Plokstine – A Preserved Nuclear Missile Site in Lithuania

While almost all nuclear sites you can find in European Countries once beyond the Iron Curtain are today totally abandoned and fairly unaccessible, there exists a perhaps unique exception. The Plokstine site in northwestern Lithuania has been selected around 2010 for complete refurbishment with the help of public money, and in 2012 it has opened its doors as a museum. Located in a beautiful natural setting crowded with hikers – namely Zemaitija National Park, a national recreation area around Plateliai lake – it has quickly grown to international fame, and is now recording several thousands visitors per year, with guided tours in multiple languages – including English – offered on a regular basis during the warm season.

What is today an intriguing tourist destination, used to be part of a large Soviet installation for launching ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads. It is worth mentioning that Lithuania was a ‘Soviet Socialist Republic’ in the realm of the USSR, i.e. not just a satellite country of the Soviet Union, but part of it. Actually, this small country on the shores of the Baltic Sea, on the extreme western border of Soviet territory, was an ideal location for deploying weapons to hit European targets from within the Union. Furthermore, the Plokstine forest was – and still is – a little populated area, where construction works for a large top-secret military facility for storing and operating offensive cutting-edge hi-tech warfare would go likely unnoticed.

The missile complex was completed in December 1962, in the years of Khrushchev and Kennedy. The Plokstine site comprises of four interred silos and an extensive underground command station in the middle – the ensemble constituted a so-called ‘Dvina’ launch complex.

The ‘Dvina’ site in Plokstine was actually the last part of the missile base to be built. Two more sister surface sites, with four launchpads each, had been completed one year before, just west of the nearby village of Saiteikiai. These surface sites were similar to those you can find in Latvia (see this post), a neighbor country where unfortunately the last remaining ‘Dvina’ site was demolished in 2017, but abundant traces of the Soviet presence can still be found.

All three launch complexes in this region were designed around the R-12 missile. The R-12U missile was actually used in the underground ‘Dvina’ complex, slightly different from the surface-launched R-12. This weapon was better known by its NATO designation – SS-4 Sandal – and was a 2.3 megaton, single warhead, single stage nuclear missile. It reached true international notoriety before the base in Plokstine was activated, for this was the type deployed to Cuba in the missile crisis of 1962. Coincidentally, part of the staff transferred to Cuba in the days preceding the crisis was from the same rocket regiment of the Red Army (the 79th) stationed in Plokstine. Sandal missiles from here were reportedly transferred in complete secrecy to Cuba, via the port town of Sevastopol in Crimea in that occasion.

The base remained operational until the last missile – by then obsolete – left in 1978.

The Baltics were the first republics to leave the dying Soviet Union, openly defying the military authority of neighbor Russia. After the collapse of the Union and the end of communism in Europe, these three states – which historically do not belong to Russian culture – quickly joined the NATO and European Union, to escape Russian influence as much as possible. Most Soviet military installations were shut down and abandoned, and have been for two decades an interesting destination for explorers and war historians (see this post for many examples). Later on, most sites have been slowly demolished or converted into something else. Really a few of them have been preserved for posterity.

In this post you can find photographs from the Cold War Museum now open in the former ‘Dvina’ site of Plokstine, from a visit in 2017. Close to the bottom, you can find a few further photographs from a previous visit made by appointment in 2009, before the site was selected for renovation – these may be more appealing for Soviet-aura lovers!

Sights

What can be visited today is all in the area of the old ‘Dvina’ complex. The complex is mainly composed of four interred silos, covered by heavy steel & concrete bulged covers, placed on the four corners of a square. These gigantic caps are the most prominent components of the site from the outside. Today, an observation deck has been erected on the south of the area. From there, you can appreciate the distinctive plan of the ‘Dvina’ complex, with an access road terminating in a loop touching all four armored silo covers.

The weight of each cover is told to be around 100 tonnes, as it was armored to withstand a nuclear explosion. The covers would be pulled sideward with a sled mechanism, to open the silos before launch. Unmovable missile launch complexes, like the ‘Dvina’ site in Plokstine, were easy and attractive targets for western weapons, thus requiring a very strong defense barrier. Similar considerations led the design of the Titan missile sites in the US, which albeit more powerful and capable of a greater range, are roughly from the same era (see this post).

To get near the silos or get access to the museum, you need to pay a ticket and join a guided tour. The visit includes a tour of the Cold War Museum, which has been prepared inside the rooms of the former control center. The tour will start from the visitor center, a new modern building. You will soon go through a specimen of the original fences which ran around the ‘Dvina’ complex, and which included barbed wire and high-voltage electrified lines. Close by, you can find traces of original unarmored constructions, likely service buildings. The missile site was operated by more than 300 troops stationing in a number of smaller centers in the area around the complex.

