Similarly to other sovereign Countries in the Warsaw Pact, post-WWII Poland had to host Soviet troops on its territory. These often lived in segregated towns built anew close to larger airbases and tank firing ranges.
Such installations flourished in many European satellites of the USSR especially at the beginning of the Cold War, as a result of several factors. On one hand, the political situation was still rather unstable especially in recently occupied Countries like Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, so a military presence was deemed necessary by the Soviets for keeping the status quo. Furthermore, in the early Fifties, Stalin was allegedly programming a final blow on war-battered western Europe to place the entire continent under communist rule, gaining direct and year-round access to the non-freezing Atlantic Ocean. On the other hand, the performance of early jet military aircraft, and somewhat later of early missiles, was still rather limited especially in terms of range, and called for the setup of outposts in the peripheral regions of the Soviet-controlled zone to allow planning serious military operations beyond the border.
In the final years of the Soviet Union, communism began to rapidly retreat from central Europe, as more and more nations profited from the internal problems of the USSR and rebelled against dictatorship, opting for democracy. Troops from the USSR were ordered back to their mother country. The great majority of the military assets were taken back to Russia, including not only weapons, aircraft, tanks, trucks and anything with an engine, but also plants, pipelines, antennas, TVs, refrigerators, etc. from virtually all military bases and Soviet villages nearby.
What stood as a tangible trace of the Soviet presence were all major infrastructures – airbases, missile launch pads, bunkers, deposits, railway stations, barracks,… – and housing for troops and their families.
As a quick glimpse into what can be found today, this chapter covers a brief visit to southwestern Poland, just north of ‘pottery town’ Boleslawiec. The territory of the once prominent airbase of Szprotawa has been opened to private businesses, which now occupy concrete shelters presumably made for MiG-23, MiG-27 or Su-17. The huge runway is used for test driving and related activities. Even the nuclear warhead storage has been partly taken over by a local company. Yet a good part of the runway, many aircraft shelters and the bunker part of the warhead storage make for an impressive and evocative sight.
Fifteen minutes south from Szprotawa, the former military base of Trzebien used to be a focal point of near-border military activities, carried out within an extensive shooting ground nearby. Today, substantial traces of a secluded Soviet military town can be found in the trees. Despite the generally poor condition of the barracks and technical buildings, and some demolition work going around on the former premises of the base, you can still get a good idea of how seriously the USSR invested in these outposts on foreign territory, by just looking at the quantity and size of the existing buildings.
Photographs of this chapter come from a two-days trip to the area in early September 2018. I acquired a good deal of information from a friend in Poland, who is also the owner of this interesting channel on YouTube.
Szprotawa Nuclear Warhead Bunker
The plan of the airbase in Szprotawa is very similar to the one of Brand in the former German Democratic Republic, less than two hours to the northwest of this site in Poland (see this chapter). The orientation of the runway is similar, there are aircraft shelters to the south, and about .75 miles southeast of the airport it is possible to find a major storage area, which includes a bunker for atomic warheads. The connection road is today publicly accessible, and the typical Soviet concrete slabs are holding on in their place still today, allowing a convenient access by car.
The area of the nuclear storage was heavily guarded, and much of the original buildings and fence, including the original gates, is still in place. The reason for that is a private business operating these days in the area. This is both good an bad, for most buildings are reasonably well preserved – i.e. in better condition than in similar, but totally abandoned sites – but they are surrounded by deposits of coal, heavy mechanical components and industry materials and machinery.
Above all, you cannot access the place freely, for there are trucks going in and out and workers moving around.
From the access road you go through a first gate with red stars, which is apparently blocked open. Between this area and the deposit/inner fenced area, there are some buildings, which include a (possibly) former housing block and a smaller technical building with a unique Soviet-themed fresco in a very good state of conservation. Today, most buildings around this apron appear unused.
Close by the green gate giving access to the secured part of the installation, there are a small building where somebody is still living today. The gate looks original from the Cold War era. The inhabited building is at least partly original, bearing writings in Cyrillic on the front wall. A red-star-shaped flag pedestal and another statue pedestal with writings in Cyrillic can be found on the two sides of the gate.
From the gate and along the perimeter of the high security part you can still spot the original fence – the usual concrete posts with lines of barbed wire, typical to Soviet military installations.
