JFK’s Last Trip to Fort Worth and Dallas

The murder of President Kennedy in Dallas on November 22nd, 1963 is possibly one of the most well-known news stories from the 20th century. Since then, most theories put forward by both the official prosecutors and wannabe investigators after the crime never appeared completely acceptable.

The main defendant, Lee Harvey Oswald, was shot dead by likely-mafia-affiliated Jack Ruby, two days after Kennedy had been shot. This happened before any court hearing of Oswald, who always protested his complete innocence.

But Oswald was spotted on the crime scene, and his life before that fatal day had not been normal in any respect. Grown up a very poor man from the New Orleans, he enlisted in the USMC, spent years in Japan, changed home at a high pace in the continental US, between New York and Louisiana, learned Russian, applied for Soviet citizenship, established himself in an fantastic flat in Minsk, Belarus (see this account about Minsk), at the height of the Cold War, married a lady from the USSR, moved back to the US with his wife and their baby, collaborated with  communist movements in America while living of nothing in the south of the Nation, appeared in Cuba and Mexico in the years of the Kennedy administration, and finally decided it was time to kill President Kennedy, accused by a part of the military and political establishment of being excessively left-leaning during his years at the White House.

Maybe this man materially acted alone on the day of the shooting – something strongly adversed by many eyewitnesses and even scientists and analysts, based on ballistics – but with a curriculum so pointed of oddities, especially for the geopolitical situation of the 1950s and early 1960s, it is hard to imagine he was not part of something bigger.

An excessive number of pretended coincidences in the reconstruction by the investigators have largely discredited the official theories, in turn creating a mystery around the actual crime.

As time is passing and people involved are disappearing, chance to find the truth about the intricate plot behind the assassination are waning. Yet this unsolved crime has fueled decades of controversy, with tens if not hundreds of books written, as well as TV series and blockbuster movies produced – and it is still an intriguing topic for many, who come to see the famous Dealey Plaza in Dallas, where the shooting took place, making the local museum in the Texas School Book Repository one of Texas’ five all-time most visited attractions.

Being in the exact place where the famous Zapruder movie was recorded produces of course a strong impression. Yet there are more places in Dallas and Fort Worth related to the famous last visit of JFK to this major industrial focus of the nation, which albeit less impressive than the actual crime scene, may be interesting to find and visit for the most committed visitors.

This post portrays some of the most famous and of the least known places connected with Kennedy fateful 1963 trip to Texas. Photographs were taken in summer 2018.

Map

This map reports the focal points of President Kennedy’s visit to Texas on November 21st-22nd, 1963.

Kennedy flew in and out Fort Worth from Carswell AFB (now NAS Fort Worth reserve base), arriving on November 21st, and departing in the morning of November 22nd to Dallas Love Field – a very short hop for Air Force One.

You can see places in Fort Worth and Dallas connected with both the actual and scheduled route of Kennedy’s visit (blue placeholders), plus the route of the motorcade from Love Field to Dealey Plaza and back (blue line), with a stop at Parkland Memorial Hospital, where JFK was pronounced dead at 1:00 pm, November 22nd.

Orange placeholders are locations connected with the shooting – where JFK was (surely) hit, famous spots on the crime scene, etc.

The movements of L.H. Oswald have been partly reconstructed by the prosecutors, where some have been ascertained based on sightings by witnesses. These are shown in yellow and red respectively on the map. Red placeholders show the location of Oswald sightings or places connected with his story.

Green placeholders show the positions of notable monuments connected with the assassination of President Kennedy.

Navigate this post – click on links to scroll

Sights

Sights are listed going along the time-line of the days of JFK’s visit.

Hotel Texas (now Hilton) & JFK Tribute, Fort Worth

President Kennedy spent the night between November 21st and 22nd in the Texas Hotel, located on Main Street in central Fort Worth. Today this nice, early 1920s building is still there, listed among historic landmarks. It has changed hands more times in the last decades, and is now run by Hilton, with the name Hilton Fort Worth. Built on the opposite side of the square where the convention center is located, it is still today a primary business hotel in town.

In the square ahead of the hotel is a monument dedicated to JFK, with a statue and citations. This was the location of the last public speech the President gave, before breakfast on November 22nd.

