Herdla Torpedo Battery – Defending Bergen in WWII and the Cold War

Despite overshadowed by the natural beauties of Norway, the heritage of the rich war history of this Country would really deserve a dedicated trip. Thanks to its geographical location, this Scandinavian Nation had a primary strategic role both in WWII and the Cold War.

Hitler’s Third Reich military forces conquered Norway early in WWII (Spring 1940), gaining an effective stronghold for launching sea and air patrolling missions over the Norwegian Sea and the northern Atlantic. The long coastline stretching from the Skagerrak strait up to North Cape was made impenetrable to enemy invasion, building anew a capillary network of fortifications – the Atlantic Wall. This masterpiece of military engineering was based on an extensive catalog of reinforced concrete standard elements (Regelbau in German), ranging from fortified casemates to radar towers, to observation and target range finding stations, to bunkerized gun batteries, etc. These elements were assembled in larger fortified compounds, placed in key strategic locations along the coast or in the narrow firths reaching to major ports and towns, like Bergen or Trondheim.

Typically run by the Kriegsmarine (Navy) or Luftwaffe (Air Force), these forts may comprise measuring stations, anti-shipping guns, anti-aircraft cannons, plus barracks, services, ammo storages, and even airfields in some cases. They were built not only in Norway, but having been originally planned by the Third Reich to protect the entire coast of conquered continental Europe, they were erected along the shoreline also from Denmark down to France.

As a matter of fact, many of the Norwegian fortresses of the Atlantic Wall rank today among the most massive and well-preserved of the entire line (see here for some highlights).

But the war history of Norway, and of its mighty military infrastructure, didn’t stop with the end of WWII. With the start of the Cold War, Norway became a NATO founding member, and once again of great strategic value. It found itself in close proximity to the USSR, and with a long coastline facing the sea corridor taking from the highly-militarized Murmansk and Kola Peninsula (see here) to the northern Atlantic.

Most of the Atlantic Wall forts, especially anti-shipping and anti-aircraft gun batteries, were obsolete by the 1950s, and were soon deactivated. Some were abandoned or, when retained by the Norwegian military, they were modified to cover new functions.

In a few cases, the original mission of the site by the Third Reich was retained by NATO forces in the Cold War. This is the case of the torpedo battery in Herdla.

The fortress of Herdla was a major strategic fort in the Atlantic Wall, allowing to keep a watch on the entry point to the inner waters leading to the large industrial and military port of Bergen. Thanks to the morphology of the area, featuring a rare spot of flat land nearby a steep and rocky cliff, an airfield was installed by the Third Reich besides a set of bunkers, effectively hidden in the rocks. A land-based torpedo battery, consisting of a range-finding and aiming station and torpedo-firing tubes, was part of the fort.

During the Cold War, it was decided that the torpedo battery could be still a valuable asset, and Herdla was retained by the Norwegian military – by comparison, the airfield, too short for the requirements of the jet-era, was not. Over the years, the torpedo battery was potentiated to keep up-to-date against the technological offensive capabilities of the Eastern Bloc, and to exploit the most modern identification and surveillance techniques.

The torpedo battery was part of a larger naval fort, which controlled also the barrier of sea mines implemented to stop a sea-based intrusion towards Bergen.

As a matter of fact, the area control functions and the offensive capability of Herdla were retained until the early-2000s, when the fortress was deactivated following the end of the Cold War and defense budget cuts.

Luckily however, the often neglected Cold War chapter of warfare history has in Herdla a valuable asset – an accurately preserved fortress regularly open for a visit. A modern visitor center welcomes the more curious travelers, leaving Bergen towards the remoteness of the coast. It retraces the WWII heritage of the Herdla site, thanks to an exhibition centered around an original Focke-Wulf FW190, recently salvaged from the bottom of the sea, and with a special history to tell. Then a visit to the battery, looking like it had just been left by the military staff, is a unique emotion for both the specialized war technology enthusiasts and the general public as well.

The following report and photos is from a visit taken in Summer 2022.

