|The BEST pictures from Soviet bases in the GDR
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Soviet Ghosts in Germany
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At the end of WWII, the territory of conquered Germany was split in four sectors by the then-Allies – the US, Great Britain, France and the USSR. A substantial part to the north-east of the country fell in Stalin’s hands. A few years later, following a re-organization of all territories occupied by the Red Army during WWII, the Soviet part of Germany was turned into a communist-led state known as German Democratic Republic (‘GDR’, or ‘DDR’ in German language).
Especially from a military standpoint, similar to Poland, and later Hungary and Czechoslovakia, this produced a kind of cohabitation. As a matter of fact, besides clearly backing the communist dictatorship in occupied countries, the Soviets did not quit at all from newly acquired western territories. On the contrary, thanks to the position on a potential war front had the Cold War turned hot, the westernmost Soviet-controlled countries – with the GDR on top – were stuffed with Soviet military bases, and hundreds of thousands troops. These shared the map with the national military, which in the GDR were known as NVA (an acronym standing for the German equivalent of ‘National People’s Army’).
The national and Soviet forces often took control of separated military facilities, and while operating in a coordinated fashion, they were substantially different entities. As said, this was typical to many Soviet-controlled countries. Yet especially on the relatively small East German territory, of high strategic value thanks to the shared border with the West, the total number of tank bases, training academies, air bases, missile bases, nuclear depots, shooting ranges, etc., reached an unrivaled world’s peak, when compared to the population or the size of the country.
Following the crisis leading to the end of the GDR in 1989, and the collapse of the USSR roughly two years later, all these military assets turned surplus. The German reunification, and the disappearance of a significant military opponent in the close vicinity of the border, triggered a rationalization of military resources in Germany. Most of the NVA bases were closed. The Soviet-controlled installations were evacuated more slowly – it took until 1994 to bring back to their Russian homeland the thousands of troops and tonnes of material stationed in Germany. Once returned to Germany, also most of these bases were deactivated and closed.
Since then, the fate of these former military facilities in Germany has been in the hands of local governments or national initiatives. As a matter of fact, following a few decades spent as ghost bases – a real paradise for urbex explorers! – most air bases have been converted into solar power plants. Some of them have retained an airport status, either with a very reduced runway, or in some cases being turned into full-scale commercial airports. There are exceptions too, as some are still at least partly abandoned, and while invaded by vegetation, they are still totally recognizable especially from above. Other bases, like tank bases or nuclear depots, while mostly earmarked for demolition, have been comparatively better ‘preserved’ – at least, they have been attacked by the state more slowly, so there is still much to see there.
You can find on this website several reports about quite a few of these military bases in the former GDR – especially airbases – from a ‘ground perspective’. Sometimes, it is difficult to appreciate the size, shape, as well as their concentration over the former GDR territory. In order to better show these aspects, now here you have a portrait of many of these bases from the air!
The photographs in the present post are from a single, two-hours flight on a Cessna 172 single-prop aircraft. The flight took place in July 2019. As you can see from the locations pinpointed on the map below, on our route we met not less than 15 former (or still active) military items. And this is just a short trip mostly in southern Brandenburg – i.e. the region immediately south of Berlin.
This report is a complement to other chapters on this site, yet it is especially interesting on its own, as a comprehensive bundle of aerial pics on this subject is not easy to find!
Points of interest are listed following the flight plan, which was flown roughly as on the map, in a counter-clockwise direction, starting from Reinsdorf Airfield.
This one-of-a-kind facility – there were actually two such depots, but one is today demolished and inaccessible – used to be a major storage for nuclear weapons for the Soviet Western Group of Forces, which included all Soviet troops stationed in the GDR.
The bunker is today closed, but it apparently lies on private land, hence sparing it from being turned into something else (or simply flattened) by the local government. You can see a dedicated report in this chapter.
Vegetation has grown wild in the area, but from above you can clearly spot the rectangular perimeter of the external concrete wall. From north to south, an internal road crossed the rectangle in the middle.
The bunkers are half-interred, hence from above you can barely spot the entrances. These are aligned along a service road arranged in a hexagonal shape.
