The Fehmarnsundbrücke, and the Cold War Threat

I recently wrote about the Rødby to Puttgarden train ferry, linking southern Denmark to northern Germany.  This route opened in May 1963 and slashed journey times for both rail and road transport between København and Hamburg.  Yet it was also a lesser-known part of the Cold War story.

The two ferry terminals were built at the points of each country nearest each other, which both happened to be on islands in the Baltic.  One of the consequences of this is that any journey from Denmark to Germany via this route not only necessitates a ride on a ferry – well, for the foreseeable future at least (construction of a fixed link will begin in 2018) – but leapfrogging a number of islands along the way.

Accordingly, the infrastructure that required constructing in 1963 was not confined to the ferry terminals and their associated roads and railways, but also two substantial bridges.  On the Danish side, there was the Frederik IX Bridge linking the islands of Falster and Lolland; on the German side, there was the Fehmarnsundbrücke linking the island of Fehmarn, on which Puttgarden port stands, and the German mainland.

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The Fehmarnsundbrücke carries a two-lane road, a single-track railway, and a pedestrian walkway.  It is 963.4m long and is high enough for ships to pass under, and was built as a replacement for the little ferry that used to shuttle from the mainland to Fehmarn.  It was formally opened on 30 April 1963, although when severe weather had caused the suspension of the Fehmarn ferry three months previously, people had been permitted to use it at their own risk.  Its engineers were G. Fischer, T. Jahnke and P. Stein from the firm Gutehoffnungshutte Sterkrade AG based in Oberhausen, with architectural design overseen by Gerd Lohmer.

Lohmer (1909-1981) was a renowned West German architect who specialised in bridges.  In the wake of World War 2, he found gainful employment in bridge design – either on the reconstruction and redesign of bridges damaged in the conflict (e.g. the Nibelungenbrücke in Worms), or on brand new ones (e.g. the Konrad-Adenuer-Brücke in then-capital city Bonn).  In recent years, it has been granted the status of a protected national monument, and is well-loved by locals, who have nicknamed it the “Kleiderbügel” (clothes hanger) due to its distinctive shape, and adopted it as a local symbol.

The story would probably end here, were it not for the complicated and heated political environment which existed at the time of the bridge’s construction.

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Photo from Bahnbilder.de by Matthias Mueller (http://www.bahnbilder.de/bild/deutschland~dieselloks~br-218/747468/auch-50-jahre-nach-dem-bau.html)

In 1963, the Cuban Missile Crisis had only just passed and the Cold War was still at very real risk of turning “hot”.  The threat of a Soviet invasion of West Germany was one which was taken very seriously.  The area to the east of Fulda – termed the “Fulda Gap” – was generally considered to be the route the Soviets would most likely take if they invaded – as there was little by way of natural barriers to a massive tank attack.  However it was not the only possibility.

Denmark’s stance in the Cold War is a complex but interesting topic.  Breaking a tradition of neutrality, it was a founding member of NATO in 1949, which meant it courted hostility from the Soviet Union who now treated it as an enemy.  Denmark could well have held strategic importance for the Soviets – not least could it have constituted something of a stepping stone to Greenland, from where its nuclear warheads could have reached the USA – but also a way into neutral Sweden – from where Norway, and thence the North Atlantic, would have been feasible targets.  Sweden boasted strong coastal fortifications, intended to defend it from a Soviet attack, therefore an “entrance” via Denmark would have been a clever way for Warsaw Pact forces to circumnavigate them.

Occupation of Denmark would have put West Germany – and from it the rest of Western Europe – within easy reach.  The existence of the newly-constructed train ferry would have made the movement of rail based forces, armaments, supplies, and so on much easier.  Equally, it could have formed a route for Soviet forces that had already conquered West Germany, into Denmark.  In either event, the Fehmarnsundbrücke may have taken on an immense strategic importance.

