Soviet Nuclear Bunkers in the Czech Republic

History – In brief

After the end of WWII and the collapse of the Third Reich, the territory now belonging to the Czech Republic fell on the Soviet side of the Iron Curtain. Together with today’s Slovakia, it formed the now disappeared unitary state of Czechoslovakia. Despite laying right on the border with the West – including Bavaria, which was part of West Germany and NATO – communist Czechoslovakia enjoyed a relative autonomy from the USSR, until the announced liberally-oriented reforms of the local communist leader Dubcek in the spring of 1968 triggered a violent reaction by the Soviet leader of the time, Leonid Brezhnev (see here). About 250’000 troops from the Warsaw Pact, including the USSR, landed in the Country. As a result, the Soviets established a more hardcore and USSR-compliant local communist regime, and largely increased their military presence.

Similar to the German Democratic Republic (see here for instance), Hungary (see here) or Poland (see here), since then also in Czechoslovakia the local national Army was flanked by a significant contingent of Soviet troops, who left only after the entire Soviet-fueled communist empire started to crumble, at the beginning of the 1990s.

Consequently, for the last two decades of the Cold War, Czechoslovakia was a highly militarized country similar to other ones in the Warsaw Pact (see here). Its geographical position on the border with the West meant it received supply for a high-technology anti-aircraft barrier (see here). Two major airbases in Czechoslovakia were taken over for use by the Soviets and strongly potentiated (see here).

Soviet Nuclear Depots in Czechoslovakia

Beside conventional forces, also nuclear warheads were part of the arsenal deployed in this Country. Where in the late 1960s Soviet strategic nuclear forces were already mostly based on submarine-launched missiles and ICBMs ground-launched from within the USSR’s borders, tactical forces were forward-deployed to satellite countries, to be readily operative in case of war in Europe. Missile systems like the SCUD, Luna (NATO: Frog) and Tochka (NATO: Scarab) were deployed to the Warsaw Pact, supplying either the local Armies or the Soviet forces on site. Typically armed with conventional warheads, these systems were compatible with nuclear warheads too, making them more versatile, and of great use in case of a war against NATO forces in central and western Europe (see here).

Irrespective of their employment by a local national Army or a Soviet missile force, nuclear warheads were kept separated from the rest of the missile system for security, and invariably under strict and exclusive Soviet control. Bunker sites were purpose built in all components of the Warsaw Pact for storing nuclear warheads – see page 46 of this CIA document, showing with some accuracy the location of the corresponding bases.

Granit– and Basalt-type bunkers were typically prepared on airfields or artillery bases, for short-term storage of soon-to-be-launched nuclear weapons. Instead, top-security Monolith-type bunkers (the triangles on the map in the CIA document) were intended for long-term storage of nuclear ordnance.

Monolith-type bunkers were built by local companies on a standard design in the Soviet military inventory, and were implemented in satellite Countries in the late 1960s. Czechoslovakia received three such sites, which took the names Javor 50, by the town of Bílina, Javor 51, close to Míšov, and Javor 52, close to the town of Bělá pod Bezdězem. All three locations are in the north-western regions of today’s Czech Republic.

The Soviet military started withdrawing the nuclear warheads from satellite Countries in 1989, months before the collapse of the wall in Berlin. As for Czechoslovakia, by 1990 all nuclear forces had been moved back to the USSR. Following the end of the Cold War, Monolith-bunkers – similar to most of the colossal inventory of forward-deployed military installations formerly set up by the Soviet Union – were declared surplus by the Countries where they had been implemented.

These primary relics of the Cold War have known since then different destinies. Some of them have been hastily demolished, and together with their associated fragments of recent history, they have almost completely disappeared into oblivion. Luckily, a few are currently still in private hands, and still in existence (see here and here) – specimens of recent military technology, and a vivid memento from recent history, when the map of Europe looked very different from now. Two can be visited, of which one is Javor 51, in the Czech Republic, the main topic of this post. This has been turned into the ‘Atom Museum’, which has the distinction of being the only Monolith-type site in the world offering visits on a regular schedule (the other open site is Podborsko, in Poland, covered here, which is open by appointment).

