The Red Army in Hungary – Airbases, Bunkers and Ghost Towns

Similar to other satellite countries like Poland, Czechoslovakia and the former German Democratic Republic, for decades after WWII Hungary was under the strong influence and de facto military control of the Soviet Union. As a result of the anti-communist revolution of 1956, when the Soviet nearly lost control of the country for a while, a massive Soviet force was stationed in Hungary to prevent further turmoil – the so-called Southern Group of Forces – acting in parallel with the local Hungarian Army, although in a coordinated fashion.

This was reflected by the turning of several existing airfields and training grounds from older times into modern Soviet bases. Their premises, and the territories around them, were completely severed from the rest of the Country, leaving the Soviet forces with a great freedom of action concerning the deployment of unspecified numbers of troops, tanks, aircraft, communication gear, and even nuclear warheads. Furthermore, the families of the Soviet troops stationed in the Country were hosted in dedicated purpose built – or purpose converted, pre-existing – villages.

All this left traces of course, and after the end of communism in Europe, and later the collapse of the USSR, the majority of these installations were either abandoned or converted to some other use. Abandoned – i.e. not converted – Soviet bases and installations in Hungary were pretty many. Today, many of them are being demolished, or are still standing, but severely damaged after years of disrepair. Actually, the best preserved installations are those waiting for conversion or for some yet-to-be-defined destiny, and currently under custody of private owners or the state.

This post is about some of these installations, and it focuses especially – but not exclusively – on storage bunkers for nuclear warheads. Besides being especially appealing to mystery-hunters and urbex explorers, such places are an interesting testimony of the serious attitude of the Soviets towards a war in the European theater. This was considered a likely event in many instances over the decades of the Cold War, from the 1950s to the years of President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative. The money spent over the years by the Soviet Union to build up a dedicated military infrastructure, and the deployment of tactical warheads close to the designated targets in western Europe to prepare for such scenario, show that the USSR did not think of fighting a nuclear-based final battle just as a mere theoretical exercise.

Photographs were taken in August 2020.

Sights

Based on a CIA report dating from 1979 (‘Warsaw Pact Forces Opposite NATO’, Vol.I-II, CREST record number 0005517771, declassified and released in 2010), there used to be a small yet significant number of bunkers for the storage of the Soviet nuclear stockpile in Hungary. The following map, taken from this report, shows their approximate location and type.

Despite a clear correspondence of each symbol with a Soviet bunker construction type is not readily available, it is possible to reconstruct the information as follows.

The only solid triangle corresponds to a Monolith-type storage bunker, the largest and most sophisticated type of storage in the Soviet standard inventory, made for long-term storage of nuclear warheads. This site is located close to the village of Urkut, in the middle of an extended region, once the largest part of Hungary managed exclusively by the Soviet military. In this area you can find also the headquarters of the Soviet forces in Hungary, the Southern Group of Forces, located in the small village of Hajmasker, as well as the airbase of Veszprem, with an annexed village with housing for military staff and their families.

Monolith-type bunkers were seldom built on the premises of airbases or other military bases. They were prepared mostly in secluded area, shrouded in the vegetation, so as to avoid any unwanted attention as much as possible. They would store high-yield warheads for theater missiles (e.g. SCUD missiles). Urkut is no exception, as there are no airfields close to it. It is shrouded in the vegetation, and far from any village of significant size.

Back to the map, round dots represent Basalt-type storage bunkers, which are most commonly to be found close to airfields. This type of bunker is significantly large, and capable to store air-dropped/launched tactical weapons with nuclear warheads. Two sites are shown on the map, of which only the one on the premises of the former airbase of Kunmadaras could be located.

Finally, the squares correspond to Granit-type storage bunkers. These were of much lighter construction with respect to Monolith and Bazalt, and their purpose could be that of hiding either missile launchers of various size, or command/communication posts. Much has to be guessed about the actual function they had in all places where they were built. In Hungary, three such bunkers are reported on the map, of which the easternmost is on the still active airport of Debrecen, the westernmost is on the small local airport of Heviz (formerly Sarmellek), and the latter is presumably on Tokol, a major airbase in the outskirts of Budapest, Hungary capital city.

