A couple of weeks before I went to Germany to visit family and friends last year I received an e-mail from Sebastian, a reader of this blog. He told me about exploring a rather recently closed US Army base in Darmstadt – half an hour away from where I was staying for my vacation. I really love abandoned military installations, so we continued talking via e-mail and agreed to meet up to have a look at the Cambrai-Fritsch-Kaserne (CFK) together.
The Cambrai-Fritsch-Kaserne (Cambrai-Fritsch Barracks) in Bessungen, now part of Darmstadt-Eberstadt, was built from 1936 to 1938 as two barracks next to each other – the southern part was known as Cambrai-Kaserne (named after the French city of Cambrai where Paul von Hindenburg had his headquarters during World War I and where the first tank battle in history took place in 1917), the northern part was called Freiherr-von-Fritsch-Kaserne (named after Generaloberst Werner von Fritsch, Nazi Germany’s Commander of the Army at the time). Most of the buildings on the premises were named after locations where famous WWI battles took place, like Verdun or Flandern.
The Fritsch-Kaserne opened on October 12th of 1938 and was home to the 1st Battalion of the 33rd Artillery Regiment, part of the 33rd Infantry Division. Later that month the 3rd Battalion moved into the Cambrai-Kaserne.
During the final days of World War II the US Army took over the Cambrai-Fritsch-Kaserne in March of 1945, making it the home of the 22nd Signal Brigade, the 233rd Base Support Battalion and the 440th Signal Battalion. Lots of service and recreational institutions were located at the CFK in the decades to come – AAFES Food Court, American Red Cross, Andrews Federal Credit Union, Darmstädter Catering Center, PX (post exchange), SATO Travel, Shopette, U.S. Post office, USO and standard facilities like a motor pool, a gym, a movie theater, a sports field and a bowling center.
When I met Sebastian on a warm, sunny summer day he told me right away that the CFK was closed, but not really abandoned. The high barbed wire fences were in exceptionally good condition 3 years after the Cambrai-Fritsch-Kaserne was shut down in 2008 – and Sebastian also mentioned that security guards were still patrolling the outskirts of the premises a couple of evenings per week. Well, we met in the morning, so what could happen, right? Let’s get this infiltration started! Like the *Federal Armed Forces Depot Pfeddersheim* the CFK is now the responsibility of the Institute for Federal Real Estate (Bundesanstalt für Immobilienaufgaben / BIMA) – they have to decide what to do with the 25 hectare (250.000 square meters or 2,7 million square feet) big area. Most likely it will be reconverted into housing for 2500 people, but German bureaucracy is slow and of course nothing has been decided yet. Not in summer of 2011 and AFAIK not in late spring of 2012. But while the BIMA obviously doesn’t care anymore about the depot in Pfeddersheim they seem to smell money when it comes to the CFK – housing for 2500 people, that’s serious real estate! And that’s why the keep the area in good shape by hiring gardeners and plumbers to take care of the premises. All the buildings we tried to enter were locked, hardly any of them were damaged by vandalism or graffiti.
It’s an absolutely mind-blowing experience to explore closed US army barracks, especially with a rather tight security system like this one. The weather was amazing that day and the video material I shot turned out to be nice, too. It was a perfect exploration until… well, we were less than 30 meters away from our top secret entrance / exit when it became clear that infiltration is for pros and neither of us was Solid Snake. I will spare you the details, but like running into security at *Nara Dreamland* this wasn’t exactly a fun experience. No legal consequences since we could convince the people involved that we were just harmless photographers, but this was pretty much the day I realized that urban exploration and urban infiltration are two different things – and I decided that I will limit myself to UE and abandon UI.
Sebastian and I were lucky that day, but entering the Cambrai-Fritsch-Kaserne without permission can have serious, serious consequences, so I highly recommend to stay away or to take photos through the fence.
To all the American (ex-)soldiers reading this article, most of them probably stationed at the Cambrai-Fritsch-Kaserne: When I was a pupil in the 80s my elementary school was way ahead of its time and had a friendship program with the Benjamin Franklin Village in Mannheim. I have nothing but pleasant associations with that exchange program and I consider this exploration a “Thank you!” for the kindness I experienced during that time (I think we went bowling as a big group and then had lunch at our exchange partner’s home, which is a pretty big thing when you are 8 or 9 years old and barely understand each other’s languages!) – I hope I was able to bring back some fond memories of your time in Germany!