Soviet War Memorials Southeast of Berlin

The final battle for the conquer of Berlin was a massive operation carried out by the Soviet Red Army, who had come on the line of Oder river, marking today’s border between Germany and Poland, at the conclusion of the westward march on the territories of Eastern Europe previously taken over by the Third Reich.

Witnessing the dramatic lack of men and supplies on the German side, the final Soviet attack from that position was launched on April 16th, 1945, to end just less thank two weeks later with the death of Hitler, the conquer of Berlin, and soon after with the German capitulation in early May. In this short time, the Soviets penetrated and gained control of a significant part of what was to become the territory of East Germany, including the capital city of the Reich.

It is estimated that the troops amassed in the spring of 1945 for this operation exceeded 2.2 millions on the Soviet side, whereas the contingent available for the defense of the region on the German side was below 300 thousand men, including almost improvised corps of elders or extremely young people, lacking any military training and experience. As a matter of fact, the original German war machine had been drained of resources also due to the eastward advance of the Western Allies in Western Europe and Germany, where some millions German soldiers were taken prisoners. Actually, by April 1945 the line of the Western front had reached East to the towns of Leipzig, Dessau, Magdeburg and Wismar, very close to Berlin, and all later ceded to the Soviets according to the Jalta and Potsdam agreements.

The defense of Berlin from the Soviet attackers was strenuous though, and heavy losses were recorded on both sides.

One of the most visible remains of these war operations today is a a number of memorials and war cemeteries, of larger and smaller size, scattered over the territory around Berlin. The most conspicuous such memorials are those erected by the winning Soviet forces. Besides their primary role of remembrance, they were in most cases erected soon after the end of the war, then making for an interesting historical trace from that age, when Stalin was the undisputed ruler in the Soviet Union. Their style often reflects the mix of pomp and simplicity typical to the communist art from the time.

Memorials related to these events can be found in Berlin (see here and here) and around. Some to the north of the town have been described in this post. In the present one, three memorials related to the battle around Berlin and located east and south of the German capital are covered – Seelow, Lebus and Baruth.

Photographs were taken in 2021 and 2023.

Sights

Seelow

The memorial in Seelow was designed and installed in 1945, soon after the end of the war in Europe, and was therefore one of the first of the kind. The location is that of the Battle of the Seelower Heights.

The small town of Seelow is located about 8 miles west of the Oder river, marking a natural border with Poland. The hills around the town dominate the flat country reaching to the river. Therefore, for the defending Wehrmacht, this was a natural obstacle between the Soviet invaders and Berlin. The hills were fortified heavily with guns and mortars, and the villages in the area were evacuated in anticipation of a major confrontation.

Fighting was started on the fateful April 16th, 1945, when a Soviet attack was triggered all along the line of the Oder, with a major focal point in the region of Küstrin and Seelow.

The battle went on for four days despite the clear imbalance of resources in favor of the Soviets, due to the advantageous geographical position of the heights around Seelow and the effectiveness of the German defense.

The memorial was erected around a simple statue of a Soviet soldier, put on top of a pinnacle, and portrayed beside the turret of a tank.

To the base of the pinnacle is a small Soviet cemetery, with some marked graves and some gravestones with multiple names, or dedicated to unknown soldiers perished in the battle.

From the cemetery, a good view of the plains extending to the east, where this fierce battle was fought in April 1945, can be observed from a vantage point. Purpose-designed maps allow to retrace the positions of the attackers and to pinpoint relevant locations.

To the base of the monument is a memorial museum. The exhibition is compact but very interesting. Two thematic areas are presented, one related to the historical reconstruction of the battle, the other to the history of the monument and the archaeology of the battlefield around Seelow.

Among the artifacts on display related to the history of the battle are German and Soviet uniforms, machine guns and rifles.

Interestingly, also mortar shells carrying leaflets are on display: these were employed by the Soviets, who launched propaganda leaflets inviting Germans to surrender, and even passes for the German military who wished to defect to the Soviets side. An armband of the ‘Deutscher Volkssturm Wehrmacht’, the non-professional corps recruited by the Third Reich in a desperate move to gather fresh units for the final defense of the German territory from invasion during the last stages of the war, is also on display.

