The World rejoiced as the Second World War came to an end and fascism collapsed in Europe. However, even in March 1945, the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, was saying that ‘an iron curtain has descended across the continent of Europe’. The Inner German Border fence was constructed by the Russians and they began to expand their communist powerbase. 1948 marked the communist take-over of Czechoslovakia and this was closely followed by the Berlin blockade and Russia’s first atomic bomb test. The establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and the rival Warsaw Pact set the scene for the remainder of the Cold War.
The 2nd Battalion of The Queen’s Royal Regiment was in the Berlin Garrison, during the blockade and every single one of the present Regiment’s forebears served in Germany during the Cold War. This was a busy period of numerous long exercises and short-notice emergency call-outs, which included many realistic live-firing training packages in Canada. Germany was the base for the 1st British Corps of 55,000 men and British armour and soldiers became mechanised infantry experts equipped with various armoured vehicles, such as Humbers, Saracens, Ferret Scout Cars and the Armoured Fighting Vehicle 430 Series. Although blood was not shed on operations, the Regiment’s forebear battalions played their full part in winning the Cold War, which finally ended, dramatically, with the pulling down of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Germany also served as the mounting-base for many operations elsewhere in the world. The last of the Regiment’s forebears to serve in Germany, just after the end of the Cold War, was The 1st Battalion The Queen’s Regiment, at Minden.
The following is an article by Colonel PV Panton OBE, Commanding officer of 1st Battalion The Queen's Regiment and subsequently the Regimental Secretary of The Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment, describing what life was like as a soldier during that period:
When looking back on my military career, a thing one tends to do as the ravages of old age crawl slowly over the distant horizon, it has often struck me that very little has ever been written about the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR). Much has quite rightly been written about warfare and the endless series of operations that the Army has been involved in over the post WWII years, but all the years of the so-called “Cold War”, keeping the peace between NATO and the Soviet bloc, have really received very little coverage. There are whole generations of us soldiers who were weaned on the Soviet threat, who spent many years of our military service preparing for World War III in Germany, and much of whose training and way of life was bound up in numerous postings to BAOR and the almost surreal existence that it entailed. My contention that the coverage of the British Army’s exploits in BAOR has been somewhat limited was reinforced when I visited the Imperial War Museum’s Photograph Archive recently to do some research for this article, only to discover that there are almost no appropriate pictorial records held there covering these post-war years and that all the millions of photographs that must have been taken by the Corps and Divisional PR staff during the years 1950 to 1980 have been squirreled away, without proper sorting, in cardboard boxes in some dark cellar at Duxford! There is a treasure trove there for someone to find if they have the time.
All that said, the purpose of this short piece is just to give a flavour of life in BAOR as it was in those far off days, to recall some memories for those of us who served there, and to try and show today’s generation a hint of the extraordinary lives we lead then as we faced the Soviet hordes just over the border in East Germany. I had four tours of duty over there between 1960 and 1980 serving at Regimental Duty, with the Army Air Corps and on the staff at HQ 1(Br) Corps and I also made a series of visits on other occasions in various other capacities. BAOR was certainly very much part of my service and I hope that these snapshots recall a way of life familiar to so many of us and now long since passed into history. I think!
The Threat - or was there one ?
Towards the end of my dealings with BAOR, and especially during my time working at the Joint Services School of Intelligence at Ashford, I began to have my doubts as to the actual threat posed by the Soviet forces poised over the border. Had generations of us succumbed to the insidious powers of our own propaganda? Had service in BAOR become an art form of its own? Was it all some complicated game largely devised to keep the Cavalry in being? Did the Warsaw Pact ORBAT with its seemingly endless numbers of Tank and Motor Rifle Divisions really pose the threat it was made out to have? I have no doubt that in the early post war years NATO did indeed face a substantial threat and the shadow of nuclear war seemed very real, but one wonders if things had not undergone a steady decline since then. Neither the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 nor their subsequent struggles in the war in Afghanistan through the 1970s bore the hallmark of highly professional forces ready to punch their way West to the Channel ports against sophisticated opposition. The calibre of their personnel, the reliability of their equipment, and the faltering cohesion within the Group of Soviet Forces Germany (GSFG) certainly cast some doubts in my increasingly sceptical mind.