As a result, the design of the bridge featured six “Sprengschächte” – or “explosive vaults” – beneath the tarmac of the road’s surface.  In the event of an invasion, explosives could be placed into the vaults by soldiers and then detonated remotely (from a military location approximately a mile away), thereby causing significant disruption and delay to the advance.  Fortunately, this was never required.  However, the remnants of the Sprengschächte can still be seen today – in the form of six patches of darker tarmac on the surface of the road, at the mainland end of the bridge.  You can actually see them in very brief passing on my video above – although here is a far more useful photo!

These were by no means the only Sprengschächte that were placed on German roads for this purpose.  Indeed, whole hosts of them existed in the Fulda Gap and were officially maintained up until the early 1990s and the reunification of the two Germanies.  However the fact that these existed within the design of such a famous structure makes them noteworthy indeed.

Today, trains from Hamburg and Lübeck to Puttgarden (most of which continue across to Denmark via the train ferry) as well as high volumes of road traffic, continue to thunder across the bridge, their passengers most likely unaware of what used to lie beneath.

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Marshal Tito’s Blue Train

For people of my generation, Belgrade (Beograd) was notable from school textbooks as the capital of Yugoslavia, and its burning buildings were sadly a regular sight on the TV news as it was pounded by NATO aerial bombardment.

Nowadays, Beograd is the capital of modern-day Serbia, and its post-war incarnation is beginning to thrive once again.  This brief article is about something lurking within a shed in one of its southern suburbs…

The socialist federation of Yugoslavia was born out of the Second World War under the direction of Marshal Josip Broz Tito (1892-1980), a key figure of the wartime resistance.

From 1947, he used the Blue Train to both travel around and entertain and impress guests; in much the same vein as the British Royal Family’s own private train.  The Blue Train was the epitome of luxury, being essentially a hotel on wheels – it included bathrooms, suites, and copious amounts of leather and wood panelling.  As a feather in the cap and a demonstration of Yugoslavia’s increasing prosperity, virtually every material that went into it was locally sourced.

This special train was greeted rapturously by the locals wherever it passed through.  It was routinely hauled by three dedicated steam locomotives, one of which is now plinthed and on display at the side of Beograd’s main railway station.  As part of the ongoing modernisation of Yugoslavia, these were replaced in 1957 by three West German-built Class 761 diesel-hydraulics, named “Dinara”, “Kozara” and “Sutjeska” in honour of important Second World War battles fought in the Balkans.

The provenance of these showcase locomotives is interesting and reflects the complex political history of mid-20th century Yugoslavia.  Tito’s Communist and (particularly) anti-Nazi pedigree and is established fact; therefore it is entirely natural that a Yugoslavia under his leadership would emerge from the war aligned with Soviet Russia.  However, Tito was less loyal to Stalin than the leaders of the Communist states in Eastern Europe.  He had less reason to be; the Red Army had played a considerably lesser role in the liberation of Yugoslavia from the Nazis than, say, Czechoslovakia or (East) Germany – in fact, much of the credit for it might well be laid at the door of Tito’s own partisans.  Tito’s insistence on pursuing what he saw as Yugoslavia’s own path – whether or not Stalin approved – angered the Soviet leader greatly and resulted in Yugoslavia being expelled from Cominform in June 1948.  Despite relations thawing after Stalin’s death amid Khrushchev’s general policy of “de-Stalinisation”, the rift was never fully healed.

However, far from hamstringing Yugoslavia, it arguably was the making of it.  Yugoslavia was able to pursue a more nationalistic approach to socialism, which led to a notable economic boom, and the fact that it was not aligned with either “East” or “West” meant that it was able to establish trade relations with both sides.  Therefore, whilst its Eastern European neighbours were sourcing locomotives from behind the Iron Curtain, Yugoslavia was able to look further afield.  This middle ground was not, however, always a blessing: it meant that as well as embracing both sides, Yugoslavia needed to maintain defence plans against them both too.  It did, however, mean that the Blue Train saw a wide range of guests, from Gaddafi, Ceaucescu and Brezhnev to Arafat, Mitterand and our very own Queen!

