During the Cold War the condition of Denmark on the international stage was among the most complex. Coming from years of neutrality before WWII, conquered in a matter of days in spring 1940 by neighbor Germany, at that time in the throes of the Nazi fury, it found itself on the front line of the two opposing blocs soon after May 1945.
Having not been occupied by the Soviets during WWII, it could better choose about its future, and in 1949 the mother country of the Vikings joined NATO as a funding member – unlike neighbor Sweden and Finland – thus giving its availability to its Allies to help countering Soviet influence over the territory under its control.
History in brief
Often overlooked when looking at the world map for its relatively small area, at the beginning of the Cold War the geographical position of Denmark nonetheless was – and, to some extent, still is – strategically very relevant. It is right on the inlet of the Baltic Sea, with a proximity to the foreign coasts of Norway and Sweden such to allow easily blocking the marine traffic on the Kattegat strait, when needed, by means of mere cannon fire from the coast. During the Cold War, this meant a virtual control over a sea where the USSR and Eastern Bloc Countries had many industrially relevant and non-freezing ports, as well as navy bases. Furthermore, the islands of Denmark, where large cities like Odense and Copenhagen are, can be found as close as 1.5 hours by boat to the coast of the German Democratic Republic – once one of the most heavily militarized countries on earth, also thanks to a massive Soviet presence. The smaller island of Bornholm, further east, is even closer than that to the coast of Poland.
A curious fact in history demonstrated the proximity of Denmark to the communist sphere of influence, shaking the minds of top ranking Soviet military. On March 5th, 1953, on the very same day of Stalin’s death, the first defection of a jet fighter from the Eastern Bloc took place, when a Polish MiG-15 on a routine flight along the Baltic Coast suddenly left his mates and rushed to Bornholm, where it landed on a field, leaving the aircraft in almost pristine conditions.
The cautious reaction of the Danish government and military forces reflects the position of the country at the time – they had identified the USSR and their satellites as a clear and present threat, and consequently they had taken the side of the West. Yet Denmark knew it could not withstand a direct military hit by the Soviets for more than a few hours, therefore as a form of self-protection, any form of provocation, at least in the early 1950s, was carefully avoided. While the pilot of the MiG was allowed to escape to the UK and then the US, the aircraft was quietly ceded to the US military for technical inspection in the FRG, but then re-mounted and returned to Poland. Other examples of a policy of constant detente with the Soviet Union are represented by the refusal to have NATO bases on its territory, or despite the adoption of the Nike missile system for the airspace protection, the missed deployment of the corresponding tactical nuclear warheads.
Of course, in recognition of the strategic relevance of this pleasant country, plans for a Soviet invasion which would strike in northern Europe, with the objective of reaching to the ports of the North Sea in less than a week from Eastern Germany, included as a major target the quick occupation of the Jutland peninsula, and of the islands of Denmark as well. This had to be done by marching fast through the northern regions of the Federal Republic of Germany, and simultaneously landing troops on the Danish islands.
About this post
Albeit not enough populated to sustain an army capable of resisting the eastern opponents on the other side of the Iron Curtain, thanks to its position on the map, Denmark took over seriously a fundamental border monitoring and interdiction task in favor of all NATO forces. Two tangible witnesses of this are the military bases of Stevnsfort and Langelandsfort, both located on the southern coasts of the islands, overlooking key sea straits, and pointing south to the East German coast. Both have been shut down after the end of the Cold War, and now they can be visited as top-tier military museums.
Further souvenirs from the Cold War era can be found in the Defense and Garrison Museum in Aalborg, a wide-spectrum military museum with a focus on WWII and the Cold War, and in the Danish Museum of Flight, where exemplars from the heterogeneous wings of the Danish Air Force are displayed, together with unique specimens of Danish aircraft production from the inter-war and early Cold War period.
This post covers all these four sites, visited in summer 2019. Presentation doesn’t follow any special order.