Later on that day, he held a scheduled speech in a hall of Hotel Texas, before going to Carswell AFB (now NAS Fort Worth), west of downtown, to board Air Force One to Dallas Love Field. Air Force Two soon followed.

Dealey Plaza, Dallas

Monuments in Dealey Plaza

The curious composition of white colonnades and pergola-shaped monuments in Dealey Plaza is the result of an architectural master plan for the area, completed in 1940.

Despite the weird aura that will enshroud the square for many years to come, the composition is actually very nice, with two opposing fountains ahead of the colonnades welcoming you when entering the square from Main Street. This is exactly what the motorcade did, turning right on Houston Street and first left on Elm street, where JFK was hit (see map).

The pergola on the ‘grassy knoll’

The northernmost part of the composition in Dealey Plaza is a curved white pergola, placed on top of a knoll, at an elevation of roughly 10 ft above the road. This is a vantage point for watching Elm street, which starts descending gently from Houston Street towards the railway triple underpass. It was here that Zapruder was standing, together with many eyewitnesses, shooting his now super-famous video (see map).

You can get a 360° view from close where Zapruder was standing from this video.

Here you see an example photo sequence of a car passing by along Elm Street, following the same route of the presidential motorcade.

A crowd was standing also on the southern side of Elm Street, at the level of the road, from where the pergola and the wooden fence on top of the grassy knoll can be seen very clearly. Looking uphill towards Houston Street, you can see the Texas School Book Repository, and the half-open window from were somebody fired at the motorcade.

‘X-marks’ on Elm Street

Two white X-marks have been painted on the ground where, based on official investigation and findings, President Kennedy was hit, while his motorcade was driving along Elm Street.

The first is located immediately after the crossing with Houston Street, where the motorcade turned left. The pictures below shows the window on the sixth floor of the book repository from the spot of the hit (actually behind a tree), and the wooden fence under the trees on top of the grassy knoll. The wooden fence has been indicated by many as the position of a second shooter, and some have sustained they saw shots coming from there.

Taking into account the elevation from the ground of the window on the sixth floor of the book repository, the total distance to this first X-mark is similar to that from the fence. Yet the trajectory of a shot from the fence would have come dangerously close to Zapruder and all folks between the knoll and the sidewalk.

The second X-mark, that of the fatal shot to the President’s head, is located further west. Looking from here again to the window on the sixth floor and to the fence, it is apparent that the latter spot would be a far easier point for shooting – very close -, while on the other hand recording a hit from the former would be a real challenge.

Close by the X-mark corresponding to the fatal shot, the National Historic Landmark placard of Dealey Plaza has been placed on the sidewalk.

You can get a clear impression of how fast everything must have happened watching this video of my car running along the route of the motorcade, from Main Street down to under the triple underpass.

The wooden fence on top of the ‘grassy knoll’

The fence on top of the grassy knoll divides the grass on the northern end of Dealey Plaza from a parking area on the side of the book repository. The elevation over Elm Street and the little distance from it, makes this place a good spot for targeting a car passing on the position of the second X-mark – that corresponding to the fatal shot.

To the back of the fence, the old railway switching tower from the 1910s played a part in the mystery. On the morning of the assassination, Lee Bowers was on service in the tower. He reported to the prosecutors that about 15 minutes before the shooting he had noticed a car slowly circling in the parking. At the time of the shooting two figures were standing by the fence, and he saw fire and smoke coming from their position. He provided details about the cars and an these men.

Lee Bowers died in a car crash without witnesses in summer 1966, when he gently launched his car out of the road while driving alone in the countryside somewhere near Midlothian, south of Dallas.

The triple underpass

This Art Deco railway bridge, dating from older times than the monuments in Dealey Plaza, is another good vantage point for a comprehensive sight of the stage of the assassination.

It has been supported that a witness standing on the grass south of Elm Street and close to the underpass was wounded by a fragment of the curb, produced by a bullet hit. This might have been a missed shot.

Texas School Book Repository & Sixth Floor Museum, Dallas

The building of the book repository, located on the northern side of the crossing between Houston and Elm, has been taken over by the city government for administrative functions. A museum has been opened on the sixth floor, from where shots were allegedly fired against the motorcade.

The museum is very modern. After paying by the entrance, you are given an audio-guide and you are directed to an elevator going up to the sixth floor.

