Sunday, 24 November 2013

Vogelsang - The Lost Soviet Town & Missile Base

"... Und die Vögel singen nicht mehr" _ Rammstein, 'Ohne dich', 2004

The tiny station of Vogelsang on the line from Berlin to Templin is in the middle of nowhere.
It doesn't have a proper platform, and should anyone want to alight there, they would have to press the Haltewunsch (stop request) button to alert the train driver. And so when one grey autumn morning, a group of sixteen English-speaking cyclists of many different nationalities held the train up at Vogelsang whilst they unloaded their bikes, the train Controller naturally stared bemusedly at them with a face that asked the German equivalent of 'where the F*** are they off to?

Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore,
Even the graffiti is in Russian. 
Where the f*** we were off to was a place that few know about, and even fewer knew about in the past even though 15,000 Russians lived there. That place is the abandoned garrison town of Vogelsang proper, written Фогельзанг in Cyrillic, which means 'birdsong' in English.

I read the news to day, oh boy.
Pravda wall-paper dated 12th March 1985
Work began in 1952 in building a garrison for the Soviet army of occupation - at the expense of the East German State - and it was further extended to become a town in 1954 when the GSSD (Gruppe der Sowjetischen Streitkräfte in Deutschland - Group of Soviet Forces in Germany) moved in to stay and build a community.

Not your usual Immobilien Scout 24 photo
Stationed at Vogelsang were the staff and families of the 25th Tank Division of the 20th Guards Red Banner Army (itself based at Eberswalde). During the time until the GSSD was disbanded in 1994, Vogelsang was also home to:
The 162nd Armoured Regiment
The 803rd Motorized Infantry Regiment
The 1702nd SA-6 Anti-Aircraft Regiment Tactical Missile Unit (more about that further down this blog).

They were part of the Soviet Block's land-based vanguard against NATO forces. Even as late as 1991, the GSSD consisted of 338,000 soldiers stationed in Germany, with an additional 208,000 relatives and civil employees that included 19,000 children. The main base of the GSSD was in Wünsdorf, south of Berlin, now incorporated into the city of Zossen. Vogelsang was the second largest settlement of Soviet forces and covers a large spread-out area that also included Stütznachrichtenzentrale (StNZ) 721, a 'support message centre' that coordinated wireless, cable and telephone messaging between the various military units in the northern area of East Germany. If you are visiting Vogelsang, you are strongly advised to bring a bike, it is so widespread.

The GSSD was formally disbanded on 11th June 1994 in a ceremony at Wünsdorf, followed by a further ceremony at the Soviet Memorial in Treptower Park, Berlin, on 31 August 1994. This marked the end of a Russian military presence on German soil.

As we wandered around the civilian part of Vogelsang, we saw surviving evidence of day-to-day life in the town, including a ruined cafe with ice-cream decorations in the window:

Cafe and Ice-cream parlour
But even here, the ghost of Lenin looked sternly on:

As well as reminders of the military presence of the 25th Tank Division:

Nearby there is an abandoned theatre, to which somebody has added some chilling graffiti:

Former theatre
You can just imagine in its day, officers and their wives all dressed up for an evening's entertainment sipping drinks in the foyer:

Former theatre
There were schooling facilities for the children too. These next few photos were taken inside the empty class-rooms and corridors that must once have echoed to the sound of Russian kids learning their alphabet and the history of their homeland a thousand kilometres to the East.

Can someone open a window?

Fairytale montage in the former school

More open windows in the school

School 'black' board

Another school mural
At Vogelsang there is a gymnasium decorated with reminders of the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics. Though I suspect that this carefully arranged coat and chair was more a reminder that we weren't the first Urban Explorer photographers to discover Vogelsang!

In the gym
The detritus of an abandoned life-style left behind are still all around though. Here is a child's record book of their sporting achievements.

Gym record
The first rule of Urbex (urban exploration) is never to take anything away with you (and not to bring anything in): your job is to record, not destroy. Saying that, whilst we were there we heard a continuous banging and crashing noise. On tracking down the source, we found a young man breaking up floors and doors who said he was going to use the materials he had scavenged to make recycled furniture to sell. Good luck with that, mate! The only other people we came across were one or two families out for a Sunday afternoon mushroom picking.

The gym once had a basketball court, but I wouldn't fancy running and leaping around on these floor-boards any more.

The former gym

The former gym

Misha, the mascot of the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics
Another place we discovered looked like it used to be a cinema:

The former cinema
Screen number one didn't look like it was going to be showing any films ever again:

The former cinema
You could go up to the projection room though (if you were careful on the steps).

Stairs at the former cinema
There is Russian writing everywhere. This, on a row of abandoned storage sheds once used for grain, is repeated in German. So I presume that there were also local East Germans living and working here as well.

No smoking!
We've not come to Vogelsang's biggest secret yet, and that is that the Tactical Missile Unit stationed here had missiles ready for deployment that were armed with nuclear warheads.

In 1959 massive R-5M nuclear-armed missiles were secretly brought to Vogelsang. With a range of 1,200km they could have brought nuclear destruction to Bonn, London, or Paris. The missiles were the first nuclear devices that were stationed outside Russia, but unlike the Soviet nuclear missiles sent by Khrushchev to Cuba in 1962 and spotted by U2 spy planes, nobody in the West knew about the ones at Vogelsang (though their presence was suspected).

The R-5M's were later withdrawn, but between 1983 and 1988 nuclear missiles of the type SS-12 were stored at Vogelsang. We saw lingering evidence of them at a concrete and steel missile-launching pad deep in the forest and well away from the residential part of Vogelsang.

Missile launch-pad
Not far from the launch-pads, we came across an enormous underground nuclear bunker, and the storage hangers where the missiles had been kept.

Ventilation for nuclear bunker
The whole of Vogelsang is gradually being demolished by the German State. You would have thought that this was an important heritage site that could yield up deeper knowledge of the Cold War era for future historians, but no, as it seems with any reminders of the Communist East Germany years, all traces of the Soviet occupation are being swept away under the carpet. So my message to you is to get to Vogelsang whilst there is still something left to see!

The weapon-storage hangers are being demolished

Former missile storage hangers

Former tank garages
We were kindly pointed to the location of a way inside one of the bunkers by another urbex photographer we bumped into, and with headlights and torches we descended into the concrete corridors buried beneath the earth. There was nothing much to see (literally nothing if you didn't have a torch), but there was an overwhelming feeling of claustrophobia, and of fear from nuclear retaliation that the builders of these structures must have felt.

Inside the nuclear bunker
Thankfully East and West came to their senses and the Cold War thawed and ended. The Soviet military presence withdrew after German unification, and the need for garrison towns like Vogelsang disappeared. It is both fascinating and spooky to walk around the town they abandoned, and get flash-backs of the lives the former inhabitants led. Though it is also a sadness that a community of 15,000 souls came to a sudden full-stop and is gradually being demolished by man and nature.

I am sure that if I knew Russian then there would be tales on the Internet from Vogelsang's former residents. As it is, this looks like an interesting set of photographs about a school outing from Vogelsang to the Soviet Memorial at Treptower and to the Spreepark amusement park I recognise the school from the first photos, and here is the small Vogelsang train station that we used to get there

If you are a former resident and you can speak English or German, I would love it if you got in touch.

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