The Secret Passages of Tempelhof

The first time I went to Berlin was in the 1980s, during the cold war. At that time, the USAF was using Tempelhof as its main base in the divided city. That one huge building housed the entire Air Force Base: airport operations, maintenance facilities, commissary, a bowling alley, chapel, lodging, schools, even a basketball court. It is a behemoth of a building, circular in design and several stories high with secret passageways, hidden bunkers, and, perhaps, even a a ghost or two. Flash forward a few decades and we were back in Berlin, this time for a tour of this incredible iconic structure.

Chasing the Ghosts of the Past in Tempelhof
Tempelhof – How could this former WWII Nazi bastion not be home to ghosts?

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Ghosts From The Past in Tempelhof Airport Berlin?

According to our Tempelhof tour guide, Ernst, if you wander around the halls, tunnels, and passages of Tempelhof Airport at night you will encounter the ghosts of the past. And after our two hour walking tour through this interesting building, I’m fairly sure he’s right. For us, it was just like visiting our own ghosts from travels long ago. We had been in Tempelhof before, in the early 1990s, and had a limited time to explore the building while it was still an active military installation. But for Corinne and I, both Cold War veterans, Berlin has always had a strong draw and taking a Tempelhof airport tour was especially high on our list.

Chasing the Ghosts of the Past in Tempelhof
This giant poster hanging inside the building gives a good birds-eye view of USAF Tempelhof Airbase

Ghostly Opportunities

Tempelhof Hafen has been a symbol of Berlin from its beginning. First as the world’s premiere airport, it was a symbol of German efficiency and style. For Hitler’s Third Reich, it stood as a symbol of power and strength through air power. During the Cold War and the Berlin Airlift the building stood as a symbol of freedom for the Western world. It does have its dark side, though. During World War Two, Tempelhof field was used as a forced labor camp where prisoners were forced to fabricate munitions in the deeper basements of the building.

Chasing the Ghosts of the Past in Tempelhof
Tempelhof was an active airport between 1923 and 2008

We were very excited to get back to Berlin, Germany and even more excited to find that this historical Berlin airport is being preserved and tours are available! On our first real visit several years ago, we stayed in the Air Force lodging wing of Tempelhof Airbase and explored that little section, just barely scratching the surface. The Tempelhof tour, on the other hand, takes you on a journey through time to several levels within the building.

Chasing the Ghosts of the Past in Tempelhof
Remnants of airport operations still remain

Taking the Tempelhof Airport Tour

The tour starts in the main “airport” sections of the building. The reception hall for departures and arrivals is a grand meeting place, very airy and light. Though it wasn’t hard to imagine the spacious hall and long windows darkly festooned with the red, black, and white swastika flags of Nazi Germany hanging eerily in the tall windows.

Chasing the Ghosts of the Past in Tempelhof
Lufthansa flight LH 103 to Frankfurt now departing from gate C

The Berlin Airlift

At one time, this hangar space, built right into the massive building, was teeming with activity. Imagine a constant flow of aircraft, one every 10 minutes, as thousands of tons of food, medicine, clothing, coal, and other supplies were delivered non-stop. Aircrews set the record for the most tonnage of airlifted cargo in one 24 hour period: nearly 13,000 tons of coal delivered through more than 1300 flights in one 24 hour period.

Chasing the Ghosts of the Past in Tempelhof
A real ghost from the past, one of the original Berlin “Candy Bombers”

During the Cold War, Soviet-backed troops in East Germany built a wall around Berlin to blockade the “Western” controlled parts of the city in an effort to drive out American and British influence. The response was to supply West Berlin entirely through airlift. The result was a constantly flowing air train of goods and supplies to keep the inhabitants fed and warm during the cold winter. The C-54 was the workhorse of the airlift and came to be known as the candy bomber after crews began air dropping small bundles of candy for the children of the city.

Chasing the Ghosts of the Past in Tempelhof
This mural tells the whole story of the Berlin Airlift in one picture

In any operation of this magnitude there were bound to be mishaps, and 39 British and 31 Americans lost their lives defending freedom and supplying the Soviet encircled city. The Luftbrucke memorial was built at Tempelhof and Rhein Main as a remembrance to the aircrew and ground support personnel that died during the effort. I’m sure the ghosts of these men still walk the flight line at night, hoping to make one last cargo run for the people of Berlin.

