The New Life of a Soviet Base in Germany – Ribnitz-Damgarten

Most Soviet bases in the former territory of the German Democratic Republic met with oblivion following the departure of their Red Army tenants back to mainland Russia, in the early 1990s.

Most locations – including full scale airbases (see here, here or here), infantry academies and shooting ranges (see here) and nuclear warhead bunkers (see here) – have been returned to nature, demolished or converted into something else. Much on this website documents this hidden part of the Cold War heritage in Germany.

However, there exist exceptions, like the airbase of Grossenhain with its preserved Granit-type bunker (see here), or the central Soviet headquarters of Wünsdorf (see here).

Another notable exception is that of the former Third Reich, and later Soviet, airbase of Ribnitz-Damgarten. Following an exploration in a day of closure in 2016 (documented here), the site was visited again legit, this time accessing the unique Museum of Technology of Pütnitz. The museum collection is very nice in itself, covering both civil and military vehicles from the DDR age, as well as heavy Soviet military vehicles, and even a few boats and aircraft from the Eastern bloc.

The museum is hosted in a complex of hangars dating from the years of the Third Reich, when the airbase of Ribnitz was active for experimenting with seaplanes, and busy with a facility of the Heinkel aircraft manufacturing company. These concrete hangars are still standing today, undoubtedly an example of German engineering excellence.

The Soviets made good use of this facility, and Ribnitz-Damgarten became a very active base on the Baltic coast for the full span of the Cold War – until the withdrawal of the then-Russian troops, who used this airport as the springboard for their final hop to their new home in Russia.

A further reason to pay a visit to Ribnitz-Damgarten is the chance to assist to the one-of-a-kind reunion and live exhibition of preserved vehicles from the Soviet bloc. Held in the summer, this ‘Treffen’ (i.e. reunion) is really worth the effort of setting up a trip, even when visiting from abroad. It is a multi-day event, and possibly the largest meeting of aficionados of cars, motorcycles and trucks from the communist world, with the chance to see all this good old technology at work, i.e. spitting and thick-smoking, all around the base. Chance is that you will drive on the original Soviet runway to reach the event parking!

Besides this yearly event, the museum offers live demonstrations of military vehicles on a more regular schedule.

The present post and photographs cover a visit to the Technology Museum of Pütnitz in occasion of the reunion of Eastern Europe vehicles held in late August 2021.

Sights

Museum of Technology of Pütnitz

The museum of Pütnitz has taken over the hangars of the old Third Reich base to the west of the airfield of Ribnitz-Damgarten. These hangars are pretty interesting from an architectural standpoint. By using large and curved concrete frames, the inside volume is extremely big for the time. As a matter of fact, they were kept in use for decades, since they could match the size of larger aircraft and vehicles of the Cold War.

These hangars are just a handful, but complemented by smaller (regular size…) hangars they provide for a very large display area, wisely adopted by the museum for its exhibits.

One of the hangars is dedicated to the NVA, i.e. of the Armed Forces of the former GDR. Among the many artifacts on display, are a MiG-21 fighter, the skeleton of an Antonov An-2 transport, and a Mil-8 helicopter. The latter has been placed in a suspended position, with a mechanism to rotate its rotors!

In the same hangar you can find a pretty extensive collection of light armored vehicles, technical amphibious vehicles as well as full-scale tanks formerly in use with the NVA in different stages of the Cold War.

A smaller area is dedicated to a display of NVA uniforms, GDR emblems and medals, uniforms of youth organizations within the GDR, as well as detailed scale models of war material in the arsenal of the USSR or the GDR over the years.

A second smaller hangar hosts trucks of Soviet make, formerly used by – presumably – the NVA. Some are especially interesting, since they were used as missile transports, and are on display with their original trailers and… payload! Also trucks transporting Soviet-made radar antennas, for air target capture or anti-aircraft missile guidance, are on display.

