The New Life of a Soviet Base in Germany – Ribnitz-Damgarten

Most Soviet bases in the former territory of the German Democratic Republic met with oblivion following the departure of their Red Army tenants back to mainland Russia, in the early 1990s.

Most locations – including full scale airbases (see here, here or here), infantry academies and shooting ranges (see here) and nuclear warhead bunkers (see here) – have been returned to nature, demolished or converted into something else. Much on this website documents this hidden part of the Cold War heritage in Germany.

However, there exist exceptions, like the airbase of Grossenhain with its preserved Granit-type bunker (see here), or the central Soviet headquarters of Wünsdorf (see here).

Another notable exception is that of the former Third Reich, and later Soviet, airbase of Ribnitz-Damgarten. Following an exploration in a day of closure in 2016 (documented here), the site was visited again legit, this time accessing the unique Museum of Technology of Pütnitz. The museum collection is very nice in itself, covering both civil and military vehicles from the DDR age, as well as heavy Soviet military vehicles, and even a few boats and aircraft from the Eastern bloc.

The museum is hosted in a complex of hangars dating from the years of the Third Reich, when the airbase of Ribnitz was active for experimenting with seaplanes, and busy with a facility of the Heinkel aircraft manufacturing company. These concrete hangars are still standing today, undoubtedly an example of German engineering excellence.

The Soviets made good use of this facility, and Ribnitz-Damgarten became a very active base on the Baltic coast for the full span of the Cold War – until the withdrawal of the then-Russian troops, who used this airport as the springboard for their final hop to their new home in Russia.

A further reason to pay a visit to Ribnitz-Damgarten is the chance to assist to the one-of-a-kind reunion and live exhibition of preserved vehicles from the Soviet bloc. Held in the summer, this ‘Treffen’ (i.e. reunion) is really worth the effort of setting up a trip, even when visiting from abroad. It is a multi-day event, and possibly the largest meeting of aficionados of cars, motorcycles and trucks from the communist world, with the chance to see all this good old technology at work, i.e. spitting and thick-smoking, all around the base. Chance is that you will drive on the original Soviet runway to reach the event parking!

Besides this yearly event, the museum offers live demonstrations of military vehicles on a more regular schedule.

The present post and photographs cover a visit to the Technology Museum of Pütnitz in occasion of the reunion of Eastern Europe vehicles held in late August 2021.

Sights

Museum of Technology of Pütnitz

The museum of Pütnitz has taken over the hangars of the old Third Reich base to the west of the airfield of Ribnitz-Damgarten. These hangars are pretty interesting from an architectural standpoint. By using large and curved concrete frames, the inside volume is extremely big for the time. As a matter of fact, they were kept in use for decades, since they could match the size of larger aircraft and vehicles of the Cold War.

These hangars are just a handful, but complemented by smaller (regular size…) hangars they provide for a very large display area, wisely adopted by the museum for its exhibits.

One of the hangars is dedicated to the NVA, i.e. of the Armed Forces of the former GDR. Among the many artifacts on display, are a MiG-21 fighter, the skeleton of an Antonov An-2 transport, and a Mil-8 helicopter. The latter has been placed in a suspended position, with a mechanism to rotate its rotors!

In the same hangar you can find a pretty extensive collection of light armored vehicles, technical amphibious vehicles as well as full-scale tanks formerly in use with the NVA in different stages of the Cold War.

A smaller area is dedicated to a display of NVA uniforms, GDR emblems and medals, uniforms of youth organizations within the GDR, as well as detailed scale models of war material in the arsenal of the USSR or the GDR over the years.

A second smaller hangar hosts trucks of Soviet make, formerly used by – presumably – the NVA. Some are especially interesting, since they were used as missile transports, and are on display with their original trailers and… payload! Also trucks transporting Soviet-made radar antennas, for air target capture or anti-aircraft missile guidance, are on display.

To the back of the same hangar, a super-interesting collection of material connected with nuclear warfare is on display. In particular, field instrumentation for measuring radiation levels, dosimeters, anti-radiation suits and masks, specific medical kits are part of this rich and uncommon exhibition.