In the following you can find some pictures from the storage sites of Urkut, Kunmadaras and Sarmellek, plus pictures from the Soviet bases of Veszprem, Tokol and Kalocsa, and from the former Soviet headquarters in Hajmasker.

Urkut Nuclear Storage Site

The Urkut site is also familiarly known as ‘little Moscow’, due to the fact that this site hosted also a very small, perfectly Soviet-style quarter for the troops working on the base, or being trained in the local training center. The site is in a wide and pleasant valley with a north-south alignment. There used to be two access roads which today take from the main (and only) road running along the mostly uninhabited valley, connecting Urkut (to the north) and Nagyvazsony (to the south). The two access roads take you to the main gates, placed to the north and south ends of the complex.

Similar to other nuclear sites based on the Monolith-type bunker model (see for instance this post for an accurate pictorial description of another one), security was clearly a major concern. Still today, walking in the trees and approaching the base without going the official access roads, you will meet four external fences.

The outer one is made of concrete posts and barbed wire, but today this is mostly gone – which makes it practically more dangerous, as the few remnants of suspended barbed wire are barely visible, and much leftovers are partly hidden by the abundant low-growing vegetation.

Next you will come to a concrete wall made of prefabricated slabs, with traces of barbed wire on top. This is still today basically impenetrable.

Once in, you will find two further lines of barbed wire, suspended on concrete posts. This double fence of barbed wire is still in very good shape, and creates a watch corridor.

Inside the perimeter, you can spot a network of trenches and foxholes.

In Urkut, the training grounds and bunkers are close to the northern gate, whereas to the south you can find the former living quarters for the troops. A prominent training hangar can be found in the northern part of the base.

Inside, a perfectly conserved mural with the heads of Marx, Engels and Lenin, and Moscow’s Kremlin in the background, is still hanging on top of the main gate.

Along the hangar, a corridor with classrooms clearly shows the intended function of the building.

Not far north from this major attraction, you soon meet a smaller technical building, and the southern Monolith bunker close by. Bases centered on the Monolith type typically had two independent twin bunkers built onsite, usually with their axes tilted by 90 degrees, so as to minimize the chance of a single bomb effectively striking both bunkers. This is not the case in Urkut though, as both bunkers are built along an East-West direction. Urkut is different from other Monolith sites also for having been built on the slope of a hill, so connection roads are never flat.

The warheads reached the bunker by truck. A covered loading/unloading platform can be found on both opposite entrances to the bunker. For the southern bunker, you can see in the pictures the platform is still in very good conditions, with colored signs on the pavement for facilitating movements. Even the lamps are still there!

The main access to the bunker was via an airlock, with two gigantic square-shaped blast-proof doors on each side. In this pictures you are seeing the western access to the southern bunker.

The innermost part of the Urkut bunkers is inaccessible, as the inner doors of the airlocks are shut. Yet it is possible to get access to the airlocks. For the southern bunker, going to the eastern access you find a covered platform similar to the western one, yet here the roof has partly collapsed.

You may open the outer door of the airlock, and get access. Here you can see writing in Russian. The state of conservation is generally speaking extremely good.

On one side of the eastern loading platform, you can see a standard Soviet military transportable trailer, maybe a local operation control center.

In order to get to the northern bunker you need to climb uphill, crossing some further inner fences – it was typical to Soviet bases having multiple fences inside military bases, separating parts with different functions and levels of security.

While loading platforms of the southern bunker are tilted by 90 degrees with respect to the axis of the bunker, for the northern bunker they are aligned along the same direction.

The eastern access to the northern bunker features is fairly well conserved. Also here, it is possible to access the airlock, but the inner gate is sealed.

On top of the northern bunker, you can find the ‘pedestrian access’ to the underground cellar. The gates used to carry the warheads in and out were usually kept closed, and the troops or technicians staying inside the bunker, which had provision for a few men overlooking the sensitive ordnance 24/7 in shifts, could enter and leave the bunker via a more modestly sized hatch. This could be reached from the top of the bunker, descending very steep stairs to the level of the bottom of the internal chamber. There you had an airlock, with tight doors the size of a man. These are closed in Urkut, but you can see the external tight door in its original yellow coating with conspicuous writing in Russian.

The soft construction protecting the access to the stairs is today severely damaged.

Finally, the western entrance to the northern bunker is very similar in shape to the eastern one. The northern gate of the complex is not far from here.

