Having arrived in the town centre we could clearly see a submarine entrance on the opposite side of the bay. We were soon on our way to the submarine entrance but the adjacent pedestrian entrance was locked and clearly there was nobody at home. We found the office of the director of the museum (this was originally the office for the military unit handling the nuclear warheads) and were pleased to discover that there was a school party visiting later that morning and we could tag on to the end of that so at least we would get an opportunity to see inside although there would clearly only be a limited opportunity for photography. We tried to arrange a private visit with more time but this met with a frosty response from the director who was a ‘jobsworth’ and not very helpful. He said he would have to check with his bosses in Kiev and that we should come back and see him later in the day for their answer.
With a tour lasting an hour, it was clear we were only going to see a fraction of the facility. The base is divided into two areas north and south of the water channel with no underground connection between the two. The majority of the workshops, dry dock etc. are located on the north side of the channel but out visit was to the storage areas on the south side but first a brief history of the facility.
Having seen the wide spread destruction caused by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, Stalin ordered the construction of defence facilities to protect the Soviet submarine base at the port of Balaklava in southern Crimea. A nuclear burst over the town would have caused widespread devastation, including blocking the natural exit into the sea. In order to provide protection for the submarines of the Black Sea Fleet he ordered the construction of a massive underground complex for servicing and maintenance.
The harbour at Balaklava is an ideal location with easy access to the Black Sea. The base was built on western side of the bay with cliffs above reaching a height of 130m and providing ample protection for the installation below.
Construction started in 1954, not only at Balaklava but also under Sevastopol. When completed in 1961 it was given the codename Objekt 825. The base was designed to accommodate 1 division of the Black Sea Fleet, up to 10 submarines. Other Soviet Fleets (Pacific, Atlantic, Northern etc.) all had similar underground maintenance facilities.
The entrance to the base was a short distance into the bay from where an underground channel ran in a semi circle for 500 metres emerging back into the inner bay opposite and close to the military harbour, (Balaklava still has an active Naval base).
Inflatable pontoons were provided to block each end of the channel if required and just inside each entrance, huge blast doors could be lowered into place to completely seal the channel; these blast doors were 7m high, 10m long and 2m thick, the doors took 40 minutes to close. Externally, additional protection was provided by camouflage netting. The reinforced concrete walls around the base were 4.5 metres thick. At its widest the channel was 22 metres wide and 8.5 metres deep. The base covered a total internal area of 10,000 m².
The facility was designed to withstand the effect of a direct nuclear strike of up to 100 kilotons. There were heavy blast doors at all access points to seal off the inner area in the event of a nuclear threat thus enabling some 3,000 strong personnel to withstand a nuclear attack. But under ‘normal’ conditions some 150 personnel were employed inside the base, with a further 50 forming the permanent guard force outside.
The site was equipped with its own independent filtered air supply, powerful diesel generators for use in the event of a failure in the mains supply and underground fuel pipelines fed from tanks holding 4000 tonnes of fuel on the hillside above with an access tunnel unto the base. There was also an underground narrow gauge tramway for moving nuclear warheads around.
The base included workshops, munitions and torpedo storage facilities located on both sides of the channel. On the south side of the channel all the personnel were military while on the north side the majority were civilian but with a military unit servicing the submarines. In the centre of the facility there was a dry dock and beyond this the workshops. Every time a submarine entered the dry dock and water drained out, the personnel had to spend about 2 hours removing the fish from the bed of the dock, which had come in with the submarine. The fish were not returned to the sea, but decorated plates in Balaklava.
Offices and domestic accommodation was provided on an upper level accessed by stairs and a lift. The upper level included the reserve command post for the Black Sea Fleet, bakeries, hospital, mess halls, kitchens, bathrooms, shower rooms, recreation rooms and living quarters, for the personnel.
The estimated period of a complete overhaul of a submarine was a maximum of 3 weeks with the repair always running on time during 30 years of operations of the underground facility. Submarines always entered and exited the harbour at night, so the electricity in the town of Balaklava was regularly shut off during these hours of harbour maneuvering.
