Off-Topic: Military History Tourism in Göteborg

gbg logoThis is another vacation-related post, of the kind that I do every once in a year or so. I recently came back from a family vacation to Gothenburg (Göteborg in Swedish), where I had some time to visit a few great museums dealing with history, and in particular with military history and the history of technology.

Göteborg is the second-largest city in Sweden, and was founded in the 1600s as a way to fortify Swedish direct access to the Atlantic. Today, it is in the middle of the west of Sweden, but back when it was founded, it was a toehold for the fledgling Swedish power gaining access westwards. It was threatened by the Danes for about one hundred years, and as a result some great defensive works were created. Most of them are gone today, even if the old city moat is still clearly visible on a map of downtown Göteborg. What does remain and can be visited is the old harbor fortress of Nya Älvsborg (New Älvsborg).


As can be seen, the fortress is actually quite close to shore, and today it borders the great port of Göteborg as well as lots of sea-based wind turbines. You actually have a very good view of the container processing in the port from the front of the fortress. When we visited, there was a dramatized guided tour that quickly presented the highlights from the history of the fortress in a nicely done comical manner. Honestly, as a fortification Nya Älvsborg was apparently quite a flop – but it still survived the big Danish attack in 1719 during the Great Northern War. It takes about 30 minutes to take a boat out to the fortress, with several trips daily during July and August.

Moving to the modern era, Göteborg has two really great attractions. Aeroseum and Maritiman.


Maritiman is a collection of old ships – some civilian and some military. There is a great app to download for mobile devices that provides on-the-spot videos and explanations for the various ships.


Their main attraction is clearly the destroyer Småland, J19 (at the top of the picture above). Småland and her sister Halland were the most powerful warship ever built in Sweden, and the exhibition offers a great understanding for how warships and the military operated in the 1950s and 1960s. If you follow the designated path, you are taken up and down through the ship to see how the crew lived, the engines, the fire control computers, the bridge, ammunition storage, and much else.

Småland was a ship packed full of weapons, quite a bit more so than her US contemporaries in the Forrest Sherman class. She had four automatic 120mm guns that could spit out 40 rounds per minute, a dual 57 mm heavy anti-aircraft gun, and six single-mount 40 mm Bofors anti-aircraft guns. The 120mm automatic guns were the main armament, but even so Småland and Halland pioneered the use of guided missiles as ship armament – they featured Robot 08 (RB08), the first operational anti-surface missile in the West. The idea was to first fire the missiles from a long distance, and then storm forward at 37 knots firing the main guns and torpedoes. Småland also had torpedo tubes, mine rails, and anti-submarine rockets.

Here is the RB08 launch ramp, underneath the main radar antenna:


Much of the technology shown in the ship is clearly pre-computer. Electronic, yes, but even in 1955 they made use of speaking tubes to transmit voice commands between the bridge and the rest of the ship. There was much manual work, including peeling potatoes (a machine was eventually installed, but when commissioned, some sailors had to be put on potato-peeling duty every day). I found the “Crypto Cabin” quite cute; such a simple setup with a couple of typewriter-like encryption/decryption machines.


The ammunition storage for the main 120mm guns is mostly empty today, but you can still see the projectiles and the mechanism for bringing them up to the turret.


The idea was for Småland and Halland to operate together with a flotilla of torpedo boats, sallying out from the coastal archipelago of Sweden to attack a Soviet invasion fleet. While Sweden was technically neutral during the Cold War, it was very clear in practice that the main threat and expected enemy in case of war was the Soviet Union.

Next to Småland lies the submarine Nordkaparen. This submarine is also from the 1960s, part of the “Draken II” class. Getting into it is quite claustrophobic, and I am definitely sure that I would not have qualified as a submariner. Still, once down through the narrow hatch, it is a fantastic world of tubes, gears, valves, and machinery. You really get a sense for how much things have changed in the last 50 years – once again, we see speaking tubes and very much analog electronics being used.


The marked path takes you from the stern of the boat towards the bow, showing pretty much the entire contents of the submarine, including the diesel-electric propulsion system, combat center, and the torpedo room. It is striking just how much a small sub like this is about compact living – the crew of Småland lived in pretty cramped conditions, but the submarine takes this to a whole new level. For example, there is a dish rack on top of a some small lockers on the left side of the torpedo magazine, and a stowable sink right next to it for doing the dishes. The captain’s cabin is very small, and also serves as storage for useful things. Here is a view into the torpedo room:



The Cold War caused a lot of defensive works to be constructed in Sweden, and it is possible to visit a pretty unique such site in Göteborg – the old underground aircraft hangar at Säve airforce base (now a civilian airport known as Göteborg City Airport). This hangar or bunker was classified as secret all the way through 1998, when it was made public. Today, it houses the Aeroseum museum, where you can easily spend half a day looking at all the fun things. It features some 20000 square meters of facilities underground, built to withstand a nuclear attack and still let the Swedish Air Force service its planes.


The entrance used by visitors is quite well hidden, even if it apparently was pretty obvious from an airplane.


Inside, there is a long sloping tunnel down towards the core of the facility. In the picture above, you can see the a HKP4 (similar to the US CH-46), a J 29 “Tunnan”, a J 35 “Draken”, and an AJ 37 “Viggen”. There are quite a few helicopters at the Aeroseum, probably outnumbering the airplanes. Most of the exhibited aircraft and helicopters are open to be climbed around inside and to sit in, providing lots of opportunities to take photographs while seated in fighter planes or helicopters. There are some exhibited aircraft that are clearly there to be preserved and which are not open, but overall the feeling is that there is stuff just lying around that you can touch and look at up close, such as missiles, rocket pods, gun pods, and even a BK90 cluster bomb. There is an old Bofors 40mm model 1936 AA mount that you can sit in, and a Viggen aircraft with the engine removed – allowing you to crawl through it from the air intakes all the way through. Great for the kids (and adults).


The core of the facility features a cafe, a bookshop full of military books, and a playground for kids built using surplus military materiel (“throw the hula-hoop around the missile nose”). Aeroseum is also used to store quite a few airworthy small aircraft, and a replica of the first Swedish-built aircraft, the Thulin (basically a copy of a Bleriot):


On the Cold War theme, there is an exhibition about spying in general and the East German Stasi in particular. This exhibition shows some wonderful old propaganda/education films about the need to be vigilant against saboteurs and spies, and lots of materials on the East German oppression system. It also has a spy room, where you are challenged to find the hidden cameras. Actually, quite difficult!


Other attractions

I did not have time to visit the “Götheborg”, a replica of a 1600s trading ship. The original Götheborg sank just as it was coming home from a successful trading trip to China, and this replica has actually sailed there too. Today, it is the biggest wooden sailing ship in the world.


Göteborg also features the Älvsborgbron, a bridge almost as iconic as the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco. It spans the mouth of the Göta Älv river, and you have to pass it on the way to Nya Älvsborg.


It is possible to bike and walk across the bridge, and I actually did that just to see what it was like. Unfortunately, the bridge is constantly shaking from the heavy vehicles driving across it, making it pretty hard to get good photos from it. Putting a tripod on the bridge would probably end up with worse pictures due to vibrations than just holding the camera. This picture shows me on the path across the bridge, alongside some typical traffic:



Overall – I highly recommend a visit to Göteborg and in particular Aeroseum.


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