The guide will lead you along a walk around the surface part of the complex, where you can see the construction of the caps from very close. The metal part is very rusty, but the concrete cover has been refurbished and looks like new – a pretty unusual sight, for connoisseurs of Soviet military relics!

Access to the underground missile service and control center is via a small metal door, right in the middle of the square formed by the four silos.

A few rooms in the control center today host the exhibitions of the Cold War Museum. A room displays a quick time-line of the Cold War, since the end of WWII to the end of the USSR. In the adjoining rooms you can find propaganda items

Another room is about defense against nuclear threat. This is interesting, with many artifacts like dosimeters and medical tools, plus easily readable instructions of ‘dos and don’ts’ in case of nuclear attack.

Another room is about the evolution of weapons over the Cold War decades, with original material from the time, including heavier tactical weapons.

The exhibition is modern, small but not superficial, and may appeal to any public, including children. Besides the exhibits, you can appreciate the relatively small size of all rooms and connecting corridors in the former control center.

As you are driven next to the missile operation part, you can find a scale model of the ‘Dvina’ complex and a cut-out of a R-12U silo, together with a map of the relatively few missile sites in Lithuania – from the map, it can be argued that, for some reason, many more sites were prepared in nearby Latvia.

Resting quarters for the troops and a communication station with original electronic gear have been reconstructed based on original footage and pics. Communication with the military headquarters was clearly an essential task – it was the only way an order to launch could be issued – and the serviceman on duty was responsible for assuring a permanent link with the chain of command. In other words, he was instructed not to leave his headphones under any circumstances, during a several hours-long shift!

On the sides of the corridors you can see holes for the extensive network of cables and pipes. Further on, you meet the most ‘hardware’ part of the exhibition. First, the original diesel-fueled power generator has been refurbished and is standing in its original room. The underground complex was designed not only to withstand a nuclear blast, but also to provide shelter for all servicemen for several days following an attack. This meant air filters, food, water, technical supplies and of course electrical power, were all essential assets. Oil for the generator was stored in a container in an adjoining room.

Finally, you get access to one of the four silos. You need to go through a tight door opened on the wall of the concrete structure of the control center. Writings in Cyrillic can be spotted on the walls in this area. From there, you will see the cylindrical shape of the metal structure of the silo from the side. This metal canister is really big, the ‘Dvina’ silos featured a much greater diameter than the SS-4 missile they were built for. This was somewhat different from their US counterpart (see this post), where the missile diameter fits the size of the silo without much margin.

You can get access to the silo via the original hatch, cut in the metal wall close to the rim on top of the silo, just beneath the external cap. Going through this hatch is incredibly difficult – it is extremely narrow, much longer than the size of a human step, and tilted upwards! It is hard to understand why the Soviets built it in a size so small – this applies to the control center too, for all corridors are really narrow and the ceiling in the rooms is so low you may easily need to bend forward! For those who don’t want to try the original entry to the silo, there is now a non-original door cut in the side of the canister.

The inside of the silo can be observed from an original service deck, immediately under the external cover. From here you can clearly appreciate the size of the construction – the missile was more than 70 ft long, and sat here in a vertical position. The SS-4 was among the first missiles to make use of a storable liquid propellant, which allowed it to stay in almost-launch-ready conditions for a prolonged time, if resting in a silo. Nonetheless, the time for opening the armored caps was about 30 minutes, which meant this was not exactly quick to launch. The understructure of the armored caps can be clearly appreciated from inside the silo.

Photographs Before Restoration Works – Ghost Base

When I visited this site for the first time in 2009, it was open only by appointment. Unfortunately, I had only a compact camera at the time, and the very low light inside plus a rainy day outside, meant I could take only a few acceptable pictures.

However, they provide an idea of the state of the ‘Dvina’ complex before it was decided to reconfigure it as a museum.

As you can see, the armored silo caps were in a worse shape than today, yet not heavily damaged. The barbed wire fence around the four silos was probably original Soviet.

Inside, the control rooms were basically empty, except for some communist emblems and flags. Green wall paint and Cyrillic writings could be found even at the time, so what you see today is likely original. The generator, whilst in bad shape, was there.

The silo could be accessed only via the original hatch, and except for the partial darkness, its appearance is similar today.

It is out of doubt that the ‘Soviet ghost aura’ of the base was somewhat lost in the restoration process, yet credit must be given to the effort of the local government in preserving a rare and relevant trace of military history through an expensive restoration process.

