Since the beginning caught in the storm of WWII, Poland saw its border changed again in 1945 by the Western Allies and the USSR – the lack of natural borders meant that fate for this Country several times over the centuries. Furthermore, as a massive flow of Soviet forces had been pivotal in repelling Hitler’s forces, similar to other nations sharing a border with the USSR, Poland found itself deep in the sphere of influence of Stalin’s Soviet Union. A communist dictatorship was installed starting 1945, due to last until the end of communism in Europe in 1989.
As a matter of fact, Poland turned out to be by far the most populated and largest of Eastern Bloc countries. Strategically placed in the middle between the USSR and free Western Europe, with a wide section of the Baltic shoreline and a huge, mostly flat territory, similar to the German Democratic Republic nearby, Poland was the theater of a significant militarization effort by the Soviets. Not only the Polish army received Soviet war material in large stocks over the full span of the Cold War, but the Red Army also actually had significant assets scattered over Polish territory – its huge Northern Group of Forces being stationed there, with tanks, aircraft, dedicated bases, firing ranges, as well as several tens of thousand troops and their families, making for a kind of military colony of the USSR.
What is possibly less known is that also Soviet nuclear weapons were stationed in some satellites of the USSR, like the GDR (see this and this chapters, for instance), Hungary (see this chapter), and of course Poland.
Some elements of the global picture have been introduced in another chapter, dealing among other things with a Basalt-type bunker built for storing air-launched nuclear systems, on the premises of the Soviet airbase of Wiechlice (Szprotawa). Yet as can be argued from the general map of of nuclear depots known to Western intelligence, dating from 1979 (‘Warsaw Pact Forces Opposite NATO’, Vol.I-II, CREST record number 0005517771, declassified and released in 2010, here), there were also three major depots of the Monolith-type in Poland. Similar to Stolzenhain and Lychen in the former GDR (see this post), these depots were larger, multi-chamber storage facilities, intended to store primarily missile warheads for longer periods, for instance to complement the SCUD launch system for theater missiles.
The uniqueness of Poland in the panorama of Cold War archaeology lies in a generally positive attitude towards preserving some traces of this dramatic piece of recent history, when the map of Europe was markedly different from now, and the western world found itself multiple times on the verge of a nuclear confrontation, to be fought on the very territory of now wealthy Core Europe. As a result, an impressive number of war museums putting on display military stuff from all the 20th century can be found scattered over the broad territory of today’s Poland.
Even more important, a certain number of former Soviet military installations are being either actively preserved, or at least not condemned through demolition works or re-assignment to improbable new uses. This is despite a totally justified negative attitude towards the Soviet occupation forces and communist dictatorship. This attitude marks an unusual difference between the cultural attitude of the fierce Polish people towards recent military history and Soviet occupation, with respect for instance to Germany or Hungary, where the comprehensible dislike for the Soviets has taken a shape in leaving behind – i.e. more or less demolishing – every trace of a Soviet military presence, and especially in the former, reducing military museums to a minimum.
Among the most prominent Cold War relics you can find in Poland are the three Monolith-type nuclear warhead bunkers mentioned above. One of them – the Podborsko site – has been restored with 90% original material, and makes for a world-class, top-tier museum in the panorama of Cold War military history. The other two, Brzeznica-Kolonia and Templewo, have been left to nature and have now become ‘Soviet ghosts’, but they are advertised with panels, providing some info, and while access is not encouraged, a quick look inside the bunkers, as well as freely walking in the former premises of these bases, is of course possible.
This post covers these three Monolith-type sites, with a focus on the unique preserved Podborsko site, which needs to be on the shortlist of everyone with an interest in Cold War technology, as well as in the history of the nuclear stockpile. All sites were visited, and all photographs taken, on a trip to western Poland in summer 2020.
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All three sites are in northwestern Poland. GPS coordinates are provided in the respective sections. Despite being not too much afar from each other, due the relatively slow connection roads in the area, visiting all three places in one day is not possible. Furthermore, the area is quite dense in both general interest and Cold War related destinations, so I would advise planning a trip to this region of Poland and listing these sites among other destinations.
A good specimen of a Monolith site, Podborsko – or Objekt 3001, as per the official military listing of the Cold War years – was centered on two large half-interred bunker, each with two big side-wards opening tight doors at ground level, providing access to the interior with the trolleys used to move the nuclear warheads from the transport trucks to the cellars.
For an increased protection in case of an attack to the site – likely listed among targets of strategic value by Western Countries – a second tight door was put immediately next to the external one, creating a tight, blast resisting and insulated airlock between the interior of the bunker and the outside world.
Both doors to the two ends of the airlock can be – and are – opened via a manual crank system. Two men are needed to actually move the doors however – they are really heavy! A servo-assisted system was in place originally.
An interesting detail is the original sensor for the door status, part of a security system of the base.
