Soviet Airbases in the GDR – Third Chapter

As mentioned in previous chapters on the same topic – you can find the first and second here – the territory of the GDR was cluttered with an uncommonly high number of military bases, run either by the local Armed Forces of the GDR (‘German Democratic Republic’) or by the Soviet Union. This was also due to the great strategic relevance of the area, placed right in the center of Europe and on the border with ‘the West’.

Soon after the reunification of the two halves of Germany and the withdrawal of the Red Army after the collapse of the USSR most Soviet/Russian bases in Germany were deemed unnecessary by the new federal government, hence they were converted into something else. Airbases have been turned most typically into solar powerplants or, more rarely, into general aviation airports. Armored cavalry training areas have been largely cleaned up, and allocated as land for reforestation.

Despite large parts of these installations having been recycled to some other function, substantial traces – and sometimes even more – of these once prominent and populated bases can be found still today. These include many technical buildings, like aircraft shelters, hangars for maintenance, weapon storages, bunkers, … as well as housing and buildings for the families of Soviet troopers. Needless to say, this kind of stuff is of primary interest for urban explorers and war historians as well, for these places – besides being really creepy and often preserving a ‘Soviet ghost aura’ which may appeal to a part of the public… – are usually full of lively traces of the Soviet occupation, like signs in Cyrillic alphabet, murals, monuments and Lenin’s heads, which make for an interesting memento of the recent past, when the map of Europe looked pretty much different from now.

In this post you can find a pictorial description of a visit to the two airbases of Sperenberg and Finsterwalde, south of Berlin, the airbase of Grossenhain, close to Dresden, plus a quick chapter on the former tank regiment base of Zeithain, close to the sport town of Riesa – not an airbase, but convenient to visit and well worth a quick stop when going to Grossenhain. Photographs have been taken in spring 2017.

As for the second chapter, some historical photos from the collectible book Rote Plätze – Russische Miltärfluglplätze Deutschland 1945-1994 have been included to allow for a ‘now and then’ comparison. I do not own the copyright for those pics.

Sperenberg

The Soviet airbase of Sperenberg stands out in the panorama of the facilities of the Red Army in the GDR for two reasons.

Firstly, it was not an attack base, but the primary logistic airport of Soviets in Eastern Germany. The place was developed with air transport in mind, so differently from most bases around, there are no shelters for deadly MiGs or Sukhois ‘mosquitos’, but instead enormous open-air aprons, hangars and parking bays for Antonov and Ilyushin monster-size transports, as well as for bulky Mil helicopters. The place even bolsters a small passenger terminal for military staff, a truly unique feature. The proximity to Wünsdorf, a small town in Brandenburg which since the end of WWII and until 1994 hosted the headquarters of the Soviet Forces in Germany (covered in this post), may have played a role in defining the function of this base.

Secondarily, this place was simply shut down at the time of the withdrawal of Soviet/Russian forces, but was never converted into something else – at least at the time of writing. This makes it truly a one-of-a-kind item for lovers of ‘ghost airbases’, for here everything, including all taxiways and the runway, is still there. Nature is fiercely reclaiming much of the area, which is nowadays completely surrounded and partly submerged by a wild forest – making the silent remains of the base look even more creepy, unnatural and haunted…

The installation is also very big – similar to an average-size civil airport – , and besides the airside part there is also an extensive array of buildings for housing purposes. For the major point of interest of the place is the preserved – for now… – airport infrastructure, I concentrated on that, neglecting the barracks and housing. This was also due to the latter being closer to the old main gate to the base, and standing to the available information there are rangers and local citizens who sometimes keep that part under watch. With only a basic knowledge of German, I think it’s better to take all countermeasures to avoid misunderstandings, thus enjoying a reasonably safe and undisturbed exploration…

Sights

In order to reduce the chance of a contact with the locals, it makes sense to intrude into the perimeter from the northeast, heading southwest directly to the center of the airport, leaving the housing part to the east. This will result in a multi-miles walk in the trees, along former service roads, now seldom used by woodcutters. Before or after, you will meet the original fence of the base, with concrete posts, barbed wire and an unpaved service road for service cars running all around it.

