Bunker Kossa – A Preserved Cold War Military Bunker in the GDR

Heading to Berlin or the former GDR? Looking for traces of the Cold War open for a visit?

A Travel Guide to COLD WAR SITES in EAST GERMANY

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The history of the underground installation in Kossa-Söllichau begins in the 1930s under Hitler’s rule.

In 1935, an affiliated company of the German chemicals giant WASAG, named Deutsche Sprengchemie Moschwig and devoted to the mass production of explosives for warfare use, had a new plant built in the rather uninhabited forest area between Leipzig and Wittenberg.

The plant, codenamed ‘Beech’ (or ‘Buche’ in German), was updated over the years and turned into a major production center for several models of shells and high-explosive charges. A primary contractor of the German Army, the company also held relevant patents, including one for hollow charge grenades.

By the end of WWII in April 1945, when the area fell under Soviet control and production was halted, the plant counted 3.600 employees, and had a production capacity of around 600.000 ammunitions per month. It had been provided with a dedicated road and railway connection, and built mostly underground, with several concrete bunkers surfacing from the grassy terrain around.

Following the Potsdam agreement (July 1945), the area was completely flattened by the hand of the Soviets, similar to some other production facilities in Germany. Demolition had been completed by the end of 1947. Following that, the area remained silent for more than a decade.

By the early 1960s, with the Cold War and rearmament in full swing, the the Nationale Volksarmee, or NVA – the short name of the Armed Forces of the GDR – had been long established as an ally of the Red Army. The latter was physically present in Germany with a huge number of troops and war material, having taken over many of the former German bases from WWII (see here or here for instance). However, the GDR clearly had its own Armed Forces, which actually could count on high-quality war material, typically either manufactured in Germany or supplied by the USSR. More and more locations – especially the most secluded and easy to hide – got surrounded by fences, and ended under the control of the NVA for many different purposes.

Deployed on the border with the West, and considered a reliable and well-trained partner by the Red Army, the NVA was included in the war plans conceived in Moscow, intended to unfold in the event of an open war with the neighbor NATO Countries. The NVA had two larger military districts, south of Berlin (III) and north of Berlin (V). In case of war, district III would give birth to a 3rd Army of mixed GDR/USSR forces, to quickly push towards the south-west into Federal Germany (heading to Koblenz), and from there to the Atlantic coast, to be reached in a matter of a few days.

The headquarter of the 3rd Army was in the so-called ‘Mosel’ bunker, an underground command facility near the town of Zwickau, today converted for an alternate use and not visible at all.

An alternate control site, which was also primarily involved in drills and training, was built in the area of the former ‘Beech’ installation, and took the name of ‘Bunkeranlage’ (i.e. bunker installation) Kossa-Söllichau. This site was prepared in the years 1976-79, and consisted mainly of 5 large interred bunkers on the same premises, capable of resisting to tactical nuclear blasts, with up-to-date systems for communication, and an ability to replicate war situations, so as to carry out realistic and complicated tactical simulations and drills. The staff was typically of 400.

Similar to the majority of military assets in Germany – and especially within the super-militarized ex-GDR – Kossa was incorporated in the Armed Forces of reunified Germany (1990), but was soon declared surplus, deactivated and handed over for civilian use.

A society of enthusiasts is today running this former facility, keeping it open for visitors on a regular basis. What makes Kossa an exceptional destination for both the general public and the most committed war tourist as well is the great state of conservation of the entire facility. As it can be seen in the following photographs, taken in Summer 2022, inside the bunkers it is possible to see not only the original structure, but most of the original communication systems, paneling, signs, furniture, lamps, toilets, lighting, wallpaper, etc. making the place a very vivid testimony of the Cold War years.

All in all, this is one of the best surviving specimens of bunkerized NVA sites, and definitely worth a visit for a rich in detail full immersion in the military technology and history of the Cold War years.

Sights

A visit to the Kossa site will start walking past the original inner gateway to the bunkerized part of the complex. The original wall going all around the entire military area has been partly removed, allowing to get direct access to the ‘core’ of the installation by car. Traces of the electrified fence running all around this inner part of the complex are still standing. The entrance to a bunker for the guards can be seen in this area, but this cannot be visited.

