Dangerous Play with Ammunition
The Siegfried Line (Westwall) was a German defense system covering a distance of 630 km with over 18,000 bunkers, tunnels and tank traps, the so-called dragon’s teeth. It started in Kleve on the border with the Netherlands along the western border and went as far south as the town of Weil am Rhein on the border with Switzerland. Touted by the Nazi propaganda as a unbreachable bulwark, the Siegfried Line was only able to delay the Allied advance to the center of Germany for a very short time in early 1945.
On our way home taking another route away from the main highway we discovered deep in the forest of the Reichswald a number of bunkers from that famous last line of defense. Their walls and ceiling were 1.5 meters thick and had once offered room for a dozen soldiers each. This would be an ideal shelter and hideout for my clan, I thought. Far from the major traffic routes we would be shielded from curious eyes. There in the densest part of the forest we selected the least damaged bunker that would serve as a permanent base for our outdoor activities. I instantly realized the advantage of a bunker over a tipi. The communal tent would have to be laboriously set up. Young trees would have to be cut to provide the poles for the tipi that was barely large enough to accommodate the clan. Of course, enthusiasm among the scouts was high. Attendance went up and new members showed up for our weekly sessions in the citadel. After two or three weekend trips to our fortress, we had transformed the austere looking concrete dwelling into a cozy shelter complete with beds, table and chairs all made of dead wood that we had picked up from the forest floor. We even had turned a barrel into a primitive stove, which provided warmth during the chilly nights of the approaching fall season.
Fifteen years after the war great dangers were still lurking in this section of the Reichswald. Heavy fighting must have taken place around our bunker. For we found unexploded shells, so-called duds on the forest floor. One young scout stumbled over one of these rocket-shaped shells and tossed it against the concrete wall. I guess in his total ignorance of the potentially fatal consequences he expected it to blow up like a giant firecracker. Fortunately for us it did not go off. When I had somewhat recovered from the initial shock, I blew the whistle as a signal to the scouts to assemble around me. Then pointing to the shell I gave them a stern lecture on the danger to life and limb and ordered them not to touch any of these explosive devices. As punishment for the reckless boy I ordered that they should throw a rope over a sturdy tree branch and attach to it a stick, on which the delinquent would have to sit. In a somber, authoritative voice I pronounced the verdict. The boy shall be pulled up three meters above the ground, where he will have time to reflect on his reckless behavior and serve as a warning to all others who might be tempted to imitate his foolish act. While I maintained a straight face, the entire clan including the culprit took the whole proceedings as excitement and fun. With shouts of hooray they pulled at the rope to raise the boy to the desired height. There he was swinging back and forth until his release from his lofty prison.
Had I learned my very own lesson about safety regarding WWII projectiles? Looking back, I would say no. For on the day we were breaking camp, I secretly wrapped one of the best looking shells in a towel, placed it deep inside my luggage bag and took it home. There it stood for a while like a trophy in my room on the windowsill. With a new coat of red paint it looked shiny and new and attracted the attention of my visiting friends. It was a very fitting display at a time, when the Russians were launching with great fanfare the first man-made satellites, their famous Sputniks.
On the next bike trip to our bunker we were in for a great disappointment. Someone had discovered our weekend base and reported it to the police as a potential hideout for fugitives from the law. Thus, being alerted, they began patrolling the access roads to the Reichswald. How surprised were they when instead of nabbing a gang of criminals they caught a bunch of teenage boys dressed in neat scout uniforms. Unlike the irate youth hostel man the officer told us in a calm, professional manner how dangerous it was to camp out here with all those explosive devices lying all over the forest floor. He also gave us a scare when he recorded all our names and addresses with a warning that he would notify our parents and that there would be possible fines for trespassing. Luckily, the letters never came. But the encounter with the police made us go to safer wooded areas and sleep again in our tipi. As for me the leader of the clan, I now realized that even though I had taken vigorous measures to alert the scouts to the dangers of the shells I should have avoided the bunkers in the first place. In retrospect it was like divine intervention that the police had put a sudden stop to our adventurous trips to the Siegfried Line. That very same weekend I took the ‘rocket’ and threw it in the garbage can. For all I know it still rests somewhere in the Wesel garbage dump.