Hansaviertel’s runway

The take-off was made under hailing Russian fire and as the plane rose to roof-top level it was picked up by countless searchlights and at once breaketed in a barrage of shelling’.

– Hanna Reitsch, 29 April, 1945 –

Photo: LIFE © Time Inc (115928934).

It was mid July, 1945, when American photographer William Vandivert traveled around the devastated city accompanied by some US servicemen in one of those ubiquitous Jeeps following the capture of Berlin by Allied troops. He took hundreds of pictures with his camera of the ruined Nazi-capital for the LIFE magazine. 

During his trip across the Tiergarten sector he found a pair of strange structures: two large hangar-style wooden halls built right on a wide street in what seems to be some kind of makeshift German depot or repair facility. In the pictures can be seen that their walls were covered by cork plates and the roof by fabric trying to camouflage it from the air; residential buildings with fancy facades are seen on both sides with the place left in an abandoned condition.

A small and lesser known corner of the Third Reich’s capital city that still today raises many unknowns …but what really were? A shed being built to house bombed out Berliners? or they were small aircraft repair facilities used by the Nazis during the last days of the fighting?

Photo: LIFE © Time Inc (115928934).

This is an opposite view of the camouflaged structure, with some curious Berliners walking through the interior. At extreme left there is some kind of double stove pipe, note its brick construction and the considerable height of the chimney. 

Photo: LIFE © Time Inc.

Vandivert took this picture of the second hall also, looking apparently northwards and with the first one and the stoves seen in the far background (there were some others between the two halls). This one seems to have a complete opening at both ends unlike the other and within it we can see a wide variety of objects (aircraft wrecks?), some huge wooden crates and debris everywhere. Both facilities appear to be damaged or left unfinished, with part of the roof collapsed and its fabric cover torn. 

Photo: LIFE © Time Inc (641270).

… but exactly where?
First question to aboard is to know in which zone these structures were built. Original photo captions and brief information available until today just reported as being in the “Tiergarten section”, a very large and vast area of the German capital. It is well known that Berlin’s largest green zone was used during the last months of the war as an improvised landing strip with several oral testimonies and reports about transport aircraft’s attempts to land here (and as a drop zone for container dropping) but none of them mentioned an aircraft depot or hangar-style structure like these ones. 

It was true that the answer was in Tiergarten but close examination of the available images and intense research work will show that it was in a different area. The few lines and sources that mentioned this stated that were probably located at Tiergartenstraße, a street in the southern part of the Tiergarten so that’s where we started the search. A very possible location because of being right next to the park: it has residential buildings between a tree line too, but soon small details cast doubt from being the actual spot: a small fence is clearly seen next to the wooden structure (extreme right, first image) and Tiergartenstr. had no such fences for example, and there are several film footage showing this street (which now lay in the British Sector) on the first days of the British and American occupation and some other pictures taken at this location and don’t match with the LIFE magazine’s pictures scenario.

[View of Tiergartenstraße just after the end of the war in Berlin, with bombed out buildings, shrapnel scars and debris everywhere.]

Photo: LIFE © Time Inc (1216582).

Again, we turn to Allied aerial reconnaissance looking for photographic evidence of the wanted location. On March 22nd, 1945, an F-5 Lightning of the 22nd Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron, USAAF, flew a long photo run over Berlin to assets bomb damage (Sortie US7-40D) after the big US air-raid made on the city four days before. 

First, we look at the mentioned Tiergartenstr. that runs from Potsdamer Platz in the south to the Hofjägerallee at the northern end but no large structures or nothing like that or closer was found there: some minor debris with bomb craters and damaged buildings but the street is practically clear.

Photo: NARA US7/0072/D; exposure 715.

Photo: NARA US7/0072/D; exposure 4176.

Otherwise, we continue the search on a westward path as one caption says “west of Tiergarten”: exposure #3176 from that same PR sortie shows the Tiergarten north and Moabit areas: it is an oblique aerial photograph taken facing north west capturing Hansaplatz at upper left of the image, Schloßpark Bellevue in centre with the Moabiter Brücke next to the Spree at middle right. On the upper part of the image is the Hansaviertel built-up area and S-Bahnhof Bellevue. The ruined and flattened condition of the district, gutted by fire, with many roofless buildings is evident. We look to the main street, Altonaer Straße and nothing strange is there, but a few metres away we got Brückenallee, and bingo!… the two rectangular-shaped structures are there.

Photo: NARA US7/0072/D; exposure 3176.

