20th century military history tour
Spend four days on a sailing yacht in the beautiful Stockholm archipelago while you discover the remains of the fascinating history of Swedish military achievements and struggle during the shifting and uncertain times of the past century. Except from the historical sights that you'll see, and which actually can be hard to reach by other means than by a chartered boat, you'll also have the chance to experience the nature and the sea just the way we Swedes do. Have a barbecue at a bonfire, in the evening go for a sauna with a beer in your hand and have a swim in the Baltic sea while the sun is setting! If you are into fishing there will be chances to do that too.
Before we list the sights on this tour, let me give you some interesting facts that not too many people outside Sweden know about.
- Sweden had the highest military spending per capita of all first world countries during the cold war. The reason for this is the country's strategic important position as a neutral country spanning most of northern Europe right in between the NATO member Norway to the west and the Soviet Union to the east. Therefore the military had to be strong enough to make any possible attacker prefer to go around Sweden instead of trying to get through.
- Together with Switzerland Sweden was and still is the only country in the world which can offer nuclear bomb proof shelters for it's entire population! Most of these installations are, just as the military ones, blown deep into the ground which is made of the hardest stone of them all - massive granite. No matter if it is about mining or building the largest civilian underground shelters in the world, Sweden has a tradition and experience in building underground facilities that is hard to find anywhere else.
- At the end of the cold war most of the military installations lost their value and became outdated. Since we are proud of our history, the Swedish state has though saved many of the most interesting ones, turned them into museums and made them accessible to the public - even foreigners!
- In the southern part of the Stockholm archipelago there even is an underground shipyard where both surface ships and submarines can be built and maintained, completely closed off from the outside world and sheltered also from direct hits by nuclear bombs under the thick granite rocks of Muskö island.
- During the cold war Sweden had the third largest air force in the world and a unique system of wartime runways and bases that facilitated the national highway network!
- The Swedish coastal waters and the Stockholm archipelago were one of the scenes for the unofficial cat-and-mouse-games between submarines. More than 300 foreign subway sightings have been confirmed and according to non-official sources both Soviet, German and US submarines have been uninvited but frequent guests here. Since geopolitical tensions recently have been rising the Swedish navy is, again, occasionally chasing Russian submarines!
Discover the fascinating history of Sweden's roll in the cold war history and join me on a sailing trip combined with visits to places that you most likely didn't even know existed!
When times in the world became increasingly troublesome at the advent of WWI the old fortress at Vaxholm had since long been outdated by modern weaponry. All of a sudden it stood embarrassingly clear that Stockholm in the event of attack would stand without appropriate means of defence. Something had to be done and so the decision was made to create a new defence line with modern style underground forts and hidden artillery paired with manually operated mine barrages in underground facilities that would offer protection from the naval weaponry of the time.
In the archipelago there were two forts planned. One at Siarö along the northernmost shipping lane into Stockholm and the second on the island of Ängsholmen at the more southerly lane. These would have resources to stop enemy shipping by means of artillery and sea-mines. These forts were also teamed up with a long row of forts and artillery positions in the inland, called "Korvlinjen", which runs from Vaxholm through Arninge an further to the west. Since Swedish politicians always assumed that the only imaginable enemy would be the Russians and those most likely would attack Stockholm from the north, also the main defence was concentrated on this side of town.
Construction of Siaröfortet commenced in 1914 but the works proved to be more difficult than assumed and so the fort could not be commissioned into service before 1924, long after the war already had come to an end. Even the conditions for the serving crews proved to be a lot worse than expected and so - after just a few months of service - the decision was made that the crew of the fort may not use it other than for training during peacetime. The old workers quarters were transformed into peacetime barracks and the fort was used only occasionally.
Already during WWII the forts artillery and protecting shelters had become obsolete and so only the mine station was used for some more decades before military presence finally ended by the end of the sixties and the facility became abandoned.
During the 1990's renovation of the fort began and eventually it was turned into a military museum with some more tourist service on the island. The former barracks were turned into a hostel with restaurant and nowadays we can enjoy both a well arranged museum in the fort with guided tours, the restaurant, a yacht harbour and one of the better wooden fired saunas there are in the archipelago.
Interestingly the Siaröfortet is not located on the island of Siarö but on it's much smaller neighbour "Kyrkogårdsön" which literally means cemetery island. The islands name is due to the fact that there used to be an old burial place for cholera victims from the nearby islands during the great epidemics which struck the archipelago during the history. Probably the decision-makers preferred to derive the name from the bigger island next by than to call the fort "the cemetery fort"!
