The Aeronautical Museum of Belgrade

With a few parallels in aviation history, especially in the years immediately following WWII, former Yugoslavia benefited from supplies by a great number of countries. As a matter of fact, the air force of this newborn communist republic was formed at first from leftovers of retreating Germany and conquering Britain, followed by the establishment of a supply line initially from the USSR, and later the US and again Britain.

The special political ability of marshal Tito, who ruled uncontested as a communist dictator since the foundation of Yugoslavia in 1945 until his death in 1980, and the credit he benefited from especially in Britain, allowed him to keep out of the sphere of influence of the USSR since 1948. In a strategic position on the border with NATO countries like Italy and Greece, Tito adopted a detente policy of ‘equal-distance’ between the two opposing blocs over the Cold War period (even though NATO did not trust him fully, as testified by the deployment of a SAM defense line in northeastern Italy, see this post).

Of course, most of the military supply was of Soviet make, especially after the death of Stalin and well until the end of communism in Europe and the bloody fragmentation of the Yugoslav state. However, concerning civil aviation, autonomy from Moscow allowed the adoption of western aircraft, like the French Aerospatiale Caravelle and much of the Boeing and McDonnell-Douglas inventory, in the major national airline JAT – something which happened very rarely anywhere in the communist bloc over the years of the Cold War, another notable instance being Romania, again a ‘semi-autonomous’ communist dictatorship, who refused the Soviet Tupolev Tu-134 in favor of license-built British BAC 1-11s.

Another effect of the autonomy from the USSR was the creation of a national aviation industry, which especially in the case of SOKO, produced military trainers and light attack aircraft of good success, which despite ageing, are still flying today.

More recently, the fierce conflicts raging over the Balkans in the 1990s have created a major active front for modern aviation, where the air force of Serbia – which inherited the geographically central part of Yugoslavia and its capital city, Belgrade – confronted the NATO alliance in an open conflict. The unbalance of forces allowed the western coalition to quickly establish air superiority, which did not come without a few notable material losses however.

A rich display of this peculiar aviation history, actually tracing back to WWI and the early years of aviation, can be found in the Aeronautical Museum of Belgrade, which despite being in today’s Serbia, acts as a kind of Yugoslav Aviation Museum. As a matter of fact, it was founded as such back in the years of Tito, and opened in its current building nearby ‘Nikola Tesla’ civil airport of Belgrade in 1989, when Yugoslavia was still a reality.

This short post provides an outline of what you can find in this museum, with photographs taken on a visit in April 2019.

Sights

The museum occupies a relatively large area in the vicinity of the airport of Belgrade, and is made of an open-air exhibition, open-air storage area, and big mushroom-shaped building hosting an indoor exhibition.

The ‘gate guardian’ is a SOKO J-21 Jastreb, a nice light multi-role aircraft from the 1960s, powered by a British Rolls-Royce Viper jet engine.

Indoor exhibition

The entry hall of the mushroom-shaped building features is a good example of the architectural style from the late communist era. The ground floor hosts a small exhibition about the early days of aviation in the former region of the Balkans, with documents from WWI years. Among the items on display, you can find early pilot’s licenses from notable war pilots, likely granted after training abroad, and actually written in French.

The main hall of the museum can be found upstairs. This large can be walked on two levels. Most aircraft are to be found on the lower level, but a few are suspended to the glassy circular sidewall of the mushroom, lighted from behind by the sunlight – so that taking pictures is just a nightmare!

The centerpiece of the collection is an exemplar of the SOKO J-22 Orao, a twin-engined – two Rolls-Royce Viper turbofans – light ground-attack and trainer aircraft from the 1970s. Designed jointly by Yugoslavia and Romania, this model equipped the Yugoslav (then Serbian) air force during the 1990s, where a handful exemplars are still flying today.

Indeed a clean design with an interesting performance, this aircraft was possibly the last heir of the Ikarus-then-SOKO lineage, originated back in the years before WWII. In this respect, some unique exemplars of aircraft are preserved in this museum, witnessing the existence of a school of skilled aircraft designers in Serbia, not much known in the western world.

A key figure of the Ikarus design bureau, Dragoljub Beslin led the design of Ikarus S-451, a nice, very small, twin-prop attack aircraft flown in 1951, especially designed to sustain high load factors in maneuvers at high speed.

