Wünsdorf was,from around 1870, a Prussian Army shooting range but by World War I the area had gained railway access, a host of barracks and at 60,000 acres had become Europe’s largest military complex. By the mid 1930s, the base became the headquarters of the Wehrmacht – the Nazi armed forces, then post-war the Soviets took over and Wünsdorf became the headquarters of the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany (GSFG). Any remaining local residents were evicted and Wünsdorf became an isolated (and VAT free) Soviet city of up to 75,000 residents within Germany. Barracks, training facilities, shops, entertainment and sporting facilities were all created and most Soviets never stepped outside the complex apart from on exercise. Taking full advantage of the Nazi-era development of the site, the Soviets added to and enhanced it for their purposes. Walled off and with access tightly controlled, the place became known as the ‘forbidden city’.
Spitzbunkers Our coach first took us on a tour of the whole area, past GDR housing and the remains of some of the nineteen iconic spitzbunkers, designed to deflect bombs away from the 315 people that sheltered within each one. Some had been later dynamited by the Soviets creating sculptural remains of the tower peaks lying at seemingly impossible angles. Of note were the fortified bakery that churned out 20 tonnes of bread daily and the small provincial station that had, from 1970 onwards, a daily direct train to Moscow, such was the importance of this area known to many as ‘Little Moscow’.
Strenuous efforts by our organisers had secured us access to the site of the army sports school Wünsdorf, where athletes had trained for the 1936 Olympics and which was later used by the Soviets to house their officers, the obligatory statue of Lenin out front glowering over a parade ground. Our guides gave us access to the five storey school building, dating from Prussian times, along with the swimming pool, fencing school and theatre, all remarkably undamaged after 25 years of neglect. The Russians abandoned the Forbidden City rapidly in 1994, leaving behind vast quantities of ammunition and other waste; there are tales of them abandoning pets and, as if to add veracity to that, at the back of the theatre lies the desiccated remains of a dog.
Bunker houses Returning to the ‘book town’ of Wünsdorf-Waldstadt, the tour continued on foot to the Maybach 1 site of twelve bunker houses, made operational just one week before the outbreak of war in 1939 and named after the tank engine ( and luxury car) manufacturer. Built to simulate a normal house, each bunker was on four floors, the two below ground leading to a 600 metre ring tunnel that connected them and also gave access to the adjacent Zeppelin bunker. Made entirely of concrete, including the sharply sloped roof and with steel blast shutters protecting openings, the impression of normality was maintained by painting on windows and adding flower laden window boxes in summer, though later netting was used to hide the site.
General unrest Each block had a specific purpose, one was used for directing the armies in the East, one directed spies, one for the armies of the other axis powers and so on. Many of the key military figures of the Reich were housed here, though the Führer never visited, expecting the military commanders to go to him on demand, wherever he may be at the time. The literal and metaphorical distance helped fuel resentment and many of the plots to overthrow the leader began here, including that of Von Staffenburg; Adolf Hitler went on to refer to the Maybach 1&2 sites as the ‘swindle bunkers’. Bombed by the USAAF in 1945, the bunkers were later demolished as part of the Potsdam agreement prior to the Russians reusing the site; the surface structures are utterly destroyed though the ring tunnel beneath is largely intact, though out of bounds for this trip as we were too large a group to safely explore.
Prefabricated protection A short walk on from the Maybach 1 site, a door in the hillside led to a tunnel under the path to a mound in the trees. This single level single room training bunker, built in 1979, was constructed from pre-cast circular sections roughly 6m in diameter and dubbed the ‘Ikea-bunker’. Further on, bunker UK20 of the Soviet 16th air army, a T shaped structure also of prefabricated design, its three steel and concrete tubes of around 15m diameter embedded in the hillside using cut and cover and divided to give accommodation on two floors. Its dual height operations room would once have hosted massive state of the art screens that showed air traffic status across the Baltic and Scandinavia, the data gathered by a system of radars on the north coast. Outside, concrete pillars remain from the structures that hid the entrance, flanked by garages that made the area look like an ordinary vehicle depot.
Zeppelin/Ranet We finally arrived at the bunker code-named Zeppelin. This was the biggest communications bunker in the world for good reason, being for the supreme command of the Wehrmacht, the very nerve centre of a country at war on many fronts. Started in 1937, and using only German workers, no slaves, this structure was also one the most fortified of the period.
Above the 3m thick bunker ceiling layers of sand and a special stone packing called Zerschellschicht, designed to dissipate blast, made up the 5.5m thick overburden. Consisting of two adjacent and connected rectangular structures, one 117m x 22m with an ‘annex’ of 57.5m x 40m, this three level site has a floor area of 14,700 square metres. The bottom floor at 18m underground housed the services that, if required, would allow the bunker to operate autonomously for long periods. The floors above, at 14 and 16m, were for the telecoms kit and accommodation, though inadequate cooling and all the communications systems were operating 24/7 made the bunker an unpleasant place to work, regularly reaching over 100 degrees F.
Protecting active radio becomes radioactive protection Three tunnels ran from the surface and from the Maybach bunkers, giving access for the 150 workers per shift that started working there in August 1939. Abandoned without a fight and with all its systems still running on 20 April 1945, the Soviets stripped out the communications equipment for transport back to Russia, and in 1946 parts of the structure were blown up to satisfy the Potsdam requirements. Entrances were then blocked and the bunker became flooded, but in 1960 the Soviets decided to reuse the bunker in the role of communications centre for the GSFG, codename ‘Ranet’. Such was the scale of the bunker they were able to to devote space to a pistol firing range and a huge sauna, but still many rooms lay empty.
Serious protection Our entrance was through no less than seven blast doors of up to 2.5 tonnes each, into the extensive decontamination area added during the reactivation along with the NBC system designed to give 30 days protection. A spiral staircase took us down through the levels and into mostly empty rooms, some with remnants of the comms hardware. We were allowed into the lowest level which originally held plant and ventilation equipment, sadly mostly now lost.
Our guide, not used to people being so interested in the place, fretted volubly about the time we took taking photos, so we upped the pace to take in the entrances to the tunnels, the rooms full of abandoned equipment and the hole in the roof made during the demolition attempt, one conveniently large enough to lift comms equipment through. Our exit was via the 260m West tunnel, emerging out of an ordinary looking barracks building.
The core of the military area has rediscovered itself as a ‘booktown’ and also has cafes and small museums. Various tours taking in the bunkers on site can be arranged through Bücherstadt-Tourismus.