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.

Aircraft Carriers of the West Coast

Among the countless interesting places and sights the States of the West Coast have to offer, even aircraft carriers need to be mentioned. There are three ‘capital sites’ that will surely appeal to war veterans, pilots, seamen, historians, technicians, children and everybody with an interest for ‘CVs’ – an acronym for ‘carrier vessels’. Two are super-museums in California, where the USS Hornet and USS Midway are permanently preserved and open to the public, and a third is the Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Washington, which is an active installation of the US Navy in the premises of the Naval Base Kitsap, where maintenance work is carried out on the current CV-fleet, and where part of the reserve fleet – including most notably some aircraft carriers – is moored.

Here you can find some photos of these sites from visits of mine in 2012 and 2014.

USS Hornet (CV-12) – Alameda, CA

This ship is an Essex-class carrier commissioned in late 1943. Since then, she saw extensive action throughout WWII in the Pacific theatre, being involved in frontline operations leading to the defeat of Japan. As a matter of fact, aircraft from this ship totalled a number of downed aircraft ranking second in the general list of aircraft carriers of the world, behind USS Essex – which enjoyed a full year of service more than Hornet during the war with Japan.

The original appearance of the ship was much different from today’s, first and foremost due to the straight-deck construction of the Essex-class – just like all other carriers until the Fifties. For Hornet the current shape of the deck is the result of SCB-125 modification in 1956, introducing an angled landing deck. This feature, which came along with other major changes to the overall structure also resulting in a significant weight increase, allowed independent take-off and landing operations. Differently from other ships of the class, Hornet wasn’t upgraded in the late-fifties with steam-powered catapults, retaining hydraulically powered ones instead, thus being incapable of launching heavier aircraft like the Phantom, Intruder, Vigilante, or even the Hawkeye. It was then assigned to a support role as an ASW carrier, equipped with Tracker aircraft and helicopters for anti-submarine missions.

In the late Sixties Hornet was involved in the race to the Moon, serving as a rescue platform for the first moonwalkers returning from the succesful Apollo 11 mission, and subsequently in the same role for the astronauts of Apollo 12.

Similarly to all other Essex-class vessels – with the exception of the venerable USS Lexington, operated as a training ship until late 1991! – it saw limited action in the Vietnam War, when much larger and more suited carriers had become available for war operations, and it was retired in the early Seventies.

During your visit you are basically free to move all around the many well-preserved areas under the flight deck.

There you can see the striking proportions of this relatively ‘small’ carrier. The mechanism of the central elevator can be seen to the bow of the ship. An impressive table with the number of targets hit recalls the primary role this ship had in WWII.

On the main aircraft storage level there are some preserved aircraft, not all from the history of this unit. Among the many interesting features in this area, a replica of the helicopter which took the astronauts of Apollo 11 on board. This very helicopter was used in Ron Howard’s movie ‘Apollo 13’ starring Tom Hanks. Also the mobile quarantine facility for the astronauts can be found here. Neil Armstrong’s very footsteps from the helicopter to the quarantine facility are marked with white paint.

Moving back to the stern of the ship it is possible to visit a very interesting technical area for aircraft maintenance and servicing, as well as for mission preparation. It reminds the primary role of aircraft carriers as a frontline-deployed, moving airbases, with everything that is necessary for operating the aircraft onboard on a regular basis for offensive missions. A hatch leading to the compartments on the lower levels has been left open, and this allows to appreciate the actual size of the ship, really huge, with multiple storage levels for aircraft spare parts and ordnance.

Also very interesting are the big fireproof sliding doors for cutting the aircraft storage deck into compartments in the event of fire – possibly due to some ordnance piercing the deck of the ship, as well as to accidental causes.

Further interesting sights in the self-guided part of the visit include the operational briefing room, some service rooms, dormitories and a large area for the anchor moving mechanisms.

A second part of the tour is guided. You move around is small groups and you access the flight deck and the ‘island’, the command and control center of all operations – deck management, flight mission control, and ship control & navigation. The guides are very knowledgeable and enthusiastic veterans, able to tell you detailed explanations of what you see as well as anecdotes from the history of the ship.

The Presidential Seal has been placed where president Nixon was standing to oversee the recovery of the moonwalkers from Apollo 11.