Photo: NARA US7/0072/D; exposure 3176.

Photo: NARA US7/0072/D; exposure 3176.

Compare it with this earlier PR aerial of the same area in Tiergarten, this time a vertical photograph taken on September 6th, 1943 by No 542 RAF Squadron (sortie: E/0138 frame #3021), some months before the fall 1943 British bombings that caused huge destruction on the district. Note the high density of trees and vegetation seen in the area, as opposed to the previous image after two years of sustained air attacks.

Photo: NCAP [http://ncap.org.uk/NCAP-000-000-008-736]

Furthermore, back to 1945 it seems that there was one more similar structure in this area, a few blocks away to the west and located between Hansaplatz and the Kaiser-Friedrich-Gedächtniskirche we found another rectangular structure at Lessingstraße. The absence of closer photos does not allow us to confirm additional information or if it had same purpose as the other two. 

Photo: NARA US7/0072/D; exposure 3175.

Following close examination of ALL the imagery taken then (Berlin PR images from the war years recorded and available at US and British archives), we can affirm that these are the only structures of this type found in the city.

Down to ground level, the street views look more similar to the one where Vandivert captured the abandoned ‘hangars’ with his camera: a wide street road, sidewalk tree line, the streetlamps, small fences and prestigious houses with elaborate facades and small front gardens along the roadsides. 

Located in the northwestern Tiergarten, Brückenallee was part of the residential Hansaviertel district that emerged from the intersection of three main streets in the Hansaplatz square. Sadly, there is no chance to examine the place today: huge devastation caused by the war and the air bombings led to a massive rebuilt of the area in the post-war years, with a reconstruction urban planning from 1953. The modern West-Berlin urban quarter developed and simplified the area and some streets like Brückenallee or Lessingstraße were removed from the map, although part of its track became today’s Bartningallee.

[Two old postcard views of Tiergarten’s Brückenallee. They show to good advance the similarities with the street seen on the 1945 ‘hangar’ pictures.]

Photo: postkarte.

Photo: postkarte.

[This is a 1941-street plan of the Bellevue and northern Tiergarten areas in Berlin centre.]

Photo: Histomap/©Landesarchiv Berlin.

[A 1920s-view into Lessingstraße facing southwards, the exact spot where the third wooden structure was built; the Kaiser-Friedrich-Gedächtniskirche is clearly seen in the background of the picture. It was destroyed during the 22/23 November 1943 RAF attack.]

Photo: Bertram Janiszewski, Das alte hansa-Viertel in Berlin, Berlin 2000, S. 84.

[A propaganda picture of northern Tiergarten released by the Allies showing the huge devastation caused on the Hansaviertel district by the air bombings as it appeared prior to RAF night assaults in late 1943 and early 1944. Brückenallee is seen at bottom left on both images.

Photo: NARA (342-FH-3A20876-57123AC).

It really was an aircraft repair depot?
In favor of this theory is its location: the proximity to the Tiergarten and the improvised landing strip “built” at Speer’s Ost-West-Achse main road towards Charlottenburg, but also far enough away to go unnoticed, hidden from the threat of marauding enemy Jabos (fighter-bombers), artillery spotting aircraft or the feared visit by Soviet Il-2s attack aircraft, made this location a good point to install a small ‘campaign’ aerodrome (although very hazardous and desperate but… desperate times call for desperate measures).

Surrounded by wide enough streets (practically roads) which linked with the Grosser Stern, where a Würzburg radar was reported to be used as traffic command-post, ideal to acting as taxing runways at night for the small aircraft based here from the depot to the landing/take off strip. The Bhf-Bellevue train station is very close, so the depot could easily receive new shipments and spare parts via the railway line. It had a great covering by the surrounding buildings and the surviving trees, an enemy aircraft had to pass directly over that street to see these structures from the air.

Furthermore, the Hansaviertel area was hit hard from January 1943 onwards by Allied bombs and was practically unoccupied, with most of its population being evacuated the previous year so it was a very suitable and quiet zone for this war effort activity during the last months, out of sight and suspicious eyes.  

Finally, the adjacent Altonaer Str is referred also as an northwest-bound improvised runway (runway #29) by oral testimonies (apparently used by Reitsch on her last flight), although there is no confirmation of this.

Photo: NARA US7/0072/D; frame 3175.

Photo: AC Byers/ Hein Gorny/ Collection Regard.