Some of the measurement equipment is still working, with old-fashioned, low-light electronic displays still lit – really an evoking sight from the Cold War era!

Yet in another hangar, a huge collection of GDR cars and motorcycles is on display. Most of these now vintage cars and vehicles used to be a rather common sight in the GDR. The now iconic Trabant was a product of the GDR. However, many other car manufacturers existed in the Eastern Bloc, and in the USSR as well, and their products were often exported to other Countries in the bloc.

Stately cars for the top-ranking communist leadership were usually Soviet-made. You can find a small gallery of these Cold War icons in a corner of the same hangar, ahead of giant portraits of the SED (the ruling party of the GDR) leaders – Ulbricht, Honecker, Krenz.

To the back of the hangar, classic motorcycles from the Eastern Bloc are on display. They include MZ motorcycles in use with the Völkspolizei, the police of the GDR. A sizable collection of cameras is also on display.

In the same hangar are a reconstruction of a gas station, as well as a crop-dusting propeller aircraft.

Notably, you can spot fading writings in Russian on the walls of this hangar, an heritage of the Soviet tenancy of the airbase.

Some museum items are on display outside. Some of the military vehicles in the collection are still in working conditions. Live demonstrations of tanks and armored transports are regularly planned, and make for a nice sight and a thrilling experience!

Soviet Relics

Despite having being taken over by the museum and other commercial activities, the premises of the old Soviet airbase of Ribnitz-Damgarten betray the long decades of Soviet use. Besides the relics you can find scattered around in the airfield (see here for a previous exploration), very close to the museum hangars you can spot several technical buildings belonging to the base, and now basically abandoned.

On the side facade of one of those, a colossal Soviet emblem can still be seen, albeit now fading.

Signs written in Russian can be spotted here and there, as well as an original, very interesting full scheme of the base (in Russian too), a typical sight in any Soviet base.

Now-rotting buildings for the base staff can be found emerging from the overgrown vegetation to the north of the hangars.

Finally, the runway is still in a good shape, albeit cut to the east to make room to yet another solar power plant – with a really questionable function, considering the rainy weather physiologically insisting on the region most of the year. The original centerline and other markings can be clearly seen still today.

The airport is closed, but since the runway has not been taken away, perhaps some hope remains for a future with at least general aviation activities, like in Rechlin or Finow.

International Reunion of Vehicles of the Eastern Bloc

Perhaps among the busiest days of the museum in Pütnitz, those of the ‘Internationales Ostblock-Fahrzeugtreffen’ (which translates into the title of this paragraph) make for one of the most exciting occasions for a visit. Usually taking three days, this colossal reunion hosts roughly 2.000 vehicles, from cars to trucks, from farm tractors to motorcycles, from side-cars to firefighting vehicles, and from 4×4 military transports to camping trailers – all made on the communist side of the Iron Curtain!

The reunion is international, and many come from beyond the near border with Poland. In 2021 the reunion hit its 20th edition.

All vehicles are parked in virtually any lot of flat land between and around the hangars of the museum, including the original taxiways and any grassy areas around.

Furthermore, besides some official movements and parade, you will see vehicles moving around at any time, with their very characteristic good old piston engine crackling sound, as well as much spitting and thick-smoking!

Besides the countless Trabants, built in several different versions you will come to discover, chance is to see massive Soviet GAZ military trucks, or even Hungary-built Ikarus buses!

The ‘Treffen’ of 2021 was especially unlucky with the weather, which on the plus side allowed many vehicles to show their all-weather capability!

To better appreciate the noise and smoke, have a look to these three videos!

Visiting

The Museum of Technology in Pütnitz allows you to access the otherwise inaccessible base of Ribnitz-Damgarten. Access is recommended by car. The entrance is to the northeast of the airfield, through the original gate of the airbase. The museum has a website here.

Visiting in normal conditions, i.e. out of any special event, may take about 1 hour, more for a piston-power-minded subject, or for military/vehicles enthusiasts. In occasion of the vehicle reunion, planning a half-day visit at least is recommended, since the display of vehicles is really huge and worth a careful glance. A talk with many nice owners and enthusiasts may be a further plus in this occasion.