The history of the monument is interesting as well, and shows how it evolved from being primarily a Soviet monument – like others in the area – to a public gathering place for official ceremonies in the German Democratic Republic – a place for the celebration of friendship between the USSR and the GDR. Historical pictures, and the addition of a poetic commemoration stone written in German only to the base of the monument, witness this evolution.

Outside the museum, a courtyard is framed by two original small obelisks with inscriptions in Russian and Soviet iconography. On the courtyard, some heavy armored vehicles – including a Katyusha rocket launcher – are on display.

Getting there and visiting

The monument has a special relevance in the history of the liberation of Germany, and has been modernized and updated over the years. It is still a rather relevant destination for visitors. A ticket is required for the museum only. A visit to the monument may take 20-30 minutes. A complete visit including the museum may require 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Access is very easy, since the location is immediately to the side of the road leaving Seelow for Küstrin (now Kostrzyn, Poland). The name of the site in German is ‘Gedenkstätte Seelower Höhen’, and the address is Küstriner Straße 28a, 15306 Seelow. A small parking can be found right ahead of the access, further parking options cross the street and near the railway station, 1 minute away by walk. A new modern building to the side of the monument hosts the ticket office and a small shop. Website with full information here.

Lebus

The cemetery in Lebus, located on the German bank of the Oder river, about 10 miles southeast of Seelow (see above) was activated already in April 1945 for burying Soviet soldiers perished in the final war actions against Germany. Starting 1946, the status of Soviet cemeteries and monuments established on the territory of the Third Reich was officially defined. The Lebus site received Soviet staff perished in Germany after the war, or unrecognized fallen Soviet soldiers whose remains were found in the years soon after WWII on the East German territory.

Following an agreement between Russia and reunified Germany, extending the relationship formerly existing between the USSR and the GDR on the management of war memorials, the Lebus site became a Russian cemetery. It was refurbished in 2014-16, and at the time of writing it is still an active cemetery, often receiving the remains of Soviet soldiers moved from elsewhere, or still found in the area.

It is estimated that more than 5.000 from the USSR/Russia are buried in Lebus.

The memorial is not much visited by the general public, and is an authentic place of remembrance, sober and silent.

The architecture is rather simple, with a central perspective leading to an obelisk with a red star on top, a hammer and sickle emblem to the front, and inscriptions in Russian.

To the sides are two lateral wings, where the names of many fallen soldiers are inscribed on memorial stones.

To the sides of the perspective are an anti-tank cannon, and some more fields, marked with marble red stars as places of interment of unknown soldiers.

Also two further memorial walls with many names in Cyrillic alphabet are symmetrically placed to the sides of the perspective.

Getting there and visiting

The location of the Soviet cemetery in Lebus, now called officially ‘Russische Kriegsgräberstätte in Lebus’, is on Lindenstrasse, immediately after leaving Strasse d. Freiheit, Lebus. It is clearly marked by an indication sign, and recognizable by the external fence. Parking can be found 200 ft further north on Lindenstrasse, on the side of a local school.

The site is not mainly a touristic destination, but a real, well maintained (war) cemetery. It is apparently open 24/7 and not actively guarded. Visiting may take 20 minutes, or more for specifically interested subjects.

Baruth

The Soviet war cemetery of Baruth was erected between 1946 and 1947 for the fallen soldiers of the Battle of Halbe. The battle was a last confrontation between the Soviet Red Army and the Wehrmacht, taking between April 24th to the first days of May 1945 – the very last battle out of Berlin.

The battle was fought around the village of Halbe, south of Berlin, between what remained of the German defense retreating from the bank of the Oder, and two large columns of the invading Soviet Army. The German forces got mostly surrounded in a salient. Losses were very heavy on both sides, of the order of the tens of thousands.

The war cemetery for Soviet soldiers, the final resting place for some thousands of fallen troops, is clearly visible when passing by, thanks to the two T-34 tanks put as gate guardians.

The architecture of the place is rather simple, and composed of a rectangular yard crossed by an alley, leading to a very tall obelisk. The obelisk features a big metal star on top, and a hammer and sickle metal emblem in the middle.

To the base of the obelisk are two bas-reliefs with war scenes.

