The lost city and its nuclear secrets
Curtains flutter nonchalantly through broken windows, backs turned on barren rooms and hollow corridors, while outside giant empty bunkers stand shellshocked and still, doors creaking forlornly, their stash of deadly nukes long gone and with it their raison d’être.
Welcome to Vogelsang, where the Russians once had atomic weapons earmarked for Western Europe’s consumption, ready to launch at a moment’s folly in retaliation for a pre-emptive strike or in pre-emption of an imminent retaliation.
Construction at this 5,800-hectare site began in 1951 (one of the few complexes purpose-built by the Russians, most likely off plans seized from the Germans after the war) and the garrison became home to around 15,000 soldiers and civilians, some 550 buildings, a shit load of tanks, anti-aircraft missiles, tactical missiles and the most fiendish missiles of all – nuclear missiles.
Soldiers carried out maneuvers at night to avoid American surveillance, and locals had no idea what kind of shenanigans were going on behind those guarded walls.
As part of ‘Operation Atom,’ R5-M (SS-3 Shyster) missiles were brought here and to another base at nearby Neuthymen (Fürstenberg) by the elite 72nd RVGK Engineer Brigade in January 1959. The nuclear warheads followed in mid-April.
Four of the weapons were allegedly destined for England, to take out Thor (PGM-17) missile bases in Norfolk and Lincolnshire, while others were for US air bases in Western Europe and at population centers such as London, Paris, Brussels, the Ruhrgebiet and Bonn.
These things were HUGE, weighing 29.1 tons and reaching 20.74 meters, and over 20 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
Four mobile launching units and 12 missiles were ready for deployment between the two bases, capable of striking targets up to 1,200 kilometers away.
The East Germans were not informed, and the missiles were delivered under cover of darkness using back roads so they wouldn’t find out.
“The Soviet Army leadership did not give the GDR military leadership any information about the stationing of missiles in Vogelsang and Fürstenberg. In my position at the time as head of the GDR air force, I had no knowledge of any action of that type,” General Heinz Kessler said in 1999.
The Russians withdrew the weapons in a hurry after just a few months, in August, likely for political reasons with Nikita Khrushchev visiting American counterpart Dwight Eisenhower in September.
However, another sneaky deployment – this time with R-12 (SS-4 Sandal) nuclear missiles capable of reaching 2,000 kilometers – was supposed to have been sent here in 1961-62 during the top secret ‘Operatsiya Tuman.’
“Officers and career servicemen for a long time had no clue that the road ahead of them crosses the western border of the USSR and transited to the GDR,” reported the commander in charge, Colonel Vladimir Aleksandrov from Smolensk.
He left for Berlin on Sept. 17, going first to Wünsdorf, then up to Vogelsang and Fürstenberg with his sidekicks to make preparations for deployment.
Launch sites were constructed close to both bases, buildings and storage facilities built, communications equipment provided and slabs were laid for command vehicles, launch vehicles and technical batteries.
“Road signs were put up, repairs were made to the road bed and bridges were reinforced. Work was performed to camouflage both BSPs (launch sites),” Col. Aleksandrov said.
With preparations completed, he returned to the USSR on Oct. 11. The new independent missile regiment set up at Zhitkovichi (Belarus) underwent training over November and December before waiting another month for the order to leave for the GDR.
“Everyone agonized from the suspense. But the command to load up never came,” Col. Aleksandrov said. “On several occasions I reported to division command … but each time I got the same answer: ‘Wait. Increase the regiment’s training and combat readiness.’”
In the end, the Soviet Union’s production of the R-14 Chusovaya missile (SS-5 Skean), with its much greater range, eliminated the need for armed nuclear missiles in Germany, and Col. Aleksandrov was given the order to disband on July 12th, 1962.
Meanwhile, there was enough going on through the Cold War and beyond to keep Vogelsang busy.
The Red Army’s 25th Tank Division was based here and there were apparently further nuclear dalliances with the storage of TR-1 (SS-12 Scaleboard) missiles between 1983 and 1988. The Russians didn’t leave until 1994.
Now the Germans are wiping it from the face of the earth. It’s not so secret that they can leave it alone. Mechanical rubble makers have already chewed and chomped their way through a sizeable chunk of history from the north, while the forest is doing its best to reclaim the woodland it lost before construction began.
I entered through the south and promptly found a corpse. In the middle of a dark shed. A ram ravaged by wild dogs or a forgotten soldier. Teeth bared by lack of flesh in a permanent grimace, bones poking awkwardly toward the ceiling reaching for the spirit which left it behind.
Hordes of mosquitoes attacked to keep me from venturing further – must have been under Khrushchev’s orders – but there was no way I could turn back now.
Bunkers, bombs, battalions – all were present in my head as I searched for clues to secrets nobody wants me to know, hiding from time to time as I heard voices, other people perhaps, perhaps not.
Lenin was definitely there and more besides (electric fuse-boxes made by J.W. Stalin in Treptow, Berlin!) but despite a day picking my way through scattered roof tiles and scurrying from one building to the next, peering, poring, pontificating, I only made a scratch.
Interrupted by darkness and wolves, I didn’t see it all. I have to go back, I’ll go back.