This part of the visit will be extremely interesting for more technically minded subjects – you will see original wind signals for landing aircraft, an original LORAN navigation device for sea navigation, the normal and emergency arresting systems, the Fresnel optical landing aid system, and tons of other extremely interesting items which were actually used in real operations.

From the stern of the ship and the flight deck it is possible to take fantastic pictures of downtown SFO.

Extra Feature – Treasure Island Pan Am Terminal

A little ‘extra’ you can find on your way if you are travelling from San Francisco via the SFO-Oakland Bay Bridge to the site fo the USS Hornet is Treasure Island. This artificial island was taken out of the water at the end of the Thirties for the Golden Gate International Exhibition in 1939. Coincidentally, Pan Am, which had recently inaugurated its trans-Pacific ‘Clipper’ air service with the huge Boeing 314 seaplane, built a facility on the island, with a passenger terminal and service hangars for maintenance. Operation of the Clipper were moved here for good, and the aircraft took off and alighted on water between Treasure Island and Yerba Buena Island, the smaller natural island to the south – the cove is today called Clipper Cove. Later on the service was relocated to Alameda as the island was taken over by the military.

Unlike most of the buildings dating from the exhibition, wiped out soon after it, the terminal survived and it is a proportionate, nice example of the airport building style of the late Thirties.

Also the foundations of some of the original passenger pier, as well as concrete slides for seaplane operations on the shore of Clipper Bay, can be seen still today. The Pan Am terminal building was used to simulate the terminal at Berlin Tempelhof in Steven Spielberg’s movie ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’.

Treasure Island is also a good place for taking pictures of downtown SFO, as well as the most famous items on the bay – Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge.

Getting There

The ship is permanently anchored by one of the piers close to the former Alameda NAS, on the southern side of the island of Alameda. It can be reached very conveniently and quickly from downtown San Francisco via the Oakland bridge (I-80), and from Oakland, Berkeley, San Leandro and all districts on the eastern side of the bay. Full explanation and info on their website. Treasure Island is located roughly mid-way along the Oakland Bridge. Visiting the Pan Am terminal is a quick detour from the interstate. Large parking nearby both sites.

USS Midway (CV-41) – San Diego, CA

This is the first and the only remaining of the three Midway-class ‘super carriers’ – which included USS Franklin D. Roosevelt and USS Coral Sea. The origin of the class dates back to WWII, when it was decided that larger, armored, metal decks were to replace the vulnerable wooden decks of the Essex-class carriers. USS Midway was commissioned in September 1945, immediately after VJ-Day, with a straight deck, albeit steel-made. The steel construction was considered a relevant asset for jet aircraft operations, and all three carriers were kept in active service following the progressive transition to the new type of aircraft propulsion, with only minor modifications needed to the flight deck.

USS Midway was involved in the early stages of US missile experimentation, with the first tests of sea launched V-2 rocket clones, originating from the German design, and Regulus I air-breathing cruise missile.

The current shape of USS Midway is the result of subsequent major modifications. Program SCB-110 in the late Fifties added the angled deck to enhance simultaneous launch and recovery operations and flexible flight deck operations. Also the curved ‘hurricane-proof’ bow was added, together with steam-powered catapults.

In 1966 this ship was the only of the three of her class to receive the very expensive SCB-101.66 modification, resulting in a lengthening of the flight deck, the adoption of more powerful steam catapults and a new arrangement of the higher-load elevators. All three ships were on active duty in Vietnam, USS Midway apparently launching the first and last US air attacks of the war.

Even though USS Midway – the largest and best equipped of the three – could not operate the Tomcat, it could take four squadrons of Hornets, thus remaining effective in frontline service well into the Gulf War in the early Nineties, the last major operation in which she was involved before retirement and re-opening as a permanent exhibition – notably among the most popular in San Diego alongside the zoo.

Similarly to the USS Hornet described above, the tour of the Midway starts with a self-guided exploration of the aircraft storage deck and of the air deck. Among the tons of interesting sights here, to the bow you can find under the air deck the steam reservoir for the catapults and the system for moving the anchors.

Further back the main hangar for storing the aircraft is really huge. You can get an impression of the size of the ship by looking at the lower storage levels, where jet engines and air-launched ordnance are still visible.