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 Aeronautical Museum of Belgrade

With a few parallels in aviation history, especially in the years immediately following WWII, former Yugoslavia benefited from supplies by a great number of countries. As a matter of fact, the air force of this newborn communist republic was formed at first from leftovers of retreating Germany and conquering Britain, followed by the establishment of a supply line initially from the USSR, and later the US and again Britain.

The special political ability of marshal Tito, who ruled uncontested as a communist dictator since the foundation of Yugoslavia in 1945 until his death in 1980, and the credit he benefited from especially in Britain, allowed him to keep out of the sphere of influence of the USSR since 1948. In a strategic position on the border with NATO countries like Italy and Greece, Tito adopted a detente policy of ‘equal-distance’ between the two opposing blocs over the Cold War period (even though NATO did not trust him fully, as testified by the deployment of a SAM defense line in northeastern Italy, see this post).

Of course, most of the military supply was of Soviet make, especially after the death of Stalin and well until the end of communism in Europe and the bloody fragmentation of the Yugoslav state. However, concerning civil aviation, autonomy from Moscow allowed the adoption of western aircraft, like the French Aerospatiale Caravelle and much of the Boeing and McDonnell-Douglas inventory, in the major national airline JAT – something which happened very rarely anywhere in the communist bloc over the years of the Cold War, another notable instance being Romania, again a ‘semi-autonomous’ communist dictatorship, who refused the Soviet Tupolev Tu-134 in favor of license-built British BAC 1-11s.

Another effect of the autonomy from the USSR was the creation of a national aviation industry, which especially in the case of SOKO, produced military trainers and light attack aircraft of good success, which despite ageing, are still flying today.

More recently, the fierce conflicts raging over the Balkans in the 1990s have created a major active front for modern aviation, where the air force of Serbia – which inherited the geographically central part of Yugoslavia and its capital city, Belgrade – confronted the NATO alliance in an open conflict. The unbalance of forces allowed the western coalition to quickly establish air superiority, which did not come without a few notable material losses however.

A rich display of this peculiar aviation history, actually tracing back to WWI and the early years of aviation, can be found in the Aeronautical Museum of Belgrade, which despite being in today’s Serbia, acts as a kind of Yugoslav Aviation Museum. As a matter of fact, it was founded as such back in the years of Tito, and opened in its current building nearby ‘Nikola Tesla’ civil airport of Belgrade in 1989, when Yugoslavia was still a reality.

This short post provides an outline of what you can find in this museum, with photographs taken on a visit in April 2019.

Sights

The museum occupies a relatively large area in the vicinity of the airport of Belgrade, and is made of an open-air exhibition, open-air storage area, and big mushroom-shaped building hosting an indoor exhibition.

The ‘gate guardian’ is a SOKO J-21 Jastreb, a nice light multi-role aircraft from the 1960s, powered by a British Rolls-Royce Viper jet engine.

Indoor exhibition

The entry hall of the mushroom-shaped building features is a good example of the architectural style from the late communist era. The ground floor hosts a small exhibition about the early days of aviation in the former region of the Balkans, with documents from WWI years. Among the items on display, you can find early pilot’s licenses from notable war pilots, likely granted after training abroad, and actually written in French.

The main hall of the museum can be found upstairs. This large can be walked on two levels. Most aircraft are to be found on the lower level, but a few are suspended to the glassy circular sidewall of the mushroom, lighted from behind by the sunlight – so that taking pictures is just a nightmare!

The centerpiece of the collection is an exemplar of the SOKO J-22 Orao, a twin-engined – two Rolls-Royce Viper turbofans – light ground-attack and trainer aircraft from the 1970s. Designed jointly by Yugoslavia and Romania, this model equipped the Yugoslav (then Serbian) air force during the 1990s, where a handful exemplars are still flying today.

Indeed a clean design with an interesting performance, this aircraft was possibly the last heir of the Ikarus-then-SOKO lineage, originated back in the years before WWII. In this respect, some unique exemplars of aircraft are preserved in this museum, witnessing the existence of a school of skilled aircraft designers in Serbia, not much known in the western world.

A key figure of the Ikarus design bureau, Dragoljub Beslin led the design of Ikarus S-451, a nice, very small, twin-prop attack aircraft flown in 1951, especially designed to sustain high load factors in maneuvers at high speed.

Another unique specimen is the twin-jet Ikarus 451M, the first jet aircraft built by Yugoslavia. Same designer as the S-451, this unusual jet-engined taildragger flew in 1952, but was soon superseded by more modern models, in those years of quick-paced development of aviation technology. Again, the engines were from the West, in the form of two French Turbomeca Palas turbojets.

Another member of the ‘Ikarus 451’ family – it must be said this Yugoslav one is likely the oddest model numbering systems ever created… –  the T 451 MM Strsljen (Hornet) features a more convincing configuration, resembling the single-engined British BAC Jet Provost and the Italian Macchi MB 326, both rather successful trainers from the late 1950s. On display is actually the ‘Strsljen II’ version, which is a attack/training version with more thrust than the first series aircraft. This model was conceived to operate from unprepared runways, and featured two Turbomeca Marbore II French turbojets. The aircraft flew in 1958, but an air force contract was not granted.

