Base Tuono – Cold War Surface-To-Air Missiles in Italy

Just like West Germany, post-WWII Italy found itself on the border with a communist dictatorship, Marshal Tito’s Yugoslavia. Even though Tito and the government of the USSR were never close friends, from the viewpoint of the western alliances Yugoslavia represented a potential threat.

This mistrust was also a result of the aggressive policy Yugoslavia had adopted against Italy after WWII, imposing the cession of a piece of traditionally Italian territory in the northeast part of the country as a war compensation. This had triggered a significant migration of the local population, who was trying to escape from communism to mainland Italy and abroad. This added to the bitterness of the Italian-Yugoslavian relationship, to the point that the new border was not formally settled until the 1970s.

Italy was among the founding members of anti-communist NATO in 1949. This meant the chance to take part in a coordinated defense effort against the eastern bloc. Among the tangible results of this cooperation was the adoption of American war material, including aircraft and, as soon as they became a reliable war asset, missiles.

Considering air defense, besides a number of manned aircraft, the airspace of western Europe was protected by two defensive lines of surface-to-air missiles (SAM) extending roughly from the North Sea to the area around Venice on the Mediterranean. This was studied especially to counteract bombing raids carried out by a great number of enemy bombers simultaneously attacking from the east. This huge defense system was based on the US-designed Nike and Hawk missile platforms, and deployment started in the late 1950s.

SAM installations in Italy comprised the low to intermediate altitude Hawks, with a quick reaction capacity against low-level intruders. These were managed by the local Army. High altitude Nike-Ajax and later Nike-Hercules missiles were operated by the Italian Air Force against high-altitude targets, typically bombers. New dedicated groups were established since 1959, trained in the US to work with the new missile platform. At its height, the Nike force in Italy counted on 16 such groups, apparently corresponding to as many launch bases.

Concerning the effectiveness of the Nike defense line, it soon became obsolete, in the sense that a significant part of the strategic deterrent was transferred to ICBMs by both the NATO countries and the USSR. As a result, SAM defensive lines conceived against aircraft intrusion and low-level attacks would turn out more useful than the high-altitude and high-yield Nike-Hercules. As a matter of fact, all Nike platforms were deactivated in Italy and everywhere in Europe by the early 1980s, well before the end of communism in Europe.

Following deactivation, most bases, stripped of all hardware of any value, were simply locked up and abandoned. In Germany very few traces of this extensive system remain to this day (see this post). Together with the US, Italy is possibly the only country where this fragment of military history is documented through the active preservation of one of the former SAM launch bases.

The Nike-Hercules base preserved in Italy is called ‘Base Tuono’ – ‘tuono’ meaning ‘thunder’ in Italian language – and was operated between 1966 and 1977. It is in a gorgeous mountainous setting in the northeastern Alps, about an hour from the little town of Trento. After years of disrepair, a part of it has been refurbished with original material and opened as a beautiful, partly open-air museum, where you can get a lively impression of how the base would have looked like in the years of operations.

The following photographs are from a visit to ‘Base Tuono’ in Autumn 2018.

Sights

Nike batteries were composed of two connected but geographically separated areas, an integrated fire control area (IFC) and a launch control area (LCA). In the first resided the electronic aiming part, comprising all the antennas and electronic gear necessary to collimate the target, compute the expected kill point of the missile, and to track and guide the missile to that point. The launch area was composed of an array of three flat concrete pads, each supplied with a hangar for storing the missiles, gantries for putting typically three missiles at a time (per pad) in launch position, and a concrete shelter to oversee and trigger the launch sequence. An extensive description of the Nike SAM system can be found on this excellent dedicated resource website.

Due to the features of the radar guidance system, the IFC had to stay in line of sight from the LCA, and at a higher – but not excessively higher – elevation. At ‘Base Tuono’, due to the mountainous setting, the two areas are not far, yet they are not easily accessible from one another. Furthermore, what remains today of the former base is all concentrated in the launch area. One of the three original pads – ‘Alpha’ – has been preserved, where the other two – ‘Bravo’ and ‘Charlie’ – and other ancillary buildings as well, have been completely demolished, and a water basin can be found in their place. All installations and housing in the former control area on top of a local peak – Mount Toraro – have been wiped out, but you can get an impression of the original plan of this part of the base walking around on your own.