Since development of new weapons systems during the cold war was taking place rather rapidly this also meant that defensive installations became outdated rather quickly. For Sweden's part this required not only modernizing of existing installations but also building of newer ones that could withstand the blasts of the weapons that were becoming stronger and stronger all the time. For the protection of the civilian population this rather turned the view away from massive shelters in the centres of the larger towns, preferring a strategy of evacuation to the countryside in case of imminent danger. With military installations this was not a feasible strategy since they - of course - had to stand at the frontline of an assumed confrontation. The only way, thus, was to go deeper and deeper into the protective shell of the natural granite rocks.
After the soviets had detonated the "Tsar bomba" in 1961 (the most powerful weapon ever detonated in history) the threat of nuclear confrontation became more and more obvious. To this the swedish response was to build a new defence line in the outer archipelago which could withstand direct hits from at least the tactical nuclear weapons of the time. Three different locations were chosen for construction of coastal artillery batteries which were built to protect the main shipping routes into Stockholm. In the south there was one at Nåttarö for protection of the harbour of Nynäshamn and the southern route into the archipelago. In the central part there was one at Bodskär, just outside the island of Ornö to protect the route along Sandhamn and finally in the north Batteri Arholma was built to close off the northern entrance.
This new generation of coastal artillery differed from the older generations by being blown deep into the rocks instead of the previous cut-and-cover method. A blast-trap was built as a separate entrance tunnel from which an angled entrance tunnel lead into the battery itself. There you would likely find massive blast doors, decontamination facilities and pressure vents which could absorb the enormous blasts that the nuclear weapons would create. Inside the rock there were facilities for maintaining a complete garrison of 340 men for periods spanning several weeks without contact to the outside world. Of course this meant that there would be things like power generation, a completely equipped hospital, dining and sleeping compartments and, last but not least, all the equipments for defending the country by the means of the coastal artillery gunnery and command installations.
In fact this meant that a whole "city" had to be built deep below ground level in the protective depths of the granite rocks. An amazing labyrinth in several levels was built to support the guns that would sink enemy shipping in case of an attack. At Arholma there were actually two guns, the main gun together with the command post at Arholma and the secondary gun together with the radar installations at the neighbouring island of Ovanskär.
Today all of these coastal artillery batteries are sealed, except the one at Arholma, which has been turned into a museum and can be visited on guided tours by the public. What is exceptional about this battery is that it didn't become decommissioned before the year 2000 and, since back then the equipment was outdated, everything has been preserved including all the technical equipment as well as chart material in the command room. Also the guided tour is resembling the scenario of a "sharp situation" and you can walk through experiencing a soviet attack as an observer of what was the situation that, thank god, never occured!
Even though Fejan has never really been a military island there are some interesting historical sights that make the island worth visiting, except for just being a lovely place in the Stockholm archipelago with one of the best restaurants that can be found on the islands.
The history about activities on the island Fejan begins in the 19th century when cholera was one of the most feared diseases in all of Europe. For addressing the epidemics the Swedish state decided to build quarantine stations along all the major sea routes leading into Stockholm. For ships arriving from Finland and Russia the island of Fejan was chosen. In a haste a quarantine hospital was built in the early 1890's and to even accelerate construction a wooden kit house which was intended to be sent to Congo for becoming a mission house was confiscated and shipped to Fejan, where it finally became assembled. Today the Congo villa is regarded as one of the most picturesque an architectural interesting buildings in this area an the main hospital building is transformed into a very popular hostel.
During the summer epidemic of 1894 there were no less than 196 ships with their crews and passengers numbering some 5.000 people interned here. Still there were not too many cases of cholera discovered and luckily only four persons passed away in that year. One curiosity is that the building where there nowadays is a gourmet restaurant originally was built as a mortuary and autopsy room!
Although the summer of 1894 proved to be the last time Stockholm became threatened by cholera a new and bigger hospital was built in 1906 but never came to use for its original purpose. By the mid of the 1930's the quarantine station was closed down and the newer hospital building has been more or less abandoned since but can be visited in it's derelict state.
The former quarantine station had a short revival in 1944 when Baltic refugees (mainly Estonians) escaped the returning red army in their home countries and fled in all different kinds of small craft over the Baltic sea to not end up under Soviet rule. At least 30.000 people escaped by these means and most of them were interned for a certain period of time on Fejan before they were spread out all over Sweden.
In later history the island has been used be the navy home brigade as an education camp until 1976. Since 1995 the area around the quarantine station is owned by the archipelago foundation which has created something like a resort here with hostel, activities centre, restaurant, guest harbour and sauna.
Söderarm (Fair weather alternative to Fejan, upon request)
When the weather is fair it is possible to approach the archipelago of Söderarm and the island of Torskär in particular. The reason for being accessible only at good weather conditions is its location at the very edge of the archipelago, far out in the Baltic sea. Furthermore the only place to moor is the old military docks which is subject to both currents and waves in winds from westerly and easterly directions.