The Border Forts of Czechoslovakia Against Nazi Germany

The Maginot line – a line of forts running along the French border with Italy, Switzerland, Germany and Belgium – is a widely known example of military engineering from the inter-war period (see this chapter). The adopted construction technique, based on reinforced concrete pillboxes with walls several feet thick, half interred to decrease visibility from above, field cannons and anti-tank defensive guns, witnesses the great consideration given to tanks and aircraft as attack weapons.

Due to the fast movements typical to the new strategy of the German army since the beginning of WWII, the Maginot line is mainly remembered for having not been involved in any major action, and having being largely bypassed. As a matter of fact, the German opted for a bypass also because the line was in place, so it was not as ineffective as it is often thought.

What is possibly even less known is that similar defensive lines were built in earnest in other European countries, before and even during WWII, after the Maginot line had failed to stop the invading German army. The enormous Salpa line, built by Finland against the Soviet Union, was probably the last and most effective to be completed (see this chapter). The Stalin line, prepared by the Soviets against Germany in Belarus, is another example. Another country who invested much in this type of deterrent was Czechoslovakia.

To understand the drivers of the design of the huge line of forts envisaged by the Czechoslovakian government of the mid-1930s, one should take a look at a map of Europe from the time. After the defeat of WWI Germany had managed to keep significant parts of todays Poland. The border between Germany and Poland ran close to Gdansk – aka Danzig in German -, and the province of Lower Silesia with the town of Wroclav – Breslau in German – were undisputed German territory. This means that todays border between the Czech Republic and Poland used to be actually a border between Czechoslovakia and Germany in the years before WWII.

With the turmoil preceding the infamous Munich Agreement and Nazi Germany claiming the right to control ‘Sudetenland’ – a large part of the peripheral territories of todays Czech Republic – in 1937 the Czechoslovakian government quickly started the construction of a huge system of forts to protect the border.

The concept was pretty similar to that of the Maginot line, with extensive underground tunnels to shelter soldiers and ammos, facing to the surface with reinforced concrete bunkers with different purposes, including observation, artillery shelling with field cannons, mutual protection with short range anti-tank cannons, machine guns and grenade-throwing tubes. There were also bunkers for accessing the tunnel system with resupply. About 10’000 light fortifications were actually built, more than 200 heavy fortified positions and a handful of heavy artillery positions.

The geopolitical situation in Europe got worse quickly in 1938, with the annexation of Austria in spring and finally the Munich Agreement, which caused the dissolution of Czechoslovakia. As a result of this internationally approved de facto German invasion, the works on the defense line were halted by the Wehrmacht. A relevant part of the hard construction had been completed, but most of the bunkers were still unarmed or lacked some software – air filters, ammo supplies, everyday items for the troops, etc. – and were not serviceable.

Most of the ironworks, including especially all heavy-metal turrets, were salvaged by the Germans. Some of the cannons found their way to the Atlantic Wall. The most massive concrete bunkers were used to test new weapons. As a result, the majority of the most sizable structures are still today in a partly damaged shape.

Some of the bunkers came to life again in the 1970s, when re-founded Czechoslovakia, that time a satellite country of the USSR living under a repressive and hard communist dictatorship, started a low-paced conversion of some of the structures into nuclear shelters for top ranks of the military and political hierarchies.

Notwithstanding these incidents, todays Czech Republic is duly proud of the significant work which was carried out in the difficult late Thirties. Very much was done for the little time available, and the quality of the design and construction is remarkable. While most of the sites are open only rarely, there are some where you can step inside and enjoy an interesting visit. This chapter covers with photographs and text five larger fortified complexes along this anti-German defensive line, from a two-days visit taken in August 2018.

Map

The following map shows the highlights of each of the five sites listed in this chapter. Please zoom in for greater detail. For the Bouda fort I could not spot and pinpoint on the map all the pillboxes you can easily visit from the outside – this are covered by vegetation.