A number of marked gravestones can be found on the greens around the obelisk. More recent – yet pretty old – additions, somewhat altering the original neat appearance of the ensemble, include a wall with applied gravestones and names inscribed on it.

Getting there and visiting

The Baruth war cemetery, named ‘Sowjetischer Ehrenfriedhof Baruth/Mark’ in German, can be found along the road 96 (Bundestrasse 96), about 1 mile north of the homonym town of Baruth. The monument can be clearly spotted on the eastern side of the road. A small parking can be found ahead of the entrance.

Due to the secluded and isolated location, the place is not a highly popular tourist destination, yet it is frequented by relatives and descendants of those interred on site. It is well cared for and perfectly maintained. It is apparently open 24/7.

A prototypical Soviet war cemetery from Stalin’s years, likely the largest in the region south Berlin, it is definitely worth a stop when visiting the area. A visit may take 20 minutes.

Notably, the place is located about 7 miles south of Wünsdorf (see this post), the former Soviet headquarters in the German Democratic Republic, which is crossed by the same road 96.

The Aeronautical Museum of Belgrade

With a few parallels in aviation history, especially in the years immediately following WWII, former Yugoslavia benefited from supplies by a great number of countries. As a matter of fact, the air force of this newborn communist republic was formed at first from leftovers of retreating Germany and conquering Britain, followed by the establishment of a supply line initially from the USSR, and later the US and again Britain.

The special political ability of marshal Tito, who ruled uncontested as a communist dictator since the foundation of Yugoslavia in 1945 until his death in 1980, and the credit he benefited from especially in Britain, allowed him to keep out of the sphere of influence of the USSR since 1948. In a strategic position on the border with NATO countries like Italy and Greece, Tito adopted a detente policy of ‘equal-distance’ between the two opposing blocs over the Cold War period (even though NATO did not trust him fully, as testified by the deployment of a SAM defense line in northeastern Italy, see this post).

Of course, most of the military supply was of Soviet make, especially after the death of Stalin and well until the end of communism in Europe and the bloody fragmentation of the Yugoslav state. However, concerning civil aviation, autonomy from Moscow allowed the adoption of western aircraft, like the French Aerospatiale Caravelle and much of the Boeing and McDonnell-Douglas inventory, in the major national airline JAT – something which happened very rarely anywhere in the communist bloc over the years of the Cold War, another notable instance being Romania, again a ‘semi-autonomous’ communist dictatorship, who refused the Soviet Tupolev Tu-134 in favor of license-built British BAC 1-11s.

Another effect of the autonomy from the USSR was the creation of a national aviation industry, which especially in the case of SOKO, produced military trainers and light attack aircraft of good success, which despite ageing, are still flying today.

More recently, the fierce conflicts raging over the Balkans in the 1990s have created a major active front for modern aviation, where the air force of Serbia – which inherited the geographically central part of Yugoslavia and its capital city, Belgrade – confronted the NATO alliance in an open conflict. The unbalance of forces allowed the western coalition to quickly establish air superiority, which did not come without a few notable material losses however.

A rich display of this peculiar aviation history, actually tracing back to WWI and the early years of aviation, can be found in the Aeronautical Museum of Belgrade, which despite being in today’s Serbia, acts as a kind of Yugoslav Aviation Museum. As a matter of fact, it was founded as such back in the years of Tito, and opened in its current building nearby ‘Nikola Tesla’ civil airport of Belgrade in 1989, when Yugoslavia was still a reality.

This short post provides an outline of what you can find in this museum, with photographs taken on a visit in April 2019.

Sights

The museum occupies a relatively large area in the vicinity of the airport of Belgrade, and is made of an open-air exhibition, open-air storage area, and big mushroom-shaped building hosting an indoor exhibition.

The ‘gate guardian’ is a SOKO J-21 Jastreb, a nice light multi-role aircraft from the 1960s, powered by a British Rolls-Royce Viper jet engine.

Indoor exhibition

The entry hall of the mushroom-shaped building features is a good example of the architectural style from the late communist era. The ground floor hosts a small exhibition about the early days of aviation in the former region of the Balkans, with documents from WWI years. Among the items on display, you can find early pilot’s licenses from notable war pilots, likely granted after training abroad, and actually written in French.

