Day Trip to Altengrabow, Germany. November 11th 2003.
That the budget airlines offer cheap flights makes it very difficult to resist excuses to visit locations in eastern Germany at the flimsiest excuse. We knew that the former Soviet base at Altengrabow near Magdeburg was due for demolition, so when Dan announced he was thinking about buying a Trabant Kübel (an NVA model; a convertible!) which was up for sale in Barleben, a couple of Kms north of Magdeburg, we convinced him it was definitely worth a close inspection, and basically went along too.
A large Sub Brit group had visited the huge Altengrabow site back in April 2001 on Mike Barton’s first German Bunker Tour, and at the time a few of us vowed to return in order to photograph the multitude of above-ground buildings. On that occasion Mike had obtained permission for us to enter and explore the derelict communications bunker located at the rear of the 'domestic' site and as Mike had a tight schedule to keep to, we only had a short time to look around the myriad of surface buildings.
News had filtered through that the German authorities shortly intended to demolish the site, so - spurred into action - we contacted Mike in Germany and asked whether he could arrange entry to the closed site for us. Mike kindly arranged it, and said he’d come along too as he wanted to take a few photos himself. Game On !
We felt that we could accomplish the two goals – i.e. Trabbie Kübel inspecting, and Soviet building photographing – within a day, so Ryanair tickets and a rental car were booked. Dan, myself (Tony Page), Robin Ware and Nick Catford mentally prepared ourselves for a day trip to Germany; which in real terms meant getting up at 0330 to get to Stanstead for the 0630 flight to Berlin, and back at half past midnight. Best Laid Plans...
Arriving in Berlin at 0930, Schonefeld airport was dispensed with with its usual ease and we departed from the car park with our hire car and headed straight for Altengrabow, 20kms east of Magdeburg, where we met Mike. Nick, Robin and I spent the next four hours systematically hotographing the former Soviet base’s buildings some of which, it has to be said, were in a perilous state. The base is vast. There are literally hundreds of buildings which made up this huge Soviet Training Area and ammunition storage site.
During the Cold War it was under the control of the Russian Third Shock Army based at Magdeburg. The Third Shock Army - the powerful armoured fist of the Soviet Western Group of Forces, which was tasked with clearing the way for the seven-day trip to the English Channel which the Russians had planned for themselves and their East German friends - had four tank divisions and one motorised rifle division. In order to prepare for this, the Russians made ample use of the Altengrabow Training Area (8 x 12 km). In fact, the location is much more than just a training area. Altengrabow was home to some thirty units, varying in size from a divisional HQ, via a missile brigade, numerous air-defence units (also missiles), armoured units, motorised infantry plus several signal functions. Back in 2001, our Sub Brit tour visited the rather impressive comcen (communications centre) bunker up in the corner of the Training Area.
All of this military might requires a lot of ammunition. Like the East German armed forces (NVA), the Russians never went anywhere without having their full war-time ammunition levels with them, i.e. vehicles were permanently armed and bombed-up and ready to go. Despite this, they still managed to require an extensive munitions depot at Altengrabow (also visited in 2001) to provide an immediate reserve for their possible needs. The depot included a special weapons store, i.e. for nuclear munitions. (see the Sub Brit web site for the original trip report and photos)
All of the units naturally required accommodation for their soldiers, so large areas on the perimeter were taken up with massive three-storey accommodation blocks and supporting facilities (canteens, garages, supermarkets, shops, sports halls, heating plant, etc.).
The Training Area has now been taken over by the Bundeswehr, (German Army) which has built its own accommodation blocks. The Training Area proper is still used for armoured training, but most of the former Soviet buildings are empty and unused, and are slowly falling down. The future does not look good for the site: no-one has a use for poorly constructed buildings whose fixtures and fittings have all been removed, some being returned home to Mother Russia and some being used to improve the lifestyles of the local community - so the decision has been made to return the area to its former wooded state.
The buildings will eventually all be demolished. On our original 2001 visit to the comcen we had little time for this side of military life, hence this one-day photography trip.
As we got on with the serious business of photography, the British Army were to be heard putting some large-calibre automatic weapons through their paces elsewhere in the area. Mike assured us that they knew we were there...
The date was November 11th, and a few seconds before 1100hrs (British Time) the firing stopped and there was absolute silence all around. The Sub Brit Team had brought a poppy or two, and I placed my one under a tree at the appointed hour and spent two minutes in quiet reflection.
Dan and Mike went off to view the object of Dan’s desire, arranging to meet the rest of us outside later. Given that the base was so large (50,000 troops) we had our work cut out in the photography dept. We split up, in order to cover the most ground. The weather was absolutely ideal: perfectly clear, sunny, pretty cool but not really cold. A fantastic day, beautiful.
