The World War II History Beneath Our Feet


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Q: After all the bombings and devastation of European cities during World War II, where did they put all the rubble? I have seen locally where a building or two have been demolished and the rubble trucked away, but where would the massive piles of rubble from entire cities be shipped?

—Jose Emilio Hernandez, Union Beach, New Jersey

A: As reader Hernandez correctly points out, the millions of tons of bombs dropped by both the Allied and Axis powers left an indelible mark on Europe. Dozens of cities, including London, Bristol, Warsaw, Dresden, Frankfurt, and Berlin—and nearly all other major German cities—suffered significant damage or were completely razed.

In continental cities, much of the post-bombing rubble was used as hardcore, a base foundation upon which concrete or other solid construction materials can be laid for building (or rebuilding, in this case). Additional bomb rubble was either dumped in old quarries or used for embanking rivers, as barriers against coastal erosion, or to help build up low-lying areas of land. 

The vast bulk of London’s rubble was dumped in East London’s Lea Valley, where the River Lea flows down to join the Thames. So much detritus was deposited in Hackney and Leyton Marshes that the Museum of London estimates it raised the ground by up to 10 feet in numerous places. This is the area where, a half-century later, organizers built the Olympic Park for the 2012 Summer Olympic games.

Rubble from Bristol found a more interesting resting place. Bristol is a major British port city that suffered horribly from bombing; it was almost leveled by the war’s end. But the port kept working, and American supply ships arrived there laden with tanks, aircraft, and fuel oil for the English war effort. Once the ships unloaded their cargo, they needed ballast to make the journey back across the Atlantic. Since most of Bristol’s 85,000 destroyed buildings were lying in little bits, the ships filled up.

Courtesy of Waterside Plaza

Courtesy of Waterside Plaza

Bristol, England, native Cary Grant christens a plaque in 1974 at New York’s “Bristol Basin,” built atop rubble from his bombed-out hometown.

The ships offloaded the rubble in Manhattan, in the East River, and New York built on top of it, creating reclaimed land just east of Bellevue Hospital between 23th and 34th Streets. Some of this new land became the foundation for an extension of the FDR Drive highway, and some became a triangular plot of land jutting into the river that was known at the time as Bristol Basin but which is now a complex of apartments buildings and businesses called Waterside Plaza. Across the road from the hospital, on a low wall by the river, a plaque reads:

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