To the south of the bunker area, you can spot a former group of barracks and an access road heading west. Construction and demolition works are taking place in this area.
Control and Reporting Center Schönewalde
This is an active military installation, and actually quite an advanced one. It is tasked with monitoring the air operations over a large part of the airspace over Germany.
The origin of this half-interred technical installation can be traced to the 1970s, when the site was activated under responsibility of the NVA. Following the end of communist rule and after German reunification, unlike many others this site was not demolished, but instead it was developed further, and pressed into the defense chain of NATO since the mid-1990s.
You can see many half-interred warehouses, garages for trucks, a smaller radar antenna to the west of the complex, close to a helipad.
There is also a larger antenna to the northeastern corner of the CRC.
Holzdorf Air Base
This large airport used to be an airbase of the NVA. It is one of the few airports from the Cold War in the GDR which were turned into a full-scale modern airport. Today it is a base of the Bundeswehr, i.e. the German military.
As we approached from north, you can spot first typical large communist buildings, forming a citadel which is likely still today hosting troops and their families. There is also reportedly a flight academy for helicopters in this complex, north of the airport.
The airport features large hangars for military helicopters to the northwest of the runway.
A rather old-styled control tower can be seen to the south of the runway.
Falkenberg Air Base
We reached the southernmost point on our flight with the former Soviet base in Falkenberg. This old base dating to the 1930s went on to be developed into a Soviet base home to fighter aircraft, MiG-23 and later MiG-29. Close to the airfield, there used to be a SAM missile battery (to the west of the runway).
Approaching from the north-west, you can notice a small ghost town and a large technical area, with what appear to be big unreinforced maintenance hangars, today used for something else by local companies.
The airport is today dedicated to light aviation activities. The runway has been shortened, and sadly large portions of the original airfield have been covered with solar cells.
Most interestingly, in the trees to the northwest of the runway, you can spot four unfinished aircraft shelters – possibly of the type AU-16, which could host both the MiG-23 and MiG-29. They look like short concrete tunnels. They should have been covered with land, but works were interrupted in 1990.
More aircraft shelters – completed – can be found to the east of the field, today used for storage, as it is often the case.
This installation was operative since WWII, when the large hangars and control tower still in place to the south of the apron were built. The base went on serving as a Soviet base, hosting fighters and fighter-bombers of many kinds along its illustrious history. A visit to this site, with its nuclear depot, can be found in this chapter.
Approaching from the southwest, we flew over the nuclear storage bunker, made for nuclear warheads to supply aircraft operating from here. The columns once holding the crane to lift the warheads can be clearly spotted.
There is also a group of Soviet-style houses for the families of the troops. Apparently somebody is still living there!
The base was enlarged with reinforced shelters to the north and southwest of the runway. The large hangars to the south are still in use with local companies, some of course connected with flight operations – this airport is still active for general aviation operations.
Enroute to the next waypoint, we flew over a natural preserve, which offered some quite spectacular sights.
Alteno-Luckwalde Air Base
This airfield north of Finsterwalde was a reserve airport of the East German NVA. While never developed to the extent of primary airfields, it was among the few reserve air bases to receive an asphalt runway.
Today, the view is rather desolating – the airfield has been totally covered with solar cells.
This WWII base was selected for quick and substantial improvement since the early Cold War years, and went on to be one of the most developed Soviet air bases in the former GDR. In the beginning it hosted Ilyushin Il-28 bombers, but in the jet age it was home to a number of different squadrons and aircraft types. You can find the results of the exploration of a part of this base in this chapter.
Approaching from the south, you first spot an immense hangar, conceived at the turning of the century for commercial airships, and later turned into a water park – Tropical Island.
But more interestingly, to the south of the airfield – unusually far from it, actually – you can find a depot for nuclear weapons, to supply the aircraft operating from the base. Similar to Finsterwalde, the pillars once holding the crane for lifting the warheads can be clearly seen.
Still to the south of the airfield, the local citadel for the troops is today an interesting ghost town.
