Saltojo Karo

Deep in the heart of the Zemaitija National Park lurks a former Soviet nuclear missile base, Saltojo Karo.

Built in the 1960s in secret from the locals, this massive underground site was ingeniously disguised as a working mine. It was constructed and operated in total secrecy until its dismantling at the end of the 1980s.

Five layers of fences guarded the “mine”

Now a fascinating museum, with multi-media information panels and projections, the complex is open to anyone to wander freely through it. Long corridors lead to an array of rooms and spaces at varying levels, from vast fuel tank depots, to tiny radio control rooms.

The huge bunker required its own ventilation and clean water systems and part of the complex existed simply to allow the main purpose of the site to function. This being of course the installation, maintenance and targeting of nuclear missiles.

Nuclear silos – the view above ground

We had the place pretty much to ourselves and wandered aghast through the rooms, trying on vintage gas masks and protective gear and marvelling at the minds that created this monster.

Against a backdrop of gigantic engineering and complex communications equipment, the algebraic calculations that set the course of each missile were a marvel in themselves, written to unique formulas by scientists, working in secret from each other.

Our tour ended at the top of a missile silo, on a narrow metal platform that circled underneath the overhead opening of the weapon’s chamber.

The concrete outer layer of the missile silo was 30 meters deep and seven meters wide. The steel cylinder that held the missile sat inside the concrete casing and was 16mm thick, with a diameter of five meters.

Between the cylinder and the concrete outer casing was a gap of one meter to allow for hot gas to escape during the launch of the missile. The silo had a protective hood that was closed, but able to be opened to fire the missile. There were seven levels along the length of the silo that were used by various engineers and technicians.

At the deepest level, gas and fuel was injected into the missile to power its launch. At the higher levels engineers set targeting and monitoring equipment. In between, radio operatives kept in touch with all levels and launch control.

Each missile was 23 meters high, which included the top four meters of armed nuclear warhead. It was a nauseating experience to lean over and peer down into a vast and now-empty cylinder that could have fired devastation into the West, and home.

The site had four silos, and therefore could launch four missiles in sequence. It had enough firepower to flatten most of Europe.

Throughout the Cold War the intended target of each missile changed with the shifting politics and priorities of the party leaders, but the UK was fully in the sights of launch control at this base.

Cold War propaganda

We both remembered 1980s public information films about the danger of the nuclear threat and explosive TV dramas such as ‘Threads’, ‘Z for Zacharia’ and ‘Edge of Darkness’.

To be a teenager and aware that your life, in part, depended on the decision-making of powerful and remote world leaders was to sometimes feel real fear at night. The beasts under the bed were angry men on either side of the Atlantic, each with the authority to put their ‘finger on the button’.

It’s hard to explain that now to younger members of the family.