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.

Cold War Forts and Museums in Denmark

During the Cold War the condition of Denmark on the international stage was among the most complex. Coming from years of neutrality before WWII, conquered in a matter of days in spring 1940 by neighbor Germany, at that time in the throes of the Nazi fury, it found itself on the front line of the two opposing blocs soon after May 1945.

Having not been occupied by the Soviets during WWII, it could better choose about its future, and in 1949 the mother country of the Vikings joined NATO as a funding member – unlike neighbor Sweden and Finland – thus giving its availability to its Allies to help countering Soviet influence over the territory under its control.

History in brief

Often overlooked when looking at the world map for its relatively small area, at the beginning of the Cold War the geographical position of Denmark nonetheless was – and, to some extent, still is – strategically very relevant. It is right on the inlet of the Baltic Sea, with a proximity to the foreign coasts of Norway and Sweden such to allow easily blocking the marine traffic on the Kattegat strait, when needed, by means of mere cannon fire from the coast. During the Cold War, this meant a virtual control over a sea where the USSR and Eastern Bloc Countries had many industrially relevant and non-freezing ports, as well as navy bases. Furthermore, the islands of Denmark, where large cities like Odense and Copenhagen are, can be found as close as 1.5 hours by boat to the coast of the German Democratic Republic – once one of the most heavily militarized countries on earth, also thanks to a massive Soviet presence. The smaller island of Bornholm, further east, is even closer than that to the coast of Poland.

A curious fact in history demonstrated the proximity of Denmark to the communist sphere of influence, shaking the minds of top ranking Soviet military. On March 5th, 1953, on the very same day of Stalin’s death, the first defection of a jet fighter from the Eastern Bloc took place, when a Polish MiG-15 on a routine flight along the Baltic Coast suddenly left his mates and rushed to Bornholm, where it landed on a field, leaving the aircraft in almost pristine conditions.

The cautious reaction of the Danish government and military forces reflects the position of the country at the time – they had identified the USSR and their satellites as a clear and present threat, and consequently they had taken the side of the West. Yet Denmark knew it could not withstand a direct military hit by the Soviets for more than a few hours, therefore as a form of self-protection, any form of provocation, at least in the early 1950s, was carefully avoided. While the pilot of the MiG was allowed to escape to the UK and then the US, the aircraft was quietly ceded to the US military for technical inspection in the FRG, but then re-mounted and returned to Poland. Other examples of a policy of constant detente with the Soviet Union are represented by the refusal to have NATO bases on its territory, or despite the adoption of the Nike missile system for the airspace protection, the missed deployment of the corresponding tactical nuclear warheads.

Of course, in recognition of the strategic relevance of this pleasant country, plans for a Soviet invasion which would strike in northern Europe, with the objective of reaching to the ports of the North Sea in less than a week from Eastern Germany, included as a major target the quick occupation of the Jutland peninsula, and of the islands of Denmark as well. This had to be done by marching fast through the northern regions of the Federal Republic of Germany, and simultaneously landing troops on the Danish islands.

About this post

Albeit not enough populated to sustain an army capable of resisting the eastern opponents on the other side of the Iron Curtain, thanks to its position on the map, Denmark took over seriously a fundamental border monitoring and interdiction task in favor of all NATO forces. Two tangible witnesses of this are the military bases of Stevnsfort and Langelandsfort, both located on the southern coasts of the islands, overlooking key sea straits, and pointing south to the East German coast. Both have been shut down after the end of the Cold War, and now they can be visited as top-tier military museums.

Further souvenirs from the Cold War era can be found in the Defense and Garrison Museum in Aalborg, a wide-spectrum military museum with a focus on WWII and the Cold War, and in the Danish Museum of Flight, where exemplars from the heterogeneous wings of the Danish Air Force are displayed, together with unique specimens of Danish aircraft production from the inter-war and early Cold War period.

This post covers all these four sites, visited in summer 2019. Presentation doesn’t follow any special order.

Navigate this post – Click on links to scroll

Sights

Cold War Museum Stevnsfort

This museum on the eastern coast of the island of Zealand (the same of Copenhagen) is actually a former Cold War military fort, operative from the early 1950s to the year 2000. It was re-opened as a museum in 2008, carefully preserved in most part in the forms it had in the 1980s, the most technologically advanced years of the Cold War.

By the entrance to the museum area you can see three surface-to-air missile, namely an old Nike-Ajax, and a much more performing – and bigger – Nike-Hercules. Both were part of the US Nike airspace protection system, which was deployed in Denmark around Copenhagen. The missiles are from the Cold War years, but were not originally present on Stevnsfort.

Strictly speaking, Stevnsfort is not the part of the installation you access first. The area you meet when getting in from the parking used to be a missile base in charge of the Danish Air Force. It was built for the Hawk system, another US interdiction surface-to-air missile system, the heir of the Nike system. Actually, Nike Hercules batteries in Denmark were withdrawn from use – as elsewhere, see this post – in the 1980s. Their role was taken over by Hawk missile batteries, gradually entering service since the 1960s, and operated till 2005 in Denmark.

Differently from its predecessor, the radar-based Hawk system was entirely movable, making it more flexible and less vulnerable. As a result, there are basically no bunkers in this area, and all constructions here are ‘soft’. Target designation and tracking was demanded to three sub-systems, namely a radar-pulse antenna for target individuation, an interrogation friend-or-foe (IFF) and a target-tracking/homing antenna.

Two radar-pulse antennas are displayed. The aerial emerges from a tent, which covers the electronics and motor of the system. Both are mounted on a truck trailer, which is actually totally movable. The range of the radar scanner was about 75 miles.

The IFF antenna is a smaller barrel-shaped device coupled with systems on-board aircraft, needed to distinguish between an enemy aircraft and a friend or ally. The target-tracking/homing antenna, with its distinctive two radar dishes, shares the installation setup with radar-pulse antennas – it sits on top of a trailer, covered in a green tent.

Close by, trucks and special moving cranes to mount the missiles on their launch gantries are displayed. Also containers for the missiles are shown, together with an example of the Hawk missile itself. The launch order could arrive only from the central Air Force command, except in case of a communication breakdown, when each missile base could decide on its own – at the high risk of making a mistake!

Farther on, power trucks and other launch systems are displayed besides batteries of Hawk missiles. The launch gantry is smaller in size compared to that of Nike-Hercules, but each gantry launches three missiles instead of only one. The gantry is anchored to the ground, and when inactive it is shrouded in a peculiar rubber-coated eyelid-like bubble, which can be quickly lowered to let the missiles out.

On the far end of the missile area, you can see an old-fashioned coastal cannon, part of the original fort, used as an illumination cannon in support of larger cannons in the battery.

One of the naval gun batteries is the first item you meet when entering the actual Stevnsfort fort. The fort was built between 1952 and 1955 for use by the Navy, and is the oldest part of the installation. Together with the Langelandsfort gun battery and command post (see below), it was tasked with monitoring marine traffic along the straits giving access to the Kattegat and the North Sea from the inner Baltic. For the purpose, it was supplied with a huge underground bunker, its most distinctive feature, as well as batteries of naval guns.

The 150 mm guns have an intriguing history. They were made in Nazi Germany early during WWII, for the Kriegsmarine ship ‘Gneisenau’. This was damaged when still in the dockyard, and the guns were re-designated to be placed on the Danish island of Fano on the North Sea coast, as part of the fortifications of the Atlantic Wall. Following the end of WWII in May 1945, the guns were captured and finally found their way to Stevnsfort.