An Unexploded WWII Bomb Was (Safely) Detonated in England

Routine construction work near the University of Exeter unearthed the 2,204-pound device in late February

An aerial view of a huge explosion taking place in the middle of a neighborhood, with dust and smoke clouds emerging from buildings and surrounded by green trees
The bomb may date to the spring of 1942, when the German Luftwaffe heavily bombarded Exeter and other historic English cities. Devon and Cornwall Police

World War II ended more than 75 years ago. But late last month, residents of Exeter, England, once again felt the aftershocks of the global conflict when authorities detonated an 80-year-old German bomb in the historic city.

Residential construction work revealed the unexploded device last Friday, prompting police to evacuate more than 2,600 homes. The following day, officials initiated a controlled blast of the 2,204-pound bomb, which was found buried on a tract of land near the University of Exeter, BBC News reports.

Nobody was hurt during the explosion, said the Devon and Cornwall Police in a February 28 statement. But many evacuated residents were forced to stay away from home for three nights, and those who live within 100 meters (328 feet) of the detonation site are still being housed in temporary accommodations.

“The controlled denotation that took place on Saturday afternoon was a shock to many—the force of the blast could be felt across a wide area of the city,” says local council leader Philip Bialyk in a separate statement.

Nearby homes suffered damage to their windows, doors and roofs. Officials are still in the process of assessing all buildings in the area for signs of structural damage, but as the Exeter City Council notes, the blast rendered some properties “uninhabitable.”

Structural engineer Matthew Cridge tells BBC News that the explosion left a crater so big that “you could easily park three double-decker buses in there.”

Military officials worked for 24 hours to cover the blast zone in 400 tons of sand—a method for preventing damage to buildings, per the council statement.

“Buildings around [the bomb] were completely covered in this grey sand,” Cridge says. “It was incredibly eerie. If there was a gust of wind you could hear the noise of the sand falling from the trees.”

The engineer adds, “I have never seen anything like this, and I’m not sure I’ll get to see it again.”

Because the device’s fuse was entirely corroded, authorities had no choice but to detonate it.

“I’m not sure I would have done anything differently,” Major Chris Hunter, a former British Army bomb disposal officer, tells BBC News. “I have the deepest sympathy for the people who have been affected and I am sure the bomb technicians and the police would also have tremendous sympathy for them.”

In the spring of 1942, the German Air Force, or Luftwaffe, heavily bombed Exeter and other historic English cities in retaliation for the British Royal Air Force’s bombing of Germany. The attacks on Exeter, Bath, Norwich, York and Canterbury became known as the Baedeker Raids—a reference to the famous German-language travel guides of the same name, according to the Imperial War Museum. (Nazi propogandists targeted heritage-rich cities as a means of lowering British morale, with one leader suggesting that “[w]e shall go out and bomb every building in Britain marked with three stars in the Baedeker Guide.”)

An Unexploded WWII Bomb Was (Safely) Detonated in England
A view of the German bomb before it was detonated on February 27, 2021 Devon and Cornwall Police

Over the course of 19 wartime raids, German forces dropped more than 7,000 bombs on Exeter. Almost 300 people died, and more than 1,700 buildings were destroyed, University of Exeter historian Todd Gray tells BBC News South West’s Charley Adams.

“That bomb going off reminds us what that generation in 1940s went through,” Gray adds.

Across the globe, leftover weapons from the deadliest war in modern history continue to wreak havoc decades after official fighting ceased. In September 2020, Livia Albeck-Ripka of the New York Times reported on the deaths of two men killed as they worked to defuse a WWII-era bomb on the Solomon Islands. The pair had been mapping leftover munitions from the heavy fighting between Japanese and Allied forces that took place in the South Pacific during the conflict.

Just one month later, in October 2020, a so-called “earthquake” bomb detonated in Poland during an attempt to defuse it. Several years prior, a 2014 explosion of a WWII-era device in Germany killed one person and injured eight others.

As Adam Higginbotham reported for Smithsonian magazine in 2016, more than 2,000 tons of unexploded munition are uncovered on German soil every year.

He added, “Although the country has been at peace for three generations, German bomb-disposal squads are among the busiest in the world.”