Following the end of the cold war, the base closed in 1991, much of the equipment was removed by the departing Russians while the remaining equipment including pipe work, cables, tanks, and all the metal objects including stairways and handrails were gradually removed illegally by local people.
We entered the base through an unimposing doorway at the back of a small builder’s yard adjacent to the museum offices. A small blast protected building in one corner of the yard housed the charges that would have been used to blow the installation up if required. A short distance inside the entrance a chamber on the right housed air conditioning and ventilation plant although it barely seemed adequate for such a large facility. Ahead of us was the first of many blast doors that would have sealed the base in the even of a nuclear attack. Beyond this we came to a crossroads with empty storage bays left and right for nuclear warheads and torpedoes. There was a narrow gauge tramway in the centre of the tunnel with a turntable and a small flat bed truck. Beyond the crossroads was a long curving tunnel that took us through several more blast doors, eventually emerging at the water channel; this was what we had come to see.
Once the school children had their look we approached the side of the channel where there was nothing to stop anyone falling in to the deep water, this would be a health and safety nightmare at a British museum. To the right we could see the open entrance into the inner bay that we had seen earlier and across the water the entrance to the dry dock, but clearly no access from this side. A narrow walkway stretched out along the edge of the channel suspended over the water, it looked safe enough but this was the end of the public tour so we clearly weren’t going to get the opportunity to see more.
As the children started to make their way back along the tunnel it was clear the leader at the front of the party had forgotten about us and it wasn’t long before the chatter of children’s voices could no longer be heard - we were alone at last. We could have stayed in there and explored everything on that side of the channel but that would have annoyed the museum staff who were probably waiting to lock up and go home; we didn’t want to spoil or chances of coming back later in the week. In any case it was clear that the majority of the base was on the other side with no access from our location. We hurriedly took some photographs and retraced our steps to the entrance before we were missed.
Back at the office, the director had gone home so we still didn’t know if an extended visit to the north side would be possible. In our absence, our host Tatyana had made a number of phone calls to ensure that we did get to see the more interesting northern side of the submarine base. We were left with two options; she had used her military connections to arrange a small naval boat to take us from Sevastopol to Balaklava and into the submarine base or we could go into the base with the museums chief guide for a fee. Having been there two days earlier we knew you could no longer get into the channel by boat and in any case the cost was prohibitively expensive so we opted for the second option. Tatyana had spoken personally with the museums director and was quickly able to persuade him to let us in, we don’t know exactly what she said but clearly she is a lady you don’t say no to.
We arrived back at Balaklava the following morning to meet our Russian guide. Yuri worked for the Russian Ministry of Defence for 25 years and at one time was chief engineer at the facility. There were no time limits and we had the freedom to go wherever we wanted on the north side. Unfortunately the upper level was no longer accessible as the stairs had been removed and the only possible means of access was by climbing up the narrow lift shaft - we left that for another day. There is some lighting on the north side and eventually the museum hope to open this up to the public as well but for now it is just as the illegal scrap merchants left it after stripping out the remaining fixtures and fittings.
Our point of entry was alongside the eastern entrance to the channel where a long tunnel eventually brought us to the dry dock. From there we made our way along the walkway alongside the channel to the western entrance. It is at this point that many of the vandals have gained access in the past. To prevent this happening in the future, the final 15 feet of the walkway has been removed and razor wire has been fixed to the top of the entrance blast door which has been dropped into the channel to stop boats getting in. Swimming is not advisable; the water is teeming with jellyfish.
We retraced our steps back to the dry dock and on to the workshops beyond, here virtually everything has gone apart from the bed of the huge lathe used for working on the main shaft of the submarines. Close to the east entrance there was another small ventilation plant room with its fan and trunking still in place but looking totally out of place in such a vast complex.
We made our way back to the entrance through a series of smaller workshops and storage areas where there was still quite a lot of Russian signage painted on the walls. There were a number of circuit diagrams and other notices relating to health and safety. One such sign read “When you come to work with weapons and ammunition handle them very carefully. Failure to observe the regulations is inadmissible because you can cause accidents”. At the end of the workshop area there were a number of small blast doors back into the entrance passage.