The core of the complex with the military bunkers is aligned along a single, mostly straight technical road, built with large concrete slabs. The road track today is the same as in the original pre-WWII complex, and for this reason, it was not camouflaged. Other buildings in the complex, an even the connection roads departing from the main one, are painted in camo coat, for deception in case of overflight by plane or satellite.

The ticket office today is hosted in a large technical building by the entrance. In this area there used to be canteens and other services.

Past the entrance to the bunker area, it is possible to visit five bunkers, which will be listed next.

Computer Bunker

Four out of five bunkers (the exception being the intelligence bunker, see later) are built around the same blueprint. They have a single entrance door, deceived under a small wooden hut. Access to the bunker is via a security and decontamination path. At first you see a big camera at the level of your face, and an intercom panel, all for identification. Next follows a sequence of tight doors, at a close distance from one another, producing three small tight compartments.

In case of nuclear/chemical contamination, faced in wartime, in the first compartment you could take an anti-poison kit, EP-68. Exemplars of this are still in place. In the next compartment you had to throw away all your clothes and belongings, which were put through a hatch to the side. In a third small compartment, you found a shower – a central passage in the decontamination process, even in case of exposition to nuclear events.

Through a last tight door, you could finally enter the clean area of the bunker. Here regular toilets and showers can be found, before going down one level, to the technical part.

Back then, there used to be three levels of air sealing. No air sealing, in regular, no-war/no-drill conditions, meant the decontamination procedure was not activated, and the bunker was ventilated with fresh air. In sealing conditions, typically at war but not under direct attack, the bunker was tight closed, and air was pumped from the outside through huge filtering canisters, purpose designed to stop both smoke and other gases, or poisonous chemicals. On the third level of air sealing, corresponding to an emergency condition (e.g. a direct attack), no air was pumped from the outside, and special filters capturing carbon dioxide allowed to carry on for a limited amount of time – reportedly a shorter time than granted by food or water storage.

Filters for the air conditioning system (sealing level 2) and for adsorbing carbon dioxide (sealing level 3) were made in the USSR. Those for carbon dioxide are scattered around the bunkers, and feature a rather vintage Soviet look, with a prominent five pointed star on top. The label carry the assembly year, in most cases the early 1970s.

Once downstairs, you can appreciate the construction of the bunker lower level, based on prefabricated concrete frames. The bunkers in Kossa were capable of resisting blasts typically from smaller tactical devices, and were ranked at the fifth strength level (level ‘E’), the first level being the strongest.

Here a few rooms are still perfectly preserved with computers, of which the most impressive is a mainframe AP-3, working with magnetic tape. The GDR could boast a top-notch electronic industry within the Eastern Bloc, and all consoles and electronics in Kossa bear local labels.

The purpose of the computers, deemed so relevant to create a bunker specifically for them, was the fast elaboration of all information from the war theater. The latter was both local and global, since thanks to the links reaching the site through the intelligence bunker (see later), information of any kind could be elaborated, allowing the constant updating of operation maps, and the monitoring of all war assets. In drills, the computation capacity of the the system allowed to simulate events, thus forming the core of war-game operations.

A small part of the same bunker, a kind of mezzanine, was designed as a small hospital – all exhibits are original here as well.

More items on display in this area include original dosimeters and gear for checking radiation levels – either GDR- or USSR-made. In the connecting corridors are an intercom and an alarm horn – just examples of the perfectly preserved material on display.

Command Bunker

The command bunker shares the general arrangement with the computer bunker. A full anti-chemical/biological warfare suit is displayed by the entrance, ahead of the decontamination facilities. This type of suit should be worn over regular garments, and made for a very uncomfortable, ultra-warm and suffocating top layer, which reportedly caused extreme sweating.

The focus here is a control room, with a large table and an operation map, as well as connections through several lines to the relevant information networks. On one side of the control room are desks for telephone operators. On another, watches and chronographs. Also interesting are two TV-scopes, which allowed to plot useful information especially in case of drills.