Sights

As outlined in the overview, the Herdla site today is centered on two major highlights. One is the visitor center, with the preserved relic of a unique Luftwaffe Focke-Wulf FW190. The other is the former torpedo battery and Navy area command bunker, Norwegian facilities installed during the Cold War in bunkers dating to the Third Reich era.

Visitor center & Focke-Wulf FW190 exhibition

The relic of a Focke-Wulf FW190 A-3 German fighter from WWII is hosted in a dedicated room, where a scenic lighting makes this impressive exhibit literally shine.

This exemplar of the iconic Third Reich fighter, produced in some thousands examples, and now almost impossible to find especially in Europe, is ‘Gelbe 16’ (which can be translated in ‘Yellow 16’) of 12./JG5, and its history is deeply related to Herdla.

It took off on December 15th, 1943, from the airfield the Luftwaffe had established on the flat area now lying ahead of the visitor center, at the time a very active German airbase.

Following troubles with the engine, it ditched in the cold inner water near the island of Misje, some ten miles south of Herdla, the pilot being able to abandon the doomed aircraft, and being saved by local fishermen – and returned to the Luftwaffe, who had a Norwegian resistance prisoner released in acknowledgment.

The aircraft sank to the bottom of the sea, but its memory was not lost by some of the locals, who clearly remembered the events. The Focke-Wulf remained there for 63 years, but it was finally located and pinpointed by the Norwegian Navy, instigated by local interest, in 2005. After preparatory work – including exploration dives, to assess the condition and to set-up recovery operations – the fairly well-preserved wreck was lifted to the surface on November 1st, 2006, and loaded on a tug. Conservative restoration work then took place in Bergen.

Instrumentation and the machine guns were all recovered, together with many further fragments of equipment. Interestingly, evidence of repaint was found during conservation, retracing some previous assignments. Yet the history of this very exemplar remains difficult to write in its entirety.

Finally, following completion of conservation works, a new home for the aircraft was prepared in Herdla, where a hangar was built anew – and this is where you can see it today.

The aircraft is in an exceptional state of conservation, considering it spent 63 years in sea water. The fuselage, wings and tail are not significantly damaged, with just some paneling having disappeared on tail control surfaces, due to corrosion. The swastika on the vertical stabilizer is still perfectly evident, like other painted details.

The propeller blades are all bent downstream, as typical for an emergency landing carried out without the landing gear and the engine still running. The tail wheel is there with its original tire, the emblem of the German brand ‘Continental’, still in business today, being clearly noticeable.

The instrumentation from the pilot’s control panel has been put on display separately. Also a gyroscope has been found. Everything is only slightly damaged. Similarly, the two machine guns, dismounted prior to lifting the aircraft from the sea, are little damaged, and displayed with some ammo.

Complementing the exhibition are a few other pieces from other wrecks, as well as some quality scale models and dioramas portraying Herdla in the days of Third Reich tenancy.

Torpedo Battery

Access to the torpedo battery, which was built in WWII just above sea level, is from a gate on the land side. From outside, the bunkers in the fortress of Herdla appear especially well-deceived in the rocks of the cliff.

What is seen today inside, however, dates to the years of Norwegian tenancy. The facility was updated in several instances during the Cold War, the last in the 1990s. Immediately past the gate, you get access to a modern and neat mechanics shop, where a partly dismounted torpedo allows to have a suggestive look inside this marvelous weapon.

Interestingly, Norway inherited and went on operating a significant number of German G7a (TI) torpedoes. This was the standard torpedo employed by the Kriegsmarine since 1934, and with some modifications (‘TI’ standing for ‘first variant’, the later variants bearing other codes), for the full span of WWII.

Propulsion power for this torpedo was from a piston engine, fed by high-pressure vapor obtained by the combustion of Decaline with compressed air stored onboard, mixed in a heater (i.e. a combustion chamber) with fresh water, similarly stored in a tank. The resulting mixture fed a 4-cylinder radial piston engine, driving two counter-rotating propellers. The exhaust in the water produced a distinctive contrail of bubbles, and the presence of a high-frequency moving mechanism had the side-effect of a significant noise emission. The head of the cylinders can be clearly seen in the dismounted exemplar.