Chasing the Ghosts of the Past in Tempelhof
The Luftbrucke stands as a memorial to the men and women of the Berlin Airlift

Into the Depths on the Tempelhof Tour

With the flight line and airport operations area behind us we started to descend into the depths of the building. This is where things started getting really interesting. I knew, from my explorations in the 1990s, that there were hidden passages and tunnels throughout the building. I just didn’t know to what extent.

Chasing the Ghosts of the Past in Tempelhof
Into the service tunnels and then down into the underbelly

We climbed down three or four levels of sub basements and behind a defunct heating plant to find this decrepit passageway leading into the Nazi war staff bunker system. The area had been burned out under Nazi orders and the commander killed himself here rather than surrendering to the approaching red army. If there was a haunted area of Tempelhof, this is surely it.

Chasing the Ghosts of the Past in Tempelhof
The passageway into the hidden Nazi bunkers

In another part of Tempelhof we found these old World War II air raid shelters. There were several self contained rooms, large enough to hold nearly a hundred men, women and children. I’m not sure what the meaning of these old German murals was, but I’m pretty sure they were meant to raise the spirits of the people that would spend long hours, night after night, in the shelters as bombs rained down on the city above.

Chasing the Ghosts of the Past in Tempelhof
The bomb shelters were decorated quite gaily to brighten the spirits

Any Other Ghosts?

Did we find any ghosts on our tour? No, none that felt compelled to show themselves to us at any rate. Still there is a sense of loneliness in this once bustling building. At one point we entered into the old gymnasium on one of the upper floors and found the basketball court still displaying the USAF squadron emblem emblazoned on the parquet wood floor at center court. The sound of running feet seemed to still be echoing in the cavernous room.

Chasing the Ghosts of the Past in Tempelhof
One of the stairwells, so many flights to climb!

While the Berlin Tempelhof Airport is a very utilitarian building, the architect took great lengths to instill his sense of style that imparts a stately strength to the structure in the details inside and out. It’s easy to imagine the clattering footsteps of war time workers, clerks, secretaries, running up and down these stairs, some critically important dispatch in hand.

Chasing the Ghosts of the Past in Tempelhof
A view from the outside, this was really a beautiful building

Practical Information

  • The English guided tour takes approximately two hours with many steps to climb
  • English tour dates are Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday
  • We recommend buying tickets online, as it may be difficult to get to the tour office during normal operating hours.
  • Nearest public transport –  bus 109 or U Bahn U6 to Platz der Luftbrucke
  • For more information visit https://www.thf-berlin.de/fuehrungen/english-guided-tours/
  • Looking for more of the best attractions Berlin has to offer? Click here!
  • Find the lowest prices on the Best Hotels in Berlin


The Secret Passages of Tempelhof

Of course Will Rogers comes from a different era, and today I’m sure he would modify this as “There are three different kinds of people…” So which one are you? I’ve always been a readin’ kind of learner, but as a seventh child I’ve also done plenty of learnin’ by observing my older siblings get into and out of trouble. Still, I have to admit, I’ve done my share of peeing on electric fences. For me, this usually takes the form of poking my nose into areas I’m not supposed to be. Tempelhof, in the city of Berlin, is one of my electric fences.

Tempelhof airport is an architectural wonder that came out of Nazi Germany and Hitler’s plan to transform Berlin into a utopian metropolis, all centered around the airport.  If you ever get the chance to take a tour, do so, there are regular English tours daily.

A Cold War Trip to Berlin

The cold war rules of the day limited the number of planes we could have on the ground, so our aircraft taxied up to the open bays of Tempelhof and, engines still running, out I jumped, toolbox in hand. I barely had time to take in the immensity of the building’s open face hangar bays before I was beckoned into the neighboring plane. The one I had flown in on was already heading out to the runway by the time I climbed aboard the “broken” plane. I was sure I would be able to make repairs and then spend the night in Tempelhof, how exciting!

Chasing the Ghosts of the Past in Tempelhof
The view from the aircraft parking apron

Unfortunately, it turns out the malfunction had cleared itself and the crew was in the process of checking things out just as I got there. The engines were already running! I watched Tempelhof recede into the distance as we taxied out and took off right behind the other C-130. All my hopes dashed!

Flash forward to 1990 and Corinne and I are on a road trip to Poland. Berlin is right along the route and since the Air Force still had its base in Tempelhof we had plans to spend the night there. My dream was soon to come true.

