Bunker Kossa – A Preserved Cold War Military Bunker in the GDR

Heading to Berlin or the former GDR? Looking for traces of the Cold War open for a visit?

A Travel Guide to COLD WAR SITES in EAST GERMANY

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The history of the underground installation in Kossa-Söllichau begins in the 1930s under Hitler’s rule.

In 1935, an affiliated company of the German chemicals giant WASAG, named Deutsche Sprengchemie Moschwig and devoted to the mass production of explosives for warfare use, had a new plant built in the rather uninhabited forest area between Leipzig and Wittenberg.

The plant, codenamed ‘Beech’ (or ‘Buche’ in German), was updated over the years and turned into a major production center for several models of shells and high-explosive charges. A primary contractor of the German Army, the company also held relevant patents, including one for hollow charge grenades.

By the end of WWII in April 1945, when the area fell under Soviet control and production was halted, the plant counted 3.600 employees, and had a production capacity of around 600.000 ammunitions per month. It had been provided with a dedicated road and railway connection, and built mostly underground, with several concrete bunkers surfacing from the grassy terrain around.

Following the Potsdam agreement (July 1945), the area was completely flattened by the hand of the Soviets, similar to some other production facilities in Germany. Demolition had been completed by the end of 1947. Following that, the area remained silent for more than a decade.

By the early 1960s, with the Cold War and rearmament in full swing, the the Nationale Volksarmee, or NVA – the short name of the Armed Forces of the GDR – had been long established as an ally of the Red Army. The latter was physically present in Germany with a huge number of troops and war material, having taken over many of the former German bases from WWII (see here or here for instance). However, the GDR clearly had its own Armed Forces, which actually could count on high-quality war material, typically either manufactured in Germany or supplied by the USSR. More and more locations – especially the most secluded and easy to hide – got surrounded by fences, and ended under the control of the NVA for many different purposes.

Deployed on the border with the West, and considered a reliable and well-trained partner by the Red Army, the NVA was included in the war plans conceived in Moscow, intended to unfold in the event of an open war with the neighbor NATO Countries. The NVA had two larger military districts, south of Berlin (III) and north of Berlin (V). In case of war, district III would give birth to a 3rd Army of mixed GDR/USSR forces, to quickly push towards the south-west into Federal Germany (heading to Koblenz), and from there to the Atlantic coast, to be reached in a matter of a few days.

The headquarter of the 3rd Army was in the so-called ‘Mosel’ bunker, an underground command facility near the town of Zwickau, today converted for an alternate use and not visible at all.

An alternate control site, which was also primarily involved in drills and training, was built in the area of the former ‘Beech’ installation, and took the name of ‘Bunkeranlage’ (i.e. bunker installation) Kossa-Söllichau. This site was prepared in the years 1976-79, and consisted mainly of 5 large interred bunkers on the same premises, capable of resisting to tactical nuclear blasts, with up-to-date systems for communication, and an ability to replicate war situations, so as to carry out realistic and complicated tactical simulations and drills. The staff was typically of 400.

Similar to the majority of military assets in Germany – and especially within the super-militarized ex-GDR – Kossa was incorporated in the Armed Forces of reunified Germany (1990), but was soon declared surplus, deactivated and handed over for civilian use.

A society of enthusiasts is today running this former facility, keeping it open for visitors on a regular basis. What makes Kossa an exceptional destination for both the general public and the most committed war tourist as well is the great state of conservation of the entire facility. As it can be seen in the following photographs, taken in Summer 2022, inside the bunkers it is possible to see not only the original structure, but most of the original communication systems, paneling, signs, furniture, lamps, toilets, lighting, wallpaper, etc. making the place a very vivid testimony of the Cold War years.

All in all, this is one of the best surviving specimens of bunkerized NVA sites, and definitely worth a visit for a rich in detail full immersion in the military technology and history of the Cold War years.

Sights

A visit to the Kossa site will start walking past the original inner gateway to the bunkerized part of the complex. The original wall going all around the entire military area has been partly removed, allowing to get direct access to the ‘core’ of the installation by car. Traces of the electrified fence running all around this inner part of the complex are still standing. The entrance to a bunker for the guards can be seen in this area, but this cannot be visited.

The core of the complex with the military bunkers is aligned along a single, mostly straight technical road, built with large concrete slabs. The road track today is the same as in the original pre-WWII complex, and for this reason, it was not camouflaged. Other buildings in the complex, an even the connection roads departing from the main one, are painted in camo coat, for deception in case of overflight by plane or satellite.

The ticket office today is hosted in a large technical building by the entrance. In this area there used to be canteens and other services.

Past the entrance to the bunker area, it is possible to visit five bunkers, which will be listed next.