The main hall of the museum can be found upstairs. This large can be walked on two levels. Most aircraft are to be found on the lower level, but a few are suspended to the glassy circular sidewall of the mushroom, lighted from behind by the sunlight – so that taking pictures is just a nightmare!

The centerpiece of the collection is an exemplar of the SOKO J-22 Orao, a twin-engined – two Rolls-Royce Viper turbofans – light ground-attack and trainer aircraft from the 1970s. Designed jointly by Yugoslavia and Romania, this model equipped the Yugoslav (then Serbian) air force during the 1990s, where a handful exemplars are still flying today.

Indeed a clean design with an interesting performance, this aircraft was possibly the last heir of the Ikarus-then-SOKO lineage, originated back in the years before WWII. In this respect, some unique exemplars of aircraft are preserved in this museum, witnessing the existence of a school of skilled aircraft designers in Serbia, not much known in the western world.

A key figure of the Ikarus design bureau, Dragoljub Beslin led the design of Ikarus S-451, a nice, very small, twin-prop attack aircraft flown in 1951, especially designed to sustain high load factors in maneuvers at high speed.

Another unique specimen is the twin-jet Ikarus 451M, the first jet aircraft built by Yugoslavia. Same designer as the S-451, this unusual jet-engined taildragger flew in 1952, but was soon superseded by more modern models, in those years of quick-paced development of aviation technology. Again, the engines were from the West, in the form of two French Turbomeca Palas turbojets.

Another member of the ‘Ikarus 451’ family – it must be said this Yugoslav one is likely the oddest model numbering systems ever created… –  the T 451 MM Strsljen (Hornet) features a more convincing configuration, resembling the single-engined British BAC Jet Provost and the Italian Macchi MB 326, both rather successful trainers from the late 1950s. On display is actually the ‘Strsljen II’ version, which is a attack/training version with more thrust than the first series aircraft. This model was conceived to operate from unprepared runways, and featured two Turbomeca Marbore II French turbojets. The aircraft flew in 1958, but an air force contract was not granted.

Some functional wind tunnel models of other aircraft, actually never reaching the 1:1 prototype stage, are on display. These include a rare ekranoplane design, the UTVA 754. With a mechanic-monster-like appearance like all ekranoplanes (the most famous being probably the Bertini-Beriev preserved at the Russian Air Force Museum in Monino, see here), this machine was designed in 1982 in the then-Yugoslav town of Zagreb, today the capital city of Croatia.

A medevac aircraft conceived for easy conversion between floats and wheels, the UTVA 66H can be visited also inside. The indigenous SOKO is represented by a number of models. These include the SOKO G-2 Galeb, a successful trainer/light attack aircraft from the 1950s, built around a single Rolls-Royce Viper turbofan. During its long history it was exported to several international operators, and gave birth to the more recent SOKO J-21 Jastreb. The Galeb was in service with Serbia until 1999.

Another section of the museum features aircraft of foreign make which witness the intricate history of alliances of both the pre-WWII Kingdom of Yugoslavia and the post-WWII communist Yugoslavia. Most remarkably, these include a Messerschmitt Bf-109-G! The history of this particular aircraft is not very clear, some sources stating it was captured from Bulgarian air force. As a matter of fact, Yugoslavia acquired about 70 Bf-109-E from Germany in 1940, which in turn furiously invaded from north in a quick an violent campaign in spring 1941.

Next in line is nothing less than a British Hawker Hurricane! A group of Hurricanes were acquired from Britain in the immediate pre-war years, and even license-built in Belgrade in a small number – Yugoslavia apparently purchased aircraft seamlessly from both opponents at the outbreak of WWII. Later on, Hurricane-equipped squadrons of Yugoslavia fought back on the side of the Allies from bases in southern Italy, finally regaining control over the Balkans.

In a similar fashion, a Supermarine Spitfire Mk.V witnesses the involvement of British-supplied national air force squadrons in the liberation of Yugoslavia from the German invaders.

