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.

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Like other satellite countries in the Soviet empire, the German Democratic Republic – also known as ‘Eastern Germany’ before the Nineties, ‘GDR’, or ‘DDR’ in German – hosted two armies, which not necessarily occupied the same installations, nor had access to the same resources.

Speaking of air forces, up to the dissolution of the GDR after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, there were two distinct bodies operating from airbases all over the country, namely the Air Forces of the National People’s Army (‘Luftstreitkräfte der Nationalen Volksarmee’ in German), which was the national air force, and the Soviet Air Force (‘Voyenno-vozdushnye sily SSSR’ as they would pronounce it in Russia).

While East German military forces were composed of local personnel, Soviet forces were mainly composed of troops coming from the various republics of the Soviet Union. Operations of the two military powers were of course coordinated, but the two organizations were split, and both had their airbases.

Most airbases in the GDR actually developed on the area of former airfields from before WWII, but some peculiarities in the way they were refurbished and equipped after the conflict reflected the needs of the new respective owners.

Signs of this difference can be spotted exploring some of the surviving relics of these now inactive sites – for Soviet bases, writings in Cyrillic alphabet, Lenin’s sculptures like you can find in Moscow, and typically more barracks with more amenities for Soviet soldiers, made to let them have what they needed without passing the gate of the base.

The following photos were taken during visits to four former Soviet airbases, Merseburg, close to Halle, visited August 2015, and other three between Berlin and the Baltic, Wittstock/Dosse, Rechlin/Laerz and Ribnitz/Damgarten, visited April 2016. More airbases are covered in other pages on this website (see this post, and also this).

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Wittstock/Dosse

Getting there and moving around

This site is located halfway between Berlin and Hamburg, just a few miles to the East of highway N.24, close to the junction with N.19 going North to Rostock.

The site can be easily reached by car. You can spot it very well on Google Maps and plan your trip – just search for Wittstock/Dosse. There are actually two airstrips concentrated in a rather small area, placed along an east-west line. The easternmost one is a still active, general aviation grass strip (Berlinchen).

The former Soviet airbase is the one to the west. It has been converted into a solar power plant, like most similar sites in former East Germany. Solar panels occupy the area of the former runway and taxiways, but the hangars and former barracks have not been included in the conversion plan – at least that was the picture in April 2016.

The access road you should go through is the one to the west of the airbase, going straight to the former barracks from road L153. You can park your car immediately after turning away from the L153. Actually there is a ‘no passing’ sign for cars, so you’d better go by foot to avoid misunderstandings. As it’s often the case with airports, be prepared to walk a lot, cause distances are not short.

On the pros side, apart from the grim appearance of the Soviet relics, the area is very peaceful and the countryside is relaxing and nice to see. During my stay lasting a couple of hours, I encountered only a few people out for a stroll in the countryside with their dogs, two technicians with a minivan going to the plant and some folks training their rescue dogs.

Sights

The former installation is totally deserted, and some of the residential, i.e. not technical buildings are really just waiting for the right day to collapse. There are danger signs scattered all over the area. Walking around should already give you an interesting and unusual picture of a ghost base from the Soviet era. I know of people who went inside most of the buildings, exploring them thoroughly. Personally I would recommend to think about it more than once before going in, especially the barracks, where concrete walls look really rotting – don’t forget it was made with Soviet quality… Risk connected with collapsing structures is not a remote issue here.

In the photos it is possible to see the hangars – very large – some rather old and small shelters, and the barracks. I don’t know the specific history of this airbase – I’m currently trying to find a book on the matter, but it seems out of print and very difficult to find. Anyway, it is apparent that there are at least two groups of barracks built up in very different architectural styles, suggesting the base was built and later developed further. The two-storey buildings in a typical German style were probably built in the early days of the base, possibly before or during WWII. The cubic-shaped, all-concrete residential buildings are in pure functional Soviet style, and may date from the late Fifties or later.

The hangars – as I wrote these are not shelters – are very large and tall, suggesting they were used as maintenance shops. If this was the real role for this base, meaning it was a reference point for many others on the territory, this might justify the uncommon size of the barracks and living quarters.

A building probably used for movable service equipment and vehicles can be spotted among the hangars. It can be distinguished from the buildings connected with sheltering aircraft by the very (very) low ceiling. Interestingly, traces of a translation of the most typical German road signs to Russian can be still spotted on an inner wall, together with other less clear writings – unfortunately I don’t know Russian. The emblem of the Soviet Army (‘CA’) can be spotted on one of the doors of the same building.

Two pinnacles of the exploration can be found very close to each other. The airbase apparently hosted a rather large indoor ‘sporting club’, with basket courts and other sport equipment. Most of the wooden floor in the gym is still there, with also other remains – including a Soviet newspaper from 1989 with stains of wall paint, probably used when repainting the walls. Curiously, the building hosting the gym is aligned at the level of the hangars, nearby the apron, and not among the barracks.

Moving through a courtyard just outside of the gym, it is possible to spot an incredible statue of Lenin, still perfectly preserved except for the missing face and inscription. Looking better at the statue, it is possible to notice it was placed in the middle of a perspective, leading to the statue from the main road crossing the service area of the base. Nowadays the perspective is less visible, due to newly grown trees.

All in all, the place is pervaded by a grim aura, the almost unreal and unnatural quietness of the buildings and maintenance shops making the site really unique and very evocative.