If buying locos manufactured in the Munich suburbs would’ve annoyed Moscow as the Cold War reached its tensest period (and the Hungarian Railways’ purchase of a small fleet of Swedish-built diesels in the early 1960s certainly did; further orders were forbidden and less reliable Soviet-built locomotives “recommended” instead), then the direction of Yugoslavian locomotive procurement through the 1960s would have enraged them.  Almost all of the mainline diesel locomotives bought for use in Yugoslavia were products of the American giant General Motors; built either in North America or under licence in Yugoslavia.  As in their homeland, these proved themselves incredibly reliable over the challenging and often mountainous terrain of many of the Balkan routes, and many are still in service today.

It is also from this source that the next generation of Blue Train locomotives were obtained.  In 1978, the three German locomotives were withdrawn from their special duties.  They now stand rusting away in sidings in Topcider, a southern suburb of Beograd.

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The three 1957-vintage Blue Train locomotives at Topcider in 2015 – from Google Street View!

They were replaced by four brand-new General Motors Class 666 diesel-electric locomotives; the first three inheriting the previous battle-inspired names and the fourth having the title “Neretva” bestowed upon it, on the same theme.

However, the GMs’ most notable duty was to be Tito’s final journey.  After a protracted illness, the dictator died on 4 May 1980 in a Ljubljana hospital.  The Blue Train – hauled by 666.003 “Sutjeska” and 666.004 “Neretva” – conveyed his remains, departing Ljubljana at 08:20 the next day and, after a break in Zagreb, arrived in Beograd approximately six hours later.  Tito was buried in the “House of Flowers” there three days later.

Although the Blue Train is seen as “Tito’s”, it continued to operate after his death, conveying the new order of Yugoslavian top brass.  An example of its use was to take Slobodan Milosevic to Kosovo Polje in order for him to give the infamous speech to over a million people at the Gazimestan memorial on 28 June 1989.  This was one of the train’s last uses; its carriages were retired that year.

Quite clearly, this private train would never have been one that the likes of you or I could have travelled on.  However, parallel to the rise of “Ostalgia” in the former East Germany – i.e. a renewed interest and nostalgia for the days of old, both by people who were and were not there – we have seen the emergence of “Yugonostalgia”.  Perhaps it is not surprising that people should hanker after the “good old days” of Tito’s reign.  History has tended to routinely bestow the title of “benevolent dictator” upon him; what is undeniable is that he ensured that the six republics and two provinces that made up Yugoslavia both thrived economically and co-existed reasonably peacefully for the duration of his tenure, whereas the decline and conflict that occurred there in the two decades following his death has left an indelible mark both literally and metaphorically.

To feed on the renewed interest in pre-1980 Yugoslavia, some of the carriages have been retained in working order for private charters and, from 2013, conveyed tourists along the stunningly scenic 300-mile route from Beograd to the Montenegrin sea port of Bar.  Interestingly, this route passes through that country’s capital Podgorica, which was named Titograd for a number of decades when in Yugoslavia (its airport code is still “TGD”, to act as just a small reminder of the pre-1992 world!).  Perhaps surprisingly, given the palatial surroundings of the train and the associated prestige of sharing environs with the ghosts of the world leaders of the past, tickets were available on board this special train from the equivalent of just £129.  It appeared popular, however the severe flooding that affected much of the Balkans in May 2014 severed the railway, and although it reopened fully a year later, it is unclear as to whether the Blue Train has resumed operation.  The excellent “Man in Seat 61” website advises that it has not; Serbian Railways (Železnice Srbije; ZS) do still however advertise it on their website.

Here is a photo of the Blue Train in recent years, complete with one of the 1978-built locomotives

As a footnote, one of the Blue Train locomotives from Tito’s funeral train – 666.003 “Sutjeska” – was returned to operation for ŽS in 2013 – which was an event deemed worthy of the national news! – and so ensured that at least one part of the legacy of a very famous train will continue to grace the iron road for some time to come.

Riding the rails of a lost country

Ironically, “Ostalgia” is big business.  Over a quarter of a century since Communist East Germany ceased to exist, nostalgia for it has never been more popular.  It seems that, with almost as much haste as the traces of the former country were wiped away following the fall of the Berlin Wall, people are now scrambling to experience what life was like behind it.