Guidance was provided by rudder steering controlled with the help of gyros, whereas depth was controlled via a mechanical depth sensor. The torpedo could stay close to the surface or keep an assigned depth. In WWII the torpedo had no homing device – i.e. it was ‘blind’, thus requiring carefully putting it on a target-intercept trajectory. It could however cover pre-determined trajectories of some sophistication. The set-point selection for guidance and the yaw regulation gyro assembly have been taken out of the torpedo, and can be checked out in detail.

The range could be selected before launching, and was traded off with speed. It could be between 5.500 and 13.200 yards, and the speed ranged between 44 kn and 30 kn correspondingly. The German origin of the torpedo on display is betrayed by the writings in German on some parts.

Leaving the workshop through a gate towards the inner part of the bunker, a roomy supply storage area can be found, with some interesting material including torpedo parts, as well as a torpedo launching cannon.

This item represents the primary way of launching torpedoes in the early Cold War from land-based batteries or ship decks. This was a technology inherited from WWII, when coastal batteries of the Atlantic Wall ejected torpedoes from slots in the bunker wall, shortly above the surface of the water, employing cannons similar to this one (which dates from the Cold War period), thanks to a burst of compressed air. This cheaper, but less ‘stealthy’ and accurate launching procedure, was replaced by underwater launching tubes only over the years of the Cold War, featuring an increase in the level of sophistication of warfare. Correspondingly, the slots in the side of the torpedo battery bunker facing the water were bricked up, and torpedo cannons were retained mostly for use from the deck of warships.

From the storage room you get access to the core area of the battery. This is through a decontamination lock, with gear for anti-contamination testing, including paper strips for checking contamination from poisonous gas.

The battery features two diesel generators for electric power, employed in case of disconnection from the regional grid.

Less usual – for a military facility – is the presence of two air compressors. Compressed air is relevant for torpedo operation, being employed for the launch burst from the torpedo tube, as well as for propulsion and gyros in the G7a torpedo. The air compressors in Herdla are made by Junkers, solid German technology from 1961!

A few bunkerized resting rooms for the staff manning the battery can be found in the same area, besides the power/compressed air supply room and the torpedo room. The resting rooms are minimal as usual, with suspended berths, and much personal military equipment on display – coats, blankets, medical kits, and more technical material.

Finally, the core of the battery is the torpedo room. This is much longer than wider, access is via the short side. In the Third Reich years, the launching slot was on the short side to the opposite end of the room, right above the water. Today, this slot has been bricked up, and there is no window at all.

The torpedoes are aligned on racks along the long sides of the room. The launching system is via two underwater tubes, which are accessed via obliquely mounted hatches, one to each side of the room at the level of the floor. The section of the racks closer to the entrance door is actually a pivoting slide. The slide could be pitched down, thus allowing the torpedo to slip through the hatch in the firing tube. The original launch control console can be found to the right of the access door – in a mint condition, it looks really like it had just been put in standby following a drill!

Over the years, the stockpile of G7a TI torpedoes was upgraded especially in terms of guidance. The major modification was the adoption of wired control. This is based on a thin electric cable unwinding as the torpedo proceeds along its trajectory, keeping it linked with the launching battery. This upgraded model is called G7a TI mod 1. Control via a steering joystick and trajectory monitoring system could provide manual guidance to the torpedo, thus sharply increasing the chance of target interception. This technology is still in use today. Wire tubes can be found on top of the rudder of torpedoes.

Besides the G7a, Herdla battery received the TP613 torpedo, a weapon developed in Sweden in the early 1980s from previous designs. Exemplars of this torpedo, still in use, are visible in the torpedo room. In terms of mechanics, the piston engine of this torpedo is powered by the reaction of alcohol and Hydrogen-peroxide. In terms of guidance, this torpedo features improved wired communication for guidance and power setting (i.e. changing torpedo speed during the run), as well as passive sonar homing. A dismounted section exposing the engine can be found on display.

