Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
The Cold War bunkers that cover a country (bbc.com)
74 points by curtis 4 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 48 comments

We still have them in Denmark too, I can see two from my apartment. For a long time, and possibly even today. You were required to build bunkers if you build an apartment building. Sometimes that was done by building the basement in such a way that it would hold storage units that could easily be converted into bunkers. Other times it meant building actual bunkers near the apartment complex.

A lot of the cold-war stuff was rather secret and simply build into the design of public buildings.

My school (from age 6-14, not sure what that’s called in English) had really wide hallways, wide doors, wide elevatory and a huge basement full of stuff that no one outside of the school administration really knew what was. Turns out my school had been designed and build to be converted into a hospital in the case of nuclear war.

Later when I attended the next step in my education, my gymnasium had a water leak. To everyone’s surprise the city closed the entire school for a week and brought in specialists to fix it even though it would typically be up to the local administration to do so. 25 years later we learned that the command center bunker for our region was located under the school.

My story might sound special, it’s not. Almost every public building from that period had a secondary cold-war purpose, but the extend of it has only recently been revealed. It really impresses me, just how prepared our society was, and that my generation never really noticed. Maybe our parents did but mine have never shared much about their cold-war experiences.

Ironically the secrecy didn’t actually work. Recently when Russia opened their soviet archives, it was revealed that they knew every location of every command centre bunker we had, or at least admitted to having.

> Ironically the secrecy didn’t actually work.

If Russia knew the location of every command center bunker with less than 100% certainty, then it did work. If instead of the actual command center they knew the location of the 10 potential alternate locations, then they would need to spend 10 nukes instead of 1 (pretty much any concrete bunker is able to withstand anything but a direct hit from a megaton-size nuclear bomb). That complicates a lot the nuclear calculus, even when you have thousands of warheads. In the end, this may have been a small factor in the fact WW3 never happened.

What is the distribution between fission nukes and thermonuclear nukes?

Virtually all nukes nowadays are thermonuclear bombs. If your question is how many bombs have a yield at or above 1 MT TNT, and how many below, then the majority of the current warheads is below. More precisely, currently maybe 90% of the US warheads have a yield between 100 and 455 kT TNT. The largest active warhead in the US inventory has 1.2 MT TNT yield. A rule of thumb is that the more advanced a nuclear program is, the lower the yield of their nukes, the reason being that the a more precise missile can destroy an ICBM silo with a lower yield.

Those are air-raid shelters, like we have in Sweden, right?

In Sweden every new building with more than so many occupants had to have a 'skyddsrum'. Local government also had skyddsrums they could manage the civil response to emergencies i.e. attack from.

This is all quite separate from the military bunkers.

And all this isn't quite like these pillboxes that are littering the Albanian countryside.

One country that did build lots of pillboxes after WW2 is Switzerland. If you visit, locals enjoy pointing out various buildings that look like normal mountain chalets but actually have several-meter-thick ground-floors with gun emplacements hidden inside. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Redoubt_(Switzerland)

Yes you are right, ours too are for protection, not fighting off an invasion. I should have made that more clear.

Evan Hadfield did an episode of Rare Earth on these.


Interesting article. But even more interesting than the article, it makes me wonder at how our memories work.

The article mentions Albania, which is forever etched in my memory from a skit on the old tv show 'Cheers'. I probably hadn't seen the show for 25 years, but I can still remember every word of this short ditty about Albania:


The power of music!

  ‘Treasure’ of a different sort turned up in one bunker in 2004. Some 16 tons of mustard gas canisters were found in a bunker only 40km from Tirana – the US had to pay the Albanian government some $20m to safely dispose of the weapons.
Why was that something the US had to pay for?

Probably because the Albanian government did not have resources (or will) and US did not want to exists a change that this will end up in the black market.

Yep, same reason the US paid for various former Soviet states to secure or dispose of their nuclear weapons. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nunn–Lugar_Cooperative_Threat_...

Albanian gov then would have sold them in the black market or dump them in a river or cave.

No doubt USA used corruption in the 90's to buy Russian secrets or weapons. General "Dimitri" takes suitcase full of cash and screw the glorious motherland.

A sibling comment covers it fairly well, but . . .

Strictly speaking, the US did not have to pay. They chose to pay as they preferred that to the alternative: unsecured chemical weapons sitting around waiting for anyone to take them.

