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.

The Rødby to Puttgarden Train Ferry

There are only three remaining passenger train ferries in Europe: one between mainland Italy and the island of Sicily; one from Sassnitz in Germany to Trelleborg in Sweden; and one from Rødby in Denmark to Puttgarden in Germany.

The idea of putting a whole train on board a ferry to cross an expanse of water is one largely confined to the past, at least in Europe.  This is predominantly due to the creation of numerous fixed links, such as the Channel Tunnel between the UK and France or the Øresund bridge between Denmark and Sweden, and also the proliferation of low-cost air travel making the rail routes themselves redundant in a number of cases.

Even the three survivors are under threat.  That between Villa San Giovanni in Italy and Messina on the island of Sicily is mooted to be getting a bridge replacement (although this is a very much on/off affair, most recently being declared “off” for the time being); that between Sassnitz and Trelleborg is an overnight, summer-only operation which has been suggested for closure on a number of occasions; and that across the Fehmarnbelt between Rødby and Puttgarden is being replaced by a fixed link for which the construction contracts have already been signed.

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The proposed fixed link across the Fehmarnbelt will take the form of an 18 kilometre long immersed tunnel encompassing a four lane motorway and a double track railway, and will be the world’s longest immersed tunnel upon completion.  It will take 7 minutes to cross from one side of the Fehmarnbelt to the other by rail, and 10 minutes by road – whichever way you look at it, a significant saving on the current 45 minute crossing time by ferry for either mode of transport.  In addition, it will be far less susceptible to weather-related disruption.  The shortened travel time from Hamburg to København is expected to drastically increase traffic between the two cities.

It’s fairly clear that the pros of the fixed link far outweigh the cons, which are largely sentimental.  However, the good news if you’ve yet to visit, is that the construction work has not yet started.  It is due to begin in January 2018 and take 8½ years, so the train ferry would appear to have a good decade left.

I last took a journey on this train ferry in summer 2007, travelling from Denmark to Germany, and I found it very interesting indeed if, indeed, it felt like something of an anachronism even then.

As befitting the nature of Denmark, the journey from København to the port at Rødby is one of numerous islands linked by bridges.  After travelling via Roskilde, Ringsted and Næstved to Vordingborg (all on Sjælland), the train crosses first to Masnedø, then to Falster, and finally to Lolland on whose coast Rødby is situated.

It must be said that the scenery en route is not necessarily fantastic – although I thought that the views of the water from the bridges – in particular the Storstrøm Bridge – were memorable.  Lolland is also known by the nickname “Pancake Island” as a reflection of its flatness, and the railway is as good a way to appreciate this facet of its geography as any!  It is therefore something of a surprise to finally reach Rødby Færge station, its pylons and floodlights reaching higher into the sky than even the turbines of the surrounding wind farms.

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The ferry connection between Rødby and Puttgarden commenced operation on 14 May 1963 – completing a direct link between København and Hamburg.  This was dubbed the “Vogelfluglinie”, or “bird flight line”, as it roughly follows a common migratory route used by birds.  The route briefly took on international significance in late 2015 during the EU-wide refugee crisis.  Large numbers of illegal immigrants, predominantly from Iraq and Syria, were trying to reach Sweden which was displaying a more welcoming attitude to them than most EU countries.  As a result, the Rødby to Puttgarden ferry and associated railways and motorways ended up being closed on police orders.  Reports described “chaotic scenes” where well over a thousand refugees disembarked from ferries arriving at Rødby, some “disappearing” to evade capture by the police, others attempting to walk up the E47 motorway in the vague direction of Sweden.

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Both ports painted a sad picture of emptiness and desolation, and had certainly not only seen better days but had been constructed with the intention of handling much higher volumes of rail traffic than now pass through; indeed international railfreight via this route has ceased.  Rows and rows of overgrown and rusty sidings lay empty in and around the terminal as we edged our way towards the ferry.  Saying that, however, it is clear that the dearth of rail traffic must be more than compensated by the proliferation of lorries and cars, as the intensive ferry shuttle service is clearly supported by something!

The ferries themselves are operated by Scandlines and can carry both cars and trains.  Ferries depart each port at broadly 30-minute intervals, 24 hours a day – however only three in each direction convey trains.  There are four train ferries in the fleet, all dating from 1997 – two under the Danish flag (Prins Richard and Prinsesse Benedikte), and two under the German flag (Schleswig-Holstein and Deutschland).  It was the latter onto which my train rolled.

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It’s slightly unnerving to be on a full size train just feet away from lorries and cars, not least for it to cross from land onto a vessel!  The train slowly drew to a stand on the ship’s single railway track within the car deck, and passengers were instructed to disembark and make their way up to the passenger area, mingling with the motorists who had just parked their own vehicles.

The crossing itself was admittedly something of an anti-climax. The Deutschland has all the amenities you would expect from a modern short-distance passenger ferry – shops, restaurants, etc – and the 45 minute journey passed quickly and without incident.  Before long, an announcement was made for train passengers to make their way back to the train, and after docking, the engines were restarted and the train slowly emerged from the darkness of the ferry’s car deck, back onto terra firma and into Puttgarden railway station.

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Puttgarden was broadly similar to Rødby, in that it featured relatively nondescript 1963-vintage architecture simultaneously being heavily used and being slowly reclaimed by nature, depending on whether you looked at the rail or road parts of the terminal.  With a harsh wind blowing straight off the Baltic, seagull droppings everywhere (I have never seen so much in one place!), rust and foliage everywhere, it was not a place to remain in for long.  Indeed, it’s kind of the point of Puttgarden that nobody every does stay there for long.  The port complex (as distinct from the tiny village of Puttgarden, some distance to the west, from which it takes its name) exists solely to tranship people, goods and their vehicles from land to sea, and from sea to land, as efficiently as possible.  When the Fehmarnbelt fixed link is finally commissioned, will likely disappear from the map, its purpose negated.

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You can’t help but feel that although – again – it will undoubtedly be a step forward when the tape is cut on the Fehmarnbelt tunnel, that it will be sad to see the end of something which has been a thriving, now almost unique, operation which has quietly gone about its business for well over half a century.  If you haven’t yet experienced the train ferry from Denmark to Germany, I would recommend building it into your travel plans before that day arrives.

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.