The wire tube installation on top of the rudder is featured also on this model, and examples of the wire are on display.

The original guidance console, made by Decca, with a prominent joystick on it, is on display as well!

Training and proficiency checks are typically carried out without a warhead, but with an instructional head. Distinctively painted in shocking red, and with powerful lights in them – to show their position to simulated targets during training exercises, when needed – these are on display in a number. Since the torpedoes, just like missiles, are very expensive, a way of recovering them after instructional use has been envisioned, in the form of inflating bags coming out of the head, increasing the buoyancy of the emptied torpedo and forcing it to surface when reactants tanks are empty and power is off.

Offensive warheads can be exchanged with dummy ones for training, bolting them to the body of the torpedo, which remains totally unchanged. A warhead with a 600 lbs explosive load, triggered by a proximity pistol, was typically put on G7a torpedoes. The proximity pistol was made of four petals, which on contact with the target were bent towards a conductive metal ring around the nose cone of the torpedo, closing an electric circuit and triggering the explosion.

Leaving the torpedo room and the bunker is via the same way you came in.

Sea Mines & Area Control Center

But your visit is not over. As mentioned, the Herdla coastal battery hosts an area control center, with provision to manage target detection facilities and the minefields in the waters around Bergen.

This part was built in a facility strongly potentiated with tight doors, typical to the shockwave-proof military construction syllabus of the Cold War. A sequence of roomy vaults carved in the rock hides a number of containerized modules, together with an exhibition of sea mines and related apparatus.

Most notably, an L-type Mk 2 moored mine and a Mk 51 bottom mine are on display, with a understated control panel. The latter is actually a portable controller for triggering the mines. Already before WWII, sea mines were often put on the bottom of the sea in shallow waters, or moored in deeper waters, to control access inner waters, firths, ports, etc. The Germans made extensive use of this technique in Norway, and following WWII this strategy was inherited by Norway to protect its waters from (primarily) Soviet intrusion.

Despite contact mines were still popular in WWII, they have been surpassed and gradually replaced already in that age by proximity mines, based on noise and – especially – magnetic sensors. Today, proximity fuses activated by the magnetic field of ships or submarines passing nearby are standard technology. Onboard electronics allows to distinguish between the magnetic signature (i.e. fingerprint) of different ships, thus avoiding any issue for civilian or friendly traffic, and activating only against enemy shipping. Degaussing techniques – i.e. the ability of military ships to hide their signature – have forced to improve detection technology, which is today extremely sophisticated.

Furthermore, for the protection of ports and friendly waters, sea mines are typically controlled and triggered by hand, upon detection and localization of enemy shipping, by means of dedicated detection facilities on land or water. This improves precision and allows more flexible defensive-offensive tactics, since a human chain of command has control on the minefield, instead of a pre-determined computer program.

To trigger the mines, consoles like that on display are employed, where a trigger for each mine allows precise control over the minefield.

The first containerized control center hosts a similar, yet much more modern, dedicated console. Everything in this movable control center is very neat, and really looking like reactivation might take place in just moments! Of interest is also the situation map, covering the area around Herdla and the water inlet to Bergen.

A nearby container reveals berths and a small living area for stationing staff.

Yet another container hosts a complete situation room covering the area. Similar to the coastal battery in Stevnsfort, Denmark (see here), a careful eye was constantly overlooking the shipping in the area.

In the same container, a console for steering torpedoes, more modern than that previously seen in the torpedo battery, is on display.

All in all, Herdla is a one-of-a-kind destination, of primary interest for those interested in Cold War military history, enjoyable and easy to visit. Totally recommended for everybody with an interest in history, with much to see and learn for the kids as well.

Getting there & Visiting

Herdla fortress features an official visitor center with a large parking area, and amenities including a small restaurant and a shop. The official website is here. It can be reached about 27 miles north of central Bergen, roughly 45 minutes by car. The address is Herdla Museum, Herdla Fort, 5315 Herdla.