To the back of the same hangar, a super-interesting collection of material connected with nuclear warfare is on display. In particular, field instrumentation for measuring radiation levels, dosimeters, anti-radiation suits and masks, specific medical kits are part of this rich and uncommon exhibition.

Some of the measurement equipment is still working, with old-fashioned, low-light electronic displays still lit – really an evoking sight from the Cold War era!

Yet in another hangar, a huge collection of GDR cars and motorcycles is on display. Most of these now vintage cars and vehicles used to be a rather common sight in the GDR. The now iconic Trabant was a product of the GDR. However, many other car manufacturers existed in the Eastern Bloc, and in the USSR as well, and their products were often exported to other Countries in the bloc.

Stately cars for the top-ranking communist leadership were usually Soviet-made. You can find a small gallery of these Cold War icons in a corner of the same hangar, ahead of giant portraits of the SED (the ruling party of the GDR) leaders – Ulbricht, Honecker, Krenz.

To the back of the hangar, classic motorcycles from the Eastern Bloc are on display. They include MZ motorcycles in use with the Völkspolizei, the police of the GDR. A sizable collection of cameras is also on display.

In the same hangar are a reconstruction of a gas station, as well as a crop-dusting propeller aircraft.

Notably, you can spot fading writings in Russian on the walls of this hangar, an heritage of the Soviet tenancy of the airbase.

Some museum items are on display outside. Some of the military vehicles in the collection are still in working conditions. Live demonstrations of tanks and armored transports are regularly planned, and make for a nice sight and a thrilling experience!

Soviet Relics

Despite having being taken over by the museum and other commercial activities, the premises of the old Soviet airbase of Ribnitz-Damgarten betray the long decades of Soviet use. Besides the relics you can find scattered around in the airfield (see here for a previous exploration), very close to the museum hangars you can spot several technical buildings belonging to the base, and now basically abandoned.

On the side facade of one of those, a colossal Soviet emblem can still be seen, albeit now fading.

Signs written in Russian can be spotted here and there, as well as an original, very interesting full scheme of the base (in Russian too), a typical sight in any Soviet base.

Now-rotting buildings for the base staff can be found emerging from the overgrown vegetation to the north of the hangars.

Finally, the runway is still in a good shape, albeit cut to the east to make room to yet another solar power plant – with a really questionable function, considering the rainy weather physiologically insisting on the region most of the year. The original centerline and other markings can be clearly seen still today.

The airport is closed, but since the runway has not been taken away, perhaps some hope remains for a future with at least general aviation activities, like in Rechlin or Finow.

International Reunion of Vehicles of the Eastern Bloc

Perhaps among the busiest days of the museum in Pütnitz, those of the ‘Internationales Ostblock-Fahrzeugtreffen’ (which translates into the title of this paragraph) make for one of the most exciting occasions for a visit. Usually taking three days, this colossal reunion hosts roughly 2.000 vehicles, from cars to trucks, from farm tractors to motorcycles, from side-cars to firefighting vehicles, and from 4×4 military transports to camping trailers – all made on the communist side of the Iron Curtain!

The reunion is international, and many come from beyond the near border with Poland. In 2021 the reunion hit its 20th edition.

All vehicles are parked in virtually any lot of flat land between and around the hangars of the museum, including the original taxiways and any grassy areas around.

Furthermore, besides some official movements and parade, you will see vehicles moving around at any time, with their very characteristic good old piston engine crackling sound, as well as much spitting and thick-smoking!

Besides the countless Trabants, built in several different versions you will come to discover, chance is to see massive Soviet GAZ military trucks, or even Hungary-built Ikarus buses!

The ‘Treffen’ of 2021 was especially unlucky with the weather, which on the plus side allowed many vehicles to show their all-weather capability!

To better appreciate the noise and smoke, have a look to these three videos!

Visiting

The Museum of Technology in Pütnitz allows you to access the otherwise inaccessible base of Ribnitz-Damgarten. Access is recommended by car. The entrance is to the northeast of the airfield, through the original gate of the airbase. The museum has a website here.

