On the eastern side of Hamburg Central Station(Hautbahnhof or Hbf), lies the Steintorwall bunker. Constructed by cut-and-cover during World War II and completed in 1943, this three-level bunker lies just outside the main station and is around 140 metres in length. It was built to accommodate 2,700 shelterers. Post-war it was impractical to demolish the bunker due to its proximity to the train station. It served briefly as a budget hotel but in the mid 1960s it was adapted for use as a nuclear bunker by the West German Civil Defence organisation. Five million Deutschmarks were spent on its conversion and its 150 rooms are a fascinating record of the tensions and technology of this period.
We entered down a staircase and squeezed through a surprisingly narrow gap. At floor level between two movable barriers was a pressure pad that recorded a count of those entering. Once 100 had entered, the barriers would have been hydraulically closed and remain so until those entering had successfully negotiated the air-locked blast doors beyond. These blast doors were our next port of call and turned out to be hydraulically operated.
Opening and closing of the doors is controlled from a secure control post with an H-shaped control gate that prevents both sets of doors being open simultaneously. The control post has a thick but tiny glass portal but the doors themselves can only be viewed through an angled mirror set in the air lock. The doors have been restored to full working condition and we lapped up the remote closing which concluded with a satisfying thud. All in all, it seems a costly installation for doors that would only have been operated on one occasion.
Fasten your seat belts Passing through the blast doors, the exceptional state of preservation of the bunker was immediately obvious. Ranks of seats filled most of the public space. Each seat had a rather incongruous train-style luggage rack and even had individual seat belts. Whether these were to protect against the shock of nuclear blast waves or to prevent people who fell asleep from falling out wasn’t at all clear! We were told that the Cold War plan was for those inside to stay underground for two weeks. Sixteen hours out of 24 would be spent sitting with the remaining eight spent in one of the adjacent dormitories. Whilst seating our host Jens showed some slides of the construction of the bunker and summarised its history which helped place the weekend’s visits in context.
A more comprehensive tour of the bunker then commenced. The dormitories had three-tier bunks and reduced lighting. The bed linen was the same as supplied to German railways (DB). Toilets were flush but there were no showers at all – not even for decontamination purposes. The toilet cubicles had curtains instead of doors. This was to discourage suicides as it was felt a semi-open space would discourage those so minded. Similarly the mirrors in the toilets were polished steel so that they could not be broken to provide glass shards.
Vital Services The vital services for the bunker came next. On the surface above the bunker was a multi-purpose concrete column. From the top down this provided:
- a base for the radio aerial
- the outlet for the diesel generator exhaust
- inlet point for diesel fuel
- emergency sewage ejection point if the normal sewers became blocked
In addition, water was supplied from an artesian well around 160 metres deep – hopefully well below any possible contamination.
We visited the ventilation plant which had an emergency hand-cranked backup and an assortment of filter banks. These started with large hoppers of sand which would reduce the temperature of the air as well as removing large particles. The (ex marine) diesel generator sat nearby with enough fuel for at least four weeks continuous running. One of the most surprising features was the tiny kitchen with just four domestic hot plates. We were told that dried rations would have been served along with soup from cauldrons that were no longer in place. Even so, providing hot drinks for over a thousand people would have been a significant challenge if not impossible.
Tours of this fascinating site can be pre-booked through not-for-profit organisation Hamburger Unterlwelten.