Because global hegemony comes with certain responsibilities

> responsibilities


I saw a replica of one of these dome bunkers was at the 2000 World Expo in Hanover, Germany as Albania's booth display. It seemed a bizarre representation of a nation I knew nothing about.

Sweden didn't have the little firing posts, but a huge amount of underground space for residents to wait out bombs and fallout. Here is the government informing you were to find your nearest shelter: https://gisapp.msb.se/apps/kartportal/enkel-karta_skyddsrum/

Finland still has a requirement of air raid shelters to all buildings exceeding a certain size. In practice, these often have a double function of working as storage space during peacetime.

Same in Norway. It was ignored for a while but it is being taken seriously again now.

Why? What is the threat model? Doesn't make much sense in case of a terrorist attack or natural disaster. With modern warfare they are becoming less valuable.

Poor Finland...can't change geography. Amazing what that does to you

background: these were placed in strategic places, the places where an invading army would likely pass. So the idea was that invading army would be attacked by well protected soldiers. They are so strong, they'll probably be here for 10,000 years. Made of super-strong concrete with crushed stone as aggregate and plenty of steel. Might even survive a direct artillery hit but of course the waves would kill everyone inside. The sad part...a decent house might have been built instead of one small bunker.

There's so much steel in there that it is economically feasible for people to destroy them to sell the scrap. A lot of them met their end this way.

My experience in driving through various parts of Albania is that they aren't just in strategic places but they were everywhere and that in much less than 10000 years they will all be gone. Even in the couple years between my lasts visits (I was in Tirana and Durrës last week) was that development is coming and it wont be all that long before Albania will be a place where people talk about the old days when things were much less expensive and more accessible. I might be wrong but to me it feels like it's headed in that direction. I may be biased, I really love Albania and so I do hope that they finally have the time, stability and space to enjoy some prosperity.

The 10k year thing was a guess based on their strength, not that people will keep them for future use. But yeah, development is coming and prices are through the roof, not supported by local salaries. Albania is extremely safe, any killing is targeted at specific people. Mistakes rarely happen.

Again, they are not everywhere, randomly. Now roads have changed and may seem that way, but the idea was to harass an invading army. You and your father as soon as you learn the news via sirens and media, grab guns, go to a bunker and start shooting at US Imperialists ;)

I have a long and humorous story about an accidental drive through Northern Albania. We were on a lot of small roads through little villages and farmlands and I just saw them dotted everywhere, in the middle of fields, in lots of other places. It really felt like someone had a metric based on the number built and went after it. I will say I didn't see as many in the south. But my first visit was in 2013 so a lot could had already changed by then from the old days.

Interestingly enough - in line with your last comment. My son cut his leg deeply on that trip and we needed to take him to a doctor to get it fixed up. That was not difficult and the doctor was a really nice guy but at one point he said to my son, "Not long ago my job would have been to kill you." I thought it was funny but my son didn't enjoy it as much.

The Allies made short work of the German bunkers during D-Day.

First they were made mostly to defend against the Yugoslavians and the Greeks.

Also, the vast majority of them are the size of a small igloo barely big enough for two, with foot thick reinforced concrete - and they’re everywhere in an onion like structure.

The idea then is that the infantry man retreats to the next layer (some 100 yards or less).

Sure an aircraft an destroy anyone of them. But there are more bunkers than any Air Force can blow up.

Meanwhile the invader has hundreds of kilometers of layers of bunkers to walk through.

Most of the igloos are for rifle men. Every third igloo is open in the back - that’s the RPG guy for the tanks.

Those big bunkers in the photos are quite rare.

Finally, the “commissioning” of the igloo bunker was done by having their designer sit in one of them while the artillary hit it - they’re tough little things.

Yeah I was surprised how the pictures show bunkers in hillsides, their gleaming concrete dome exposed and very visible.

It would be such a little thing to dump the earth they excavated when building the bunker back on top of the thing and spread it around so grass grew etc, hiding the damn thing.

Imagine being a soldier sat in one. It would give the feeling of 'please shoot at me!' rather than the feeling of security, surely.

Even when the bombs don't penetrate the concrete, the shock waves are disabling to the inhabitants. Since the bunker is in a fixed position, once the artillery is zeroed in on it, you just pound it till it breaks, and there's nothing the inhabitants can do about it. Ground attack airplanes firing at the gun ports, enveloping the bunker with napalm, phosphor bombs, etc., all are effective and fairly cheap to do.