Similar to their US counterparts, the Soviets took the problem of security of the nuclear arsenal pretty seriously. Each door on the path followed by the warhead from the outside to the cellar, including the airlock doors as well as the cellar doors inside the bunker, were associated to a trigger. When the corresponding door was opened, the trigger sent a signal via a dedicated cable link to the headquarters of a dedicated branch of the Red Army offices in Moscow, Russia, which was kept constantly updated on the status of each critical door in the depot. The link was via purpose-designed vacuum-protected cables – the actual wiring ran along a vacuum manifold, so that in case of the cable was bitten and the vacuum manifold collapsed, an emergency signal was immediately sent to the nearest nodes of the network, allowing surveillance staff to intervene promptly.
The opening of and closing procedure of the airlock doors involved communication with a post in Moscow too, which started with the local guards communicating their intention to open the doors via a system housed in a blue cabinet besides the tight door. As the signal traveled from the bunker to the headquarters and back, the opening of an airlock was not a quick operation! Original writings in pencil can still be found in the cabinet.
Past the airlock, you land on an elevated concrete platform. From here the warheads were moved to the underground floor via a mechanical crane. This is still standing today, with limit indications in Russian.
From the platform you get an excellent lookout of the bunker structure. You can see a twin suspended platform to the opposite end of the underground floor, with a tight door shut closed. Along the long sides of the main hall, on the underground level you see several doors. On the right hand side, big sliding doors painted in white give access to the cellars, where the warheads spent most of their time in rest. On the opposite side are smaller man-sized doors, giving access to the technical area, with provision for the men of the permanent bunker watch.
The stairs leading downstairs are among the few complements to the original structure – they have been put in place to ease visiting. Originally, the underground floor could be reached from the suspended platform only via a lateral manhole with a vertical metal latter.
The warheads are long gone today – the site was built in the late 1960s, and was emptied of its strategically relevant content in the late 1980s, to be finally ceded back to the Polish government after the withdrawal of all Russian forces from Europe. The cellars today are mainly empty, and used to showcase interesting items related to the site.
First, you can see a scale model of the entire site. In Soviet times, the place was a full scale military base. It included a separated area with living facilities for the troops and their families, who ran the base with both technical and surveillance tasks. Today, this area has been taken over by the government, and used as a prison – Podborsko is rather secluded and far from populated areas on the Baltic coast. Furthermore, as said there used to be two twin bunkers. Today only one has been restored, whereas the other is sealed and waiting for reuse. Between the sectors of the base multiple fences with barbed wire, concrete walls, foxholes and other deterring/defense devices and systems were in place, making the innermost part of the base with the bunkers rather inaccessible.
An original armored cabinet from the time of operation is still in the corner of a cellar, its original use is uncertain.
In another cellar you can find everyday items and relics from Soviet presence in the area. These range from toothpaste to children’s toys. Also more military-related items, like cartridge boxes and even original Soviet military dog tags have been found scattered over the area!
You can also find weapons, a scheme of the base in Russian, anti-radiation suits, and parts of the body, control and guidance systems of a Soviet SCUD theater missile – the corresponding warheads being the main business in Podborsko. There is also a copy of the plan of an attack scenario for Western Europe, showing some targets on the respective sides of the Iron Curtain.
One of the cellars has been left empty, with a mock-up of a warhead, resting on one of the original trolleys. This is particularly evoking, despite being just one out of the high number of warheads usually stored in a cellar. The actual number of warheads residing in each Soviet storage over the years is still today not totally clear. However, reportedly former Soviet staff support there was in a single Monolith bunker in Poland enough nuclear material for the whole attack plan over Europe, meaning a number of several tens warheads per site.
The trolley is original as said, and it shows the function of the slots on the ground of each cellar, which allowed anchoring the trolley firmly in position. This was possibly needed also in the extreme case of a blast hitting the bunker, so as to avoid any unwanted displacement of the trolleys.
A fourth cellar displays a set of panels, outlining the history of the Cold War.
As said, the security triggers telling the status of the door can be found close also to each of the sliding doors of the cellars.
Before moving to the technical area on the other side of the bunker, a look to the central hall reveals a number of original material. In particular, you can find an interesting set of instruments, handles and gauges packed together in a metal cabinet. Their function was that of monitoring the state of each warhead. Nuclear material needs to be stored in precise conservation conditions, so warheads were kept in dedicated cases. These were inspected regularly by connecting them to the monitoring system and recording the corresponding gauge readings. Traces of the positioning markers for an inspected trolley can be found close to the cabinet, painted on the ground.
Another conspicuous sight in the main hall is the heating system, needed to keep the inside atmosphere at a constant assigned temperature and humidity level, to guarantee the health of nuclear material. A big array of heat exchangers takes the top part of a side wall in the main hall.
The technical part is made of two main parts, and is accessible on the long side of the hall opposite to the cellars. One part is made of a blind sequence of three narrow compartments. Here you can find a case for manipulating dangerous chemicals, with protection gloves once protruding inside. Nearby, a sink and some cabinets recall a medical room.