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- Cold War Museum Stevnsfort
- Cold War Museum Langelandsfort
- Aalborg Defense and Garrison Museum
- Danish Museum of Flight
This museum on the eastern coast of the island of Zealand (the same of Copenhagen) is actually a former Cold War military fort, operative from the early 1950s to the year 2000. It was re-opened as a museum in 2008, carefully preserved in most part in the forms it had in the 1980s, the most technologically advanced years of the Cold War.
By the entrance to the museum area you can see three surface-to-air missile, namely an old Nike-Ajax, and a much more performing – and bigger – Nike-Hercules. Both were part of the US Nike airspace protection system, which was deployed in Denmark around Copenhagen. The missiles are from the Cold War years, but were not originally present on Stevnsfort.
Strictly speaking, Stevnsfort is not the part of the installation you access first. The area you meet when getting in from the parking used to be a missile base in charge of the Danish Air Force. It was built for the Hawk system, another US interdiction surface-to-air missile system, the heir of the Nike system. Actually, Nike Hercules batteries in Denmark were withdrawn from use – as elsewhere, see this post – in the 1980s. Their role was taken over by Hawk missile batteries, gradually entering service since the 1960s, and operated till 2005 in Denmark.
Differently from its predecessor, the radar-based Hawk system was entirely movable, making it more flexible and less vulnerable. As a result, there are basically no bunkers in this area, and all constructions here are ‘soft’. Target designation and tracking was demanded to three sub-systems, namely a radar-pulse antenna for target individuation, an interrogation friend-or-foe (IFF) and a target-tracking/homing antenna.
Two radar-pulse antennas are displayed. The aerial emerges from a tent, which covers the electronics and motor of the system. Both are mounted on a truck trailer, which is actually totally movable. The range of the radar scanner was about 75 miles.
The IFF antenna is a smaller barrel-shaped device coupled with systems on-board aircraft, needed to distinguish between an enemy aircraft and a friend or ally. The target-tracking/homing antenna, with its distinctive two radar dishes, shares the installation setup with radar-pulse antennas – it sits on top of a trailer, covered in a green tent.
Close by, trucks and special moving cranes to mount the missiles on their launch gantries are displayed. Also containers for the missiles are shown, together with an example of the Hawk missile itself. The launch order could arrive only from the central Air Force command, except in case of a communication breakdown, when each missile base could decide on its own – at the high risk of making a mistake!
Farther on, power trucks and other launch systems are displayed besides batteries of Hawk missiles. The launch gantry is smaller in size compared to that of Nike-Hercules, but each gantry launches three missiles instead of only one. The gantry is anchored to the ground, and when inactive it is shrouded in a peculiar rubber-coated eyelid-like bubble, which can be quickly lowered to let the missiles out.
On the far end of the missile area, you can see an old-fashioned coastal cannon, part of the original fort, used as an illumination cannon in support of larger cannons in the battery.
One of the naval gun batteries is the first item you meet when entering the actual Stevnsfort fort. The fort was built between 1952 and 1955 for use by the Navy, and is the oldest part of the installation. Together with the Langelandsfort gun battery and command post (see below), it was tasked with monitoring marine traffic along the straits giving access to the Kattegat and the North Sea from the inner Baltic. For the purpose, it was supplied with a huge underground bunker, its most distinctive feature, as well as batteries of naval guns.
The 150 mm guns have an intriguing history. They were made in Nazi Germany early during WWII, for the Kriegsmarine ship ‘Gneisenau’. This was damaged when still in the dockyard, and the guns were re-designated to be placed on the Danish island of Fano on the North Sea coast, as part of the fortifications of the Atlantic Wall. Following the end of WWII in May 1945, the guns were captured and finally found their way to Stevnsfort.
The two-guns batteries were capable of 4-6 shells per minute per barrel, and could reach to the coast of Sweden, thus effectively closing the Oresund strait between Denmark and Sweden if needed. While primarily an anti-ship battery, the swiveling turret could be used to cover the coast, in case of an amphibious attack.