Getting there and moving around

The Cold War Museum (Šaltojo karo muziejus in the local idiom) is located in the Zemaitija National Park, northwestern Lithuania, east of lake Plateliai. Access is via the road 2302. The place is totally accessible and well advertised locally. Visiting the outside of the armored caps and inside is possible only with a guided tour, offered in many languages including English, and lasting about 50 minutes. No fee is required for climbing on top of the observation deck. Full information through the official website here.

WWI Battlefields – Somme, Arras and Ypres

Historians defined World War I as the first ‘worldwide conflict’. There is probably no better place to appreciate the multi-ethnic provenance of the two opposing formations than in the region between Amiens, France and Ypres, Belgium.

Along this sector of the front, which did not move much between 1914 and 1918, Germany alone fought against the allied forces of France and their mainly African colonies, Belgium and the British Empire, which included Britain, Canada, Newfoundland, India, Bermuda, Rhodesia, New Zealand and Australia. Even the Army of South Africa found its way to the battlefield of the Somme in 1916, and the United States contributed to the last battle of Ypres and to the final rush against the German positions in 1918.

The contributions of all these Nations are remarkably represented by memorials and war cemeteries, which since then point the map of this area remembering the history of those fateful years and the fierce battles which took place – most notably the Battle of the Somme, the three Battles of the Artois with the Battle of the Vimy Ridge, and the five Battles of Ypres.

The fury of the Somme offensive, which took place between July and November 1916 and procured 1.1 million casualties – including more than 300’000 killed – on both sides, meant the region is particularly dense in memorials, which in some instances include little sections of the once extensive labyrinth of trenches. Due to the quality of the soil, these trenches have largely disappeared here, differently from the case of the region of the St. Mihiel salient, south of Verdun (see this post). Besides the overwhelmingly high cost in lives of the few miles of terrain gained by the Entente, this battle is famous also for the first ever use of tanks.

The battles of the Artois for the control of the area north of Arras were fought between 1915 and 1917, and here was recorded one of the top average deaths-per-day rates of the war, in the order of 4’000 on the side of the Entente.

The town of Ypres found itself on the line of the front from the first offensive of the Germans, when they tried – and failed – to reach for the coast of the North Sea in 1914. The region south of there saw continuous action until the final ‘100 days’ campaign of 1918, which actually broke the German lines and convinced the Kaiser to withdraw his troops, putting and end to the war. Ypres is mostly famous for the first ever use of lethal gas to drive enemy soldiers out of the trenches. More than 400’000 soldiers were killed on that sector of the line of the front, during at least five massive operations scattered over four years of war.

This chapter presents some notable war sites in this extensive region, which is easily accessible between Paris and Brussels, and today well prepared for tourism and very nice to visit – a pleasant countryside with many small and picturesque villages. Photographs were taken in 2016, during the first centennial of the Offensive of the Somme.

Map

Instead of looking how to reach for each site listed below in its dedicated section, you can find here a comprehensive map where you can see their respective locations at a glance. None of these sites is difficult to reach, provided you have a car – the most time-effective way to move around in that region. You can find a parking nearby each point of interest.

Navigate this post – click on links to scroll

Sights in the Somme

The battlefield of the Somme Offensive stretches roughly over a triangle between Amiens, Bapaume and Peronne. The offensive took place between July and November 1916, and was conceived to decrease the pressure of the Germans in the area of Verdun further southeast, where the French were facing the mighty blows of the German war machine. This offensive was operated by the British and French on two split parts of the sector.

This battle is among the most famous in WWI due to several reasons. One is the atrocious death toll on both sides in face of the very little motion of the front line, which was pushed some miles towards the east. It was also the first battle where the Kitchener’s Army saw serious combat – this name is attributed to the corps of the British Army formed as a result of the recruiting effort of the ministry of war of the time, Lord Kitchener, soon after the first phases of WWI. These mainly very young, non-professional soldiers participated in the thousands in this bloody offensive.

After the offensive, the front line remained stable roughly until 1918, with hostilities lasting in the area until the end of the war.

There are many commemorative monuments, cemeteries and museums on the area of the battlefield. A nice institutional website made for tourists and listing many sights is here. Further information on the British website here. I suggest devoting at least a full day moving around the area with a car without the need to rush. Most sites are open 24 hours, while museums and documentation sites clearly have opening times. The following are just some major sites which are surely worth visiting in this region.