Driving up to this limestone and concrete colossus was even more impressive than flying in. Everything just seemed so massive, and our amazement continued even once we got inside and started climbing the grand staircase to the hotel reception. The ceilings were incredibly high but even still, the number of stairs between the floors just didn’t add up. It seemed we were climbing two levels for every one. Once we had settled into the room I was ready to explore. We only had one night here and I wanted to see as much of this mythical building as possible. I took the girls, both small children at the time, and we went out for an adventure. Maybe we would find a forgotten room holding some stolen Nazi treasures.

Exploring the Passages of Tempelhof

It wasn’t hard to find the maintenance access that led to the floor between the floors. There were no signs that said visitors were allowed to proceed down the winding staircase behind the door but there weren’t any that said we couldn’t, so in and down we went. There was a passageway lit only with bare incandescent bulbs spaced every 50 feet down a slowly curving hall that followed the shape of the building. We found empty rooms, dusty furniture like old office desks and filing cabinets, there was even one area that opened up and had cots along the outer walls. We kept walking. The passageway narrowed and the lighting became dimmer and dimmer.

Soon it was nearly dark and I was wondering if I should really be down here with my young daughters. Still we were having the time of our lives, this was real adventure! Up ahead, we were walking into pitch black when suddenly a bright red overhead light came on illuminating a mirror faced door closing off the passageway. There was nothing else there save a big, blocky old style telephone. Just as I was noticing the “Restricted Area” sign under the glass, the door swung open.

The Secret Passages of Tempelhof

A scowling uniformed security policeman emerged holding an M-16. “Can I help you folks?” he asked gruffly.

“Umm, we were just looking for our room,” I stammered lamely in reply.

“You’ll have to come with me,” and he gestured back the way we had come.

One of the girls started to cry.

“Oh, don’t worry yourself little lady,” the guard said bending down with a huge grin. “I’m just going to help you find your way back out. People are always walking around down here. Don’t know why, though, it’s just a bunch of old junk.”

In the end, we had a pleasant enough conversation and he told us a few stories of people getting lost in the lower floors. It seems I’m not the only one who learns by peeing on fences!

Tempelhof, Berlin – Important Facts

  • At one point Tempelhof  was in the top 20 largest buildings on Earth, over 300,000 square meters
  • Airport operations began in 1927, making it one of the oldest airports in the world
  • The airfield has been turned into a massive city park open from sunrise to sunset, a great place for kite flying!
  • The current building was built in the 1930s during Hitler’s reign of terror
  • USAF operations closed and the building was handed back to a unified Germany in 1993
  • Civilian airport operations continued until 2008 when the airport was finally closed
Chasing the Ghosts of the Past in Tempelhof
Gotta run! Time to catch our flight…

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27 thoughts on “The Secret Passages of Tempelhof”

  1. Great story! Glad it had a happy ending, especially with the kids along. This summer, I wanted to go down a little path to take a picture of some chickens. My kids insisted that it was trespassing and turned back to the car without me. Good thing because there was an electric fence, and I got zapped… which made me drop my iPhone on the other side of the fence… so I had to zap myself again to get it back. I used the opportunity to tell them, as Ren & Stimpy used to say, “Don’t whizz on the electric fence.”

  2. I just got back from Berlin, so I read this too late! But not really, because I’ll probably go back again next year. I’m definitely adding Tempelhof to my list of things I want to do next time I’m in Berlin!

  3. What a fascinating place to explore…I wonder how different it is now than if you had been able to explore in 1990 . We are heading to Berlin next year so have added it to my list

  4. I love that expression! It explains poking your nose into someones else’s business perfectly! These secret passages are intriguing but I don’t think I would be brave enough to meander underground. It seems a little spooky to me! 🙂

  5. I bet you that visitors weren’t allowed in the passages of Tempelhof, Jim. At least here, in the USA, if the area is not properly maintained to avoid any possibility of a lawsuit, no visitors are allowed. However, sometimes is better not to ask for permission because if you do, the answer is NO. You’ve got to visit a very interesting place that very few people know about.

    1. It was a fascinating experience. So much more so after going back and taking the tour in 2014. They really brought us through some interesting areas.

  6. Haha, what a cool little adventure that you got to share with your kids. I imagine trying to wander around a place like this nowadays would be much tougher and with a more severe punishment. Glad you were able to realise a dream of yours, certainly sounds like an intriguing place.

  7. I’ve never heard that saying – how hilarious! And what an adventure you had. I used to think I should have t-shirts made that said “It’s Always an Adventure with the Chapman’s” when my kids were little as we seemed to get ourselves into our fair share of scrapes and adventures.( One included a porcupine) But they’re the best, aren’t they?

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