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The two remarkable mistakes that betrayed the secret locations of Soviet nuclear bunkers in Poland

The two remarkable mistakes that betrayed the secret locations of Soviet nuclear bunkers in Poland
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When generals of the Soviet Union decided in the mid-1960s to install nuclear bunkers in Poland, so as to be closer to their targets in Western Europe in the event of the Cold War heating up, they took nearly every precaution to keep them secret.

But they also erred in two remarkable ways, according to new archeological research on the three Polish bunker sites, which today are either partly demolished or overgrown and stripped of scrap metal by looters.

To keep their nuclear installations secret, the Soviets did not tell the Polish people, who paid for them, but did not find out that they had hosted about 160 tactical nuclear warheads until the Cold War was over and the Soviet Union collapsed. In fact, the Soviets explicitly denied it. The Polish soldiers who built the bunkers had no clue either, as they worked on separate sections with no knowledge about the broader purpose. Many were told they were building barracks for Soviet communications units.

The Soviets ensured that maps of the areas were thoroughly censored, just as they were in the other countries under Soviet control — Czechoslovakia, Hungary, East Germany and Bulgaria. And they built them in areas of heavy forest with low hills to aid in camouflage and ground defence.

They were close enough to Western Europe that, in the event of war, they could win the initial nuclear conflict before mounting a conventional ground offensive.

But then they needed to equip the installations with workers and soldiers, and they were keen that the people running their nuclear operations were psychological stable, so they needed to provide an “illusion of normal life,” said Grzegorz Kiarszys of the Department of Archaeology at Szczecin University in Poland, whose research appears in the journal Antiquity.

That meant setting up a life for non-commissioned officers and their young families, evidence of which has been excavated from garbage pits at all three sites, where archeologists have found children’s toys. But the Soviets also made the critical error of building football pitches with running tracks around the outside.

The Soviet nuclear bunker at Podborsko, Poland. Grzegorz Kiarszys/Antiquity

In the early days of spy satellites, this was a whopper of a mistake.

“After all the efforts made to keep the location of the base secret, such a decision seems not very astute, at least from a military perspective,” Prof. Kiarszys writes in his paper “The destroyer of worlds hidden in the forest: Cold War nuclear warhead sites in Poland.”

“A football pitch in the middle of the forest certainly drew the attention of NATO and CIA aerial photograph interpreters,” he said.

“It should be kept in mind, however, that although some military structures were recorded using satellite imagery, it does not necessarily mean that the CIA photograph interpreters correctly recognized their function,” Kiarszys wrote. “There are no known reports that confirm if and how the structures were interpreted up to the end of the 1970s.”

The interior of one of the two “Monolit” bunkers at Podborsko. Grzegorz Kiarszys/Antiquity

The other mistake was similarly goofy. Russians planted spruce trees along the roads that served the bunkers, Kiarszys said, and in Russia’s climate this might have made sense, because mature spruce trees can offer very dense cover. But in Poland, one of the sites was in a forest of beech trees, so when they changed colour in the fall, and the spruce did not, satellite photograph interpreters in the U.S. were treated to a clear green line demarcating a top-secret nuclear facility.

“Although these sites are not yet protected by law, their meaning and value is gradually being recognized after many years of neglect,” Kiarszys wrote. “Recently, the former Soviet nuclear storage sites have attracted a growing number of tourists who want to experience the material remains of one of the best-guarded secrets of the Cold War in Eastern Europe. They are no longer just the remains of a totalitarian regime or relics of traumatic memories that should be erased. Instead, they speak to a contemporary identity shared throughout Eastern Europe.”

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