The reason for this place could be to act as a spartan maintenance or recycling facility, such as those that existed in a variety of locations in Germany and occupied Europe (a ‘Versorgungslager’). Some of those depots belonged to Deutsche Lufthansa (DLHas was the case of several of them based in Berlin and served by their own employees; others ‘employed’ foreign workers and slave work from the Nazi camps…

The vast majority were large size structures built next to or around an aerodrome or small aircraft sub-assembly factory, especially after the bombing campaign forced the Germans to disperse their aircraft industry, but there are examples of small and rudimentary facilities near the battlefronts, especially in the Eastern front. What makes this facility unique is its location in the middle of the city, furthermore in the Reich’s capital. The Berlin defenders may have used this depot to engine overhauls, small repairs or servicing the intended visiting aircraft as it was planned by the Nazi leaders.

[Luftwaffe’s ground personnel —known as ‘the black men’— were very skilled building makeshift hangars and aircraft shelters, as seen here on this bigger “house” with a Bf 109F fighter of 9./JG 26 inside seen at Liegescourt, France, in the early summer of 1941.]

Photo: FalkeEins- The Luftwaffe blog.

The apparent absence of cranes (at least at the time those pictures were taken) and the size of the structures discard heavy work here or machinery or big size-aircraft so this facility was intended for small planes like fighters (Fw 190, Bf 109) or most probably liaison aircraft (Fi 156, Ar 96). 

Photo: LIFE © Time Inc (641270).

Some of the parts inside the structure clearly belonged to an aircraft, in this case we have possibly identified what seems to be a rudder (at left, fabric or plywood covered), some damaged wing slats (from the leading-edge) and a metal welded structure (at left, most probably part of fuselage), a gas or oxygen tank (middle right), and a rubble tyre from a landing gear (middle right): all of these match with parts from a German Fieseler Fi 156 Storch (“stork”) liaison plane, minus the rubble tyre, too big in size so obviously from some other type of aircraft.

It seems that there was also a small radial aero-engine at left (two more are seen on the Jeep picture inside the first ‘hangar’) but this type could not be from a Fi 156 neither from an Arado 96, since both were equipped with the Argus As 10, an air-cooled inline inverted engine. Maybe a Fw 44 Stieglitz training plane? in that case it would be a Siemens-Halske Sh14 engine.

[A Fieseler 156 Storch with civil registration code, seen in the North Africa front, in this case a D-model, the ambulance variant of this fabulous liaison plane with very short landing capacities. The characteristic slats on the wings’ leading-edges of this model are clearly appreciated.]

Photo: Campbell, Jerry L. (2005). Fieseler Storch In Action. Squadron Signal Publications.

There is photographic evidence too of at least one Storch liaison plane at the Tiergarten which apparently landed on the improvised runway on the last days of April 1945. The Storch was famous for her outstanding STOL-qualities (short take off and landing) so it was the ideal airplane to operate from this location in those dramatic last moments; it was also a small airplane (it was 32 ft long and 10 ft tall) with a short wingspan (46 ft) and her wings can be folded back along the fuselage for storage or taxing in narrow strips like these ones.

[Here, a Fieseler Storch takes off in front of the Humboldt-Universität on Berlin’s Unter den Linden during the ‘Tag der Wehrmacht’ (Day of the Armed Forces) in March 1940 to show Berliners her outstanding short landing and take off capacities.]

Photo: akg-images (AKG285853).

[An RAF officer inspects the wreckage of a Fieseler Fi 156 in the Tiergarten in front of the Victory Column. Often captioned as being the aircraft in which Hanna Reitsch and Ritter von Greim landed on 26 April 1945 in Berlin to meet Hitler at the Führerbunker but there is no confirmed proof of this.]

Photo: akg-images (AKG138258).

[In this post-war collection point, among Flak guns, howitzers and even two damaged Würzburg radar units, can be discern several aircraft parts including a shattered wing from a Fi 156 Storch (note the slats and part of Luftwaffe’s Balkenkreuz emblem) and a fuselage steel structure, with many similarities to the Tiergarten scene. It was captured by C S Newman at an unidentified location in Berlin some months after the war.]

Photo: ©Stadtmuseum Berlin/ SM 2011-1701,33.

Another evidence of the existence of improvised aircraft depots used by the Germans during the last months of the war could be this picture taken in summer of 1945 by an American servicemen during his duty on the occupied city. It shows the tail section of a Focke-Wulf Fw 190 ready to be assembled into the airframe. Note the factory-style wooden platform beneath, which confirms it as a sub-assembly part from a depot and not a wreck from a destroyed fighter, and the engine panel next to it.

