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.
Berlin has more airports than sense – Tegel, Tempelhof, Gatow, Oranienburg, Johannisthal, Rangsdorf, Brand, Sperenberg and Schönefeld to name but a few. But it just wasn’t enough.
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.
I think this is the first place you post about that I already knew about and wanted to visit. So, once again, your guide was of great value. Finally took a day to go there (and stretch at Wünsdorf-Waldstadt, quick comment there). We just went by car and left it parked in front of the main gates, walked around to the left and found the hole in the fence big enough to hop over. We were walking in the bushes and were about to get on the main road around the barracks when we saw a car ahead of us. The car was moving away, so we stayed in the bushes till it disappeared. We also decided to go through the bushes more to north (our aim was the round shaped tower building). At one point, I saw a dog running behind some barracks to the right. I shushed my bf to stop and told him. We kept walking carefully out of the paved parts when the dog came out of the corner of a barrack/warehouse. We all just stared at the each and the dog went back to wherever we came from. We sticked to the strategy of staying away from paved roads till there was no choice. We were already on that northernmost “street” that leads to the round (control?) tower and just kept walking till we reached it. When we were snoring around making pictures, 2 joggers passed us by and quickly stopped to check us out, but didn’t talk to us, so we stayed there taking pics. Apparently people use it for sports somehow (another entrance? friends of the watch guy?). They still ran us by again on their way back. We went back the same way we came, but all the way through the paved road this time (occasionally looking into one or other barrack, BE CAREFUL, look where there are shattered tiles in the warehouses, it means they fell from the ceiling!!!). A car with a man driving (and speaking on a phone, tsc tsc) a woman on the passenger seat passed us by, without any worry (since we were leaving anyway and we were still far, we wouldn’t mind being escorted out at that point). We still heard a guy coming with a 4-wheel motorbike from the railway near the gate. As we got really close to the point where we hopped the fence, I saw this old bloke with a car opening the gate from the outside! The watch guy? we just ran for our lives to the hole in the fence and to the car as he moved his car into the place, got out of it and was locking it again, looking at us with some surprise.
We have been there in May 2014, and in fact it was a real adventure. As we had been told there is security watching over the place, we thought it would be clever to enter from Kummersdorf walking thru the forest. At first it seemed to be a good idea, but after walking for about 20 minutes, we were intercepted by some guys in an old Jeep – at first we thought they are officials, as they were clothed in military uniforms, but after a few minutes of talking we we sure they were poachers.
After that encounter we were even more cautious, but when we arrived at the main road from the barracks to the landing strip, we nearly ran into a security guy driving along. When finally arriving at the runway, there were lots of people there with some cars and a truck. So finally we called it quits and left the way we had come… maybe we try again this summer.
This is a great place. I have been there a couple of times in the last few years and can say I have seen most of it, if not all. Surprisingly for me is that security encounters are very common on this place especially on the airfield.
Once I met the guy who ” … is a bit of a nut.” I had my bike with me so there was no chance of sneaking away through the forest. He got me. The lecturing, the “Oh, I did not know that this place is dangerous … ” and so on and it was ok. He told me that there was a club that makes tours for tourist to see the place. He handed me a flyer. They have a very narrow schedule of tours and I doubt they can fill the tours with tourists. And then the price … 15€, for 2-4 hours. That’s a lot for a place you can see for free by hiking.
On another visit I met the couple that Daniel talked of. They where nice, a bit lecturing, warning of the “real security” (obviously they have this and they do their job) and said “Just take your pictures and leave when your finished.” I asked them about the nut-ranger, and yeah obviously they think too he is one. The last visit was a bit more hectic. I decided to take my bike with me on the area, but generally I don’t think that this is a good idea – for any such places. I hid it in the overgrown area on the airfields near the control-tower. Then I took the long walk. I saw cars on the southern lake (the one with the concrete structures near the civil buildings) which I thought were fishers – no problem. Then I was on my way back to my bike, avoiding the paved roads. I heard strange noises, cars, tyres and motors and I thought “Great, there is race on the field.” Then I saw a car, silver gray, I recognized from the encounter with the nut. Obviously he saw me crossing a road. I did not want to meet him, in case he remembered me and my “Oh, this place is not supposed to be entered .. ” would not work. I sneaked away and he shouted something. Fine I am off. Just have to get my bike. I got it and thought “Fuck this, I am taking the roads now, let him find me and lecture me.” So I got my bike near the control-tower and took the road to the hangar a bit west. I did not saw the silver gray car, but I saw a guy at the hangar. I thought: “Tell him there is security on the place.” And then I realized he was not hiding at all, but talking to a cell phone. He had his back to me and walked out of my line of sight. I came nearer and saw a tractor engine with a trailer with several seats. I realized, that this was the tour they have on this place. “Damn.” I turned north, knowing that I have to cross the landing strip again, where the nut would patrol with his car. I was right. There he was, but on the other hand there was another car. “Damn, more security.” I crossed the road and thought I would turn into a paved road, but it was just a small place, next to the landing strip, and then forest. I tried the forest by bike and made 100 meters or so. Then I had to walk. I just wanted to make as much distance to the road as possible and walked deeper until I reached a field with high grass. There I had the hardest pain-in-the-ass-bike-carrying-and-stumbling-through-forest-ground-action I ever could imagine. But I got through it, I “escaped”. Finally the forest ground got better, I reached the fence, which around the airfield is just loose barbed wire – easy to get through even with bikes. I found the paved road north of the airfield, which is not part of the area, and I rode home.