As you may notice, the airfield is today closed, and has been largely converted into a recreation park. Incredibly, they decided to build an array of small houses on the former premises of the airport, and in close proximity to the monster airship hangar.
Yet some relics from the past function of the air base are to be found scattered around. These include aircraft shelters, and more rare engine testing facilities – V-shaped concrete walls emerging from the grass nearby some of the shelters.
Kleinköris Air Base
This airbase was activated in the late 1960s as a reserve airfield for the East German NVA. It was used for exercises, and as a home base for helicopters of the Volkspolizei, i.e. the police of the GDR. After deactivation, it was used as a military storage for a while, and finally closed.
The appearance, perfectly evident from the air, is rather unusual – it features a long grassy runway, with concrete taxiways at the ends. To the reports from the time, this is the original configuration of the airbase. Luckily, it is basically still intact.
The name of this small town will be forever linked to the two military high commands which were headquartered on its premises – Hitler’s OKW first, and the command of the Soviet Western Group of Forces for the full span of the Cold War. You can find a dedicated chapter here.
From above, you can get a nice view of the extension and shape of this military town, as well as good portraits of some of the highlights in it. Approaching from the southeast, you first meet the most famous building in Wünsdorf, the officers’ house. This majestic building dates from the early 20th century. It knew an extensive renovation during the Cold War years, as an officers’ club for the Soviet Red Army.
This huge building features a statue of Lenin on one side. In the wings to the back, you can find a swimming pool and a theater. The round building with a mural is a late Soviet addition, and once hosted a circular panorama painting.
The high command occupied the buildings north of the officers’ club, today converted into something else.
Another highlight of Wünsdorf are the many bunkers. These include the Maybach bunkers from Hitler’s era, once hosting the OKW. These were designed for deception as living houses, but could withstand aerial bombardment. They were blown by the Soviet, with only partial success. The Zeppelin bunkers, like cusped concrete towers, were designed to resist bombardment, by deviating air-dropped bombs falling from above along the sidewalls and down to the ground nearby.
Soviet bunkers were located very close to the array of Maybach bunkers. They are largely interred, and from above you can see some concrete tunnels in the trees.
The railway line and station is an historical track from the time. The Wünsdorf-Moscow line operated in both ways on a daily basis. The service was suspended only in 1994, at the very end of the withdrawal of the last occupation troops to Russia – for many, the symbolic end of Soviet occupation.
The buildings for those stationed in Wünsdorf and their families were really many. Today this town, having lost its original core business, is largely uninhabited.
Not far from Wünsdorf, you can find the former Soviet air base of Sperenberg. This immense transport base used to be a major logistic base for the Soviets, which operated from here with their monster cargo planes. More on this base can be found in this chapter.
Approaching from the east, you first meet the buildings for the troops, to the east of the airport and close to the village.
An aerial view allows to clearly capture the shape of the base, with two large parallel taxiways with a huge array of parking bays for transport aircraft, and a long runway – still basically intact! – to the south.
A large hangar with an inscription in Russian can be found to the east, whereas a small terminal building can be spotted ahead of a large apron to the west.
Today the airport is closed, but rumors have surfaced more than once concerning its evaluation as a third airport for Berlin. This may justify its missed conversion into another desolating field of solar cells.
Kummersdorf Military Laboratory
A bit of an outsider here, Kummersdorf holds a very relevant place in the history of war technique thanks to pre-Soviet activity. In the late 1920s the Germans established here an experimental laboratory especially dedicated to novel weapons. It can be said that western rocketry was born here, since the group of Walther Dornberger, later joined by Wernher von Braun, started operations on liquid-propelled rockets in this lab.
Activities later moved to somewhere else, and finally landed in Peenemünde – see this dedicated chapter.
The laboratory in Kummersdorf was used also during WWII to test captured material, especially enemy tanks. Following the end of WWII, the Soviets took over the facility, but turned it into a more standard military base.
The red barracks in typical German style can be clearly seen from above. Most of the post-WWII depots are falling apart, but the area is really huge.
This base is located to the northeast of Jüterbog-Altes Lager, a huge Imperial, Nazi and later Soviet military complex, including two shooting ranges, a few airfields, an academy and many barracks.