Photo: © Carl MacDaniel.

More evidence of this are the wooden crates seen at right inside the second structure: many aircraft of those years had a modular design which makes easier to replace the damaged parts on the field by the mechanics; in the case of the engine, spare or new units were shipped in a modular pack known by the Germans as the ‘kraftei’ (“power-egg”). Here, a new BMW 801 radial aero-engine is unloaded by Luftwaffe ground crew from a Go 242 cargo glider in the Russian front in 1943. Note the lettering Eigentum’ and code number stenciled on the crate, similar to the ones found inside the Berlin-Tiergarten ‘hangars’. Of course, they could contain anything, not only aircraft engines like this one, but it confirms that it was equipment property of the Wehrmacht.

Photo: Bundesarchiv_Bild_101I-332-3096-12.

Photo: LIFE © Time Inc (641270).

[This picture showing Allied soldiers inspecting an assembly line of repaired Fw 190s is often wrongly captioned as being at Tiergarten in 1945, but actually it was located a few miles away, at Tempelhof airport where a large (and dedicated) underground repair depot was built (note the railway tracks and cobbled pavement) in the tunnels. First from left is Cottbus-built Fw 190A-8 Werk Nummer 170 597.]

Photo: LIFE © Time Inc.

The fact that Brückenallee was a really good location for this “last-call” aircraft depot is show to good in this post-war shot of Altonaer Str and the ruined “Hansa-Viertel” area towards the Moabit district taken from top of the Siegessäule by Harry Croner in fall-winter 1945. Even from this great height the view of the street and its structures would be blocked by the buildings and the park’s tree line.

Photo: ©Stadtmuseum Berlin/ CronerNeg 108/D1.

At least, the exact location of these well known structures (whatever they were used as aircraft depots or assembly halls or not..) has been resolved and a new one has been revealed. There are still several questions to be resolved, such as what these stoves are and what they were used for in this place or if the facilities were actually employed before the fall of the city in May 1945.

A small story connected with the landing of several Ju 52s transport aircraft on the Ost-West-Achse now confirmed, but also with many of those made-up myths from the closing days of the war, as are the last reinforcement flights arriving from Gatow or Hitler escaping from the Reichskanzlei’s bunker.

In the following posts we will analyze the Hansaviertel district during the war and the use of the Tiergarten as an improvised landing strip.

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Sources and Bibliography:

  • Antill, Peter. Berlin 1945: End of the Thousand Year Reich. Campaign 159. Osprey Publishing, 2005.
  • Archer, Lee. Panzers in Berlin 1945. Panzerwrecks, 2019.
  • Beevor, Anthony. The Fall of Berlin 1945. Viking, 2002.
  • Campbell, Jerry L. Fieseler Storch In Action. Squadron Signal Publications, 2005.
  • Demps, Laurenz. Luftangriffe auf Berlin. Die Berichte der Hauptluftschutzstelle. Ch. Links Verlag, 2014.
  • Hansaviertel Berlin. 22. November 1943. https://hansaviertel.berlin/geschichte/november-1943/
  • Kozhevnikov, M N. The Command and Staff of the Soviet Army Air Force in the Great Patriotic War 1941-1945. Supt. of Docs., U.S. G.P.O, 1977.
  • Le Tissier, Tony. Race for the Reichstag: The 1945 Battle for Berlin. Pen and Sword Military, 2010.
  • Lowe, Malcom W. Focke-Wulf Fw 190. Osprey Production Line to Frontline 5. Osprey Publishing, 2003.
  • Mühlhäuser, Alfred H. Hitlerfluchtberichte: Kritisch-analytische Betrachtung von sieben, an eine CIA-Methode angelehnten Fluchtdrehbüchern. Books on Demand, 2017.
  • Ott, Gunther. „Unternehmen Reichskanzlei“, Jet & Prop; Verlag Heinz Nickel in Zweibrücken, 04/95.
  • Pegg, Martin. Transporter Volume Two: Luftwaffe Transport Units 1943-1945. Classic Publications, 2007.
  • Reitsch, Hanna. The Sky My Kingdom: Memoirs of the Famous German World War II Test Pilot. Casemate, 2009.
  • Rosch, Barry C. Luftwaffe Support Units and Aircraft: Units, Aircraft, Emblems and Markings 1933-1945. Classic Publications, 2009.

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