Computer Bunker

Four out of five bunkers (the exception being the intelligence bunker, see later) are built around the same blueprint. They have a single entrance door, deceived under a small wooden hut. Access to the bunker is via a security and decontamination path. At first you see a big camera at the level of your face, and an intercom panel, all for identification. Next follows a sequence of tight doors, at a close distance from one another, producing three small tight compartments.

In case of nuclear/chemical contamination, faced in wartime, in the first compartment you could take an anti-poison kit, EP-68. Exemplars of this are still in place. In the next compartment you had to throw away all your clothes and belongings, which were put through a hatch to the side. In a third small compartment, you found a shower – a central passage in the decontamination process, even in case of exposition to nuclear events.

Through a last tight door, you could finally enter the clean area of the bunker. Here regular toilets and showers can be found, before going down one level, to the technical part.

Back then, there used to be three levels of air sealing. No air sealing, in regular, no-war/no-drill conditions, meant the decontamination procedure was not activated, and the bunker was ventilated with fresh air. In sealing conditions, typically at war but not under direct attack, the bunker was tight closed, and air was pumped from the outside through huge filtering canisters, purpose designed to stop both smoke and other gases, or poisonous chemicals. On the third level of air sealing, corresponding to an emergency condition (e.g. a direct attack), no air was pumped from the outside, and special filters capturing carbon dioxide allowed to carry on for a limited amount of time – reportedly a shorter time than granted by food or water storage.

Filters for the air conditioning system (sealing level 2) and for adsorbing carbon dioxide (sealing level 3) were made in the USSR. Those for carbon dioxide are scattered around the bunkers, and feature a rather vintage Soviet look, with a prominent five pointed star on top. The label carry the assembly year, in most cases the early 1970s.

Once downstairs, you can appreciate the construction of the bunker lower level, based on prefabricated concrete frames. The bunkers in Kossa were capable of resisting blasts typically from smaller tactical devices, and were ranked at the fifth strength level (level ‘E’), the first level being the strongest.

Here a few rooms are still perfectly preserved with computers, of which the most impressive is a mainframe AP-3, working with magnetic tape. The GDR could boast a top-notch electronic industry within the Eastern Bloc, and all consoles and electronics in Kossa bear local labels.

The purpose of the computers, deemed so relevant to create a bunker specifically for them, was the fast elaboration of all information from the war theater. The latter was both local and global, since thanks to the links reaching the site through the intelligence bunker (see later), information of any kind could be elaborated, allowing the constant updating of operation maps, and the monitoring of all war assets. In drills, the computation capacity of the the system allowed to simulate events, thus forming the core of war-game operations.

A small part of the same bunker, a kind of mezzanine, was designed as a small hospital – all exhibits are original here as well.

More items on display in this area include original dosimeters and gear for checking radiation levels – either GDR- or USSR-made. In the connecting corridors are an intercom and an alarm horn – just examples of the perfectly preserved material on display.

Command Bunker

The command bunker shares the general arrangement with the computer bunker. A full anti-chemical/biological warfare suit is displayed by the entrance, ahead of the decontamination facilities. This type of suit should be worn over regular garments, and made for a very uncomfortable, ultra-warm and suffocating top layer, which reportedly caused extreme sweating.

The focus here is a control room, with a large table and an operation map, as well as connections through several lines to the relevant information networks. On one side of the control room are desks for telephone operators. On another, watches and chronographs. Also interesting are two TV-scopes, which allowed to plot useful information especially in case of drills.

Examples of maps for military drills are scattered all around. Since war plans were all variations on the same theme – a quick attack pushing to the west – all corresponding maps feature this type of planned motion, from within the borders of the GDR to the FRG. The name of the drills can be seen clearly stated on the maps – for instance ‘Grenzschicht – 81’ from 1981.

Other rooms on the underground level feature very interesting examples of machinery for translating information to/from paper maps, even physical 3D maps with elevation!

Satellite or spy-plane images of the site are on display as well. The site of Kossa was reportedly not far from the southernmost of the three air corridors reaching West-Berlin from the FRG. However, even though the site was not unknown in the West, its purpose remained largely a guess for the duration of the Cold War – and likely so also for the local civilian population.

Technical Bunker

A major concern in the Cold War was that of the survival of the chain of command in the event of a total nuclear war. This led to the implementation of additional on-site plants, for self-sustained operations in case a nuclear explosion nearby made the area unsuitable for human life, or when links with the surroundings were lost. These plants included primarily power generators, typically large Diesel engines with their fuel tanks, and drinkable water tanks. As seen in the computer bunker, also breathable air was a major concern.

In the technical bunker in Kossa, similar in shape to the previous two, at least two large power generators can still be seen – and smelt… – on the underground level. Several electric parts for replacement are also there. Another room hosts large drinkable water tanks.

