Due to Covid-19, this year’s summer vacation involved a “staycation”, or “hemester” as we say in Swedish. We went up north in Sweden, and took the chance to visit some military museums. In particular, the fortresses at Hemsön and Boden (fästning means fortress). Both are fascinating places, but also rather different, and clearly demonstrate the developments from the early 1900s to the Cold War of the 1950s. This post covers Boden, with a separate post for Hemsö released a few days after this post.
Bodens fästning is among the largest military installations in Swedish history. Looking back, I guess a naval town like Karlskrona or the fortifications of Göteborg comes close in terms of effort and expenditure and importance to the country. But in modern history, Boden feels very unique. It is a Swedish Verdun, a town synonymous with a huge set of fortifications and dominated by the military. It sits some 30km inland, along the Lule river that runs into the Baltic at the large town of Luleå.
The town of Boden is surrounded by five major forts dug out of the bedrock in the early years of the 1900s. The whole complex was supposed to serve as a lock for the northern part of Sweden against a Russian invasion. Remember than in 1900, Finland was a part of Russia, and Russia had invaded Sweden just 100 years earlier when it took Finland. The Russians stood at the Swedish border, and Boden was selected as the place to stop them if they decided to come invade across from Torneå into Haparanda and downwards along the cost. The great Lule river was considered too hard to pass, and therefore the enemy would be forced to turn inland from the coast and end up at Boden. Where the fortresses together with mobile forces would stop and defeat them.
Today, Boden is still a military town, just not to the same extent as it once was. All the forts have been closed, since they are not particularly useful in a time with extensive air power and precision munitions. One fort remains open as a museum, Rödbergsfortet, and that is what we visited. Some good video footage of the fort can be found on Youtube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zJvTHhXDVAE. There is also a military historical museum in the town, which we discovered just in time to actually go visit it (see below).
Rödbergsfortet and the other four forts were built in the early 1900s, taken into commission around 1910. They were built in a time before aircraft and thus were designed with a moat to stop attacking infantry. The forts featured armored hoods on top the rock where 8cm, 15cm, and later 12cm guns would be placed, along with pits for mortars. The guns were a bit disappointing – the initial 15cm guns were replaced in 1970s with 12cm guns taken from decommissioned destroyers. With a range of some 20km at most, they cannot actually shoot all the way down to Luleå, which would have been kind of neat trick.
The approaches were protected by barbed wire and bunkers for the infantry. The whole complex was built using hand tools and dynamite – miners would use sledgehammers to drive a drill into the rock, which would then be filled with dynamite and blasted! Still, it only took a few years to create the forts, which is a rather amazing feat.
We took a tour of the fort that lasted for almost two hours, showing a lot of the insides of the complex. The tour was a lot deeper than what we got at Hemsö, and it felt like it was possible to see more at Rödbergsfortet. We ended the tour on top of the fort, where the view is rather commanding! You can indeed see for many miles around Boden – which is the point of having forts built on the top of the mountains in the first place.
The guide talked a lot about the life in the forts for the soldiers who served there. Many of them came from south Sweden, as there were not enough people living in the north to provide sufficient manpower to man all the forts and the many regiments in town (when I was young, going to Boden was considered a scary prospect for your military service as it was very far from home for most Swedes). I think they said that Boden housed up to 15000 soldiers, most of them conscripts, which is an enormous collection of military power in peacetime.
The soldiers doing their military service would live in the forts, and the forts were designed to be self-sufficient for a few months in the case of war. Guard duty could get really cold in the 1920s, and the fort exhibits a wolf fur coat (!) that was donated by a former conscript. After this soldier returned home, he had five extra-warm coats sown up and sent up to Boden – one for each of the forts. These were duly used each winter and put in storage each summer. By sheer luck, one of them survive at Rödbergsfortet to this very day. There is a lot of that kind of history preserved in Boden – details from the long service of the forts and the fortress town, through both World Wars and the Cold War.
I loved the little details, like fine plates with custom Bodens Fästning decorations that the military ordered from classic Swedish manufacturers like Rörstrand and Gustavsberg. They can still be found in restaurants around Boden, apparently. However, once plastic plates became available, most of the old porcelain was ditched and actually crushed… since the light-weight and durable plastic made the life of the kitchen crews a lot easier. Fortunately, some of the plates did survive in storage in various places.
Compared to Hemsö, the forts in Boden feel a lot older. The interiors are rougher, the conditions more cramped, and the precautions against magazine detonations a lot less rigorous. Still, they were used into the 1990s. Rödbergsfortet is definitely a highly recommended location!
Don’t forget to explore the surrounding area, where there are some additional fixed batteries and old bunkers hiding in the forest.
The military history museum in Boden tells the story of Boden as a fortress town, and also features quite a few vehicles and items in an outdoor exhibit. Inside the museum, they had quite a few helicopters, a single Swedish tank m/74, and quite a few uniforms and informative text. The museum tells the story of Boden and the events of the world wars and the cold war.
The outdoor exhibits are different set of items from what I have seen elsewhere in Sweden, since Boden featured “rare” branches of the army like the engineering corps and artillery (and not just the infantry and the “exciting” armor).