You can walk along a nice exhibition mostly based on tons of photographs and reproductions of original documents, papers, agencies, documents, dossiers, and so on. Before showing the chronicle of events during the last trip of JFK and the events of the assassination, you are told about the general political and social situation in the years of Kennedy administration, so as to reconstruct the big picture and the meaning of this trip. There was much criticism about it, and you can see some unwelcoming headlines from newspapers, telling about a tense political situation in Texas. There are several videos playing loop.

Of course, an accurate reconstruction of the shooting is the main topic of the exhibition. Frames from the many videos recorded by the witnesses allow to have an almost second-by-second account of the last minute in the life of JFK.

Far less known than others are some pictures of the motorcade taken seconds after the shooting, when the cars accelerated under the triple underpass, with men of the secret service bent over the wounded President. Witnesses on the opposite side of the underpass had not noticed the shooting, and they were probably stunned watching the motorcade rushing away.

There is a dinner set from the scheduled luncheon Kennedy was heading to, prepared in the Dallas Trade Mart. A picture of the announcement of the assassination to the attendees of the luncheon waiting for the President is particularly striking. Detailed maps are displayed of the motorcade route, of the movements of L.H. Oswald, and of the emergency rooms of the Parkland Memorial Hospital where JFK, Vice President Johnson and Governor Connelly were given medical assistance.

A highlight of the museum is the area around the corner window from where shots were fired. An accurate reconstruction of the exact position of the boxes around the shooter’s position has been set up, based on photographs from the time.

Access to the window is interdicted, but you can get an idea of the view enjoyed from there from the third window from the corner.

Further items of interest include cameras and video recorders used by the witnesses, and a detailed map of the standpoints of most witnesses who made a video recording, or did take pictures.

An area of the exhibition is dedicated to Oswald, his arrest and his murder in the Police headquarters, which took place on November 24th, 2 days after JFK was killed. You can see copies of official documents, a ring belonging to L.H.Oswald, and the suit worn by Detective Jim Leavelle – the man portrayed in the video of the assassination of L.H. Oswald by Jack Ruby, leading Oswald out. At the time of writing, Texas-borne Jim Leavelle, borne 1920, is one of the few living primary witnesses of that dramatic episode.

Finally, the place where the old rifle used to fire at the motorcade from the window was found soon after the shooting, with Oswald fingerprints, has been reconstructed with the same accuracy of the firing position.

Parkland Memorial Hospital, Dallas

After the shooting, the motorcade accelerated keeping on the scheduled route (see map). It is noteworthy that the Trade Mart, where JFK should have had lunch, is not far from the Parkland Memorial Hospital, which is between the Trade Mart building and Love Field (see map).

President Kennedy and Governor Connelly were quickly drawn into emergency rooms, whereas soon-to-be-president Lyndon B. Johnson received medical attention in another area.

Officer Tippit’s Murder Scene, Dallas

Soon after he was spotted in the Texas School Book Repository minutes after the shooting, L.H. Oswald left for home. Initially caught in the traffic after taking a bus, he moved around pointlessly not far from Dealey Plaza, finally taking a cab to go home. He got off some blocks past his house, where he returned by foot (see map). He soon left, and at about 1:15 pm, 45 minutes after the assassination of JFK, he reportedly killed police officer Tippit in a quiet residential area. The place is marked by a placard (see map).

Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested less than an hour later, on account of Tippit’s murder. Only hours after his arrest, during the night of November 22nd, he was accused of the assassination of President Kennedy.

Texas Theater, Dallas

After shooting officer Tippit, Oswald left along Jefferson Boulevard, presumably walking to the Texas Theater. This movie theater, with a flamboyant front facade, used to be owned by Howard Hughes, and it was the first in Texas with air conditioning.

L.H. Oswald was arrested at about 1:50 pm, about ten minutes after he had entered the theater, 1 hour and 20 minutes after the murder of JFK.

JFK Memorial Plaza, Dallas

A monument to President Kennedy, designed by Philip Johnson, was erected in 1970 one block east of Dealey Plaza (see map). The monument, made of concrete, resembles an empty tomb.

Getting There and Moving Around

The JFK monument in Fort Worth is in a public park, as well as the JFK memorial in Dallas. They can be neared at all times.

Dealey Plaza is regularly open to car traffic, as you can see from the videos above. Parking is possible in the many public parkings around the area. Once there, you can move around freely at all times.