Navigate this post – click on links to scroll

Sights

Stachelberg

The Stachelberg site is located about three miles north of the small city of Trutnov. The fort should have consisted of a main entrance and peripheral shooting positions, some of them linked by underground tunnels, to defend the area of the Giant Mountains. Construction works were terminated much before completion, so the surface bunkers forming the ensemble are actually not connected. Yet the major installation, a bulky infantry positions with provision for anti-tank artillery, provides access to an extensive system of half-prepared tunnels, which gives you a clear picture of the size and capacity of the complex.

The site is open to the public, and the ticket office can be found right inside this huge major bunker. From the outside, the volume of this pillbox is particularly stunning. Also interesting are the anti-tank obstacles, which used to be placed along the border line and between the forts, to trap invading columns in a position where anti-tank guns could be most effective.

This multi-level bunker is also place for a little museum on the fortifications, mainly based on explicative panels and scaled models of weapons and of the entire bunker complex. It covers the history of the fortifications, and explains most technical features of their construction. There are no weapons or other software – they were either not installed before the construction works were stopped, or salvaged by the Germans.

The tunnels can be visited on a guided tour only, starting from inside the main bunker with a descent of several tens of feet along a flight of stairs, originally made at the time of construction. The tunnels unfold on the sides of a major, perfectly straight initial track. Some of the lateral halls, intended to store ammos as well as for sleeping the troops, are very large and close to completion, whereas others are just sketched.

The tunnels were dug in the rock with the help of explosives. The next step in the construction works would have been a layer of concrete from the pavement up to the ceiling of the tunnels. This is present today only close to the entry point, at the bottom of the access stairs.

There are at least other five smaller pillboxes which have been preserved to some extent in the Stachelberg complex. They are accessible with different timetables, and do not provide access to the underground – by design, some of them should have.

One of the pillboxes has been colored in a very bright camouflage. I could not find out whether this used to be the standard, but it looks pretty unusual and not really mimetic… There are also refurbished connecting trenches between the smaller bunkers.

The concrete base of a never built bunker can be found not far from the parking area.

Getting there and moving around

Getting close to the complex is really easy, the area is very scenic and a popular destination skiing, and for nature trail hiking in summer. There is a parking on road N.300 from where the museum-fort can be reached with an almost flat, 0.3 miles track.

The complex can be toured on the outside without restrictions. The main bunker has opening times, and the underground part can be toured only with a guide. The guide speaks Czech, but you are provided a leaflet with explanations in English, upon request. The tour takes about 30 minutes, and is offered on a regular basis, with several entries per day. They warn you about the inside temperature, but I found it pretty easy to bear with normal summer clothes. Website here, but you will need some Google translation to find the info you need.

Voda, Brezinka and Lom

These three forts are actually parts of the same system, built on the eastern end of the town of Nachod-Beloves, the major center in a local valley ending in Poland. Three items in the complex are typically accessible to the public.

The one closest to the town, on the bottom of the valley, is the Voda bunker. This is very convenient to reach, and is basically composed of a preserved typical infantry pillbox with provision for machine guns. The bunker has been painted in a credible camouflage. On one end it is possible to note the damage inflicted by the Germans, when they took out the metal observation turret. This kind of treatment – and damage – can be observed on a great many bunkers of the line.

Inside, the bunker has been turned into a local museum on the armed forces. There were border guards operating in the area, involved in skirmishes before and after the end of the war. The weapons originally intended for the fort are not in place, but there is an interesting collection of weapons, uniforms, motorcycles and other gear from the army corps operating around there over the years.

The Brezinka fort is possibly one of the most famous of the entire defensive line. The reason for that is that it was recently restored to look like it should have looked, if only it was completed back in the late Thirties. In the restoration process, weapons and system parts from other locations in todays Czech Republic were brought to the Brezinka site.

The visit of the interiors is really exceptional, even compared to the forts of the other defensive lines in Europe. The fort really looks like it could be put in operation today!

The first part of the visit of this two-levels artillery bunker will take you downstairs, where you can find the sleeping quarters for the troops with a food storage.