The fenced area is very large, comparatively more extensive than in Brand and other places where nuclear warheads used to be stored. There are here several depots for trucks, numbered, with wooden gates, still today bearing extensive markings in Russian language.
The centerpiece of the area is of course the nuclear warhead bunker. Located in the eastern part of the fenced area, this is similar to those you can find for instance in other Soviet airbases like Brand, Finsterwalde (see this chapter) and Rechlin/Lärz (see this chapter), in the former German Democratic Republic. A huge difference is that this nuclear bunker has been left open!
Ahead of the entrance you can find a preserved concrete structure, where a crane for loading/unloading operations used to be mounted. This structure is taller than the front facade of the bunker. A unique feature here are the trees painted on the pillars of this structure, which considering the today fading colors, appear to be original from Soviet times.
The facade of the bunker features a massive curved double door. Inside there are warning signs in Russian. The door gives access to a wide corridor leading through the bunker to the storage chamber.
The corridor could be split in two sections by an impressive square tight door, which retracted to the left hand side of the corridor when open. This is how you can see it today. I guess this tight door was installed to withstand a nuclear attack to the site. As a matter of fact, nuclear deposits and facilities were among the top targets of the military forces of both opponents during the Cold War.
To the right hand side of the corridor, a smaller tight door gives access to a narrow pedestrian corridor, leading out of the bunker through a small door on the facade. Unfortunately, this door is shut today, and blocked by a pile of wood from the outside.
After passing the big tight door, you can spot some smaller doors leading to service rooms on both sides of the corridor. There is also a passage leading to a toilet. The latter looks pretty fine, apart from some dust from age – and from the coal works nearby. Strangely enough, there are four taps of different size by the sink.
A metallic stair to the left side of the main corridor leads to the upper floor. Here you can find another narrow corridor, leading to a series of small service rooms closed by normal wooden doors. There are signs telling what you should wear when accessing some of these doors, like gas masks, gloves, boots – or maybe what gear you could find there. I guess these rooms were connected somehow with the ventilation system, cause big pipes can be seen running near the ceiling here.
Still upstairs, walking towards the facade of the bunker you find a tight door giving access to the ventilation system. This appears quite complicated, with several smaller tight doors, but it is arguable that ventilation had to be a major concern in case of a nuclear attack to the deposit and also for storing high-tech gear in the best possible conditions. Original air filters are still in place, but the compressors and fans have been taken away. Sunlight comes in through the round manhole you see on the front facade of the bunker.
Proceeding downstairs towards the back-end of the bunker you find a large hall with a monster double door totally similar to the external door of the bunker. Also here, warning signs in Cyrillic are written on the inside of the door. Look at the cap of my 10-22 wide lens for a size comparison!
The storage room is very large and empty. There are two long ventilation pipes in the upper corners, going all the way down to the far extremity of the room. Two small doors can be found in the room on the same side of the entry double door. They give access to two smaller rooms, where there used to be engines to open and close the extra-heavy halves of the double door. There is also trace of a lighting system, but this has been likely salvaged and used somewhere else – this is typical to most of the wiring and electric plants in former USSR installations.
Back to the entrance, you can spot a loading/unloading platform for trucks totally similar to Finsterwalde and Rechlin/Lärz.
You may get a further view of the inside of the bunker through this video from the YouTube channel of a friend, who provided much of the info to reach the site.
Getting there and moving around
The airbase and its premises are today in the village of Szprotawa. You can reach the gate of the bunker by car. Approaching the village from the south along the roads 297 or 12, which meet just south of the village, you may then take the road called Sosnowa. It points north and straight into the base. After about .25 miles the road will turn left. Just before that, you will see a paved road taking to the right. Keep on it as it will go through the former grounds of the base, now invaded by vegetation, where you will spot old aircraft shelters. The pavement will turn into concrete slabs at some point. Follow the road until it points south. You will find the gate with red stars and a no trespassing sign just after crossing an unpaved service road. You may park on the roadside and get past the gate by walk to avoid misunderstandings.
As pointed out, the area is privately owned and not open to the public. You need to get permission to step inside, and it might not be granted. You are likely to meet workers and watchdogs who will bark at you. I gesticulated in front of the workers, showed my camera and photographic gear, and they appeared not to care much about me taking pictures around. I spent a pretty long time undisturbed in the bunker, which is basically unused by the local business, but decided not to stimulate any discussion by taking too many pictures of the area ahead of it, which is actively used.