I drove along all the route of Kennedy’s motorcade, which except for a few closed roads can be done still today. Very nice indeed, as you will cross beautiful downtown Dallas. Of course, you can follow the route of Kennedy’s car in Dealey Plaza, as shown in the videos above.

The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza is a world-class, up-to-date museum, and one of the most visited attractions in Texas. Website here.

Base Tuono – Cold War Surface-To-Air Missiles in Italy

Just like West Germany, post-WWII Italy found itself on the border with a communist dictatorship, Marshal Tito’s Yugoslavia. Even though Tito and the government of the USSR were never close friends, from the viewpoint of the western alliances Yugoslavia represented a potential threat.

This mistrust was also a result of the aggressive policy Yugoslavia had adopted against Italy after WWII, imposing the cession of a piece of traditionally Italian territory in the northeast part of the country as a war compensation. This had triggered a significant migration of the local population, who was trying to escape from communism to mainland Italy and abroad. This added to the bitterness of the Italian-Yugoslavian relationship, to the point that the new border was not formally settled until the 1970s.

Italy was among the founding members of anti-communist NATO in 1949. This meant the chance to take part in a coordinated defense effort against the eastern bloc. Among the tangible results of this cooperation was the adoption of American war material, including aircraft and, as soon as they became a reliable war asset, missiles.

Considering air defense, besides a number of manned aircraft, the airspace of western Europe was protected by two defensive lines of surface-to-air missiles (SAM) extending roughly from the North Sea to the area around Venice on the Mediterranean. This was studied especially to counteract bombing raids carried out by a great number of enemy bombers simultaneously attacking from the east. This huge defense system was based on the US-designed Nike and Hawk missile platforms, and deployment started in the late 1950s.

SAM installations in Italy comprised the low to intermediate altitude Hawks, with a quick reaction capacity against low-level intruders. These were managed by the local Army. High altitude Nike-Ajax and later Nike-Hercules missiles were operated by the Italian Air Force against high-altitude targets, typically bombers. New dedicated groups were established since 1959, trained in the US to work with the new missile platform. At its height, the Nike force in Italy counted on 16 such groups, apparently corresponding to as many launch bases.

Concerning the effectiveness of the Nike defense line, it soon became obsolete, in the sense that a significant part of the strategic deterrent was transferred to ICBMs by both the NATO countries and the USSR. As a result, SAM defensive lines conceived against aircraft intrusion and low-level attacks would turn out more useful than the high-altitude and high-yield Nike-Hercules. As a matter of fact, all Nike platforms were deactivated in Italy and everywhere in Europe by the early 1980s, well before the end of communism in Europe.

Following deactivation, most bases, stripped of all hardware of any value, were simply locked up and abandoned. In Germany very few traces of this extensive system remain to this day (see this post). Together with the US, Italy is possibly the only country where this fragment of military history is documented through the active preservation of one of the former SAM launch bases.

The Nike-Hercules base preserved in Italy is called ‘Base Tuono’ – ‘tuono’ meaning ‘thunder’ in Italian language – and was operated between 1966 and 1977. It is in a gorgeous mountainous setting in the northeastern Alps, about an hour from the little town of Trento. After years of disrepair, a part of it has been refurbished with original material and opened as a beautiful, partly open-air museum, where you can get a lively impression of how the base would have looked like in the years of operations.

The following photographs are from a visit to ‘Base Tuono’ in Autumn 2018.

Sights

Nike batteries were composed of two connected but geographically separated areas, an integrated fire control area (IFC) and a launch control area (LCA). In the first resided the electronic aiming part, comprising all the antennas and electronic gear necessary to collimate the target, compute the expected kill point of the missile, and to track and guide the missile to that point. The launch area was composed of an array of three flat concrete pads, each supplied with a hangar for storing the missiles, gantries for putting typically three missiles at a time (per pad) in launch position, and a concrete shelter to oversee and trigger the launch sequence. An extensive description of the Nike SAM system can be found on this excellent dedicated resource website.

