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 Atlantic Wall in Denmark

A pleasant country in northern Europe, Denmark is geographically surrounded by the North and Baltic seas, and shares its only land border with Germany. In the late 1930s, this meant having a very dangerous dictatorship as the only neighbor, and no possible direct help coming by land from other allies. Without natural defenses against and attack from the south, the Kingdom of Denmark was militarily occupied basically in one day, on April 9th, 1940. This happened through a joint operation carried out by the land, air and naval forces of Nazi Germany.

A quick historical overview

The interest of Germany in controlling Danish territory was mainly strategic. It served as a springboard to attack Norway further north. The latter was in itself more interesting to the economy of the Third Reich, as it was rich of natural resources, including raw materials not available in Germany. These were so needed by the Führer, who was dreaming of making Germany independent from international supply trade.

Furthermore, controlling both Denmark and Norway meant control over the eastern coast of the North Sea, and a chance to control the only access to the Baltic Sea. The USSR was not a declared enemy before 1941, but withdrawing from the mutual cooperation pact with Stalin – signed in a hurry just days before the invasion of Poland in September 1939 – at some point, and openly attacking Russia, had been in the mind of the Führer since he first put on paper his worrying geopolitical thoughts. By controlling the Baltic, Hitler could control sea trade to non-freezing ports of the USSR, which in 1940 had already taken over Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in agreement with Germany.

As a matter of fact, the conquer of Norway was not without significant losses for Germany. This was also the result of Britain starting to militarily oppose Germany. The two countries had been already at war since September 1939, but without any serious confrontation having taken place for months.

Since then, the British – and later also the American – threat from the west had to be faced through the fortification of the western coast of the Third Reich, which by the end of the summer of 1940 extended roughly from the Pyrenees in southern France to Kirkenes in northern Norway. This highly visionary task was taken up very seriously by the German military-economic machine, and produced the ‘Atlantikwall’ – which translates pretty obviously into the ‘Atlantic Wall’. This long defensive line had to be built all along the coast, and was mainly based on a catalog of standardized reinforced concrete constructions, to be reproduced in great numbers. Construction was coordinated by the main contractor, the German ‘Organization Todt’, which made extensive use of subcontracted local companies in the various occupied states where construction had to take place.

Despite the majority of the elements in the line were reinforced barracks for troops watching the coastline, ammo and supply storages, command and communication bunkers, canteens, and other service buildings, there were of course also a number of heavier constructions. These included coastal gun batteries, to counter attacking ships, lighter gun batteries, to stop troops attempting a beach landing, aiming stations, to adjust the line of fire of gun batteries, anti-aircraft guns to defend the line from air attacks, and some technical buildings serving as bases for advanced radar systems. The latter were among the most useful and widespread items along the line, as German technology developed fast during the war, to produce powerful detection systems against air and sea menaces.

Needless to remember, similar to many pharaonic works conceived by the Führer and his entourage, the Atlantic Wall was never completed, and it failed to spare the Third Reich from total annihilation. The once-modern military installations along the western coast of Europe soon became obsolete, as war changed face at a quick pace following WWII, with new weapons and techniques. Furthermore, the front line of the new Cold War shifted geographically to the middle of Europe. A tangible sign of enemy occupation, the massive bunkers of the Atlantic Wall met different destinies depending on the country. However, albeit only rarely preserved, thanks to their bulkiness and sturdy make, they are in most cases still visible.

About this post

Being the first land along the western coast to fall under German control, work on the Atlantic Wall started in Denmark earlier than anywhere else. Today extensive traces of the line are still pointing the shores of the North Sea.

A few focal points are preserved as first-class museums. These include the strongholds of Hirtsthals and the huge battery at Hanstholm, in Northern Jutland. The latter had been designed around a cluster of four monster coastal guns, to the aim of controlling the passage through the Skagerrak channel, providing access to the Baltic Sea. A twin battery – Vara – was built to the north of the strait in Norway.