Also displayed in the following are some pictures of the now inaccessible site Javor 52 in former Czechoslovakia. Photographs were taken in 2020 (Javor 52) and 2022 (Javor 51).

Sights

Javor 51 – The Atom Museum, Míšov

An exceptionally well preserved and high-profile witness of the Cold War, the nuclear depot Javor 51 is a good example of a Monolith-type installation. These bases were centered around two identical semi-interred bunkers for nuclear warheads.

When starting a visit, you will soon make your way to the unloading platform of bunker Nr.1. The shape of the metal canopy, and the small control booth with glass windows overlooking the platform are pretty unique to this site. The metal wall fencing the unloading area is still in its camo coat outside, and greenish paint inside. Caution writings in Russian are still clearly visible. Concrete slabs clearly bear the date of manufacture – 1968. This site was reportedly activated on the 26th of December, 1968.

Even the lamps look original. Some of the – likely – tons of material left by the Soviets on the premises of this site has been put on display ahead of the massive bunker door.

The opening mechanism of the latter is a nice work of mechanics. Four plugs actually lock or unlock the door. They can be moved by means of a manual crank, or likely in the past via an electric mechanism (some wiring is still visible). The thickness of the doors is really impressive (look for the cap of my wide lens on the ground in a picture below for comparison!).

Each bunker had two ground-level entrances to the opposite ends, each with two blast-proof doors in a sequence. Warheads were transported by truck, unloaded beside the entrance of one of the two bunkers, and carried inside through the two doors, which constituted an air-tight airlock.

Today, you can see the inside main hall of the bunkers from the outside during a visit. This was likely not the case in the days of operation. The opening procedure required a request signal to travel all the way to Moscow, and a trigger signal traveling in the opposite direction. Once past the first (external) door with the warhead trolley, that door was shut, and the procedure was repeated for the second door, giving access to the inside of the bunker.

A security trigger told Moscow when the door was open. It can still be seen hanging from top of the door frame.

Once inside, you find yourself on a suspended concrete platform. The warhead trolley had to be lowered via a crane – still in place – to the bottom of the cellar ahead, i.e. to the underground level. The stairs now greatly facilitating visitor’s motion around the bunker were not in place back then, and descending to the underground level for the technicians was via a hatch in the floor of the suspended platform, and a ladder close to the side wall.

On the platform, an original Soviet-made air conditioning system can be seen – with original labeling – and signs in Russian are on display on the walls.

The platform is also a vantage point to see the extensive array of heat-exchangers put along a sidewall of the central hall – atmosphere control was of primary importance for the relatively delicate nuclear warheads. Each of them traveled and was kept in a pressurized canister. However, also the storage site was under careful atmospheric control.

To the opposite end of the bunker, the inner tight door of the second entrance can be clearly seen, ahead of another suspended platform. The warheads left the bunker for maintenance (they might have left also for use, but this never happened, except possibly on drills) from that entrance, which had a loading platform outside for putting the warheads on trucks (this can be better seen in other Monolith sites, like Urkut in Hungary, or Stolzenhain in Germany).

Down on the lower level, the main bunker hall gives access to one side to four big cellars, where the warheads spent their time in storage, and to the other sides to technical rooms. The pavement in the storage cellars features the original metal strongpoints, used to anchor the trolleys for the warheads to the ground. This was in case of a shockwave investing the site in an attack, to avoid the trolleys moving and crashing against one another. The original hooks with spherical joints to link the trolley to the strongpoints are also on display.

The storage cellars today have been used to display informative panels, with many interesting pictures and schemes. These include some from major sites connected with the history of nuclear weaponry in the Soviet Union (like from the test site of Semipalatinsk) and the US (like the Titan Museum near Tucson, AZ, covered in this post).

A few former technical rooms are used to store much original technical gear. This ranges from spare parts, tools and personal gear like working suits left by the Soviets (most with signs in Russian), to items ‘Made in Czechoslovakia’ or even radiation detectors from Britain and the West, gathered here for display and comparison.