Also here, the airlock can be accessed, but the bunker cannot be entered.

All in all, the Urkut site is in an exceptionally good condition in the panorama of Soviet remains. A conversion into a museum would be highly desirable, and would require a very little effort. The fact that the bunkers are closed clearly suggests the inside was not touched, so maybe only basic renovation would be required to make the place a top-notch attraction for Cold War history enthusiasts.

Getting there & Moving around

The site is either on private land or state-owned. In any case, it is not officially accessible. The access roads are guarded, with people (and watchdogs) living on site. Car access on the access road is not allowed either. Walking on the site you may find several vibration sensors with cable connections likely to the booths close to the main access. For these reasons, further indications on access will not be provided.

Soviet Headquarters at Hajmasker Castle

Similar to Wünsdorf in Germany (see this post), Hajmasker Castle was built just before WWI, the focal point of a large military settlement of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. During WWII, it was used as a military command center, and as a local headquarter of the German Army in the latest stages of WWII, when the willingness of a part of the Hungarian establishment to put a quick end to the war by negotiating a peace treaty with the Western Allies caused the Germans to take direct control of that war theater.

After the defeat in WWII and the Soviet invasion, since 1945 the castle hosted the headquarters of the Soviet military in Hungary – just like Wünsdorf in the German Democratic Republic. Again in a totally similar fashion, the symbolic end of Soviet dominance in Hungary was marked by the last train for the Soviet staff leaving Hajmasker for the USSR in 1990.

As said, the castle is what remains of a larger military village. The building is really sizable, with a characteristic prominent tower on the front facade.

Walking around the castle you can find a theater hall opposite the tower.

The walls are pierced, so you can see inside, without getting access to the hall, which appears really one step away from collapse. To the back of the castle you can find traces of a large apron for military use, and direct access to the railway nearby.

Back to the tower, the original gate is not made for large vehicles, and the gracious artistic style of the construction clearly suggests a pre-Soviet design.

Climbing upstairs, you meet long corridors with traces of the offices of the top-ranking men from the Soviet military. Hajmasker is strategically located close to the region where the Urkut site is (see above), and where the former base of Veszprem is also located. The place is less than one hour from Budapest.

The view from the top floors of the building further reveals the size of the castle, together with the poor state of conservation.

Ahead of the entrance, a Soviet-style apartment block can be found, still inhabited today. Smaller buildings are all around the castle, both modern or from the age of the castle. You can find also the flat building of a former canteen, clearly Soviet-designed and today abandoned.

Getting there & Moving around

The place is located at the following GPS coordinates: 47.148319, 18.026145. The castle is formally off-limits, but it is totally abandoned and accessed by writers, creepy-ambience-lovers, as well as by the local population. You may park right ahead of the gate among the cars of those living in the local neighborhood. You will be spotted for sure when accessing, but nobody will likely interfere, as access is totally easy (no fences, no barbed wire,…), despite being formally prohibited. Enter at your own risk, as the building looks really rotting, with the roof partly collapsed, exposing wood and bricks as construction materials – considering their age, the high rise of the building and total disrepair over the last decades, this means high risk.

Veszprem Abandoned Airbase & Ghost Town

The old airfield in Veszprem acted as a major helicopter base during the Cold War, but style of the some of the older buildings betrays its 1930s origin as an airbase with annexed training academy. Of course, the Soviets enlarged its structure, and possibly as late as the 1980s they built massive housing in their typical poorly original style.

In the 1990s, with the change in the global strategic situation following the Soviet demise, the Hungarian government got rid of many military infrastructures, and Veszprem was on the list. Since then, the airport was turned into a short-lived base for commercial transport run by a private company, and as of 2020 it is at the center of a dispute, where the local municipalities are trying to get the land for other uses.

What you can see now reflects this state of things – trucks coming and going everywhere between the old buildings of the former airbase, with some demolition work being carried out and some gigantic commercial storage being built close by. The air-side of the airport appears basically dead, with no flights coming or going, not even small private aircraft operating around it. However, a control tower is still on site, so technically speaking the airport appears to be open for operations.

The place deserves a visit especially for getting a glimpse of the large structure of the maintenance hangars. From the outside, they can be spotted from a distance thanks to their tall curved rooftops.