In order to make your way through the wilderness, unless you are from that very district and have a (very) good knowledge of the area, you will need a GPS. I profitably used the Ulmon app on my iPhone. It worked perfectly, all paths were precisely indicated. The external fence in the northwest area is very well preserved. The function of the first group of buildings I came across with is not very clear. You can clearly spot it on aerial photos of the base, to the northwest of the main part of the apron, connected to the airside area with a long straight service road aligned in a northwest-southeast direction.

I guess the facility may have been a former fuel deposit – there is a large maneuver area possibly for trucks, an inner fence for further protection, a water deposit, possibly for firefighting, and a strange array of aligned pipe ends made of concrete, pointing vertically.

Going southwards to reach the apron area, I came across an abandoned… Soviet boot, plus some more mysterious buildings, clearly blown up at a certain point in history, and possibly not built by the Soviets. These resembled in shape the cannon bunkers placed by Nazi Germany on the northern coast of France, and constituting the backbone of the ‘Atlantic Wall’. Maybe residuals from an even farther back era?

After crossing another fence – again, concrete posts and barbed wire – and going through a really wild trail in the trees, basically not signed except for traces of animals everywhere, I appeared on the apron in the northwesternmost part of the airport, with a huge array of parking bays for transport aircraft. Reportedly Antonov An-12s and Tupolev Tu-134s used to be placed in this area, as you can see also from historical pictures.

The proportions of the abandoned airport are really striking. Taking a closer look at many of the parking bays, it is possible to find substantial traces of the original delimiting and direction strips for aircraft. The apron is made of the typical Soviet slabs, not coated with asphalt as typical for most airports in the West.

Moving south from the parking area, which unwinds along an east-western direction – as it is clear from the aerial pictures – , walking along a connection taxiway it is possible to notice its uncommon width, which is not typical to attack bases, but necessary for a transport base operating with Soviet giants.

Accessing the southern east-western taxiway from the west, it is possible to find a very special feature of Sperenberg – the passenger terminal. The small terminal is located to the north of a dedicated apron for passenger/mail loading and unloading.

The terminal area is made of two main buildings. One is probably older, with a large glass window looking to the apron. A gazebo and some small walkways suggest the place was intended for waiting, and for ‘quasi-civil’ operations.

The main terminal bears the date ‘1986’. From historical pictures, you can notice that it underwent some modifications during the few years of operations, which ceased by the year 1994. In particular, the central window on the front façade, made for the baggage treadmill, was bricked up at a certain point.

The inside of the building has been totally spoiled, except for some wallpaper on the ceiling.

A couple of strange movable structures, possibly extendable covered passages for passenger loading operations, can be found on the apron and in the trees besides the former terminal. Also these can be spotted in one of the aerial photographs. They are full of unofficial mottos and signatures of Soviet troops, written in Cyrillic.

From the area of the terminal it’s a – relatively – short walk to the western end of the runway.

Moving eastwards from the terminal along the southernmost main taxiway, you come across several interesting items, including a Soviet control tower and many parking bays for large helicopters.

The only hangar on the airport can be found on a very wide taxiway connecting the two east-western main taxiways. The hangar, albeit appearing rather big at a glance, was probably used for maintenance of helicopters and smaller transports, as large Soviet transports need a much bigger size. Traces of a motto on the front of the hangar, obviously in Cyrillic, can be seen today.

This also are quite mysterious, for on the photos from the last days of operations the inscription cannot be spotted. It was probably covered in Russian, post-Soviet times, reappearing now as the paint coat is fading.

Also in the area around the hangar another control tower, possibly from an older age, can be spotted, but not accessed.

Taking again to the east along the southern taxiway, more helicopter parking bays can be found, and finally another large aircraft parking area. From pictures from the time, this area was used for parking mainly An-12s, some of them with the tail leaning over the grass. Many interesting strips and indications for aircraft can be found in this area, with writings in Cyrillic, together with strongpoints for anchoring aircraft to the ground.

