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.

Soviet ‘Monolith’ Nuclear Bunkers in Poland – Survivors & Ghosts

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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Sights

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.

Podborsko Site – Objekt 3001

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.