Another unique specimen is the twin-jet Ikarus 451M, the first jet aircraft built by Yugoslavia. Same designer as the S-451, this unusual jet-engined taildragger flew in 1952, but was soon superseded by more modern models, in those years of quick-paced development of aviation technology. Again, the engines were from the West, in the form of two French Turbomeca Palas turbojets.

Another member of the ‘Ikarus 451’ family – it must be said this Yugoslav one is likely the oddest model numbering systems ever created… –  the T 451 MM Strsljen (Hornet) features a more convincing configuration, resembling the single-engined British BAC Jet Provost and the Italian Macchi MB 326, both rather successful trainers from the late 1950s. On display is actually the ‘Strsljen II’ version, which is a attack/training version with more thrust than the first series aircraft. This model was conceived to operate from unprepared runways, and featured two Turbomeca Marbore II French turbojets. The aircraft flew in 1958, but an air force contract was not granted.

Some functional wind tunnel models of other aircraft, actually never reaching the 1:1 prototype stage, are on display. These include a rare ekranoplane design, the UTVA 754. With a mechanic-monster-like appearance like all ekranoplanes (the most famous being probably the Bertini-Beriev preserved at the Russian Air Force Museum in Monino, see here), this machine was designed in 1982 in the then-Yugoslav town of Zagreb, today the capital city of Croatia.

A medevac aircraft conceived for easy conversion between floats and wheels, the UTVA 66H can be visited also inside. The indigenous SOKO is represented by a number of models. These include the SOKO G-2 Galeb, a successful trainer/light attack aircraft from the 1950s, built around a single Rolls-Royce Viper turbofan. During its long history it was exported to several international operators, and gave birth to the more recent SOKO J-21 Jastreb. The Galeb was in service with Serbia until 1999.

Another section of the museum features aircraft of foreign make which witness the intricate history of alliances of both the pre-WWII Kingdom of Yugoslavia and the post-WWII communist Yugoslavia. Most remarkably, these include a Messerschmitt Bf-109-G! The history of this particular aircraft is not very clear, some sources stating it was captured from Bulgarian air force. As a matter of fact, Yugoslavia acquired about 70 Bf-109-E from Germany in 1940, which in turn furiously invaded from north in a quick an violent campaign in spring 1941.

Next in line is nothing less than a British Hawker Hurricane! A group of Hurricanes were acquired from Britain in the immediate pre-war years, and even license-built in Belgrade in a small number – Yugoslavia apparently purchased aircraft seamlessly from both opponents at the outbreak of WWII. Later on, Hurricane-equipped squadrons of Yugoslavia fought back on the side of the Allies from bases in southern Italy, finally regaining control over the Balkans.

In a similar fashion, a Supermarine Spitfire Mk.V witnesses the involvement of British-supplied national air force squadrons in the liberation of Yugoslavia from the German invaders.

In the closing years of WWII, Yugoslavia benefited also from the help of the USSR. This is witnessed by a massive – and pretty rare, out of former soviet republics! – Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmovik. This big attack aircraft, possibly the most famous Soviet aircraft of WWII, equipped three squadrons in the Yugoslav air force, and helped in the fight on the so-called ‘Srem front’ north of Belgrade. An often overlooked sector of the European front, substantial operations were carried out since late 1944 until April 1945, with the forces of Nazi Germany slowly retreating under the offensive of the Red Army (including Bulgarian divisions) and of Yugoslavia from the south. These operations involved 250’000 troops on either side, thus engaging the Germans and draining resources from mainland defense. At that time, an entire division of the Yugoslav air force were equipped with this aircraft type, kept in service until the 1950s.

Similarly, an elegant WWII Yakovlev Yak-3 fighter of Soviet make can be found nearby in the colors of Yugoslavia.

After the end of WWII, Tito was determined not to surrender his political and economic independence to Stalin. In this high-stake gamble, he made no secret of his thoughts, and sought international recognition from the west. As expected, Stalin showed no sense of humor in that matter, and as the USSR broke relationships with Yugoslavia, this country faced the risk of isolation and of Soviet invasion in the early stage of the Cold War (late 1940s).