You can drive a Trabant car in convoy around East Berlin on an innovative sightseeing tour, then stay at painstakingly styled themed hotels.  You can purchase clothes, food and all manner of other items of “reborn” Communist brands, recreated by popular demand.  You can have your photo taken at Checkpoint Charlie in front of a replica border hut, with men dressed up as border guards.

Yet all of these experiences are in some way synthetic. This part of the world has experienced so many changes since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, that it is nigh on impossible to recreate “everyday life” in any setting.  After all, this was a country where you could realistically expect your intercity train to be powered by steam right up until the late 1980s.  Today you can flash through the Sachsen-Anhalt countryside on some of the world’s most modern trains at speeds of up to 300 km/h.

Stepping off the modern electrified German commuter railway at Freital-Hainsberg station, though – a mere 12 minutes’ ride from the centre of Dresden – is like stepping back in time.

As the crowded electric trains zip in and out upstairs, an altogether slower pace of life exists at the station’s lower level.  Every two hours or so, every day, a narrow-gauge steam train quietly slips away, often fairly empty – especially out of season.  However, this is no tourist-orientated recreation of days gone by.  This is an operation that has remained largely unchanged since it opened in 1882.

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Awaiting departure from Freital-Hainsberg

The former East Germany retains a number of these tiny steam railways – but most have only survived by switching their focus to catering for tourists; the sound of the steam engines being accompanied by the excited laughter of children and the snapping of the shutters of countless coach tour passengers’ cameras.  Some others use modern diesel trains on some services as a more cost-effective method of operation.  This, the “Weisseritztalbahn”, has largely escaped that, and thus retains that Holy Grail of “Ostalgics” – genuine authenticity.

The railway winds its way for 14 kilometres up the narrow, heavily forested valley into the scenic East Ore Mountains, criss-crossing the river as it goes.  The train makes five intermediate stops along its way – largely wayside shacks at which nobody boards and nobody alights – before skirting the reservoir at Malter and pulling into the station at Dippoldiswalde.  This village, of only 140 inhabitants, is an unlikely terminus, and serves mainly as a popular base for mountain walks.  Indeed, the East German leadership placed a great deal of emphasis on encouraging outdoor leisure activities, and even in the technological age, this is something that many here still like to do.

The railway formerly continued for a further 12 kilometres from Dippoldiswalde to the one-time tourist resort of Kurort Kipsdorf – however this section still awaits reopening after it sustained severe damage during the catastrophic Central European floods of 2002.

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Heading up the valley

The last round trip of the day departs from Freital-Hainsberg at 18:42, and although sacrificing some of the scenery, a trip on it as dusk gathers is very highly recommended indeed.  The virtually empty, atmospherically illuminated train eases its way up the valley, the only sounds being the cacophonic echo of the engine’s roar, the gentle drum beat of the wheels on the rails, and the rushing water of the river.  In that moment, it might not be 2016 at all; this is exactly the experience of everybody who has travelled this route by train before – not just during the years of German division, but indeed back though two world wars and as far as 1882.  Suddenly, you are a world away from the bustling city centre of Dresden, in spite of it being still only a handful of kilometres away.

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Inside the Weisseritztalbahn train

Ultimately, the hordes who hope to experience a slice of life from the time of the Berlin Wall will most likely spend far more than the €15 Weisseritztalbahn fare, for a far less authentic product.  Yet everyday life for most East German citizens was not necessarily the clichés of Stasi persecution and political propaganda.  For a small investment of time and money, here you are offered the sounds, sights and indeed smells of days gone by – and little could be more “East German” than a ride on some authentic public transport, through some idyllic countryside, in order to enjoy some relaxed outdoor pursuits in a tranquil and scenic environment.

HMS Onslaught, 1960-1991

D832 "Onslaught" nameplate

Isn’t it strange to know that something is historically significant, but that most of us may never find out exactly why?

Today I enjoyed a ride behind the only currently operational ex-British Railways “Warship” Class locomotive – no. D832 Onslaught – at the East Lancashire Railway, a heritage railway centred on the town of Bury, roughly 10 miles north of Manchester.