Firing direction was by means of a primary radar station on site, which is still in use, complemented by five other stations along the coast. The shells were loaded with an elevator from the bunker underneath. The guns were temporarily deactivated – but not dismantled – in the 1980s, when Stevnsfort assumed the role of main control and communication post for the southern district of the Danish Navy. Joint exercises with the military forces of the FRG were carried out also here in the final years of the Cold War.
By the entrance to the underground bunker you can spot several air hatches emerging from the ground, and an example of sea mine. The latter was the primary weapon to interdict traffic on the strait, with gun battery fire being mainly directed against enemy mine-sweepers.
Past the entrance, you need to descend a long stair into the bunker. At the base of the stair is an airlock with facilities for decontamination. The Stevnsfort bunker was most notably the first structure in Denmark to be built to withstand a nuclear attack.
The bunker is not excessively big, with about twenty reinforced-concrete-padded rooms connected by tunnels carved in the rock.
One of the highlights of this installation is the communication bunker, operative since 1984 in an area formerly hosting a hospital, then shut down when the naval batteries were deactivated. This used to be a highly inaccessible facility during the Cold War. Thanks to a careful preservation, the room looks like it was still in use! Batteries of telex and other communication machines originally in place, monitors and modern imaging technology from the Eighties, together with examples of ciphered messages are all on display.
Next to the communication room, the operation room is even more impressive. Similar to the former, it was constantly manned, and totally inaccessible for non-authorized personnel. The radar monitors can be seen towering over the consoles! Military staff on duty identified and followed all marine traffic in the assigned district, both civilian and military, friends and potential enemies.
Catalogs of existing ships are on display. Several thousands ships were identified and observed from this facility in the days of operation. It is reported that patrol ships from the USSR approached the coast under surveillance about 30 times per year, tasked with familiarizing troops with local geography…
Another highlight of the visit is the ammo storage for the gun battery previously visited. In the storage, explosive cartridges are placed separately from the shells themselves. There were four types of shells, recognized through a color code – grey for armor-piercing, orange for explosive, green for illuminating and blue for inert.
The almost-100 pounds cartridges were loaded on an elevator, and lifted up to the battery. A ladder provided direct access from the bunker to the cannons, serving also as an emergency exit.
Other rooms you can visit are sleeping quarters for the 250 men which stationed inside the bunker, until the guns were deactivated in 1981. The fort was capable of sustaining prolonged isolation in case of crisis or war. During the Cuban missile crisis, the Stevnsfort bunker was put on maximum alert for a week, with all men living underground, all accesses sealed.
Getting there and moving around
The Cold War Museum Stevnsfort is an international-level museum, to be found 1 hour driving south of central Copenhagen. The official website with directions and opening times is here. Visiting inside the gun battery and the bunker is possible only on a guided tour, where you are given an audio guide in English (also German and possibly other languages) if you can’t follow the Danish-speaking human guide. The guided tour includes also a visit of the missile battery, but this part can be toured also on your own. The guided visit lasts about 1.5 hours, and may turn a little boring in some parts (as usual, the human guide speaks longer than your audio-guide), but it is needed to get access to the most unique parts of the museum. I suggest visiting relatively early in the day, allowing some spare time after the guided tour and before closure to tour the missile part on your own. Free parking ahead of the installation, nice military-themed shop.
This museum has been opened on the premises of a former naval gun installation from the same years of Stevnsfort (see above). Located on the southern island of Langeland, at the inlet of the Belt channel giving access to the Kattegat from the Baltic, it was in a good position to monitor all marine traffic in its sector, as well as for blocking the channel. As a matter of fact, similarly to Stevnsfort, the main target of the naval guns here were minesweepers, for the channel was completely covered with Danish remotely-controlled sea mines, and action of enemy minesweepers would have been necessary before any attack by the bulk of navy forces.
The main naval force in Langelandsfort was constituted of four naval guns, mounted on swiveling turrets, and a fire control bunker which in non-crisis time was used to keep trace of all marine traffic in the sector. The fort was complemented with anti-aircraft defensive positions, a bunkerized power station, and ‘softer buildings’, including barracks. Except for the latter, everything has been restored and can be visited. One of the naval batteries has been restored completely to its original form including the mechanisms underneath, whereas at the base of the other three batteries you can find exhibitions about various aspects of the Cold War – they are all pretty well studied, rich and interesting.
