This post is different from normal in a couple of ways… firstly, this was an organised tour. To some people that’s not “real” urban exploration; personally I don’t really mind as my interest in exploration comes more from a desire to see lots of cool places than from getting a thrill from the risk of getting caught. I have another couple of interesting tours booked for the next few months, so hopefully I’ll have more to post about soon. And secondly, no photos this time 🙁 (I’ll get onto why that is later on).
First, the history. A huge number of underground bunkers were built in Berlin in the lead up to World War II. Some of these were military installations, but many were civilian air raid shelters intended for use by citizens who weren’t at home when an air raid happened. However, not many of the bunkers survive today… around 80% of them were destroyed as part of the demilitarisation of Germany by the allied forces after the war. A few did survive simply because they were too close to some sort of important infrastructure to be safely demolished, and that included the large Gesundbrunnen Bunker in the north of the city.
The U-Bahn (underground) station at Gesundbrunnen was opened in 1930, joining the S-Bahn station that already existed above the ground. The U-Bahn tracks were quite a distance below the ground at this point, so there was a large gap between the actual railway tunnel and the station buildings on the surface. Rather than filling in this space, it was left empty, and it was converted into a massive four storey air raid shelter around the start of the war. Although it looks very solid, and although the 80cm thick concrete roof could easily withstand falling rubble and so on, it wouldn’t have withstood a direct hit by even a 1940 bomb, so it’s lucky it never was hit directly.
The proximity of the U-Bahn tunnels is the reason this particular bunker escaped demolition. After the war, it stood empty for decades, apart from some small usage as storage for the railway company, until it was rediscovered by the Berlin Unterwelten society, formed in 1997. They got permission to explore the bunker, and eventually leased it from the railway company so that they could run guided tours through it.
Led by our very knowledgeable tour guide, we entered the bunker through heavy green metal doors in the stairwell down to the U-Bahn platforms. Behind the doors was a huge labyrinth of rooms, passageways and staircases lined with bare concrete. The shelter had a maximum capacity of 1000 occupants, but this limit was more because of the oxygen levels than because of any lack of physical space in there. In places, original signs giving directions to the toilets or the exits, or warning shelterers not to smoke, were still painted onto the walls. There was also white fluorescent paint in places, designed to glow in the dark for a time so that the occupants wouldn’t be left in the pitch black if the power failed (as it often did during wartime) – the guide gave a dramatic demonstration of this, using a high powered flash gun to silhouette two of our tour group against the wall!
Apart from the walls, floors and ceilings, very little remains in the bunker from the time of the war; everything from toilets to wooden partitions to benches and beds was carried off at the end of the war by Berliners who had lost everything in the bombing raids, to be either re-used or simply burnt. However, Berlin Unterwelten have made a good attempt at sourcing appropriate artefacts and using them to furnish some of the rooms as they might have looked in the early 1940s. Other rooms are more museum-like, with historical items on display in glass cases and information boards with old photographs on the walls. (The old photographs are the reason for the photography ban on the tours – the copyright on them is owned by various other organisations who won’t allow copies to be made, especially in this era where almost everything ends up online. I was slightly disappointed by this, but at least it meant I didn’t have to attempt to fit my SLR into the rather miserly easyJet hand luggage allowance along with everything else I needed for several days in Berlin!).
Most of the displays were about the war, but towards the end of the tour, other elements of Berlin’s rich underground history are documented as well: a pneumatic mail delivery system, breweries, and of course the ubiquitous U-Bahn and S-Bahn tunnels.
All-in-all it was a very interesting 90 minutes underground, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone who finds themselves in Berlin looking for something to do. Berlin Unterwelten also run various other tours of underground locations around the city, so I know what I’ll be doing next time I’m there (and there definitely will be a next time, it’s one of my favourite places).