|The BEST pictures from Soviet bases in the GDR
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Soviet Ghosts in Germany
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As mentioned in previous chapters on the same topic – you can find the first and second here – the territory of the GDR was cluttered with an uncommonly high number of military bases, run either by the local Armed Forces of the GDR (‘German Democratic Republic’) or by the Soviet Union. This was also due to the great strategic relevance of the area, placed right in the center of Europe and on the border with ‘the West’.
Soon after the reunification of the two halves of Germany and the withdrawal of the Red Army after the collapse of the USSR, most Soviet/Russian bases in Germany were deemed unnecessary by the new federal government, hence they were converted into something else. Airbases have been turned most typically into solar powerplants or, more rarely, into general aviation airports. Armored cavalry training areas have been largely cleaned up, and allocated as land for reforestation.
Despite large parts of these installations having been recycled to some other function, substantial traces – and sometimes even more – of these once prominent and populated bases can be found still today. These include many technical buildings, like aircraft shelters, hangars for maintenance, weapon storages, bunkers, … as well as housing and buildings for the families of Soviet troopers. Needless to say, this kind of stuff is of primary interest for urban explorers and war historians as well, for these places – besides being really creepy and often preserving a ‘Soviet ghost aura’ which may appeal to a part of the public… – are usually full of lively traces of the Soviet occupation, like signs in Cyrillic alphabet, murals, monuments and Lenin’s heads, which make for an interesting memento of the recent past, when the map of Europe looked pretty much different from now.
In this post you can find a pictorial description of a visit to the two airbases of Sperenberg and Finsterwalde, south of Berlin, the airbase of Grossenhain, close to Dresden, plus a quick chapter on the former tank regiment base of Zeithain, close to the sport town of Riesa – not an airbase, but convenient to visit and well worth a quick stop when going to Grossenhain. Photographs have been taken in spring 2017.
As for the second chapter, some historical photos from the collectible book Rote Plätze – Russische Miltärfluglplätze Deutschland 1945-1994 have been included to allow for a ‘now and then’ comparison. I do not own the copyright for those pics.
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The Soviet airbase of Sperenberg stands out in the panorama of the facilities of the Red Army in the GDR for two reasons.
Firstly, it was not an attack base, but the primary logistic airport of the Soviets in Eastern Germany. The place was developed with air transport in mind, so differently from most bases around, there are no shelters for deadly MiGs or Sukhois ‘mosquitos’, but instead enormous open-air aprons, hangars and parking bays for Antonov and Ilyushin monster-size transports, as well as for bulky Mil helicopters. The place even bolsters a small passenger terminal for military staff, a truly unique feature. The proximity to Wünsdorf, a small town in Brandenburg which since the end of WWII and until 1994 hosted the headquarters of the Soviet Forces in Germany (covered in this post), may have played a role in defining the function of this base.
Secondarily, Sperenberg was simply shut down at the time of the withdrawal of Soviet/Russian forces, but was never converted into something else – at least at the time of writing. This makes it truly a one-of-a-kind item for lovers of ‘ghost airbases’, for here everything, including all taxiways and the runway, is still there. Nature is fiercely reclaiming much of the area, which is nowadays completely surrounded and partly submerged by a wild forest – making the silent remains of the base look even more creepy, unnatural and haunted…
The installation is also very big – similar to an average-size civil airport – , and besides the airside part, there is also an extensive array of residential buildings for the troops. For the major point of interest of the place is the preserved – for now… – airport infrastructure, I concentrated on that, neglecting the barracks and housing. This was also due to the latter being closer to the old main gate to the base, and standing to the available information there are rangers and local citizens who sometimes keep that part under watch. With only a basic knowledge of German, I think it’s better to take all countermeasures to avoid misunderstandings, thus enjoying a reasonably safe and undisturbed exploration…
In order to reduce the chance of a contact with the locals, it makes sense to intrude into the perimeter from the northeast, heading southwest directly to the center of the airport, leaving the housing part to the east. This will result in a multi-miles walk in the trees, along former service roads, now seldom used by woodcutters. Sooner or later, you will meet the original fence of the base, with concrete posts, barbed wire and an unpaved service road for service cars running all around it.
In order to make your way through the wilderness, unless you are from that very district and have a (very) good knowledge of the area, you will need a GPS. I profitably used the Ulmon app on my iPhone. It worked perfectly, all paths were precisely indicated. The external fence around the northwest area is very well preserved. The function of the first group of buildings I came across with is not very clear. You can clearly spot them on aerial photos of the base, to the northwest of the main part of the apron, connected to the airside area with a long straight service road aligned in a northwest-southeast direction.
I guess the facility may have been a former fuel deposit – there is a large maneuver area possibly for trucks, an inner fence for further protection, a water deposit, possibly for firefighting, and a strange array of aligned pipe ends made of concrete, pointing vertically.
