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WWII Bombs Under Budapest: Exclusive Interview with Bomb Technician István Ember

2018.08.01.

It seems that barely a week goes by without the discovery of a World War II explosive in Hungary. Not too long ago, an enormous plane bomb was fished out of the Danube. This very event sparked our curiosity for the process of bomb deactivation and the backgrounds of the profession; we visited the Irinyi János barracks, the main military outpost of Hungarian pyrotechnics.

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Major István Ember and the found explosives at the Irinyi Barrack. (photo: Vivien Cher Benkő)

How and why does someone become a bomb disposal expert in Hungary? It is an intriguing question, considering this is one of the most dangerous professions to be found in the country. And what sort of schooling or certification must one obtain in order to embark upon this career? We asked István Ember, bomb technician major about this topic. The Major summarized the process: an applicant does not require any specific accreditation or training, but certain skills and knowledge can be advantageous. For instance, the ability to comprehend and memorize technical maps/blueprints can be helpful. Beforehand, of course, one must serve in the national army, the Honvédség, and after wearing the uniform and serving the ranks, they may be placed in the firearms division where they can begin learning the trade. Mjr. Ember attended the Bolyai János Military Technical School where explosions were his favorite subject — thus there was no question when it came time to choose a division within the national army.

The bomb disposal expert within the national army exclusively work with the deactivation of World War II era explosives. (photo: Vivien Cher Benkő)

The second advantage an applicant may have is an interest in World War II and the military techniques employed. As we found out from Mjr. Ember, the bomb disposal expert within the national army exclusively work with the deactivation of World War II era explosives. The task of deactivating terrorist motivated or improvised explosives belongs to the police — although it may occur that Hungarian soldiers serving in missions abroad may be given assignments concerning such types of explosives.

Mjr. Ember attended the Bolyai János Military Technical School where explosions were his favorite subject. (photo: Vivien Cher Benkő)

 Because of the highly classified nature of the information, we were unfortunately not able to get an answer as to why other countries would require Hungarian assistance in handling explosives given their inexperience. Otherwise, according to the Major, the pollution produced from the World War II bombs is not significantly more than other European countries.

In Hungary most yet-to-be-deactivated explosives are found in Budapest, naturally. The second most polluted area is in Székesfehérvár, along the so-called ‘Margaret’ line. When asked if whether over time, the amount of bombs found is dropping, Mjr. Ember answered that their discovery comes more so in waves. More explosives are found during the spring and fall farming seasons, while the peak is usually when fields are being planted. Quite interestingly, a landowner may farm a piece of property for decades, and the next day suddenly discover an inactive explosive.

82 millimeter Soviet mines are reported to be found about once a week, while 100 kg bombs are found about once a year. (photo: Vivien Cher Benkő)

In conversation and on the media, the explosives found are referred to as “bombs” for the sake of simplicity, however, technically only explosives thrown from planes are referred to as bombs. For this very reason it is very difficult to provide an answer as to which type of explosives is most common, as well as identifying from which countries they most typically are from. István Ember showed us an 82 millimeter Soviet mine, this type he says is reported to be found about once a week; in addition, bombs such as the one weighing 100 kilograms which was just pulled from the Danube, are found about once a year. Aside from Soviet explosives, Hungarian and German ones are most common. Annually a total of about 2500 explosives are received by the division.

Aside from Soviet explosives, Hungarian and German ones are most common. (photo: Vivien Cher Benkő)

The question remains, why so many explosives waiting to be detonated are found in the ground in the first place. Why did they not explode when they touched the ground so many years ago? According to the Major, because these explosives were manufactured by the 10 millions, there was a very large margin of error, producing many flawed bombs. In addition, many prisoners of war were also put to work in manufacturing these bombs, who could have also disrupted the process.

Many assume that because these explosives did not detonate so many years ago, they pose no threat. The Major asserts that this is wrong—even though parts may have rusted and the explosive material may be weaker, time works either in favour or against these explosives. It is possible that as time passes, it makes the explosives even more sensitive, thus making disarmament all the more urgent, as the bomb disposal expert are required to deactivate the device within 30 days anyways.

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Reporting by Gábor Sarnyai

Translated by Katrina Hier

Photos by Vivien Cher Benkő


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