UPDATE: Monday, November 24, 2014 – I went back, I had to go back. Vogelsang has a hold on me now and I actually went back a few times since my initial visit in May 2011. Each time I encountered different wildlife. It was wolves the first time, deer the next, boars another, and wild sheep on another occasion. I met ants on several visits, patrolling the site. Evidently army ants.
I made it into one of the nuclear bunkers and survived to tell the tale. I’ll tell the tale in another post if the radiation doesn’t get me first.
On the latest visit, a week or so ago, I could see that much of what I’d seen before is gone already. Not the bunkers – they’ll never get rid of them – but the commander of tank troops to the right of Lenin is gone, for example.
So, too, is the building with the magnificent full-wall mural of the Soviet soldier, family, tank, helicopter and factory buildings, along with whatever else the painters thought they’d throw in. The building should have been saved for that mural alone but Vogelsang has no Denkmalschutz to protect it.
There’s no political will to save it. It’s being destroyed so the forest can reclaim it. I don’t object to more forestry – far from it – but I really think the murals and Soviet artworks should be protected, even if it’s only wolves and their prey who get to admire them.
Despite its numbered days and dwindling attractions, Vogelsang is still very much worth a visit before it’s too late. The place is huge, still stuffed with remarkable treasures, and it will never fully erase the traces of its Soviet past.
LOCATION AND ACCESS (HOW TO FIND GUIDE)
- What: Kaserne Vogelsang. Soviet military barracks and top secret nuclear missile storage facility and launching site. This image gives you an overview of the site and run down of what happened where.
- Where: Vogelsang, 16792 Zehdenick, Oberhavel, Brandenburg, Germany.
- How to get there: Get the S1 S-Bahn to Oranienburg and then the RB12 (a weird little regional train that comes along every hour or so) in the direction of Templin. You might need to push the button to request a stop at Vogelsang train station. Bring your bike – Vogelsang itself is tiny, but the abandoned site you’ve come to explore is huge. One day is not enough, so if you’re brave or crazy enough you could always sleep in one of the buildings to continue exploring the next day. The site of interest is to the northwest of the train station. Map here.
- Getting in: Either hop the fence (quite easy) or cycle on until there’s no fence (even easier).
- When to go: Now. As I wrote, they’re intent on destroying anything remotely interesting around here. I mean, what harm is an abandoned Russian nuclear missile-launching site in the middle of a forest? They just can’t leave anything alone.
- Difficulty rating: 8/10. The main problem is getting here and the expense that incurs. Train tickets for human and bike (necessary because they do check) come to a whopping €18 or so return! The train ride from Oranienburg is about 30 minutes.
- Who to bring: Like-minded explorers. A Russian-speaker would be extremely useful for translation purposes.
- What to bring: Camera, torch, anti-mosquito spray, snack, bicycle, sleeping bag and more snacks if you’re overnighting. Maybe a bottle of Wodka for aul’ times’ sake. Phones don’t work here so perhaps let someone know where you’re going in case you don’t return after a week or two. They’ll know to send help, somewhere. Bring a map too! See below for a very useful one.
- Dangers: Some – scrap that – all of the buildings are in a bad way. Be careful etc. etc. and don’t trip over any atomic bombs or anything like that. Watch out for the mozzies in summer. In fact, you won’t need to – they’ll find you. Watch out for wolves and boars too. The wolves probably won’t hang around – they have a bad reputation but I’ve yet to meet one person who told me they were eaten by a wolf. The boars are only dangerous if confronted when they’re looking after their boarlets. Understandable really. The most dangerous animal round here is the forest ranger apparently. Some visitors returned to their car to discover that they the air left out of their tires. You have been warned. Check yourself for ticks when you get home. This goes for all these places out in the woods or where there’s tall grass. These little vampires just attach themselves without asking and help themselves to your blood. You wouldn’t even know they’re there. So do check.
Many thanks to Danish nuclear missile expert Martin Trolle Mikkelsen for background info on the Russians’ covert activities, to Frebbe for his maps and guidance over the years, and to the eagle-eyed Mark Rodden for providing copy editing duties once again!
Some further reading on Vogelsang…
- Col. Aleksandrov’s full account of the happenings in 1961-62: http://www.rngend.com/docspubweb/GC-MRBMkraszvezda16oct99.html
- The BBC filmed a clip at Vogelsang and have more info here: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-20079147
- Ian Hawkins wrote about his visit here: http://yearinberlin.com/2013/05/08/vogelsang-a-soviet-ghost-town/
- Der Spiegel have a short report lacking in much detail here: http://www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/a-photographic-journey-through-an-abandoned-soviet-military-base-a-843056.html
- Benjamin Busch wrote about Vogelsang and took some lovely pictures for Uncube here: http://www.uncubemagazine.com/blog/14820889
- Stefanie Trambow and Maxim Stepanov filmed an excellent documentary on Vogelsang, speaking with local residents and former soldiers who were here in its heyday. The film is called “Lenin in Vogelsang.”
Soviet shenanigans in East Germany
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.
Jüterbog and its military camps played host to soldiers’ charades, men playing with guns, for around 130 years before the last ones left in 1994.