At the centre of the complex, surrounding the parade ground, are located five multi-storey barrack blocks and one large gymnasium. The barrack blocks have been comprehensively stripped; flooring has been lifted in places, light fittings gone, windows are falling out and the very basic toilets are gone - it must have been a strange sight to see heavily laden army Zils trundling back to Russia loaded up with used toilets and sections of flooring but recycling of this nature was a necessity at the time. It is possible to climb on to the flat roof of the barrack blocks and from here one can get a good view and even better impression of the parade ground with its Birch trees and scrub now covering up the evidence of the former tenants. A brisk march from one end of the parade ground to the other brings you to the gymnasium. It is now an almost empty hall with remnants of netting draped from the high ceiling and large sporting motifs stencilled onto the walls. An uneven staircase made from scrap iron leads up the outside of the building to the projection room high above the floor below where no doubt many a stirring and patriotic film was endured by the reluctant conscripts seated below.
Further exploration of the site uncovered what we presumed to be the sauna or washrooms - but it can be difficult to positively identify some of these structures as years of neglect, 'borrowing', and the fact that they weren't the best-built buildings in the world has left them in a distressed state. Standing out from the decay inside was the odd sight of two sets of Olympic rings, their colours still bright, mounted in a steel framework surrounding an indoor garden complete with soil and topped off with decorative wall art and posters of exotic locations and palm fringed beaches. Bizarre.
Most of the remaining buildings are now empty shells, some of them I suspect were probably built using the foundations of the former WW2 Stalag 11A PoW camp originally located here, but positive identification of these particular structures is difficult. (Altengrabow was a PoW camp in both WW1 and WW2.)
We wandered around the large U shaped dining hall, complete with its inspiring mural at one of the end walls, located off to one side of the domestic site and behind this was the building containing the coal-fired heating plant for the whole site. This hasn't changed much in the intervening years between our first visit and the present time.
Fortunately, these military sites do not suffer excessive vandalism and graffiti which is present in far too many British sites. Germans may occasionally visit these buildings but they do not seem to need to let everyone know that 'they were here'. Leading out from the heating plant were various ducts, jointing pits and underground pipeways. Near to the heating plant building we found a vast empty building with signs of large machine beds and exhaust extraction equipment mounted on the ceiling. This, we deduced, was the main generator building. There were odd tiled bays located across one end of the building whose purpose remains unknown, at the other end of the building was the main air intake which contained water-based chilling equipment and filters. Set into the floor approximately half way down the building was a large pit with staircase down leading through a short passage into a separate room next door. Quite why this was specified in the original design is a mystery to us as its only apparent purpose appears to have been to enable engineers to inspect the underside of a large piece of equipment and to access this inspection pit from and adjoining room.
We returned back towards the main barrack area and spotted a large Beech tree with initials carved deep into its ageing trunk. Most of these inscriptions carried dates from the 1950s and we assumed that these referred to the birth dates of the bored conscripts who whiled away their time on this tank base miles away from their homeland. It must be borne in mind that the vast majority of this sites' residents never ventured outside its high fences except, perhaps, on military manoeuvres. At the far end of the site we found a very small sauna attached to a garage, complete with its rocks still over a fireplace. A path could still be traced down to the nearby lake where the steaming officers would no doubt rapidly cool down once they had broken the ice off of the water!
Walking around in the deserted base, my thoughts kept drifting back to those Former Times. The Russian soldiers had arrived here on a three year posting by train, with their tanks and equipment from the four corners of the Soviet Union. Altengrabow was their home for the next three years, and in the main they weren't allowed to leave the base. The lucky few brought their families to live in the blocks of flats built on the outskirts of the main barrack area; the rest lived in the huge multi-storey barrack blocks around the parade ground, now awaiting demolition.
Life here must have been bleak, but better than to be found back in the USSR – so in 1989 when the wall came down many stayed behind preferring post- cold war Germany to the uncertainties of the Motherland.
As we walked round the site with its abandoned buildings obviously in a state of utter decay, it was impossible not to notice how poorly the buildings were constructed. All were built to a very low standard, with the unique soviet bricklaying technique that seems to defy gravity, staircases with varying and uneven tread, built on site from what ever was available. Grim.
After over four hours, and countless reels of film (Robin, being fully Digitised, dismissed my 35mm film as ‘so last century’...), a frantic mobile phone message from Dan told us that he was coming back (as a non-Trabant owner...) and that Mike had divulged the fact that if we wished, we could have a look in another Soviet bunker at Wünsdorf. “...If we wished” ? Sorry?
