Wünsdorf and its surroundings have a magical hold over us. Its long military history and abundance of Soviet Military “leftovers” keep pulling us back into its orbit. While Zossen and Wünsdorf Waldstadt are well known and documented, the surrounding forests which had been used as military proving grounds since the early 20th Century still harbour a secret or two to be explored. The forest is littered with munitions, shrapnel, bunkers, ruins – and if you know where to look – a Soviet “Übungspanzer” (training tank).
The Kaiser, Nazis and Soviets in the forests of Zossen / Wünsdorf
By the end of the 19th Century, the city of Berlin was getting cramped thanks to the founding of the german reich and rapid industrialisation. Between 1871 and 1906, the population increased from 826,341 to 2,073,521 inhabitants (an increase of over 150%). The Kaisers troops who had been previously stationed all over Berlin were soon running out of space, especially to perform military drills and maneuvers.
While the existing military proving grounds in Jüterbog and Döberitz (which we covered in this article), it was also decided to create a new proving ground in Zossen along with some fancy new military headquarters – which with the onset of the the first world war would become the Headquarters of the Reichsheer. During this period, a prisoner of war camp known as the “Halbmondlager” (Half Moon Camp) was established in Wünsdorf, where up to 5000 Muslim (But also Hindu and Sikh) Allied soldiers were interned. This was also the site of Germanys first mosque, a topic which we will examine in another article.
With the large scale demilitarisation of Germany after World War I, the german military briefly gave up the Truppenübungsplatz Zossen, but it didn’t take long for rearmament in the area to pick up again. While the Weimar Republic had already stationed a low number of mechanized units in Wünsdorf in the early 1930s, the Nazis decided to ramp up its rearmament plans and stationed the Panzer-Regiment 1, the 3rd Panzer Division as well as the Heereskraftfahrschule in the Stammlager Zossen and in Wünsdorf. At the same time, the Nazis decided to to make Wünsdorf the headquarters of the Oberkommando des Heeres.
The Soviet Red Army, more specifically the 3rd. Guards Tank Army rolled into the Stammlager Zossen on the 21st of April 1945, taking over the base without any resistance. The Soviets made Wünsdorf the headquarters of the Wünsdorf the headquarters of the Group of Soviet Occupation Forces in Germany – skyrocketing the Soviet population in the area to roughly 75,000 at its peak, cementing the nicknames “die verbotene stadt” (the forbidden city) and “Klein Moskau” (little moscow).
In 1954, the 69th Motorised Rifle Regiment (69-й мотострелковый полк) which had been previously stationed close to Cottbus, was relocated to the Military Town Nr.4 in Wünsdorf essentially as a flagship regiment.
Truppenübungsplatz Zossen Wünsdorf
Wünsdorf was essentially the birthplace of the “modern” German Tank development. The German and Soviet troops had a secret military alliance dating back to the mid 1920s, where under the Codename “Großtraktor”, heavy tanks (built by Krupp, Rheinmetall and Daimler Benz) were tested (along with military tactics) in a soviet military facility in Kazan. With Hitler’s rise to power, the germans pulled out their staff in 1933 and moved them to Zossen where the Panzertruppenschule Wünsdorf was established – which essentially lead the development of the german tank training and tactical development.
Of course the Germans built fortifications, bunkers and other training structures throughout the Truppenübungsplatz Zossen Wünsdorf, all of which neatly fell into the hands of the Soviets when they moved in, in 1945. After Wünsdorf morphed into a locked down Soviet city within East Germany, the soviets expanded the existing military structures and updated the proving ground to their needs (a similar story can be found with the Artillerie Kaserne in Eberswalde and the Panzerkaserne in Bernau) .
Of course they used the area for the same purposes as the Reichswehr and Nazis, training their troops and tank units in the sandy forest. If you spend enough time traversing the forests and fields, you’ll stumble across tank platforms and even a “tank pool”, which could have been used for cleaning the tanks or deep wading exercises (think of tank snorkeling).
The Abandoned Soviet Tank in Wünsdorf
The last Russian military transport left the Wünsdorf trainstation on the 8th of October, 1994 – and while the Russians were very keen on taking with them almost everything that wasnt bolted down, they did leave behind an astonishing mixture of equipment, trash, monuments, personal belongings and munition.
So we could go on and about the history of Wünsdorf and its surroundings, but the real reason for this article is what we found hiding deep in the forest. Venturing through the still contaminated – but beautiful nature reserve – on can still find dozens of reminders of what when on here. Bullet-riddled shrapnel is strewn across some of the fields, pieces of military equipment still lying next to the paths. While some Soviet leftovers are more obvious to spot – hidden between the trees is a far more menacing reminder.
Passing through the trees – the distinct shape is immediately recognizable, and after a few more paces you can make out the long barrel pointing at some imaginary target in the distance. But the closer you get, the stranger the appearance of the tank becomes. The barrel of the tank rests surreptitiously on a broken tree, the metal dome and skin are suspiciously thin, and then you notice that the panzer in the woods has no wheels.
So what exactly is this thing? Well, it’s not a “dummy tank” as some might suspect. Dummy Tanks, used to deceive and create the illusion of a military presence, were most commonly made of wood or even inflatable rubber/canvas. This tank in the woods was clearly made out of (thin) steel – far too heavy to quickly inflate or deploy.
It’s not a target practice piece either – as there is a distinct lack of bullet, impact or shrapnel holes, the existing holes are a byproduct of it rusting out in the open for the past 30 or so years. The last clue in the puzzle came by off chance – there’s a very similar model tank inside a building in the abandoned Vogelsang Military Base, clearly presented as a training model.
So the only logical conclusion left is that this was a training tank (albeit an open air version). Modeled after what we assume to be a Soviet T-54 Tank, the interior at some point was was equipped with (at least) two seats and the instruments to practice loading and aiming the turret. Obviously there is not much left of the interior, some parts were probably stolen, others simply rusted away.
There’s no telling how the Übungspanzer ended up in this secluded spot in the forest of Wünsdorf, nor how long its been standing there. But judging by its fellow compatriots – like this 1950s Tram which was used as target practice by the Soviets – it seems like its got some years left to rust
The Übungspanzer – Video
While we are normally a bit too lazy to film stuff when we are out and about, we’ve decided to make more a conscious effort to at least capture a few minutes of footage. On the day we went out to find the Soviet Übungspanzer, we were (un)lucky enough that it started raining quite a bit. The video is a tad shakey, but that’s bound to happen when you are stumbling through the forest.
A Final Thought About The Abandoned Tank
There’s so much more to discover around Wünsdorf and we’ve barely scratched the surface at this point. The Übungspanzer in Wünsdorf isn’t the most spectacular find you can make in the area, especially since it’s essentially just a giant rusting shell – but it’s a nice little find off the beaten path, and an interesting historic relic. There used to be another tank turret out in the open not far away from the tank a few years ago, but that seems to have gone missing.
Like the forest tram, there’s no direction mention of the address here. I’ve very obviously mentioned the general location of the Übungspanzer and roughly pinpointing it shouldn’t be too difficult for anybody that wants to go looking for it*. A well meaning word of advice: It’s very easy to get lost in the woods even in the fall / winter season when the undergrowth isnt as thick. In the forest, all trees look the same, and the area looks deceptively harmless.
*If you do find it, please make sure to treat the object with the respect that it deserves.