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A little known fragment of Cold War history concerns the deployment of ballistic missiles by the Soviet Union outside of its national borders. Considering the case of the GDR, aka DDR in German language, during the Cold War the westernmost communist dictatorship in Europe, this happened in several instances.
History – in brief
Two such episodes took place in the 1950s and early 1960s with strategic missiles – Shyster and Sandal – in the area of Fürstenberg and Vogelsang, located one hour north of Berlin by car (see this post), in the territory of the GDR. This deployments lasted only briefly, cause strategic missiles of much longer range were developed soon, allowing targeting western Europe and the US from within the USSR.
Since then, a nuclear striking force was allegedly present over the territory of the GDR at all times, as testified by a number of now abandoned nuclear warhead bunkers built on the premises of major Soviet airbases (see for instance this post, and links therein). This force was mainly based on tactical warheads intended to be launched from aircraft.
From the 1960s to the early 1980s the USSR deployed also SCUD-A and SCUD-B short-range nuclear missile systems over the territory of some Soviet-controlled countries. This mobile-launched light weapons were stationed in the GDR in Königsbruck, Bischofswerda and Meissen, close to the border with Poland and the Czech Republic, as well as around Wünsdorf, were the high command of the Soviet forces in Germany was located (see this post). The improved SS-21 Scarab was added to the arsenal in Königsbruck in 1981, with a range similar to that of the SCUD systems.
Nuclear missiles appeared again in the GDR towards the end of the Cold War, in the years between 1984 and 1988. This time the Soviets used intermediate-range theater missiles, in the form of the SS-12 Scaleboard, a 500 kilotons, single-warhead tactical system, with a range of 500 miles and launched directly from a mobile launcher. The reason for this deployment was a kind of retaliation following the choice of the Reagan administration, together with some European NATO Countries including West Germany, Italy and Britain, to deploy intermediate-range missiles provided by the US in Western Europe.
This move by the western allies was part of the complicated and lengthy negotiations which would culminate in the INF treaty in late 1987, between the US and the USSR. In the end, this agreement led to a bilateral dismantlement of intermediate-range nuclear forces (‘INF’), including both the American Pershing II and the Soviet Scaleboard.
Talks aiming at counterbalancing the Soviet nuclear deterrent in Europe represented by the SS-20 Pioneer mobile-launched missiles, with a range of more than 3,000 miles, had been started in the closing phase of the Carter administration, with the USSR still led by Brezhnev. The goal of the operation from a western standpoint was the deactivation of this missile by the Soviets. The deployment of a huge force of hundreds of Pershing II tactical ballistic missiles and Gryphon cruise missiles by the US, ordered in 1983 by the Reagan administration in agreement with some European Countries, should stand as a precaution in case the desired deactivation of the SS-20 would not be obtained (see also this post). The NATO move was perhaps not interpreted as desired, and in response the USSR deployed the Scaleboard in the GDR, close to the border with the West in 1984, putting a halt to the talks.
Following the change in the leadership of the USSR, the INF treaty was later signed in 1987 by President Reagan and Gorbachev. The involved missiles deployed by both the US and the USSR, and not limited to the Gryphon, Pershing II and Scaleboard, were soon withdrawn starting in 1988. They were later decommissioned and physically destroyed.
Today, a few relics of this late episodes of the Cold War can be found in the former German Democratic Republic. The quick deployment of the Scaleboard meant that an existing Soviet missile brigade (119th) was relocated in mid-1984 from Gombori, in the Soviet Republic of Georgia, to locations in the GDR, namely Königsbruck and Bischofswerda near Dresden, and Warenshof and Wokuhl in Mecklenburg. Thanks to the improved mobility of the Scaleboard system, launched from mobile platforms, not much hardware was necessary for storing and operating the missile. Light shelters were quickly built to store the nuclear warheads and the missiles. These were connected by a network of short service roads made with prefabricated concrete slabs.
Following the withdrawal of the missiles, and later of all Soviet troops from the former GDR, these missile sites were demolished or invaded by nature. Apparently, nothing has survived in Königsbruck and in the bases in Mecklenburg, whereas in Bischofswerda significant remains are to be found, albeit not publicized at all, with a short walk in the trees.
This post provides a map and a few pictures to reach the former Bischofswerda missile base. Photographs were taken in late summer 2018.
The following map highlights the location of the bunkers and the access points to the Bischofswerda site. During my visit I tried three accesses by car, and the northern access road – access point 1 on the map – is the only one where I could find a (small) parking area. The area is today in a forest, and there you cannot get to the bunkers with a car – prohibition signs can be found close to all three pinpointed access points. Some walking will be needed, but the area is nice and you are likely to see some wildlife – that was my case!
I noticed that the Ulmon map on my iPhone had the bunkers accurately pinpointed. In any case, a GPS and an electronic non-satellite map is strongly recommended, for the site is shrouded by high-grown vegetation, and barely visible on a satellite photograph.
Please note that the POIs related to the missile bunkers on the map above have been placed by hand, and may be not very accurate. I noticed the Google base map does not show all the service roads connecting the bunkers. These roads are not maintained any more for vehicles, but they can still be used by hikers. Anyway, I tried to reconstruct the basic network with green lines – please zoom in to see them.
