Soviet Airbases in the GDR – First Chapter

Like other satellite countries in the Soviet empire, the German Democratic Republic – also known as ‘Eastern Germany’ before the Nineties, ‘GDR’, or ‘DDR’ in German – hosted two armies, which not necessarily occupied the same installations, nor had access to the same resources.

Speaking of air forces, up to the dissolution of the GDR after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, there were two distinct bodies operating from airbases all over the country, namely the Air Forces of the National People’s Army (‘Luftstreitkräfte der Nationalen Volksarmee’ in German), which was the national air force, and the Soviet Air Force (‘Voyenno-vozdushnye sily SSSR’ as they would pronounce it in Russia).

While East German military forces were composed of local personnel, Soviet forces were mainly composed of troops coming from the various republics of the Soviet Union. Operations of the two military powers were of course coordinated, but the two organizations were split, and both had their airbases.

Most airbases in the GDR actually developed on the area of former airfields from before WWII, but some peculiarities in the way they were refurbished and equipped after the conflict reflected the needs of the new respective owners.

Signs of this difference can be spotted exploring some of the surviving relics of these now inactive sites – for Soviet bases, writings in Cyrillic alphabet, Lenin’s sculptures like you can find in Moscow, and typically more barracks with more amenities for Soviet soldiers, made to let them have what they needed without passing the gate of the base.

The following photos were taken during visits to four former Soviet airbases, Merseburg, close to Halle, visited August 2015, and other three between Berlin and the Baltic, Wittstock/Dosse, Rechlin/Laerz and Ribnitz/Damgarten, visited April 2016. More airbases are covered in other pages on this website (see this post, and also this).

Wittstock/Dosse

Getting there and moving around

This site is located halfway between Berlin and Hamburg, just a few miles to the East of highway N.24, close to the junction with N.19 going North to Rostock.

The site can be easily reached by car. You can spot it very well on Google Maps and plan your trip – just search for Wittstock/Dosse. There are actually two airstrips concentrated in a rather small area, placed along an east-west line. The easternmost one is a still active, general aviation grass strip (Berlinchen).

The former Soviet airbase is the one to the west. It has been converted into a solar power plant, like most similar sites in former East Germany. Solar panels occupy the area of the former runway and taxiways, but the hangars and former barracks have not been included in the conversion plan – at least that was the picture in April 2016.

The access road you should go through is the one to the west of the airbase, going straight to the former barracks from road L153. You can park your car immediately after turning away from the L153. Actually there is a ‘no passing’ sign for cars, so you’d better go by foot to avoid misunderstandings. As it’s often the case with airports, be prepared to walk a lot, cause distances are not short.

On the pros side, apart from the grim appearance of the Soviet relics, the area is very peaceful and the countryside is relaxing and nice to see. During my stay lasting a couple of hours, I encountered only a few people out for a stroll in the countryside with their dogs, two technicians with a minivan going to the plant and some folks training their rescue dogs.

Sights

The former installation is totally deserted, and some of the residential, i.e. not technical buildings are really just waiting for the right day to collapse. There are danger signs scattered all over the area. Walking around should already give you an interesting and unusual picture of a ghost base from the Soviet era. I know of people who went inside most of the buildings, exploring them thoroughly. Personally I would recommend to think about it more than once before going in, especially the barracks, where concrete walls look really rotting – don’t forget it was made with Soviet quality… Risk connected with collapsing structures is not a remote issue here.

In the photos it is possible to see the hangars – very large – some rather old and small shelters, and the barracks. I don’t know the specific history of this airbase – I’m currently trying to find a book on the matter, but it seems out of print and very difficult to find. Anyway, it is apparent that there are at least two groups of barracks built up in very different architectural styles, suggesting the base was built and later developed further. The two-storey buildings in a typical German style were probably built in the early days of the base, possibly before or during WWII. The cubic-shaped, all-concrete residential buildings are in pure functional Soviet style, and may date from the late Fifties or later.

The hangars – as I wrote these are not shelters – are very large and tall, suggesting they were used as maintenance shops. If this was the real role for this base, meaning it was a reference point for many others on the territory, this might justify the uncommon size of the barracks and living quarters.

A building probably used for movable service equipment and vehicles can be spotted among the hangars. It can be distinguished from the buildings connected with sheltering aircraft by the very (very) low ceiling. Interestingly, traces of a translation of the most typical German road signs to Russian can be still spotted on an inner wall, together with other less clear writings – unfortunately I don’t know Russian. The emblem of the Soviet Army (‘CA’) can be spotted on one of the doors of the same building.

