Flugplatz Sperenberg and Kummersdorf
Explosive military secrets
Few airports are in sorrier state than BER, aka Flughafen Berlin Brandenburg Willy Brandt, so over delayed and over budget most believe it will never open at all.
Arguably in better condition is the long-abandoned Flugplatz Sperenberg (Sperenberg Airfield), once considered the ideal site upon which to construct BER until the powers-that-be opted to build Berlin’s shiny new super-duper airport beside the existing one at Schönefeld.
BER was supposed to open on October 30, 2011. Then June 3, 2012. Then March 17, 2013. Opening dates were pushed back and back until dates were announced for opening dates to be announced. Now they announce dates for the announcement of opening-date announcements. The only thing to have taken off there are the costs.
Sperenberg, on the other hand, was completed years ago, presumably within budget. It’s an accidental airport – perhaps that’s the secret of its success. BER wanted too much, too soon.
Like Tempelhof and many sites beside, Sperenberg Airfield began as a Prussian military facility, based in the Kummersdorf area. Apparently the army’s shooting range at Tegel became too small as shooting distance increased and so around 800 hectares of Kummersdorf forest was chosen in 1873 for a bigger shooting range. I suppose the neighbors had been giving out about the stray bullets at Tegel.
A railway line was built from Berlin-Schöneberg to Kummersdorf-Schießplatz, and it opened on Oct. 15, 1875. They could get things done in those days! There were two daily trains initially.
The army began shooting at the new shooting range in 1877 and it quickly developed in the following years to take in 3,000 hectares, becoming the fledgling Germany’s most important military testing facilities, the Heeresversuchsanstalt Kummersdorf.
By the time the First World War rolled around, it was the biggest military testing area in the world. Built by Krupp in 1914, the Dicke Bertha (Big Bertha) howitzer or heavy siege gun was tested at Kummersdorf. A 12-kilometer shooting lane 250 meters wide provided soldiers ample space for trying out mortars and grenades.
Renowned Nazi rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, who later contributed massively to the Americans’ rocket and space program, tested his initial A1 and A2 liquid-fueled rockets at Sperenberg in the early 1930s before he moved operations to Peenemünde at the Baltic. The first rocket was allegedly powered by potato schnapps. What a waste!
Von Braun’s work for the Nazis didn’t go to waste, though. After the war, he was welcomed with open arms by the US Army via Operation Paperclip. He graduated to NASA and helped the Americans reach the moon by developing the Apollo-carrying Saturn V rockets.
Kummersdorf’s importance for testing military equipment only increased between the World Wars. Hitler visited in 1939 to see a few rockets being fired. Apparently he was unimpressed. Von Braun’s experiments with liquid-fueled aircraft were supported by Ernst Heinkel, who had set up the Heinkel Flugzeugwerke in 1922 and became the go-to man for German warplanes. Heinkel had a plant at Oranienburg among others.
Tanks, both domestic and foreign captures, were also tested at Kummersdorf. There was Versuchsstelle Ost (Test Center East), Versuchsstelle West, Versuchsstelle Hegesee, where watercraft were tested, and Versuchsstelle Gottow, where Kurt Diebner worked on the Uranprojekt, Germany’s attempt to create atomic weapons.
Several significant experiments took place at Gottow, to the southwest of Kummersdorf. Diebner’s efforts, which lasted to the end of the war, and those of colleagues working on the same project, did not bear fruit on time, though one historian, Rainer Karlsch, claimed that up to 700 people died in three nuclear weapon tests on Rügen and in Thuringia between 1944-45.
Der Spiegel cast doubt on his claims, and if anyone should know about making false claims, it’s Der Spiegel.
Gottow today is an idyllic village. It was bathed in otherworldly sunshine when I cycled through. The road into it is aptly called “Damm” and there was nothing acknowledging Diebner nor his dabbling, just three wooden Easter rabbits incapable of contemplating the “what if” of a German atomic bomb.
The Red Army took over the whole Kummersdorf military area after the war, and it was under the Soviets’ watchful eyes that Sperenberg assumed importance as an airport. They hadn’t paid much attention to it at first, using it for training just about any time they were bothered, and it wasn’t until 1958 that construction on the airfield began.
Apparently there was a bit of wrangling with the East Germans, whose land they were in effect occupying and controlling, over who should pay for the damn thing. In the end they settled the costs between them to avoid turning the already-running Schönefeld into a dual civilian-military use airport.
Sperenberg developed until it became a Soviet town in itself. Wherever the troops found themselves, infrastructure followed. There were schools, supermarkets, a hospital, cinema, bowling alley and (I assume) bars, tending a population of more than 5,000 soldiers and civilians at peak times.
The airport was consistently busy through DDR days with both cargo and passenger flights. There were also daily trains to Potsdam and Moscow.
Massive planes like the Antonov An-124 Ruslan and Antonov An-26 used to land here, along with helicopters that must have driven the neighbors nuts. If it wasn’t Krups testing Dicke Bertha or Von Braun firing rockets it was the Soviets making a racket. The Sperenbergers were driven sper. They were also kept at bay.