Some of these spare parts are wrapped and sealed in Russian, looking like they were cataloged back in the time of operations.

In the main hall, many rare vintage pictures retrace the presence of Soviet military forces on this site as well as others in Czechoslovakia. Magnified copies of rare pictures portray the trucks, canisters and the very warheads likely involved in transport and storage in Javor 51. Actually, much mystery exists around the deployment of nuclear ordnance by the USSR outside its borders (not only to Czechoslovakia). Historical and technical information today made available, even to a dedicated public, is very limited, making this chapter of Cold War history even more intriguing.

Again in the central hall, cabinets for monitoring the nuclear warheads can be seen hanging from the walls, painted in blue. Each warhead used to be stored in a canister, which was periodically linked to these cabinets to check the inner atmosphere, temperature, etc., in order to monitor the health of its very sensitive content.

A large part of the technical/living rooms has been preserved in its original appearance. You can see parts of an air conditioning system, a big water tank, a toilet, a now empty bedroom for the troops. The bunker was constantly manned inside by typically six people, who operated in shifts. They did not sleep there, nor used the toilet much due to poor drainage. However, these facilities were used in drills, and were intended for the case of real war operations, when the bunker might have been sealed from the outside.

The electric cabinets take a dedicated room, like the huge air filters and pumps (Soviet made), installed to grant survival of the people inside the bunker in case of an attack with nuclear weapons or other special warfare. Clearly, the level of safety in the design of the bunker stemmed from the fact that it was considered by the Soviet as a a strategic target for NATO forces.

The last technical rooms host a big Diesel generator, supplied with air from the outside, and a big fuel tank in an adjoining room. Many labels bear writings in Russian, but the generator appears to be made in Czechoslovakia. The bunker was linked to the usual electric power grid of the region, and the generator was intended for emergency operations, in case the grid was lost or the bunker was isolated.

From the technical area, it was possible to access or exit the bunker, via a human-size airlock. The innermost tight door can be seen painted in yellow, with a locking mechanism resembling that of the major tight doors for the missile warheads. Outside the airlock, climbing three levels of ladders was required to get to the surface. This was the normal access to the bunker for the military technical staff, except when warheads arrived or left the storage (this was made via the major entrances, as explained).

Back outside, the second bunker, Nr.2, can be found at a short distance from the former. Nr.2 is being prepared for an exhibition on technology. At the time of writing, it can be toured except for the technical/living rooms. It is in a very good condition, and allows to get similar details as the previous Nr.1 on the construction of this type of facility – including the heating/air conditioning system.

The blue cabinets for plugging the canister for routine status checking and maintenance can be found also in Nr.2 in good shape.

Clearly visible here are the doors closing the technical areas and the warhead cellars. The latter were monitored for security just like the external airtight doors of the bunker, each with a sensor telling controllers whether the cellar was locked or not.

The airlock is covered in soot, possibly the result of a fire. Ahead of the entrance, the unloading platform is very interesting, having a unique set of light doors which had to be opened to allow trucks to come in. The concrete part of the platform appears slightly off-standard, with a short lateral concrete ramp, giving access to the main platform from one side. Parts of missiles – original – are being gathered in this area for display.

Monolith sites include two bunkers, which are the core of a strongly defended fenced area. In Javor 51, fences except the external one have been removed for the safety of visitors (rusty barbed wire can be very dangerous). These can still be found in other similar installations (see here). Similarly, the troops and technicians working on site lived in purpose-built housing, segregated from local communities. In Javor 51, this housing still exists, but cannot be visited.

Leaving the place, you can visit the nice visitor/gathering center, and even find some interesting souvenirs!

Getting there and visiting

All in all, the Atom Museum prepared at Javor 51 is a top destination for everybody interested in the history of the Cold War, nuclear warfare, Soviet history, military history, etc.

Credit goes to the owner of the place, Dr. Vaclav Vitovec, who is leading this remarkable preservation effort, and is a very knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide to the site for those visiting. Dr. Vitovec is also the owner of the border museum in Rozvadov, covered in this post.