Two pinnacles of the exploration can be found very close to each other. The airbase apparently hosted a rather large indoor ‘sporting club’, with basket courts and other sport equipment. Most of the wooden floor in the gym is still there, with also other remains – including a Soviet newspaper from 1989 with stains of wall paint, probably used when repainting the walls. Curiously, the building hosting the gym is aligned at the level of the hangars, nearby the apron, and not among the barracks.

Moving through a courtyard just outside of the gym, it is possible to spot an incredible statue of Lenin, still perfectly preserved except for the missing face and inscription. Looking better at the statue, it is possible to notice it was placed in the middle of a perspective, leading to the statue from the main road crossing the service area of the base. Nowadays the perspective is less visible, due to newly grown trees.

All in all, the place is pervaded by a grim aura, the almost unreal and unnatural quietness of the buildings and maintenance shops making the site really unique and very evocative.

Note

Comparing the satellite photos with those above, it can be clearly seen that almost all trees have been cut and vegetation has been wiped out. The presence of some sorts of roadworks service trailers, even though apparently not recently used, may indicate some work is going on, and maybe there are plans to demolish the remaining buildings soon.

Rechlin/Laerz

Getting there and moving around

This base can be reached driving on road 198, between the villages of Rechlin and Mirow. Rechlin hosts also a museum dedicated to aeronautics which I had not the time to visit. This is indicated with an official sign when you are close to the airport. That museum is not located in the area surrounding the airport. The former airbase can be reached with a pleasant 10 miles drive from Wittstock/Dosse (see previous section).

Rechlin is still operating as an active general aviation airport – with the name Mueritz Airpark – but during my exploration I saw no flying activity. Anyway, no solar cells here.

Compared to other bases, this place is much more populated. To the west of the airfield, accessible from the road running along the western limit of the airfield, it is possible to visit a very small air museum – a different entity from the one in Rechlin. Very few aircraft can be spotted just besides the main building, including a Dassault Atlantique formerly of the GFR (German Federal Republic, or ‘West Germany’) Luftwaffe, a Lufthansa Training Beechcraft King Air and some Soviet or GDR aircraft and helicopters – markings have been removed making identification difficult. There are also some jet engines, and other service material and pods partly of Soviet origin. The visit of this museum may not offer much to the more experienced aircraft enthusiast, but approaching the museum can be done driving on the path of a former taxiway, still retaining its typical Soviet pavement made of concrete slabs.

From the area of the museum it is possible to take pictures from the distance of a peculiar installation which at the moment occupies a group of relatively modern aircraft shelters on the northern part of the airfield. The function of this place, which is fenced and cannot be accessed freely, and is named ‘Kulturkosmos’, is not very clear. From the distance it looks like a kind of hippie village or stuff like that. Unfortunately, they occupy a part of the former installation encompassing some pieces of military history and taxiways, which would have been otherwise extremely interesting to explore.

An interesting part of the former military installation in Rechlin is to the south of the runway, and can be approached driving along 198 from Rechlin in the direction of Mirow. After passing the runway – you can clearly spot it to your right, as the road runs along the perimeter of the base in this part – and after passing a crop, it is possible to spot a large unpaved road taking to the right. It is basically the first road to the right after passing the runway, about half a mile from it. There is room for parking at the beginning of the unpaved road. There are no ‘don’t’ signs here, but you might prefer parking here and going by foot as the road is bumpy and there are no other parking places next.

Sights

The road points straight into the base. As usual with airports, expect long walks. After about half a mile, you reach a wreck of a gate, intended to stop larger vehicles, but it can be crossed by foot or bicycle – say a MTB. Already before going through the gate it is possible to see a large and relatively modern aircraft shelter. The size – its height in particular – suggests it was made for larger aircraft – possibly MiG-23/27 – with respect to those of the early jet age, albeit MiG-29 needed yet another size. The gate of the shelter used to be moved with dedicated motors, which are still there but not functioning. Somebody is using this as a hay storage depot.

A very mysterious building is located next to this isolated Soviet shelter. It appears as a very large concrete building having collapsed, or more likely blown up. The size and appearance are similar to the partially demolished bunkers you can visit in Hitler’s ‘Wolf’s Lair’ in northern Poland, so I guess this was built during the Nazi era. Furthermore, there are various writings in Cyrillic alphabet on the walls, including years from the age of the Soviet occupation. They are most probably ‘souvenirs’ from Soviet troops. I guess the Nazi or Soviets actually blew up this large building, which was never totally wiped out nor reused.

Going further towards the runway – there are no prohibition signs, but I would recommend staying at a respectful distance from the runway, as this is an active GA airport – you come across a small door leading to a subterranean passage. This cannot be explored, as it is full of debris and dirt, but gives you an impression of what was the complexity of this installation. By the way, from, satellite images it is clear it had two crossing runways at some point in its history, so at some point it used to be much larger and prominent than it’s looking today.

