The recovery of munitions on the "Bombodrom" military training site
- Project: Removal of munition remnants and scrap from the site down to a depth of 30 centimetres
- Site: “Bombodrom” military training site in Wittstock
- Area: Total area of 11,100 ha
- Task force: 150 clearing specialists (10% of the taskforce available in Germany)
- Project period: since 2011
- Finds thus far: Bombs up to 500 kg in weight, 70 tons of scrap, 15 to 20 tons of munition scrap and 3800 to 4000 shells and bombs
- Client: The German Institute for Federal Real Estate (BImA)
The military training site in Wittstock is more commonly known as the “Bombodrome” due to its use by the GSSD (Group of Soviet Forces in Germany) as a location for tank exercises and later also for the dropping of bombs. As a result of the lively past of the Bombodrome, to this day we remain unaware of the exact amount of explosive ordnance used on the site prior to the discontinuation of use of the site for military purposes in 2011. An expensive undertaking, but one that will greatly aid the conservation of nature.
“It’s a strange landscape, isn't it? There’s a lot a black in the area. It creates quite the ghostly image, surreal. We’re used to well-kept landscapes with clear borders, fields and lines. However, the situation at the Bombodrome bears no semblance to order.”
It evokes imagery of a science fiction film. A post-apocalyptic world with grey-black landscapes as far as the eye can see with a mere scattering of bald rows of trees on the horizon. All that remains in the midst of the site is a handful of corroded containers.
The rows of blue and red flags provide the only glimmer of colour in the vast sea of grey along with the green uniform worn by Rainer Entrup, the head of the Brandenburg-West Federal Forestry Enterprise.
“This site has been scorched. The men who work here are required to keep their sounding probes close to the ground. If you look at the heath, you can see that it is around half a meter tall, which makes it impossible to guide a probe through. We therefore have to prepare the area by burning it.”
Forester Rainer Entrup confidently moves between the blue and red flags. “Tread carefully,” he laughs with a wink. Don't veer towards the red flags! – Rainer Entrup has supervised the clearance work on the former Soviet military training site, more commonly referred to as the “Bombodrome”, since 2016. – He suddenly reaches towards the ground.
“Another shell fragment. This one really is just a fragment. just below the threshold of what we're looking for.
Sounding and disposal of cluster bombs
The Bombodrome site is host to an incalculable amount of cluster munitions. Each bomb dropped on the site contained approx. 100 steel balls and 100 grams of explosives, enabling the balls to pierce everything in the vicinity up to 1200 metres per second when the bomb explodes.
The tennis ball-sized shells are lethal up to a distance of 100 meters. We have been tasked with detecting these particularly difficult to neutralise explosive ordnance on a 2000 ha site to defuse them.
We never forget that we are dealing with war munitions
It’s a Sisyphean task. A model NATO airport once stood here in the central area of the military training site. The Red Army bombed their number-one enemy with aerial bombs, guided missiles and cluster munitions for training purposes for 40 years. “We have already found various types of cluster munitions at this site.
Either they detonate, or they simply lay there and don't explode: we therefore need to destroy them.” Ingo Rückert's reflective vest can be seen from afar. The trained EOD specialist is in charge of the “Röhll Munitions Recovery” site. He likes to refer to the 1000 square metres of charred heathland as his “kingdom”.
High pressure clearance work
No, I always say we do our job. You would think it would become routine over time, but it doesn’t. In the back of our minds each day we have the same thought on repeat – yes, I’ve got to get on with the job, but don’t forgot that these are war munitions.”
Due to his former experience as a soldier in the German National People’s Army, Ingo Rückert is familiar with almost everything he recovers from the terrain. Almost everything, because the Russian army still refuses to provide precise details of the weapons it used on the site. And perhaps more notably: how many. Cautious estimates assume 1.5 million bombs and shells. EOD specialist Rückert overlooks his “kingdom” from his portacabin and carefully documents all finds. A large map of the site hangs from the wall, partitioned like a chess board and marked with blue and red flags. Blue for cleared areas, red for areas still littered with explosive ordnance. A two-man clearance team is responsible for each square, with up to 50 teams working on the site. There is a surmountable amount of pressure in the air, as the area needs to be cleared by 2020.
“Cluster munitions are dangerous, really dangerous. Safety is the top priority at Röhll. Every trailer has posters stating, 'If you find something like this, please don't touch it! Get the EOD specialist in charge!' The munitions will then remain in the ground and get marked until they are destroyed.”
Forester Rainer Entrup quickly steers his jeep through the rows of flags. “No accidents have ever happened,” he casually points out. He then parks next to a large container filled with corroded bomb parts.
“All rubbish! – in the double-digit millions. We estimate around 30 to 40 million for this presumably contaminated site. That's a current estimate, which can be used to conservatively estimate the costs.”
That is how much it could cost to clear the explosive reminders of the Cold War. Surely this means the heathland will then be publicly accessible once again? - Entrup shakes his head.
“No, as will only be clearing down to a depth of 30 centimetres the area is not considered free enough from explosive ordnance for public use. Our underlying motivation remains nature conservation. We will be able to preserve the heathland in the long term through burning the heath, which we can now do thanks to the improved safety of the area.”
One of the largest permanent heathland nature preserves in Europe
Rainer Entrup picks a heath stem from the ground in an almost affectionate manner. In order to preserve it, every few years the heath is burned in February or March. This process is referred to as a “cold fire” by experts as the ground needs to be frozen. Explosive ordnance clearance also has its benefits in the eyes of Entrup: “Bombodrome is the largest, or one of the largest, heathlands in Europe with an impressive 6000 hectares of land today. We plan to preserve 4000 hectares as permanent heathland”, and perhaps in a few years the charred cleared area will also once more return to heathland. The happy ending to a science fiction film. However, apart from Rainer Entrup, only a select few will ever be permitted to visit the area.
“Restricted Military Area - No Trespassing. Risk of Death!”, warn the signs. A sole 13 km sand path can be found on the outskirts of parts of the terrain. From here, it's possible to sneak a view into the mysterious site.
“All you can hear is silence, amplified by the vastness of the landscape. In the eyes of many, it's a monotonous sight: birch trees, pines, heather, that’s it. That being said, the light varies wonderfully from morning to evening and you may even spot a wolf seemingly floating through the heath.”