Not too long ago last autumn I was searching the web looking for an interesting spot to practice some landscape photography around Bremen in Germany where I currently reside. I like using locationscout for this purpose and that’s exactly where I came across this picture of some tanks. Real abandoned tanks just only about 100 km from where I am? Show me a guy who wouldn’t be instantly hooked – I certainly was! So without further ado, one of the following weekends we packed our stuff and left home early in the morning to make it to the tanks just in time for sunrise.
To be honest, I wasn’t quite sure I would find the tanks exactly where described. There is surprisingly little information about this place in the Internet. A couple pictures here and there, a few mentions in some local forums and not much else. Frankly, most of this info you would probably only find if you knew beforehand what you’re looking for. No articles, no blog posts or other publications. I guess that’s more of a good thing really – otherwise I bet the place would be swarming with tourists and photographers of all sorts.
As it turned out, there was no reason to be worried. The tanks are still there, right in the middle of the field 3 minutes away from Sögel. The exact GPS coordinates for anyone interested are 52.871707, 7.438469. In fact, they are plainly visible on Google Maps if you go into satellite view. Armoured vehicles are neatly set up in 4 rows, 6 machines in each one… and just left there in the field. There’s no fence around, nor any kind of warning signs, so you can get as close as you like.
I got really curious, so after coming home I did some more digging in the Internet, reading through various german sites. What I found out is that this field is actually a part of Meppen military proving ground WTD91 that stretches almost 50 km north from the town of Meppen. The shooting range is quite old, in fact it was first established in 1877 when a company belonging to the german “cannon king” Alfred Krupp found itself in a need of its own proving ground. The shooting range has been extensively used ever since. It was here where famous Big Bertha was first tested. A few years later, in 1936, Adolf Hitler himself visited the shooting range and ordered its further expansion, which required a demolition of an entire village that ended up being within the new limits of the range.
The remnants of this village and of a local church demolished in 1942 can still be clearly seen in the forest next to the parking lot where you can leave the car when visiting the place. Interestingly (and undoubtedly contributing to the obscurity of the place), although the tanks are situated very close to a rather busy road, it is impossible to see them from there. There are no signs on the road indicating their presents and a stripe of forest hides the war machines from anyone passing by.
Meppen proving ground is actually still used today for military training and tests. My best guess is that tanks are set up there exactly for this purpose – to be used during military exercises. Exactly what kind of training that is one can only speculate (some claim they’re used as a training target for helicopter pilot exercise, but I could not find a solid proof of that), but what I do know is that during such events the nearby roads get completely blocked by the military and it’s impossible to get in. I was unable to find any sort of schedule for such trainings, so just keep that in mind when deciding to visit the place – if you get really unlucky and hit the area during a military training, you won’t get to see the tanks.
Typically, though, that’s not a problem at all. There is no security, no military personnel, no barbed wire or fences. On the morning we arrived we haven’t seen anyone around at all, not even locals walking their dogs (which is quite common according to one of the sources). For a photographer that’s really as good as it gets – you may shoot however long you like with no tourists or selfie-lovers there trying to ruin your shots.
Those of you who are into history have probably guessed by now what tanks are shown here. For others though, who are more like myself and can’t tell a tiger from a panther, these are mostly American M47 Patton tanks, that were in service by alliance forces during the Cold War, from 1952 to the early sixties. There’s also a single Leopard tank deeper in the field. Unfortunately I don’t know what’s the history behind these 24 machines exactly, but they are in still in a pretty good condition. I highly doubt they can actually drive and there’s a fair amount of rust everywhere, but overall they look pretty good. A bit of cleaning and painting and they would be pretty museum-ready as far as I can tell.
As a photographer I was mostly interested in the outside look, but I did try to get inside a few vehicles. Unfortunately that proved impossible – the machines I tried had their hatches shut and welded. I wasn’t too upset about it honestly, since the insides weren’t that exciting to me anyways, but I welcome all the curious ones to go there themselves and try all of them – I’ve seen pictures on these tanks with hatches open, so it may well be possible. Just don’t wait too long – who knows how long are the tanks going to be there. And then there’s also weather and stupid people with paint cans who slowly but inevitably do their damage.