reflections by Bob Archer. Photos by the author and via 'Milslides'
Imagine being paid to be a military aircraft enthusiast! Collecting data and photography on military aircraft, with a company car supplied, top-of-the-range camera kit with unlimited film, and a brief to obtain all available details on just one particular field of interest. A dream? Well, not exactly…
For more than forty years this was reality for a handful of highly-specialised UK military personnel - the car and camera equipment were all supplied by the Ministry of Defence, and the personnel carrying out this 'dream' duty were primarily serving Royal Air Force officers and NCOs. The air arm in question was the 16th Air Army of the Soviet Air Force, stationed in East Germany. Understandably the Soviets did their level best to discourage the activity, despite having issued the British 'tourists' (as they were known) with official passes to travel throughout the Deutsch Democratic Republic. Some areas were designated as Permanently Restricted Areas (PRAs), but even these locations did not always deter the men of the British Commander-in-Chief's Mission to the Soviet Forces of Occupation in Germany. Better know as the British Military Liaison Mission, and abbreviated to BRIXMISS (later BRIXMIS), the organisation was the outcrop of an agreement to exchange accredited personnel between Britain and the Soviet Union. The agreement was between Lt General B. H. Robertson, Deputy Military Governor of Berlin, and Colonel General M. S. Malinin, Deputy Commander-in-Chief, Chief of Staff of the Soviet Group of Forces of Occupation in Germany. Both signed the document in Berlin on 16 September 1946, which became known as the Roberston-Malinin Agreement, enabling tours to begin soon afterwards. The quarry was the dozens of air bases, ranges, and air defence complexes associated with all manner of Soviet aviation operations, which collectively formed the frontline between the two superpowers throughout the Cold War. The primary purpose of BRIXMIS was to ensure that the Soviet Union would not invade Western Europe through any form of misunderstanding by the NATO posture. Simply put, the BRIXMIS tourers were there to observe, and if necessary diffuse, any potentially confusion on either side.
With virtually no knowledge of the composition of the Red Army's air component, the small number of RAF personnel, together with those of the American and French Military Liaison teams, set about discovering the aircraft types in residence, their 'bort' numbers, construction numbers, flight schedules, mission profiles, weapons carried, tactics, and an overall order of battle. Despite harassment by Soviet guards and the Stasi (East German Secret Police), who had teams dedicated to intercepting the BRIXMIS tourists, by 1959 over eighty-five percent of frontline aircraft based in East Germany had been photographed, and before long this had increased to one hundred percent. Thereafter the 'tourists' maintained a continual watch on every conceivable location to record all new equipment, as well as that being withdrawn to the Soviet Union. The arrival of the first Mikoyan MiG-21 'Fishbed' was recorded by BRIXMIS, as were the first Regiments of MiG-23/27 'Floggers', MiG-29 'Fulcrums', Sukhoi Su-17 'Fitters', as well as the Su-24 'Fencer'. Even visiting types from the homeland did not escape the BRIXMIS cameras - the Tupolev Tu-22 'Backfire' and Ilyushin IL-76 'Candid' airborne early warning aircraft being but two.
The Soviet presence was an occupation, and not one which was welcomed by the vast majority of the East German population. The dismantling of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 removed the physical barrier between the two German nations, effectively sweeping away the DDR regime, and the division between the two states. The virtual overnight elimination of the DDR left the huge Soviet arsenal in situ, but without its support and Stasi protection. The future was abundantly clear - the Soviet Union would no longer be welcome in the DDR, and would need to effectively plan to return home. Furthermore, NATO representatives could travel the length and breadth of the state to view the Soviet arsenal virtually unhindered.
The Mission continued in business until 2 October 1990 when the Robertson-Malinin Agreement was officially suspended. Furthermore, as BRIXMIS was winding down operations, its place was being taken by a new generation of 'spy' - namely the European aviation enthusiast. German aviation photographers were quick off the mark to explore areas of their now united country, which had hitherto been denied them. Word also soon spread back to the ever-resourceful Dutch enthusiast network. By early 1990 contact was being made by enthusiast groups to access bases with the agreement of the Soviet personnel - an occurrence which would have been unthinkable just a few months earlier. Small numbers of Belgian, French, and Swiss photographers also made the arduous trip east, along with a handful of Brits, although it is unlikely that more than a couple of dozen of the latter regularly travelled from the UK.
Those photographers who did tour around the Soviet bases were rewarded with a bevy of aircraft types that previously could only be dreamed about. The enthusiasts set about observing the Soviets in much the same manner as BRIXMIS had for the previous forty-plus years - with dogged determination, oodles of patience, and often sheer luck, the rewards were the sights and sounds of Soviet hardware in action.