The torpedo battery and control bunker can be visited only on a guided tour. Visiting from abroad, we scheduled an appointment, and were shown around by the very knowledgeable guide Lars Ågren, a retired officer of the Royal Norwegian Navy. He joined the Navy in the late 1970s, in time to gain a substantial, hands-on Cold War experience during the final, high-tech part of that confrontation. He was promoted to tasks in the NATO headquarters in Belgium, later returning to Norway, and totaling more than 37 years in service. He is strongly involved in the management of the Herdla site. Chance is for you to embark on a visit with this guide, or other very competent guides who will satisfy the appetites of more committed war technicians and engineers, being capable of entertaining also the younger public as well.

A visit to the torpedo battery and control center may last about 1 hour. Seasonal changes to opening times may apply, as common in Northern Countries, therefore carefully check the website.

Wünsdorf – Nazi/Soviet Supreme Military Command

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For war historians and urban explorers Wünsdorf does not need any further presentation – a central place in the military history of the 20th century, famous for the many abandoned military buildings, from stately headquarters to interred bunkers. The name of this small town appears even in the very modern and interesting Military Museum of Dresden, where it is easy to find an original sign – in double alphabet – from the time when Wünsdorf hosted the Soviet military headquarters in the communist German Democratic Republic.

This report is based on photographs I took in spring 2017 in Zossen and Wünsdorf during a customized visit to the place I arranged with a local guide. For visiting information scroll down to the bottom of the page.

History – in brief

The small town of Wünsdorf, about 15 miles south of Berlin, has a serious military tradition, dating back at least to the beginning of the 20th century. At that time a large military complex with many barracks was set up by the order of the German Kaiser Wilhelm II – a central player in WWI – in the neighbor town of Zossen.

To this ‘Belle Époque’ era belongs part of the housing still in place today, as well as some of the largest and most aesthetically pleasant buildings in town. Among them, a former training camp for athletes of the army, and some big command buildings.

Following the dawn of the Nazi era, the place gained further relevance, with the institution of the German Supreme Command of the Armed Forces, also known as ‘Oberkommando der Wehrmacht’, or ‘OKW’ in brief. This was presided by general Wilhelm Keitel for all the duration of WWII, and represented the ‘top of the pyramid’ in terms of military decisions, as general Keitel reported directly to Hitler.

The staff of the OKW could be accommodated in purpose-built bunkers here, designed to withstand severe air bombing action, as well as to be disguised as normal country houses from above. These were known as the ‘Maybach bunkers’.

Besides bunkers for housing military personnel, a large communication bunker, known as ‘Zeppelin bunker’, was built to the purpose of connecting the brain of all military operations with the various divisions scattered over Europe and fighting on more war fronts.

When WWII finally came to an end, the Soviets captured the region, and that was the onset of a full new chapter in the history of the town. The reference name ‘Zossen’ was dropped in favor of ‘Wünsdorf’. The area of the two villages was totally cut-off by a 17 km wall, guarded with a top security level. Inside, housing for around 40,000 staff was prepared in subsequent stages, adding many purely Soviet-style residential buildings to what was still in place from before and during the Nazi era.

The supreme command of all Soviet forces in the occupied territory of Germany – to become the German Democratic Republic, or ‘GDR’, in 1949 – was installed here. All four branches of the Soviet armed forces had their respective headquarters in a corresponding sector of the ‘prohibited citadel’, with inner walls dividing the four areas. These headquarters controlled more than 200,000 troops stationed in the GDR until the early Nineties.

The Soviets tried to blow up the Maybach bunkers, with some success, and also the Zeppelin bunker, with no success. They developed it into an nuclear-proof installation, and added two further bunkers, for controlling military operations – including all air patrolling ones – in real time over the territory of the GDR, and along the crucial border with the Federal Republic and the Western world. Similarly to WWII, once again Wünsdorf was the main stage of crucial decisions for the full span of the Cold War.