Over the years, the good relationship established with the western Allies during WWII were strengthened further, and most incredibly for a communist country, the US provided aircraft and helicopters, in the form of Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star, Republic F-84G Thunderjet and (much later, in the early 1960s) North American F-86D ‘long-nosed’ Sabre.

The years of Kennedy administration saw a significant improvement of the relationship between Tito and Khrushchev, and this led to a switch to Soviet aircraft in the form of the supersonic MiG-21, which equipped the Yugoslav air force in substantial numbers over the following two decades. An exemplar of this iconic and ubiquitous aircraft, an unquestionably well-performing aircraft in his age, is preserved in the museum. By the way, the early 1960s saw also the widespread adoption of SOKO Galeb trainers and the phase out of older British/US models.

Other peculiar exhibits in the indoor part of the museum are the wrecks resulting from air fight operations during the Yugoslavian wars of the 1990s. On the national (Yugoslav) side, the tail cone of a SOKO G-4 Super Galeb – a totally different design from the quasi-homonym G-2 – damaged by a shoulder-launched Stinger missile in 1991.

But much more material is from NATO countries, resulting from combat during operation ‘Allied Force’ against Serbia in 1999. Most notably, you can see a substantial part of the wing of a Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk, the famous stealth aircraft downed by a vintage Soviet SA-3 Goa surface-to-air missile in March 1999, as well as a landing gear, ejection seat, pilot’s helmet, Vulcan cannon and some smaller parts of a General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon downed the following May, again due to an SA-3 missile. The first stage of the missile which hit the Nighthawk is on display too.

These are basically the only aircraft lost in action over enemy territory during that operation.

An apparently easier prey, General Atomics RQ-1 Predator UAVs were used in great numbers, some twenty of them being downed. One wrecked example is put on display.

More items of the kind include parts of NATO missiles, including HARM anti-radiation missiles and cluster-bombs containers.

On the upper level, you can find a mostly photographic exhibition mainly about the national carrier JAT. Interestingly, not a single Soviet-made model appears in the pictures, whereas you can find Boeing 707s, 727s, 737s, Douglas DC-9s, McDonnell-Douglas DC-10s, Aerospatiale Caravelles and ATR-42/72s – clearly a strong commercial bound with the West, pretty unusual for a communist country!

Another Yugoslav airline started operations to a later date – Aviogenex. This apparently did use aircraft from the USSR, in particular Tupolev Tu-134s, later flanked by Boeing 737s. Aviogenex ceased operations much later than the end of Yugoslavia, and operated as a Serbian company for some years.

One of the most iconic brutalist monstrosities in northern Belgrade is the skyscraper which used to host the headquarters of this airline – it looks like a good setting for some ‘Blade Runner’ or ‘Judge Dredd’ movie…

Some more panels include descriptions of airport history and modern operations in the nearby airport of Belgrade. The history line of the national aviation industry is also presented in detail through historical pictures.

Some more aircraft can be found on this level, as well as a SA-3 Goa missile in a non-operative paint scheme, likely for training or telemetry tuning purposes.

Outdoor exhibition

The large area around the building is split between a small outdoor exhibition prepared for the public, and a larger storage area with many more aircraft which can not be neared nor walked around.

The displayed aircraft include an Aerospatiale Caravelle in the colors of JAT. This exemplar was one of three operated by this airline, and was active between 1963 and 1976.

A much elder transport, a German (French license-built) Junkers 52 with P&W engines represents a fleet of four such aircraft operated by the Yugoslav air force, complementing another group of originally German aircraft captured during the war.

An aircraft of historical significance is an Ilyushin Il-14 twin-prop transport. This aircraft was a personal goodwill gift from Khrushchev to marshal Tito, and the founding member of Yugoslav presidential fleet.

A couple of Lisunov Li-2 and some original Douglas C-47 Skytrain, of which the former is a license-built Soviet version, are on display, albeit not all complete. A MiG-21 Fishbed and a Kamov twin-rotor helicopter are also on display.

Another extremely rare item from the post-WWII years, a Short SA.6 Sealand amphibious aircraft of British make has made its way to Belgrade, after years as a transport aircraft in the Yugoslav air force.

