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Dutch soil continues to yield explosives and ammunition in a never-ending clean-up effort

Beach resort latest location of dangerous finds

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

ZANDVOORT - The North Sea beach resort of Zandvoort recently had to deal with two detriments to the tourist industry which is the lifeline of the virtual suburb of Haarlem. One was the less-than-seasonal weather during the main weeks of the summer holidays. The other was the closure of a kilometre of prime beach and the immediate (inhabited) hinterland. This last non-event also could be called an act of nature: shifting sand had brought two hand grenades and an anti-tank mine to the beach’s surface.

While the tourist of 2000 - many come from Germany - often leaves ‘stuff’ behind in and around his holiday retreat before going back home, the cause of Zandvoort’s recent closure traces back to the Second World War and an earlier onslaught of German invaders. Zandvoort, like all beachfront property in the Netherlands, then had become part of the Atlantikwall, the German coastline defenses against a possible invasion from the British Isles. Houses, neighbourhoods and even entire villages were razed and the fragile dunes-and-beach environment became dotted with bunkers, pillboxes, barracks, barbed wire and gun placements. Not surprisingly, ammunition was strewn around and in 1944 and 1945 left behind, buried or otherwise forgotten.

Removal crews busy

Zandvoort by far is not the only location in the Netherlands where munitions have been found in recent years. Not a day goes by without the media reporting on yet another discovery of an undetonated Allied of German bomb, live grenades or immensely volatile explosives in somebody’s shed. In fact, the Netherlands is one of the few countries in the world that continually searches for WW2 munitions, often detonating them on isolated locations.

Although the number has dwindled somewhat over the last twenty-five years, there still are some 2,500 reports of munitions being found each year. Such reports are channeled to the Explosives Removal Command (EOC) with headquarters in the central town of Culemborg. The command has some 100 people on staff, with fifty involved in the actual removal and defusion, mostly through its Explosives Removal Service (EOD), and a number of detachments at the Navy and Air Force. Since two years, qualified private companies also are allowed to handle recoveries, be it that they then need to hire an experienced EOC staffer. Detonating of recovered munitions however is a task only the EOD is allowed to perform. The EOC’s main task is the removal and defusion of explosives for Dutch military units operating abroad in peacekeeping missions.

Bombs away

Recent EOC action in the Netherlands involved the recovery of undetonated ammunition near the Veluwe village of Stroe, where the main railway line had to be closed for the entire length of the operation. A few weeks earlier, crews dredging a drainage channel near the bordertown of Coevorden made the news when they discovered an unexploded Allied bomb. In April, a 1,000 pound British bomb was dug up at the Eindhoven Airport. Excavation earlier this year in the Zeeland community of Haamstede yielded a 250 pound bomb and a few weeks later, playing children in Dinxperloo found a number of howitzer grenades.

The EOC not only deals with WW2 ammunition, mines and bombs. Last year, Defense Minister Frank de Grave ordered divers to check the bottom of the North Sea close to the Oosterschelde Dam and the convergence of the islands of Noord-Beveland and Walcheren. In the so-called ‘Roompot’, the Dutch Army between 1945 and 1967 dumped hundreds of tonnes of undetonated ammunition.

Clean up methods

No detailed map exists of all possible locations of undetonated munitions in the Netherlands. Some potential troublespots are wellknown, but most bombs and ammunition still are discovered by chance. Obviously, any location that has seen action during WWII still is or could be rife with explosives: the coast, the airports, and the battle areas of Limburg and North Brabant. Other such locations are former German army depots, such as in Hoogsoeren, where clean-up will take at least ten more years. In general, any location where excavation, roadway construction, digging, dredging or the like is done, carries the risk that munition is brought to the surface as well.

In Zandvoort, no one has any idea what the beach still could yield. Although research is being done in the town’s archives, no clear indication will be found of the what and where: the shift of time and nature has altered the coastline and surrounding areas.

‘Operational clearing’

Most of the ammunition probably still below the surface of the beaches comes from hoards not completely detonated when the Allies in 1945 used the shore for the wholesale destruction of weapons and munitions caches. Much of that material did explode but non-detonated pieces remained behind, or were blasted into the immediate surroundings where wind and water were expected to do the rest. That method of ‘operational clearing’ was quite prevalent in the immediate aftermath of the war. These days, explosive experts do not take such risks: each bullet, grenade, mine or bomb when found has to be properly disposed of.

This intricate work - besides being dangerous - adds to the clean-up cost. The recent Operation Zandvoort carried a bill of one million guilders, in large part footed by the government. The municipality contributes as well: five guilders per citizen, plus ten per cent of the gross cost. Additionally, the town could be held responsible for damages and loss of income claimed by owners and operators of businesses now evacuated. An 800 meter long barrier of steel containers has been erected between the beach and the bungalows beyond. Tresspassers risk a $3,500 fine or a two-months jail sentence.

Although it considers itself without blame for the presence of WW2 ammunition, the Zandvoort municipality knows the clean-up is a task best done sooner than later. A worse scenario is that the removal stretches out over a longer period. Tourists may just see the operation as a glitch in their own holiday plans if the dangerous clean-up is done expeditiously; but always cautiously.