In the closing years of WWII, Yugoslavia benefited also from the help of the USSR. This is witnessed by a massive – and pretty rare, out of former soviet republics! – Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmovik. This big attack aircraft, possibly the most famous Soviet aircraft of WWII, equipped three squadrons in the Yugoslav air force, and helped in the fight on the so-called ‘Srem front’ north of Belgrade. An often overlooked sector of the European front, substantial operations were carried out since late 1944 until April 1945, with the forces of Nazi Germany slowly retreating under the offensive of the Red Army (including Bulgarian divisions) and of Yugoslavia from the south. These operations involved 250’000 troops on either side, thus engaging the Germans and draining resources from mainland defense. At that time, an entire division of the Yugoslav air force were equipped with this aircraft type, kept in service until the 1950s.

Similarly, an elegant WWII Yakovlev Yak-3 fighter of Soviet make can be found nearby in the colors of Yugoslavia.

After the end of WWII, Tito was determined not to surrender his political and economic independence to Stalin. In this high-stake gamble, he made no secret of his thoughts, and sought international recognition from the west. As expected, Stalin showed no sense of humor in that matter, and as the USSR broke relationships with Yugoslavia, this country faced the risk of isolation and of Soviet invasion in the early stage of the Cold War (late 1940s).

Over the years, the good relationship established with the western Allies during WWII were strengthened further, and most incredibly for a communist country, the US provided aircraft and helicopters, in the form of Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star, Republic F-84G Thunderjet and (much later, in the early 1960s) North American F-86D ‘long-nosed’ Sabre.

The years of Kennedy administration saw a significant improvement of the relationship between Tito and Khrushchev, and this led to a switch to Soviet aircraft in the form of the supersonic MiG-21, which equipped the Yugoslav air force in substantial numbers over the following two decades. An exemplar of this iconic and ubiquitous aircraft, an unquestionably well-performing aircraft in his age, is preserved in the museum. By the way, the early 1960s saw also the widespread adoption of SOKO Galeb trainers and the phase out of older British/US models.

Other peculiar exhibits in the indoor part of the museum are the wrecks resulting from air fight operations during the Yugoslavian wars of the 1990s. On the national (Yugoslav) side, the tail cone of a SOKO G-4 Super Galeb – a totally different design from the quasi-homonym G-2 – damaged by a shoulder-launched Stinger missile in 1991.

But much more material is from NATO countries, resulting from combat during operation ‘Allied Force’ against Serbia in 1999. Most notably, you can see a substantial part of the wing of a Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk, the famous stealth aircraft downed by a vintage Soviet SA-3 Goa surface-to-air missile in March 1999, as well as a landing gear, ejection seat, pilot’s helmet, Vulcan cannon and some smaller parts of a General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon downed the following May, again due to an SA-3 missile. The first stage of the missile which hit the Nighthawk is on display too.

These are basically the only aircraft lost in action over enemy territory during that operation.

An apparently easier prey, General Atomics RQ-1 Predator UAVs were used in great numbers, some twenty of them being downed. One wrecked example is put on display.

More items of the kind include parts of NATO missiles, including HARM anti-radiation missiles and cluster-bombs containers.

On the upper level, you can find a mostly photographic exhibition mainly about the national carrier JAT. Interestingly, not a single Soviet-made model appears in the pictures, whereas you can find Boeing 707s, 727s, 737s, Douglas DC-9s, McDonnell-Douglas DC-10s, Aerospatiale Caravelles and ATR-42/72s – clearly a strong commercial bound with the West, pretty unusual for a communist country!

Another Yugoslav airline started operations to a later date – Aviogenex. This apparently did use aircraft from the USSR, in particular Tupolev Tu-134s, later flanked by Boeing 737s. Aviogenex ceased operations much later than the end of Yugoslavia, and operated as a Serbian company for some years.

One of the most iconic brutalist monstrosities in northern Belgrade is the skyscraper which used to host the headquarters of this airline – it looks like a good setting for some ‘Blade Runner’ or ‘Judge Dredd’ movie…

Some more panels include descriptions of airport history and modern operations in the nearby airport of Belgrade. The history line of the national aviation industry is also presented in detail through historical pictures.

Some more aircraft can be found on this level, as well as a SA-3 Goa missile in a non-operative paint scheme, likely for training or telemetry tuning purposes.

Outdoor exhibition

The large area around the building is split between a small outdoor exhibition prepared for the public, and a larger storage area with many more aircraft which can not be neared nor walked around.