Launch Control Area

The launch pad ‘Alpha’ is the focus of the museum. Approaching from the parking, which is located close to the site of the former barracks and canteen, you can spot from the distance three Nike-Hercules missiles aligned in vertical launch position. A water basin covers a large part of the former base, as you can see from historical pictures. Launch pads ‘Bravo’ and ‘Charlie’ are totally gone, similarly to the original outer fence delimiting the large perimeter of the installation.

Getting closer to the launch pad ‘Alpha’ you can notice an array of radar antennas, which were originally in the IFC area on top of Mount Toraro. The area of the launch pad features a reconstructed inner fence, which was in place around each pad in the original base.

The pad is basically rectangular in shape, with a hangar on one side, a protection rim and the launch control bunker on two opposing sides and a free side where today you can find the ticket office.

Three missiles are placed on top of their launch gantries. The gantries are part of a sophisticated rail system, designed to allow an easy side motion of the missiles from inside the hangar to their respective launch positions outside. The missiles were stored horizontally in the hangar to the far top of the rail on trolleys. When being readied for launch, the trolleys were pushed along the rail to the launch position, where the trolley was joined to the gantry. The missiles were raised to a vertical attitude together with the trolley with the help of a lift, which was a movable part of the gantry.

While the pavement is covered in asphalt, you can see the gantries and the rail system are staying on hard concrete foundations. These are among the few remains you see in the German Nike site covered in this post.

Inside the hangar you can spot a Nike Hercules missile, with lateral cutouts to expose the inner structure. These reveal the four-canister solid-propellant booster stage, which was ignited first and was separated from the bullet-shaped second stage when exhausted. The latter features the warhead, the electromechanical rigs of the guidance system, and a single solid-propellant sustainer rocket engine. The rocket had a range of about 25 miles, and a top speed over Mach 3, making it a really remarkable piece of technology especially compared to the soviet counterparts of the time.

All around the missile in the hangar you can see inner parts of the missile itself and of the ground fire control system as well. There are also panels with the history of the base, and original warning signs and instructions painted on the inner walls of the hangar – and similarly on other walls of the base. These writings are in double language, both in Italian and English. While the base was managed by the Italian Air Force, such installations were integrated in the NATO defense line, so many procedures of the Italian Air Force were in English. Furthermore, US military staff was required on site ‘by design’ in case of operations with nuclear warheads, which the Hercules could optionally carry. Nuclear warheads were never deployed to this base though.

Further items on display around the three missiles on the open apron include an old Nike-Ajax missile, a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter – the Italian Air Force was the last in the world to retire this model from service, as late as 2004 – and two trailers aligned in a row. The trailers are the battery control trailer, or BCT, and the radar control trailer, or RCT. Both trailers were originally in the IFC area of the base, and were operated by the staff responsible for offensive operations. In the days of operation, there was always somebody on duty in the trailers.

The BCT is, roughly speaking, where targets were designated, the kill point computed and the launch sequence triggered. The most notable feature are the two computerized plotting boards used to identify the target and to define the flight trajectory of the missile. The LOPAR detection radar and the identification friend-or-foe (IFF) radar reported information to this trailer, which coordinated the attack.

In the RCT stood the operators of the TTR and TRR radars, which were responsible for keeping trace of the target and for monitoring the missile during the flight towards the designated kill point.

To the back of the two trailers, it is possible to spot the rectangular shapes of the LOPAR radar and of the smaller IFF radar. The two round-shaped antennas are the TTR and TRR radars. In many pictures they are portrayed inside a bulbous cover, conferring them a distinctive spherical shape.

The concrete bunker to the opposite side of the launch pad with respect to the trailers is a protected room for the launch section panel, which is a kind of control panel for triggering the launch sequence of the missiles. The bunker served as a shelter for the operators of the launch section, for remaining on the outside in the vicinity of the missiles during launch operations was extremely dangerous.

During the guided visit, you are given a demonstration of the launch sequence from inside the control room, which is insulated from the outside with double tight doors. The firing procedure was quite complicated. Actually, it was a direct signal traveling along a cable connection from the battery trailer that gave the go to the missiles. Yet there were redundancies for increased safety, and it was possible to trigger the entire launch sequence from within the firing section, in case communication with the BCT was lost. During normal operations, the OK from the operator of the control panel in the bunker had the function of a further go/no go safety layer for the launch.

