Soviet Airbases in the GDR – Second Chapter

As pointed out in other posts on the topic – here and here -, the territory belonging to the German Democratic Republic (‘GDR’, or ‘DDR’ in German) was densely populated with military bases of all kinds, including tank bases, logistic bases and airbases. This was the result of two powerful Armies coexisting within the borders of the communist DDR – the local East-German Army and the Soviet ‘Red Army’.

Looking at a map of the Country, the density of airbases is particularly striking. Due to the strategic significance suggested by its very position in central Europe, right on the border with ‘the West’, the DDR was attributed a privileged status by the Soviet government in terms of military equipment. The number of Soviet troops stationed here was in the order of the hundreds of thousands, meaning that on most bases also housing and services for Soviet soldiers and their families had to be built in large numbers.

After the German reunification, the end of the Soviet Union and the retirement of Russian – ex-Soviet – troops by the mid-Nineties, all the bases – mostly stripped of any transportable stuff, which was withdrawn to Russia – were returned to Federal Germany. This resulted in a surplus of military hardware for the German government, which soon started a lengthy plan to convert, refurbish or demolish most of the newly acquired facilities.

Consequently, some of the former bases are now commercial airports, whereas most of them had the airside areas converted into solar powerplants. In most cases, only part of the former installations have been converted to non-military use, and huge ghost hangars, depots and housing can still be found in the premises of these airbases. What remains is sometimes of great interest for war historians and urban explorers as well – especially those bases where communist memorials with writing in cyrillic alphabet can be found, and stand out as vivid memories of a recent past, when everything was very different from now in central Europe.

Similarly to other ones on this website, this post covers with photographs and some info two Soviet airbases – Rangsdorf and Brand – visited in April 2017.

To provide some sort of ‘then and now’ comparison, I included a few pics from the wonderful book Rote Plätze – Russische Militärflugplatze Deutschland 1945-1994 by Lutz Freundt and Stefan Buttner, for which I don’t own the copyright. I recently grabbed a copy of this wonderful, out-of-print book, published in 2007 by a now defunct publisher in Berlin (AeroLit), and distributed only locally. This book is now very difficult to find, and basically a collectible item. Consequently, the price was indecent, but the maps, photos and info therein are really worth the financial effort!

Rangsdorf

Getting there and moving around

The former airbase in Rangsdorf can be found on the outskirts of Berlin, actually less than 8 miles south of Schönefeld Airport. It can be reached very quickly from the highway N.10, taking through the village of Rangsdorf and reaching its the south-western corner, where a small lake with sport activities and a group of new ‘American style’ houses is being built and partially completed – the land were the new houses are standing was once part of the base.

To be honest, I had some difficulties finding a parking place, because the area is densely populated and much looked after, and most parking lots are privately owned. I finally elected to park ahead of a small kindergarten, which at the time of my visit was already closed.

What remains of the base is totally abandoned, and you will likely find sheep in the former areas of operations. When preparing your exploration, just have a look a the Google map of the site to plan your moves ahead. There are a few remaining huge hangars and service buildings to explore, and they are all in the northern part of the former airfield. The original fence with lines of barbed wire and concrete posts is still standing, but there are many spots where it is cut and broken, so getting in is not difficult at all.

Notwithstanding that you can easily access the base, the populated area around is a potential threat, for entering the buildings is formally forbidden – there is also a firefighters station close to the northern section of the fence, and you could be easily spotted from outside when you are in. So I suggest being careful in your movements.

Sights

The military airbase in Rangsdorf dates back from the years of WWII and the Nazi regime, when it was a major base for transportation of high-ranking military staff traveling by plane. It was from here that Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg, the key-character in the failed attempt to murder Adolf Hitler in July 1944, took off to reach the Wolf’s Lair in what is now eastern Poland.

When the airport fell into Soviet hands, it was soon converted into a helicopter base, due to the inappropriate size of the airfield for the standards of the jet age, and the constraints put on its development by the surrounding villages. It used to be a very active helicopter transport base until the collapse of the Wall. In the years preceding the withdrawal of the Soviet/Russian troops the place became famous as ‘The Dump’ – the Soviet helicopter fleet was rationalised, and many rotorcrafts met the scrapman here.

Approaching from the west of the complex the fenced perimeter is very irregular, and when coming in I passed at least four lines of barbed wire while walking along a straight line! Many original lamps along the fences are still in place.

What seems to be a large air raid shelter, or possibly a reinforced communication bunker can be found before reaching the hangars. It is really big and isolated, with traces of wiring on one side.

Among the traces from the Soviet ‘Dump’ there are some aircraft-style seats, possibly from a big helicopter, several winches and some electric motors.