Visiting in normal conditions, i.e. out of any special event, may take about 1 hour, more for a piston-power-minded subject, or for military/vehicles enthusiasts. In occasion of the vehicle reunion, planning a half-day visit at least is recommended, since the display of vehicles is really huge and worth a careful glance. A talk with many nice owners and enthusiasts may be a further plus in this occasion.

The Red Army in Hungary – Airbases, Bunkers and Ghost Towns

Similar to other satellite countries like Poland, Czechoslovakia and the former German Democratic Republic, for decades after WWII Hungary was under the strong influence and de facto military control of the Soviet Union. As a result of the anti-communist revolution of 1956, when the Soviet nearly lost control of the country for a while, a massive Soviet force was stationed in Hungary to prevent further turmoil – the so-called Southern Group of Forces – acting in parallel with the local Hungarian Army, although in a coordinated fashion.

This was reflected by the turning of several existing airfields and training grounds from older times into modern Soviet bases. Their premises, and the territories around them, were completely severed from the rest of the Country, leaving the Soviet forces with a great freedom of action concerning the deployment of unspecified numbers of troops, tanks, aircraft, communication gear, and even nuclear warheads. Furthermore, the families of the Soviet troops stationed in the Country were hosted in dedicated purpose built – or purpose converted, pre-existing – villages.

All this left traces of course, and after the end of communism in Europe, and later the collapse of the USSR, the majority of these installations were either abandoned or converted to some other use. Abandoned – i.e. not converted – Soviet bases and installations in Hungary were pretty many. Today, many of them are being demolished, or are still standing, but severely damaged after years of disrepair. Actually, the best preserved installations are those waiting for conversion or for some yet-to-be-defined destiny, and currently under custody of private owners or the state.

This post is about some of these installations, and it focuses especially – but not exclusively – on storage bunkers for nuclear warheads. Besides being especially appealing to mystery-hunters and urbex explorers, such places are an interesting testimony of the serious attitude of the Soviets towards a war in the European theater. This was considered a likely event in many instances over the decades of the Cold War, from the 1950s to the years of President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative. The money spent over the years by the Soviet Union to build up a dedicated military infrastructure, and the deployment of tactical warheads close to the designated targets in western Europe to prepare for such scenario, show that the USSR did not think of fighting a nuclear-based final battle just as a mere theoretical exercise.

Photographs were taken in August 2020.

Sights

Based on a CIA report dating from 1979 (‘Warsaw Pact Forces Opposite NATO’, Vol.I-II, CREST record number 0005517771, declassified and released in 2010, check it out here), there used to be a small yet significant number of bunkers for the storage of the Soviet nuclear stockpile in Hungary. The following map, taken from this report, shows their approximate location and type.

Despite a clear correspondence of each symbol with a Soviet bunker construction type is not readily available, it is possible to reconstruct the information as follows.

The only solid triangle corresponds to a Monolith-type storage bunker, the largest and most sophisticated type of storage in the Soviet standard inventory, made for long-term storage of nuclear warheads. This site is located close to the village of Urkut, in the middle of an extended region, once the largest part of Hungary managed exclusively by the Soviet military. In this area you can find also the headquarters of the Soviet forces in Hungary, the Southern Group of Forces, located in the small village of Hajmasker, as well as the airbase of Veszprem, with an annexed village with housing for military staff and their families.

Monolith-type bunkers were seldom built on the premises of airbases or other military bases. They were prepared mostly in secluded area, shrouded in the vegetation, so as to avoid any unwanted attention as much as possible. They would store high-yield warheads for theater missiles (e.g. SCUD missiles). Urkut is no exception, as there are no airfields close to it. It is shrouded in the vegetation, and far from any village of significant size.

Back to the map, round dots represent Basalt-type storage bunkers, which are most commonly to be found close to airfields. This type of bunker is significantly large, and capable to store air-dropped/launched tactical weapons with nuclear warheads. Two sites are shown on the map, of which only the one on the premises of the former airbase of Kunmadaras could be located.

