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The Cold War in Berlin, Formula 1 and Nazi Germany

Sometimes when researching my books my various interests pleasantly collide. Yesterday while reading up on US Army installations in Cold War Berlin, I discovered a fascinating link between Cold War Berlin, Nazi Germany and Formula 1.

The Automobil Verkehrs and Übungs-Straße (AVUS, Automobile Traffic and Practice Road) was a highly unusual racing circuit, originally 12.6 miles long and comprising just two 5.5 miles long straights (two lanes width each side) and a hairpin bend at each end. It began life just before the First World War, and grew in popularity between the wars, and the first (non-Formula 1) Grand Prix race was held there in 1926.[1] When Hitler came to power, he saw the requirement for a network of high-speed expressways across Germany to help fuel its economic growth. He claimed credit for coming up with the idea of the autobahn (motorway or freeway) even though the plans for the first autobahn dated back to the 1920s and the first section was actually opened before he came to power in 1932, linking Cologne and Bonn. However, when Hitler came to power in 1933, he accelerated the programme, with his first section opening on 19 May 1935 between Frankfurt and Darmstadt.[2] This coincided with his vision of widespread car ownership and the concept of his ‘People’s Car’, the Volkswagen, which didn’t enter mass production until long after its sponsor was dead. With Berlin due to host the 1936 Olympics, Hitler wanted to show off his new transport infrastructure to the world and the AVUS racetrack was converted to an ‘experimental’ showcase autobahn that could double as a street racing circuit. During the week it was used as a high-speed toll road between Berlin and Wannsee/Potsdam, while at the weekends it could be closed to traffic and used to host race meetings, and to respect the law-abiding Prussian mentality and the convention of driving on the right, the circuit was anticlockwise. Attempts were made to make it the fastest track in the world by putting 43º of banking at the hairpins to allow the cars to take them flat out, although only the northern banking (the Nordkurve) was completed.

The Nordkurve hairpin at the Avus circuit in Berlin

The first race on the completed track was held in May 1937 and was won by Hermann Lang in his Mercedes with an average speed of 260km/h (160mph) and a terrifying top speed of 390km/h (225mph). The designers, however, neglected to put crash barriers at the top of the banking, so if a car went a little too wide or spun out of control it would fly off the top, crashing down on the racegoers below (it was duly christened ‘The Wall of Death’ and there were several fatal accidents).[3]

This image shows the lack of any crash barriers at the top of the banking.

The size and bank of the Nordkurve can be seen in this photo

In 1959 the AVUS finally managed to prise the Formula 1 German Grand Prix away from the Nürburgring - the race was run over two heats on a shortened 5.2 mile long track after teams raised concerns over tyre life on the raised banking.[4] The new Südkurve was a flat hairpin that was far less interesting (but much safer) to drive, leading it to be described as a ‘bus stop’. British driver Tony Brooks triumphed in both races to win overall for Ferrari.

Tony Brooks in his Ferrari Dino 246 leading the 1959 German Grand Prix at the Avus circuit

By the mid 1960s the banking at the Nordkurve was removed on safety grounds and because of expansion in West Berlin’s road network, and the work on the proposed banked southern hairpin was abandoned.

In the meantime, the US Army Berlin Brigade had found an ideal location for their small arms (rifle and pistol) firing range and in the 1950s moved into the site occupied by the abandoned earthworks that had been created for the Südkurve banking. The horseshoe shaped earth berms were perfect to contain any stray rounds from the soldier’s weapons. Initially, Keerans Range, as it was christened, was a very simple firing compound with KD (known distance) targets, however in the early 1980s it was modernised with automatic electronic pop-up targets. All Berlin Command/Brigade Soldiers would have visited Keerans Range to keep their small arms qualifications (Basic Rifle Marksmanship or BRM), current. The Rose Range in the Düppler Forest close to Wannsee also had small arms ranges.

The Avus autobahn can be seen running to the left of the range site.

The plan shows how the range was created inside the distinctive shape of the proposed Südkurve banking.

Soldiers of the US Army Berlin Brigade firing their M16 rifles at Keerans Range, West Berlin, 21 January 1983

Soldiers load magazines for their M16 rifles at the Keerans Range, West Berlin, 21 January 1983

A range officer issues ammunition to a soldier at the Keerans Range, West Berlin, 21 January 1983

An instructor discusses a soldier’s marksmanship, at the Keerans Range, West Berlin, 21 January 1983

A range officer services an electronic pop up target, at the Keerans Range, West Berlin, 21 January 1983

The story of the US Army Berlin Brigade and their British and French counterparts will be told in volume 3 of my Berlin mini series for Helion & Company: 'Cold War Berlin: An Island City, Volume 3 - The Defence of West Berlin 1945-1990' to be published summer 2022.

[1] <> and <> both accessed 22 December 2021 [2] <> accessed 22 December 2021 [3] <> accessed 22 December 2021 [4] The only World Championship Formula 1 Grand Prix to be run over 2 heats. The event was marred by the death of former Ferrari F1 driver, Frenchman Jean Behra who was killed in a support race when his privately entered Porsche sports car lost control on the banking.

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R. W. Rynerson
R. W. Rynerson
Feb 07, 2022

My colleague who disliked offensive driving by newby German drivers in their economic boom days used to point out the pits that remained along the Avus and say "see, they think they're driving on a race track!"


Steve Tisdale
Steve Tisdale
Dec 23, 2021

Interesting story!

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