The Javor 51 site is actually fairly well known at least to a dedicated public, having been visited by historians, scientists and notable figures – including Francis Gary Powers, Jr., who is very active in preserving the history of the Cold War.

The commitment of the museum’s managers is witnessed also by the nice website (also in English), where you can sign-up for a visit on pre-arranged days – as of 2022, all Saturdays in the warm season – or contact the staff for setting up a personalized visit. It is nice to see a good involvement by the local population (the great majority of visitors on regular visits are Czech), including many from younger generations. The exhibits tell much on the peaceful use of nuclear energy, and this is a major topic in the guided tour in Czech. Actually, the Czech Republic has a strong nuclear tradition, with many power plants in use, and a commitment for the development of nuclear energy in the future.

The location is around 25 miles southeast of Plzen, or 60 miles southwest of Prague. Easy to reach by car. The exact address is Míšov 51, 33563 Míšov, Czechia. Full info on their website. Visiting on a normal scheduled visit is on a partly-guided basis, meaning that you will get an intro (in Czech) of around 40 minutes, than you will be allowed to access the bunkers and visit on your own, for all the time you like. You might end up spending more than 2 hours checking out the site and everything is in it, if you have a special interest for the topic. Dr. Vitovec is fluent in English, and can provide much information upon request.

Javor 52 – Bělá pod Bezdězem

The Monolith-type site Javor 52 has been willingly demolished, likely by the Government of the Czech Republic, as it was the case for most other similar (or more in general, Soviet-related) sites in Poland and Germany.

However, it was hard to get completely rid of any trace of an installation so bulky and reinforced. Therefore, some remains can still be found and explored.

Some technical buildings still in use close to the bunkers may have been there from the days of operation.

Getting close to the bunker area, traces of the multiple fences originally around the site can be found, either in the trees or in the vicinity of unmaintained roads. Wooden or concrete posts with fragments of barbed wire are clearly visible. Also reinforced concrete shooting points can be spotted in the wild vegetation.

As typical, two bunkers were erected on site, and similarly to Javor 51 (see above), in Javor 52 they are aligned, with the entrances all along the same ideal orientation.

The bunkers in Javor 52 have been interred, so that they are now hardly noticeable from the outside, except to a careful eye. Looking inside the eastern one, it is possible to get a view of the open doors of the main airlock, providing a distant view of the inner main hall.

Descending through the lateral human-sized airlock is not possible except for a short length, from a concrete manhole on top of the bunker.

The western bunker is in a better general condition, and the main hall still retains a pretty unique writing in Russian. The ladder descending from the suspended platform has been substituted with a posthumous, regular ladder. Much metalwork has disappeared though, including the heat exchangers, the crane, and the tight doors.

Between the bunkers, a concrete pool can be found – still watertight! – with a function which is hard to guess. A pool for civil use was installed in Stolzenhain (and reportedly also in Javor 52, but I had not the time to watch out for it), but this was in the low-security of the site, far from the bunkers.

Getting there and moving around

Access to this place is possible without violating any property sign, but is clearly not encouraged. Going unnoticed is made tricky by the presence of a public facility nearby – a shelter for foreigners and some education activity. Parking out of sight is possible along the road 27235, north of the complex and to the west of the road – trailheads and corresponding parking areas can be found there. Check out some satellite map to find a way to the exact location of the bunkers – their respective entrances are approximately here (eastern bunker) and here (western bunker).

I visited the site in 2020, and the entrances appeared very dangerous and easy to seal in a permanent way. I do not have any further update, but would suggest to go prepared to find definitively interred and totally inaccessible bunkers.

Javor 50 – Bílina – Quick note

As of 2020, the site of Javor 50 is in a peculiar state of ‘conservation’. The place is closed to the public, but entering would be basically unimpeded, since the external fence to the former military base is mostly collapsed and interrupted. The Soviet quarters insider still have much to offer – including writing in Russian, a scheme of the base, and much more. Likely, the bunkers are also still in a relatively good shape.