An interesting preserved office for a commanding officer still retains its original GDR wallpaper, and additional comfort is provided by a fake wood pavement.

Large electric cabinets take a big room, where instrumentation for radiation measurement is on display nearby.

Other particulars include a dial telephone with a reminder of the quick reaction numbers, including the Volkspolizei – the name of the People’s Police of the GDR, which can be seen on a label!

Intelligence Bunker

The intelligence bunker is way larger than the others in Kossa, and is also more articulated. Access was possible via two bulky metal gates, located at an underground level on the far ends of the bunker, and reached through truck-sized ramps from ground level.

Behind the door, a tunnel of prefabricated concrete allowed to store many vehicles – typically trucks, jeeps and trailers, including vehicles with communication functions.

To the interred back of the tunnel, a human sized hatch gave access to the pressurized, tight area of the bunker. This inner area, completely interred, is surrounded by a concrete case, built by a single pouring to avoid the creation of weak junctions, and such to withstand intense blasts.

Following a tight compartment, with an array of original air-filtering canisters on display, you get access to a long corridor, providing access to some rooms with technical gears for communication. Here communication with different levels of secrecy were managed, accessing all the existing links implemented in the years of construction within the GDR, and between all Countries of the Warsaw Pact and the USSR.

A first room is centered on a large console, with an original teleprinting device still in place – top-notch for the time. Still in use today in some businesses, teleprinting is a very reliable way of communicating, which is also less prone to interception than telephone.

An adjoining room managed contact with three wired systems of communication, working at increasing levels of encryption security, and used for transmitting routine or less-standard orders. These systems included S1 and SAS communication protocols. The corresponding transmitters/receivers – now very rare pieces of machinery – can be seen on display.

Encrypted incoming messages were sent to a special room, where they were translated in human language, before being internally forwarded to the command bunker. Similarly, encryption facilities were all in another room, where outbound communications were made ready for transmission.

An impressive technical room is stacked with communication electronics. The number of components is really high, and reflects a very high performance, achieved by means of top level, but relatively bulky, components from the 1970s.

A room in this bunker is dedicated to the ‘BARS’ system (‘БАРС’ in Russian), a troposphere (i.e. not wired) transmission system within all States in the Warsaw Pact and with the USSR. Beside an indigenous transmission protocol, the system made use of purpose-designed antennas, with easily deployable nodes put on wheeled trucks. An evoking, very interesting map of the fixed nodes of the system, in Russian, can still be seen on a wall. The desks for the operators of the system are just besides.

Another interesting item is the control panel of a micro-wave antenna, installed in Kossa at a shallow underground level, in an area which can still be located, corresponding to an inexplicable grassy lot along the main road in the site. This antenna system was apparently never used, on grounds of energy consumption and potential damages to other systems in the Kossa site.

Back outside, close to the intelligence bunker are an original weather station, placed nearby a radiation detection system – looking like a bell bolted to the ground. Examples of connection roads covered in camo paint can be seen in this area. Along the main road of the site, many ramps give access to semi-interred lots, where technical trucks used to be placed for operations.

An example of these trucks is a Soviet trailer for enemy signal jamming. This is well preserved both inside and outside. The label tells the construction year – 1986.

Museum Bunker

The last visitable bunker is similar in shape to the former three, and has been converted into a collection of items from the history of the old WASAG site, the NVA bunker and the Cold War.

Propaganda items from the GDR enrich this interesting collection, as well as rare photographs from the totally gone ‘Beech’ site originally developed in the Third Reich years. Also on display are detailed designs of the weapons produced here in WWII.

Getting there and Visiting

The Kossa installation can be easily reached by car, roughly 20 miles south of Wittenberg and 30 miles northeast of Leipzig. Exact location here.

The Kossa bunker is professionally managed by a dedicated Society. Their website is here. They speak only German, and the website is in German accordingly. Opening times are published for the season, and are basically in all weekends in the warm season. A synthetic leaflet in English can be obtained. However, the basic notions on this page may also help in getting much of the visit.

Two separate tickets can be purchased, one for a self-guided visit of the computer, technical and museum bunkers, and another for a guided visit of the command and intelligence bunkers. The guided tour is offered only once per day in German, in the early afternoon as of 2022.

A good strategy for a complete visit may be checking in during the morning, visiting the self-guided part, having a packed lunch, and taking the guided tour.

I followed that plan. This meant a stay of roughly five hours. The report on this page was obtained visiting the site together with Dr. Reiner Helling, who offered me a very detailed insight of the Kossa site, before we took the guided tour.

Photography is allowed everywhere. Flash/tripod generally not needed, at least with high-ISO sensors.

Possibly only cash accepted at the ticket counter.

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.