The year 1989 marked the beginning of the end for this military town, with the reunification of the GDR with the Federal Republic and the end of the Cold War. All Soviet forces stationed in Germany – about 500,000 people, including troops and their families -, soon to become Russian forces in 1993 with the collapse of the communist regime in the USSR, began a well-coordinated retreat back to their mother Country, leaving Wünsdorf in September 1994.

Since then, the huge housing is largely uninhabited – the current population having dropped to about 4,000 – and the stately buildings built by the order of the Kaiser are deserted. Nonetheless, differently from other former military bases left to nature or converted into something else, the regional government of Brandenburg has formally taken over the property, which is not totally abandoned, nor in an irreversible state of disrepair, with the aim of selling it or transforming it into a museum.

Up to now, the place is still in the hands of the regional government, and specialized tours can be arranged with a local society of enthusiasts.

Sights

This site is really huge, with countless remains and interesting places to see. My visit took just about 5.5 hours, I think you would really need 1 day – and possibly more – to cover all features with enough time to both learn about the history and take good pictures of everything interesting! Here I will present a mainly pictorial description of the part of the complex I had the chance to visit this time. I think another day I will need to go back and complete the visit!

You may get an impression of the town from above, from this report based on aerial pictures taken during a dedicated flight over the region.

Officers’ House

This is probably the most famous non-bunker building in the complex. It dates back to the early 20th century – the place was the headquarter of a sports training ground established by the Kaiser’s army before WWI. In the Thirties, German athletes were trained here for the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. During WWII this became a command building for the OKW, while in Soviet times it was actually transformed into a house for higher ranking staff of the supreme Soviet command, with living rooms and entertainment facilities.

The main building faces an almost square park, where a huge statue of Lenin was installed and is still standing.

Inside the main building it is possible to find clear traces of the original ‘Belle Époque’ architecture.

The inside of the building was spoiled of all furniture – the Russians reportedly tried to sell everything to the German government when they left, but the offer gained little interest. Only little part of the furniture, clearly from the age of the Kaiser, can be still spotted. Among the highlights of the bottom floor, there are two murals, in a typically Soviet naïve style, and a sculptured wall. Somebody is trying to put together Soviet memorabilia in a small museum, but all presented stuff is not original from here.

On the first floor, a very interesting industry-themed mural and a 20-ft long curved view of Moscow can be found in a corridor. In a completely dark room on the same floor, where once a small memorial museum about the Great Patriotic War – WWII for the Russians – was standing, the retreating Russian forces left one of the few remaining written messages, concerned with the atrocities of the Nazi regime – for the guide this was possibly a subliminal memento for the German People… In the same totally dark room it is possible to find a big, finely sculptured wall.

To the back of the main building it is possible to find a modern addition by the Soviets, a cylindrical building once hosting a diorama of the battle of Berlin. The diorama was transferred in the village of Zhukovo, halfway between Kaluga and Moscow, in the westernmost part of Russia, when the Russians left.

The two wings to the back of the Officers’ House host two highlights of the show. In the southern wing it is possible to find an empty swimming pool, dating from the days when the place was a sports training ground, with little changes, which include the showers and the diving board, built by the Soviets. The construction technique was very good, and the pool was operated until 1993-94 reportedly with little updates.

In the northern wing it is possible to find a theatre. This is a bit creepy, for it is totally dark – electric power was cut off years ago – but everything, including the curtain over the stage, is in place like a performance was about to begin! The Soviet past of the place is clear here thanks to the decoration of the medallion over the stage, resembling the monument of the Soviet Soldier in Treptower Park, Berlin. In the roomy foyer it is possible to see the numbered hangers still in place!

The White House

Across the road from the Officers’ House it is possible to see another early 20th century building, used as a command building by the Soviets during the Cold War, and affectionately called ‘The White House’, both for its primary role in imparting orders and for the colonnade gracing the front façade. The building is inaccessible, and still property of the regional government.

Nearby, a former house for officers dating from before WWII is now operated as a local city hall.

Today, some of the many immigrants coming from Africa to Europe are being hosted in a building close to the White House by the German Government.