Much surprisingly though, somebody is living there with watchdogs, in miserable conditions, keeping visitors out. It is likely that an official visit may be booked by getting in touch with the municipality, since it appears that the site is not used for anything. However I was not successful in connecting with anybody there, therefore I have no suggestion on this point. The of the main entrance is here.

Soviet Airbases in the GDR – Third Chapter

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Soviet Ghosts in Germany

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As mentioned in previous chapters on the same topic – you can find the first and second here – the territory of the GDR was cluttered with an uncommonly high number of military bases, run either by the local Armed Forces of the GDR (‘German Democratic Republic’) or by the Soviet Union. This was also due to the great strategic relevance of the area, placed right in the center of Europe and on the border with ‘the West’.

Soon after the reunification of the two halves of Germany and the withdrawal of the Red Army after the collapse of the USSR, most Soviet/Russian bases in Germany were deemed unnecessary by the new federal government, hence they were converted into something else. Airbases have been turned most typically into solar powerplants or, more rarely, into general aviation airports. Armored cavalry training areas have been largely cleaned up, and allocated as land for reforestation.

Despite large parts of these installations having been recycled to some other function, substantial traces – and sometimes even more – of these once prominent and populated bases can be found still today. These include many technical buildings, like aircraft shelters, hangars for maintenance, weapon storages, bunkers, … as well as housing and buildings for the families of Soviet troopers. Needless to say, this kind of stuff is of primary interest for urban explorers and war historians as well, for these places – besides being really creepy and often preserving a ‘Soviet ghost aura’ which may appeal to a part of the public… – are usually full of lively traces of the Soviet occupation, like signs in Cyrillic alphabet, murals, monuments and Lenin’s heads, which make for an interesting memento of the recent past, when the map of Europe looked pretty much different from now.

In this post you can find a pictorial description of a visit to the two airbases of Sperenberg and Finsterwalde, south of Berlin, the airbase of Grossenhain, close to Dresden, plus a quick chapter on the former tank regiment base of Zeithain, close to the sport town of Riesa – not an airbase, but convenient to visit and well worth a quick stop when going to Grossenhain. Photographs have been taken in spring 2017.

As for the second chapter, some historical photos from the collectible book Rote Plätze – Russische Miltärfluglplätze Deutschland 1945-1994 have been included to allow for a ‘now and then’ comparison. I do not own the copyright for those pics.

Navigate this post – Click on links to scroll

Sperenberg

The Soviet airbase of Sperenberg stands out in the panorama of the facilities of the Red Army in the GDR for two reasons.

Firstly, it was not an attack base, but the primary logistic airport of the Soviets in Eastern Germany. The place was developed with air transport in mind, so differently from most bases around, there are no shelters for deadly MiGs or Sukhois ‘mosquitos’, but instead enormous open-air aprons, hangars and parking bays for Antonov and Ilyushin monster-size transports, as well as for bulky Mil helicopters. The place even bolsters a small passenger terminal for military staff, a truly unique feature. The proximity to Wünsdorf, a small town in Brandenburg which since the end of WWII and until 1994 hosted the headquarters of the Soviet Forces in Germany (covered in this post), may have played a role in defining the function of this base.

Secondarily, Sperenberg was simply shut down at the time of the withdrawal of Soviet/Russian forces, but was never converted into something else – at least at the time of writing. This makes it truly a one-of-a-kind item for lovers of ‘ghost airbases’, for here everything, including all taxiways and the runway, is still there. Nature is fiercely reclaiming much of the area, which is nowadays completely surrounded and partly submerged by a wild forest – making the silent remains of the base look even more creepy, unnatural and haunted…

The installation is also very big – similar to an average-size civil airport – , and besides the airside part, there is also an extensive array of residential buildings for the troops. For the major point of interest of the place is the preserved – for now… – airport infrastructure, I concentrated on that, neglecting the barracks and housing. This was also due to the latter being closer to the old main gate to the base, and standing to the available information there are rangers and local citizens who sometimes keep that part under watch. With only a basic knowledge of German, I think it’s better to take all countermeasures to avoid misunderstandings, thus enjoying a reasonably safe and undisturbed exploration…

Sights

In order to reduce the chance of a contact with the locals, it makes sense to intrude into the perimeter from the northeast, heading southwest directly to the center of the airport, leaving the housing part to the east. This will result in a multi-miles walk in the trees, along former service roads, now seldom used by woodcutters. Sooner or later, you will meet the original fence of the base, with concrete posts, barbed wire and an unpaved service road for service cars running all around it.

