Berlin Airlift 70th Anniversary Celebrations in Schleswig-Jagel

The blockade imposed by Stalin on the jointly administrated city of Berlin in the spring of 1948 dissipated any doubts on the post-WWII attitude of the Soviet Union towards their former allies in the west. The ensuing joint effort to support the trapped population of Berlin resulted in one of the major airlift operations in history – the Berlin Airlift, or Luftbrücke in German language. In June 2019, 70 years after the end of the blockade, Germany hosted a great celebration for the anniversary of this vital operation.

History – in Brief

The blockade started slowly, with trains crossing the Soviet occupied territory – soon to become administrated as a new state, the communist German Democratic Republic – between Berlin and western Germany forced to stop and go back, truck routes closed, increased controls at border checkpoints. In early summer, the city was completely isolated from the west.

The Soviets tried to motivate the move with treaty violations by the western forces, but this did not receive much credit by the administration of President Truman in the US, nor in Britain, France, or the occupied territories of western Germany. To mitigate the lack of coal, food, drugs and other goods of primary use for the local population, the joint forces of the United States, Britain, France, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand set up a massive airlift under the coordination of the US military.

Over roughly a year more than 275’000 flights were carried out, mainly between three airfields in the territory of western Germany – Jagel, Fassberg and Wiesbaden – occupied by the western Allies, to Berlin Tempelhof downtown airport (see this post), as well as other land and water bases in the cut-off urban area. These were operated with a variety of transport aircraft, including Douglas C-47 and C-54 twin and four-propeller cargo planes manufactured in the US, as well as several British models, including some Shorts seaplanes.

Stalin opted to avoid an escalation. The blockade was finally lifted by the Soviets on May 12, 1949. The situation was stabilized with the birth of the Federal Republic of Germany in the west, and of the opposing German Democratic Republic in the east, later the same year. The western sectors of Berlin were to remain an enclave of the free world deep in the communist bloc for slightly more than another 40 years, when the GDR – aka DDR in German language – finally ceased to exist, and the re-unification started.

A great museum tracing the history of the presence of the western Allies in Berlin, telling the history of the Airlift in great detail, is the Allied Museum (website here) in the former US sector of Berlin-Zehlendorf.

70th Anniversary Celebrations in Germany

In 2019 the 70th year since the end of the blockade, lifted as a result of the airlift effectively sustaining the population of Berlin for an entire year, was celebrated with the patronage of the German government with a series of unique aircraft-related events. The most prominent were a few formation flights of an incredible group of historical aircraft, between the airfields formerly used as supply bases for the airlift.

One of these, the still-active military airfield of Jagel, in Schleswig-Holstein some 60 miles north of Hamburg, hosted a ‘spotter day’ on June 13th, 2019, when a few hundreds photographers were admitted for the whole day on the premises of the airbase, to assist to the landing, departure and flypast of a fleet of nine Douglas C-47, a major workhorse in the days of the airlift.

This marked possibly the largest grouping of such historic aircraft in Europe since many years. But what made the event even more unique – besides the weather, incredibly mild for the region… – was the origin of the aircraft, which except for one are all based in the US. They crossed the Atlantic once more to parade in the celebration of the 75th anniversary of the D-Day in Normandy, attended also by President Trump and Charles, Prince of Wales. A few days after, they toured Germany for the 70th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift.

Besides the commemoration flight, normal flying activity was carried out during the spotter day around the airbase, so this was a good chance to assist to flight operations by Tornados and Typhoons of the German Air Force, as well as other military aircraft.

Historical Flight – Fly-in

A single C-47 arrived earlier than all others, anticipating the massive fly-in of the full wing of Douglas C-47 twin-prop liners. Later on, a flypast all Skytrains to take part in the event started from the east of the field. The aircraft then landed one by one, taxied ahead of the photographers and after a stop of a few hours, took off in a row for another location in Germany.

US Air Force C-47A/DC-3C ‘Miss Virginia’

The first aircraft to come was ex-USAAF 43-30655, built in 1943 as a military C-47A. The aircraft fell in private hands in the 1970s, after yeast stored in Arizona, when it was converted into an DC-3C, an energized version of the original 1930s design. It spent the 1980s in Colombia, then returned to the US as a utility aircraft. It was finally acquired for restoration and given the nice US Air Mobility Command colors it bears today. It flies with the civilian registration N47E.

Golden Age Tours C-41A

This incredible aircraft, now in civilian hands since long, is a unique example of an executive version of the original 1935 DC-3. Built in 1938, it entered military service soon after as a private flight for Maj. General Henry ‘Hap’ Arnold – an instrumental figure in the reorganization of the US military forces upon the early 1940s. It went on keeping its original executive configuration, and today it is lent out for special flights and for filming purposes from its base near San Francisco, CA. It bears the civilian registration N341A.

USAAF C-47A 43-30647 ‘Virginia Ann’

This aircraft was in service with the USAAF since 1943. It took part to the D-Day operations with the name ‘Virginia Ann’, but was put on storage soon after WWII. It later went to private owners and was based in many domestic locations, including being part of the famous Planes of Fame collection in Chino, CA (see this post). Today it is still based on the West Coast, with the registration N62CC.