This area was designed to manipulate and check the triggers of nuclear weapons in use at the time of construction of the Monolith bunkers (late 1960s). These made use of reactive materials, thus requiring some precautions and a complex maintenance procedure. They were phased out soon after the construction of the site though, so this part of the bunker was basically unused since that time. A tight door connects this area to the main hall.
The second part of the technical area is arranged along a U-shaped corridor, starting and ending in the main hall. Similar to the previous technical part, a small sealed door connects the corridor to the main hall.
The first technical rooms you meet are related to climate control.
Next you find a big water tank. Close by there is a single toilet. This was reportedly seldom used, as drainage did not work properly due to the underground placement. Watchmen during their shifts in the bunker went out for their physiological needs.
Going in and out for pedestrians was made possible through a man-sized airlock. This is perfectly preserved in Podborsko, similar to the passage leading up, by means of very steep metal ladders.
Another interesting sight in the technical area is the air filtering room, which is close to the small living area for the watch staff. In case of an attack to the facility, making the area poisonous possibly also due to fallout, this huge filtering system allowed the troops inside to survive for some time.
The electric control room is in almost mint condition. Only the major connections to the external power lines – not there any more – have been cut. Same electric connections still bear their original hand written identifiers!
An original – and rare – handbook with some illustration of standard trolleys is among the artifacts to be found in this incredible exhibition.
Concluding the technical part, a massive Diesel power generator, with its ancillary air pumping and exhaust expulsion systems, is still there in a rather good state.
Back outside, the Podborsko site features also a Granit-type bunker, perfectly preserved with its metal doors – seldom found elsewhere. Granit bunkers were much softer in construction than the Monolith-type, and they might be used for storing assembled missiles, command posts and more. The one in Podborsko is another Soviet mystery – it is hard to tell to what purpose it was built, probably in the late 1970s-early 1980s.
The second bunker, very similar inside to the main one, is sealed and waiting for restoration. You can walk the exterior, where some remains of the truck loading/unloading platforms can be found. Traces of a fence line can be seen to the back.
Getting there and moving around
The Podborsko site is a branch of the ‘Muzeum Oreza Polskiego w Kolobrzegu’, called ‘Cold War Museum Podborsko 3001’ (‘Muzeum Zimnej Wojny Podborsko 3001’ in Polish). The town of Kolobrzeg is on the Baltic coast, roughly a one hour drive from this bunker, and hosts other branches of this nice museum (a tank and artillery collection, a marine branch,…). The dedicated website of Podborsko is here, to be Google-translated from Polish. The Podborsko site is open on a regular basis at least in summer, and also by appointment. I guess the visit may take about 1 hour once on site.
My visit was a special one though, as I had the chance to join in for a special thorough visit of the site, prepared for Dr. Reiner Helling, a nuclear scientist from Germany, and one of the most knowledgeable historians in the field of Soviet military presence and nuclear assets in Europe. Dr. Helling extended the invitation to me, so I had the unique chance to take a private, tour with the local curators of the branch, Mr. Mieczysław Żuk and Mr. Pawel Urbaniak. We spent some hours touring the site inside and out – special thanks to all three for an unforgettable experience!
Getting to the bunker is easy by car. Driving will be along an original Soviet service road, which can be faced with a regular city car. You may park once on the spot once there.
The site in Brzeznica Kolonia can be found close to the former Soviet village of Klomino – pretty famous in its heyday among the urbex community – and in the vicinity of the airport of Nadarzyce, still active today.
The site has been largely wiped out, but the bunkers and a little more hardware survive, in a ghost condition. However, the site is advertised with some explanatory panels, and it is also quite popular among the locals, which come here to take a couple of pics in a weird scenery.
One of the most portrayed items on the premises of this site is the Granit bunker, which is today lacking its original metal door. Similar to Podborsko, this ‘soft’ bunker was added at a later stage, and its function is to be guessed. Interestingly, some painted stripes can be found on the pavement, possibly marking the position of some trailer or gear.
Similar to Podborsko, the two major Monolith bunkers are arranged with their respective axes crossed. The eastern one can be accessed from its southern door pretty easily. Inside, it reveals its similarity with Podborsko, except for having being spoiled of any metal part – from the doors to the heat exchangers – and having hosted a wildfire or similar, as can be guessed from the sooth on the walls and ceiling.
Getting to the underground level from the suspended platform is not safe if you are going alone, like me, as the original metal ladders have been taken away. However, hard spoiling has to be expected also in the technical rooms.
Walking on top of the bunker, you find traces of the man-sized side entrance, completely interred.
Ahead of the bunker and to the back, traces of the loading/unloading platforms for trucks can be still recognized.
The westernmost bunker is easy to access from the eastern gate. Inside, it has been spoiled of any metal, similar to its twin brother. It is in a generally better shape though, without sooth on the inside walls.
In both bunkers, traces of original painting can be found.
In between the two bunkers, a number of smaller buildings are still to be found, including – apparently – a water tank, and some sentry boxes.