Going southwards to reach the apron area, I came across an abandoned… Soviet boot, plus some more mysterious buildings, clearly blown up at a certain point in history, and possibly not built by the Soviets. These resembled in shape the cannon bunkers placed by Nazi Germany on the northern coast of France, constituting the backbone of the ‘Atlantic Wall’. Maybe residuals from an even farther back era?
After crossing another fence – again, concrete posts and barbed wire – and going through a really wild trail in the trees, basically not signed except for traces of animals everywhere, I appeared on the apron in the northwesternmost part of the airport, with a huge array of parking bays for transport aircraft. Reportedly Antonov An-12s and Tupolev Tu-134s used to be placed in this area, as you can see also from historical pictures.
The proportions of the abandoned airport are really striking. Taking a closer look at many of the parking bays, it is possible to find substantial traces of the original delimiting and direction strips for aircraft. The apron is made of the typical Soviet slabs, not coated with asphalt as typical for most airports in the West.
Moving south from the parking area, which unwinds along an east-western direction – as it is clear from the aerial pictures – , walking along a connection taxiway it is possible to notice its uncommon width, which is not typical to attack bases, but necessary for a transport base operating with Soviet giants.
Accessing the southern east-western taxiway from the west, it is possible to find a very special feature of Sperenberg – the passenger terminal. The small terminal is located to the north of a dedicated apron for passenger/mail loading and unloading.
The terminal area is made of two main buildings. One is probably older, with a large glass window looking to the apron. A gazebo and some small walkways suggest the place was intended for waiting, and for ‘quasi-civil’ operations.
The main terminal bears the date ‘1986’. From historical pictures, you can notice that it underwent some modifications during the few years of operations, which ceased by the year 1994. In particular, the central window on the front façade, made for the baggage treadmill, was bricked up at a certain point.
The inside of the building has been totally spoiled, except for some wallpaper on the ceiling.
A couple of strange movable structures, possibly extendable covered passages for passenger loading operations, can be found on the apron and in the trees besides the former terminal. Also these can be spotted in one of the aerial photographs. They are full of unofficial mottos and signatures of Soviet troops, written in Cyrillic.
From the area of the terminal it’s a – relatively – short walk to the western end of the runway.
Moving eastwards from the terminal along the southernmost main taxiway, you come across several interesting items, including a Soviet control tower and many parking bays for large helicopters.
The only hangar on the airport can be found on a very wide taxiway connecting the two parallel east-western main taxiways. The hangar, albeit appearing rather big at a glance, was probably used for maintenance of helicopters and smaller transports, as large Soviet transports need a much bigger size. Traces of a motto on the front of the hangar, obviously in Cyrillic, can be seen today.
This also are quite mysterious, for on the photos from the last days of operations the inscription cannot be spotted. It was probably covered in Russian, post-Soviet times, reappearing now as the paint coat is fading.
Also in the area around the hangar another control tower, possibly from an older age, can be spotted, but not accessed.
Taking again to the east along the southern taxiway, more helicopter parking bays can be found, and finally another large aircraft parking area. From pictures from the time, this area was used for parking mainly An-12s, some of them with the tail leaning over the grass. Many interesting strips and indications for aircraft can be found in this area, with writings in Cyrillic, together with strongpoints for anchoring aircraft to the ground.
From the end of the taxiway, where more interesting signs on the ground can still be found – one of them telling ‘cars must stop here’ – it’s again pretty easy to come to the eastern end of the runway. The connection taxiway descents gently towards the runway.
Here some of the original lights can be found. Some slabs close to the end of the runway appear highly damaged, like they were stricken from above. Possibly some overweight plane heavy-landed here at some point?
Leaving north from the eastern end of the runway, crossing both main east-western taxiways, you can point back to the fence of the airport. Going further east you would reach the housing area, which I did not explore. Going north I came across an abandoned railway track, and a railway/truck interchange area. Finally, I reached the usual barbed wire and I left in the trees. I had to walk again along a very nice multi-miles track in the wilderness back to where I had parked.
Now that I was fine with the goals of the exploration, I moved to the main gate – where you are quite exposed and it’s easier to get spotted – to take some pictures from the outside. These can be compared to an historical pic from post-Soviet times – see the Russian Eagle to the left of the gate.
Another set of exciting pictures from the air, taken during a special flight over this area, can be found in this chapter.
All in all, I would say Sperenberg was among the most interesting Soviet airbase in the GDR I’ve ever visited. You can really feel the ‘Soviet ghost aura’, for the place looks really like it was simply closed up and forgotten. And I didn’t even look at the housing part. The wilderness around is really nice to walk in spring, you will see many birds, deers and some say they have spotted boars. I walked something around 12 miles in the area, my stay lasted a full afternoon, and I noticed only a few people having a look around, far in the distance. So if you are looking for an evocative walk, mixing the pleasure of the countryside to serious, top-quality urban exploration in a former military setting, this is really a place to be!