The displayed aircraft include an Aerospatiale Caravelle in the colors of JAT. This exemplar was one of three operated by this airline, and was active between 1963 and 1976.

A much elder transport, a German (French license-built) Junkers 52 with P&W engines represents a fleet of four such aircraft operated by the Yugoslav air force, complementing another group of originally German aircraft captured during the war.

An aircraft of historical significance is an Ilyushin Il-14 twin-prop transport. This aircraft was a personal goodwill gift from Khrushchev to marshal Tito, and the founding member of Yugoslav presidential fleet.

A couple of Lisunov Li-2 and some original Douglas C-47 Skytrain, of which the former is a license-built Soviet version, are on display, albeit not all complete. A MiG-21 Fishbed and a Kamov twin-rotor helicopter are also on display.

Another extremely rare item from the post-WWII years, a Short SA.6 Sealand amphibious aircraft of British make has made its way to Belgrade, after years as a transport aircraft in the Yugoslav air force.

The non-visible part of the museum features a rather impressive collection of MiG-21 in several versions, SOKO J-21 Jastreb and SOKO J-20 Kraguj in a large number, a SA-2 Guideline soviet-made SAM launcher with two missiles, and a number of partly assembled aircraft and wrecks.

A mystery item is a part of an allegedly US aircraft, apparently a part of the tail empennage of a bigger transport – any suggestion about this item welcome!

Visiting

The museum is located to the northwest of the airport of Belgrade. It can be easily reached by car from the access road going to the main terminal area. Website with info in English here. Parking ahead of the entrance.

The museum can be visited in about 2 hours by an interested subject, much less if you have just a mild interest in aviation. Much paneling is in double Serbian and English language, allowing to get the most from your visit.

Despite being fully operative, the place has a somewhat rotting appearance especially from the outside, as mostly typical to former state-run institutions in former Yugoslavia. Furthermore, some form of protection for the aircraft in the outside exhibition is hopefully to be considered by the management, otherwise the aircraft with literally disintegrate to the action of the elements in a matter of some years.

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.

The Salpa Line – Finland’s Anti-Soviet Barrier

Possibly one of the world’s best preserved military installations from WWII, Finland’s Salpa Line – the name ‘salpa’ meaning ‘latch’ – is a defense line composed of about 700 reinforced concrete bunkers with anti-tank cannons and machine-guns, more than 200 miles of anti-tank obstacles, roughly another 200 miles of trenches pointed with over 1200 machine gun nests, 500 artillery positions and more than 700 quartering dugouts. All this, and everything necessary to operate this enormous war machine, including hundreds of miles of new roads, electric cables, dams, telephone lines, etc., was built to defend the border between Finland and the Soviet Union.

History – in brief

The Winter War

Finland enjoyed the rigors of WWII since 1939, when following the Ribbentrov-Molotov pact between Nazi Germany and the USSR, it was agreed off the records that this Country should enter the sphere of influence of Stalin’s communist dictatorship. Finding no other way to submit the Finns, Soviet troops attacked Finland from the East all along their common border, from the Gulf of Finland up north to the Barents Sea, at the end of November, 1939.

This rarely told chapter of WWII is known in Finland as the Winter War. Finland, which on a September 1939 map looked somewhat larger to the east than it looks today, fought fiercely against a numerically much superior enemy, which at the time was not engaged on any other major front. Despite the very difficult situation, with no help – except limited arm supply – from the outside, the motivated Finnish Army led by General Mannerheim recorded some marked victories especially in the central sector of the border, and managed to avoid a complete defeat. This unexpected military resistance, and the promise of Britain and France to support Finland had the war continued further, led the USSR to agree upon a peace treaty as soon as mid March 1940, basically crystallizing the military situation reached at the time. As a result, the border moved west by about 60 miles in southern Finland, with the loss of the Karelian Isthmus and the city of Vyborg, the access to lake Ladoga, Finland’s Eastern Karelia – simply known as Karelia in Russia – and a large territory in Lapland, mostly uninhabited. Finally, the peninsula and port town of Hanko, 70 miles west of Helsinki, was ceded to the USSR for 30 years.

Building the Salpa Line

It was at the end of the Winter War that Finland’s government, following the suggestion of General Mannerheim, took the decision to built the Salpa Line, to defend the new border against any possible attack of the Soviets.

