During World War II, the Soviet Red Army fought fiercely with the German army. In the most famous battle in the Soviet-German War – the Battle of Moscow, the Soviet army pushed the German army hundreds of kilometers away and successfully lifted the Moscow defense.
However, this meant that thousands of unexploded ordnance were scattered throughout the city. Have you ever wondered: What did the Soviet Union do with half a million pieces of unexploded ordnance scattered among the ruins?
That calls for the mention of a mission known as the “devil’s cleanup,” a daunting challenge the Soviet Union faced after World War II. Unexploded ordnance could detonate at any moment, posing a deadly threat to civilians and soldiers alike, and the Soviet Union had to find a way to repel these dangers effectively. Covert missions were assigned to so-called “death teams” who attacked the unexploded ordnance, risking their lives.
The Allied forces played a vital role in the late World War II. In order to defend their own security and restore the scale of the war, they needed to use a large number of various weapons and ammunition. In the past hundred years, technology has changed with each passing day, and weapons and equipment have been improved iteratively, but one thing that has hardly changed is the degree of danger of ammunition. Even if there is no problem in production, if the pressure is too low or too high to install manually in actual use, they may not work properly. A more serious situation is that unexploded ordnance may explode at any time, causing serious injury or even fatal threats to civilians and soldiers.
The Soviet Union’s secret cleanup of unexploded ordnance during World War II is not only an extremely rare event in history but also reflects their sacrifice and efforts to protect national security.
In June 1941, Nazi Germany launched “Project Colossus” in an attempt to occupy the Soviet Union and weaken its military power. However, the Nazi army still failed to capture important Soviet cities before winter came. Especially during the period from November 29th to December 21st, 1941, in the most famous battle in the Soviet-German War – the Battle of Moscow, the Soviet army pushed the German army out hundreds of kilometers and successfully lifted the pressure on Moscow. A turning point in the threat that won the war.
But it also means that Moscow is littered with thousands of unexploded ordnance. In order to protect itself and to be able to start building the country again, the Soviet Union needed to clear these unexploded ordnance secretly.
Cleanup operations were assigned to so-called “death teams,” soldiers so heavily contaminated by gas and other combat conditions that the vast majority developed tuberculosis and died shortly after completing their missions. Due to the special nature of the mission, all soldiers participating in the operation were required to take a secret oath, promising not to reveal their mission, location or any circumstances to anyone.
The operation could be called the “devil’s cleanup,” and it was an extremely dangerous task, but that didn’t stop the soldiers from doing it. At the time, the operation involved unexploded ordnance in nearly every city and town in the country. It is estimated that there are as many as 500,000 of these ammunition. If they are left untreated, they may explode at any time and become a hidden danger that threatens the lives of civilians and soldiers.
“Death teams” operate very carefully, identifying the type of ammunition (usually gunpowder, dynamite or TNT) before deciding what to do with it. Since the Soviet authorities possessed only a few advanced tools to disarm the explosives, many unexploded artifacts were loaded in the back of cars, driven to the wasteland, and detonated in the jungle. Other ammunition is torched to control its combustion process. This secret operation enabled the Soviet Union to fulfill its obligations to national security and the people and, at the same time, ensured that people’s daily life and economic security could continue.
Currently, cleaning up unexploded ordnance remains a challenging task in many countries. While modern technology has improved significantly, complex landforms, unstable biological systems such as forests and swamps, and large human settlements, all place more stringent demands on cleanup efforts.
The prominence of the Soviet “death teams” outshone the usual heroic portrayal of combat troops. They face the pervasive danger of possible enemies while protecting themselves at the cost of extra time and very limited training to be able to perform these tasks without any support.