Closer to the German border, the area of Blavand – featuring also the famous ‘Tirpitz battery’ in its arsenal – is another example of a partly preserved portion of the line. Bangsbo fort in Frederikshaven has been partly refurbished and opened as a museum, after being used by the Danish military for a while. There you can find one of the few remaining examples of an Atlantic Wall installation with its original guns still in place.

Smaller strongholds, opened as smaller scale museums or left to more adventurous explorers, often feature unique special constructions, which justify a detour at least for more committed war historians. These include the Skagen battery, the disguised bunkers in Thyboron, and the complicated Stauning battery, built on two opposite coasts of a closed firth.

All these sites – and a few more – are covered in this post, which is based on photographs taken in August 2019. Denmark is officially protecting the installations of the Atlantic Wall as historical buildings – unlike France, for instance – so visiting even abandoned sites maybe rewarding, especially if they are out of the mainstream touristic routes. Unfortunately, many bunkers now closer to crowded touristic areas have been damaged by vandals.

Sights

Map

The sites covered in this post are listed on the following map. Sites opened as museums are pinpointed in red, wild sites are marked in blue.

The sites are listed in the post following the coastline of Jutland from its southwestern end.

Navigate this post – Click on links to scroll

Blavand – Shore Battery & Military Area

Located about 50 miles north of the German border along the coast of the North Sea, the small town of Blavand sits on a promontory protruding towards the sea, and protecting the access to the port town of Esbjerg – still today a major commercial port of Denmark.

The area of Blavand saw the construction of an incredible number of Atlantic Wall elements, which grew up in more instances during the war years.

Close by the parking ahead of the lighthouse on the very tip of the promontory, you can find trailheads leading to the southern and western shores of the promontory.

The southern shore makes for a typical North Sea landscape – an endless sand beach. What makes it different from others is the number of light bunkers placed along the shoreline. Despite little imposing, this model – type ‘F’ – was purpose built for the wide shores of Denmark in 1944, in view of a potential enemy beach landing. These firing positions were armed with machine guns, and placed at pre-determined intervals – about 1’500 ft – matching their accuracy range.

Many bunkers are slowly sinking in the sand, and only small parts of them can be seen emerging from the ground.

Others have been turned into strange sculptures, adding a horse head and tail.

Under favorable tide conditions, you may enter some of the bunkers. There you can appreciate their simple structure, with a defensive embrasure by the entrance (looking towards the coast) and loopholes to the sides of the firing chamber.

On the beach close to the lighthouse you can find a very big bunker with a wide hollow cave on the inland side, which used to support a searchlight.

Along the western shore you can find more massive bunkers. These include four former coastal gun batteries. These heavier constructions have assumed strange attitudes, after sinking in the sand somewhat irregularly over the years.

Looking towards the inland from the beach, you can spot an aiming/fire control positions, with a distinctive bulbous roof and a long curved slot on the facade.

Your walk along the northern shore may be interrupted by safety warnings concerning mine threat. As a complement to the defensive potential of the Atlantic Wall, extensive minefields were set up on most of the Danish beaches. This turned into a big issue soon after WWII, when an extensive demining action had to be carried out.

Furthermore, part of the Blavand promontory is occupied by a military firing range. When training exercises are taking place, special warning lights are lit and flags are raised, to delimit the territory where you should not venture.

In the dunes slightly inland from the shoreline, it is possible to find another big number of bunkers. They are not always visible from the distance, and entrance is in most cases from one side only – the only side emerging from the sand.

A very distinctive item is the colossal platform for a ‘Mammut’ type long-range anti-aircraft radar. This used to be operated by the Luftwaffe, whereas other bunkers in Blavand – like elsewhere along the Atlantic Wall – used to be run by other branches of the Germany military.

The base for the radar is in itself a rather complex bunker, with several cavities and extensive piping, once needed for power cables feeding the antenna, as well as other wiring.

Close by, a smaller radar base bunker used to be operated by the German Navy. Also here, holes and passages for cables can be found in the walls and roof.

