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Camp Benelux

The Caserne de bataillon Hinsbeck is an abandoned NATO barracks in Vinkrath, a rural suburb of the small German town, Grefrath. Built in 1968, it was under Belgian control, forming part of their military corridor that ran from Aachen up to Kassel. The site in Vinkrath is reasonably small, containing just 16 buildings and several garages. But here, based in this small German town, were Nike ballistic missiles fitted with American nuclear warheads.

Building commenced on the NATO base in the early 1960’s, with the site finally becoming occupied in 1969. 800 soldiers of the Belgian air defence regiment moved in, and were housed in five specially built buildings. There were 11 other buildings on site, most of which were offices. One building contained a huge boiler network, which was used to provide the site with its own electricity. Its chimney towered above the barracks, as did the adjacent 27 meter high radar tower. Lying on the impossibly flat farmland of the Rhineland, and located just ten kilometres from the Dutch border, the chimney and radar tower were visible from miles around.

There were 40,000 Belgian troops in Germany during the Cold War, most of whom were located about 80 kilometres south of Grefrath in either Cologne or Eschweiler. Together they formed the FBA-BSD, which was an abbreviation and amalgamation of the French, ‘Forces belges en Allemagne’ and the Dutch, ‘Belgische strijdkrachten in Duitsland’; Belgium being a multilingual country meant everything had to be duplicated in both French and Dutch.

It was the 56 squadron and the HQ of the 9e Wing of the Belgian armed forces that were based in Grefrath. And although the 800 man strong regiments made up only a fraction of the total 40,000 Belgian troops based in Germany, there relevance cannot be underestimated. Caserne de bataillon Hinsbeck housed the Belgian military’s defence trucks, trucks that were fitted with long range ballistic missiles capable of hitting targets deep within the Soviet Union. These long range NIKE missiles contained nuclear warheads, loaned from the 5th US Army Artillery Group. Should a nuclear confrontation between the Eastern and Western blocs ever have taken place, it may well have been from the tiny German village of Grefrath where the first launch emanated from.

For 31 years, Nike ballistic missiles were stored on site, right up until 1990. The 70,000 square meters of land, lying open and exposed in the middle of German farmland, formed a mini-Belgium. There was a theatre on site to keep the troops entertained, and all the signs about the site were in both Flemish and French. As an example, signs to indicate ‘No Smoking’, had to read both ‘Defense de Fumer’ and ‘Roken Verboden’. There were also English duplications, one of the two official languages of NATO (French being the other one).  

In 1991, with the Cold War over, the Belgians vacated the barracks, making their short 60 kilometre journey back to Belgium. A small American administrative division moved in, remaining there until 1995, at which point they handed the site back to the German authorities. Since then, the barracks have stood empty, with all attempts to find a possible use for the site failing. In 1998, the ministry for justice of the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, under whose jurisdiction Grefrath falls, sought to convert the empty barracks into a small jail. The plans were nearly realised, but fell through at the last minute. This condemned Caserne de bataillon Hinsbeck to perpetual dereliction.

Eventually, in 2011, the site was sold to a real estate company named HW Immobilien. Five years later, and HW Immobilien still own the site, but what they plan to do with it is unclear. A local group of the German Red Cross is currently renting several garages at the barracks, and using them to store their vehicles. Apart from that, the site is still empty and without use.

Today, in 2016, many of the buildings are suffering from superficial damage – broken windows and peeling paint, for example – but are otherwise in quite good condition. The rest of the site is overgrown and unmaintained. This has irked many locals, including the regional newspaper, the Rheinische Post. On several occasions they have run editorials against the real estate company that own the site, trying to use their influence to force change. However, the site still remains abandoned. It is believed that the entirety of the military complex will eventually be demolished.

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