Some functional wind tunnel models of other aircraft, actually never reaching the 1:1 prototype stage, are on display. These include a rare ekranoplane design, the UTVA 754. With a mechanic-monster-like appearance like all ekranoplanes (the most famous being probably the Bertini-Beriev preserved at the Russian Air Force Museum in Monino, see here), this machine was designed in 1982 in the then-Yugoslav town of Zagreb, today the capital city of Croatia.

A medevac aircraft conceived for easy conversion between floats and wheels, the UTVA 66H can be visited also inside. The indigenous SOKO is represented by a number of models. These include the SOKO G-2 Galeb, a successful trainer/light attack aircraft from the 1950s, built around a single Rolls-Royce Viper turbofan. During its long history it was exported to several international operators, and gave birth to the more recent SOKO J-21 Jastreb. The Galeb was in service with Serbia until 1999.

Another section of the museum features aircraft of foreign make which witness the intricate history of alliances of both the pre-WWII Kingdom of Yugoslavia and the post-WWII communist Yugoslavia. Most remarkably, these include a Messerschmitt Bf-109-G! The history of this particular aircraft is not very clear, some sources stating it was captured from Bulgarian air force. As a matter of fact, Yugoslavia acquired about 70 Bf-109-E from Germany in 1940, which in turn furiously invaded from north in a quick an violent campaign in spring 1941.

Next in line is nothing less than a British Hawker Hurricane! A group of Hurricanes were acquired from Britain in the immediate pre-war years, and even license-built in Belgrade in a small number – Yugoslavia apparently purchased aircraft seamlessly from both opponents at the outbreak of WWII. Later on, Hurricane-equipped squadrons of Yugoslavia fought back on the side of the Allies from bases in southern Italy, finally regaining control over the Balkans.

In a similar fashion, a Supermarine Spitfire Mk.V witnesses the involvement of British-supplied national air force squadrons in the liberation of Yugoslavia from the German invaders.

In the closing years of WWII, Yugoslavia benefited also from the help of the USSR. This is witnessed by a massive – and pretty rare, out of former soviet republics! – Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmovik. This big attack aircraft, possibly the most famous Soviet aircraft of WWII, equipped three squadrons in the Yugoslav air force, and helped in the fight on the so-called ‘Srem front’ north of Belgrade. An often overlooked sector of the European front, substantial operations were carried out since late 1944 until April 1945, with the forces of Nazi Germany slowly retreating under the offensive of the Red Army (including Bulgarian divisions) and of Yugoslavia from the south. These operations involved 250’000 troops on either side, thus engaging the Germans and draining resources from mainland defense. At that time, an entire division of the Yugoslav air force were equipped with this aircraft type, kept in service until the 1950s.

Similarly, an elegant WWII Yakovlev Yak-3 fighter of Soviet make can be found nearby in the colors of Yugoslavia.

After the end of WWII, Tito was determined not to surrender his political and economic independence to Stalin. In this high-stake gamble, he made no secret of his thoughts, and sought international recognition from the west. As expected, Stalin showed no sense of humor in that matter, and as the USSR broke relationships with Yugoslavia, this country faced the risk of isolation and of Soviet invasion in the early stage of the Cold War (late 1940s).

Over the years, the good relationship established with the western Allies during WWII were strengthened further, and most incredibly for a communist country, the US provided aircraft and helicopters, in the form of Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star, Republic F-84G Thunderjet and (much later, in the early 1960s) North American F-86D ‘long-nosed’ Sabre.

The years of Kennedy administration saw a significant improvement of the relationship between Tito and Khrushchev, and this led to a switch to Soviet aircraft in the form of the supersonic MiG-21, which equipped the Yugoslav air force in substantial numbers over the following two decades. An exemplar of this iconic and ubiquitous aircraft, an unquestionably well-performing aircraft in his age, is preserved in the museum. By the way, the early 1960s saw also the widespread adoption of SOKO Galeb trainers and the phase out of older British/US models.

Other peculiar exhibits in the indoor part of the museum are the wrecks resulting from air fight operations during the Yugoslavian wars of the 1990s. On the national (Yugoslav) side, the tail cone of a SOKO G-4 Super Galeb – a totally different design from the quasi-homonym G-2 – damaged by a shoulder-launched Stinger missile in 1991.

But much more material is from NATO countries, resulting from combat during operation ‘Allied Force’ against Serbia in 1999. Most notably, you can see a substantial part of the wing of a Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk, the famous stealth aircraft downed by a vintage Soviet SA-3 Goa surface-to-air missile in March 1999, as well as a landing gear, ejection seat, pilot’s helmet, Vulcan cannon and some smaller parts of a General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon downed the following May, again due to an SA-3 missile. The first stage of the missile which hit the Nighthawk is on display too.

These are basically the only aircraft lost in action over enemy territory during that operation.

An apparently easier prey, General Atomics RQ-1 Predator UAVs were used in great numbers, some twenty of them being downed. One wrecked example is put on display.

More items of the kind include parts of NATO missiles, including HARM anti-radiation missiles and cluster-bombs containers.