(Delving into the abandoned underground factories of wartime Europe)
The Second World War was the deadliest conflict in human history and brought about mass-militarisation on an unprecedented scale. Across the globe – but especially in Europe and Asia Pacific – armaments factories appeared from nowhere, trenches were dug, concrete pillboxes sprang up, and the world prepared for devastation unlike anything it had ever seen.
With the terror of aerial bombardments instilled in everyone, many of the factories at the time were built deep underground, where the enemy’s aerial armada couldn’t reach them. A number of abandoned underground factories of World War Two are still crumbling to dust some 70 years later, reminders of one of the darkest chapters in modern human history.
Abandoned Underground Factory Richard Complex, Litoměřice, Czech Republic
(Images: Gerard Dykstra)
The Czech Republic (then part of Czechoslovakia) suffered terribly in World War Two. Annexed by the Third Reich in 1938, the territory’s citizens were forced by the millions into factories, the army, the concentration camps, sacrificing their liberty on the decaying altar of Nazi ambition. Nowhere can this bleak time be experienced perhaps as viscerally as in Litoměřice.
Here, at the abandoned underground factory “Richard”, thousands of concentration camp victims were forced to build tanks, motors, electronics and communications equipment for the German war effort. Sadly, they were the lucky ones. Nearby, the Jewish ghetto and concentration camp of Terezín worked tens of thousands of unluckier Nazi prisoners to death. Although the Richard factory seemingly wasn’t as deadly as other work at Terezin, the stench of misery and death still clings to its walls. Examining the abandoned limestone mine’s carved rock tunnels now, it’s easy to see how those dragged there must have felt like they’d been taken into hell itself.
Abandoned Underground Aircraft Factory at Rabštejn, Czech Republic
In the dying days of the war, Nazi high command became obsessed with building a “miracle weapon” that would destroy their enemies and turn the tide back in German favour. Rabštejn was one area they chose for their experiments. Rounding up some 6,000 prisoners of war, political prisoners, and concentration camp victims, German occupiers forced them to dig out a gigantic chamber deep beneath the town. Hundreds were worked to death or shot.
Eventually, 4.5 km of secret tunnels were completed and turned into 11 assembly halls for devastating new Nazi weapons. Explosives, cutting-edge aircraft and bombs were assembled here, all designed to rain death and annihilation down on the enemies of the Third Reich. It’s impossible to imagine the atmosphere of this place now. The heat, the clanking of machinery, the watchful eyes of German guards, terrified the Red Army might come sweeping in at any minute. After the war, the abandoned underground factories were used as a dumping ground by the Czech Army. Nowadays, they are open as a tourist attraction.
The Subterranean GKN Shadow Factory, Birmingham, UK
(Images: True British Metal)
Britain’s shadow factories were the Allied riposte to Germany’s underground forced labour sweatshops. Like the secret Nazi factories, they were buried deep below ground, where bombs could not find them. Like the Nazi factories, they operated outside the social norms of the time. But while the Germans did so by using slave labour, in Britain, the workforce was comprised of something very different: many thousands of female volunteers.
At the time, the idea of women in factories was completely novel. Yet the Blitz spirit demanded everyone put in to save the nation. And that’s exactly what the women of the UK did. In never ending shifts, they toiled in Britain’s shadow factories, like this one beneath the old GKN Factory in Birmingham. Crowded into these tunnels, these ordinary workers provided the backbone for the British war effort. At its height, the GKN factory held 4,500 workers in its belly. Now it merely sits empty, its role in the nation’s history largely forgotten.
Longbridge Tunnels: Abandoned Underground Factory, UK
Not far from the GNK shadow factory sits another of the UK’s underground arms production plants. The Longbridge Tunnels were set up with the help of the founder of Austin Motors, Lord Austin, who had previously donated his factory space to the war effort in World War One. In these dark, eerie tunnels, Birmingham’s women ones worked assembling Rolls-Royce Merlin engines – the powerful engines that propelled the nation’s Spitfires, Hawker Hurricanes and Lancaster bombers through the sky.
At its peak, the shadow factory network across the UK was producing one new aircraft every hour, and the now abandoned underground factory inside the Longbridge Tunnels was an integral part of this. It was thanks to subterranean factories like these that Britain managed to hold off the Nazi threat and stop the Third Reich from steamrollering mercilessly onward. Yet, sadly, Lord Austin didn’t live to see this. He died in 1941, when an Allied victory seemed far from assured, and the fate of Europe still hung in the balance.
Underground V-1 Flying Bomb/V-2 Rocket Factory at Mittelwerk, Germany
The remains of the site at Mittelwerk are today shrouded in misery. This was the place, in the tunnels beneath Kohnstein, where concentration camp victims were worked to death by the thousands to build Hitler’s flying ‘vengeance’ rockets. The V-1 and V-2 bombing campaign in the last months of the war struck fear into the heart of a Britain already shell-shocked by the Blitz. Pilotless V-1s fell from the sky with only a deafening silence, and V-2 rockets impacted with little warning. All in all, the vengeance rocket campaign killed 10,000 in Britain alone. To achieve this disturbing figure, 20,000 were worked to death at Mittelwerk.
