Hold on to Peace - Image courtesy Ira Mitchell-Kirk

Hold on to Peace - Image courtesy Ira Mitchell-Kirk

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

UXOs in Italy

"They Were Only Boys: 1944-2010" by Kay de Lautour  (Watercolour, 2010).

UXOs in Italy

“… my generation, we grew up knowing that the war was finished just 10 - 15 years before, and we had to deal with danger - like there were still mines around - there were the things that could be dangerous for children so at school we were talking about these things, talking about the war.”  (Margherita Giampietri, Cassino, 2010).

Immediately after the war Allied engineers and civilians began the mammoth task of clearing the hundreds of thousands of mines and other unexploded devices in the buildings, towns and countryside where the front line had passed.  Much of this clearing followed roads and other communication lines, but did not always go deep or extend into the wider parts of the battlefields. 

The scale of the problem is hard to imagine in peace time.  Thousands of German mines had been used in buildings and the fields, and when the town of Cassino was bombed an area of approximately 400 x 1400 square metres received an estimated 1000 tons of bombing.  Historians have calculated that for every German defender in the town, 4 tons of explosive was used. 

Many army and civilian workers were killed or maimed during the clear-up operations, as were civilians who collected and attempted to defuse the weapons to sell for scrap metal when their families were starving in post-war Italy.  School children like Margherita were taught about the dangers, and posters in classrooms carried powerful images that left no doubt about the danger of picking up these objects.  Little children, too young to understand, were killed playing with live grenades found near their temporary homes.

Almost seventy years have passed, and while every year more UXO (Unexploded Ordinances) are collected and this dangerous legacy is reduced, many still remain in the hillsides and buried at Cassino and along the Gustav Line.  The number of accidents relating to these UXOs seems to be increasing, rather than decreasing, if the regularity of such reports in newspapers is any guide. 

There are many factors that could be contributing to this.  As time goes on, these “pieces of metal” found in the ground are becoming more unstable.  Many are being uncovered through erosion, or are much closer to the surface than before.  More land is being brought back into production and the ordinances are being uncovered by horticultural machinery or during excavations for roads, swimming pools and houses. 

A concerning factor is the lack of knowledge about the danger.  New generations are unaware of what can happen and take risks when they find ordinances in their daily life.  Adventure tourism, walking tours, camping holidays, re-enactments and battlefield tours take locals and visitors on paths that are not guaranteed to have been included in the initial clearance of UXOs. 

Collectors are seeking relics for themselves, or to exchange or sell via the internet, some putting themselves at risk of physical harm.  Italian law is quite clear about this; the collection of dangerous objects is strictly illegal.  For the casual explorer and hiker who is not looking for them there is danger too. 

The following examples have been taken from the internet.  It is not a complete list, and most are sourced from online newspapers.

May 2005  An operation to remove a 250 lb bomb that closed the centre of Formia and interrupted the railway services between Rome and Naples cost 200,000 euros.  Over 8000 people were evacuated and the residents lived in fear for a week before the bomb was safely exploded in controlled conditions. 

September 2008  A 500lb bomb was found at Salerno, and 5000 people were evacuated.  The UK Daily Mail (Mail Online, 10 September 2008) reported that “The clear-out was ordered after workmen stumbled on the 500lb device during maintenance work.  It was even struck several times by a digger after the workman believed it to be a stubborn boulder. Fortunately he was eventually stopped by a shocked colleague, who recognised the object as a bomb.”

29 September 2009  Two youths recognised an object in the Volturno River as a bomb and immediately notified the authorities, thus averting a potential tragedy.

14 March  2010  an unexploded bomb containing 118 lbs of TNT was removed from Tiburtino, Rome, while 4000 people waited to return to their homes. 

21 April 2010 Rail services between Naples and Cassino were suspended while a bomb was removed between Vairano and Cassino.

24 May 2010  Army expert bomb disposal unit safely disarmed another 70kg bomb, this bringing the number of callouts to approximately 200 since their recent deployment to this task in southern Italy.

17 September 2011  An unexploded bomb was found in a suburban area in Cassino and safely defused and removed by the bomb squad.   

29 January 2012  A grenade that had become embedded in a tree exploded and destroyed the fireplace when the wood was used in a domestic fireplace in a village near Cassino.  The shocked family members were unharmed purely because of the fortuitous angle at which the wood had been placed on the fire.

7 July 2012 Traffic was diverted near the Pontecorvo exit when an unexploded 30cm heavy artillery projectile was noticed lying in the gutter at the side of the autostrada.  It is not known how it came to be there. 

14 July 2012 A fisherman noticed a bomb in the Liri River near Sora and notified authorities.  The bomb disposal unit safely defused the bomb after securing the surrounding area.

13 July 2012  A 500lb bomb was discovered in Salerno during construction work; 90 families were evacuated and offices and businesses closed until the bomb was safely removed by the specialist Army bomb squad.

And so it continues. 

What should be done when you find what could be an unexploded ordinance, a dangerous legacy from the battle?  Don’t touch the object, but call the authorities immediately. The danger is real, the problem has not gone away. It is only the memories that have diminished with time.  

Margherita Giampietri interviewed by Nicola Blackmore at Legato,  mostra per la pace e commemorazione, Cassino, Italy, 2010. 

Article by Kay de Lautour (MCFRR). 

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