Examples of maps for military drills are scattered all around. Since war plans were all variations on the same theme – a quick attack pushing to the west – all corresponding maps feature this type of planned motion, from within the borders of the GDR to the FRG. The name of the drills can be seen clearly stated on the maps – for instance ‘Grenzschicht – 81’ from 1981.

Other rooms on the underground level feature very interesting examples of machinery for translating information to/from paper maps, even physical 3D maps with elevation!

Satellite or spy-plane images of the site are on display as well. The site of Kossa was reportedly not far from the southernmost of the three air corridors reaching West-Berlin from the FRG. However, even though the site was not unknown in the West, its purpose remained largely a guess for the duration of the Cold War – and likely so also for the local civilian population.

Technical Bunker

A major concern in the Cold War was that of the survival of the chain of command in the event of a total nuclear war. This led to the implementation of additional on-site plants, for self-sustained operations in case a nuclear explosion nearby made the area unsuitable for human life, or when links with the surroundings were lost. These plants included primarily power generators, typically large Diesel engines with their fuel tanks, and drinkable water tanks. As seen in the computer bunker, also breathable air was a major concern.

In the technical bunker in Kossa, similar in shape to the previous two, at least two large power generators can still be seen – and smelt… – on the underground level. Several electric parts for replacement are also there. Another room hosts large drinkable water tanks.

An interesting preserved office for a commanding officer still retains its original GDR wallpaper, and additional comfort is provided by a fake wood pavement.

Large electric cabinets take a big room, where instrumentation for radiation measurement is on display nearby.

Other particulars include a dial telephone with a reminder of the quick reaction numbers, including the Volkspolizei – the name of the People’s Police of the GDR, which can be seen on a label!

Intelligence Bunker

The intelligence bunker is way larger than the others in Kossa, and is also more articulated. Access was possible via two bulky metal gates, located at an underground level on the far ends of the bunker, and reached through truck-sized ramps from ground level.

Behind the door, a tunnel of prefabricated concrete allowed to store many vehicles – typically trucks, jeeps and trailers, including vehicles with communication functions.

To the interred back of the tunnel, a human sized hatch gave access to the pressurized, tight area of the bunker. This inner area, completely interred, is surrounded by a concrete case, built by a single pouring to avoid the creation of weak junctions, and such to withstand intense blasts.

Following a tight compartment, with an array of original air-filtering canisters on display, you get access to a long corridor, providing access to some rooms with technical gears for communication. Here communication with different levels of secrecy were managed, accessing all the existing links implemented in the years of construction within the GDR, and between all Countries of the Warsaw Pact and the USSR.

A first room is centered on a large console, with an original teleprinting device still in place – top-notch for the time. Still in use today in some businesses, teleprinting is a very reliable way of communicating, which is also less prone to interception than telephone.

An adjoining room managed contact with three wired systems of communication, working at increasing levels of encryption security, and used for transmitting routine or less-standard orders. These systems included S1 and SAS communication protocols. The corresponding transmitters/receivers – now very rare pieces of machinery – can be seen on display.

Encrypted incoming messages were sent to a special room, where they were translated in human language, before being internally forwarded to the command bunker. Similarly, encryption facilities were all in another room, where outbound communications were made ready for transmission.

An impressive technical room is stacked with communication electronics. The number of components is really high, and reflects a very high performance, achieved by means of top level, but relatively bulky, components from the 1970s.

A room in this bunker is dedicated to the ‘BARS’ system (‘БАРС’ in Russian), a troposphere (i.e. not wired) transmission system within all States in the Warsaw Pact and with the USSR. Beside an indigenous transmission protocol, the system made use of purpose-designed antennas, with easily deployable nodes put on wheeled trucks. An evoking, very interesting map of the fixed nodes of the system, in Russian, can still be seen on a wall. The desks for the operators of the system are just besides.

