Base Tuono: An Italian Cold War “Living History” Museum

This is a great shot of the Base Tuono museum showing how well it represents the main components of an active Nike Hercules facility. (photo by Christian Vaccari)

Based upon an original article in Italian by Christian Vaccari

Following WWII, the Western-aligned nations soon realized that they needed to band together to create a formal alliance against the rising threat of Soviet aggression. This lead to the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, better known as NATO, which has proven to be a vital essential element to maintaining the peace in Europe, and further afield, for the past seven decades. Twelve nations initially came together at NATO’s founding in 1949: Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom and the United States. All of these nations had paid a heavy price in blood and treasure during WWII. The European nations were exhausted from the physical and economic devastation which war had wrought upon their lands, and individually, could never had taken on the Soviet juggernaut. The need for a new bulwark against the Eastern Bloc, as the Soviet Union and its satellite states were then known, became of paramount importance once Russia became a nuclear power with the detonation of their first atomic bomb in August, 1949.

In the early days, each NATO nation had the opportunity to buy top-of-the-line American-made military hardware at heavily subsidized rates, which was essential in order to credibly counter the Soviet threat in short order. Italy was one of several nations which chose this opportunity to take part in a coordinated defense effort against the Soviets and potential communist dictatorship. Among the tangible results of this cooperation was Italy’s adoption of American military equipment. This included aircraft and, once they became reliable, Surface to Air anti-aircraft missile systems too.

In Italy, the risk of air raids from Eastern Bloc nations was most pronounced in the north-eastern sector of the nation, i.e. the regions of Lombardy, Veneto and Friuli. Therefore, the Italian Army set up short-range Hawk anti-aircraft missile batteries to counter the low and medium altitude threats to these regions, while the Italian Air Force handled the medium and high altitude menace with long range Nike missiles. The Hawk and Nike Surface to Air Missile (SAM) systems created a SAM restricted zone in north-eastern Italy, which officially came online on March 1st, 1959 when the 1st Air Brigade IT (Guided Interceptors) set up shop at Padua Airport in far north-eastern Italy. Initially, there were three groups and twelve squadrons equipped with Nike-Ajax SAMs. The 1st Air Brigade inherited its coat of arms from the Italian Air Force’s 1st Fighter Wing, which features an archer with his drawn bow and arrow ready to fire. It symbolized readiness and rapid response, both typical characteristics of fighter aircraft and unmanned interceptors (missiles).

With the adoption of the more potent Nike-Hercules missile, capable of destroying entire enemy bomber formations up to 90 miles away (when equipped with a W31 nuclear-tipped warhead instead of a conventional explosive charge), the 1st Air Brigade grew to include three Departments with four IT Groups each. Over time, the 1st Air Brigade’s configuration changed as a result of organic restructuring. This led to a progressive reduction in the number of Departments (later called Flocks) and Groups. The Nike-Hercules system endured for decades to become one of the oldest weapon systems within Italy’s Armed Forces by the time of its retirement on July 1st, 2007. The 1st Air Brigade made their last practice launch of a Nike Hercules at 17:54 hours on November 24th, 2006 when PISQ (Polygon Interforze of Salto di Quirra) fired missile number 16496 at a test target from their training range on the island of Sardinia.

Today, little remains of the infrastructure surrounding the Nike Hercules missile system. However, there is a NATO museum at one of the former Nike Hercules SAM bases in the alpine foothills of north eastern Italy which has recreated much of the look and feel of how the place would have been during its active years. Italian aviation photographer Christian Vaccari visited the base and reported the following….

It is not easy to imagine the daily life for our Alpine soldiers during the First World War, positioned as they were in trenches along Italy’s national borders on the high peaks that today, we roam freely with serenity and a spirit of adventure. These are difficult conditions, as those with experience of the mountain environment can attest. The often unforgiving climate, rough terrain and the simple logistics of long term survival would test anyone, even the bravest of fighters.

These situations are recorded in the history books about WWI and WWII, but due to security measures at the time, the local population knew little about what went on during the Cold War at Italy’s mountainside SAM stations. The nascent museum at Base Tuono aims to change that situation. Located in the Comune (municipality) of Folgaria, roughly a hundred miles from Croatia’s western border, the old Nike SAM station at Tuono once guarded the eastern frontier with the former Eastern Bloc nation of Yugoslavia (of which Croatia was once a part). Tuono (thunder in Italian) was operational between 1966 and 1977. 

The Comune of Folgaria acquired Base Tuono in 2010, and opened it as a museum with support from the Autonomous Province of Trento, in collaboration with the Italian Air Force. Since then it has been educating the public about the history of Italy’s Cold War defense in collaboration with NATO. The base also receives a good number of organized student visits throughout the school year too. It is in a gorgeous mountainous setting roughly 4,200 feet up the slopes of the northeastern Alps, and about an hour from the little town of Trento. After years of being in disrepair, museum personnel have refurbished one section with original material (including three deactivated Nike Hercules missiles and associated radar equipment) to reveal a vivid impression of how the base would have looked when it was operational. As such, Base Tuono represents one of the best examples of “living history” in Italy.

Many thanks to Christian Vaccari for the article and photos. For more information, please visit www.basetuono.it
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