Some facilities were easy to find, being located alongside main roads, with the enthusiast grapevine feeding back details, enabling vantage points to be highlighted on maps. MiG-29s were parked outside hardened shelters at Zerbst, for example, and were easily visible from the adjacent road. Likewise the flight path to the runway at Wittstock was over an adjacent road, offering good views of the landing Fulcrums. Other bases required a degree of legwork to access the perimeter fence, with enthusiasts path-finding in a similar manner to BRIXMIS - one of these was the air base at Altes-Lager, located within the vicinity of the garrison town of Juterbog (itself within a PRA, and therefore off limits to BRIXMIS). The base was accessed by an uphill walk and crossing a railway line and some adjacent fields. This was the only Mikoyan MiG-23MLD 'Flogger-K' base in the DDR. Railway lines were often used as navigational aids by both BRIXMIS and enthusiasts alike, as the Soviets resupplied virtually all of their installations by train.
One of the main north/south direction railway lines from Berlin was used to find Rangsdorf, a few miles south of the city's ring road. To view the base, it was necessary to park the car, and walk alongside the railway, before crossing the tracks - a dangerous game, as any BRIXMIS veteran would testify. Even after the wall fell, some of the local populace remained cool to western European interest - Rangsdorf being a helicopter maintenance facility, which also had a large scrap dump housing several dozen wrecked airframes. Amongst the dereliction were Mikoyan MiG-17 'Frescos', MiG-19 'Farmers', MiG-21 'Fishbeds', MiG-23s, Yakolev Yak-28 'Brewers', an IL-28 'Beagle' and even a MiG-25 'Foxbat', which had crashed in Germany some years earlier. Some had been scavenged from ranges, while others were former gate guards. Despite 'Keep out' warning signs in German and Russian, enthusiasts could easily vault the small fence to trawl through the dozens of mangled and wrecked airframes - great fun, and a wonderful way to spend a few hours.
Most of the time the Soviet personnel inside the bases paid little attention to the visiting photographers, and would happily disappear in exchange for a couple of packets of western cigarettes. However, one base that was very security conscious was Mahlwinkel. Housing 337 OVP, equipped with forty Mil Mi-24P 'Hind-F' and Mi-24V 'Hind-Es', along with twenty Mil Mi-8TB 'Hip-E', Mi-8MT 'Hip-H' and Mi8MTV 'Hip-H' helicopters, several enthusiasts encountered aggressive confrontations with angry Soviet personnel. On more than one occasion Dutch photographers were warned away by a Soviet soldier firing his AK-47 into the air! Another enthusiast was arrested and held overnight awaiting the arrival of an English-speaking translator from the Soviet headquarters at Zossen-Wunsdorf. The enthusiast bribed the guard to bring him some vodka, with the two of them drinking the entire bottle. Next morning the enthusiast was still too drunk to be interrogated, and he was released by the furious headquarters' representative.
One of the most popular facilities for photography was Mirow Larz, which was home to a Regiment of Mikoyan MiG-27D 'Flogger-Js'. The runway extended almost to the perimeter fence, resulting in pilots landing just a few feet above the road. Vehicles were halted by traffic lights operated by a soldier in a small guard box. On more than one occasion, the guard was bribed to let a photographer stand atop of his guard box, resulting in some spectacular photography. In hindsight BRIXMIS must have had a field day at bases such as Mirow.
Two facilities that deserve special mention are Welzow and Sperenberg - these attracted considerable interest by BRIXMIS staff, and subsequently by the enthusiast community, as they housed unique aircraft types. Welzow was briefly home to the electronic reconnaissance version of the Mikoyan MiG-25RBS 'Foxbat-D' and the two-seat MiG-25RU 'Foxbat-C', as well as the Sukhoi Su-24MR 'Fencer-E'. The Foxbats had been stationed at Werneuchen, and moved briefly to Welzow, before relocating back to Russia. These unique, and ultra-secret aircraft were some of the first to leave, and were therefore much sought after by enthusiasts. Even after their departure, Welzow was still popular as the Fencers were the last examples in Europe. With the aid of the obligatory railway line, the base could easily be accessed, with some stunning photography on flying days. In the same manner as BRIXMIS would have done many times between the 1940s and 1990, the photographers penetrated the base with ease (although with no perimeter fence in several strategically important places, penetration was not exactly difficult). Pilots of taxying Fencers would often raise their air brake in acknowledgement - especially as some photographers enjoyed standing on the taxiway during flight operations to get that "I was there" thrill!