From the end of the taxiway, where more interesting signs on the ground can still be found – one of them telling ‘cars must stop here’ – it’s again pretty easy to come to the eastern end of the runway. The connection taxiway descents gently towards the runway.

Here some of the original lights can be found. Some slabs close to the end of the runway appear highly damaged, like they were stricken from above. Possibly some overweight plane heavy-landed here at some point?

Leaving north from the eastern end of the runway, crossing both main east-western taxiways, you can point back to the fence of the airport. Going further east you would reach the housing area, which I did not explore. Going north I came across an abandoned railway track, and a railway/truck interchange area. Finally, I reached the usual barbed wire and I left in the trees. I had to walk again along a very nice multi-miles track in the wilderness back to where I had parked.

Now that I was fine with the goals of the explorations, I moved to the main gate – where you are quite exposed and it’s easier to get spotted – to take some pictures from the outside. These can be compared to an historical pic from post-Soviet times – see the Russian Eagle to the left of the gate.

All in all, I would say Sperenberg was among the most interesting Soviet airbase in the GDR I’ve ever visited. You can really feel the ‘Soviet ghost aura’, for the place looks really like it was simply closed up and forgotten. And I didn’t even look at the housing part. The wilderness around is really nice to walk in spring, you will see many birds, deers and some say they have spotted boars. I walked something around 12 miles in the area, my stay lasted a full afternoon, and I noticed only a few people having a look around, far in the distance. So if you are looking for an evocative walk, mixing the pleasure of the countryside to serious, top quality urban exploration in a former military setting, this is really a place to be!

Getting there and moving around

Sperenberg is located about 20 miles south from downtown Berlin. The unattractive village bearing this name can be conveniently reached by car, and the main gate to the base can be found to the west of it. If you don’t want to access the base from here – which may attract some unwanted attention – you may elect to go to the area of Kummersdorf a few miles north, park your car and cut through the wilderness to reach the area of the former airport. For doing that you will need a map. The Ulmon map on my iPhone was perfect for guiding me in the task, all major and almost all minor service roads were perfectly signed. Due to the size of the base, you may choose to reach the perimeter from different directions, especially if you are more interested in some parts of it. It used to be a full-scale transport airport, so expect to walk a lot if you – like me – want to have a look to everything. Being placed in the deep countryside of Brandenburg, finding a parking place should not be a problem.

Grossenhain

The former base of Grossenhain, close to Dresden, has been in the focus of an important conversion plan. Much of the facilities – especially the many hangars – have been converted to something else, including busy factories and warehouses. The area of the airport has been reduced, and the majority of the original buildings – some of them dating back to the Nazi era – demolished. A small flight club operates from the southeastern quarter of the base, using the original runway. From a bird’s eye view, the area for flight operations has been sensibly reduced, but thanks to the conversion, most hangars are still in place, so it’s easy to get an idea of how the base looked like in the past.

Historical pictures show that this airbase was used for open days in the years of the GDR and also in the transition period between 1989 and the withdrawal of Russian troops.

Similarly to other bases in the GDR like Rechlin/Laerz, Jüterbog and Merseburg, this attack base hosted a model GRANIT special weapon storage (‘Sonderwaffenlager’). This is still preserved today, and makes for the most prominent feature of this base.

Sights

Three items make this base really attractive. First and foremost, a bunker for storing special weapons. Perhaps a unique case in the former GDR, the bunker has undergone a complete refurbishment, and it now appears like new.

The two imposing doors are preceded by a barbed wire fence. It is inaccessible, but it can be easily photographed from the outside. There is even an explanatory panel, in German and Russian, with photographs from the time.

A second sight of interest is the former gate guardian of the base. It is a MiG-17 of the Aviation of the Red Army. It is placed on a concrete post – designed in a pure Soviet-style – with writings in Cyrillic. Pictures from the day of operations suggest a different background than the rotting hovel now behind it. The gray sky on the day of my visit added to the Cold War atmosphere of the place.

Finally, another sight of interest is a wooden round table from the age of the Nazi, used to align flight instrumentation. It is very large, and perfectly preserved. An explanatory panel can be found also besides this item.