For accounts of this by survivors,

"D Day Through German Eyes" by Eckhertz

Also, already in WW II the "normal" bomb shelters (also mentioned in the article) weren't effective protection to the methods proudly used by the British and US war planners:


"Increased ambient environmental temperature from burning napalm has been known to cause the deaths of individuals in raid shelters as a result of radiant heat and dehydration. This was a frequent cause of death in the bombing raids carried out over Hamburg, Germany, during World War II."

Recently Swedish forest fires swept across a military range. Because of fear of unexploded ordinance, the fire fighters couldn't pursue it.

But the air force dropped a very small conventional bomb, sucked all the oxygen out of the air, and put out the fire.

It was in the news a bit. A quick google finds https://www.thelocal.se/20180725/watch-swedish-fighter-jets-...

Didn't they drop the idea again, because it didn't really work that well?

My point about camouflaging it by having a nice turf over it was to avoid its position being fixed in the first place.

What is the point? either you construct it in secret and hope the secret is safe (no spys!), or you construct it in public so the enemy already knows where it is. In the first place you hope the enemy doesn't know. In the second place you know the enemy already knows so you mitigate that by either having so many that the enemy cannot deal with them all, and/or you mitigate by making the strong enough to withstand an attack.

These didn't have anything rational about them. They are literally everywhere- seemingly randomly placed in the middle of farm fields, etc. and they kept people busy and were a response to the ever present "threat" of the US and/or USSRs ever imminent attack. So camouflage didn't matter.

> It would be such a little thing to dump the earth they excavated when building the bunker back on top of the thing and spread it around so grass grew etc, hiding the damn thing.

Easier said than done, and I don't think camouflaging them was ever a priority. Even today, you can see the excavated material spilling down the hill in front of large bunkers 70+ years later, which makes them fairly easy to locate: https://www.cios.org.je/assets/images/other/noirmont-headlan... (this location is also easy to spot in wartime RAF reconnaissance images that I've seen)

Not all bunkers, the submarine pens were quite a challenge.

"Its roof (3.40 to 7.0 metres (11.15 to 22.97 ft) of steel-reinforced concrete)"


You weren't kidding. 'Tis was easier to flatten the bordering city and all the roads rather than bombing the submarine pens!

Even after the war they couldn't demolish it by blasting because even targeted explosions would have been enough to seriously harm everything around it.

"Because it seemed impossible to destroy Valentin by bombing it, the decision was made to destroy it by blasting. This idea was later abandoned because the blasting would have caused severe damage to the nearby villages of Rekum and Farge including the power-station in Farge. In 1960 the bunker was taken over by the German Navy, for use as a storage depot. "[1]


That says more about their accuracy than the bunker strength. The allied bombing was terrible.

They dropped grand slam (22,000lb) bombs on submarine pens. Some of the hits are detailed on wikipedia, but yeah WW2 bombing wasn't accurate.

"It was the most powerful non-atomic aerial bomb used in combat until 2017"



"The Lancasters attacking Valentin each carried a single large earthquake bomb – seven carried the 5 ton 'Tallboy', thirteen carried the 10 ton 'Grand Slam'. Two 'Grand Slam's hit the target and penetrated about half-way through the 15-foot (4.6 m) thick ferrous concrete roof before exploding. The explosions blew large holes in the remaining thickness of the roof and brought down around 1,000 tons of debris into the chamber below.[8] Workers who were inside the bunker at the time survived, as the bombs did not penetrate the roof before detonating.[8]"



But with "as many as 500 high-explosive bombs and more than 60,000 incendiary bombs" you'd think they could have hit the bunker a few times?

14/15" naval gunfire support will do that.

Phosphor bombs dropped by fighters had a big role in that, too, especially the ones not visible from the ship guns.

A bunker cannot maneuver or adapt under fire, meaning it's very vulnerable to modern warfare techniques. Mostly it just winds up as a trap for the unfortunates in it.

Those bunker reminds me of an expo near Paris, on the fortifications built around Paris between the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 and WW1. The idea was coming from the siege of Paris during the 1870 war and the French army built a ring of forts around Paris, at great cost. And all those forts ended up outdated when the next war with Germany arrived.

That picture of Gjirokaster is rather beautiful.

They should put them on Airbnb

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact