(Image: Miles Winterburn; an abandoned army base and training camp in the UK)
One of the many notable aspects of the 20th century was the proliferation of army bases across the Europe, the United States and the former Soviet Union. As fascism reared its ugly head in the 1920s, paving the way for World War Two and then the Cold War, nations across the world fell to high-speed militarization to keep up with their enemies.
With the theatre of war now shifting to areas like the Middle East, many of those once-high security army bases are no longer needed. The Berlin Wall has fallen, the Soviet Union has disintegrated and the days of fascism in Europe seem to be happily over. Yet many of these abandoned army barracks, bases and training camps remain, overgrown and neglected, yet stark reminders of our turbulent recent past.
Savanna Army Depot (Illinois, USA)
A desolate wasteland on the banks of the Mississippi River, the Savanna Army Depot sprawled out over an incredible 52.86 km2 in its heyday – roughly the same area as the island of Bermuda. Opened as a training in ground in 1917, it upgraded to a weapons depot in 1921 then stayed that way right up until its untimely closure in 2000.
In the years after the depot closed, the abandoned army base became a strangely gloomy place. Although tracts of it were converted into a wildlife refuge, the presence of derelict and decaying buildings didn’t exactly bestow upon it the atmosphere of a natural Shangri-La. Chain link fences still stretch across roads, while heavy duty vehicles turn to rust on the banks of the mighty Mississippi. The abandoned military buildings are all tattered and have been tagged with graffiti, their windows long ago knocked out by bored teenagers. Seeing nature slowly reclaim this slice of America’s military history, it’s not hard to imagine that you’re standing there at the end of the world.
Proteus Training Camp (Nottinghamshire, England)
(Images: Miles Winterburn; the abandoned army training camp Proteus)
An important site for Allied forces in the 1940s, Proteus Camp in Nottinghamshire has run the gauntlet of military uses. Utilized by the British and US armies, repurposed as a TA facility and finally converted into a Cadet training camp, its life was certainly eventful. Spread over a staggering 21 hectares, Proteus was active right up until 2004, at which point the MoD deemed it surplus to requirements.
In the years that followed, the abandoned army training camp fell to ruin. The buildings were gutted, the grounds overgrown and the assault courses left to rust. Yet it still retained the traces of the thousands upon thousands of men who had passed through here serving their country. As late as 2009 you could still access the squat, derelict chapel and see the broken barracks where soldiers once lived.
Fortress Rochonvillers (Lorraine, France)
(Images: Morten Jensen; abandoned French Army fortress on the Maginot Line)
As part of the Maginot Line, Fortress Rochonvillers in northern France has an unfortunate whiff of failure about it. A series of impregnable defenses that were constructed along the Eastern French border, the Maginot Line was supposed to ensure France could never again experience the invasion that scarred it during World War One. Unfortunately, when the time finally came for the Germans to enact their attack plans, they simply drove round it. France fell without places like Rochonvillers managing to do any actual defending.
This strange history happily didn’t repeat itself during the Cold War, when Rochonvillers was used by NATO to potentially ward off Russian attacks. After the Soviet Empire evaporated, the fortress was finally put forward for deactivation. These days, the site is an atmospheric obstacle course of hidden tunnels and forbidden entrances, watched over by the looming concrete towers. Nonetheless, the abandoned army base remains French military property and is officially off-limits.
Abandoned Army Barracks (Germany)
(Images: Klaus Pagel; Cold War abandoned army barracks in Germany)
Somewhere in the wilds of Germany sits this haunting, abandoned army barracks, a three storey building that seems to have been lifted straight from a classic horror movie. The grounds are overgrown with weeds, the windows smashed and the corridors empty. Seen at night, you’d be forgiven for thinking a zombie might come looming out of the darkness, hungry for human flesh.
The exact circumstances of the closures here aren’t certain, but there are several possibilities. One of the most likely is that this may have been a base that was used during the Cold War, a tense conflict that Germany spent fifty-odd years on the very front lines of. In all honesty, the explanation doesn’t really matter. The haunting, rubble-filled rooms and endless corridors have an atmosphere that invites speculation. We may not know how the ruins of this abandoned army barracks came to be, but there’s no doubt that they are an arresting sight.
Abandoned Tank Range at Midhope and Langsett (South Yorkshire, England)
Though it might seem odd to modern-day northerners embittered by the great Steel City’s postwar industrial decline, back in the 1940s one of the cities the government was most-concerned about was Sheffield. As one of the major centres of British industry, a Coventry-style blitz on the city could have crippled the war effort. As a potential method for distracting the German bombers, a mock village and ‘steelworks’ was built up on the moors. It sadly proved ineffective. In early December 1940, two German raids hit Sheffield, damaging its steelworks and killing around 660 people.