Another interesting item is the control panel of a micro-wave antenna, installed in Kossa at a shallow underground level, in an area which can still be located, corresponding to an inexplicable grassy lot along the main road in the site. This antenna system was apparently never used, on grounds of energy consumption and potential damages to other systems in the Kossa site.

Back outside, close to the intelligence bunker are an original weather station, placed nearby a radiation detection system – looking like a bell bolted to the ground. Examples of connection roads covered in camo paint can be seen in this area. Along the main road of the site, many ramps give access to semi-interred lots, where technical trucks used to be placed for operations.

An example of these trucks is a Soviet trailer for enemy signal jamming. This is well preserved both inside and outside. The label tells the construction year – 1986.

Museum Bunker

The last visitable bunker is similar in shape to the former three, and has been converted into a collection of items from the history of the old WASAG site, the NVA bunker and the Cold War.

Propaganda items from the GDR enrich this interesting collection, as well as rare photographs from the totally gone ‘Beech’ site originally developed in the Third Reich years. Also on display are detailed designs of the weapons produced here in WWII.

Getting there and Visiting

The Kossa installation can be easily reached by car, roughly 20 miles south of Wittenberg and 30 miles northeast of Leipzig. Exact location here.

The Kossa bunker is professionally managed by a dedicated Society. Their website is here. They speak only German, and the website is in German accordingly. Opening times are published for the season, and are basically in all weekends in the warm season. A synthetic leaflet in English can be obtained. However, the basic notions on this page may also help in getting much of the visit.

Two separate tickets can be purchased, one for a self-guided visit of the computer, technical and museum bunkers, and another for a guided visit of the command and intelligence bunkers. The guided tour is offered only once per day in German, in the early afternoon as of 2022.

A good strategy for a complete visit may be checking in during the morning, visiting the self-guided part, having a packed lunch, and taking the guided tour.

I followed that plan. This meant a stay of roughly five hours. The report on this page was obtained visiting the site together with Dr. Reiner Helling, who offered me a very detailed insight of the Kossa site, before we took the guided tour.

Photography is allowed everywhere. Flash/tripod generally not needed, at least with high-ISO sensors.

Possibly only cash accepted at the ticket counter.

Soviet ‘Monolith’ Nuclear Bunkers in Poland – Survivors & Ghosts

Since the beginning caught in the storm of WWII, Poland saw its border changed again in 1945 by the Western Allies and the USSR – the lack of natural borders meant that fate for this Country several times over the centuries. Furthermore, as a massive flow of Soviet forces had been pivotal in repelling Hitler’s forces, similar to other nations sharing a border with the USSR, Poland found itself deep in the sphere of influence of Stalin’s Soviet Union. A communist dictatorship was installed starting 1945, due to last until the end of communism in Europe in 1989.

As a matter of fact, Poland turned out to be by far the most populated and largest of Eastern Bloc countries. Strategically placed in the middle between the USSR and free Western Europe, with a wide section of the Baltic shoreline and a huge, mostly flat territory, similar to the German Democratic Republic nearby, Poland was the theater of a significant militarization effort by the Soviets. Not only the Polish army received Soviet war material in large stocks over the full span of the Cold War, but the Red Army also actually had significant assets scattered over Polish territory – its huge Northern Group of Forces being stationed there, with tanks, aircraft, dedicated bases, firing ranges, as well as several tens of thousand troops and their families, making for a kind of military colony of the USSR.

What is possibly less known is that also Soviet nuclear weapons were stationed in some satellites of the USSR, like the GDR (see this and this chapters, for instance), Hungary (see this chapter), and of course Poland.

Some elements of the global picture have been introduced in another chapter, dealing among other things with a Basalt-type bunker built for storing air-launched nuclear systems, on the premises of the Soviet airbase of Wiechlice (Szprotawa). Yet as can be argued from the general map of of nuclear depots known to Western intelligence, dating from 1979 (‘Warsaw Pact Forces Opposite NATO’, Vol.I-II, CREST record number 0005517771, declassified and released in 2010, here), there were also three major depots of the Monolith-type in Poland. Similar to Stolzenhain and Lychen in the former GDR (see this post), these depots were larger, multi-chamber storage facilities, intended to store primarily missile warheads for longer periods, for instance to complement the SCUD launch system for theater missiles.