Soviet Railway Station, Bread Factory and Soviet Housing

Due to its great strategic relevance in the Cold War era, the prohibited town of Wünsdorf was daily connected two-ways with Moscow. The last train to Moscow left in September 1994. The railway station of Wünsdorf-Waldstadt today operates on a local railway, with trains mainly to and from downtown Berlin. The old Soviet terminal and some warehouses nearby have been abandoned and are in a state of total disrepair.

Close by the station, it is possible to find an abandoned and unattractive small factory with a tall chimney. This is where literally tons of bread were produced every single day since the Nazi era and up to 1994 – reaching 25 tons per day when the place was most crowded in Soviet times. The building was considered a strategic asset by the Nazi, who built it with a 60 cm reinforced concrete roof able to withstand air bombing.

Whilst not very crowded, today some houses from the early days in the village of Zossen have been nicely restored to their original conditions. Unfortunately, they still share the roadside with some abandoned or not refurbished Soviet buildings, keeping the typical ‘Soviet ghost’ aura alive in the town.

Maybach Bunkers

Two complexes of peculiar bunkers were built in the Thirties – Maybach I and II – for housing staff of the OKW. From the distance and from above, these half-interred bunkers had the appearance of large farm houses. In reality, they were designed to be bomb-proof, and when they were blown-up by the Soviets after WWII they did not collapse completely.

One of the two Maybach complexes is very close to the fenced area where the Soviets had their three interred bunkers.

Zeppelin Bunker

This communication bunker was built under the Nazi more than 60 feet deep into the terrain. It was made of layers of land and concrete, making it extremely durable and difficult to destroy. As a matter of fact, the Soviets tried to blow it up after the Potsdam conference in summer 1945, but they didn’t succeed at all. They decided to re-use it, sealing part of it to withstand a nuclear attack – including airlocks, reinforced doors, showers for decontamination, and sleeping quarters for troops trapped in by radioactive fallout. When leaving in the Nineties, Russian troops took home all technical rigs, stripping the bunker almost completely of any technical hardware.

Among the highlights in the Zeppelin bunker there are the sealed main entrance built by the Soviets and the decontamination facilities.

Going down it is possible to appreciate the size of the German design, with tens of rooms, long and roomy corridors and staircases. A small exhibition is dedicated to communication hardware from the Nazi and Soviet times. Copies of the Nazi schemes of the communication network from here to the Eastern front allow to understand the proportions of the system.

One of two long tunnels – the longest is about 600 ft! – was turned into a sleeping quarter for troops isolated in case of nuclear attack, and original berths are still visible today. Another corridor was so long it was used as a rifle range!

The bunker was powered by diesel engines – originally submarine engines under German ownership. These are gone today, but the smell of diesel fuel is still very marked in their room. It’s hard to imagine how noisy this place had to be! Some of the Soviet fuel tanks and air conditioning piping are still there, with original technical schemes.

A lift was added by the Soviets – it’s not working any more. On the bottom level there are water pumps and other supply systems. Normally this area cannot be toured, also due to water flooding problems.

In a small wing of the bunker it is possible to see the effect of the Soviet attempt to blow-up the bunker. The dynamics of the attempt are not clear – what explosive was used and where it was positioned. A pierce in the steel/concrete armored ceiling and a cracked reinforced concrete pillar are the only visible results. The size of the crater in the ceiling suggests much explosive was used, but the damage around is fairly limited and very localized. A feature of many military buildings occupied by the Soviets, signatures and graffitis in cyrillic alphabet can be found on some concrete walls of the bunker.

Soviet Half-Interred Bunkers

Really close to the entrance of the Zeppelin bunker, it is possible to find the way into two other less visible facilities.

One of them is a small communication bunker of simple construction. This is basically straight, with a round shaped cross-section. The corridor leading to the main part of the building is rather narrow and pointing down to the underground. The main part is much roomier, with curved steel frames making the walls and ceiling. This was used also as a training facility. This bunker was totally stripped by the retreating Russian troops.