The non-visible part of the museum features a rather impressive collection of MiG-21 in several versions, SOKO J-21 Jastreb and SOKO J-20 Kraguj in a large number, a SA-2 Guideline soviet-made SAM launcher with two missiles, and a number of partly assembled aircraft and wrecks.

A mystery item is a part of an allegedly US aircraft, apparently a part of the tail empennage of a bigger transport – any suggestion about this item welcome!

Visiting

The museum is located to the northwest of the airport of Belgrade. It can be easily reached by car from the access road going to the main terminal area. Website with info in English here. Parking ahead of the entrance.

The museum can be visited in about 2 hours by an interested subject, much less if you have just a mild interest in aviation. Much paneling is in double Serbian and English language, allowing to get the most from your visit.

Despite being fully operative, the place has a somewhat rotting appearance especially from the outside, as mostly typical to former state-run institutions in former Yugoslavia. Furthermore, some form of protection for the aircraft in the outside exhibition is hopefully to be considered by the management, otherwise the aircraft with literally disintegrate to the action of the elements in a matter of some years.

Soviet and East German Relics North of Berlin

For the full span of the Cold War, the communist German Democratic Republic has been a highly militarized region.

Due to its position right on the European border between NATO countries and the USSR-led eastern bloc, this relatively small state was kept in high consideration by the Soviet military staff in Moscow. In the re-organization of Soviet forces following the end of the Great Patriotic War (i.e. WWII), of the four Soviet groups of forces stationed in all satellite countries outside the Soviet border, one was specifically named ‘Group of Soviet Forces in Germany’. This group was headquartered in Wünsdorf, the former location of the German OKW south of Berlin (see this post), and had under its command a force of some hundred thousands troops, divided in two tank armies, an entire air army, three mixed armies and a supplementary artillery division. Supplies were in no shortage either, with some tens of fully operational airbases/tank polygons, academies and housing for all the troops and respective families.

Despite the very significant Soviet presence, the GDR invested a huge capital of its own in the development of a full-scale military strength. The East-German National People’s Army (NVA) received top-tier technology from the USSR, and did of course manufacture military supply of all sorts. Sustaining this army, together with the enormous para-military organization of the internal Ministry of Security – the ill-famed STASI – and other governmental organizations undoubtedly contributed to the economical crisis hitting the GDR in the 1980s, setting the scene for its final demise.

The region north of Berlin was particularly rich in military and governmental installations, some of them highly classified, their history shrouded into mystery. You can find some information in dedicated posts on this website (see this post, also here and here).

In this chapter, four more items of interest are featured. Two of them are abandoned tokens from Soviet occupation. A nice belle-epoque villa on the shore of the Röblingsee in Fürstenberg, where the headquarters of the 2nd Guard Tank Army was headquartered since Stalin’s era to the withdrawal of Soviet forces in the 1990s, is the first of them. The second is a unique, forgotten Soviet monument, to be found less than two miles south of Fürstenberg.

Other two points of interest are instead GDR-related. The first is the former academy for future leaders of the communist party, established in Wandlitz in the years of Stalin, and initially led by Erich Honecker, later to become the omnipotent leader of the GDR for two decades. Finally, you will find a glimpse from the so-called ‘Honecker bunker’ in Prenden. This big installation was prepared in case of war, to protect the leadership of the GDR and ensure safe communication with Moscow.

Photographs were taken in summer 2019.

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Sights

Soviet 2nd Guard Tank Army Headquarters, Fürstenberg/Havel

Among the Soviet forces permanently stationed in the GDR in case of war, there used to be two entire tank armies, the 1st and 2nd. The former was headquartered in Dresden, whereas the 2nd – named ‘Red Banner’ – in Fürstenberg/Havel.

The headquarter in Fürstenberg is basically an old villa, possibly dating to the late 19th century or a slightly more recent time. The villa is somewhat unusual in the panorama of todays Fürstenberg. This is a nice and lively touristic town, where many Berliners come to find a retreat in nature, less than 1 hour driving from home. Thanks to tourism-related activities, the area has got rid of the Soviet/East German grayness, and is now a typical village in the German countryside, graced with a creek and a small lake, where canoes and small boats are always roaming around.