All in all, while not a place for a real exploration – the area is very busy and not abandoned at all – Grossenhain offers some very unique items, keeping memory of its strong military past, surely worth a detour for the committed specialist.

Getting there and moving around

Grossenhain is about 20 miles north of Dresden, and just 8 miles north of world-famous Meissen – the birthplace of the Meissen pottery. The still active ‘flugplatz’ – local airport – is immediately north of this averaged-size village. Access is via the road N.101 or N.98, surrounding the airport area to the west and south respectively. There is no barrier except for the small flight club, many public roads have replaced the original taxiways and service roads. You can move in the former area of the airbase with your car and park at your convenience. Just be sure not to interfere with the many businesses in the area, especially big trucks going in and out on smaller roads.

Finsterwalde

This once prominent, very large airbase, is still in operation as a local airport. During the Cold War, this place was selected for storing nuclear warheads with a specially built facility. Other two installations of the kind existed over the territory of th GDR, namely Brand and Rechlin/Laerz.

Sights

The airport area is largely inaccessible, for the airbase is still an active general aviation airport. Among the most visible items in this part, a great example of a control tower from the years before WWII. It has been perfectly refurbished. Nearby are some very big hangars, today hosting some private business. Closer to the apron, some shelters from Soviet times are possibly used as hangars – they were shut when I visited. I could see a Transall C-160 parked outside, a really ubiquitous military transport in Germany, likely not any more managed by the Air Force.

The ‘ghost part’ of the base is located to the south of the airport. The ideal trailhead is a former railway station and interchange platform. From historical pictures, it’s easy to see this was very busy supplying materials to the base, where also extensive housing could be found in Soviet times.

Going south following a former service road, still used by woodcutters and acceptably maintained at least for an easy 0.8 miles walk, you can reach the old bunker for nuclear ordnance. It is preceded by parking areas, demolished truck depots and many service roads. The assembly should have looked like the one in Brand, but most of the buildings today are gone.

The bunker is not interred, so the size can be appreciated from the side. Unfortunately, the bunker has been left open, and at some time in its history it must have been set on fire, so the walls inside are covered in black soot, and exceptionally dark – unfortunately I couldn’t take an acceptable picture even with a torchlight. More recently, it has been used as a dump for common waste. The area is far from hygienic, with piles of garbage here and there. Furthermore, on the outside it was covered by stupid and ignorant graffiti.

On the plus side, the crane for maneuvering ordnance ahead of the main door is still in place with the original roof. Also visible is the truck unloading deck, ahead of the entrance to the bunker.

To the west of the area of the bunker, along the public road giving access to today’s airport, some of the original Soviet housing can be seen, apparently still inhabited in some parts. The base offers also some aircraft shelters close to the southeastern corner, but these are used as storages, and they are fenced and inaccessible.

Generally speaking, Finsterwalde deserves a visit for the still active part of the airport, and for the unique nuclear bunker – even though it is worst preserved of the kind in the GDR, the ‘Soviet ghost aura’ can still be perceived. A visit of about 1-1.5 hour, including a walk to the bunker and back, may be enough for the entire installation.

Getting there and moving around

Finsterwalde is located about 20 miles east of Cottbus, and about 55 miles south of downtown Berlin. The town of Finsterwalde has also another GA airport, to the northwest of the urban area. The former base is located south, and can be reached looking for ‘Fliegerstrasse’ if leaving the city to the south on ‘Dresdner Strasse’, or for ‘Sudstrasse’ when leaving on the L60 to the southeast. In any case, less than 2 miles south of the city center. Parking is possible besides the control tower, or close to the former railway station. As written above, the place is not abandoned, there are small business all around and even some fields of solar cells. Anyway I didn’t attract any attention when exploring the abandoned building of the railway station – even though I am sure I was spotted by the cars passing by – and when heading by foot in the trees to reach the nuclear bunker.

Zeithain

Sights

The countryside around the small sleepy town of Zeithain was once busy with tank operations, with extensive training grounds dating from before WWII. The Soviets maintained the original function of the installation. More recently, the area was mostly cleaned up, almost no buildings remain and trees have grown covering the once barren area for maneuvers, but a the partially fenced former military zone still hides an item of great interest from the Cold War age.

