WWII bombs and shells still major hazard: French group

WWII bombs and shells still major hazard: French group
A bomb-disposal expert listens to the sound made by liquid from an unexploded bomb to determine that it is a mustard gas shell found by a French farmer while ploughing his fields in Courcelette the scene of a WWI battlefield in the Somme, 98 years ago, March 19, 2014.

PARIS - Unexploded bombs and shells from World War II remain a major hazard in western France that has been poorly investigated, the French environmental group Robin des Bois said on Monday.

"Around 600,000 tonnes of bombs were dropped on France between June 1940 and May 1945, and around 15 per cent of that did not explode," its president, Jacky Bonnemains, said.

Robin des Bois (Robin Hood) issued its report ahead of the 70th anniversary of D-Day, which marked the start of France's liberation from four years of Nazi occupation.

The landings on the Normandy coast on June 6, 1944 were preceded by an intense air assault on ports, bridges and railway junctions.

As US, British and Canadian troops pushed out from the beachhead, towns in Normandy were bombed and shelled to slow progress for German reinforcements.

According to Robin des Bois, combat engineers in western France were called in 556 times between 2008 and 2013 alone to deal with unexploded ordnance.

They handled 14,000 munitions found in fields, construction sites, gardens or beaches, prompting the temporary evacuation of 95,000 people in total.

More than half of the ordnance was found at a former military site at Thouars, in the Poitou-Charentes region, which was being converted to a solar farm.

Normandy accounted for 221 out of the 556 call-outs, followed by Brittany with 175.

Robin des Bois said the public was more familiar with hazards in the former World War I trenches in northern and eastern France, which each year yield a harvest of high-explosive and gas shells.

But the perils in the west were less well known.

"There is a lack of information for the public, and risky behaviour is spreading," said Charlotte Nithart, the group's director.

Five people have been wounded by exploding ordnance since 2008. A man was killed in 2009 near Caen, one of the major battlefields in Normandy, when he tried to defuse 10 small shells by himself.

Among some of the more hair-raising cases, Dutch holidaymakers in Houlgate, Normandy, brought a 35-centimetre (14-inch) unexploded shell back to their campsite, and two grenades were found in a rubbish skip in Martinvast in the Manche department.

"If you see something, don't touch it, don't move it and warn the authorities," said Nithart.

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