The uniqueness of Poland in the panorama of Cold War archaeology lies in a generally positive attitude towards preserving some traces of this dramatic piece of recent history, when the map of Europe was markedly different from now, and the western world found itself multiple times on the verge of a nuclear confrontation, to be fought on the very territory of now wealthy Core Europe. As a result, an impressive number of war museums putting on display military stuff from all the 20th century can be found scattered over the broad territory of today’s Poland.

Even more important, a certain number of former Soviet military installations are being either actively preserved, or at least not condemned through demolition works or re-assignment to improbable new uses. This is despite a totally justified negative attitude towards the Soviet occupation forces and communist dictatorship. This attitude marks an unusual difference between the cultural attitude of the fierce Polish people towards recent military history and Soviet occupation, with respect for instance to Germany or Hungary, where the comprehensible dislike for the Soviets has taken a shape in leaving behind – i.e. more or less demolishing – every trace of a Soviet military presence, and especially in the former, reducing military museums to a minimum.

Among the most prominent Cold War relics you can find in Poland are the three Monolith-type nuclear warhead bunkers mentioned above. One of them – the Podborsko site – has been restored with 90% original material, and makes for a world-class, top-tier museum in the panorama of Cold War military history. The other two, Brzeznica-Kolonia and Templewo, have been left to nature and have now become ‘Soviet ghosts’, but they are advertised with panels, providing some info, and while access is not encouraged, a quick look inside the bunkers, as well as freely walking in the former premises of these bases, is of course possible.

This post covers these three Monolith-type sites, with a focus on the unique preserved Podborsko site, which needs to be on the shortlist of everyone with an interest in Cold War technology, as well as in the history of the nuclear stockpile. All sites were visited, and all photographs taken, on a trip to western Poland in summer 2020.

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Sights

All three sites are in northwestern Poland. GPS coordinates are provided in the respective sections. Despite being not too much afar from each other, due the relatively slow connection roads in the area, visiting all three places in one day is not possible. Furthermore, the area is quite dense in both general interest and Cold War related destinations, so I would advise planning a trip to this region of Poland and listing these sites among other destinations.

Podborsko Site – Objekt 3001

A good specimen of a Monolith site, Podborsko – or Objekt 3001, as per the official military listing of the Cold War years – was centered on two large half-interred bunker, each with two big side-wards opening tight doors at ground level, providing access to the interior with the trolleys used to move the nuclear warheads from the transport trucks to the cellars.

For an increased protection in case of an attack to the site – likely listed among targets of strategic value by Western Countries – a second tight door was put immediately next to the external one, creating a tight, blast resisting and insulated airlock between the interior of the bunker and the outside world.

Both doors to the two ends of the airlock can be – and are – opened via a manual crank system. Two men are needed to actually move the doors however – they are really heavy! A servo-assisted system was in place originally.

An interesting detail is the original sensor for the door status, part of a security system of the base.

Similar to their US counterparts, the Soviets took the problem of security of the nuclear arsenal pretty seriously. Each door on the path followed by the warhead from the outside to the cellar, including the airlock doors as well as the cellar doors inside the bunker, were associated to a trigger. When the corresponding door was opened, the trigger sent a signal via a dedicated cable link to the headquarters of a dedicated branch of the Red Army offices in Moscow, Russia, which was kept constantly updated on the status of each critical door in the depot. The link was via purpose-designed vacuum-protected cables – the actual wiring ran along a vacuum manifold, so that in case of the cable was bitten and the vacuum manifold collapsed, an emergency signal was immediately sent to the nearest nodes of the network, allowing surveillance staff to intervene promptly.

The opening of and closing procedure of the airlock doors involved communication with a post in Moscow too, which started with the local guards communicating their intention to open the doors via a system housed in a blue cabinet besides the tight door. As the signal traveled from the bunker to the headquarters and back, the opening of an airlock was not a quick operation! Original writings in pencil can still be found in the cabinet.