Due to the features of the radar guidance system, the IFC had to stay in line of sight from the LCA, and at a higher – but not excessively higher – elevation. At ‘Base Tuono’, due to the mountainous setting, the two areas are not far, yet they are not easily accessible from one another. Furthermore, what remains today of the former base is all concentrated in the launch area. One of the three original pads – ‘Alpha’ – has been preserved, where the other two – ‘Bravo’ and ‘Charlie’ – and other ancillary buildings as well, have been completely demolished, and a water basin can be found in their place. All installations and housing in the former control area on top of a local peak – Mount Toraro – have been wiped out, but you can get an impression of the original plan of this part of the base walking around on your own.

Launch Control Area

The launch pad ‘Alpha’ is the focus of the museum. Approaching from the parking, which is located close to the site of the former barracks and canteen, you can spot from the distance three Nike-Hercules missiles aligned in vertical launch position. A water basin covers a large part of the former base, as you can see from historical pictures. Launch pads ‘Bravo’ and ‘Charlie’ are totally gone, similarly to the original outer fence delimiting the large perimeter of the installation.

Getting closer to the launch pad ‘Alpha’ you can notice an array of radar antennas, which were originally in the IFC area on top of Mount Toraro. The area of the launch pad features a reconstructed inner fence, which was in place around each pad in the original base.

The pad is basically rectangular in shape, with a hangar on one side, a protection rim and the launch control bunker on two opposing sides and a free side where today you can find the ticket office.

Three missiles are placed on top of their launch gantries. The gantries are part of a sophisticated rail system, designed to allow an easy side motion of the missiles from inside the hangar to their respective launch positions outside. The missiles were stored horizontally in the hangar to the far top of the rail on trolleys. When being readied for launch, the trolleys were pushed along the rail to the launch position, where the trolley was joined to the gantry. The missiles were raised to a vertical attitude together with the trolley with the help of a lift, which was a movable part of the gantry.

While the pavement is covered in asphalt, you can see the gantries and the rail system are staying on hard concrete foundations. These are among the few remains you see in the German Nike site covered in this post.

Inside the hangar you can spot a Nike Hercules missile, with lateral cutouts to expose the inner structure. These reveal the four-canister solid-propellant booster stage, which was ignited first and was separated from the bullet-shaped second stage when exhausted. The latter features the warhead, the electromechanical rigs of the guidance system, and a single solid-propellant sustainer rocket engine. The rocket had a range of about 25 miles, and a top speed over Mach 3, making it a really remarkable piece of technology especially compared to the soviet counterparts of the time.

All around the missile in the hangar you can see inner parts of the missile itself and of the ground fire control system as well. There are also panels with the history of the base, and original warning signs and instructions painted on the inner walls of the hangar – and similarly on other walls of the base. These writings are in double language, both in Italian and English. While the base was managed by the Italian Air Force, such installations were integrated in the NATO defense line, so many procedures of the Italian Air Force were in English. Furthermore, US military staff was required on site ‘by design’ in case of operations with nuclear warheads, which the Hercules could optionally carry. Nuclear warheads were never deployed to this base though.

Further items on display around the three missiles on the open apron include an old Nike-Ajax missile, a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter – the Italian Air Force was the last in the world to retire this model from service, as late as 2004 – and two trailers aligned in a row. The trailers are the battery control trailer, or BCT, and the radar control trailer, or RCT. Both trailers were originally in the IFC area of the base, and were operated by the staff responsible for offensive operations. In the days of operation, there was always somebody on duty in the trailers.

The BCT is, roughly speaking, where targets were designated, the kill point computed and the launch sequence triggered. The most notable feature are the two computerized plotting boards used to identify the target and to define the flight trajectory of the missile. The LOPAR detection radar and the identification friend-or-foe (IFF) radar reported information to this trailer, which coordinated the attack.

In the RCT stood the operators of the TTR and TRR radars, which were responsible for keeping trace of the target and for monitoring the missile during the flight towards the designated kill point.

To the back of the two trailers, it is possible to spot the rectangular shapes of the LOPAR radar and of the smaller IFF radar. The two round-shaped antennas are the TTR and TRR radars. In many pictures they are portrayed inside a bulbous cover, conferring them a distinctive spherical shape.

The concrete bunker to the opposite side of the launch pad with respect to the trailers is a protected room for the launch section panel, which is a kind of control panel for triggering the launch sequence of the missiles. The bunker served as a shelter for the operators of the launch section, for remaining on the outside in the vicinity of the missiles during launch operations was extremely dangerous.