Construction work on this impressive system, made not only of a chain of forts, dugouts and barracks, but also of an extensive network of communication and transport infrastructures, was carried out mainly between spring 1940 and summer 1941, Finland’s so-called Inter-War Period. Up to 35’000 workers – mainly civilians from private companies – were involved, roughly bringing the defense line to completion by mid 1941. The line was designed primarily to protect the most populated and easily accessible part of the Country in the south, and a major concentration of strong points was erected along todays border line with Russia, between the Gulf of Finland and the town of Joensuu.

At the same time, a smaller branch of the Salpa Line was erected on a much smaller scale on the new border with the USSR, along a 3 miles line cutting through the Hanko peninsula.

The Continuation War

In the period between the end of the Winter War and the surprise offensive of Germany against the USSR in June 1941, the Nazi Wehrmacht had successfully annexed Denmark and Norway to the Third Reich, thus becoming a neighbor state for Finland, just like the Soviet Union. In the process, Finland allowed Germany to transport troops and material to northern Norway moving on national land, and receiving arms in return. In the same period Hitler refused to endorse further Soviet attacks against Finland, thus further narrowing the diplomatic distance between Germany and Finland, which nonetheless managed to remain independent throughout WWII.

When the war broke out between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, Finland took the initiative and attacked the USSR, soon regaining control of basically all territories lost in the Winter War, including the port of Hanko, by the end of 1941. The German Wehrmacht attacked the Soviet port town of Murmansk and the nearby area, rich of natural resources, from the northernmost Finnish region of Lapland.

Due to the quick movement of the front line back east, the Salpa Line saw basically no fight, and was maintained until the end of the war with the Soviets in 1944 as a rear defense line.

This phase is known as Continuation War, and quickly turned into a war of attrition along a stable border line. This equilibrium was cracked when the military situation started to get worse for Germany after the defeat of Stalingrad in early 1943. After months of negotiations with the USSR to put an end to the conflict, following a massive Soviet attack on the Karelian Isthmus in August 1944 and the second loss of Vyborg, an armistice was signed in September between Finland and the Soviet Union, in favor of the latter. It restored the border line as it was at the end of the Winter War and imposed a long-term lease of Porkkala – a peninsula on the Gulf of Finland 30 miles west of Helsinki – instead of Hanko. Also included were heavy war reparations and the neutrality of Finland with respect to further Soviet campaigns. Plus the immediate expulsion of all German forces from Finnish territory.

Nonetheless, differently from almost any other Country touched by the Red Army in the events of WWII, Finland managed to retain its complete independence from Stalin’s communist empire, and part of the credit goes to the existence of the Salpa Line, a major deterrent against any further Soviet military aggression.

The request to severe any contact with Germany led to the final chapter of WWII for Finland, the Lapland War, when the Armies of Finland and the USSR attacked the Wehrmacht in the north of the Country, starting a campaign lasting months until the final defeat of Germany, causing the total destruction of many villages and of the town of Rovaniemi.

Sights

As a result of the course of events, Finland’s fortified line of defense did not see any direct military action. This spared it for posterity as a notable example of military technology of the Forties. Of course, as war technology evolved rapidly soon after WWII, the Salpa Line rapidly became obsolete and was largely abandoned. Most dugouts, soft construction works as well as most wooden, unreinforced positions have been reclaimed by nature. Only traces of the trench lines exist today, except in those spots where they have been explicitly preserved for the public.

Heavy positions are a totally different matter. Except for a few mainly in the northern part of the Country, blown up by the Soviets in the months of the Lapland War to help expelling Nazi troops from the Finnish territory, most bunkers and strong points are still there, basically intact. The majority has been abandoned, but due to a demolition work being an economy nonsense, they can still be seen today.

At least two small groups of bunkers in the very south of the Country have been turned into top-level museums on local military history, with a modern visitor center, guided tours and so on. Some bunkers, like in Joensuu, can be visited as little local museums. A good number of the reinforced concrete installations have been left open for interested visitors, stripped of any dangerous military hardware, sometimes even partly refurbished, and in most cases they can be freely accessed – provided you find them. Some are included as checkpoints along official multi-miles hiking trails, which are among Finland’s top tourist attractions. More often, either you know where they are in advance or you will hardly find them in the wilderness.

