For those who have read into the history of Berlin, you would know that the threat of destruction from conventional and nuclear weapons caused the leadership in the day to construct underground bunkers. Though many of these underground installations have been destroyed or have caved in, some have been opened to the public via guided tours from Berlin Unterwelten. Buying tickets from their Pavilion at Gesundbrunnen U-bahn station, we set off for two ‘bunkers’ in their English Speaking Tour 3.
Unfortunately due to ‘copyright’ reasons, no photography or video was allowed underground so I’ll do my best to describe what I saw.
The first ‘bunker’, and I will use inverted commas here was about a block away from the station. From an inconspicuous looking white brick building (52° 32.967′, 13° 23.188′), you take a set of stairs approximately one storey underground. This public underground shelter was constructed by the Nazi’s in World War II after the RAF started their bombing campaign, which targeted parts of Berlin. Though billed as a bomb-proof shelter, it was actually originally constructed to be the office for the U-bahn station, below of which run the U-bahn tracks. The ceiling was only 450mm thick, non-reinforced concrete and it was designed to hold around 1300 people for 48 hours. The walls were painted bricks, with cool white lighting. Services for water ran overhead – nothing in particular would inform you that this was an air-raid shelter.
Many interesting facts were dispensed by the tour guide (a French national studying in Berlin, who may, just maybe had a splice of left wing bias and support for the Greens – more on this later). The shelter was a non-staffed shelter, meaning that no civil servants were allocated to run the shelter in a time of need – think operation of the air and filtration systems, cooks, doctors/nurses, security etc. In a very German way of thinking, the public service at the time determined that a 1300-person sample of the neighbouring population would statistically ensure that the required numbers of engineers, doctors, security/police, cooks etc. would be present if the shelter was ever occupied. Never mind that the location of the shelter was unknown (info only to be released in a time of emergency) and hence no one in the neighbourhood were pre-trained in the operation of the shelter.
Air was fed into the shelter via a pump room, which had electric pumps powered off mains power. There were no backup generators, but instead the pumps could be manually operated (hand cranked). In an attempt to show how hard it is to figure out how to operate and then continue to operate the pump, the tour guide asked if there were any engineers on the tour. With Tse Ann and I the only engineers there, the main lights were switched off and emergency ‘red’ lights turned on and we were to figure out how to operate the pump.
Either the many ‘engineers’ who have tried in the past were incompetent or were actually arts students (like the tour guide, who self-confessed that she couldn’t figure it out the first time), but we were able to get the pump going in a matter of seconds. I’ll put it down to the German engineering behind the design!
To ‘disguise’ the underground office as a air raid shelter, many internal walls were constructed to act as baffles, creating many ‘compartments’ in the otherwise open space. This gave the inside a false sense of reinforcement, with the baffles only existing as a measure to compartmentalise the damage caused by any bomb which would easily penetrate the roof.
Post-World War II and into the Cold War, this and many similar shelters were converted into NBC – nuclear, biological and chemical warfare resistant shelters. This involved applying a new layer of paint to the inside…
To show contrast between this pseudo-shelter and a purpose-built NBC shelter, we moved off to the next U-bahn station, Pankstraße. Constructed during the Cold War, this was again, one of a series of bunkers which could house a total of 1.8% of the popular of Berlin in the event of nuclear outbreak. The shelter in this case IS the U-bahn station, with this particular station being deeper underground and fully encapsulated in reinforced concrete. Based on the time estimated for warheads to detonate over Berlin (this information was quite accurate and estimated from the missile launch/reentry time, notification time etc), the reinforced blast doors would shut. After this time, it was only through two decontamination air locks that you can get entry.
Upon entry you would be given a yellow tracksuit made out of 100% nylon to wear (to prevent any contamination from your clothing) – think of the yellow jumpsuits worn in the James Bond movie Moonraker and you’re on the money. This bunker was fully staffed and would be fully self-sustaining for up to 2 weeks. In fact, right up to 2011, food rations stored in this bunker (tinned pea soup) were cooked for those on the tour to sample, however the 50 year use-by date has since lapsed.
The conclusion of the tour was in one the sleeping rooms for the bunker. Basically a room full of steel bunks, stacked 4 high, with sail-cloth material beds (not unlike a typical camp bed). Each bunk had its own bedding and ‘amenities’ which would rival those given out on a Tiger Airways flight. Talking about the dangers of nuclear weapons, how the world nearly saw destruction during the Cold War during the Cuban Missile Crisis and how she fears everyday for her country France, which is overwhelmingly powered by nuclear energy (as these power stations could explode any day now or be targets of terrorism, which will cause them to explode any day now…), how these bunkers were a futile attempt to boost public morale, even though less than 2 in 100 people would be able to seek shelter in them, how in such situations, the ‘leaders’ of these countries would have their own special shelters… she urged all of us to vote for the greens… Most of the group switched off during this brief monologue!
Apart from this force feeding of left-wing ideologies, if you have a time on your hands, I’d definitely recommend one of these tours. The operating group run many different tours across Berlin, though it seems that only Tour 3 has an English speaking guide.