During the guided visit, you are given a demonstration of the launch sequence from inside the control room, which is insulated from the outside with double tight doors. The firing procedure was quite complicated. Actually, it was a direct signal traveling along a cable connection from the battery trailer that gave the go to the missiles. Yet there were redundancies for increased safety, and it was possible to trigger the entire launch sequence from within the firing section, in case communication with the BCT was lost. During normal operations, the OK from the operator of the control panel in the bunker had the function of a further go/no go safety layer for the launch.

A trailer with a panel similar to that in the bunker can be found outside. This likely represented a further redundancy, or like the F-104 it is a piece coming from somewhere else.

To the back of the bunker with the fire section panel you can find an original watchtower from a US base in northern Italy, similar to the towers originally in place around the missile base. Close by, there is a nice example of the canisters used to the transport the stages of the Nike-Hercules, as well as the crane used to assemble it. There is also a further example of the second stage of the missile.

Getting there and moving around

The ‘Alpha’ battery of the launch control area is open as a museum, called ‘Base Tuono’. It is located on the road SP143, which departs from Folgaria, a small town about 12 miles south of the regional capital town Trento. You can find clear roadsigns leading to the site from Folgaria.

The museum has opening times, visiting is generally possible on a self-guided basis. Access to the bunker and the trailers is possible only on guided tours. All information on their website (in English). Large free parking about 0.2 miles away from the entrance.

There is much to see for technically minded subjects, but the visit will be surely appealing for children too. I would recommend to allocate at least 45 minutes for the visit, and up to 2 hours if you want to take a guided tour and take all the pictures on your own. The scenery around is gorgeous, so it will be easy to combine this destination with a nature trail or with other tourist destination in the area.

Integrated Fire Control Area

This is where the radars and trailers used to stay, together with barracks and service buildings. It can be found about 2 miles south east direct line of sight from the launch pad, on top of Mount Toraro. Differently from the launch control area, this area has been demolished and sanitized. No buildings remain in place, yet some of the former foundations and platforms to anchor the trailers can still be seen.

Reaching to the top of the peak is interesting to appreciate the view of the launch site from here. Unfortunately, at the time of my visit low clouds obstructed the sight.

Getting there and moving around

Even though the wide original road to reach this part of the base still exists, for some reason access to the top of the mountain is not allowed by car. In order to get to the trailhead from the museum, you can take your car and keep going southeast along the SP143 for about 1.5 miles. As you go ahead, the road will change the name to SP92 on your nav. Soon after the road starts descending, you will find the trailhead to your right, with a horizontal obstacle and a prohibition sign for cars. You may park there. It is likely the trail to the top of Mount Toraro will be on your nav too, for it is basically a normal road. The distance to walk to the top is about 1 mile, along the former service road to the base – covered in asphalt, gently ascending, no risk of any kind.

Soviet Airbases in the GDR – Third Chapter

The BEST pictures from Soviet bases in the GDR
ALL in ONE BOOK!

Soviet Ghosts in Germany

GRAB IT in PAPERBACK or KINDLE from your national Amazon store!
amazon.com | amazon.de | amazon.co.uk
amazon.it | amazon.fr | amazon.co.jp

As mentioned in previous chapters on the same topic – you can find the first and second here – the territory of the GDR was cluttered with an uncommonly high number of military bases, run either by the local Armed Forces of the GDR (‘German Democratic Republic’) or by the Soviet Union. This was also due to the great strategic relevance of the area, placed right in the center of Europe and on the border with ‘the West’.

Soon after the reunification of the two halves of Germany and the withdrawal of the Red Army after the collapse of the USSR, most Soviet/Russian bases in Germany were deemed unnecessary by the new federal government, hence they were converted into something else. Airbases have been turned most typically into solar powerplants or, more rarely, into general aviation airports. Armored cavalry training areas have been largely cleaned up, and allocated as land for reforestation.

Despite large parts of these installations having been recycled to some other function, substantial traces – and sometimes even more – of these once prominent and populated bases can be found still today. These include many technical buildings, like aircraft shelters, hangars for maintenance, weapon storages, bunkers, … as well as housing and buildings for the families of Soviet troopers. Needless to say, this kind of stuff is of primary interest for urban explorers and war historians as well, for these places – besides being really creepy and often preserving a ‘Soviet ghost aura’ which may appeal to a part of the public… – are usually full of lively traces of the Soviet occupation, like signs in Cyrillic alphabet, murals, monuments and Lenin’s heads, which make for an interesting memento of the recent past, when the map of Europe looked pretty much different from now.