A trailer with a panel similar to that in the bunker can be found outside. This likely represented a further redundancy, or like the F-104 it is a piece coming from somewhere else.

To the back of the bunker with the fire section panel you can find an original watchtower from a US base in northern Italy, similar to the towers originally in place around the missile base. Close by, there is a nice example of the canisters used to the transport the stages of the Nike-Hercules, as well as the crane used to assemble it. There is also a further example of the second stage of the missile.

Getting there and moving around

The ‘Alpha’ battery of the launch control area is open as a museum, called ‘Base Tuono’. It is located on the road SP143, which departs from Folgaria, a small town about 12 miles south of the regional capital town Trento. You can find clear roadsigns leading to the site from Folgaria.

The museum has opening times, visiting is generally possible on a self-guided basis. Access to the bunker and the trailers is possible only on guided tours. All information on their website (in English). Large free parking about 0.2 miles away from the entrance.

There is much to see for technically minded subjects, but the visit will be surely appealing for children too. I would recommend to allocate at least 45 minutes for the visit, and up to 2 hours if you want to take a guided tour and take all the pictures on your own. The scenery around is gorgeous, so it will be easy to combine this destination with a nature trail or with other tourist destination in the area.

Integrated Fire Control Area

This is where the radars and trailers used to stay, together with barracks and service buildings. It can be found about 2 miles south east direct line of sight from the launch pad, on top of Mount Toraro. Differently from the launch control area, this area has been demolished and sanitized. No buildings remain in place, yet some of the former foundations and platforms to anchor the trailers can still be seen.

Reaching to the top of the peak is interesting to appreciate the view of the launch site from here. Unfortunately, at the time of my visit low clouds obstructed the sight.

Getting there and moving around

Even though the wide original road to reach this part of the base still exists, for some reason access to the top of the mountain is not allowed by car. In order to get to the trailhead from the museum, you can take your car and keep going southeast along the SP143 for about 1.5 miles. As you go ahead, the road will change the name to SP92 on your nav. Soon after the road starts descending, you will find the trailhead to your right, with a horizontal obstacle and a prohibition sign for cars. You may park there. It is likely the trail to the top of Mount Toraro will be on your nav too, for it is basically a normal road. The distance to walk to the top is about 1 mile, along the former service road to the base – covered in asphalt, gently ascending, no risk of any kind.

Traces of the Cold War in Southwest Germany

Between the end of WWII and the collapse of the USSR in the early Nineties, Germany was caught in the middle of the confrontation between the West and the Soviet bloc. An unnatural and heavily guarded new border was established between the two adversaries, which crossed the extensive territory of todays Germany. Thanks to the presence of American, British and French military forces over the western territory of the Country, and of the Red Army to the east, with the start of the Cold War the German ‘inner border’ became a modern line of the front for this new type of confrontation (see this post).

All armies stationed there benefited from substantial resources poured by the respective governments in the setup of permanent military detachments and infrastructures. The aim for the nations involved was that of having on the spot a credible force, capable of effectively fighting an enemy army – as well as hitting the populations of neighbor Countries – in case a new war was started in Europe. In the end, an open war was never fought, yet for decades it was deemed possible, and in some crisis moments even likely (see this post).

This chapter presents pictures from three Cold-War-themed sites in southwest Germany. Photographs were taken in April 2018.

Navigate this post – click on links to scroll

Sights

With the end of the game for the communist empire and following the German reunification, Russian forces withdrew from all bases in Germany – as well as from many other Countries in Europe – and so did the foreign NATO allies, with a very few exceptions. Most former military bases and military infrastructures fell in a state of disrepair, and by the years the majority were either completely wiped out or converted into something else. Nonetheless, especially in the less crowded territories of the former communist East Germany, visible traces remain from the period, in the form of – sometimes immense – abandoned airports and military bases (see this post and links therein).

Comparatively less traces of the once substantial presence of the NATO forces are to be found in todays western ‘länder’ – i.e. administrative regions – which used to be part of West Germany. Yet something of interest for Cold War ‘archaeologists’ can be found also here.

A long chain of anti-aircraft missile batteries was implemented based on the Nike missile system designed in the US, and implemented by the US Army as well as other NATO armies in West Germany. The defensive line was established in the 1950s and updated over the years, running almost parallel to the border with the communist DDR, but located pretty far from it and well within the territory of West Germany. It stretched from the North Sea to the Bodensee, on the border with Switzerland. There are some very extensive references on the web providing a complete description of the Nike defensive barrier both in the US and abroad, a very rich one here (the link should point directly to the German section).