It is noteworthy how many bunkers feature traces of original decorations, like painted walls, fake wallpaper, frescoes and small frieze lines. This is typical to many other installations of the Atlantic Wall.

Metal hardware can be found in the form of a bulky aiming turret emerging from a bunker.

In another instance, a mortar mouth pops out from the ground.

The underground bunker underneath the latter can be explored with some difficulty – there are also quite annoying bats inside -, but it reveals an aiming wheel with original markings in a reinforced concrete dome!

An interesting sight nearby the lighthouse is the tower once supporting a ‘See Riese’ radar. The protruding arms once sustained a wooden platform for military operators.

Getting there and moving around

The area of Blavand is rather extensive and rich of diverse installations, so notwithstanding the general bad shape of most of the bunkers, visiting may easily take 3-4 hours for a committed tourist, getting inside most of the items. A good starting point is the free parking by the lighthouse, provided you come early especially in summer, cause it tends to get more and more crowded along the day.

Blavand – ‘Tirpitz’ Coastal Guns

Despite at least some of the bunkers on the shores of Blavand being in a relatively good shape, there is a part of the Atlantic Wall which is officially preserved as a museum. This is one of the two unfinished bunkers intended to support a set of massive 38 cm coastal guns.

These guns – four, two for each bunker – were originally intended to be put on board battleship Gneisenau. The latter got damaged in port, and the guns were diverted to coastal use. The decision to build the Tirpitz battery to protect the port of Esbjerg came relatively late during the war, in 1944. As a result, construction of the battery supporting structures was not completed when the war ended, and the four never installed guns were scrapped – except one, which can be admired in Hanstholm (see below).

The name ‘Tirpitz’ attributed to this battery is of uncertain origin, and sometimes this installation is also referred to as ‘Vogelnest’.

The museum has been built only in the southernmost bunker. The installation is very modern (and crowded), and it has been designed as a thematic museum in five sections. Two of the most interesting are about the Atlantic Wall and its impact on local life, and on the extensive mining and demining operations on the shores of Denmark.

Other sections are related to amber trade and local seamen activities.

Finally, you can get access to the base of the gun turret. Photographs are bad here, due to very poor lighting and limitations on camera use.

You can see a central round dome, surrounded by an external corridor. Traces of a post-war explosion can be noticed looking at the metal part of the construction.

Outside of the museum you can find a cannon cut in pieces, plus rigs used for construction. The bulky concrete arms protruding from the roof were meant to support the crane for mounting the cannons.

With a five minutes walk from this bunker, you can get to the northern battery. This is not preserved, and the entrances have been bricked up. Yet you may better appreciate the size of the bunker from this exemplar than from the one turned into a museum.

Getting there and moving around

The museum is located east of Oksby along Tane Hedevey, a local road connecting Blavand to Esbjerg. There are signs along the road, and a large parking ahead of the entrance. The museum is very modern, and may turn very crowded in summer. Website with full information here. You can visit on your own with an audio-guide. The visit to the military-related sections may take about 1 hour.

Adding a walk to the northern battery will take further 20 minutes at most, as there is no chance to step in.

Stauning Battery

Construction of this battery started in the second half of 1944, and consequently it was only partially completed before the end of the war. The geography of the Stauning battery is rather peculiar. The intended design was based on four coastal guns to be placed on the inland side of the Ringkobing firth – basically a lake with a channel-like small mouth connecting it to the sea. On the other coast of the firth, i.e. very close to the North Sea in Hvide Sande, the aiming station for the battery was finally built.

In the event, only one of the reinforced concrete gun positions reached completion, whereas the other three cannons were kept on basic, not reinforced aprons. The gun bunker is the only exemplar of this model built along the Atlantic Wall, and was designed around a 19,4 cm gun manufactured in France.

Located far from the shore in a secluded area of the countryside, this battery is in a relatively good shape, and thanks to the hard soil its position has not drifted since it was installed. You can even walk on top.

More elements are scattered in the bushes and over the private pasture nearby. Among them, a firing position presumably for anti-aircraft or light field guns, and corresponding ammo storages.