Tuesday, 15 September 2015

The Peenemunde Rocket Centre (1936 - 1945)

Until relatively recently parts of the Peenemunde peninsular in Northern Germany were closed to the public. However nowadays it is possible to explore all of the areas of interest - the harbour, the V2 development and test stand sites, the Luftwaffe jet and V1 establishment and the feeder town of Karlshagen.

Many of the original structures on the site were destroyed in bombing raids during WW2. In particular Operation Hydra when 596 RAF bombers targeted the V2 production facilities on the night of the 17 / 18 August 1943.
V2 rocket from the top of Peenemunde Power Station
However, there are a couple of very significant buildings that survived the bombing raid. The first is the Power Plant which is now an excellent museum documenting the early years of rocket development at Peenemunde. From the roof one can gain a really good view of the surrounding landscape. The second building of note can be seen on the drive up to the museum on the Eastern side of the peninsula. This is the WW2 era liquid oxygen plant which survived the bombing raids and remained operational until 1945.
Ground floor of liquid oxygen plant, Peenemund
The interior of the building was partially destroyed by the Soviet authorities in compliance with the 1945 Potsdam agreement. However the bulk of the massive structure defied attempts at demolition and is now accessible - albeit only by climbing a security fence. The effort of getting in is well worth it. Inside it is possible to see the huge gantries that were used to move the heavy oxygen cylinders and the fixings on the floor which originally secured massive storage tanks.
Soviet U461 in Peenemund Harbour
The nearby harbour served the entire Pennemunde site. The main point of interest nowadays is a 1980s era Juliett-class submarine. Decommissioned in the 1980s, this cold war relic is open for public tours.

Peenemunde is mainly remembered for the development of ballistic missile capability the fulmination of which was the terrifying V2 rocket. However, at the end of the peninsular the Luftwaffe had an entirely separate research and development facility based around the airfield. On the Western side one can find the remains of V1 test ramps. On the airfield, the Luftwaffe tested early jet aircraft such as the Messerschmitt 162, the Arado Ar 234 and the Heinkel He 162. The original control tower can be seen across the runway which is still used for recreational flights.
Command Bunker & Control Tower at Peenemunde Airfield
MiG Fighter at Peenemunde Airfield
At the main entrance to the airfield there are a couple of cold war era MiG fighters. On the right hand side of the approach road there is a wall behind which there are a number of camouflaged cold war era barrack buildings and hangers.

Nearby, on the old military road that runs around the penisular the old railway siding can be seen alongside the site of the old Karlshagen concentration camp. 

The perimeter of the latter was marked out by four blockhouses - two of which (at least) survive. Little is known about the various populations interned in the camp. However it is clear that many died at this site - some as a result of the first Allied bombing raid in 1943 when a significant proportion of bombs fell short of the primary target area.
Railway Station - Peenemunde Airfield

Continuing the drive around the perimeter road, the areas once dominated by ten V2 test stands is now forested. Further on the housing estate originally built to house the rocket scientists and their families is now part of the enlarged Karlshagen village. On the left hand side, tucked away off the road, is the WW2 era cemetery. This sad place contains a number of monuments and two burial areas (one for German nationals and the other for foreign workers and camp internees). The vast majority were victims of the 1943 Operation Hydra raid.
Guardhouse at Karlshagen Camp

As an aside, two members of my family became fatal casualties on 1st February 1945 when a V2 fell on group of houses behind West Ham Town Hall in London. Matilda and Dennis Curme (mother & son) were amongst 30 people killed by this particular explosion. 

To see photographs of a V1 launch ramp taken by my Great Aunt, Joan Curme, on a school visit a couple of years after the end of WW2 click here.

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

The Bunkers of Zossen (1936 - 2004)

For anyone interested in 20th century military history the Zossen / Wunsdorf area holds a particular fascination. Zossen itself was home to the German General Staff throughout World War II. Later, following the post war division of Germany, it was home to the primary air force arm of the Warsaw Pact in europe - the Soviet 16th Air Arm.

Entrance to Zossen Bunker Complex
Our investigation of the site started at the Maybach I bunker complex which was built between 1936 and 1939 in anticipation of of the coming conflict. The 12 bunkers consist of four levels above ground and two below. These bunkers, camouflaged to look like domestic houses, were home to the German General Staff throughout WWII. It was here that Barbarossa was planned and the complex was the heart of German military planning right up until 20th July 1945 when Koniev's tanks arrived en-route for Berlin.
Maybach 1 - Bunker A3
The buildings were destroyed by the Russians post war in accordance with the agreement made at the Potsdam conference. However, the shattered structures remain and it is still possible to traverse part of the underground link tunnel which circumvents the site. Each of the twelve buildings had a designated purpose.
Maybach I - Bunker A5
For example the second on the left from the entrance (A2) was the centre for liaison with foreign armies in the West. The quartermaster is the building known as A4 and it is here that General Eduard Wagner shot himself after being implicated in the July 1944 bomb plot to kill Hitler. Every building tells a story - for example, A6 was the Chief of the General Staff building - occupied by General Franz Halder amongst others. Field Marshal Walter von Brauchitsch worked in building A5 until his resignation from the post of Commander in Chief in late 1941.
Maybach 1 - Bunker A4
The main path from Maybach I leads to the Maybach II complex which was adapted for use by the Russians post war. There is a small bunker to the right known as 'panzir'. This is worth a quick look with the aid of a torch. Ahead is the substantial two level Russian bunker known as UK20. This is where the Soviet 16th Air Force was head quartered and it is possible to explore the whole complex. The ops room is intact though the wall maps have long since gone.
16th Air Force Ops Room - UK20 Bunker
Entrance to Zeppelin bunker (Exchange X500)
The jewel in the crown is what is known as the Zeppelin bunker. It was originally Exchange X500, the primary hub comms centre for the Wehrmacht. The remains of the nearby barracks where many of the operators were billeted can be seen in the nearby woods. Until 2004 this was a Russian facility. A major part of the four level complex was given NBC protection with the addition of double entry steel doors and stepped shower installations.
NBC Door - Zeppelin Bunker
Inside, it's as if the Russians have only just left and in the lower levels many of the offices are littered with discarded documents. Part of the complex is outside of the NBC zone and remains as it was during German occupation in WW2. There are two traversable tunnels leading out of the secure zone - the North Tunnel is 220m and the Western Tunnel is 260m. Both lead to secure buildings disguised as cottages.
German Pneumatic Messaging System - Exchange X500
Nearby to the bunker complex we explored the tank training grounds and the two excellent museums housed in old military buildings. One is dedicated to Germany's 1930s / 40s panzer armies and the other covers the post war Russian cold war period. Outside there are numerous air raid shelters and military structures. The eighty five man, eight level cone shelters are something which I've not seen before.
Air Raid Shelter - Zossen
On the tank grounds there is a military cemetery which dates back to the First World War. It stands on the site of the Zehrensdorf Prisoner of War camp which housed captives from the French and British colonies. Many of the graves and memorials are Hindu or Islamic. This site and the nearby German military cemetery were destroyed during the cold war years. Both have been restored, the CWGC site with all of the original graves properly marked and the German cemetery commemorated with a simple memorial plus one or two named graves.

For the full photo set covering Zossen and Wunsdorf click here.