Chalair C-47B

This C-47B was built among the latest in May 1945. It was surplus for the USAAF soon after WWII, so it joined the Royal Air Force inventory, and from there it left for Canada, where it enjoyed many years of service as a VIP transport in the Royal Canadian Air Force until the 1970s. It reportedly served as a Royal Flight for the Queen of England during a visit to Canada. After withdrawal from active service and changing hands several times in Canada, it was finally acquired in France and totally restored in the late 2000s. It flies with the registration F-AZOX.

Johnson Flying Service, Inc. C-47 ‘Miss Montana’

This incredible aircraft was built soon after the WWII, and as many other surplus C-47, it moved to the civilian market. This aircraft was used in firefighting operations over the Northern Rockies, and was even involved in a tragic accident, crashing in the water causing fatalities. It was drawn back to a second life through the effort of the Museum of Mountain Flying in Missoula, Montana, where it is based now, with the registration N24320.

Legend Airways C-47D/DC-3C ‘Liberty’

A true combat veteran of WWII, this aircraft was pressed into service with the USAAF in mid-1943, and took part in operations in Algeria and the Mediterranean, as well as the D-Day in Normandy, where it sustained direct hits from German anti-aircraft guns. Soon after the turbulent war years, after returning to the US it fell into private hands in the south as a corporate transport. It kept the role, undergoing several upgrades, until it was finally acquired for a lavish restoration and cabin refurbishment, which gave it its current appearance. It is based in Colorado, where it is being operated for pleasure flights and filming, with the registration N25641.

Pan American Airways System C-47B/DC-3

This aircraft had an adventurous history between its entry into service in 1944 and the early 1950s. It was originally allocated to the Chinese National Aviation Corporation, which in the war years carried out covert flights over a route known as the ‘hump’. These allowed resupply of Chinese forces from the British Empire in India, through resupply flights over the high peaks of western Tibet. This aircraft flew on that very dangerous route, until the breakdown of the Japanese forces and the end of WWII. As the Chinese National Aviation Corporation reverted back to normal operations, this aircraft was turned into a commuter between Hong-Kong and Canton. In the meanwhile, Mao Tse-Tung communist revolution subjugated China overturning the government. The new dictatorship tried to grab as many aircraft as possible, which in the meanwhile tried to escape from the country, assisted by western powers. This very aircraft, after some years on ground in China, was finally allowed to leave for the US, where it arrived in 1953. Since then it was refurbished as a corporate aircraft, and enjoyed a long career, being finally restored with a VIP internal layout and carefully reconstructed 1953 on-board systems. It is registered as N877MG.

USAAF C-47DL 43-15087

The aircraft you see flying is indeed a WWII veteran, but not with the colors you see today. The number 43-15087 on the tail refers to a C-47 which actually took part to the operations over Normandy on June 6th, 1944. But the airframe you actually see entered service with the USAAF as a personnel transport in North Africa and the Middle East in 1943. It then went to the Armee de l’Air in France, then to civilian operators in France and back in the US after the 1960s. There it was later restored and changed livery several times for special occasions, like the 75th anniversary of the D-Day – the ‘9X-P’ designation you see now. It is based in Texas, with the US registration N150D.

USAAF C-47 42-26044 ‘Placid Lassie’

Pressed into service in the summer of 1943, this aircraft is a true combat veteran, having flown on June 6th, 1944 over Normandy, and in September 1944 for several times over Flanders during the ill-fated operation ‘Market Garden’. It then went on as a civilian transport in the continental US. After years spent in disrepair, it was drawn back to life in the 2000s, and is now flown by a foundation dedicated to the crew of ‘1D-N’ during WWII.

German Air Force Aircraft

As the historical flight performed basically a fly-in and fly-out, in the few hours between them the aircraft of the German Air Force – the Luftwaffe – and of the Navy – the Marine – based at Jagel flew for the public. There were also German aircraft taken there in preparation for the day of the Armed Forces – Tag des Bundeswehr – to be celebrated the following week-end with an open day of the base.

Jagel is the home base for the Taktisches Luftwaffengeschwader 51 ‘Immelmann’, which currently operates the Panavia Tornado. These massive swing-wing aircraft flew in several time slots during the spotter day.

Small formations demonstrated refueling abilities.

Some passages were performed at high speed, with maximum sweep.

One of the aircraft has been painted in a flamboyant celebration livery, with the portrait of Max Immelman, a German WWI ace, on the vertical tail.

Another impressive performance was given by a Eurofighter Typhoon, a massive delta-winged twin-jet with a tail-less, all-moving canard configuration. This compares well in size with the Super Hornet – a pretty massive attack aircraft.

This very aircraft is from the Taktisches Luftwaffengeschwader 31 ‘Boelcke’, based in Nörvenich.

At some point in the day, there was a flypast of a single Lockheed P-3 Orion, on strength to the German Navy – Marine. On its double passage it was possible to see the large racks for sonobuoys under the belly of this four-propeller aircraft.