In this post you can find a pictorial description of a visit to the two airbases of Sperenberg and Finsterwalde, south of Berlin, the airbase of Grossenhain, close to Dresden, plus a quick chapter on the former tank regiment base of Zeithain, close to the sport town of Riesa – not an airbase, but convenient to visit and well worth a quick stop when going to Grossenhain. Photographs have been taken in spring 2017.

As for the second chapter, some historical photos from the collectible book Rote Plätze – Russische Miltärfluglplätze Deutschland 1945-1994 have been included to allow for a ‘now and then’ comparison. I do not own the copyright for those pics.

Navigate this post – Click on links to scroll

Sperenberg

The Soviet airbase of Sperenberg stands out in the panorama of the facilities of the Red Army in the GDR for two reasons.

Firstly, it was not an attack base, but the primary logistic airport of the Soviets in Eastern Germany. The place was developed with air transport in mind, so differently from most bases around, there are no shelters for deadly MiGs or Sukhois ‘mosquitos’, but instead enormous open-air aprons, hangars and parking bays for Antonov and Ilyushin monster-size transports, as well as for bulky Mil helicopters. The place even bolsters a small passenger terminal for military staff, a truly unique feature. The proximity to Wünsdorf, a small town in Brandenburg which since the end of WWII and until 1994 hosted the headquarters of the Soviet Forces in Germany (covered in this post), may have played a role in defining the function of this base.

Secondarily, Sperenberg was simply shut down at the time of the withdrawal of Soviet/Russian forces, but was never converted into something else – at least at the time of writing. This makes it truly a one-of-a-kind item for lovers of ‘ghost airbases’, for here everything, including all taxiways and the runway, is still there. Nature is fiercely reclaiming much of the area, which is nowadays completely surrounded and partly submerged by a wild forest – making the silent remains of the base look even more creepy, unnatural and haunted…

The installation is also very big – similar to an average-size civil airport – , and besides the airside part, there is also an extensive array of residential buildings for the troops. For the major point of interest of the place is the preserved – for now… – airport infrastructure, I concentrated on that, neglecting the barracks and housing. This was also due to the latter being closer to the old main gate to the base, and standing to the available information there are rangers and local citizens who sometimes keep that part under watch. With only a basic knowledge of German, I think it’s better to take all countermeasures to avoid misunderstandings, thus enjoying a reasonably safe and undisturbed exploration…

Sights

In order to reduce the chance of a contact with the locals, it makes sense to intrude into the perimeter from the northeast, heading southwest directly to the center of the airport, leaving the housing part to the east. This will result in a multi-miles walk in the trees, along former service roads, now seldom used by woodcutters. Sooner or later, you will meet the original fence of the base, with concrete posts, barbed wire and an unpaved service road for service cars running all around it.

In order to make your way through the wilderness, unless you are from that very district and have a (very) good knowledge of the area, you will need a GPS. I profitably used the Ulmon app on my iPhone. It worked perfectly, all paths were precisely indicated. The external fence around the northwest area is very well preserved. The function of the first group of buildings I came across with is not very clear. You can clearly spot them on aerial photos of the base, to the northwest of the main part of the apron, connected to the airside area with a long straight service road aligned in a northwest-southeast direction.

I guess the facility may have been a former fuel deposit – there is a large maneuver area possibly for trucks, an inner fence for further protection, a water deposit, possibly for firefighting, and a strange array of aligned pipe ends made of concrete, pointing vertically.

Going southwards to reach the apron area, I came across an abandoned… Soviet boot, plus some more mysterious buildings, clearly blown up at a certain point in history, and possibly not built by the Soviets. These resembled in shape the cannon bunkers placed by Nazi Germany on the northern coast of France, constituting the backbone of the ‘Atlantic Wall’. Maybe residuals from an even farther back era?

After crossing another fence – again, concrete posts and barbed wire – and going through a really wild trail in the trees, basically not signed except for traces of animals everywhere, I appeared on the apron in the northwesternmost part of the airport, with a huge array of parking bays for transport aircraft. Reportedly Antonov An-12s and Tupolev Tu-134s used to be placed in this area, as you can see also from historical pictures.