Those who toiled in the subterranean factory at Mittelwerk were mostly from Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp, a sub-camp of Buchenwald that recorded its own hideous death toll. One in three prisoners sent there died, many while constructing V-1 and V-2 rockets (the latter also known as ‘doodlebugs’).
As of 2016, much of the abandoned underground factory complex lies in ruins. Their hideous legacy, however, continues to live on in modern missile-based warfare.
Abandoned Nazi “Nuclear Bomb” Factory at St Georgen an der Gusen, Austria
At 8:15 am on August 6, 1945, the B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay dropped a single bomb onto the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Eighty-thousand lives disappeared in an instant, and the hideous power of the atomic age was born. Ultimately, it’s thought the Hiroshima bomb saved lives by bringing an end to World War Two. However, there is a hideous counterfactual history that can be glimpsed beneath the Austrian countryside. One where the Nazis were the first to drop an atomic bomb onto the helpless civilians of London.
The end of the war was marked by a race against time to crack the secrets of atomic weapons. At St Georgen an der Gusen, inmates from the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp were worked to death in staggering numbers, trying to facilitate the first Nazi atomic bomb. Around 320,000 are thought to have died at this now abandoned underground factory complex, the largest in the entire Nazi territory. Thankfully for history, these efforts were in vain. The US cracked the atom bomb first, while Germany was occupied by its former enemies.
Doggerstollen Underground Factory in Bavaria, Germany
Like so many on this list, Doggerstollen (also known as Dogger) was the sight of obscene tragedies. Part of the brutal Flossenbürg concentration camp, it was intended to be an underground factory for producing aircraft engines. In the end, it was never finished. Started in May 1944, its completion was swept aside by the bloody endgame of World War Two. Yet this doubtless came as small comfort to its prisoners. Of the 9,500 who worked there, 4,000 died.
The remains of Doggerstollen look suitably gloomy and imposing today. Vast, concrete walls merge into blasted out tunnels in rock. Heavy doors keep intruders out. The whole place looks like a base for supervillains, reflecting all the worst aspects of Nazi ideology.
Plessey’s Subterranean Factory in Unfinished London Tube Tunnels, UK
At the height of the Blitz, London found itself running out of factory space. Continually pounded by German bombs, it was a place where a manufacturing centre would be set up, only to be wiped out before it could even start producing. With nowhere else to turn, the Plessey electronics company hit upon an ingenious idea. They would transform an unfinished section of the Central Line, between Wanstead and Gants Hill, into a fully-functioning subterranean factory.
Plessey’s factory was completed in 1942, and work immediately began. Some 4,000 women poured down into the old tube system at 7:30am every morning, entering via three abandoned London Underground stations that should’ve serviced the completed Central Line. Instead, they became funnels for the staggering number of people entering the Plessey factory every day, building components for the Enigma crackers at Bletchley Park, wireless kits, and sets for Halifax and Lancaster bombers.
Although conditions were bad – no light, little fresh air – those involved worked with little complaint. There was a war on, after all. (Wanstead and Gants Hill tube stations were finally completed and opened on December 14, 1947.)
Heinkel He 162 Emergency Fighter Factory at Hinterbrühl, Austria
(Image: German Federal Archives)
The He 162 fighter was Nazi Germany’s desperate last roll of the dice in a war that was going catastrophically wrong. An cheap, easy-to-build fighter that could be ditched if it suffered any damaged, they were designed to be churned out at frightening speed in a bid to keep the Luftwaffe capable of fighting on. The now abandoned underground factory at Hinterbrühl was one location where assembly took place. Built into a vast cave system, it was staffed by inmates of Mauthausen camp.
Known by the Nazis as Knochenmühle (the bone-grinder), Mauthausen was where the Reich sent its intellectuals to be worked to a gruesome end. Many were sent on to Hinterbrühl, where large-scale extermination through forced labour took place. Mauthausen and its associated camps were one of the last to be liberated by the Allies. As a result, up to 300,000 may have died here, many while building Heinkel He 162 fighters at Hinterbrühl.
Drakelow Tunnels Abandoned Underground Factory, Kidderminster, England
The final factory in this article, Drakelow was constructed during World War Two as a shadow factory, but the most interesting part of its life came long after the war was over. Originally built as a factory for the Rover car company (then helping manufacture engines for British aircraft), it eventually became a fallback government centre to be used in the event that London was devastated by an atomic bomb.
During the Cold War, there was a very real fear that Russia might hit London with a nuclear strike. To provide against that eventuality, Regional Seats of Government were set up across the country, deep underground, from where local representatives could run their areas like an autonomous state in case of Westminster and Whitehall being completely wiped out. Drakelow was one such area selected, in the hopes that local government machinery could still just about keep ticking over in the event of nuclear Armageddon.