In this chapter you can find some pictures from an exploration of an abandoned Nike Hercules site next to the town of Wurmberg, just out of Pforzheim, between Stuttgart and the French border. It used to be run directly by the US Army.

Intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBM) were part of the tactical plans of both the US and the Soviets in Europe. The Pershing platform, based on the homonym theater-level nuclear missile, was deployed in Germany, and placed in the inventory of both the US Army and the West German Luftwaffe. The missile was updated in several instances in the decades of the Cold War, until it was banned by the INF treaty in 1988, agreed upon by Gorbachev and Reagan administrations.

Among the strongpoints of the Pershing missile deployment in Europe, a huge warhead deposit was built close to the town of Waldstetten, next to Schwäbisch Gmund in southern Germany. In this chapter you will find photographs from an exploration of this mysterious site.

Finally, a nice collection of aircraft from both sides of the Iron Curtain can be found in the southwestern corner of the Country, next to the town of Villingen-Schwenningen – one of the few air museums in this part of Germany.

Nike Missile Battery – Wurmberg

The site in Wurmberg, east of Pforzheim, was actually Battery ‘Delta’ – i.e. the fourth – of the four missile forces managed by the the 3rd Battalion of the 71st Air Defense Artillery (ADA) regiment.

Typical Nike missile batteries were composed of two geographically separated areas. The largest was the ‘Launch area’, with missile storage facilities – sometimes reinforced underground bunkers, sometimes more usual ‘soft’ hangars – and launch pads. The other was the ‘Integrated Fire Control area’ or ‘IFC’, where all antennas and electronic equipment for target detection and missile guidance were placed. Due to the limited speed of motion of the missile guidance antennas, the distance between the launch site and the IFC had to be greater than a threshold, while the elevation of the IFC had to be somewhat above the the launch pads. These technological constraints led the choice of the sites suitable for the installation of the Nike batteries.

The site was deactivated in the Eighties, and both areas were sanitized in more instances, basically demolishing any buildings. The ‘final stage’ of the operation is likely to be underway at the time of my visit, as you can see from the pictures, where piles of gravel and moved land can be spotted all around the launch site.

Surprisingly, a feature that has come to our days virtually without any alteration is the external fence of the launch site, which runs all around the launch area and is still particularly impenetrable. Also the rounds of barbed wire on top are still there.

The exploration of the launch area is pretty straightforward. It is rectangular, basically flat and aligned along an east-western direction. Close to the eastern end,  you meet a flat area with a concrete pavement – now partly demolished – and a curved road nearby. This is where the missiles and warheads were assembled. Nike missiles could mount nuclear warheads, but apparently this was a rarely adopted option.

The next notable item to the west is a water basin, still in a very good shape. There used to be a water system all around the base. Remains of demolished buildings can be spotted around here too.

A mystery electric cable comes out of the ground on a spot. It is noteworthy that the launch area and IFC were connected by an underground cable, but I don’t think this is the one you see in the pics.

This battery had three launch sectors, bearing the little imaginative names of ‘Alpha’, ‘Bravo’ and ‘Charlie’. You can find them in a sequence, walking towards the west end of the site.

The pads of the Alpha sector, while now greatly damaged by the demolition work, are still in place with their metal covers.

There were three launch pads on each sector. The area of each sector appears unnecessarily large, but actually the missile storage hangar used to stay beyond the launch pads, occupying about half the area of each sector. Today these soft constructions have disappeared.

To the west of each sector there is a small bunker, intended for the protection of the troops working around the launch pads, in case of an attack to the battery. These bunkers are not very damaged, so they constitute a very interesting part of the site today.

The protection bunkers have two exits on the two opposite sides – so the Alpha bunker connects the Alpha and Bravo sectors, the Bravo bunker the Bravo and Charlie sectors, while the Charlie bunker connects the Charlie sector to the logistic storage area to the west end of the launch site.

The Alpha bunker is well conserved – except for some spoiling by some idiot writer. There is no camouflage paint coat outside, just some plain green paint, and the walls inside are painted in a bright crimson color. The bunker has two opposite entrances, and two corresponding corridors leading to two massive tight doors, which give access to a central protected room, insulated from the outside.