Nowadays there are few traces left of the strong military presence that once was here since the coastal artillery battery had to be rebuilt into natural shape after the end of the cold war. Still this doesn't mean that the island goes without attractions. First the nature and panoramic views of sea are stunning. Furthermore there is the old lighthouse, which can be visited and climbed for some extra charge, and one of the most interesting saunas ever to be found in the archipelago. Housed in a machine gun bunker at the very edge of the open sea the sauna also offers bathing in the sea, a natural cliff pool and a wooden heated barrel-Jacuzzi! Sorry to say, the owners of the conference facilities on the island will charge you quite a fortune for using it...
The history of the Söderarm dates back to the very beginning of shipping along the coasts of the Baltic sea since its strategic location along the main shipping route to Finland has made it important through all times. The lighthouse of today was built already in 1839 and ever since the island of Torskär has been inhabited by a varying number of personnel. Most interesting for our tour might be that it was the location for one of the last generation coastal artillery batteries to be built - the ERSTA (ERSättning Tungt Artilleri) system. Boasting the most modern systems worldwide of its time, the ERSTA batteries were commissioned throughout the seventies in Sweden and in an upgraded version the construction was exported to Norway as late as 1994. Except from a new strategy of placing the batteries on the remote outer islands these batteries boasted both new inventive artillery cannons with a firepower hardly surpassed by any system in the world and a protective bunker blown deep into the rock built as a separate free standing building within the artificial cave, standing on chock absorbing springs that were supposed to assure autonomous operation even after repeated direct hits by nuclear devices.
Of the originally planned twelve installations along the Swedish coastline only six were completed before the cold war ended and the threat of war all of a sudden disappeared. One of the ERSTA batteries became partially preserved on the island of Öja in the very south of the Stockholm archipelago while all the others actually weren't just sealed off but filled with concrete to restore the nature of the islands. This also happened to the battery on Söderarm. Still there are traces of the installation to be found without even having to look very closely since the protective cover of the gun is preserved on the surface and a lot of supportive facilities haven't been removed. Therefore you can find surface defensive installations and the radar devices very obviously.
A small museum about the history of the island can be found in one of the many small wooden houses that are spread out all over the island. Going to Söderarm isn't going to give you a lot of things to do nor service or amenities. On the other hand you have the opportunity to visit a real and quite extreme outpost that just a very few - even amongst Swedes - have ever visited!
- Gathering at the port 8 am. Embarkation, stowing of luggage and provisions, briefing about the tour.
- Approx 9 am departure from ILBK.
- Depending on weather and winds sailing or motoring past Stavsnäs, Kanholmsfjärden and Saxarfjärden to Siaröfortet. On our way we will pass Kanholmsfjärden, where the sightings of Russian submarines have occurred both during cold war times and even more recently. Passing by Ängsholmen (destroyed sister fort to Siaröfortet).
- Approx 2 pm arrival at Siaröfortet. Time for a late lunch and tour through the fort including the possibility to have a second walk on your own through the fort for taking pictures etc.
- In the evening either dinner on board, barbecue or visiting the restaurant at the hostel. Why not finish the evening the Swedish way with taking a beer in the sauna and swim in the Baltic sea!?
- Breakfast on board or at the hostel.
- Approx 10 am departure from Siaröfortet.
- Approx 3 pm arrival at Arholma guest harbour. Guided walk across the island; visit to the church, the lighthouse-like daymark and the village and take the chance to see the typical and picturesque rural landscape of the island. Chance to buy provisions in a local store or to have a dinner at the restaurant.
- Spend the evening with a dinner at the restaurant, barbecue by the sea and/or go to another typical Swedish sauna and swim in the sea!
- Breakfast on board.
- 10 am, walk to the northernmost point of the island (30 min walk) at Arholma nord.
- 11 am guided tour through "Batteri Arholma", the nuclear bomb safe coastal artillery battery built in the 1970's and nowadays turned into a museum. After the tour you can have another walk around the installation on the surface to explore both the beautiful nature with stunning views of the sea and the military remains that are spread out all over the place.
- Before returning to the boat I would recommend a lunch at the restaurant next to the battery which serves locally produced Nordic and maritime specialities in a simple but cosy ambient.
- 4 pm departure from Arholma
- 6 pm arrival at Fejan. Short walk across the island with its interesting history as a quarantine station during the cholera epidemic at the end of the 19th century.
- Have a dinner at the restaurant by the sea, barbecue or dinner on board. Also here a sauna is available.
- Breakfast on board.
- 10 am departure from Fejan. Long sailing day back to home port through the beautiful outer part of the Stockholm archipelago. Simple lunch on board while on our way.
- approx 6 pm arrival at ILBK. Disembarkation and unloading.
- approx 6.30 pm end of the tour.