreme measures. Speaking to the AFP in October 2020, local Halina Paszkowska said, “I’ve lived here 50 years, and there have been other bombs. But this is the first time there’s an evacuation! Before, we just had to stay indoors.”
In fact, some people living in the city told reporters that they were going to ignore the evacuation orders. But as experts prepared to defuse the 20-foot bomb – which contained around 2.5 tons of explosives – fear began to spread through the community. And in the end, most people left their homes and took shelter in centers nearby.
On October 12, 2020, a team of sappers from the Polish Navy swam out into the Piast Canal – determined to tackle the dormant bomb. Initially, the plan was to spend the first part of the five-day mission carefully preparing the explosive. Speaking to the press at the time, military spokesman Grzegorz Lewandowski explained, “It’s a very delicate job… The tiniest vibration could detonate the bomb.”
But why did the Polish Navy need to defuse the bomb at all? Plenty of leftover WWII explosives have simply been detonated in controlled situations and haven’t needed to be meticulously dismantled. Well, according to Lewandowski, the nearby bridge meant that this wasn’t an option in Świnoujście.
And so the divers decided to use a method called deflagration, which involves simply burning off the explosives without a detonation. By using a remote-controlled device to heat the bomb, they could render the Tallboy inactive without needing to be anywhere near the weapon. This, of course, must have been somewhat reassuring. Still, experts were apparently only 50 percent sure that the operation would be a success.
As it turns out, they were right to err on the side of caution. On October 13 – just one day after the operation began – the Tallboy exploded, sending a jet of water into the skies high above Świnoujście. And had any of the team been closer to the blast, they would likely have met a violent end.
But despite the dramatic appearance of the explosion, experts insisted that the operation had been controlled. The following day, Lewandowski made an announcement on the Ministry of National Defence of the Republic of Poland’s Twitter account. It read, “The deflagration process turned into detonation. The object can be considered neutralized. It will no longer pose a threat to the Szczecin-Swinoujscie shipping channel.”
Around the same time, an unnamed spokesperson for the Polish military told CNN, “Every step of [the] operation was under control.” But what was the impact of exploding Wallis’ earthquake bomb in the middle of a built-up area? Thankfully, reports claim that nobody was hurt in the aftermath of the detonation. Phew!
There was apparently no damage to nearby buildings, either. And while online commenters speculated on the potential harm to marine life, there appeared to be no evidence of any ill effects springing from the incident. And before long, life in Świnoujście returned to normal.
But this wasn’t the first time that a long-dormant Tallboy has reared its head long after the end of WWII. Back in January 1959, some 650 residents of Langscheid in West Germany were evacuated from their homes after an earthquake bomb was discovered at the bottom of a reservoir. Ironically, the same organization that had dropped the bomb was called to sort it out.
That’s right: fifteen years after the Royal Air Force unloaded the Tallboy over Germany’s Sorpe Dam, a British flight lieutenant helped to defuse it. And if reports are to be believed, he succeeded – this time without causing an explosion. At the time, it was one of the biggest explosives ever tackled by any bomb disposal unit.
To date, the bombs found in Langscheid and Świnoujście are the only unexploded Tallboys to be unearthed. Yet the former battlegrounds of WWII are littered with leftover ordnance even today. Some of these devices have detonated dramatically over the years, though others may yet be lingering, undiscovered, beneath the ground.
On June 23, 2019, for example, residents of Limburg in Germany reported hearing a loud explosion during the night. And when they awoke, they saw that a huge crater had appeared in a nearby field. On closer inspection, it was revealed that an old WWII bomb had exploded – tearing a hole that New Scientist says was more than 30 feet wide.
Luckily, none of these incidents resulted in anything worse than a bad shock for those in the vicinity. But things haven’t always worked out quite so well. In 2014, for instance, construction workers in the German town of Euskirchen accidentally triggered a dormant WWII bomb. Sadly, one man died in the explosion that followed.
But you can breathe a sigh of relief, as experts usually know exactly what to do when it comes to defusing old bombs. And it happens more often than you might think. As recently as 2019, some 2,000 people were cleared from the streets surrounding Paris’ Porte de la Chapelle train station while experts tackled a 75-year-old explosive. And in 2017 a device found at Frankfurt’s Goethe University prompted 70,000 citizens to relocate. It was Germany’s biggest mass evacuation since WWII.
Luckily, explosions like the one Świnoujście are few and far between. But with hundreds of Tallboys dropped over Europe during WWII, can we really be sure that all of them are accounted for? Or might there be another deadly surprise just waiting to be discovered? Let’s hope not, eh?
Some places in Europe are particularly dangerous when it comes to finding deadly relics from the war. Take this French forest, for instance. Only the brave venture inside, as its toxic grounds harbor some terrifyingly dark secrets.