In stark contrast with this, the villa is today completely abandoned, with overgrown vegetation almost hiding it from the main road. Access to the premises is easier from the back, where you first meet a typical Soviet prefabricated wall, and service buildings with evidence of a communist design – the usual yellow paint and railings on the windows with the stylized ‘radiant dawn of communist revolution’.

Getting closer to the house, you meet an access door, possibly going to a bunkerized area underneath. The house is in a really bad shape, with rotting walls, plants growing on the balconies and roof. The inside has been made completely inaccessible. A typical East German light is still hanging from the back wall.

To the front, a temple-like decoration contours the main door. It is difficult to say whether this decoration was there since the beginning, since it appears rather different in style from the rest of the villa.

A highlight of this site is the statue of Lenin still standing ahead of the front facade. The statue is in a relatively good shape. It looks like the man was portrayed during a discussion.

The concrete sculpture was accurately made, as witnessed by the facial expression and details in the embroidery of the tie.

On the front side, the villa used to be reachable with a large flight of steps climbing uphill, with Lenin on top. Today this perspective is gone, for vegetation has totally invaded the steps, and the front of the house is not visible from the street.

Getting there and moving around

The villa is located in central Fürstenberg on Steinförder Strasse (possibly) 44, on the southern side of the road. The house and its large garden estate are abandoned, but all other houses around are not. Getting closer without being spotted is easier from the backstreet. Technically speaking, the latter is accessible for residents only, so you may park somewhere else and come closer by foot. Visiting may take about 30 minutes with time for the pictures, for the house is not accessible inside.

It should be remarked that this site is probably not public, and at an unpredictable time it may be either restored or demolished – so checking it out may be not possible for long.

Soviet Monument, Fürstenberg/Havel

A rare example of Soviet commemoration monument can be found very close to Fürstenberg. Apart from the monumental sites in Berlin (see here), a number of smaller Soviet monuments are to be found around the GDR – impressive ghosts of a bygone era.

Among the best preserved are that in the former tank base of Zeithain (see this post), and this one in Fürstenberg.

The monument is composed of two parts, basically two concrete curtains facing each other on the sides of a small apron.

The smaller panel to the south is the most intriguing. It is apparently a celebration of an economic plan of the Soviet Union. It is all about the growth in production in several areas of industry and farming, likely resulting from careful planning by the top of the Soviet government.

Between a citation from Lenin and a stylized image of the Kremlin, several panels cite one by one the increases in production of anything from oil to weapons, from milk to corn.

To the back of the monument, the only remaining feature is a remarkable head of Lenin, with yet another citation. It is likely that other features have been removed by vandals, as empty frames can be seen aligned along this face of the monument.

The larger panel to the north is a celebration of the march to Berlin during the Great Patriotic War, likely related to specific actions of the Guard Tank Armies. The central slab features an image of the Soviet monument in Treptower Park, Berlin – one the most famous commemorative monuments in the Soviet Union, as witnessed by numerous images to be found still today in many museums in the former USSR (see for instance here).

Close by, reproductions of decorations and captions of what happened on some days of 1944 and 1945 are reported.

On the left panel you can see a reproduction of the march to Berlin, from the battlegrounds in the USSR, through central Europe and Germany. It is likely that some metal parts of the monument once used to connect the ‘points of interest’, but these have disappeared due to vandalism.

On the right wing of the monument the names of Heroes of the Soviet Union possibly from the Guard Tank Armies are cited one by one. Close by, the image of the ‘Soviet Motherland Calling’, pretty usual in Soviet war iconography, can be found together with other typical emblems.

Getting there and moving around

This monument is not maintained nor protected. It is open air, unfenced and freely accessible. It will be hopefully restored or moved to a museum, as the weather and vandals are taking their tolls. It can be reached along the road 96 about 1 mile south of Fürstenberg, immediately to the west of the road. A small unofficial parking area can be found ahead of it, making a quick visit really easy.

Free German Youth Academy & Joseph Goebbels Manor, Wandlitz

Deep in the countryside about 25 miles north of Berlin, about 3 miles from the small touristic village of Wandlitz, you can find a couple of highlights from the troublesome past of Germany, sitting side by side, close to the small Bogensee lake.

The first is the country estate of Joseph Goebbels, the famous minister for education and propaganda in the years of the Nazi dictatorship. This villa has been built in the war years, and often used by its owner, also for receiving guests. Goebbels obtained the estate as a birthday present from the Nazi Party.