The “Warships” were born out of the British Railways Modernisation Plan of the mid-1950s – directly replacing steam traction on the routes of the former Great Western Railway – and were essentially a scaled down version of the highly successful West German V200 class.  In the best tradition of the GWR, they all carried names on a theme – in this case, Royal Navy vessels – the irony being that these locomotives of impeccable German pedigree were named after a number of particularly renowned ships that, just 15 years previously, had played key roles in the defeat of Germany in World War 2.  Indeed, the destroyer HMS Onslaught herself was a veteran of convoys both in the Atlantic and off Scandinavia (where she was credited with putting the finishing touches to the destruction of the U-boat U-472 which scuttled itself in March 1944) and also of the D-Day landings in Normandy.

Following the sale of the destroyer HMS Onslaught to the Pakistani Navy in 1951, the name has been re-used by the Royal Navy just once – for an Oberon class submarine, pennant number S14 – which was coincidentally launched from Chatham Dockyard exactly 56 years ago today: Saturday 24th September 1960 – is of the same vintage as the locomotive, and is the subject of these ramblings.

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The Oberon class were conventionally (i.e. non-nuclear) powered patrol submarines and were designed as a key British weapon for the Cold War.  At 295ft in length – equivalent to the proverbial football pitch – and carrying a crew of 65, they were sizeable enough beasts, yet intended to be stealthy, hunting down their Russian peers preferably without being detected.  Being both smaller and quieter than their nuclear counterparts, these diesel-electric submarines were deemed more appropriate for this type of work.  A total of 27 were built – 13 for the Royal Navy, with others for Canada, Australia, Brazil and Chile.

Following commissioning in 1962, HMS Onslaught first saw active service from Singapore during the Borneo confrontation (when fighting broke out after the creation of Malaysia in 1963) then during the British withdrawal from Singapore later in the decade.

However, it is what happened later in her life which is open to conjecture – the details remain classified information.  What is commonly accepted is that HMS Onslaught and her sisters spent a considerable amount of time in the Baltic Sea in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, engaged in clandestine operations against the Soviets at the height of the Cold War.  Iain Ballantyne in his book “Hunter Killers” recounts how HMS Onslaught once spent seven weeks in the Baltic with 17 intelligence specialists crowded on board, alongside her usual crew.  It has even been reported fairly extensively that British submarines even sent commandos ashore in the Soviet Union.  That in itself would be interesting enough, but it has also been suggested that commandos were secretly sent ashore to neutral nations on the other side of the Baltic – Finland and, particularly, Sweden.  These two countries formed a buffer between NATO and the Soviet Union and therefore were, usually passively, politically volatile during the Cold War.  They would definitely have been a target for Soviet invasion if they decided to mount an offensive heading West.  Sweden was aware that there were submarine incursions into its territorial waters on an increasingly frequent basis as the 1980s progressed – these were generally accepted as being of Soviet origin – but could they in fact have been Royal Navy?  Perhaps they were testing Sweden’s responses and anti-submarine infrastructure, to investigate what may happen if the Soviets did actually attempt an invasion?  The entire Cold War was shrouded in mystery and (particularly) suspicion, even of one’s own “friends”.

Britain has apparently publicly maintained that its Oberons were never in the Baltic.  They certainly have not admitted to any such covert operations within Scandinavia.  But the very fact that any information on the broad subject remains top secret, might be taken by the cynics among us as a hint that there remains something worth hiding…

What might HMS Onslaught and her sister vessels have been looking for?  More importantly, what might they have found?  It is possible that we will never find out, but equally, it is possible that our entire understanding of the Cold War may shift if we do.

HMS Onslaught was decommissioned in 1990 and scrapped in Turkey in 1991.  However, eight Oberons have survived in various forms around the world, and a number can be visited – although just one of them is in the UK.  Whereas HMS Onslaught was the penultimate Navy warship manufactured in Chatham, and did not survive; the final one, HMS Ocelot (S17), has returned “home” to the Kentish town, to form an important part of the Historic Dockyard Chatham attraction.  HMS Ocelot, too, retains her Cold War secrets – one day, we may know more about the service life of these enigmatic vessels.