Soviet Blockade: The 1988 Forst Zinna Train Collision

Forst Zinna is a disused Soviet military base in eastern Germany near the town of Jüterborg in the federal state of Brandenburg. Located 54.5km/34mi south of Berlin and 102km/63mi east of Magdeburg the base was founded by the German military in 1934, falling to the Soviets at the end of the second World War and serving as a camp for displaced persons and an office complex (used in the organization/initiation of the DDR/GDR) before being turned into a military base by 1953.

The location of Forst Zinna in Europe.

The base is crossed by the Berlin-Halle Railway, a double-track electrified main line opening in its current routing in 1859. The section of track crossing the military base was nicknamed the “Kanonenbahn” (“Canon Railway”) as passengers and staff on the trains could sometimes see or hear gunshots and explosions to either side of the track.

The site of the accident seen from above today. The “Bundesstraße” wasn’t there at the time of the accident.

D 716 was an express train travelling northbound from Leipzig towards Berlin, from where it was to continue towards Stralsund on the coast of the Baltic sea. It consisted of 13 four-axle passenger cars holding 400–450 passengers (the exact number is unknown) along with a conductor, meaning it was about half full. Pulling the train was DR (DDR/GDR’s national railway) 211 006. The series 211 was a 16.26m/53ft long four-axle multipurpose electric locomotive introduced in 1961 (as the series E11, being renumbered when the system was computerized in 1970). The series 211 could reach 120kph/75mph even with a 600 metric ton express train in tow, making it perfectly sufficient for any of the DR’s trains.

The restored DR 211 001, identical to the locomotive involved in the accident, photographed in 2012.

The T-64A is a Soviet main battle tank weighting 38 metric tons made from 1967 until 1975 in a few different versions. Weighting 38 metric tons it can reach 60.5kph/37.5mph thanks to a 515kw/619hp diesel engine. It’s armed with a 125mm main canon and two machine guns and usually has a three man crew (driver, navigator and gunner). The tank involved in the accident was used for driver-training, meaning it carried no gunner or ammunition.

A T-64A in a museum in Moscow, near-identical to the one involved in the accident.

On the 19th of January 1988 at approximately 5:43pm D 716 is racing through the darkness south of Berlin at approximately 120kph/75mph. It’s manned by two drivers, which was the norm at the time, who were experiencing a journey like countless before.

At the same time Mr. Ochapow, a 19 years old soldier from Kazakhstan has his first driving lesson on the T-64A. Supervising him is Mr. Petuchow, a 20 years old soldier from Russia. With Ochapw sitting down low in the nose of the tank and his supervisor up in the turret the two men use a radio system to communicate over the noise of the tank. Heading for a bridge across the train tracks Mr. Ochapow eventually stops near the bridge before being ordered to select first gear and turn right. Instead he goes straight for second gear and keeps going straight, heading for the train tracks. Mr. Petuchow realizes his student’s error and, lacking driver controls up in the turret, presses an emergency shutoff button. The button either didn’t work right away or Mr. Ochapow shut the tank down himself after a few seconds, either way the tank ends up stopping on the train tracks and won’t start up again. Hearing a train approach and finding themselves unable to move the tank the two soldiers chose to abandon the tank and get off the railway line on foot. Moments later (approximately 5:50pm) D 716 slams into the massive obstacle at 110kph/68mph, killing the train drivers on impact. The collision pushes the tank 130m/427ft along the track as the rear of the 82.5 metric ton locomotive is lifted off the tracks until the massive machine is almost standing straight up before falling over to the side, coming to a rest tilted 45° to the side and severely deformed. The forward nine passenger cars derail and get strewn all over the place creating a wreckage over 500m/1640ft long. The most fatalities occur in the leading car, which is jolted up into the air when the rear of the locomotive lifted off the ground before ripping off the coupler and falling down. Witnesses in the center of the train recall a violent impact, seeing sparks (torn overhead wires making contact with the cars) and finding themselves roll past something resembling their locomotive. 4 passengers and the two train drivers die in the collision, 33 more passengers suffer severe injuries.

In the moments after the accident the survivors are on their own, having to find their way out of the mangled train cars in pitch black darkness while trying not to get too close to the torn overhead wires. Among the survivors is a doctor (some sources say a surgeon), he manages to get some control over the chaotic scene, instructing some survivors how to help the more severely injured passengers to get out of the train cars. Soldiers in the nearby barracks, alarmed by the noise of the collision, soon reach the site to assist, followed by the volunteer fire department from Jüterborg. It takes significantly longer for some other responders to arrive, the police investigators don’t arrive until 90 minutes after the collision.