The hangars have been divided internally in smaller spaces at some point. Getting access is possible in some of them, by the sight is rather desolating since the roof has mostly collapsed, and vegetation is taking over wildly inside.

Towards the airport you can spot more technical buildings, surrounding a wide apron. These technical buildings are apparently from a later era. The metal doors of the big curved hangars are such that getting larger helicopters in and out would not be possible. Maybe they were actually sized for the smaller aircraft of WWII, and their use was somewhat changed in a later time.

Between the hangars and the runway, you can find an impressive number of smaller maintenance buildings and garages, likely for trucks.

In some of them, a few signs in Russian can still be found.

Open air as well as indoor platforms for truck servicing are also there in a number.

Going even further towards the runway – and very close to it – you may find a light, partly wooden construction, with extensive remains of writings in Hungarian, including boards and stuff related to air operations. Here you see also some ‘modern’ writing in English. This is probably a kind o clubhouse of a local flying school from more recent years, likely the 1990s or later.

Looking at the satellite map of Veszprem airbase, you will notice a number of buildings put like spokes on a wheel. These were probably part of the original flight academy. These are today in a very bad shape, totally emptied and waiting for demolition. You can still appreciate the sober, yet stylish construction typical of the late 1930s, with some elements in common with Berlin Tempelhof (see this post).

‘Pravda’ paper was used for gluing the wallpaper in most Soviet bases, and Veszprem is no exception!

Farther away from the runway, you can easily spot massive buildings from Soviet times, like those you could find in Pripyat (see this post), and almost in every larger city of the former USSR.

Further buildings feature a rather peculiar style, with stone decoration you would not expect in military buildings. The fantasy of such decoration is not in support of a Soviet make, so these buildings might be from an older era too.

Getting there & Moving around

As said, this former airbase is technically an active airport, so the area of the runway is likely not safe to go. Yet the level of security is close to null, and you would likely be able to invade the air side before being stopped. However, no aircraft was spotted for the whole length of a multiple hour visit.

The older buildings, including the hangars, as well as the more modern housing from Soviet times, are in a really bad shape, and mostly dilapidated by looters and spoiled by writers. The more modern truck garages and the buildings closer to the runway are in a better shape.

Access by car from the south-western corner is not prohibited, so this may be a good way to get close to the buildings. Large parking opportunities, as the place is mostly unguarded and uninhabited. Just be sure not to interfere with local businesses. Even when spotting your car, the locals will not care about you (this was my case at least), so the place can be visited without much tension. However, for historians this place has not much left in store, and it may be visited mostly for the massive ensemble than for specific highlights.

Tokol Airbase

The former airbase in Tokol is today an active airport. The base used to be a major Soviet asset in the Cold War years, and home to a number of squadrons from the Soviet Air Force and the Soviet Army as well, operating everything ranging from helicopters up in size to transport aircraft. Its extensive premises have been divided, and the state is basically renting most of the hardware – including the former aircraft shelters and aprons – and land to a number of private enterprises, either connected with aviation or not.

The runway is still active for smaller general aviation aircraft, as you can see from the pictures. The place is really a suggestive scenario for pleasure flights, especially for history-fond pilots!

During our visit we had the chance to access some of the largest air shelters, built in the 1980s for aircraft the size of a MiG-29. There are at least five of them, along with more common and smaller ones.

Designed for the case of a scramble, these shelters allowed an aircraft to start its engines inside.

To this aim, the back of the shelter is not closed, but it features a large exhaust deflector tunnel, bent towards the side of the hangar, with a metal door closing it when not in use.

The front gate of the shelter is blast proof, an its thickness is actually really amazing!

The hangar we accesses shelters a couple of nice historic aircraft today. Traces of writings in Russian are a testimony of the previous owners.

Several abandoned buildings, including a rather large one with a small control tower, possibly from an older era – judging from the style similar to some German airfields from Hitler’s times (see this post).

One of the smaller shelters hosts another private enterprise, operating a unique airworthy Aero L-29 trainer from Soviet times. The same hangars offers a rich collection of Soviet signs on the walls.

Tokol features a number of older control towers – the reason is hard to guess…

Climbing one of them, we could get a very good view of the western part of the airfield, with many shelters around. Rather unexpectedly, the tower features an official writing in Chinese – maybe for potential Chinese customers?