Driving less than one hour north from Berlin, Germany to the beautiful region of the Oberhavel, you can find some largely forgotten relics of an untold chapter of the Cold War, when Khrushchev secretly deployed nuclear missiles to hit European targets, for the first time outside of the Soviet Union – years before the Cuban missile crisis.
History – in brief
Germany held an undisputed lead on missile technology at the end of WWII. Similarly to the US, the missile program of the USSR started soon after Hitler’s army was defeated, and benefited from the capture and transfer of hundreds of German rocket scientists. These German engineers started by reproducing the German A-4 – also known as the in-famous V-2 -, the worlds first surface-to-surface missile to reach mass production. The corresponding Soviet design was named R-1, and similarly to the original A-4 it had a very short-range – less than 200 miles – and a payload too low for carrying a nuclear warhead, hence it could not be used to pose a strategic threat to the western enemies even in Europe from within the borders of the Communist bloc.
After long and intensive research efforts towards the increase in range, payload and accuracy of rockets, and aimed at improving yield, mass efficiency and miniaturization on the side of nuclear weapons, the Soviets finally could deploy the first intermediate range strategic missile, in the form of the R-5M – or SS-3 Shyster in the western databases – by mid-1956. With a range of 800 miles and a payload of 2800 lbs, this 60 ft-long missile could carry a single 300 kilotons nuclear warhead with basically autonomous inertial guidance, and radio correction to increase accuracy. Similarly to the A-4, propulsion was based on alcohol as fuel and highly volatile liquid-oxygen as oxidizer. Operation and maintenance of this high-technology surface-launched system was a very complicated task, requiring well-trained, specialized staff in large numbers. Several Engineering Brigades were established during the Fifties for this purpose, and their numbers and relevance went on increasing with time, as the range, yield and number of strategic missiles was rising with no pause in the following years.
For the USSR, already led by Khrushchev at that time, the commissioning of the R-5M platform meant that for the first time targets in the enemy Countries of Western Europe could be placed under the menace of a nuclear attack, carried out by means of missiles traveling at a speed so high that made them virtually undetectable and unstoppable. The Soviet Union now owned a strategic missile force, but the problem of range was still hard to tackle.
It was at this point that, after years of cogitation and secret papers, the deployment of the R-5M to the ‘border Countries’ of the communist empire started to take a tangible form. The reason was simple – while the range of the Shyster was not enough to reach any target from within the USSR, it could hit at least Britain, Northern France, Belgium and the US bases in the western half of Germany from some ‘satellite Country’, namely from the territory of the German Democratic Republic.
After inspection, the area between the small towns of Fürstenberg and Vogelsang – isolated in a pretty large, wild and unpopulated area, deep in the countryside about 35 miles north of Berlin and 12 miles from each other, but linked to the railway system – were selected by the higher ranks of the Soviet Army in 1957 for the deployment of missile launch facilities for the R-5M.
Construction works were started in total secrecy, enlarging and modifying Soviet military installations where some tank divisions were quartered. Even the top levels of the government and military staff of the GDR were unaware of the operation – codenamed ‘Atom’ by the Soviet high command. The Soviets carried out much of the work themselves, but they could not avoid to involve local civil workers for ‘unclassified tasks’, and they eventually came to suspect that something unusual was going on. Agents of – at least, but probably not only – the secret service of Federal Germany transmitted the news to their headquarters beyond the Iron Curtain. Yet documents become available decades after, following the end of the Cold War, show that not much detailed information existed in the archives of the intelligence of Western Countries about this deployment – further highlighting the ‘top secret’ level of the operation. This was actually the first deployment of Soviet strategic weapons outside the USSR ever, years before the more famous operation ‘Anadyr’ causing the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 – a scenario very similar to operation ‘Atom’, but with the US instead of western Europe directly within range of Soviet missiles.
Barracks, recreation and service buildings, concrete launch ramps, connection roads, bunkers for atomic warheads, and everything that was needed both for storing all subsystems and for supporting launch operations was built during 1958 both in Vogelsang and Fürstenberg. Two artillery units and two specialized accompanying technical units arrived in January 1959, together with 12 missiles transported by train, as reported again by secret agents. At the same time, upon reaching completion of the construction works all civil workers were dismissed, and today we know that the nuclear warheads arrived under heavy escort in May 1959 by train.
As typical in the chess game between the two superpowers in the years of Khrushchev, Eisenhower and Kennedy, after years of preparation operation ‘Atom’ was suddenly interrupted only three months after the Shyster had become operative in the GDR, in August 1959. An order to withdraw immediately was issued, and all missiles and related units were temporarily relocated in Kaliningrad, Russia, from where they were short of range and not any more a threat for the West.