The tank sitting in the wreckage, it remained relatively aligned and intact as the train derailed around it.

Despite the darkness it doesn’t take long for some survivors to figure out that their train hit a Soviet vehicle, and soon after the fire department is mostly occupied with keeping an angry German mob from taking their anger out on the Soviet soldiers trying to help. Meanwhile the arriving emergency doctor finds all survivors already evacuated from the train and a makeshift triage/hospital set up by the side of the tracks, drastically simplifying his job. Among the survivors is Mr. Kern, a chaplain, who goes to provide emotional support to other survivors before seeking medical attention for his injuries. Even with help from the professional firefighters most of the site can’t be lit due to the expansion of the wreckage, eventually someone has the idea to call the nearby Babelsberg movie studio for help. The studio sends a few trucks worth of lighting equipment and by 11pm the site is finally properly illuminated. At some point during the night the two soldiers who drove the tank are apprehended, apparently they tried to flee from the site of the accident. For unknown reasons their superiors decide to hand them over to the DDR/GDR’s civilian police, who has them placed under arrest and taken to the station for interrogation. It quickly becomes clear that the driver speaks little to no Russian and his supervisor speaks no Kazakh, creating a massive communication issue even before taking the noise of the tank into account. Only after the police is satisfied with the information the two men provided are they returned to custody of the Soviet Army, which has them return to Russia to stand trial in a military court.

TV footage shot at the site captures this image of the compressed interior of a train car, giving an idea about the forces involved.

After some back and forth because of classified technology on board of the then-new tank (the T-64 wasn’t publicly presented until the 1980s) the NVA (DDR/GDR’s armed forces) is allowed to recover the tank in the early morning hours to have it examined off-site. The accident is unusually widely reported on in the media at the time, some footage filmed at the site the night of the accident even ends up airing on western-german television, meaning it got cleared for export by the authorities. It’s glaringly obvious that, this time, the authorities had little interest in hiding how their Soviet “brothers” had screwed up. The following day the NVA and Soviet Army drag the wreckage off the tracks so the railway line (which was severely damaged by the tank being dragged along it) can be repaired. The locomotive as well as the bistro car and five of the passenger cars are cut up on site, the rest of the train is towed away. During repairs anti-tank barriers are placed along the tracks meant to avoid a repetition of the accident. The DR sends the Soviet Army a bill over 13.55 million East-German Marks, there is no record of it ever being paid.

3 of the passenger cars sitting by the side of the tracks the day after the accident.

Forst Zinna is eventually abandoned when the Soviet Army leaves Germany in the early 90s, today the area is largely in the process of being renaturalized. A handful of buildings of historical importance (which can’t be demolished) remain along with a few ruins remain of the military base, the rest (except for a small commercial area) has been turned into a nature reserve. The handling of the accident by the authorities is a good example of the Glasnost-movement, an era where the authorities were less dishonest towards their citizens. There had cases of the Soviets making the local authorities blame poor construction (insulting the DDR/GDR) for accidents/derailments that were actually caused by damage from military vehicles illegally crossing the tracks. This accident and its handling (making no secret of the tank, interrogating the soldiers, sending footage to western media) clearly shows that the DDR/GDR’s authorities were trying to be more transparent and not go against the population’s dislike for the Soviet forces stationed in the country. Before this accident any incident involving the Soviet forces was usually brushed under the rug. It’s unknown what happened to the two soldiers once they left Germany, rumors go from “they were let go” to “they were shot”. Journalists, responders, survivors and the DR itself sent several letters over the years inquiring about their fate, never getting an answer.

The T64 is still in service today in a few different countries, while Russia phased the tank out by 2014 as it was no longer needed. After German reunification a few of the (by then largely obsolete) series 211 became property of the DB (German national railway), being renumbered series 109. By 1998 the last four of those were retired, with the DB only holding on to the prototype (211 001) as a museum piece. 5 locomotives were acquired by private rail service providers and continue to operate to this day.

A privately owned series 211/109 photographed in 2019.

A German documentary about the accident, showing images from the site, interviews with witnesses/responders and some animated/reenacted scenes. There don’t seem to be English subtitles available.

Note that, while this documentary is fairly well done, the quality wildly varies along the series.

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Max S

Max S

Train crash reports and analysis, published weekly.