Yet in the BAOR heydays this apocalypse is what we were led to expect. I recall only too well the exercise maps in the 1(Br) Corps’ war room and the “bird tables” in the vast EX SUMMER SALES tented villages, (a regular Command Post exercise so familiar to many of us who were sucked in on the gilded staff or as lowly watch-keepers drafted in to swell the already bursting ranks involved), reflecting great red chinagraph swathes of Soviet armour as they punched West through our defences, over the River Weser, heading for the Rhine and all stations further westwards. And our response had to depend on an ever increasing use of nuclear weapons. I can see it now, us Operations gurus waxing lyrical about our Nuclear Killing Zones while the enthusiastic Artillery staff dotted the map with little “mushroom cloud” symbols as we frantically plotted the effects of downwind fallout and radiation on our own troops. Not content with that, the equally enthusiastic Engineer boys were busy blowing up miles of German Autobahn and highly expensive bridges with the revolting Atomic Demolition Munitions (ADMs). What a performance!
That said, this sombre aspect of warfare was certainly not entirely in our imagination. I can recall time and again having to take our turn on the roster to provide the guards for the US controlled “Special Ammunition Sites” tucked away in the less frequented parts of the German countryside. A euphemism of course for the nuclear warheads lurking within, I wonder how many of us actually gave half a thought as to their possible use? Was the actual threat real or imagined, and if it did exist how were we prepared to face it?
Training - Training - and more Training
Even if the threat was somewhat exaggerated, our BAOR training was certainly not ! When one looks back, it is almost hard to believe the scale of the field exercises (FDX) that took place in those halcyon days before the three gremlins of “track mileage”, “flying hours”, and “damage control” all entered our military vocabulary. Huge areas of the German countryside were given the “443 treatment” by the staff (the official Army Form used to designate the civilian countryside as suitable for rape and pillage), and then all hell was let loose as we exercised our rights to defend NATO. The sights of great convoys of military vehicles clogging the autobahns for miles, the crazy patterns of tank and APC tracks carving their way through fields and villages, and the crowds of harassed burghers wringing their hands in despair as their homes and barns were “requisitioned” by the military - all these were familiar to us on an all too regular basis.
And what places we stayed in! In HQ 1(Br) Corps we took over whole villages in order to find cover for the myriad “caravans”, command vehicles, camp followers, Old Uncle Tom Cobbleigh and all. Luxury barns were the order of the day and wholesale evacuation of the locals and their possessions was the norm. We tended to live in even more style in my BAOR aviation days when we were able to take the pick of the local country houses, castles and landed estates on which to base ourselves. We were always more welcome as we did not have the dreaded “panzers” causing damage everywhere, and of course our aircraft were an added attraction. I can recall many a pleasant evening “up at the big house” taking a glass of wine, or something stronger, with our host, invariably Graf Von Somebody often with an interesting war record of his own!
We seemed to spend our life out on exercise as we covered the ground we were expected to fight over from end to end. If we were not cavorting about over 443 land we lived on the muddy moonscape of Soltau, we tore Sennelager apart with thousands and thousands of rounds of ammunition, and we discovered the delights of Vogelsang, Hohne, Putlos, Dorbaum and myriad other “local training areas”. In all this, I always found our deployments and exercises over the ground where we would have to fight “for real” the most interesting. To this day I can recall animated conversations with an erstwhile Divisional commander, General Harry Dalziel-Payne, (one of my firm BAOR heroes!) about the merits, or distinct lack of them, of our forward slope positions given the likely crippling effect of Soviet artillery fire coming the other way, and to my mind, the appalling paucity of medical cover that we had available to us in our mechanised world.
From the sublime to the ridiculous. When we were not “out on the ground” doing our stuff with the full paraphernalia of war, we lived for our BAOR Tactical Exercises Without Troops (TEWTs). These were key social occasions in our military calendar, ostensibly laid on to improve our military expertise but in fact providing a marvellous chance to catch up with old friends from all arms. Regiments vied with each other to lay on the best facilities in some obscure part of the countryside, ranging from field latrines draped in regimental colours, to marquees with guy ropes painted white, groaning with the Mess silver and staffed with flunkies dressed in chain mail standing about in the mud. “Pimms” was often the tipple at mid-day and some of the subsequent answers to the dreaded Administrative Problem that invariably followed luncheon had to be heard to be believed!