For reaching most of the non-advertised bunkers of the Salpa Line, you need to drive to very secluded locations along unprepared roads. If you like this kind of archeology, this adds much to the fun!

The good news is that Finland considers the Salpa Line a historical landmark as a whole, thus any damage or alteration is strictly prohibited and severely prosecuted. So you are not to see your search frustrated by finding a bunker covered in graffiti or used as a shelter by ravers or drug addicts – as it is often the case with the much similar Atlantic Wall in France. This is also because except for a few cases the superstite installations are located far from any urban center. By the way, Finland boasts one of the Europe’s lowest crime rates, so exploration is made potentially dangerous only because of intrinsic – rusty barbed wire, mimetic manholes, narrow passages, total darkness … – or natural causes – badgers, boars and bears!

In the following a description of a few notable points of interest along the Salpa Line is presented. The list is extremely far from complete, as it would take at least several months of dedicated work to explore the Line in its entirety! Yet this selection provides a good specimen of all basic types of sight you can find along the line. Photographs were taken during a visit in summer 2017.

Map

The following Google map was created based on the very useful information provided on this website, which is an excellent starting point for any exploration of the line. Basic info on the corresponding Salpa Line sites are provided on it almost one by one, and pinpointed on a map, but apparently there is no comprehensive map on that website. The website is also Flash-based and totally ‘iPhone unfriendly’ – it simply doesn’t load on my iPhone 6S. So I can’t take any credit except for having put together all points and having made them smartphone accessible. The red signals refer to points pictorially described in this article. The area of Hanko and the museums of Mikkeli are not covered in the map, whereas some sites will be described in another chapter.


The list below is ordered roughly from the south to the north.

Navigate this post – Click on links to scroll

Virolahti Bunker Museum, Virolahti

This site – Virolahden Bunkkerimuseum in Finnish – is among the southernmost of the Salpa Line, conveniently located on the busy E18 connecting Helsinki to St.Petersburg. The museum is a good starting point for getting an idea of the features of the line. There is a visitor center with a modern setup, where you can see a collection of light weapons from both the Finnish and Soviet sides – actually many Soviet weapons left behind by the retreating Red Army at the beginning of the Continuation War were later reused by Finland’s Army. Much information is provided in a synthetic and readable way – both in Finnish and English – on the construction of the line and about the war history of Finland, with a focus of what happened along the sector of the front closer to the Gulf of Finland.

The outside part is organized along a short trail in the trees. The first main stop is a reconstructed trench, with an example of a spherical soft concrete bunker type, conceived to cover dugouts. Nearby you can see two small heavy metal turrets. These were designed to be partly interred, to form an armored machine gun nest. The thickness of the metal construction is stunning! There is also a line of stones put in the terrain, a typical anti-tank obstacle to be found in many sites of the Salpa Line.

A German-made Pak-40, 7.5 cm anti-tank cannon in perfect condition is presented in a reconstructed open-top field fortification.

Nearby, you can access a perfect example of an anti-tank bunker. Three main areas are featured in this type of bunker. First, a relatively large living and sleeping area, with bunk beds for troops, a big stove, a water sink, and an air pump. Second, a firing room with a 45 mm anti-tank gun permanently installed, with the barrel leaning out of a suitably designed blind window. Third, a firing room with a machine gun, with the barrel leaning out of an open slot cut through the thick concrete wall of the bunker. Both the cannon and machine gun fire basically in the same direction, from the front facade of the bunker, whereas the only way in is through a sealed door to the back.

The bunker is provided with a metal observation turret on top, accessible through a ladder mounted in a very narrow vertical tunnel with a sealed door.

Another original bunker you can visit in Virolahti is a quartering bunker, capable of sleeping 40 people. The construction is similar to the large living area of the previous bunker, but this is larger.

Examples of original trenches which have not been refurbished can be spotted as smooth grooves in the ground between the reinforced bunkers. Finally, there is also a collection of cannons – some of them very old – and machine guns, from the USSR, Finland, Sweden, France and Italy. Heavy cannons from various ages were provided by France at the time of the Winter War, and put in place along the Salpa Line in more points, so they can be spotted pretty often in Finnish museums.