But this is not the end of the story. In March 1959 the new R-12 missile, also known as SS-4 Sandal and later deployed to Cuba, became operative with a range of 1300 miles and a single high-yield, 2.3 megaton nuclear warhead. In September 1961 the Khrushchev administration issued an order to deploy a missile regiment constituted anew for the purpose with R-12 missiles to the GDR – an operation codenamed ‘Tuman’ (‘fog’ in English).
The high-ranking staff responsible for the operation inspected the bases of Vogelsang and Fürstenberg the same month, and issued orders for some preparation work to be carried out for making these facilities suitable for the new R-12 missile. As a result, two launch pads were set up in the trees between the two military bases. Each of them comprised light service buildings, concrete platforms for the launch gantries and support vehicles, fuel storages, guard bunkers. Gravel roads were prepared to connect the launch platforms with the two main bases, where Sandal missiles could be hidden and sheltered in the bunkers already manufactured for the Shyster.
The staff of the new regiment was engaged in intensive training activities and launch simulations in the USSR until the end of 1961, and all material and troops were kept ready for moving by train at the railway station of Zhitovichi, Belarus, at that time inside the Soviet Union, to the now ready bases in the GDR.
Again, after all preparations the order to deploy was never issued, and by mid 1962 ‘Tuman’ was halted and the special regiment disbanded. This second attempt to place Soviet missiles out of the USSR was canceled just months before the deployment to Cuba, and soon after the R-14 missile had become operative in April 1961. This missile, known as SS-5 Skean, had the same warhead but roughly twice the range of the SS-4 Sandal, mainly thanks to a different propellant. With this system all western Europe could now be targeted from behind the border of the USSR, making deployment to satellite Countries in Europe unnecessary.
Similarly to operation ‘Atom’, even though preparation works probably did not go unnoticed by the few people in the area, this story remained basically undisclosed until at least the mid 1990s, after the – by then – Russian armed forces left the territory of the former GDR, and both Vogelsang and Fürstenberg, which after the early Sixties had continued to work as military bases for some Soviet tank divisions, were finally shut down and abandoned.
As argued in other chapters on this website dealing with former Soviet installations over the territory of the former GDR, todays Germany – comprehensibly – does not seem interested in preserving any legacy of this inconvenient past. For the case of Vogelsang and Fürstenberg, the remoteness and amenity of the area has facilitated a new birth of these two as well as other nearby centers, which are today lovely destinations for local tourism especially from Berlin, with nice lakes, cycleways, many canals and hiking trails in the trees. As these two military bases with their weird stories have been a well kept secret since their inception, there is probably no reason for the local communities to publicize them now.
As a result, both bases are being strongly reclaimed by nature, and little remains today of these once prominent – albeit secret – installations.
Yet from a historical perspective the missile installations in Vogelsang and Fürstenberg make for a proof of the seriously dangerous and determined attitude of Khrushchev and the Soviet Union towards increasing the power of the USSR on the international scene by means of military actions. Especially in 1959 with the deployment of the Shyster, the stage for a crisis with an unpredictable outcome was prepared in Europe, but for some reason luckily this was not exploited. Furthermore, this happened some years before the Cuban missile crisis, incorrectly accepted as the first such experiment in Soviet history.
Both bases in Vogelsang and Fürstenberg present some traces of the activity of the missile units. While most of the buildings connected with the missile operations have been demolished, including unreinforced hangars for storing the missiles, bunkers for nuclear warheads can be found on both sites – these are much stronger, and demolition work would be very difficult, so these hangars have been simply closed and left there. Vogelsang is covered in a dedicated chapter, while the scant remains of the Fürstenberg barracks and the nuclear storage there will be shown in this post.
Possibly more intriguing – for more dedicated explorers – and difficult to find are the rocket launch pads. Two launch pads for the R-5M exist, on the premises of Vogelsang and Fürstenberg bases. Eight further pads are placed in two groups of four, in the large territory extending between the two military bases. These are totally abandoned, forgotten deep in the trees, possibly the only tangible testimony of the planned deployment of the SS-4 Sandal in the GDR. These are also covered in this post.
Photographs were taken in August 2017.
Due to the wild vegetation and to the shape of the launching pads – which are concrete slabs today mostly covered by a thin layer of mud, moss and lichens – spotting these ‘archeological findings’ is getting more and more challenging. To ease the search I created a Google map of the launch pads. No coverage of what remains of the nearby bases of Vogelsang and Fürstenberg is provided on the map, as whether those places are interdicted to the public or free to visit is a matter of discussion.
Besides the position of the pads themselves, you can find what are car-accessible roads to get near to pinpointed POIs and suggested trail/trail-heads.
R-5M/SS-3 Shyster Missile Launch Pad and Nuclear Bunker, Fürstenberg
There is one missile launch pad in Fürstenberg, built for the Shyster missile. The local road along the western border of the military base divides its premises from the launch pad, which today can be neared with walking on an easy trail which was probably a Soviet gravel road in its origin, wide enough to allow moving the missile on a trolley.
Like all other launch pads in the area, the central piece is a narrow rectangular concrete slab about 30 ft long, with a prominent metal crown set in it, with a diameter of about 5-6 ft. The crown is a piece of technology, even though today it is covered in rust and with an unattractive brownish color. It was used to anchor the small gantry put under the missile to keep it in the launch position. The missile was transported on a trolley in a horizontal position, and lifted to a vertical attitude before launch.
The most visible difference between the launch pads for the SS-3 Shyster and for the SS-4 Sandal – the latter being a couple of years younger, as shown above – lies in the metal crown. The crown of the Shyster is smaller and more like a polygon, where that for the Sandal – see later – is more round shaped, mostly resembling a watch bezel.
The concrete slabs had to withstand the intense thrust and heat of the missile without breaking into pieces. I guess – but I am not sure – some of the piping leading to these slabs – not visible here but next to other launch pads – may have been installed for a water cooling system.
The launch pad is the most visible item of a more complex system, comprising fuel and oxidizer storages, an electric generator, a control cabin and other gear. All this was placed in partly interred dugouts, which in Fürstenberg are today basically all gone.
On the premises of the Fürstenberg base and very close to the launch site there are two bunkers, possibly for the missile and nuclear warheads. The size and construction of the larger bunker, which has two doors on the two faces, suggests a use as a missile storage bunker, possibly suitable both for the Shyster and the Sandal, which despite the totally different performance were not so different in shape and size.
Today both bunkers are totally closed and inaccessible, the smaller one – possibly for warheads – has been turned into a shelter for bats. You can see the inside of the batbunker through the batslot!
Conspicuous traces of the barbed wire fences and prefabricated concrete wall marking the perimeter of the area are still in place.
Housing at Fürstenberg Military Base
Similarly to Vogelsang (see here), in Fürstenberg there are traces of what was once a large Soviet base, with housing for many people and service buildings. There are buildings in at least two styles, suggesting construction works were carried out in different stages. Multi-storey buildings are more recent, and similar to those you can find in the former airbase of Brand (see here) – among others.
A large part of the buildings has been demolished, and there is comparatively less to see here than in Vogelsang. Yet the place looks haunted also in clear air and bright sunlight, so the area may be worth a visit for the enthusiasts of Soviet ghosts!
R-5M/SS-3 Shyster Missile Launch Pad, Vogelsang
A portrait of the launch pad in Vogelsang from another visit is provided also in a dedicated chapter of this website. For completeness, here are some new photos.
While similar to the that of Fürstenberg, this launch pad is far better conserved, but not easy to spot from the access road of the base. The system of trenches and dugouts for all technical gear needed to prepare and control the launch can be spotted very easily all around. Note the polygonal shape of the metal crown typical of the Shyster system.
There are also traces of military material, possibly unearthed due to some more recent demolition work, like old ‘CCCP-made’ batteries, metal boxes, protective metal panels and more.
Some of the trenches have been flooded, and you would better go prepared to face thousands of biting midges and mosquitoes – take it seriously, otherwise you are not going to withstand their attacks for more than 5 seconds!
Visible traces of the barbed wire fence from Soviet times can be found along the access road.
In Vogelsang the location of the launch pad is much farther away from the nuclear warhead storage and missile deposit area than in Fürstenberg, and from the housing and service buildings of the military base. Everything is more scattered, and much more walking is needed to find this launch site, due to its distance from the local road.
R-12/SS-4 Sandal Missile Launch Pads, South-East of Fürstenberg
A first set of four launch pads for the Sandal missile can be found in a small area deep in a forest, on a flat terrain. This was associated to Fürstenberg for supply. The pads are placed at a walking distance from each other. Differently from the Shyster sites, the Sandal sites are not close to any building, and the gravel connection roads are in many cases not visible, or they have been more recently modified by the forest service. Plus they are not maintained in any way, and are today barely visible.
Searching for these findings is very funny if you like this kind of activities. You will definitely feel like Indiana Jones – or Lara Croft – while searching for the missile launch pads, but you have no chance to find them unless you have a GPS. You won’t need more than an iPhone with a decent free GPS app and good deal of patience, but without both ingredients you’d better give up from the start. Look at the pictures where I have my iPhone in one hand to see the ‘exact’ coordinates – some tolerance is needed, since my free app was not professional, and the trees above are very effective in jamming the satellite signal.
Of the four pads in this first site – possibly identified as BSP-1 by Soviet staff – I explored only three due to unfortunate time constraints. Proceeding from the west to the east, on site number 3 on the map I could not find even the concrete slab of the launch pad! Only a small unreadable metal sign has been left for posterity.
Launch pad number 2 on the map can be spotted once you are close. The concrete platform is partly unearthed and the corners can be seen. A gap in the trees on the area also help to find the perimeter of the rectangular concrete slab, which is otherwise shrouded by low vegetation.
The metal crown of the SS-4 Sandal is bigger and different in shape from those of the SS-3 Shyster, as anticipated – it is almost circular, not polygonal. I found exactly the same type of metal rig in some much bigger launch bases for SS-4 missiles in Latvia (see here).
The trenches and shallow dugouts for all components of the missile system can be spotted all around, albeit made mimetic and very difficult to capture with a camera, due to the underbrush hiding them and smoothing their profile. The trenches and the concrete pad are connected by a system of concrete pipelines. Metal frames with hinges, once made for doors giving access to the pipelines, can be spotted very close to the concrete platform. Maybe these were used also for a water cooling system to avoid the explosion of the launch pad, subject to the exhaust of the rocket engine at launch.
Walking to the the launch pad number 1 on the map you may come across what remains of a concrete booth, possibly a control cabin.
Launch pad number 1 is very similar to number 2, but here part of the side of the platform is unearthed and clearly visible.
It is noteworthy that no trace exists of any serious fence around the Sandal launch sites, differently from all other Soviet installations of various kinds I have visited all over the former GDR. Recalling the SS-4 launch sites were never operative, perhaps the Soviets did not really complete the construction works, and the cordoned area was marked only with some ‘soft barrier’ which could be removed leaving no trace.
Please note that the access road to get near to this site is car-accessible, but it is narrow, unpaved, with muddy spots, covered with fallen leaves and in some sections with sand. I could reach my destination with a station wagon without particular difficulty on a dry day in summer, but I would say the best vehicle type for this roads in any weather would be a smaller, possibly AWD car. Needless to say, you will need some form of protection for your feet and legs to approach the launch pads, but there are no bad insects in the area.
R-12/SS-4 Sandal Missile Launch Pads, North of Vogelsang
The second Sandal launch site – possibly named BSP-2 by the Soviets, but historical sources are not very clear – is associated to Vogelsang, which is roughly 4 miles south, from which it should have been supplied. Despite the similar role, this installation is very different from the previous one.
The launch pads are almost square, not rectangular. The missile facilities are built on top of a steep small hill, not on flat terrain, with the four launch pads much closer to each other than in the previous site. They have been put along a circular pattern, not straight as for the previous installation. It looks like this site was developed further than the previous one, for much more conspicuous remains of dugouts, and even what seems to be a guard post with a firing loophole, can be spotted here.
Starting from the easternmost pad number 1, the concrete platform is pretty well conserved and the metal crown for the SS-4 is easy to find. There are traces of metal wiring, and concrete pipelines all around.
Approaching the northernmost launch pad – number 2 on the map – it is possible to see remains of large dugouts, possibly for fuel deposits or other technical stuff.
Number 2 is poorly conserved and difficult to get access to. The terrain around is muddy and covered by a thick forest of 3-feet high nettles. The metal crown has almost disappeared under a nice layer of moss.
Launch pad number 3 to the west is connected to what looks like a nearby pool by a concrete pipeline, suggesting a cooling system, but maybe this was a dugout for a generator or something electric, with wiring connecting this gear to the missile through the concrete pipe. Also here the metal crown is today barely visible.
The last launch pad – number 4 on the map – is located to the south of the site, and poorly conserved. It was partly covered by a pile of cut branches when I visited. A strange item nearby the platform, where part of the metal crown can be spotted pretty easily, is an angle-shaped iron bar with a big bolt in it, emerging from the ground – and almost killing me, making me stumble!
Except for the obvious need for proper walking gear, this place is easy to reach by foot along a nice, prepared nature trail – see map.
The SS-4 launch pads are not publicized nor maintained, perhaps even somewhat voluntarily hidden, but the trail passes very close to them, so getting near is easy. There is a small lovely pond at the base of the hill, and the area is pretty wet. As a result, also here there are thousands of biting insects around – don’t forget your insect repellent!
Templin Soviet Airbase – Totally Gone
As a Cold War historian, aviation enthusiast, archaeologist, dark tourist or Soviet fan (?), you may be tempted to go to the nearby super-base of Templin, once one of the largest and more advanced Soviet airbases over the territory of the GDR.
Well, don’t waste your time. Sadly, the area of the base – in all its extension – has been converted into a gigantic solar power plant, owned and run by Siemens. It is totally fenced and full of obstacles, prohibition signs and CC-cameras. The scant remains of some housing are not accessible. There is also a small circuit track on the old apron, where some companies offer extreme driving experiences. Nothing interesting here, not any more.