Writings in English are still there in the central room of bunker Alpha.

The launch sectors Bravo and Charlie are more damaged than Alpha.

The Bravo bunker is camouflaged, and differently from Alpha the walls inside are painted in water green. It is possible to notice how the central room was separated from the rest of the structure for blast insulation, similar to other missile sites (see this post). There is a wide slot at the level of the doors.

Further writings in English and some original linoleum pavement are still perfectly visible.

The Charlie bunker is different from the other two. The facade is wider, it is coated in a camo paint, and bears the name ‘Charlie’ above the eastern door. Inside it is very dark, possibly as a result of a fire. In the insulated room it is possible to see an original air conditioning system.

The three launch sectors are connected to the south by a wide road, from where you can appreciate the extension and state of conservation of the original fence.

The IFC area is located just north of the small town of Wurmberg, on top of a hill. Unfortunately, the former military site has been wiped out and a nothing less than a waste disposal facility has taken its place! Anyway, from this vantage point you can clearly see the launch area, roughly two miles to the west.

Getting there and moving around

Getting to the launch area is very easy. Leave the highway N.8 close to Pforzheim (the exit is 45b Pforzheim-Süd) and take for Pforzheim on Wurmberger Strasse. Take the very first road to the right and park your car there. You will see a gate open since ages and an almost unmaintained road taking straight north and climbing gently uphill. This road will take you to the official gate of the launch area in 0.4 miles. Getting in is probably prohibited, but the area is pretty remote and secluded, and I didn’t see a person around during all my stay.

The site is geographically compact, so touring may take about 2 to 2.5 hours taking all pictures, if you have planned your movements in advance. A tripod is strictly necessary for taking decent pictures inside the very dark bunkers.

The IFC area can be reached going to Wurmberg, leaving the same exit but taking the direction opposite to Pforzheim. You will soon reach central Wurmberg. Cimb along Gollmerstrasse, then along Oschelbronnerstrasse. Where the village ends and the road stops climbing you will see a field to your left and a waste disposal facility to your right – this used to be the area occupied by the IFC area. Looking west you can see the launch area and the taller buildings of Pforzheim further in the distance.

Pershing Warhead Storage Bunkers – Waldstetten

The site in Waldstetten is basically an array of warhead storage bunkers, built between 1954 and 1958 by the US Army. In 1972 these bunkers became a part of a Quick Reaction Alert site, managed by the 1st Battalion of the 41st Field Artillery Regiment, tasked with supplying the nearby storage site of the Pershing missile in Mutlangen, just north of Schwäbisch Gmund. The site saw major action in 1982, when 36 Pershing II missiles were installed in Mutlangen as an answer to the deployment by the USSR of an updated version of the excellent SS-20 Saber IRBM system.

During the Eighties the 1st Bn 41st FA was reformed more than once, until it became 2nd Bn 9th FA in 1986, only to be disbanded in 1991, following the dismantlement of the Pershing system as a consequence of the INF Treaty between the US and USSR.

It should be mentioned that whether the nuclear warheads of the Pershing missile ever made their way to this storage site is a matter of discussion. As a matter of fact, the missiles were in the nearby Mutlangen site, and their installation triggered well documented protests by the usual pacifist folks, who encountered difficulties in understanding the moves of the Reagan administration, which helped with successfully putting an end to the Cold War and to many communist dictatorships in Europe. What the bunkers in the Waldstetten site were used for is not totally evident, and it should be recalled they were built in the Fifties, before the deployment of the Pershing system.

Of the 28 bunkers originally built, 25 exist today while three have been demolished in a landslide. The site is located in the trees along two broad circular roads, once service roads. Today it is in the heart of a natural preserve, and the roads are used by MTBs and hikers, whereas the Mutlangen site has been converted into a solar power plant.

The local administration has prepared a placard with a map and a short history of the place (in German only), which I spotted only by the first bunker you meet climbing uphill along the road approaching the site from north. You can see the placard in the pics below, with the corresponding map. The position indicated with ‘Standort’ on the map is where the placard is. I suggest starting you exploration from there.

About half of the bunkers can be accessed. Except a few, they are basically indistinguishable.

Inside they are empty and very basic in shape, with just one large storage room. Other bunkers are inaccessible, and some have been converted into bat shelters.