After all, authorities have labeled the 42,000-acre forest, which is found in hills near Verdun-sur-Meuse, “Zone Rouge,” or Red Zone. And just below the strange waves of grass lie unexploded bombs, potentially fatal quantities of arsenic and live gas shells. Yet while the full potential of these particular weapons was never realized, those that did go off left behind something even creepier.
Indeed, spread among the munitions are the remains of unfortunate, long-dead soldiers. And their bones are a chilling reminder of one of the fiercest, bloodiest battles of the WWI – one that raged on for ten long months in 1916.
The battle began because the German Fifth Army had planned a preliminary bombardment on the fortified city of Verdun. The aim? To strategically shift troops away from the internally volatile Russia on the Eastern Front and launch a surprise attack on Verdun in the west. So, at 7:15 a.m. on February 21, 1916, 100,000 shells started falling on the city every hour. It was, needless to say, a bloodbath.
Still, a significant weather delay before the attack allowed the French to learn of the plan and send for reinforcements. Moreover, in a desperate effort for survival, the city’s battalions tried to dig even deeper trenches. Regardless, however, almost half of the French troops were destroyed within several hours of the bombardment.
The bombardment continued until the close of day, and the meager number of French survivors bravely rallied to keep the Germans from the city. But the Germans held the advantage, as they were positioned in the forest hills overlooking Verdun and close to the strategically advantageous Fort Douaumont.
On February 24, the Germans took Douaumont and another outlying fort, demoralizing the city’s inhabitants as well as the freshly arrived reinforcements. But retreat was not an option. Instead, French citizens around the country demanded that the forts be recaptured and the city protected.
At that point, however, the battle had turned to one of attrition, with both sides losing men – although they also gained reinforcements. And the stalemate only continued and intensified in July, when the British launched their first offensive attack along the Western Front by the Somme. This itself would become the largest and longest battle of the war.
Elsewhere, Russia went on the offensive again, with the Kaiser deciding to transfer 15 German divisions from Verdun to battle along the Eastern Front. Then, at the end of October 1916, the French were able to retake Douaumont. And in December of that year, the weakened German troops finally surrendered.
All told, the Battle of Verdun caused anywhere between 300,000 and nearly a million deaths, with both sides suffering almost equal losses. The skirmish also turned 40,000 acres of forest into a swampy wasteland of death, poison and unexploded artillery.
In fact, it’s estimated that 65 million shells – some of which were laden with poisonous gases – were launched during the battle. And of this number, as many as 15 percent didn’t explode. French authorities knew how dangerous the shells could be, too. A year after the Great War had finished, then, they purchased the land where the fighting had taken place.
Indeed, the French government seized almost 25,000 acres – including nine war-torn villages. The area was subsequently cordoned off, with the public forbidden from entry. And after that, Zone Rouge was left in the hands of Mother Nature.
Even farming – which had been practiced here in the years leading up to WWI – was banned. It was hoped, you see, that trees rather than the usual plowed fields and rows of crops would gradually heal the fragile land.
But battle-scarred doesn’t even cut it in terms of describing how the war changed the area. Christina Holstein, an independent U.K.-based historian, explained to National Geographic, “The ground was just completely churned up.” She added, “Any trees were smashed, and men took shelter where they could in shell holes and in holes in the ground.”
And although the fighting had destroyed the forest’s original trees, new ones eventually returned with a vengeance. “The vegetation – trees, grasses, bushes and briars – all came back very quickly,” Holstein continued.
It’s almost as though Mother Nature herself wanted to conceal the disturbing aftermath of the Battle of Verdun. But while she may have succeeded in hiding the worst of it, anyone who steps foot inside Zone Rouge will quickly find disturbing evidence of a truly shocking conflict.
For instance, at first glance it appears as if super-sized eggs sit beneath the trees’ canopy. Yet these are no benign gifts from the environment. Rather, they’re unexploded shells that continue to wreak havoc on anyone who is unfortunate enough to come across them.
And it seems, too, as though the now-thick blanket of grass is concealing more than just hazardous shells. Tests by German researchers have discovered that the soil of Zone Rouge has arsenic levels of roughly 17 percent – a much greater amount than is deemed to be safe.
Reports also claim that fragments of the broken armaments have contaminated local waters with non-biodegradable lead – a substance that has also unfortunately found its way into the wildlife that roam the area. And, disturbingly, this lead – along with the zinc and mercury also discovered in the region – may not completely disappear for a further 10,000 years.
It’s lucky, then, that not many people have set foot inside Zone Rouge since it was declared off-limits almost a century ago. And the brave souls that have crossed the boundary have generally had a specific reason to do so: to clear the fields of live munitions. Tragically, though, one more recent attempt to salvage the land failed horribly.
In 2007 two men were tasked with removing an unexploded mine from Zone Rouge before transporting the weapon to a munitions facility. However, things didn’t go to plan, as both men were killed when the mine blew up.