Finally, the squares correspond to Granit-type storage bunkers. These were of much lighter construction with respect to Monolith and Bazalt, and their purpose could be that of hiding either missile launchers of various size, or command/communication posts. Much has to be guessed about the actual function they had in all places where they were built. In Hungary, three such bunkers are reported on the map, of which the easternmost is on the still active airport of Debrecen, the westernmost is on the small local airport of Heviz (formerly Sarmellek), and the latter is presumably on Tokol, a major airbase in the outskirts of Budapest, Hungary capital city.

In the following you can find some pictures from the storage sites of Urkut, Kunmadaras and Sarmellek, plus pictures from the Soviet bases of Veszprem, Tokol and Kalocsa, and from the former Soviet headquarters in Hajmasker.

Navigate this post – Click on links to scroll

Urkut Monolith-Type Nuclear Storage Site

The Urkut site is also familiarly known as ‘little Moscow’, due to the fact that this site hosted also a very small, perfectly Soviet-style quarter for the troops working on the base, or being trained in the local training center. The site is in a wide and pleasant valley with a north-south alignment. There used to be two access roads which today take from the main (and only) road running along the mostly uninhabited valley, connecting Urkut (to the north) and Nagyvazsony (to the south). The two access roads take you to the main gates, placed to the north and south ends of the complex.

Similar to other nuclear sites based on the Monolith-type bunker model (see for instance this post for an accurate pictorial description of another one), security was clearly a major concern. Still today, walking in the trees and approaching the base without going the official access roads, you will meet four external fences.

The outer one is made of concrete posts and barbed wire, but today this is mostly gone – which makes it practically more dangerous, as the few remnants of suspended barbed wire are barely visible, and much leftovers are partly hidden by the abundant low-growing vegetation.

Next you will come to a concrete wall made of prefabricated slabs, with traces of barbed wire on top. This is still today basically impenetrable.

Once in, you will find two further lines of barbed wire, suspended on concrete posts. This double fence of barbed wire is still in very good shape, and creates a watch corridor.

Inside the perimeter, you can spot a network of trenches and foxholes.

In Urkut, the training grounds and bunkers are close to the northern gate, whereas to the south you can find the former living quarters for the troops. A prominent training hangar can be found in the northern part of the base.

Inside, a perfectly conserved mural with the heads of Marx, Engels and Lenin, and Moscow’s Kremlin in the background, is still hanging on top of the main gate.

Along the hangar, a corridor with classrooms clearly shows the intended function of the building.

Not far north from this major attraction, you soon meet a smaller technical building, and the southern Monolith bunker close by. Bases centered on the Monolith type typically had two independent twin bunkers built onsite, usually with their axes tilted by 90 degrees, so as to minimize the chance of a single bomb effectively striking both bunkers. This is not the case in Urkut though, as both bunkers are built along an East-West direction. Urkut is different from other Monolith sites also for having been built on the slope of a hill, so connection roads are never flat.

The warheads reached the bunker by truck. A covered loading/unloading platform can be found on both opposite entrances to the bunker. For the southern bunker, you can see in the pictures the platform is still in very good conditions, with colored signs on the pavement for facilitating movements. Even the lamps are still there!

The main access to the bunker was via an airlock, with two gigantic square-shaped blast-proof doors on each side. In this pictures you are seeing the western access to the southern bunker.

The innermost part of the Urkut bunkers is inaccessible, as the inner doors of the airlocks are shut. Yet it is possible to get access to the airlocks. For the southern bunker, going to the eastern access you find a covered platform similar to the western one, yet here the roof has partly collapsed.

You may open the outer door of the airlock, and get access. Here you can see writing in Russian. The state of conservation is generally speaking extremely good.

On one side of the eastern loading platform, you can see a standard Soviet military transportable trailer, maybe a local operation control center.