And Then There Were The Serious Bits
Our lives were blighted by “ACTIVE EDGE”, the former codename for the unannounced callout of forces, when ostensibly we were given the order to deploy to emergency positions without prior warning. Invariably we seemed to have some vague idea as to when this disaster would strike and having spent days with our boots on, our kit packed, and our vehicles loaded, the order would come out of the blue and great chunks of BAOR would take to the roads at some unearthly hour of the night and head rapidly for the woods. Woe betide any poor civilians on the roads coming face to face with columns of armour hell bent on reaching their objectives as quickly as possible.
We were intrigued to know what our aspiring enemy looked like and to this end we intermittently dispatched Subalterns with some motley crew to carry out “Border Patrols”. Luckily professional chaperones from the Frontier Service were provided as these tours took in the heavily fortified border with East Germany with its watchtowers, miles of wire and electric fences, minefields and other hidden horrors. For our part it was a rare chance to peer at the Warsaw Pact and to catch glimpses of their soldiers and equipment. Another extraordinary event in similar vein was the chance to travel to the beleaguered Berlin on the military train from Hannover. This archaic form of transport, run by the erstwhile RASC I seem to recall, passed through the huge GSFG training areas to the North of Magdeburg and other barrack areas and it provided a fascinating, if lucky, chance to see Soviet armour and other equipment at first hand. This was the real thing!
What was certainly not the real thing was the art of “flotation”. In the mid 60s we were the proud possessors of the still new fleet of FV 432s which had replaced the SARACEN armoured vehicles with which the BAOR Infantry were equipped of old. One death defying pastime was to attempt to float these things across the River Weser using a system that had seemingly remained unchanged from the ill-fated attempts to land armour by swimming onto the beaches of Normandy during the “D” Day invasion. After hours of preparation with grease and the erection of flimsy rubberised flotation screens our intrepid APC drivers were invited to plunge into the river and attempt to make the far bank without mishap. It was a nightmare experience and one luckily we wisely never repeated on subsequent exercises or “for real”, we would never have lived to tell the tale!
As I mentioned earlier, “damage control” began to play an ever more serious role in our BAOR training activities as the crippling effects of budgets took hold. The days of pea-brained cavalry Troop Leaders choosing to ignore the ubiquitous bridge classification signs as their tanks crossed over to disastrous effect had gone. The free reign for manoeuvre that we had enjoyed with our armoured vehicles through fields, crops and woods had to be brought under control as the claims for compensation mounted. The sight of minor German roads torn to shreds as columns of armour gouged great trenches through tarmac and cobbles with their tracks caused apoplexy to the training staff with their cash registers at the ready. It was always rumoured that whole exercises were ended prematurely as the damage cash limit approached - things had certainly changed for the worse!
And Finally - The Fun Bits !
Who would ever have thought that we would take droves of soldiers, strap boards on their feet and send them hurtling down the snow slopes in Bavaria ? Exercise “SNOW QUEEN” did just this and it ran for years in BAOR providing a really good opportunity for all ranks to learn to ski. Like everything else in those days in Germany it grew more ambitious by the year. Not only did we hire chalets and stuff them with our own administrative staff - never mind the establishment figures - but it became the done thing for (very wealthy) Regiments to enter the smart Bavarian property market and even buy their own ski chalets in moments of entrepreneurial madness. I seem to recall that these ventures often ended in financial disaster and there was much talk of selling the Officers’ Mess silver to bail people out.
Exercise “GRAPE PICK” provided another outstanding chance to discover a spectacular part of Germany. This entailed sending off assorted motley military groups to the Mosel valley to assist the locals in the gathering of the Autumn grape harvest. The work was backbreaking but the evening entertainment in the various “Weingut” locations, always involving lengthy wine tasting sessions, was out of this world. Regrettably this venture all came to a halt in latter years as we ran foul of ever more invasive German employment laws, and I have no doubt that “questions were raised in the House” as to exactly what British servicemen were doing assisting the local labour market. That said, this so called exercise introduced us to a whole new way of bucolic life in an idyllic setting and did wonders for our appreciation of the delights of Mosel wine.
So life in BAOR moved on from National Servicemen in Battle Dress uniforms with denims to wear in the field, to the first olive green combat clothing, to the introduction of the much more modern “combat kit” with all the increasing paraphernalia of equipment that the threat of NBC warfare brought with it. Service in BAOR supported an industry in itself as equipment became more and more sophisticated and the paranoia as to what lay over the border in the East never lost its grip. Perhaps the “star turn” of service in BAOR, certainly in the later years, was the advent of BATUS and our regular mechanised training in Canada. To my mind we could most certainly have coped with the Soviets after a spell honing our skills out there on the prairie. But that is another story!