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Polish divers face delicate mission to defuse British WWII ‘earthquake bomb’

Most nearby residents evacuated for 5-day operation that will attempt to slowly burn 19-foot bomb’s explosive charge without detonating, but some refuse to go due to pandemic

Three Royal Air Force Avro Lancaster bombers in 1942. (Wikipedia/Royal Air Force official photographer/Public Domain)
Three Royal Air Force Avro Lancaster bombers in 1942. (Wikipedia/Royal Air Force official photographer/Public Domain)

WARSAW, Poland (AFP) — Polish military divers are due to begin a delicate operation on Monday to defuse a massive World War II bomb at the bottom of a channel near the Baltic Sea.

The five-ton device — nicknamed “Tallboy” and also known as an “earthquake bomb” — was dropped by the Royal Air Force in an attack on a Nazi warship in 1945.

It was discovered last year during dredging close to the port city of Swinoujscie — formerly Swinemunde, a part of Germany — in the far northwest of Poland.

“It’s a world first. Nobody has ever defused a Tallboy that is so well preserved and underwater,” Grzegorz Lewandowski, spokesman for the Polish Navy’s 8th Coastal Defense Flotilla based in Swinoujscie, told AFP.

Around 750 local residents are being evacuated from an area of 2.5 kilometers (1.6 miles) around the bomb and the operation is expected to last up to five days.

Halina Paszkowska, resident of the island of Karsibor, part of the city of Swinoujscie, Poland, poses in front her house on October 9, 2020, a few days before Polish divers were to defuse a Second World War ‘Tallboy’ bomb discovered in the nearby Piast Canal. (Lukasz Szelemej/AFP)

But some residents told AFP they would be staying put.

Halina Paszkowska said the “main danger” for her was the risk of catching COVID-19 in a sports hall where residents are being given shelter during the operation.

Paszkowska said she also had to look after her 88-year-old mother, adding: “I’ve lived here 50 years and there have been other bombs, but this is the first time there’s an evacuation! Before, we just had to stay indoors.”

‘A very delicate job’

Maritime traffic on the navigation channel and surrounding waterways will be suspended in an area 16 kilometers around the bomb disposal operation.

“The first two or three days will be preparations. Our bomb disposal divers will scrape around the bomb, which is embedded in the bottom of the channel at a depth of 12 meters. Only its nose is sticking out,” Lewandowski said.

A bouy marks the site of a World War II ‘Tallboy’ bomb near a ferry crossing in the Piast Canal (Kanal Piastowski), near Swinoujscie, northwestern Poland, on October 9, 2020, where Polish divers are expected to defuse the bomb on October 12, 2020. (Lukasz Szelemej/AFP)

“It’s a very delicate job… The tiniest vibration could detonate the bomb,” he said, pointing out that the option of a controlled explosion has been ruled out for fear of destroying a bridge some 500 meters away.

The navy divers will instead use a technique known as deflagration to burn the explosive charge without causing a detonation, using a remotely controlled device to pierce through the shell to begin combustion.

The bomb is six meters (19 feet) long and has 2.4 ton of explosives — equivalent to around 3.6 tons of TNT.

Tallboys were designed to explode underground next to a target, triggering shock waves that would cause destruction.

‘Dambusters’ raid

During World War II the area was home to one of the German navy’s most important Baltic bases and the area was subjected to massive bombardments, said historian Piotr Laskowski, the author of a book on the Royal Air Force raid on Germany’s Lutzow cruiser in April 1945.

A bouy marks the site of a World War II ‘Tallboy’ bomb in the Piast Canal (Kanal Piastowski), near Swinoujscie, northwestern Poland, on October 9, 2020, where Polish navy divers are expected to defuse the bomb on October 12, 2020. (Lukasz Szelemej/AFP)

The ship’s cannons were being used to hold back the advance of the Red Army in the dying days of the war.

On April 16, 1945, the RAF sent 18 Lancaster bombers from the 617th Squadron — known as the “Dambusters.”

The bombers released 12 Tallboys on the Lutzow but one failed to explode and one of the planes crashed on the island of Karsibor, killing all seven crew on board.

The ship survived the raid but was eventually seized by the Soviet army and used for target practice after the war. It eventually sank in the Baltic in September 1947.

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