The two-winged building facing the grass-invaded former apron includes the control tower in the middle, and two lateral hangars. The assembly is a nice example of Nazi military design. The wooden doors and roof confirm the old age of the construction. Nonetheless, these hangars have been used also by the Soviets, as witnessed by the more modern ventilation system and traces of technical schemes and gear inside.

From the top floor of the old control tower it is possible to appreciate the original size of the airfield. As you can see from older pictures, only the northernmost part of the field was converted for helicopter operations. The helicopter platforms can be easily spotted, albeit half-covered by grass in the area ahead of the tower.

To the west of this main hangar there is a mysterious buildings with almost no windows and two pinnacles, which seem to be large twin funnels. I did not explore this thoroughly inside, as the building appeared to be in an especially bad and dangerous condition.

The next large hangar to the east is much bigger than the one with the tower. The construction is again pretty old, I guess again from the Thirties. Inside it is possible to find traces of mottos in big characters in cyrillic alphabet all along the wall. In older times, a famous panel with an ‘artistic’ hammer and sickle was hanging from one of the walls. This is unfortunately gone, only a barely visible trace remaining in place.

On one side of this big hangar a smaller service building can be found. Again, the intended function of this part of the complex is not immediately clear. I found traces of a huge table of chemical elements in Russian, like can be found in schools… but I don’t think they had a school right besides a hangar!

Even more to the east, close to the outer wall of the base and to a still active railway, there are two more hangars. The smaller one with wooden doors is very damaged inside, whereas the one to the north is apparently more recent in construction, but it is closed. My exploration accelerated a bit from here, as I noticed activity in the houses nearby outside the fence of the base, a watchdog started barking, and I feared to be spotted! Luckily this happened almost at the end of the exploration program…

Close to some communist-style housing, refurbished and still in use to the north of the airfield, I found a piece of wall, probably belonging to the original outer wall of the base, with celebrative writings in cyrillic – possibly names of sport teams from Soviet times.

All in all, I would say this base has the relevant advantage it was not converted to a power plant or something else, so it is poorly guarded and not totally off-limits – at least the open air grounds. It is also close to Berlin, easy to reach in a short time, and compact in size, so you won’t need to walk much, and visiting may take less time than with other former bases – about 2 hours for me, taking all the pictures. On the other hand, the populated neighborhood of Rangsdorf makes interception by the locals more likely. While not particularly rich of communist remains, the buildings in the base are still mostly in place, so visiting can be satisfactory also for photographers interested in architecture.

Brand

Getting there and moving around

The area of the former big airbase of Brand is associated to a fairly well-known attraction of our days – Tropical Island. This amusement park, which is officially indicated as an attraction even on highway N.13, connecting Berlin to Cottbus and the border with Poland, was built inside a colossal, modern hangar, designed for airships around the year 2000. This can be spotted from quite afar.

A large area of the former airbase is – from a viewpoint of urban exploration – compromised. The former runway has been turned into a huge parking area, whereas a luxury tropical-themed resort with bungalows and camping lots for mobile homes has been built in the western part of the airport. Most taxiways have been either recycled as alleys in the park, or literally removed. Some of the many aircraft shelters of this once prominent attack base have been converted to host other forms of business, ranging from restaurants to hay storages.

All the part connected with leisure business, which corresponds to everything north of Tropical-Islands-Allee – also named road L711 and going east from highway N.13 to the near village of Krausnick, where a small memorial to the Soviet actions in WWII can be found – is actively guarded by private guards, with their own small modern barracks close to the gate of the complex, and moving around by car.

In striking contrast with this, shrouded in the vegetation to the south of the same road, roughly cross the street with respect to the entrance to the Tropical Island complex, it is possible to find a conspicuous amount of Soviet relics, basically unguarded. All accesses to the roads going south is physically interdicted to cars, so parking may be not obvious in the immediate vicinity of the entrance to the park. I suggest going past the gate along L711 and driving towards Krausnick to find an unofficial but safe parking spot between the roadside and the limit of the forest, away from suspicious eyes.

Another part of great interest for war historians include the storage for nuclear warheads, typical to Brand and other few bases in the GDR. This is rather distant – about 1.8 miles southeast – from the airport area and Soviet housing. The original connection road – not accessible by car – is straight and very long, with little to offer in terms of relics. For exploring that part of the site I suggest driving to Krausnick from Tropical Island, and taking the L71 pointing southwest towards the village of Schönwalde. The road runs deep in the trees, and at some point it comes about .6 mile to the site of interest. You may park on the roadside, on one of the many service roads used by woodcutters and reach the place with a quick walk following one of those trails.