Sperenberg was the primary transport base, as it was the closest to the huge Soviet Group of Forces headquarters at Zossen-Wunsdorf. The Commander utilised a Tupolev Tu-134A-3 'Crusty' in VIP configuration, which did not fly very often and was usually to be found parked on a hardstanding in the trees. Alongside were two more parking areas that accommodated a pair of Ilyushin IL-20 'Coot-A' electronic intelligence gathering and reconnaissance platforms. Access to the parking area of these three aircraft was not easy, with a number of Dutch photographers having spent considerable time driving along numerous forests tracks to find the rear of the base. To aid other colleagues, they placed empty 'Fanta' bottles at strategic junctions as a memory aid. A derelict pair of gates marked journey's end for vehicles. A short uphill walk past the broken gates, over a rusted fence that had deteriorated many years before, and the parking areas were the other side of some trees. Located in the trees was a small hut used by maintenance personnel for rest breaks, so it was prudent not to go crashing through the woods making a lot of noise. Again, enthusiasts were emulating BRIXMIS operations (although BRIXMIS would not have left tell-tale markers for the Stasi to use as evidence against them!). Sperenberg also had an independent Regiment operating the Antonov An-12BP 'Cub', An-24 'Coke' and An-26B 'Curl' for general transport duties. Mi-8 and Mi-24 helicopters were also located, including the Mi-24RKR 'Hind-G1' NBC reconnaissance model fitted with small claws to collect soil samples for evaluation of radiation, biological and chemical contamination.
The breaching of the Berlin Wall and the simultaneous elimination of the repressive DDR regime provided the Soviets with the opportunity to become more relaxed. The overriding requirement was to protect their personnel and equipment, and to maintain a state of readiness, particularly from a surprise attack by NATO. Nevertheless, the opportunity was not lost on the Soviets to show a more open status. The first known public event was at Werneuchen on 1 May 1991, shortly before the facility closed. Ten helicopters were seen, composed of Mil Mi-2 'Hoplites', Mi-6 'Hooks' as well as a Mi-8 and three Mi-24s. A single Mig-25RBS 'Foxbat-D' was also present. Very few members of the public attended, and there was no flying display. Furthermore BRIXMIS personnel had all left, and enthusiasts were still thin on the ground in East Germany.
The first major event was at Finow Ebberswalde on 18 August 1991. The MiG-29 'Fulcrum-Cs' of the resident 787th Fighter Regiment were not permitted to fly, but that did not prevent one pilot performing several fast runs along the runway. This was particularly impressive after a cloud-burst soaked the runway, enabling the MiG to create a huge spray in its wake. The event attracted visiting fighters from other bases including a Sukhoi Su-17M-4 'Fitter-K', Su-24MR 'Fencer-E', Su-25 'Frogfoot' and a MiG-25RBS 'Foxbat-D'. Advanced publicity enabled a large public attendance, estimated to be 70,000, including many enthusiasts. The absence of BRIXMIS was partly filled by specialists from various NATO embassies, who took great interest in this first opportunity to photograph the latest Soviet hardware at close quarters, and without personal risk.
Ironically the open day took place against the background of a coup attempt against Russian Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, who was holidaying at his dacha in Crimea, Ukraine. News of the coup had not reached Finow until after the show had finished. Earlier, the Base Commander had agreed to let the enthusiasts return next day to photograph the visiting aircraft depart. When asked why the authorities had permitted the hundred or so photographers access, while their leader was being held against his will, the answer was simply that the base had to honour the promise they had made to their western guests. The concerned Russians need not have worried, as the coup failed, and the base returned to normal operations soon afterwards. Finow was again the setting for a major event in 1992, when an air show was staged on 10 May. A small static park was complemented by a flying programme with a couple of MiG-29s performing some exhilarating manoeuvres. Again heavy showers followed by bright sunshine provided for some stunning photographic opportunities.
By 1992 Dutch photographers/enthusiasts had virtually filled the void left by BRIXMIS in maintaining an ongoing overview of the dwindling Soviet air arm in Germany. Each departing unit was viewed by more than a hundred enthusiasts, along with a handful of representatives from various embassies in Germany, and air traffic controllers from Berlin Centre. The Soviet bases were gradually emptied, taking with them every item that was not nailed down, and including the hardened aircraft shelters, which were dismantled and transported to Russia by train, as well as sections of runways! The final base to close was Sperenberg, which shut with a flourish. The remaining Soviet 'top brass' were on hand to see the 16th Air Army officially be disbanded on 27 May 1994, although some of the resident aircraft had already left. The 'Swifts' display team flew in from Russia with seven MiG-29s to present their unique routine. A Sukhoi Su-27UB 'Flanker' from Kubinka was also displayed. Parked on their hard standings were many of the based An-12s, An-24s, An-26s, Mi-8s, Mi-24s, the VIP Tu-134A-3, and one of the IL-20s. Additionally several Aeroflot transport aircraft were present to support the departure of the based Regiments.
The final Soviet personnel had departed by the end of August 1994, when the Commander in Chief, Colonel-General Matvej Prokopjevich Burlakov, officially vacated his headquarters at Zossen-Wunsdorf. This brought to an end almost fifty years of Soviet presence in Germany. The lax security, most of the time, meant that enthusiasts could enjoy activities inside Soviet bases that would not have be tolerated at NATO establishments. BRIXMIS was part of the very fabric of Soviet life in the DDR for forty-four years, while the enthusiasts were there for just four. Both groups will readily admit it was a magical time, and an experience that was unique. As one of the few who ventured into the east to enjoy the 16th Air Army, I can only add Amen to that!