The fact that the airbase in Szprotawa – also known as Wiechlice – was supplied with a warhead bunker for tactical nuclear weapons tells much about its relevance at the time. Today, the territory of the base has been divided and partly sold to private businesses.
On one side, this has implied severe alterations to the original plan, with taxiways made unrecognizable, demolished or highly modified buildings, and so on. On the pros side, the huge runway can be freely accessed, and except for the extremities, it is still in relatively good shape, with the original centerline and other markings still visible.
The base offers also some classic Soviet Type B hangars, typical to the mid-Sixties to mid-Seventies period. The giant reinforced concrete doors have been taken away. On the inside walls, writing in Cyrillic is abundant.
On the day of my visit there, a local ‘war race’ (official site) – a kind of gymkhana – was taking place, making use of the post-apocalyptic scenario of the deserted base to setup a great running circuit – much fun!
A tank was performing some acrobatics for the crowds on a terminal part of the former runway – a very nice and unusual sight!
The site is completed by an extensive network of preserved service ways and some smaller buildings, generally not in a good shape.
Getting there and moving around
Similarly to the approach to the atomic bunker, you might take on the road called Sosnowa from road 297 or 12. The road points into the base. At the end of the road, turn right and you will point directly to the runway. You will see several aircraft shelters in this area. You can park where you like, or you can reach the runway and move freely on it.
Trzebien Tank Base
In its history the base of Trzebien hosted tank regiments, which would train on the extensive proving grounds nearby. A large secluded town used to be located just out of the fence, for civilian servicemen and for the families of Soviet staff.
Accessing the site from the south you are likely to meet what remains of the extensive housing, today completely demolished. Notwithstanding the rather depressing appearance of this area, this is a real mine of memorabilia and collectibles, in the form of garments – buckles, buttons, shoes,… – and items of everyday use – mugs, dishes, pharmaceuticals, canned food,… This is probably a result of the content of many apartments having been dumped in the area. I left with a shopping bag full of stuff, from a couple of gas masks to a metal buckle with hammer and sickle, a doll, Russian canned meat, and more!
Moving north from this area, you meet scant remains of the original fence, telling you are entering the former military part of the site. There are a pretty large road and even a railway, both still serviceable today, even though not much used.
North of their line you start to meet tons of buildings, today shrouded in the trees. In the southeastern corner a number of concrete platforms which might have been the foundations of soft, wooden buildings can be seen first. From there, pointing to the center of the former base you may spot a quantity of two/three-levels buildings, designed around the very same architecture. There are really many, and aligned along the service roads of the base, they form the majority of the ensemble.
Some different buildings in the military town can be found in the center. First and foremost, there is a movie theater.
The front part with the main entrance and a foyer has collapsed entirely, but the theater is still in place. The seats are gone, but the structure is sizable, and tells about the great number of people that composed the staff of the base in the days of operation.
On the frame of the ceiling a series of names of locations were probably painted by the troops stationed here, or somebody who was tasked with maintenance works at some point.
A second interesting building can be found cross the street with respect to the movie theater. It is not very clear what its original function was. It features four halls at the corners, accessible with small flights of stairs from the outside, and larger halls inside. It has just one level, and a pretty broad extension.
Another interesting building is located further west, towards the limit of the military town. It features a gracious cantilever roof above the entrance, today in a pretty bad shape. Inside, it is today composed of an immense hall, but maybe there used to be dividing frames and walls. Traces of a reception desk suggest some form of service – pool, gym, spa? – was provided here, and the same is true for the halls to the back, featuring tiled floors and walls.
Further interesting mystery buildings can be found on the northern limit of the site. There is a large, two-levels square building with an inner courtyard, somewhat elevated with respect to the surrounding area. Ahead of the entrance there is a pavement decoration with a wind rose. The facade is sober but somewhat more modern than all the other buildings. A command building, or a school maybe? There is also a smaller building on top of a similar low hill cross the street, but the roof is totally collapsed.
There are also traces of a relax area with benches. A statue of Lenin would just complete the setting – possibly there was one, or some monuments, but nothing remains today.
All in all, the place is impressive for the extensive size and the unreal quietness and ‘Soviet ghost aura’ which pervades the area…