Past the airlock, you land on an elevated concrete platform. From here the warheads were moved to the underground floor via a mechanical crane. This is still standing today, with limit indications in Russian.

From the platform you get an excellent lookout of the bunker structure. You can see a twin suspended platform to the opposite end of the underground floor, with a tight door shut closed. Along the long sides of the main hall, on the underground level you see several doors. On the right hand side, big sliding doors painted in white give access to the cellars, where the warheads spent most of their time in rest. On the opposite side are smaller man-sized doors, giving access to the technical area, with provision for the men of the permanent bunker watch.

The stairs leading downstairs are among the few complements to the original structure – they have been put in place to ease visiting. Originally, the underground floor could be reached from the suspended platform only via a lateral manhole with a vertical metal latter.

The warheads are long gone today – the site was built in the late 1960s, and was emptied of its strategically relevant content in the late 1980s, to be finally ceded back to the Polish government after the withdrawal of all Russian forces from Europe. The cellars today are mainly empty, and used to showcase interesting items related to the site.

First, you can see a scale model of the entire site. In Soviet times, the place was a full scale military base. It included a separated area with living facilities for the troops and their families, who ran the base with both technical and surveillance tasks. Today, this area has been taken over by the government, and used as a prison – Podborsko is rather secluded and far from populated areas on the Baltic coast. Furthermore, as said there used to be two twin bunkers. Today only one has been restored, whereas the other is sealed and waiting for reuse. Between the sectors of the base multiple fences with barbed wire, concrete walls, foxholes and other deterring/defense devices and systems were in place, making the innermost part of the base with the bunkers rather inaccessible.

An original armored cabinet from the time of operation is still in the corner of a cellar, its original use is uncertain.

In another cellar you can find everyday items and relics from Soviet presence in the area. These range from toothpaste to children’s toys. Also more military-related items, like cartridge boxes and even original Soviet military dog tags have been found scattered over the area!

You can also find weapons, a scheme of the base in Russian, anti-radiation suits, and parts of the body, control and guidance systems of a Soviet SCUD theater missile – the corresponding warheads being the main business in Podborsko. There is also a copy of the plan of an attack scenario for Western Europe, showing some targets on the respective sides of the Iron Curtain.

One of the cellars has been left empty, with a mock-up of a warhead, resting on one of the original trolleys. This is particularly evoking, despite being just one out of the high number of warheads usually stored in a cellar. The actual number of warheads residing in each Soviet storage over the years is still today not totally clear. However, reportedly former Soviet staff support there was in a single Monolith bunker in Poland enough nuclear material for the whole attack plan over Europe, meaning a number of several tens warheads per site.

The trolley is original as said, and it shows the function of the slots on the ground of each cellar, which allowed anchoring the trolley firmly in position. This was possibly needed also in the extreme case of a blast hitting the bunker, so as to avoid any unwanted displacement of the trolleys.

A fourth cellar displays a set of panels, outlining the history of the Cold War.

As said, the security triggers telling the status of the door can be found close also to each of the sliding doors of the cellars.

Before moving to the technical area on the other side of the bunker, a look to the central hall reveals a number of original material. In particular, you can find an interesting set of instruments, handles and gauges packed together in a metal cabinet. Their function was that of monitoring the state of each warhead. Nuclear material needs to be stored in precise conservation conditions, so warheads were kept in dedicated cases. These were inspected regularly by connecting them to the monitoring system and recording the corresponding gauge readings. Traces of the positioning markers for an inspected trolley can be found close to the cabinet, painted on the ground.

Another conspicuous sight in the main hall is the heating system, needed to keep the inside atmosphere at a constant assigned temperature and humidity level, to guarantee the health of nuclear material. A big array of heat exchangers takes the top part of a side wall in the main hall.

The technical part is made of two main parts, and is accessible on the long side of the hall opposite to the cellars. One part is made of a blind sequence of three narrow compartments. Here you can find a case for manipulating dangerous chemicals, with protection gloves once protruding inside. Nearby, a sink and some cabinets recall a medical room.