Further on, you cross a former taxiway, today covered in dust, where really many couples of rather old Soviet aircraft shelters are still in place. There are herds of grazing cows around, and most shelters are used for storing hay.

Taking to the left (south-west-wards) along this road, between the first and the second shelter on the left, you find a narrow paved road heading South-East. It is marked by a small electric cabin painted in a camo colorway – Soviet – now disconnected. Following this road for more than half a mile – the road bends right at some point – until its end, you pass besides some deserted service buildings, including some garages possibly for service vehicles, and finally you reach a very interesting item.

From the side it looks mostly like another aircraft shelter, but there is no taxiway and the entrance is very small, and there is a small and bulky security door instead of the usual shelter door. This is actually a former deposit and shelter for weapons, possibly not conventional ordnance to be mounted on aircraft. In front of the weapon bunker there are more service buildings and a truck loading platform, probably used to move ordnance that was transported by road. Similar bunkers can be found only in Finsterwalde and Brand over the territory of the GDR (see here).

This bunker is probably larger than it looks, as vents can be spotted on the ground pretty far from its perimeter.

All in all, this site is less grim than Wittstock/Dosse, and may be less evocative of the Cold War times, but it is not dangerous at all, and still retains some mystery and has very special items to show. By the way, while walking the southern part of the installation I didn’t meet a person, but came across much wildlife, including deers and birds of prey, much surprised to see somebody around! There are also partly signed trails in the trees, just for ‘normal’ trail hiking. The countryside all around is relaxing and enjoyable.

Note

The area of the former airbase is in the focus of an ambitious design, intended to create luxury living estates in most of the shelters which will be directly accessible with private aircraft, mostly like John Travolta’s house in Anthony, FL. It’s unclear how long the completion of the project will take – no housing had been erected as of May 2016. Nonetheless, some lots have been reportedly sold, and the former airbase may not remain accessible for long.

Ribnitz/Damgarten

Getting there and moving around

This former Soviet airbase, reportedly very active in the last days of the Soviet occupation when Soviet Forces were moving back into the inner Russian territory, was only partially explored during this trip (April 2016). It is located less than 20 miles east of Rostock, close to the coast of the the Baltic Sea. It can be easily reached by car, immediately to the west of the village of Damgarten.

About one third of the runway to the East is covered with solar cells, plus part of the area is used as a storage of road materials or by local farmers. There is also a small museum of technology in one of the former hangars (website here). So there are tons of activities in the area of this former military installation.

The most important thing to know – which actually hampered my plans – is that the main gate of the base, which can be reached following the road signs leading to the museum of technology north of the base, is open to the public only when the museum is open. Needless to say, this was not the case when I visited. Due to the fact that there were workers going in and out at every moment, there were CC cameras, and somebody also photographed my plate with his cell phone while I was taking pictures of the external wall, in order to avoid misunderstandings I renounced to step inside. Hence I couldn’t explore the northernmost part of the complex, which I expected to offer something very similar to Wittstock/Dosse in terms of appearance and significance – large maintainance hangars, former barracks and sculptures with some typical Communist pomp. The large and many buildings and the abandoned railway track leading directly into the base – you can spot it to the right of the main gate – suggest that this installation was probably of some strategic relevance.

I tried to approach the site from the North, experiencing a public road made of concrete slabs which was too obviously of Soviet manufacture. To the north, the base is surrounded by a concrete wall. There are some unofficial pedestrian accesses I was tempted to use, but there were signs warning about danger of unexploded ordnance. I thought it was not advisable to explore further.

Then I moved to the south of the airbase, which is basically unguarded and unfenced, to the aim of photographing at least the taxiways and the former control tower. The former south entrance of the base can be conveniently reached by car on a paved road starting from Puttnitz (to the South of Damgarten) leading to an aparted residential area. The road reaches a dead-end by the former entrance to the base – differently from the northern one, it is now totally deserted.

Sights

Walking to the north towards the area of the base from the road leading to the southern gate you cross a small forest and reach the former fence of the base, where barbed wire has been removed and only concrete posts are still standing. From here you can rapidly reach a groups of former service buildings which are numbered and placed on a circle. A paved road can still be seen, even though the area is being vehemently reclaimed by nature.

These buildings were probably service buildings for vehicles, ordnance or other material. It is unclear why they placed them around a circular track, but I guess this was a typical Soviet construction technique, for I found similar assemblies also in other bases.

From the circle it is already possible to see the taxiways and the area of the runway covered by solar panels. Walking north, it is possible to spot some smaller mystery buildings. Once on the taxiway, you notice the view of the northernmost part of the site is obstructed by a heap of debris, which probably was not there when the base was operative. From this point to the south of the runway, it is possible to spot the former control tower looking north.