Museum ‘Somme 1916’, Albert

This is the ideal starting point for the exploration of the battlefield of the Somme. The small town of Albert is just where the line of the front ran at the beginning of the battle of 1916. This proximity meant the village was on the line of fire of the artillery of both Germany and the Entente. As a result the village was largely destroyed during the war. The museum has been built in a tunnel under the local church, rebuilt in the 1920s. The tunnel was dug as an air shelter in the 1930s, in preparation for another war soon to strike in the region…

The exhibition has three highlights. The first is a vivid reconstruction of several portions of the trenches on the sides of the two opponents. Some special features including optical equipment and weapons of the respective formations are displayed. Shelters, medical rooms and firing positions are all part of the tour. Germany and the British Empire are especially represented, for together with the French on a lesser scale, they were the most involved in this bloody battle.

A map of the battle and some ‘war bulletins’ telling the number of shells shot and the number of casualties help understanding the huge cost of every inch of terrain gained by the Entente during the four months of the offensive.

Secondarily, many items left behind from the days of operations have been collected and are showcased. These include many weapons and shells, plus material dug out from the ground, like helmets, knives, pots, buckles, tags and even still branded canned food!

A collection of different fuses illustrates the many possible functions of the shells.

The third interesting feature of this place is of course a very realistic reinstatement – with lights and sounds – of the ‘environment’ of a trench during war operations. This is impossible to capture in pictures, but it is designed very well and makes for a very evocative introduction to a visit of the area.

The museum has its own website here.

Lochnagar Mine Crater, Boisselle

The first and most spectacular phase of the Somme Offensive was probably its very beginning. During the months preceding the attack – starting early in the morning of July 1st, 1916 – the British prepared a series of underground tunnels, coming close to the German positions, and stored a number of colossal mines there. The attack began at 7.00 am, with a shelling over the German positions so intense that it was heard in London. About 30 minutes in this firestorm, 19 mines placed beneath the German lines were detonated within a couple of minutes.

The first of these mines was responsible for the Lochnagar crater, about 450 ft across and 220 ft deep, and obtained firing some 27 tonnes of explosive! At the time it was the most intense and loudest ordnance ever fired. Today you can still appreciate the size of the crater as you walk all around it.

Pozières

A group of interesting memorials is located around the village of Pozières, which was geographically in the center of intense action. A small memorial of New Zealand can be found nearby the former place of observation bunker called ‘Gibraltar’. Only part of the foundations of this observation post can be seen today.

Another sight is the local Australian memorial, and the unusual memorial of the British Tank Corps, with miniature models of the tanks used in the battle.

Only about 30 tanks could take part to the offensive. Used in action nearby here for the first time in history, while possibly not decisive in this particular battle, tanks undeniably confirmed their potential in breaking through the enemy lines, without fearing the barbed wire obstacles and machine gun fire. Tanks were soon to be developed further, and participated in the last offensives of the war in the hundreds.

London Cemetery and Extension, Longueval

This cemetery is mainly dedicated to the British soldiers of the ‘London’ Division, mainly responsible for the conquer of the High Wood, a fiercely contended group of trees placed on top of a low hill, taken and lost several times in the battle of 1916. It is one of the largest among the many war cemeteries in the region.

It is composed of a smaller part built soon after the Somme Offensive, and of an extension added around the original nucleus, for more graves which came later during the war. Looking at the graves it is possible to notice that many of the soldiers buried there are unidentified – ‘A Soldier Known Unto God’ is the inscription you find often times.

The cemetery was enlarged again years later after WWII, as more British soldiers were lost in the war against Hitler’s Germany in the area.

Delville Wood South African National Memorial, Longueval

This memorial has been erected in the 1920s on a land assigned in perpetuity to South Africa by the French government of the time. The memorial is the main WWI monument to the Army of South Africa in Europe, commemorating their service and the death of more than 10’000 throughout the war.

A British cemetery can be found cross the road, facing the South African monument, where a further memorial to the troops of New Zealand can be reached nearby following the local indications.

Thiepval Memorial, Thiepval

The grandest memorial in the battlefield of the Somme, Thiepval was completed in the early 1930s and inaugurated by the Prince of Wales and the president of France to commemorate the soldiers of the British Empire who died in the area and whose burial site is unknown. More than 72’000 names are graven on the sides of the memorial.

The memorial serves as a joint French-British monument, and a number of soldiers of both nationalities are buried nearby.

Close to the memorial there is an interesting documentation site, with a very vivid and modern pictorial reconstruction of the trenches.

The location on top of a hill on the very battlefield of the Somme Offensive makes this place really evocative, notwithstanding the many tourists.

Auchonvillers

Not far from Thiepval it is possible to find the village of Auchonvillers, where on private land – actually in the garden of a local teahouse – there is a small part of a preserved covered trench.