It is a complete Soviet commemorative monument. The first part is a very unusual statue of Lenin, in a somewhat informal pose with a hand in his pocket. The centerpiece is a mural with a map showing the trail followed by the Soviets to reach Berlin during the Great Patriotic War of 1941-45 – which is how Russians call WWII. The mural is extremely well preserved, I would say it was refurbished at some point in recent history.

The third and most impressive ingredient is a 6 feet tall head of Mother Russia. I would say this is the most beautifully made Soviet sculpture I know of in the GDR. It makes for a good rival, and possibly a winning one, for the three majestic Soviet monuments in Berlin, but with less pomp and more art. Really something with an artistic value.

The fourth and last component of the monument is another mural with portraits of Soviet soldiers and an inscription in Cyrillic.

The ensemble is really impressive, the silence and remoteness of the place clearly adding to your perception of it. A walkway leading to the center of the monument can be seen still today.

As I wrote, there is something strange in this particular monument, for it is too well preserved for an outdoor monument left behind since at least 1994. I guess somebody has been taking care of it in more recent times. Nonetheless, nature is wild around it, and overgrown trees partially hide the perspective.

As a practical indication, I must admit I took a high risk visiting this place, cause the former perimeter of the base is fenced, and I believe now in private hands. The original entrance to the base – you can see the original control booth and the gate – was open when I arrived, but an unlocked padlock was hanging from the door. I heard some cars and trucks moving out when I was taking pictures. So basically I think I intruded into a private business, at the high risk of remaining locked inside – together with my car… I would suggest moving in by foot, in order to make escape easier, just in case you get locked in!

Getting there and moving around

The base of Zeithain is located about 3 miles north of central Riesa, a mid-sized town in the countryside 30 miles northwest of Dresden.

Getting to the entrance of the base maybe a bit tricky, for the area under the administration of Zeithain covers an extensive part of the local countryside, so if targeted with ‘Zeithain’ your nav will probably point in the middle of nowhere and pretty far from the base.

A time-saving way to reach the place is as follows. Start from the junction between the N.98 and N.169, located east of a small town. Take to the north on the N.169. The road goes off with a gentle bend to the right immediately after the junction. Then it becomes straight, and you will have a fuel station to your right, and a road departing to the left – ‘An der borntelle’ is the name of the road. Take it as it goes straight northwest for less than half a mile, until a sharp bend to the left. At the level of the bend, a smaller road – ‘Abendrothstrasse’ – goes off abruptly to the right. Take it, and again less than 0.5 miles ahead the road splits in two, the main road going slightly to the left. Leave the main road and keep going straight. You will see a gate and a wall to your right. This is the entrance to the former training base. I skip providing any further details about how to move on from there, for as I have explained I realized this is probably an actively managed private property. Visiting and taking pictures may take 15 to 30 minutes.

Riesa

Sights

This sleepy town, most famous for sports than for everything else, may be interesting for the location, very close to Zeithain – see description above – and for the presence of one of the remaining statues of Lenin in the former GDR. This statue is part of the local Soviet cemetery. Such cemeteries are not so rare and scattered over the immense territory conquered by the Soviets in Europe during WWII. Besides fallen soldiers buried in war cemeteries, due to the great number of Soviet troopers and their relatives in the GDR, I guess it was not uncommon for them to be buried abroad.

The cemetery is still maintained today, and the statue still looked after as a part of it. This makes it pretty uncommon, for all other statues of Lenin in the GDR have been removed or abandoned. There is clearly some controversy about its placement in a public park in a town of today’s Germany, so it is possible the monument will be relocated at some point in history. For now, together with the ‘Socialist housing’ right behind it in the background of the cemetery, the monument makes for an unusual picture – a Soviet-style ‘postcard from the GDR’.

Getting there and moving around

The small cemetery and monument are located to the southwest of Riesa, and can be reached easily where Poppitzer Strasse and Mergendorfer Strasse meet. You can park at your convenience close by. Visiting will not take more than 10 minutes.

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