Bischofswerda SS-12 Scaleboard Missile Bunkers
Accessing the site from the northernmost entry point (access point 1 on the map), you will soon meet a former service/administration building for the troops, in pure Soviet style from the Eighties – see the terminal passenger in Sperenberg here, from the same years. It was built in 1983, and today it is used in the warm season as a service building for boy scouts and other forest-related activities. A placard quickly recalls its history. The Soviets (then Russians) left the place in 1993, and the barracks originally built in the area for servicemen stationed there were completely demolished soon after.
From the service building, the area of the missile shelters can be reached with a quick walk along a broad and almost flat road – you might easily drive to the place, if only it was not forbidden.
The bunkers are grouped around a small square area with concrete slabs on the ground. Despite the short distance from the square to the shelters, these are totally unapparent, and you may have a hard time getting closer to them if you do not have a GPS and some electronic map. Zoom in on the map above for some basic directions concerning this part of the missile site.
While they have not been demolished, all bunkers are abandoned with only one exception, and they are effectively hidden by wild vegetation.
There are bunkers of three types. The majority are hangars for storage of the missiles. There were four launchers with two missiles each, totaling eight missiles on the Bischofswerda site. The nuclear warheads were stored separately from the missiles, and quickly installed only in case an order to attack was issued. Bunker N on the map is the former storage for the nuclear warheads. Access is not possible due to the wild vegetation and the partial sealing of the sliding door with a pile of land. Yet the distinctive polygon-shaped metal access door can still be seen, different from that of all other bunkers.
The storage bunker A can be neared more easily. You can notice the totally different construction with respect to the nuclear warhead bunker N. The door of this bunker is sealed too.
Between bunker A and B there are traces of a construction, possibly another bunker, today completely interred.
The missile bunker B is open, and used as a storage for wood logs. There are also parts of the original ventilation system. The construction components of the shelter are similar to those you can find in other Soviet missile launch bases (see for instance this post). Yet the size of the bunker is rather small compared to similar facilities built for strategic missiles. This highlights the reduced cost of the preparation of a theater missile launch facility, with respect to its strategic missile counterparts.
On the far end of the complex (item Z on the map), you can find another bunker, at a glance similar to the other missile shelters. It was opened when I visited, and as you see from the pics there is an intermediate frame, dividing the hangar in two parts, connected by a passage. Considering the position and structure, I guess this was a command bunker, similar to those you see in other Soviet missile bases (like again this). There is a placard remembering the deployment of the Scaleboard system in this base, and inside somebody recently put a photograph of two former high-ranking staff from the US and Soviet Armies stationed in Germany at the time of the deployment, shaking hands in front of this very bunker. The photo was taken years after the decommissioning of the site.
Two other missile shelters, C and D on the map, close the tour. One of them is open, the other is sealed and barely reachable due to vegetation.
Special Feature – 119th Missile Brigade barracks in Gombori, Georgia
As mentioned above, the Soviet 119th Missile Brigade was tasked with running the theater missile installations hastily prepared in locations in Germany. To this purpose, the 119th was relocated in May 1984 from Gombori, Georgia, then a Soviet Socialist Republic in the realm of the USSR. It left back to Gombori at the end of the German deployment in March 1988. By that time, it converted to another missile platform, following the coincidental phase-out of the SS-12. For the time of the ‘German leave’, the 119th was under the responsibility of the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany, headquartered in Wünsdorf (see this post).
In the following pictures, taken on another trip (2019), you can see the abandoned barracks of the 119th in Gombori. This site was code-named ‘Tbilisi Army Barracks Gombori AL 12’ by the US, due to the proximity with the Georgian capital city, Tbilisi.
The 119th Missile Brigade moved away from Georgia after the USSR broke apart. It relocated to Elanskiy, Russia.
Getting there and moving around
As already pointed out, getting close to the site is possible by car, but touring the place will require a walk of roughly 1.5-2. I suggest leaving the car at access point 1 on the map. The site missile is not maintained except for the former service building, where you can find picnic tables and related facilities. The building was closed for the season already at the beginning of September, but the area around the building is not abandoned. The former service roads in the trees are maintained as well.
On the other hand, the area of the bunkers is basically abandoned, except for the Z bunker on the map, which is not maintained, but bears a placard on the front façade. Walking around does not pose any particular difficulty, but you should go prepared to face nettles, brambles and wild vegetation around the bunkers. Carefully watch your step, for there are open manholes scattered on the ground, probably part of the original underground electric supply system.
Visiting may take a bit more than 1 hour for the interested subject – something more if you want to take good pictures. A tripod is strongly advised also for external photographs, cause the trees effectively stop sunlight, so the area is mainly dark.
2 thoughts on “Soviet SS-12 Scaleboard Nuclear Missiles in the GDR”
Your photographs and descriptions are incredible. I was able to tour a former Soviet nuclear weapons storage site in 1995, not too long after the final Soviet troops departed. Sadly, I didn’t have a camera with me and I have no photographs.
I do have one question. your annotated map is captioned SS-20 Site at Bischofswerda. Should that not be SS-12/22, referring to Scaleboard A or B versions? My understanding is that the SS-20 was deployed in European Russia, but remained within the boundaries of the former Soviet Union.
Can you clarify please?
Thanks again for your incredible photos.
You’re totally right! Thanks for pointing out this flaw in the description. Will fix it as soon as possible! Would you like to tell more on your 1990s tour and memories? Please feel free to contact me via the contact page, would love to know more about your experience. Kind regards, Carlo