In the vicinity of the village it is easy to spot the Ulster Tower. This was built in the 1920s to commemorate the contribution of the ‘Ulster’ Division of Northern Ireland, and is an almost exact copy of a tower in Bangor, Ulster.

Not far between Thiepval and Beaumont-Hamel, one of the countless smaller monuments is a Celtic Cross bearing the inscription ‘Cruachan’, the war cry of the Campbell clan. It commemorates a number of Scottish Divisions fighting in the battle.

The Newfoundland Memorial Park, Beaumont-Hamel

This is one of the largest preserved trenches of the Somme area, and one of the only two Canadian historic landmarks out of mainland Canada. The park has original trenches on display, some of them preserved, some today barely visible. The site commemorates the action of the Newfoundland Regiment, which had one of the highest casualties tolls of the war, being reduced to less than 20% in the first day of combat during the Battle of the Somme – almost 700 casualties.

A 1:1 size statue of a caribou, the mascot of that territory which at the time was not part of Canada, is prominently standing on top of a hill in the park. Scattered around are other monuments, two small cemeteries and the ‘Danger Tree’, a copy of a dead tree originally standing there and helping the German artillery adjusting the sight and better directing their fire, thus causing more casualties in the nearby spot.

Red Baron’s Crash Site, Vaux sur Somme

The site of the crash of Manfred von Richtofen, aka ‘The Red Baron’, is in a field nearby Vaux sur Somme.

There is only a small placard on the road, remembering the fatal crash due to Australian machine gunfire. This happened in April 1918 though, much after the end of the Somme Offensive in summer-fall 1916.

Australian National Memorial, Villers-Bretonneux

This is the main commemoration site of the Australian troops in WWI in Europe. It was erected here due to the proximity with the sector of the front assigned to Australia during and after the offensive of 1916. A successful battle was fought there in 1918, in the final months of the war.

It was the last major commemorative monument to be completed in the area, being unveiled in the late 1930s at the presence of King George VI. Also men from the air force are commemorated and buried there. The names of thousands of soldiers without a grave are listed on the sides of the monument.

While the architecture was somewhat contested at the time, the location is gorgeous, overlooking the southern area of the battlefield of the Somme. The monument was hit during WWII, and traces of the bullets can be seen on the side slabs of the monument.

Australian Corps Memorial, Le Hamel

This monument commemorates the effort of the forces of the Entente in the battle taking place here in summer 1918, when the war was still fiercely raging in the area notwithstanding the approaching end. The monument has been erected close to a small section of trenches, of which traces can be seen nearby. Flags of some of the participants to the struggle on the side of the Entente are present.

When I visited there were some poppies in a field nearby the monument. Poppy flowers, rather common in the region, were the only flowers on the devastated no man’s land between the adversary trenches. These flowers came to represent the sacrifice especially of the British soldiers, and the poppy was adopted as an official symbol of war veterans in the 1920s.

Sights in the Artois

The French city Arras in the heart of the region of the Artois found itself on the front line as it got stabilized already in 1914. Three bloody offensives which caused the French huge losses were launched in the region in 1915. The front moved a few miles forth and back, without any decisive breakthrough on either side. In April 1917 a major battle was fought in the area, which led to the conquer of the Vimy Ridge. At that time, the British had taken over responsibility for that sector of the front. The area is especially famous for the underground tunnels, dug by both opponents to place mines and for sheltering and storage purposes, thanks to the soft chalky soil typical of the region.

Wellington Quarry, Arras

These tunnels were carved in central Arras mainly by men of the New Zealand Tunneling Company, who included enlisted natives from the Pacific islands. Works were started from an existing quarry. Some areas are really spacious, while parts of the extensive tunnel network are narrow and made only for trolleys. Original inscriptions can be seen on the walls, as well as everyday items collected by archaeologists.

The quarry is managed by a local society and can be visited on guided tours. Full information here.

Memorial and Commemorative Park, Vimy

This large area, now belonging to Canada, surrounds the Vimy Ridge, where the homonym battle was fought in 1917, leading to the conquer of this piece of territory by the Entente. Actually, the uncontested protagonists of this offensive were the Canadian Divisions. Many soldiers coming from different territories of Canada overwhelmed the German defenses in a well prepared and coordinated attack. Together with the Newfoundland memorial in the Somme (see above), these are the only two Canadian national landmarks outside of mainland Canada. There is a visitor center with Canadian Rangers, offering information and guided tours.

A first part of the site is composed of a preserved group of trenches, which are partly open-air and partly underground. The extensive network of tunnels in the area was prepared in advance, and provided a protected area for billeting troops as well as for storing materials, goods and medical facilities. Visiting the underground part is possible only on guided tours.