With a walk to the east along an unpaved trail it is possible to reach a ditch from where you can see some old-fashioned shelters on the northern side of the solar plant.

All in all, this place has much more to offer than what I was allowed to see without disturbing local activities. I kept out of any prohibited area, yet I took care not to be spotted by anybody. I would recommend to try visiting during the opening times of the museum of technology, in order to be allowed in the installation without going undercover. This way you would be granted access to the northernmost part of the complex, which is probably also the most interesting.

Merseburg

Getting there and moving around

This former airbase is still an active airport for general aviation, so access is not totally free, albeit the place is not very active. On the plus side, the formerly interdicted area has been greatly reduced since the conversion to civil airport, and now it is even possible to move with your car on some of the former taxiways once used by aircraft. There are various activities on the field of this airport, including companies offering skydiving experiences and an air museum. There are also various deposits of hay in the former aircraft shelters, and parts of the former free areas of the airport have been reassigned as land for agriculture.

Due to the many activities on the field, arriving with a car is very easy. The airport is located between the small town of Merseburg and less than 3 mi south of the big city of halle, in a very well served area. I arrived from L172, running along the airport to the north, from where you can already spot the shelters. There is a traffic light where L172 turns into a local road, with signs with the name of some companies having their quarters in buildings near the airport, taking to the south of L172.

Soon after turning on this street going south along the eastern border of the airfield (named ‘Fischweg’), it is possible to spot a strange-looking road taking to the right – from the concrete slabs making the pavement, you soon realize it is a former taxiway of a Soviet base. You can drive this road which reaches to the base of skydiving and general aviation activities.

Going back to the ‘Fischweg’ road and going further south, you pass a round about and reach the air museum – which regrettably I couldn’t visit because I was slightly late – with a Tupolev 134 in the colors of the former flagship company of the GDR ‘Interflug’ parked in the courtyard, and visible from the outside.

From nearby the museum it is possible to spot a former taxiway going west. I guess it is not possible to go by car, as it points straight into the base and reaches to the runway. On the other hand, going by foot should not be a problem, but unfortunately there are no old buildings at all to the south of the runway.

In order to get acceptable photos of the more recent shelters, it is advisable to go back to L172, turning south on the 91 crossing the village of Merseburg, and turning west on ‘Geusaer Strasse’, a local paved road going west to some small and aparted residential areas (Geusa and Atzendorf). After about 1.25 miles going west on this ‘Geusaer Strasse’ you reach Geusa and you find a local street called ‘Rohrwisenweg’ taking slightly to the right. After .25 miles you find a narrow paved road to the right going straight north. It is impossible to miss it, as at the beginning there is a large scrap dealer. This road is only for locals and agricultural traffic, there is a conditional ‘no passing’ sign, but I encountered no problems driving all the way to the other end, which is again on the L172 to the north of the airport. You might take the same road directly from the L172 in the opposite direction, but due to the intense local traffic, you have more chance to be noticed ignoring the ‘no passing’ sign taking that road to the south.

This connection road is aligned in a north-south direction and runs along the western border of the airport. From there with an average zoom lens you can take pictures of the more recent aircraft shelters. Getting closer by foot might be possible, but I couldn’t find a good place for parking safely, and you should keep in mind that this is an active airport, so you’d better avoid misunderstandings with the locals.

Sights

As mentioned in the previous instructions, the main attraction is the opportunity to drive on the former Soviet taxiways. I was very worried about having a flat tire, but I noticed there were many cars at the opposite end of the road going to the local GA terminal.

In the old-fashioned aircraft shelters located in this area it is still possible to spot some writings in Cyrillic alphabet. There are also unsheltered parking aprons for single aircraft. You may like to photograph your car in a place where once stood a Soviet MiG-17!

I won’t cover the air museum (website here) as I unfortunately couldn’t step inside, having arrived after last admittance time. In one of the pictures you can see the Tu-134 of ‘Interflug’ mentioned above.

The last photographs show the larger shelters as you can see them from the distance, from the connection road to the west of the airfield. Merseburg hosted MiG-29 in the latest stage of the Cold War, so I guess these shelters were large enough for hosting also that type of aircraft.

All in all, this former airbase is not very ‘dark’ nor difficult to visit, on the contrary there are many people and activities around. The countryside is not much interesting, as the area is mostly urban, being in the outskirts of Halle. So, it is not a great place for a relaxing walk. Notwithstanding its original size, the site has less to offer than other Soviet airbases – no barracks or service buildings -, but on the plus side you can move around by car getting pictures of what is still in place without spending much time exploring the site by foot.

 

 

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