Take your time studying the area in advance on Google Maps, and choose what option best suits your needs.

Sights

Before being turned into a civil airport and then into an amusement park, Brand was one of the largest Soviet bases in the GDR, with flocks of MiG-21, 23, 27 stationing here, as well as Sukhoi Su-15 and even Su-27 in the final years of operation. Most notably, the base was selected already in the 1960s for storing air-launched nuclear warheads – together with Finsterwalde and Rechlin/Lärz (see this post). This led to the construction of a purpose-built reinforced storage bunker, which can still be seen. As pointed out before, there are two main focus areas in a visit to this installation.

The first is the ghost town for the troops once stationed here, and for their families. This is incredibly close to Tropical Island, but the contrast between the aura of these two places couldn’t be more striking!

There are residential buildings from various Soviet models, mostly three-four storeys buildings possibly from the Fifties-Sixties, but also some more imposing pre-fabricated buildings possibly dating from as recently as the Eighties.

Walking alone in this once lively village, with traces of playgrounds, mailboxes, lamps along walkways now invaded by vegetation, and even a swimming pool with some dead water in it, was for me one of the weirdest and creepiest experiences ever!

Unfortunately, from the pics you can’t feel the unreal silence where the place was immersed – the only sounds were those of the wind blowing in the trees and of some door slamming somewhere within the buildings… you would expect a zombie, some ghost troopers or a mutant monster coming out to meet you at every time!

Most of the buildings are in relatively good overall condition, but almost nothing survives of the interior of the apartments – which may collapse at every time and should not be accessed. By looking closely at some tires in a playground you can spot cyrillic characters on them – maybe they come from a consumed nose wheel of a MiG? The lamps are of the usual model commonly found in Soviet bases.

To the west of the residential area there is a similarly extensive zone with a great number of possibly former barracks or technical buildings. Almost all of them have been half-demolished by destroying the roof – I think this was made in purpose, for literally all buildings in this part have encountered the same fate. The style of these buildings suggests they are older than most of the housing. This is confirmed by comparing historical photographs of the base from above.

Among the most prominent buildings in the area, it is possible to find a former school, with an imposing façade of classical inspiration.

To the back of the school building a small gym can be found. The roof has collapsed – or it was demolished – long ago, so that some trees are growing inside – no more basketball here!

A highlight of the exploration in this area is a huge mosaic wall with the head of Lenin. This item is a bit of a mystery, cause it’s hard to imagine it was originally placed where it is standing today – there is no architectural ‘frame’ supporting the monument nor a backstage completing it – it looks like a decorated floor, but placed in a vertical position!

Anyway, the sight is of course very uncommon, and I would say unique in the panorama of communist-themed art in the former GDR.

Close by the ghost town, three aircraft shelters remain to the south of the road marking the ideal border with the ‘Tropical Island domain’. These can be accessed and explored. Among other particular features, it is possible to spot the rusty engine for opening the gates of one of them. These shelters could host aircraft up to the size of a MiG-23/27.

The second part of interest in Brand is the bunker for nuclear warheads. As stated above, this was built really far to the southeast from the housing and from the airport, differently from the other two bases in the GDR where similar bunkers were built (see this post). A straight connection road links the two portions of the base.

Traces of the further line of inner fence built around this area can be found today. The good quality tarmac of the roads have survived to this day.

The bunker is not accessible, the main gate blocked with a pile of land. Nonetheless, it is still visible and fairly well-preserved – even the camouflage above the front door – as you can see from a comparison with a photo from when the bunker was being used.

On the crane-supporting structures ahead of the entrance you can find traces of cyrillic writings.

There is a truck-loading dock nearby and several larger and smaller service buildings and garages. On some of the walls you can find ‘unofficial’ writing in cyrillic alphabet.

In both parts of the base I didn’t meet a single person during my exploration, which lasted about 3.5-4 hours in total, including the time for transfer from a trailhead to the other. When I visited, Tropical Island was closed for the season, with many people going in and out for maintenance. There were also tourists with mobile-homes and caravans, and guards with their cars. Anyway, during the exploration of the Soviet housing, which is really close to Tropical Island, I didn’t see a person, and as pointed out the place was unnaturally silent! The part of the nuclear warhead bunker is also very remote, and more obviously I didn’t come across anybody.

All in all, even though a substantial part of Brand has been converted into something else, what remains here is a great fun to visit, with tons of photo opportunities, a very intense ‘Soviet-ghost aura’ and much to see also for curious war historians. The countryside is pleasant and even though some walking is required, the place is nice to walk and very enjoyable. And if you feel tired, you can always decide to switch off your camera and enter Tropical Island for a relaxing rest-of-the-day!

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