The photography took on a further sense of urgency and, with job totally done, we piled into the car and raced (really!) back to Zossen Wünsdorf, a familiar area for us now. The quickest cars really are Rental Cars aren’t they..
Wünsdorf was the HQ of the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany (GSFG), aka in its later days as Western Group of Forces (WGF), in contrast to the Northern Group in Poland (NGF), the Central Group in Czechoslovakia (CGF), the Southern Group in Hungary (SGF), and the North-Western Group (NWGF) in the Baltic countries. WGF incorporated both land and air forces (Note: Mike Barton will talk at the Sub Brit Spring Conference 2004 and provide more details. Book Now ! ). Each of the forces had their own HQs for war purposes. As described in an earlier report, the WGF HQ had its main bunker in Wünsdorf in the form of the ex-WW2 bunker ‘Zeppelin’, which operated under the Russians with the callsign ‘Ranet’.
As we arrived at Wünsdorf, Mike told us about this other bunker in the complex. He explained that the airforce, 16 Air Army, had its bunker some 200 yards away from ‘Ranet’ in a separate complex, which it shared with the WGF Air Defence (PVO). The callsigns in use here were ‘Okean’ for 16 AA, and ‘Nikel' for the PVO (Note: Mike Barton and his group in Germany always refer to identified Soviet bunkers by their callsigns as the callsigns were in permanent use by WGF comms and HQ personnel, whereas the geographical location often had three names: the official Russian version, the official German version, and the version from the locals who actually lived nearby. Hence a town or village name is not always a clear identifier.)
The 16 AA / PVO complex was termed UK 20, UK being the Russian abbreviation for bunker (in this case), but ‘20’ is still a question mark.
Having been given the keys to the area and bunker by the custodians of the site, we drove through various locked gates and right up to the bunker entrance. The entrance had been buried and comprehensibly blocked after the Soviet withdrawal, and it was obvious that very few – if any – non Russian eyes had seen inside this bunker for many years. Now revealed, we stood in the half light absolutely gagging to get down there. Well you would, wouldn’t you?
Suitably attired, in we went. UK 20 is semi-submerged: you enter at level two from the side into a long corridor. The services and support bunker is to the left, and the 16 AA and PVO bunkers go off to the right from the main corridor. There was obviously a need for these two services (at the time, air defence - PVO - was deemed to be a separate service) to co-ordinate their (inter)actions, but at the same time each of the services has its own intensive input, either from the fighter divisions and regiments in action in the skies, or from the extensive radar network (comms inwards) and the traffic going to the AD missile sites (comms outwards).
The two operational bunkers in UK 20 are very similar in design, with offices for their respective staffs on both levels. Both blocks are of the aircraft-shelter type, i.e. semi-circular ferroconcrete segments bolted together to the desired length. A two-level construction was then ‘inserted’ - brickwork or prefabricated concrete slabs - to the edges so that the finished bunker has narrow corridors running down the outside of the rectangular construction within the semi-circular shelter. The constructions also have their own main corridor, with rooms going off on each side.
In each case, the two ops bunkers contain a command post and a major situation room, the latter being formed by simply cutting off the upstairs level and leaving the end wall open, so that you can look down into the lower level. Projectors would have operated from level two to beam onto the end wall of the bunker, which would also have been used as a map wall (in fact, there are a few rooms also located behind the ‘map wall’ before you actually reach the final end wall of the bunker). Staff officers would also have been located on level two to be on call for additional information.
Mike tells us that there were plans in hand to relocate this complex due to its vulnerability and its proximity to the main, Ranet, bunker. However, time and history put an end to the construction work.
Inside, there was quite a lot of junk lying around, but the bunker had been pretty well stripped by its former tenants. The generators were gone, as was anything else of value. There was, however, much paperwork there. Mike harvested anything of interest. We spent some 90 minutes investigating every nook and cranny, and Nick’s photographs will tell more than my words ever could. When he puts them on the website, check it out.
The bunker was dry, and undamaged inside. We found the various emergency exits, (now securely fastened) and went into every room. There were a few Soviet-era posters on the wall (no longer...) plus many original signs and labels on doors etc. There was no vandalism-style graffiti as nobody, in our opinion, had ever been down there.
For us, The Trip was Nearly Over, so we exited the bunker, handed back the keys and just managed to wolf down a quick meal in a nearby restaurant before blasting back to the airport for the – delayed – flight home.
It was a brilliant, if very hectic, day which – having got back home at 2am - ended up being another 24hr session. Okay, Dan never got his Trabbie, but we got to see a bunker none of us knew existed. Reasonable deal then.
Our thanks go to Mike Barton for services far beyond the call of duty, Herr Küchemann, the forester Altengrabow and Herr Bochert at Zossen Wunsdorf.
Trip Report By Tony Page