After being posted to the Adazi Training Area in Latvia to cover a training event, Tom Bourke discovered a treasure trove of military ordnance artefacts dating from pre-WWI to the present.
From the former WWI trench lines along the Daugava River to abandoned Cold War-era Soviet Army bases, the fields and forests of the Baltic Nation of Latvia are littered with long-forgotten, but still lethal unexploded ordnance. All too frequently, as farmers plow their fields, hunters stalk prey in the woods, and fungi enthusiasts search the moss-covered meadows for edible mushrooms, deadly relics from past conflicts pop up from the ground.
To ensure that this killer crop of rusting artillery shells, landmines, grenades, rockets, and other explosive devices are rendered safe or detonated in place, Latvia Explosive Ordinance Disposal units respond to unexploded ordnance (UXO) reports phoned in to civilian authorities by Latvian citizens.
‘During WW I the country was divided by the German and Russian front lines. There were Latvians on both sides,’ said former EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) company commander and current Latvian National Guard battalion commander Lieutenant- Colonel Andris Rieksts. ‘During WWII there was a huge battle near the town where I grew up. Living near a historic battleground gave me a personal understanding of the problem.’
The current EOD School commander is Major Egils Devits. He believes Latvia is a good place to get real-world EOD experience because of the abundance of both old and contemporary explosives left in the soil from the World Wars and Soviet occupation.
‘Whether the device is modern or old, we use the same techniques to remove it or detonate it in place,’ Devits explained. ‘From WW I to Iraq, the ammunition is different but the explosives’ principals are the same.’
In order to train students on what they can expect to find in the field, the EOD School keeps a large repository of UXOs from the past and present on hand for students to examine and gain experience in recognizing potential threats. As part of the instruction the rusty examples are placed in a setting that mimics real-world situations. The students must attempt to find and recognize the ordnance hidden amongst vegetation or in other natural settings.
If Devits is the head of the school, then Captain Kristis Brauncs-Brauns is its heart. There is perhaps no other man in Latvia who is more passionate about the history of UXOs. Brauncs-Brauns is responsible for the vast collection of UXOs the EOD School keeps in a special vault to use as training aids. Because the history of their use in Latvia is extensive, the collection ranges from metal spikes used to retard the advance of horse cavalry up to modern-day ordnance fired from NATO attack planes that use the Adazi Training Area’s aerial target lanes.
‘I’m more interested in the ammunition than the weapons that shoot it,’ said Brauncs-Brauns. ‘I’ve taken trips throughout Europe, to countries like Romania, Bulgaria, and Poland, not to visit art museums and take pictures of paintings and statues, but to go to military museums and photograph old landmines and bombs. This is my vacation.’
Brauncs-Brauns has a special gleam in his eye when he talks about one of his favorite pieces in the collection. He proudly points to and describes a WW II German Glasmine 43 anti-personnel mine.
The body of the mine is made from glass, with a thin, easily breakable top. Stepping on the mine and shattering the fragile top causes the detonator to start a chemical reaction that ignites an explosive briquette. The mine has no metal parts, making it virtually impossible to find with a metal detector. The glass design also saved the Germans on metal, which became scare as the war progressed.
‘When I first saw it, I didn’t believe it was a mine,’ Brauncs-Brauns said. ‘What makes these things rare is that they are so easy to break. After the war, there was a stockpile of unused mines. People took the glass containers and used them for sauce bowls. They became so popular that the original manufacturer kept producing the glass bodies, which the company painted with flowers while adding handles for easy use at the table.’
Another German UXO in the EOD School collection is the World War I Kugelhandgranate Model 1913. The body of the grenade has large metal fragments that were propelled outward thanks to its 50gram explosive charge. Weighing 2.2pounds, an average soldier could toss the grenade approximately 15m.
One of the more interesting ordnance examples from Germany is the WW II AB 23 SD-2 submunitions dispenser, complete with several SD-2 anti-personnel bombs. Nicknamed the ‘butterfly bomb’, these pieces of ordnance rained down all over Europe from Luftwaffe aircraft. Once dropped, the 43.5inch-long dispenser canister would burst open in midair above the target, randomly scattered up to 23 submunitions on the ground below. Germany also used larger canisters able to deploy greater numbers of submunitions.
Each bomblet was packed with 225grams of explosives, generating a kill radius of approximately 10m. What made the SD2 even more dangerous was the various fuse settings that allowed the bombs to explode in the air, on impact, or to lay on the ground like a landmine ready to go off if disturbed by human activity.
