Not far from Berliner Tor S-Bahn station lies a rough patch of land with some graffitied surface structures. These were the only visible signs of the fascinating Berliner Tor shelter. We descended down one of the stairways into what turned out to be a three-level Tiefbunker (Deep Bunker) which has a circular plan of around 20 metres diameter. It is unusual for underground bunkers to be circular but this is believed to be due to the limited space available in the small park it occupies.
Operation Gomorrah The bunker was originally constructed in 1940, located near the Berliner Tor station for civilian use. With walls two metres thick, its basement lies 11 metres below the surface. During operation Gomorrah, Allied bombing raids on Hamburg created a firestorm that killed perhaps 30,000 people in a single night. The centre of the firestorm was only a few hundred metres from Berliner Tor and the bunker saved the lives of up to 800 people. We saw photographs of the neighbourhood above after the raid that matched those of Hiroshima for the total destruction.
But although the concrete walls of the structure dated from World War II, everything else was updated in the early 1960s. At the beginning of the Cold War, a programme began for the construction of nuclear-proof bunkers for the population of Hamburg. The Berliner Tor bunker holds the distinction of being the first such example – in many ways an experiment – and was completed in July 1963. The fittings of the bunker are remarkably intact and so began our fascinating tour.
Berliner Tor has extensive seating for those sheltering. Because of the experimental nature of the structure, these are in three different designs so that the options could be evaluated. These include chairs of woven plastic string as well as wooden versions. Also unusual are the wedge-shaped bunks which are custom-made to make best use of the circular walls of the bunker. Both the chairs and the bunks are locked in place by pressure rather than screwed to the walls or ceiling. Near the entrance are two decontamination showers.
Glowing in the Dark The dormitory lighting was coloured blue as (we were told) the human eyelid is least sensitive to blue and so it was easier to sleep. There are toilets with curtain screening and a tiny kitchen area. As is traditional in German Cold War sites, we switched the lights off and admired the fluorescent paint glowing and indulged ourselves in a little light painting. The kitchen also had an original WWII cartoon – the German humour was a little incomprehensible to us but apparently it was part of a series that were dotted around to amuse children.
Plant and machinery were on the lowest floor to gain maximum blast protection. From a technical perspective, there was a 90 HP generator that powered the air-conditioning and lights. Around 21,000 litres of diesel were stored which should have kept things going for a few weeks. There was also a 24 volt supply for telephones and (a joke, we think) the doorbell! An artesian well for water and a sewage ejector pump which we heard operating dealt with liquids in and out.
A second ‘trial’ Cold War Bunker was built above ground in Dortmund and here triallists were paid so that researchers could evaluate the usability of the building. Volunteers were paid 50 Deutsch Marks a day for a week’s trial with a 150 DM bonus if they lasted the full week. At 1963 exchange rates, this was about £50 or around £1,000 in today’s money, allowing for inflation.
In a war situation, the only ‘employed’ resident of the bunker would have been a Bunkerward (Bunker Warden) who would have been distinguished by a white helmet, boiler suit, and a white gas mask (though the filter was a standard army green). The assumption was that those sheltering would have represented a sufficient cross-section of society to include other skilled workers. For these, arm bands were provided including (in English translation) Orderly, Nurse and Social Worker.
Law and Order The Bunker Warden himself would have maintained order within the shelter; to this end he carried a trenching tool which would have been used to quieten any disorderly residents. When we questioned whether this was indeed true, we were asked to suggest what other uses a trenching tool had in a building constructed of two metre thick concrete walls! Other equipment we saw included glass vials (similar to breathalyser kits) used to test the incoming air for poisons. The vials were labelled for example with Zyanid (Cyanide) or Arsen (Arsenic).
See-through body bags were also in evidence, one explanation being that it had been found the transparent version did not degrade as quickly when exposed to sunlight. The relevance for bags stored and used underground seemed a little tenuous. Being able to handle the artefacts and having their significance explained by our knowledgeable guide Ronald made an interesting visit fascinating.
Visits to this fascinating site are arranged by not-for-profit organisation Unter Hamburg.