Unexploded WWII bomb forces Christmas Day evacuations in Germany

The Augsburg evacuations were spurred by the discovery of a massive explosive device that was over 70 years old.

Stefan Puchner/dpa via AP
In this Sunday picture, explosives experts stand next to a WWII bomb after the successful defusing in Augsburg, Germany. Explosives experts have defused the large World War II aerial bomb in the southern German city, clearing the way for thousands of evacuated residents to return and hold their Christmas celebrations at home.

On Sunday, an unexploded bomb that was dropped on Augsburg, Germany during World War II prompted a Christmas Day evacuation of 54,000 people while authorities safely defused the device. The evacuation was the country's largest since the end of the war itself, over 70 years ago. 

The bomb, originally dropped by the British Royal Air Force (RAF), is one of many unexploded bombs still thought to be lurking under German soil, dangerous relics of the deadliest war in history. 

The massive and unprecedented scale of bombings conducted during World War II have led to multiple unexpected discoveries of similar devices, prompting many evacuations in Europe over the years. 

The nearly 2-ton bomb, known as a "blockbuster," was designed to damage buildings up to a mile from the center of the explosion. Blockbusters were the most powerful devices dropped by the RAF in its raids against Germany, according to The Guardian, and this particular one is the largest unexploded bomb ever discovered in the city of Augsburg.

The bomb was actually discovered last week during a construction project in Augsburg's historic district, according to German news organization Deutsche Welle. The old city center had been razed during allied bombing runs in February of 1944, but was largely rebuilt following the end of the war, like many German cities.

Authorities determined that there was no immediate danger of the bomb exploding, so the disarmament of the bomb was held off until Christmas Day, allowing residents time to evacuate. Due to the holiday, most evacuees were able to stay with friends or family, though a few schools and sports centers were also opened as temporary evacuation shelters for those who needed them.

"On a working day, the evacuation would be much more difficult, since the whole work and business life would be disrupted," city officials said, according to Deutsche Welle. "On a holiday there is also less traffic."

Once the old city center of Augsburg was fully evacuated, only two specialists from a private company were allowed within a 1.5 kilometer (0.9 mile) radius of the bomb, which they successfully defused before 7 PM local time on Sunday.

Even though it has been 71 years since Germany's surrender to the Allies in 1945, unexploded bombs dating from WWII are regularly found across over Germany to this day. It is estimated that Britain and the United States dropped a staggering 2.7 million tons of explosives on Europe, about half of which were concentrated on Germany itself. Of those, up to 10 percent never exploded after impact, according to the Smithsonian. Many of these unexploded bombs were buried underneath the surface and went undiscovered for decades. As a result, Germany has one of the most active bomb-disposal squads in the world.

But Germany isn't the only country dealing with the legacy of WWII bombings. Last February, Victoria Station in London was evacuated after an unexploded German bomb was discovered there. Only three months later, another WWII device was discovered under a former school in Bath, England, which was safely defused and destroyed in a controlled explosion.

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