That’s not to say the moors village wasn’t put to good use. In the aftermath of the war, the whole area was turned into a tank range. Dummy buildings were levelled with tank fire as shells battered the landscape. Today, the ruins of this abandoned army training range still look as desolate and terrifying as ever. There’s also the added problem of unexploded shells. A few that didn’t explode – including various ‘experimental shells’ that no-one has much idea about the content of – still litter the landscape, scaring the occasional dog walker witless.
Fort Ord (California, USA)
In its heyday, Fort Ord was considered one of cushiest postings in the US army. Built alongside an attractive beach in sunny California, going there seemed less like ‘service’ and more like a vacation. First used as a military training ground in 1917, it was built up into a proper army base in the 1940s, before finally closing its doors for good in 1994.
Today, much of the abandoned Fort Ord remains intact, thanks in large part to the creation of the Fort Ord National Monument. While many just go to wander the trails and soak up the sunshine, it’s possible to still get a look at the surviving buildings themselves. Lined with wooden slats, their windows long-since smashed in and their walls covered with graffiti, the abandoned army barracks today looks like a genuine ghost world. A long-dead place turning to dust beneath the blazing Californian sun.
Abandoned Army Installation (Switzerland)
(Images: Kecko; a concealed army base in the Swiss mountains)
In a remote, rural corner of the small mountain nation of Switzerland sits this old army base. Thanks to the seriousness with which the Swiss take their national security, its exact location is may still be classified, but photographing it – strangely – isn’t. The base therefore is something of an enigma, both easily accessible to the public and curiously off-limits.
Of the installation itself, very little remains. Just a few slabs of concrete and a squat old hut that has seen better days. Supposedly built in the 1960s, it looks like it hasn’t seen action in many years. It’s understood that the seemingly-abandoned army base may still be ostensibly on the Swiss military’s books, hence the secrecy, though its original purpose seems long-since forgotten. Perhaps one of its most interesting features is the hidden underground railway station, complete with a heavy, locked gate obstructing a tunnel into the mountain.
Abandoned Red Army Training Camp (Ukraine)
(Images: Ivan Bandura; an abandoned Soviet army training camp near Kiev)
Not far from the bustling capital of Kiev, this abandoned army base of the former Soviet Union slowly rots away, all but forgotten by the city’s busy residents. At the end of the Cold War, independent Ukraine suddenly found itself in possession of a huge array of Soviet military equipment – including nuclear weapons. As is the case with this abandoned army training base, most of it was more-or-less immediately deserted.
This particular outpost was used for IFV (Infantry Fighting Vehicle) training. Today, its size remains one of the most impressive things about it. IFVs can be monstrous things, and the collapsed old building where they once were stored still stands as a silent testimony to their power. You can almost picture them rolling across the bleak Ukrainian landscape, waiting for a potential Allied invasion that never came.
Fort Totten (Queens, New York City)
Fort Totten may well be the oldest base on our list. A New York City site begun way back in 1862, the abandoned army base remained in use right up until the late 20th century.
It wasn’t always just a standard army facility, however. In the 1960s, Fort Totten became an administrative centre for the city’s Nike missile air defence system. It was also rumoured to be a safe house used in the 1970s for wanted ex-mafia members – a local story that probably doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny, but shows just how deeply the base penetrated NYC lore. Even today, the Army Reserve maintains a small presence onsite, although Fort Totten is now owned by city itself.
Like the abandoned Fort Tilden, also in Queens, much of the former base has been transformed into a public park, often toured by visitors. Parts of the historic facility remain in ruins, while other areas have been refurbished. There’s even a Neo-Gothic mock ‘castle’ on the grounds, which looks suitably bizarre in the middle of New York City.
Greenlands Camp on Salisbury Plain (Wiltshire, England)
On sprawling Salisbury plain sits a curious, abandoned army camp known as Greenlands. Dating back to World War One, it housed Australian and New Zealand troops who had traveled thousands of miles to fight for their distant monarch. Known as Anzac troops, hundreds of thousands of them would die in the carnage of the Great War.
Today, Greenlands Camp still stands as a kind of half-forgotten memorial to their bravery. Its interiors are broken and empty, its windows knocked out and its walls crumbling. The grounds themselves are overgrown and the whole thing has a lifeless air that seems equal parts spooky and mournful. One of the few concrete traces of bases used by Australian troops left in Britain, Greenlands is at once moving, profound and strangely melancholy.