The second bunker is much more articulated. It was codenamed ‘Nickel’, and the Soviet construction type is UK-20. This was a communication and control bunker for military operations, in particular for air operations. Even though this bunker was stripped similarly to the other two, some technical rigs and tons of paperwork can be spotted in the semi-dark environment of this installation.

Technical plants include the original water pumping system and several high voltage cabinets.

The room where the air control center was is lighted. It is very big, and copies of the original schemes help to understand how the setup was. Everything there was taken back to Russia by retreating Russian army.

Other interesting items include propaganda posters from Soviet times – they always look very exotic!

Garrison Museum & Red Army Museum

In the old pre-WWI stables two really unmissable small museums have been prepared. I would recommend visiting them after the site itself, to better understand the relevance and usefulness of the exhibition.

The first is centered on the history of the garrison in Zossen from the years when the barracks were built, and it documents the history of the Officers’ House and all other pre-Soviet buildings around. A focus is given also to the Nazi period, with many photographs and memorabilia. All panels are unfortunately in German only, but the pictures speak for themselves.

The second collection is dedicated to the Soviet period. Here you can find memorabilia from all stages of the Cold War era, including both museum items already preserved by the Soviets in a museum previously existing in Berlin-Karlshorst, but also everyday items and stuff from Wünsdorf.

Among the many panels, a small insight dedicated to the huge nuclear base in Vogelsang, covered in this other post of mine.

Headquarters of the Soviet Air Force

Besides the building of the society running the guided tours of the place, it is possible to find the abandoned headquarters of the Soviet Air Force. A modern statue of a pilot is standing ahead of an Asian restaurant, whereas the main building is inaccessible. A statue of Lenin – not easily visible from the street – can be found in the vegetation, ahead of the main façade. To the side of the building it is possible to find a typical Soviet memorial.

Much More…!

Among the other uncommon things you can find around in Wünsdorf, there are some Winkel-type air raid shelters, 19 of which were built in the Nazi period for military staff. Most of them were blown by the Soviets, and some of the 7 (?) remaining ones are preserved today.

Visiting

As reported, this ensemble is huge and well looked after. Technically speaking, it is not abandoned – at least the most interesting parts of it. Parts – like the Officers’ House – are awaiting for somebody to own them, parts are destined to remain tourist attractions – like the bunkers and museums. For these reasons, to make your visit practical and enjoyable, and for making the best of your time, I strongly suggest contacting a guide.

Actually the local society also in charge of the nice and interesting book selling activity, for which ‘Bücherstadt Wünsdorf’ – ‘Wünsdorf the Town of Books’ – is famous, runs guided tours on a regular schedule. Full information also in English from their website here. Besides the pre-scheduled tours, some longer special-themed tours can be booked in advance. If you are visiting – like me – from abroad, then I suggest taking contact with the guide before going there.

When I visited, I arranged with the guide a ‘double-tour’ in English just for me, asking to merge two of the tours offered with pre-booking. This was not a cheap alternative – I had to pay alone the price intended for two group tours, but all in all that was worth the financial effort! – but above all I must say I regret not having had more time!

The guide is nice and extremely knowledgeable, he speaks a perfect English and Russian as well. He knows anything from the history of the place, including interesting anecdotes and technical notions. He will take you to all places of interest with a minivan, and of course he will give you all the time for taking pictures, including some with a tripod in especially dark conditions – he has two portable lights for helping in the task! So the guided tour will not be boring at all.

After that, you may like to go back to have a look to the exterior of some buildings you had not the time to check out during the guided visit.

The towns of Wünsdorf and Zossen are basically a single entity, but possibly not on your nav. In case you get confused when driving to the building where you should meet the guide, just follow the signs for the book selling activities – the building is the same.

I mentioned there is a railway station, and of course you may choose to come in by train and move by bicycle – walking would be too time consuming in my view, due to the distance between points of interests. Coming by car is also very practical if you are not moving by train on your trip, and there is room for parking almost everywhere.

 

 

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.