Engineering series 1: Radar stations on the Wasserkuppe

Introduction

On the second day of the new year, I made a short hiking tour to the highest mountain in Hesse (Hessen), the Wasserkuppe.

As an amateur radio operator, this place with its small airfield, eye-catching antennae, and disused radar-facilities on the peak aroused my interest to learn more about its history.

Just a few kilometers away runs the border to Thuringia (Thüringen), which had been in the cold war era the frontier to the German Democratic Republic (DDR) and hence the sphere of the Soviet Union until the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989.

Location of the Wasserkuppe (black circle), red the former DDR

Due to that proximity and the exposure of this place at 950 meters altitude, the NATO had had a vital interest to get hold of this spot.

Radar

First applicable radar-systems were developed during the 2nd World War. The devices improved steadily and got miniaturized in the course of the following decades, and were mounted to an increasing extent in submarines, aircraft and helicopters during the cold war.

These systems radiate high frequency radio-waves (so-called microwaves) towards one or several objects (like e. g. an enemy ship), and calculate via reflection characteristics the distance, velocity, size, and other object-traits.

The profile of the used antennae is shaped like a dish, which gives those antennae their popular names: parabolic antennae.

The radomes

As the tensions between East and West were on their climax, there existed up to five radar-facilities (so called radomes) on the summit of the Wasserkuppe and the area was entirely occupied by the military and restricted for civilians.

A radome protects the sensible antennae from bad weather conditions, and also hides the visible technical features from the enemy’s eyes.

Wasserkuppe, former radar station
The remaining radar facility on the summit (so-called radome, now a museum)

The shell-material has to be penetrable for radio waves however, and the white paintings serve the purpose of diminishing significant heating-up through solar radiation.

Similar facilities alongside the iron curtain

Naturally, the radar-stations on the Wasserkuppe were not the only facilities intended to observe the military activities of the Warsaw Pact states closely.

One further example is the Aufklärungsturm F (reconnaissance tower), which was erected in an exposed area near the Czech border. Like the other towers alongside the iron curtain, it was equipped with several complex observance and monitoring devices and had a large number of deployed military staff.

The East made – not very surprisingly – large efforts to observe the NATO states as well, for instance on the highest mountain in Northern Germany: the Brocken.

Aviation on the Wasserkuppe

Several years before 2nd World War there stretched an airfield over this area, where much aviation pioneer work was carried out during the 1920s.

From this period originates the well-known aviator monument, which was built upon this very elevation.

Wasserkuppe, aviation monument
Aviator monument on the Wasserkuppe

Those civil aviation origins had been the initiator for the military aviation test and observance facilities, and the erection of five radar-stations in this place, of whom only one as a museum remained to this day.