This is a great website but I have to disagree with the suggestion to take the bike on the area. Unless, you can leave it there one night and come back to get it, or stay hidden until you find it is safe to get it. I won’t do that again. And don’t park your car in front of the main gate. It is an easy way of saying, that someone is trespassing on that area.
Follow-up post of the one before:
Finally a little update: On the main entrance (to Sperenberg) you can find information about the tour (dates, prices, durations). They are mostly in spring, summer and fall. I assume they are boring (and too expensive) as most of the tours of this kind are.
There is also a sign that says this area is under video surveillance. It could be that this is actually the case. On my last visit I could see a lot of wood cut around the really old buildings north west of the entrance. It looked very looked-after. After I wandered this area my trouble with the security usually began. This and the fact, that some of the buildings are being sealed (with wood) makes this site less interesting for me.
Anyway, a great place and if you are into these kind of places it is definitely worth a day or two.
Hi, The pictures are amazing! I’m a student at BTU Cottbus and for one of our projects we are collecting pictures and information about Kummersdorf. We need some help for getting good photographs of the military proving ground and hope that we could get permission from you to use some of yours. Is there an email for contacting you directly where I can send more details on the project and how the pictures would be used?
Hi L, sorry for the late reply. Best email address to get in touch is: explore at abandonedberlin dot com.
I have explored it several times but it has become much more difficult to avoid security. First there is obviously the nut ranger (he is former Volkspolizei cop) but a group of hunters and fishers also have set up a base camp in a former garage (near main entrance) where they stay overnight. An investor has then just bought a piece of land near the lake to erect luxury villas so there will be more activity. The club running the tours is also patrolling the site as someone allegedly acting on behalf of an investor has set several buildings on fire in an attempt to create facts on and clear more land – this is at least what one of the tour guides told me. With so much hassle to avoid encounters and the “club guards” on edge because of arson I decided to book the tour which was really good lasting five to six hours. The tour guides are former employees at the airbase and showed us places deep in the forest or inside buildings not mentioned in this post. If you speak German I would fork out the 15 bucks.
Thanks for this post and detailed comments.
I lived on this base 1976-1981 through my teen years, – my dad was stationed there. I always wanted to go back for a nostalgic tour, but it seems that it is becoming more and more difficult.
Shperenberg was the biggest Soviet airfield in Germany and it was built better than Schoenefeld. In fact, Soviet leaders like Brezhnev and others preferred to fly there and then drive to Berlin.
We had school, supermarket, book store, decent size medical facility, cultural center and various sport facilities on the base. It was probably on of the largest Soviet installations in GDR, trailing only perhaps to nearby Wunsdorf, which was a military headquarters for GSVG.
There was a daily train service Wunsdorf-Moscow and we had a bus shuttle to Shperenberg base from the station.
The whole area has a lot of military history, besides being an early testing site for Von Braun projects. There were rumors about underground torpedo factory that was flooded by nazis when Red Army got closer. There was a lot of WWII era artifacts in the surrounding woods – we spent a lot of time as kids in bunker ruins, exploring, finding all kinds of stuff….
There is a whole lot more info on Shperenberg on some of the Russian speaking forums, from other folks who served/lived there over the years.
Wow, thanks for your comment and sharing your memories!
Let us know if you ever do make it make for a nostalgic tour. There might not be as much to see as there once was, but nothing is impossible, and I reckon it’s still very much worth a visit. I’d love to hear more if you did make it back.
Thank you Traveller! For some reason I just saw your comment now. Thanks for the info.
Here is a video about the guided tours: youtube.com/watch?v=6HPOdRs1x-0
I was here recently. Absolutely fascinating. The sheer size of the place is incredible. I initially showed up at the gates of the former barracks on Puschkinstrasse. Entrance via the broken fence on the left was pretty straightforward, but the derelict Plattenbau buildings didn’t hold much charm. And, unless you bring a bike, you’re in for a long walk before anything gets interesting. So I drove clockwise around the towns to get to the southwest corner of the Flugplatz. From the end of the road it’s about 4 km of forest track parallel to the southern runway until you are at a point where you can walk about 300m north and stand at the western end of the runway. It’s absolutely amazing. Totally peaceful, with the only sound being the wind gusts through the trees. The runways and taxiways themselves are completely overgrown and it would take some effort to make this functional again, but it sure is an interesting place. I will leave exploring the airport buildings for another day, now that I know I can drive right into the place (albeit with a Land Rover, raised high). My only concern is the barbed wire fencing that has been pulled off the posts landing on the rut tracks. Seriously, if you wanted to dispose of a body in this forest, no one would find it. I only encountered two dog walkers, and this was in the first 300m off road.
Good afternoon. I lived there from 90 to 94… Nostalgia…
Went a few weeks ago – got in from the south side and had to walk through a forest, not too bad. Was beautiful once there! Like Tempelhof but open and surrounded by trees and empty. I left via the north main road, got caught and escorted out. Nothing bad though. Would not recommend entering by road.