The command bunker is the first construction you meet. The building is from the 1950s, and it shares many aspects with Stevnsfort, though this is much smaller. You can see sleeping quarters and a kitchen, which would be used especially in case the fort was sealed, i.e. in case of high alert or war.
The control rooms are three. Two are for tracking marine traffic in the marine district of the Belt, and also for coordinating air operations from other military installations in Denmark. A radar antenna and an observation tower outside, likely complemented by similar gear in the area, provided a complete real-time picture of the civilian and military traffic in the sector. It is reported that ships going to Cuba with SS-4 nuclear missiles and related supplies were spotted in these rooms months before that material was photographed by the US, when the crisis broke out.
The third control room is the fire control room for the whole fort, coordinating fire from all four gun batteries. Fire control was by means of a very interesting piece of machinery, a fully mechanical computer, taking in atmospheric data like temperature, humidity, wind direction and speed, and target data. No electricity was needed except for lighting the goggles of this analog computer! A similar item was present in Stevnsfort, but I could not see it during my guided visit.
In an adjoining room you can see a perfectly restored communication facility, with ciphered messages hanging on the walls, as well as original transmission machines and early computers. There is also a personal study room for the commander of the post.
Besides the control bunker you can find an anti-aircraft position, centered on a four-barreled anti-aircraft gun. Similar to all others, the small bunker underneath could be manned and sealed in case of war.
The cannon battery closest to the control bunker has been restored completely, including the bunker underneath. The 150 mm guns, one per battery, were made in the final years of WWII by Skoda works in Plzen, in the then-Nazi occupied territory of Czechia. They were originally intended by the Wehrmacht for the Atlantic Wall in Denmark, but they never became operative there. Instead, they ended up to be installed by Denmark to counter a Soviet threat on the Baltic.
The mechanism for supplying cartridges to the cannon is similar to that in Stevnsfort, with an elevator lifting the explosive charge and the shell separately to the level of the gun. However, here the storage bunker is just beneath the cannon, and the lift does not carry the cartridge directly inside the turret, but to a hatch in the reinforced wall besides the cannon – something similar to some of the smaller cannon batteries of the Atlantic Wall built by the Germans.
Inside the bunker you can see the ammo storage, as well as a sleeping compartment for the 15-men crew needed to operate the cannon.
Some example shells have been preserved, with colors corresponding to different functions of the shell (see Stevnsfort above).
The cartridge elevator room is very small, and access is from both sides. Explosive and shell came from opposite directions, each from the corresponding storage room.
The bunker under the next cannon battery has been dedicated to the analysis of the threat from the Danish perspective. Here you see copies of the Soviet plans to invade Denmark, as part of an operation to conquer central and northern Europe lightning-fast in case of an open war against the West. Among the most striking items, you can see detailed Soviet maps covering all regions of Denmark – with city names and all writing in Cyrillic!
There is also a nice collection of ordinary weapons and military supply from the Eastern Bloc, and especially from the neighboring German Democratic Republic. A very special feature is an example of the ‘Blücher decoration for valor’, a medal created by the GDR to be attributed to individuals for actions of exceptional courage in the defense of the GDR, and to be assigned only in case of war – thanks to the Cold War never turning ‘hot’ for the GDR, nobody could be awarded this decoration.
The next battery is dedicated to espionage and spy gear, with many examples of James-Bond-like trinkets, actually used by both enemy and Danish spies. Machinery for ciphered communication, once considered hi-tech, is also on display, together with maps used by a Danish spy visiting the Polish coast, and satellite imagery of East German/Soviet airbases.
The exhibition in the last battery is about the Cold War and society, and is full of old photographs of pro-Soviet protesters in Denmark, spies, famous characters of the Cold War, momentous events taking place in Denmark during the Cold War and so on. Most notably, there are also many artifacts from both Denmark, the Eastern Bloc and the USSR, including medals, posters, portraits and much more.