Incredibly, the manor, built in a typical German country style, was not demolished after the war – so unlike other residences belonging to Hitler or his fellows, it is still there to see. It survived denazification, Soviet occupation and 40 years in the GDR as part of a school (see below).

The outside is the only part you can see. The appearance is sober, with simple lines and not much vertical elevation – it nicely integrates in the natural setting.

Access to the courtyard is from a small road, now part of the inner network of the larger complex surrounding the manor.

This complex is actually the other peculiar item you can find in Wandlitz. This enormous academy was built in 1951, on behalf of the Free German Youth (FDJ), a youth-training organization founded and originally run by Erich Honecker, later to become the general secretary of the communist party of the GDR in the 1970s and 1980s.

The academy was designed by Hermann Henselmann the same architect who designed Karl-Marx-Allee in the Soviet sector of Berlin – one of the most iconic ‘Stalin’s-style’ perspectives in the world. The complex is composed of two large opposing buildings, on the short sides of an internal courtyard. These hosted common areas, lecture rooms and a theater.

Along the longer sides of the courtyard are buildings with bedrooms and services for around 500 students.

The academy was for the future staff of the communist party, and in later years of the Cold War it was attended also by international students from communism-leaning nations, or sometimes even from NATO countries.

Following the collapse of the GDR, the building went on hosting educational institutions until the early 2000s, owned by the regional government. It was then mostly shut off, with some ancillary buildings still hosting institutions connected with the administration of the natural preserve around. It was put up for sale, for a while, but all potential customers failed to present satisfactory conversion plans. An expensive and inconvenient ghost from a forgotten era, as of 2019 its fate has not been sealed yet.

Today the place is not completely abandoned. Basic preservation works are being carried out, thus avoiding the roof to collapse or the walls to rotten. The names of the blocks are likely not from the GDR years. Similarly, a board with notices and maps dating from later than 1989 can still be seen, a witness of the post-GDR activity.

The garden is not growing totally wild, and some architectural addition must have been tried in a recent past – like a small modern fountain ahead of the common building to the southwest of the complex. The buildings are still supplied with electrical power – there are lit lights above some doors – and it is discretely guarded to avoid vandalism.

Getting there and moving around

Accessing the area is possible following the L29 from Wandlitz. About 1 mile from the village, the road changes its name to Wandlitzer Strasse. There is a local road with limited access taking to the east. You may park there, and proceed along the road by foot for about .5 miles to reach the heart of the complex. This is surrounded by private houses. There is no fence, but there are proximity sensors which trigger an inspection. I was reached by a warden on a car soon after my arrival. He spotted me, but did not come close, likely noticing I was just taking pictures outside.

The site is rather mysterious and well worth a quick visit for interested subjects. Touring the site will not take more than 45 minutes, taking all the pictures.

Honecker Bunker, Prenden

Geographically very close to the academy in Wandlitz (see above) – less than 1 straight mile away – the bunker in Prenden is the central piece of a network of bunkers and military hardware, designed an built on behalf of the National Defense Council (NVR) of the GDR from 1973 onward, and named ‘komplex 5000’. The purpose was protection of the leadership of the GDR in case of a crisis or attack from the West.

The bunker is Prenden, technically listed as ’17/5001′, was a control center of incredible sophistication, designed to withstand nuclear blasts, and with direct communication with other sub-nodes of a larger communication network, thus granting safe communication and broadcasting ability, allowing to lead the country in case of a crisis. The bunker was intended to host the general secretary of the communist party, i.e. Erich Honecker, when the bunker was commissioned in 1983 – hence the unofficial name ‘Honecker bunker’.

The premises of Prenden are now largely in private hands, but some parts are apparently publicly accessible – the original fence has been completely torn down. The bunker itself is sealed, and can be accessed only on a few days per year with a guide.

The official entrance to the area is through the original GDR-made gate. This is closed however, for it is now the entrance to a small private industrial complex.

Traces of the original fence, as well as piping and vents for underground rooms, can be found around the hill on top of which the installation is standing.

Some service buildings in typical communist style can be still found, despite demolition works having taken place. Proximity sensors and signs delimit the private property area.