One tactic was to deploy the SD2s over farm fields to disrupt and frighten workers at harvest time. The crop pickers knew the fields contained hidden bombs that would explode if they accidently disturbed them while toiling in the field. This tactic put large tracts of much-needed food off limits.
‘A few years ago, workers were digging at a construction site in the town of Ventspils (approximately 200km north-west of the Latvian capital of Riga) and they found 62 butterfly bomb dispensing containers,’ Brauncs-Brauns rememberd. ‘As it turned out, the construction site was near a former Luftwaffe airfield and it is possible the Germans had simply buried several of the devices as their military pulled out of the area. Thankfully, the fuses weren’t armed. Thanks to our EOD training, we detonated them safely.’
According to Brauncs-Brauns, when a UXO is first reported, local police set up a cordon around the ordnance to keep people at a safe distance and Latvian EOD members deploy to the site to positively identify the object. He explained that when the UXO is old and rusty, identification can be difficult. This is when the EOD team’s real-world experience, reference materials, and examples of ordnance in the EOD collection prove most useful.
Once the piece is confirmed to be a UXO, the team decides whether it is safe to transport the ordnance after its explosive component is neutralized. One method of neutralization is a recoilless De-Armer and Disruptor, which can be set up to fire a water or steel slug at the UXO’s firing circuit or detonator. The De-Armer can be fired remotely, with the triggerman in a safe position behind cover.
If the UXO appears to be dangerous the EOD team leader makes the decision to blow up the object in place. Though detonating the UXO in place is the easiest disposal method, it is the least desirable.
Brauncs-Brauns cautions that under no circumstances should a non EOD team member attempt to neutralize or detonate a UXO. ‘Sometimes civilians will read something on the Internet about UXO neutralization and think they are able to do it themselves. This never leads to a happy ending.’
‘To acquire the knowledge necessary to become a qualified EOD team member takes a long time. Before I completed EOD training, I was interested in land mines and I thought I knew a lot about them. However, once I finished the course I understood I was wrong. The more I know about UXOs, the more I realise how little I know.’
Bullets, bombs, mines and rockets
Not everything in the Latvian EOD School’s inventory is from the German military, although the 90 mm trench mortar – aptly called the Russian-German Minenwerfer – is a Russian copy of an effective weapon used by the Germans against the Russian trenches. In order to effectively attack bunker position and barbed wire tangles at high-trajectory, the mortar tube lobbed heavy, soup-can-like projectiles the short distances between the trenches.
‘The first time I saw the Minenwerfer, I thought it was a bunker grenade,’ said Brauncs-Brauns. ‘After I did some research, I discovered that despite the fact that it did not have fins, it truly was a mortar. The bottom of the round has a spiral fuse made of string that allows the projectile to be crudely set to detonate above or on the ground.’
There are a few quirky, obscure pieces of ordnance in the school’s depository such as the Russian 37 mm Spade Mortar round, which is fired from a specially-designed entrenching spade. This infantryman’s point-and-shoot weapon was used in Russia’s Winter War with Finland as well as against German Forces in WW II.
Another odd specimen included in the Latvian EOD’s inventory is an anti-tyre mine that fits in the palm of an average man’s hand and was designed by the British for use by partisan groups fighting German occupation in Europe. This device may not disable a tank or tracked vehicle, but it can blow out the tire on an Army staff car or troop truck.
In order to take the Cold War beneath the waves, the Soviet military adopted the SPP-1 Underwater Pistol for use by frogmen in 1971. The pistol had four barrels and fired 4.5mm steel dart rounds. To up the aquatic ante, the Russian military began using the automatic APS Underwater Assault Rifle in 1975, which fired 5.66mm rounds with an effective range of approximately 50m.
From bullets to bombs, mines to rockets, and just about everything in between, Latvian soil is a depository of decaying unexploded ordnance. As long as these hidden dangers exist, the Latvian Army EOD will continue to chronicle the threat, reduce the peril, and protect the public.
‘I don’t see this ordnance vault as a museum, I simply see lots of munitions from different wars and different countries lying close together,’ concluded Brauncs-Brauns. ‘If mankind turns to laser weapons in the future like in the Hollywood movies, there will still be historical ordnance buried in the Latvian ground waiting to be unearthed, rendered safe, cataloged, and collected.’