Getting there and moving around
Sperenberg is located about 20 miles south from downtown Berlin. The unattractive village bearing this name can be conveniently reached by car, and the main gate to the base can be found to the west of it. If you don’t want to access the base from here – which may attract some unwanted attention – you may elect to go to the area of Kummersdorf a few miles north, park your car and cut through the wilderness to reach the area of the former airport. For doing that you will need a map. The Ulmon map on my iPhone was perfect for guiding me on the task, all major and almost all minor service roads were perfectly signed. Due to the size of the base, you may choose to reach the perimeter from different directions, especially if you are more interested in some part than another. It used to be a full-scale transport airport, so expect to walk a lot if you – like me – want to have a look to everything. Being placed in the deep countryside of Brandenburg, finding a parking place should not be a problem.
The former base of Grossenhain, close to Dresden, has been in the focus of an important conversion plan. Much of the facilities – especially the many hangars – have been converted into something else, including busy factories and warehouses. The area of the airport has been reduced, and the majority of the original buildings – some of them dating back to the Nazi era – demolished. A small flight club operates from the southeastern quarter of the base, using the original runway. From a bird’s eye view, the area for flight operations has been sensibly reduced, but thanks to the conversion, most hangars are still in place, so it’s easy to get an idea of how the base looked like in the past.
Historical pictures show that this airbase was used for open days in the years of the GDR, and in the transition period between 1989 and the withdrawal of Russian troops.
Similarly to other bases in the GDR like Rechlin/Laerz, Jüterbog and Merseburg, this attack base hosted a model GRANIT special weapon storage (‘Sonderwaffenlager’). This is still preserved today, and makes for the most prominent feature of this base.
Three items make this base really attractive. First and foremost, a bunker for storing special weapons. Perhaps a unique case in the former GDR, the bunker has undergone a complete refurbishment, and it now appears like new.
The two imposing doors are preceded by a barbed wire fence. It is inaccessible, but it can be easily photographed from the outside. There is even an explanatory panel, both in German and Russian, with photographs from an older time.
A second sight of interest is the former gate guardian of the base. It is a MiG-17 of the Aviation of the Red Army. It is placed on a concrete post – designed in a pure Soviet-style – with writings in Cyrillic. Pictures from the day of operations suggest a different background than the rotting hovel now behind it. The gray sky on the day of my visit added to the Cold War atmosphere of the place.
Finally, another sight of interest is a wooden round table from the age of the Nazi dictatorship, used to align flight instrumentation. It is very large, and perfectly preserved. An explanatory panel can be found also besides this item.
All in all, while not a place for a real exploration – the area is very busy and not abandoned at all – Grossenhain offers some very unique items, keeping memory of its strong military past, surely worth a detour for the committed specialist.
Getting there and moving around
Grossenhain is about 20 miles north of Dresden, and just 8 miles north of world-famous Meissen – the birthplace of the Meissen pottery. The still active ‘flugplatz’ – local airport – is immediately north of this averaged-size village. Access is via the road N.101 or N.98, surrounding the airport area to the west and south respectively. There is no barrier except for the small flight club, many public roads have replaced the original taxiways and service roads. You can move in the former area of the airbase with your car and park at your convenience. Just be sure not to interfere with the many businesses in the area, especially big trucks going in and out on smaller roads.
This once prominent, very large airbase, is still in operation as a local airport. During the Cold War, this place was selected for storing nuclear warheads with a specially built facility. Other two installations of the kind existed over the territory of the GDR, namely Brand and Rechlin/Laerz.
The airport area is largely inaccessible, for the airbase is still an active general aviation airport. Among the most visible items in this part, a great example of a control tower from the years before WWII. It has been perfectly refurbished. Nearby are some very big hangars, today hosting some private business. Closer to the apron, some shelters from Soviet times are possibly used as hangars – they were shut when I visited. I could see a Transall C-160 parked outside, a really ubiquitous military transport in Germany, likely not any more managed by the Air Force.
The ‘ghost part’ of the base is located to the south of the airport. The ideal trailhead is a former railway station and interchange platform. From historical pictures, it’s easy to see this was very busy supplying materials to the base, where also extensive housing could be found in Soviet times.
Going south following a former service road, still used by woodcutters and acceptably maintained at least for an easy 0.8 miles walk, you can reach the old bunker for nuclear ordnance. It is preceded by parking areas, demolished truck depots and many service roads. The assembly should have looked like the one in Brand, but most of the buildings today are gone.
The bunker is not interred, so the size can be appreciated from the side. Unfortunately, the bunker has been left open, and at some time in its history it must have been set on fire, so the walls inside are covered in black soot, and exceptionally dark – unfortunately I couldn’t take an acceptable picture even with a torchlight. More recently, it has been used as a dump for common waste. The area is far from hygienic, with piles of garbage here and there. Furthermore, on the outside it was covered by stupid and ignorant graffiti.