“We knew nuthin’ about what happened here,” said Kummersdorfer Werner Nietschmann. “We could only go in after the Russians left.”
They wouldn’t have known about DDR chief Erich Honecker’s last night on German soil at Sperenberg before he was flown to Moscow in 1991. Honecker, who was suffering from liver cancer, was admitted to Beelitz in December 1990 as the vultures of justice were circling,
His country no longer existed, and with German reunification, the Soviets’ reason for staying disappeared too. They managed to hold on a couple of years more before reluctantly leaving in 1994. An Antonov AN-12 was the last plane to leave.
Flugplatz Sperenberg has been wasted ever since. Now there are only flights of fancy. It’s sometimes used for motor test purposes but of course this is no consolation to a demoted airport.
It was deemed the most suitable site for Berlin’s new main airport because of the existing facilties and low impact on neighbors, who, let’s face it, must be used to noise by now, but the lunatics took over the asylum and we’re waiting instead for an airport that will never open.
Meanwhile, Sperenberg shakes its head and the rest of Kummersdorf’s ruins crumble and fade. The place is absolutely stuffed with them. I only made a scratch. I have to go back, I’ll go back.
LOCATION AND ACCESS (HOW TO FIND GUIDE)
- What: Sperenberg Airfield and the military area of Kummersdorf. Former Prussian and German military testing centers and shooting range, taken over by the Soviet forces after the Second World War. They made Sperenberg their main military airport from 1958 until they left in 1994.
- Where: Flugplatz Sperenberg, Sperenberg, Am Mellensee, Teltow-Fläming, Germany.
Kummersdorf-Gut (formerly Kummersdorf-Schießplatz), Am Mellensee, Teltow-Fläming, Germany.
- How to get there: Regional trains go every hour or so to Wünsdorf-Waldstadt from Berlin Hauptbahnhof, Gesundbrunnen and Südkreuz. The journey takes around an hour. They used to go every half hour but Deutsche Bahn just love screwing up their services. You’ll need to cycle when you get to Wünsdorf-Waldstadt or Neuhof, the next stop, a little bit closer. It’s a good cycle – 11 kilometers or so – and of course you’ll need to cycle back.
For the former airport, find Puschkinstraße in Sperenberg, cycle past the Anne Frank Grundschule on your left, and everything else, until you get a gate. That’s the entrance, though not necessarily your entrance. See below. Here’s a map of the general area.
- Getting in: Depends where it is you want to get in to. Flugplatz Sperenberg is easy enough if you follow the wall along the side until you find a broken section and hop in. You’ll find barracks initially. What’s left of the airport buildings (not much) will be off to your right, a long walk away. Consider bringing your bike with you, if it’s a sturdy one, and cycle down the road until you hit the runways. Watch out for the yellow-toothed park ranger. See dangers below.
If you’re going to the Heeresversuchsanstalt just hop over the gate and have a wander. A Eurasian eagle-owl named Jule was standing guard when I passed by.
The Kummersdorf Museum also occasionally arranges tours if you want to shell out €15 and miss out on the excitement of sneaking around. I guess they’ll tell you things about the place you wouldn’t otherwise hear. There are pros and cons to both approaches.
- When to go: Go during the day so you can see stuff. Give yourself plenty of time as you’ll have a long day of cycling and exploring ahead of you.
- Difficulty rating: 6/10. The sheer size of the area to be covered presents the biggest difficulty. I can imagine that there will be mosquitos in summer.
- Who to bring: Like-minded explorers and fitness freaks. Best to leave your chubby barfly friends back in their comfortable bars. They won’t thank you if you drag them along. Have a good think about it before you drag yourself along, too.
- What to bring: A bite to eat, a bottle of water, beer, camera, torch, mosquito repellent in summer and possibly a compass. I didn’t have compass. A map of the area would be really useful too. I didn’t have a map. I must read this the next time I go…
- Dangers: There are the usual dangers of roofs landing on your head. Be careful. Apparently you also need to watch out for discarded munitions and things that could blow up when you step on them. The last thing you want is to get killed standing on a mine. If you stick to the main paths you’ll be fine, though then you’re more likely to be nabbed by the ranger. He was parked by the lake beside the Flugplatz when I noticed him first, but he later came flying around the corner in his car as I was walking along with a companion. He’s obviously a bit of a nut. He had a pinup stuck on his front bonnet. He turned the engine off and lectured us about walking where we shouldn’t be walking. He seemed to really enjoy it. He wasn’t looking for money or anything, just advised us strongly to go back the way we came before “security” found us. We made like we were leaving, then carried on when he was out of sight. Just stay vigilant, don’t be talking loudly or shouting like an idiot, and you should be fine.
Airports brought back to earth
West Berlin’s lifeline during the Soviet Blockade, Tempelhof Airport has since become the city’s biggest park. Berliners will fight to keep it that way.
Germany’s Luftwaffe used Flugplatz Schönwalde for the war. The Soviets took over afterward and left their traces after abandoning the airfield in 1992.
Flugplatz Brand was strategically important for the Soviet Air Force. Thankfully its battalions of flying fighters remained on ice for the duration of the Cold War.