There were also exhibitions by some rotorcrafts, including a huge Sikorsky CH-53G, an Airbus H145 and a larger NH-90, the most modern of the three. The very dark camo livery made them pretty difficult to photograph, despite a rather wide zoom lens I was using for the task.

Finally, a pretty rare aircraft, albeit possibly not so eye-catching, a single Dornier Do-28 military light transport landed in the evening.

Visiting Aircraft from Other Countries

Other aircraft landed and departed from the base, some possibly in preparation for the Tag des Bundeswehr to be held a couple of days later. These aircraft were not from Germany.

First, two more Tornadoes of the Italian Air Force landed at some point, and posed for photographers. They belong to the 6° Stormo ‘Diavoli Rossi’, based at Ghedi. A small devil’s face is painted on the vertical tail of these aircraft.

A SAAB JAS-39 Gripen of the Hungarian Air Force, in a twin-seat configuration, landed soon after.

A single Aero L-159 Alca of the Czech Air Force appeared at some point.

An Antonov An-26 of the Hungarian Air Force landed and later departed. An iconic Soviet-made transport, this sturdy workhorse is still flying in many Countries, both for the Armed Forces and for civilian operators as well.

A single Pilatus PC-9 of the private company Qinetiq made an appearance.

Finally, two pretty rare Douglas A4 belonging to the Canadian private training company Jet Aces landed and taxied for the photographers, one of them in a rather eye-catching NATO anniversary commemoration livery.

Final Note

The Marine base of Schleswig-Jagel where this event took place was originally a Luftwaffe airfield, operated by the British military during the Berlin Airlift and until the early Sixties, and later handed over to the Federal Republic of Germany. It is still today an active airbase. There is no public access except on special occasions.

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.

Communist Highlights in Prague and the Czech Republic

Czechoslovakia had existed as an independent state since the end of WWI and the dissolution of the Austrian Empire. However, this small yet economically advanced province was soon to be caught right in the middle of a storm which insisted on central Europe until the 1990s, at which time this country finally gained its true independence.

Back in the Thirties, Czechoslovakia was forcibly annexed to the Third Reich as a result of the Munich Agreement in 1938. This event can be seen a major destabilizing step in Hitler’s foreign relations, clearly showing that the situation was deteriorating fast in central Europe.

Following the troublesome years of Nazi rule, this region was captured by Soviet and US troops at the end of the war. A new republic was founded, but the local communist party was very well organized, so Czechoslovakia shared the destiny of many neighbor countries which had been occupied by the Red Army in the final stage of the war. Backed by Stalin, a communist coup d’état in 1948 led to the establishment of a Soviet-style dictatorship, which was to last until 1989, making Czechoslovakia a Soviet satellite country.

Despite the relatively small size on the map, Czechoslovakia played a significant role in the economy of the Eastern Bloc. This country had a well established tradition in the production of weapons, metal hardware and machinery. Its soil is rich in Uranium. Furthermore, the forward position on the border with non-communist Western Germany and Austria further raised its strategic significance. When a secession from Moscow was tried by the local communist government, led by reformer Alexander Dubcek in 1968 – a phase known as the ‘Prague Spring’ -, the USSR reacted with all its military might, staging a full-scale invasion of the country by land and air, overturning the high ranks of the unreliable Czechoslovakian government, and putting this valuable region under a stricter communist leadership.

Clearly, the end of the communist dictatorship is today duly celebrated as a historical achievement both in the Czech Republic and Slovakia – respectively the western and eastern portions of Czechoslovakia, which peacefully split in 1993. The more than 40 years of struggle against Soviet rule constitute the theme of several interesting permanent exhibitions, but these are not the only witnesses of those troubled times. More tangible relics – all open to the public – are former border posts with former West Germany, a one-of-a-kind original communist prison camp for political prisoners, as well as some pieces of architectures and bunkers from the Cold War age.

This post is dedicated to these highlights, all to be found in the region between Prague and the border with Bavaria, in todays Czech Republic. Photographs were collected on a short trip in summer 2018.

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Sights

Museum of Communism, Prague

Far from a cheesy description of everyday life in the years of the Cold War, or an inaccurate account of the history of the communist plague as a social phenomenon, this permanent exhibition takes you in detail along the history of Czechoslovakia in the years immediately before WWII, when it basically lost its independence to the Germans, and going on to 1989, when with the so-called Velvet Revolution Czechoslovakia abandoned the Soviet sphere of influence and overthrew the communist dictatorship.

The exhibition features an equilibrated mixture of original artifacts – paintings, statues, memorabilia,… -, photographs, models, dioramas and explicative panels.

Interestingly, speaking of the Thirties and the imposed annexation to the Third Reich, you can see models of the border forts along the former German (now Polish) border. These are covered in this dedicated post.

The history of the anti-fascist operations, and of the role of the communist party in them, are thoroughly analyzed, and so are the decisive years immediately following the war. It is recalled how this nation was partly invaded by US troops, hence it was contested as a pure-Soviet conquer. A short-lived free Czechoslovakian republic was founded, which fell under communist control, and in the years of Stalin, with a Soviet military presence in the country, this meant the end of any independence from the USSR.