Sadly, Zone Rouge may well remain eternally dangerous. Indeed, Henry Bélot– one of the men tasked with clearing the old battlefield – has claimed that neutralizing the remaining explosives’ threat is a “near impossibility.” In Donovan Webster’s 1996 book Aftermath: The Remnants of War, Bélot is also quoted as somberly saying, “Out there is a shell with your name on it. Today, if you lift that bomb, you are in the past.”
Bélot’s words were made all the more prescient after he was left badly affected by the toxic contents of an undetonated weapon. Unfortunately, the lethal gas within one of the shells had ultimately seeped out and into his protective mask. But as the outer layers of ammunition can weather and weaken over time, this was a risk that the mine-clearer may have known he was taking.
Plus, as you can likely imagine, these potentially deadly remnants of the Battle of Verdun aren’t just to be found inside the border of the no-go region. Alarmingly, residents in the communities around Zone Rouge stumble across undetonated gas shells and bombs, too – even in the 21st century.
Fall in particular sees a spike in the amount of ammunition churned up from the earth. Why? Well, you see, farmers in the region are busy taking in their crops at that time of year. So much old weaponry has been unearthed during these gathering periods, moreover, that they’ve earned the nickname of “the iron harvest.”
And, regrettably, the iron harvest proves reliably fruitful in both France and Belgium. In 2018, for example, Belgian farmer Dirk Cardeon told The Daily Telegraph that he has exposed hand grenades, fuses and even occasionally a complete shell while in the process of bringing up his potato crops.
Fellow farmer Stijn Butaye also regularly digs up relics from the war, although he has an even more haunting story to tell. According to The Daily Telegraph, Butaye’s father had a particularly terrifying experience while out in the fields. At one point, you see, the man unknowingly steered his tractor over a phosphorous grenade.
Then, within seconds, poisonous gas was billowing up around Butaye’s dad. And if the wind hadn’t been blowing in a particular direction on that day, it’s likely that he would have died. When phosgene is breathed in, you see, it can greatly impair the function of the air sacs in the lungs.
Rather horrifically, the effects of the gas can ultimately stop oxygen reaching the blood and bring about asphyxiation. And even though the symptoms of phosgene poisoning may take two days to show themselves, this doesn’t make the substance any less lethal. In fact, phosgene proved more of a threat than either chlorine or mustard gas in terms of the number of deaths and casualties it caused during WWI.
Yes, only 15 percent or so of gas-related deaths in WWI occurred as a result of shells containing chemicals other than phosgene and its close relation diphosgene. And even though more than a century has passed since these weapons first materialized, they still seem to be demonstrating their deadly potency.
Unearthing a hazardous weapon is a constant risk that farmers near Zone Rouge have to live with, then. In his interview with The Daily Telegraph, Butaye even went so far as to say, “Every weekend, season time, you’ll find a shell or grenade. Now we’re getting used to it.”
Finding old munitions is so common in the region, in fact, that specialist bomb-disposal units often make stop-offs there. These teams then collect the undetonated shells that the farmers have unearthed and discarded at the side of the road – just as we would put out our trash.
But where does the ammunition go after this? Well, the bomb-disposal experts typically then transport the shells to secret detonation areas so that they can be let off in safe and guarded environments. For everyone involved, though, the process may act as a reminder of the enduring trail of destruction left by WWI.
Nevertheless, local communities in France have no choice but to build their lives around the lingering aftermath of the conflict – even if this is a far from easy task. So, just how have people turned living so close to these abandoned, toxic wastelands into a profitable enterprise?
Well, it seems as though certain folks have taken a similar approach to that of the entrepreneurial types who have made hay from the Chernobyl disaster. Yes, they’ve turned the eerie environs into something of a tourist destination. And while visitors still aren’t allowed to traipse beyond the borders of the no-go zone, they do have the opportunity to embark on a Battle of Verdun tour.
During such a trip, you can visit an abandoned village, a number of memorial sites and even some of the safer areas of the battlefields. And as a lot of France’s land was strewn to pieces by the devastation of war, there are similar tours centered around the Battle of the Somme, too.
Near the Zone Rouge, there’s even a restaurant called Le Tommy that is filled with memorabilia from the Great War. And not only does the location showcase a variety of relics that appear to have been dug up after the conflict, but it also boasts a remodeled trench complete with life-sized replica soldiers.
It’s likely for the best, though, that Zone Rouge will almost certainly never be opened up to the public. After all, rendering the area safe would mean chopping down the trees as well as removing around three feet of soil from the entire battlefield. And so there’s every chance that the site of the Battle of Verdun will remain a deadly, unpopulated forest forever.
This also means, however, that places such as Zone Rouge will act as a relentless and unforgiving reminder of the death and destruction caused by WWI. So, while we may not be able to vividly imagine what it was like when these shells landed, we will certainly never be allowed to forget the devastating impact that the conflict has had upon our planet.