In order to make your way through the wilderness, unless you are from that very district and have a (very) good knowledge of the area, you will need a GPS. I profitably used the Ulmon app on my iPhone. It worked perfectly, all paths were precisely indicated. The external fence around the northwest area is very well preserved. The function of the first group of buildings I came across with is not very clear. You can clearly spot them on aerial photos of the base, to the northwest of the main part of the apron, connected to the airside area with a long straight service road aligned in a northwest-southeast direction.

I guess the facility may have been a former fuel deposit – there is a large maneuver area possibly for trucks, an inner fence for further protection, a water deposit, possibly for firefighting, and a strange array of aligned pipe ends made of concrete, pointing vertically.

Going southwards to reach the apron area, I came across an abandoned… Soviet boot, plus some more mysterious buildings, clearly blown up at a certain point in history, and possibly not built by the Soviets. These resembled in shape the cannon bunkers placed by Nazi Germany on the northern coast of France, constituting the backbone of the ‘Atlantic Wall’. Maybe residuals from an even farther back era?

After crossing another fence – again, concrete posts and barbed wire – and going through a really wild trail in the trees, basically not signed except for traces of animals everywhere, I appeared on the apron in the northwesternmost part of the airport, with a huge array of parking bays for transport aircraft. Reportedly Antonov An-12s and Tupolev Tu-134s used to be placed in this area, as you can see also from historical pictures.

The proportions of the abandoned airport are really striking. Taking a closer look at many of the parking bays, it is possible to find substantial traces of the original delimiting and direction strips for aircraft. The apron is made of the typical Soviet slabs, not coated with asphalt as typical for most airports in the West.

Moving south from the parking area, which unwinds along an east-western direction – as it is clear from the aerial pictures – , walking along a connection taxiway it is possible to notice its uncommon width, which is not typical to attack bases, but necessary for a transport base operating with Soviet giants.

Accessing the southern east-western taxiway from the west, it is possible to find a very special feature of Sperenberg – the passenger terminal. The small terminal is located to the north of a dedicated apron for passenger/mail loading and unloading.

The terminal area is made of two main buildings. One is probably older, with a large glass window looking to the apron. A gazebo and some small walkways suggest the place was intended for waiting, and for ‘quasi-civil’ operations.

The main terminal bears the date ‘1986’. From historical pictures, you can notice that it underwent some modifications during the few years of operations, which ceased by the year 1994. In particular, the central window on the front façade, made for the baggage treadmill, was bricked up at a certain point.

The inside of the building has been totally spoiled, except for some wallpaper on the ceiling.

A couple of strange movable structures, possibly extendable covered passages for passenger loading operations, can be found on the apron and in the trees besides the former terminal. Also these can be spotted in one of the aerial photographs. They are full of unofficial mottos and signatures of Soviet troops, written in Cyrillic.

From the area of the terminal it’s a – relatively – short walk to the western end of the runway.

Moving eastwards from the terminal along the southernmost main taxiway, you come across several interesting items, including a Soviet control tower and many parking bays for large helicopters.

The only hangar on the airport can be found on a very wide taxiway connecting the two parallel east-western main taxiways. The hangar, albeit appearing rather big at a glance, was probably used for maintenance of helicopters and smaller transports, as large Soviet transports need a much bigger size. Traces of a motto on the front of the hangar, obviously in Cyrillic, can be seen today.

This also are quite mysterious, for on the photos from the last days of operations the inscription cannot be spotted. It was probably covered in Russian, post-Soviet times, reappearing now as the paint coat is fading.