A top-secret nuclear bunker is open for visitors in Denmark. Built to withstand a nuclear attack, it is now an amazing underground museum that sheds light on the paranoia of the Cold War.
In the Rold Forest in northern Jutland, about 400 km northwest of Copenhagen, there is an extensive bunker complex Koldrigsmuseet REGAN Vest (Cold War Museum REGAN West). Secretly built in the 1960s at the height of the Cold War, this is where the Danish government and even the Queen would be evacuated if nuclear war broke out.
The plan was to run the country from inside this shelter, 60 meters underground, and its very existence was kept quiet for decades until it was finally discovered in 2012. After years of preparation, it opened to the public for the first time in February 2023. like a museum Only 50,000 visitors are allowed each year, and access is limited to small groups of 10 on 90-minute guided tours that explore the 2km bunker maze system. It’s a fascinating journey into the heart of a Cold War time capsule.
After leaving the train station in the small town of Skorping, I jumped straight into a taxi for the short ride to the Roald Forest. The local driver had never heard of the mysterious bunker and with no phone signal we drove around in circles trying to find it. Fortunately, we soon stumbled upon a road that led to a cluster of dark metal and glass buildings partially enclosed on a hillside that housed a smart new visitor center.
Under the tall forest and bright blue sky, I tramped the short path to the entrance of the bunker, a place once guarded by police armed with pistols and hand grenades. The weathered concrete doorframe was green with moss and moisture, and looked so ordinary that the sprawling network of tunnels it hid was all the more impressive.
The curved and ribbed walls were designed to slow down the pressure wave of a nuclear explosion
“That was part of keeping it a secret,” said Bodil Frandsen, the museum’s curator and historian, as she met me inside with her colleague Lars Christian Nerbach, director of the North Jutland Museums.
When I entered the tunnel, I felt as if I had entered a secret parallel universe. I have never seen anything like it anywhere.
“Listen,” Norbach said as the door slammed shut, shutting out the last rays of natural light and sending an echo echoing down the 300 meter long tunnel ahead.
My foreboding only grew as we continued through the corridor carved into the chalk and limestone hillside. What was only a few minutes’ walk seemed much longer as we followed the curved, ribbed walls that were designed to slow down the pressure wave of a nuclear explosion.
Eventually we came to a pair of heavy, sealed doors that marked the beginning of the actual bunker. Our first stop was the engine room, where diesel generators kept the facility running. Once isolated from the outside world, there would be enough electricity, recycled air and other supplies for 10 days, Frandsen explained, comparing it to a submarine, “just on land.”
You’ve never seen a weapon like this. It was just much stronger and much more devastating. This required a new way of thinking and planning
The Cold War was a period of acute political and military tension between the Western and Eastern blocs supported by the United States and the Soviet Union, which lasted from shortly after World War II until the early 1990s, leading to a nuclear arms race. After the Soviet Union tested a potentially catastrophic hydrogen bomb, and later the Cuban Missile Crisis, fears of Armageddon heated up even more.
The bunker complex was frozen in time, and the old-fashioned equipment remained intact in the offices
“You’ve never seen a weapon like this,” Frandsen said. “It was much stronger and much more devastating. It required a new way of thinking and planning.”
A NATO member since 1949, Denmark’s location at the mouth of the Baltic Sea was (and remains) strategically important, but its proximity to the Iron Curtain also made it vulnerable, so the country prepared for the worst. Construction of the REGAN Vest began in 1963 and was completed five years later.
The resulting nuclear-safe bunker was a staggering 5,500 square meter behemoth, shaped like two large connected rings, each with an upper and lower floor, and more than 230 rooms that could accommodate around 350 people. They will mostly be ministers and civil servants, part of a reduced administration tasked with running the country’s affairs in its darkest times, along with a few medics, a few journalists and a priest.
As we walked down the gloomy corridor, I was stunned by the sight of untouched offices, still equipped with old-fashioned telephones and stationery, a communications room and a small radio studio, all frozen in time. Much of the decor is from the 1960s and 70s, including dozens of original classic chairs by iconic Danish designer Arne Jacobsen.
“It’s a different world here,” Nerbach remarked. “What is special here is that this bunker is authentic. It is a kind of time capsule. Quite a huge time capsule.”
The Regan Vest was built in the early 1960s at the height of the Cold War
And that’s why the REGAN vest is so unique. Other government bunkers exist, he explained, but they have been upgraded, their contents removed or they are not open to the public.
Fortunately, World War III did not happen and the facility was only used for training, although it remained in standby mode until 2003, when it was finally decommissioned. Nine years later, the long-kept secret ended, and then began nearly ten years of preparations to preserve the bunker as a museum.
Although I have memories of the fall of the Berlin Wall when I was a child in the 1980s, the Cold War was an era I never knew. However, entering the “situation room” of the bunker was a harsh lesson. Military maps of Scandinavia and the Soviet Union covered the walls, ready for meetings that never took place.
“If you look at the map and remember how the division was in Germany, Denmark is a front-line country,” Frandsen explained.
It was a time of fear and paranoia, but also of preparedness. From kindergarten basements to military forts, approximately 14,000 Cold War-era structures have been erected across Denmark – and I was surprised to learn that there is another equally large complex called Regan Øst (East).
“I can’t tell you more about it because it’s still operational and under wraps,” Frandsen said.
Queen Margrethe had her own quarters here in case a nuclear war broke out
Moving through the rounded corridors of residential blocks was somewhat disorienting. And if the stairs weren’t painted green, blue, yellow and orange, it would be easy to get lost. I saw glimpses of a surreal life: austere rooms with bunk beds; helmets are still ready.
“This is a VIP room. Carpet on the floor,” Norbach announced as we entered a larger, spartan bedroom with two single beds, a private bathroom, and a small study. These unlikely rooms were intended for Queen Margrethe. I was told that she actually visited once and even approved the wall painting in her room.
The elegant lounge was perhaps the brightest watch of all. The furniture, lamps and wallpaper, emerald green, seemed straight out of the pages of a 1970s magazine. And among the shelves with videotapes and books, there was a humorous touch: a copy of the James Bond novel From Russia with Love. As we walked, I thought about the West’s current geopolitical tensions with Russia and how the opening of the museum seems especially timely.
Our subterranean journey came to an end in the cafeteria, where rows of matching black lampshades hung low over the tables and photo-realistic wallpaper depicted a forest scene. Loud birdsong once emanated from a tape machine, part of a surreal upgrade to improve the welfare of the few workers who occasionally came here, isolated deep underground.
In the cafeteria, recordings of birdsong were played to improve workers’ well-being
Afterward, I lingered in the visitor center, where an exhibit delves deeper into the history and society of the Cold War, before entering the nearby Machinist’s House, a typical yellow brick building. It has been renovated with 1980s decor and paraphernalia, but was once home to an engineer who maintained the bunker. He lived there with his family until 2010, at a top-secret facility right in their backyard.
The fact that it has remained hidden for half a century is remarkable, and I was interested to know what the locals thought about it.
“People can’t wait to get down there and finally see what it’s like,” Frandsen replied.
“A lot of them say, ‘I knew it,'” Nerbach laughed. “But don’t believe them.