Hemsö Fästning – Coastal Defense from the 1950s

Continuing on my blog posts about our Hemester (part 1 covered Bodens Fästning), this blog post will cover Hemsö Fästning. Both are fascinating places, but also rather different, and clearly demonstrate the changes from the early 1900s to the Cold War of the 1950s.

Hemsö fästning is located on Hemsön, an island off the east coast of Sweden north of Härnösand. It was established as a coastal defense battery in the 1950s to protect Härnösand and the industries inland of the island from attack (basically, from the Soviet Union). It was super-secret, to the extent that no foreigners were allowed on the island at all. I know some people who grew up around the area and who served in the fortress, and it was all very hush-hush, even though everyone knew that there was a major military installation on Hemsön.

To get there, you have to take a ferry which runs every 20 to 30 minutes depending on the time of day. It is not very far from Härnösand, actually. Hemsö has always had a non-military population, and it seems that there are some hotels on the island. Otherwise, Härnösand is a short drive away.

The ferry stop on the mainland, with information about Hemsön and its attractions.
These signs met visitors to the island back in the Cold War times.

The Hemsö fortress was designed to be hidden and hard to see, with everything extensively camouflaged. The gun turrets try to blend into the landscape, and radars and other observation devices are scattered about. Some of them can be lowered into the ground when not in use. This is typical for the coastal defense installations from the Cold War era (all of which are now decommissioned and replaced with mobile units).  

My guess is that large radar antenna is hidden behind these doors, ready to be raised to look for targets out in the Baltic.

The main armament of the fortress were three turrets, each with two 152mm guns (Bofors 15,2cm kustartilleripjäs m/51). These guns were originally built for export to Thailand to arm some cruisers, but when World War 2 arrived, they stayed in Sweden and eventually armed coastal batteries at Hemsö and Fårö. This kind of reuse of naval guns for coastal artillery was very common in Sweden. The maximum range was about 22 kilometers, practical range apparently around 18 kilometers. The guns were manually loaded, with projectiles weighing 46 kilograms.

Battery (Pjäs) 3. Note the frames for the camouflage nets that cover the turret. Also, the shape of the turret here is just a shell over the underlying rather boxy actual gun turret. The concrete emplacement is creatively decorated with boulders to fit in with the surroundings.

Hemsö fästning was built with air power and nuclear weapons in mind. The fort is supposed to be able to survive small nuclear explosions close by, and is extensively compartmentalized to allow it to keep fighting even if parts of it are taken out. It is dug 40 meters down into the bedrock, which a lot deeper than the forts in Boden. It was designed to be self-contained for up to three months without resupply, including power, water, food, and air. The entry tunnels are angled and feature airlocks to prevent nuclear and chemical contamination from getting into the fortress.

The entrance tunnel is damp and dimly lit – making it very clear you are going down into the mountain.
Generator room in the fortress. Note how roomy and neatly built this is compared to Rödbergsfortet in Boden.

The fortress also had a close-defense force against ground attack. There are quite few bunkers and dugouts scattered around the area for those troops.

This dummy in a dugout greets the visitors just beyond the entrance to the fortress area. Typical model 1959 Swedish army uniform.

Some 300 soldiers were housed in the fort. They lived in smaller 6-person rooms, compared to the very large quarters used in Boden. The rooms had higher ceilings and much more regular walls than in Boden – the technology for excavating and building underground bunkers had progressed very noticeably in 50 years (building Hemsö took just four years, where Boden was more like ten). There was a medical department including two operating theaters.

There were two triple bunks to each room for the conscript soldiers.

The soldiers lived their entire time down in the fort, no cafeteria above the ground like they had in Boden. There was a small kiosk with candy, literature, etc. All lovingly preserved like it looked in the 1980s. There were also three different mess rooms: one for the officers, one for the non-commissioned officers, and one for the regular grunts.

The proper officers’ mess with some fine china and comfortable sofa. The other groups had rather more spartan facilities.
The kiosk (Marketenteri or Markan), underground inside the fortress complex.
Instructive posters warning about the dangers of being careless with explosive and flammable goods.

The fire control and sensor technology at Hemsö is very far advanced compared to Boden. Hemsö uses radar, optical sensors, laser distance measuring, and other post-World-War-II technologies. The fire control centers are full of screens and keyboards, and all artillery fire is controlled from the central control rooms, including the scattered 40mm anti-aircraft pieces.

Fire control stations with radar sets and electronic controls for the guns.
Main combat information center.
The control room for the 40mm anti-air artillery. The position with the chair was where the gun laying happened; the crews up on top would just feed the guns with ammo while the direction was being done from this room down below.

I have heard from people who served at the fort that they also had manually aimed and fired 20mm (Bofors Model 1940) anti-aircraft guns in use up until the 1980s! Apparently, firing these guns was a lot of a fun since you saw what you were shooting, rather than playing computer games with the big guns from down in the bowels of the fortress.

A 20mm AA gun next to a one-man shelter.

Lots of old technology and high technology is visible, things I recall as a kid in the 1970s.

Facit was a very successful company in the late 1960s, but it was caught out by the electronics revolution of the 1970s and is now long gone.

One thing I noted about the fortress was that there were telephones everywhere, and multiple small telephone exchanges. This place was definitely built in the age of the classic telephone!

Diagram explaining the components of a field telephone model 1937.
Portable field telephone exchange.

The main attraction is the underground fort itself, but the museum also has quite a few thing above ground, showing various historical military artifacts. There is a nice restaurant that serves a great lunch buffet, with outdoor seating with a wonderful view out across the Baltic sea.

Decorations above the line to the buffet in the restaurant.
Dummy of a 75mm model 1957 gun turret, just outside the restaurant.
Old-style letter box for military mail.
An old field kitchen can be found in the outdoor exhibition. Looks more 1930s than 1950s to me.

Overall, Hemsö is a great place to visit. Compared to Boden, this is a much more modern and rather different type of fortress. The tour is much shorter compared to Rödbergsfortet in Boden, however, and it felt you got to see into more rooms and experience more in Boden. This might just be luck of the draw in terms of which guide you get and how busy the place is on any particular day; I heard from a friend of mine that they had been able to roam a bit more freely inside on their visit.

Additional Emplacements

In addition to the gun turret inside the museum area (pjäs 3), you can take a short walk outside and find a second turret (pjäs 2). It looks very much like the one inside the museum, but with fewer people around.

Battery pjäs 2 – note the aerodynamic shape of the turret cover, intended to deflect blast waves from nuclear weapons if I understood correctly.

Battery Havtoudd

There is also a secondary battery at Havstoudd on the northern tip of Hemsö. This was built a few years after the main fortress, and features a set of 75mm guns in single turrets (Bofors 75mm m/57). The turrets are armored, and the armor box is covered by a light-weight camouflage cap that tries hard to make it look like a rock.

A 75mm gun turret at Havtoudd, with a commanding view of the sea.
Another view of the same gun turret.

The battery was smaller than the main fortress, housing some 100 men, but built along the same principles. Self-contained, and with advanced fire control systems. It seems that it is sometimes open for visits (including being used as a conference/meeting venue).

A command and observation bunker at Havtoudd. Doing its best to blend in with nature.
You need to be careful around those radars, microwaves might hurt!

Havtoudd is located right by the inlet to Ångermanälven, and if you look towards the mainland, you can get a good view of the beautiful Högakustenbron.

Högakustenbron seen from Havtoudd.

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