Forst Zinna base was operative in the years of the Third Reich, named after Adolf Hitler himself. It went on to become a large base for the artillery groups training in the nearby shooting ranges. A dedicated chapter can be found here.
From above, it is clear that demolition works are slowly wiping out the base. Yet there is much housing left to visit. Typical German buildings share the area with shabby Soviet ‘socialist housing’. A bridge passing over a major road and railway track going to Berlin links the base to the shooting range north of it.
Altes Lager Shooting Range and Barracks
The shooting range north of Forst Zinna is pointed with concrete control towers. The area is very extensive, and quite more convenient to explore from above!
Closer to Altes Lager, many barracks can be seen aligned along a major road. From the style, these appear to be from an older time than the Soviet occupation years.
This pretty unique piece of architecture dates from the years of the Führer, and used to be an academy for air force technicians. It was later turned into a military academy for Soviet staff, and a KGB office was reportedly active here too. A report can be found in this chapter.
From above you can better capture the plant of the complex. The half-circle to the north hosted a big theater in the basement.
Most strikingly, in the western part of the complex you can see sporting facilities which have been completely refurbished, and are actually in use. These include a football field and some tennis courts. There is also a pool, but this has not been refurbished.
This large air base was jointly operated by the NVA and Soviet air force. You can find a report in this chapter.
Approaching from the northwest you can see aircraft shelters, whereas to the northeast you find an array of large maintenance hangars. These have been turned into something else, including a test driving facility, which chopped part of the original apron.
To the south of the runway, the base used to feature a large number of parking bays for helicopters. The runway has not been physically cut, albeit a central section of the original concrete has been taken away. Air operations today are apparently limited to ultralights and trikes.
A menacing army of solar cells is attacking the perimeter of the base from the east! An unmissable sight next to this base (to the east) is a former aircraft shelter turned into a private collection of Soviet memorabilia – Shelter Albrecht (covered in this post).
Enroute to the next waypoint, you can clearly spot from the air a military hospital complex (see this chapter) – rather famous among urbex fanatics… – and other service buildings.
Jüterbog-Damm Air Base
This base dates to the years of the German Empire. It was forcibly demilitarized after WWI, but strongly developed in the years of the Third Reich, with the construction of large concrete hangars and service facilities, and a grassy airstrip good for fighter planes of the era.
Following conquer by Soviet forces, the airbase was partly dismantled, but at some point a SAM battery appeared on this site.
Today you can appreciate the size and special shape of the concrete hangars, a true engineering masterpiece from pre-WWII years.
Landing in Reinsdorf
Finally, you can see here a vid of the perfect approach and landing into the touristic airfield of Reinsdorf, about two hours after take-off!
This flight was carried out from Reinsdorf Airfield (ICAO: EDOD), located about 10 miles southeast of Jüterbog, the most sizable town in the neighborhood. The airfield is roughly 1 hour driving south of downtown Berlin, very easy to reach with a car.
The flight would have not been possible without the help of a fantastic couple, Mrs. Kolditz and her husband, who own a nice French-built Cessna 172 from the mid-1960s, D-EBLD, portrayed here.
There are some features making this very aircraft ideal for aerial pictures. Besides the high-wing configuration, this exemplar features a side window which can be completely opened, allowing for an unobstructed view of the scenery below.
The man is a former NVA pilot, something that must have played a part in him accepting to set up this very unusual flight plan! His great ability as a pilot helped much in having the aircraft in the right position to take the desired aerial pictures.
Thanks to the availability of the Kolditz family, setting up the flight was an easy task, even operating from abroad and through much Google-translation!
Another key-element in this adventure was Federico, a friend of mine sharing my passion for flying, who lives in Berlin, and played an essential part in co-financing the flight and translating between me and the pilot, as – perhaps incredibly, considering the content of this website… – I don’t speak German.
If you are interested in sightseeing flights south of Berlin, I suggest inquiring with the folks at Reinsdorf, a very active airfield with many facilities for touristic and pleasure flights. Website here.