While there are new talks concerning the future of the British military personnel in Germany, the permanent contingent is due to have left the country by 2020 after decades of continued presence.
The necessity of an allied military presence in Germany was confirmed in the aftermath of the Second World War. The acknowledgement by the British and American governments of the threat posed by the Soviet Union to European security contributed to a continued programme of military presence in the country. Soon, the British forces in West Germany – from 1949 to 1990 officially ‘Federal Republic of Germany’ – would become a central part of the defence and strategic thinking of the UK towards Europe and NATO.
The international system’s bipolarity of the Cold War placed Europe economically, politically and ideologically divided. Britain, France, Italy, Greece and others, mainly from Western Europe or those not occupied by the Soviets in the final phase of the Second World War would align with the United States. The nations that would be dragged by the Soviet sphere of power were those occupied by them during the last years of war; including East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Romania and others.
Within these two blocs, military alliances emerged to cement military balance. In 1949, twelve countries – the UK, the United States, Canada, Belgium, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxemburg, the Netherlands, Norway and Portugal – agreed on the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) to deter any future attack against one of its member states. The new trans-Atlantic alliance was set as a deterrent to the Soviet threat in particular towards Europe. NATO and the integration of West Germany into the organisation triggered a response from Moscow through the creation of the Warsaw Pact, officially ‘Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance’, in 1955. The Pact also enabled the Soviet Union to tighten its military control over swathes of Eastern and Central Europe.
By the time of the Warsaw Pact creation, the Western allies were committed with a continued military presence in West Germany. Britain was second only to the Americans on contributing to the deterrence strategy in continental Europe. The most extensive parts of British Forces Germany (BFG) were the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR) and the RAF Germany (RAFG).
BFG is a generic name applied to all the three military services and also to UK Civil Servants based in the country. Established following the end of the Second World War, the forces grew and diminished accordingly to Cold War geostrategies. The British engagement is also due to Britain’s desire to display its resolve, commitment and importance to European security both to her allies and enemies. However, after Britain successfully tested its first nuclear weapon in 1952, nuclear deterrence was seen as a pathway to reduce military expenditures without breaking her ongoing commitments with the defence of Western Europe.
In 1952 the principal combat element of the BAOR, based in Bielefeld, was the First Corps (I Corps), which was composed of the 2nd Infantry Division, 6th Armoured Division, 7th Armoured Division and 11th Armoured Division. The BAOR also included Canada’s contribution to NATO ground forces in West Germany. One Canadian mechanised brigade was part of the BOAR until the early 1970s; referred as ‘light division’ by British officers due to its 6,700 personnel. By the end of the 1950s, the I Corps was reorganised and its size reduced. With the end of the National Service and the desire of the British government to use nuclear deterrence to balance expenditure, the total numbers of troops faced a further cut from roughly 77,000 to no more than 55,000.
The late 1970s saw a new reorganisation of the Corps. From the late 1970s onwards the fighting force would compromise four armoured divisions and a ‘Field Force’ roughly the size of a brigade. Thus, the new formation was the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Armoured Divisions plus the mentioned Field Force. However, the configuration of the main British ground forces would pass through a new comprehensive reformulation between 1981 and 1983.
According to the changes placed in the early 1980s, the I Corps would have the 1st and 4th Armoured Divisions as its central combat units, which would be the front line of the British forces against an eventual attack by the Soviet 3rd ‘Shock Army’ – from 1974 onwards known as ‘3rd “Red Banner”. Moreover, the 3rd Armoured Division was placed as an in-depth reserve role and, lastly, there was the 2nd Infantry Division which received the task of rear-area security. The 24th Airmobile Brigade, part of the 2nd Infantry Division, had the purpose of placing airmobile anti-tank barriers in case of a Soviet breakthrough and overwhelming of the I Corps armoured division. Many other units, including components of the mentioned divisions, were based in the UK and would join the forces in Germany upon mobilisation.
Beyond the I Corps there is the role played by the Royal Air Force through the RAF Germany (RAFG). Initially a force of occupation it later becomes part of the British commitment to the defence of Europe. The first half of the 1950s witnessed Canberra bombers being part of many Squadrons in Germany, including the No. 149 and briefly the No. 69 Squadron. Subsequently, in the second half of the 1950s, the majority of the air bases were handed over to the new Government of Western Germany, reducing the total numbers of RAF Squadrons.
Finally, in 1959 the entire command was officially known as ‘RAF Germany’. At this time the RAFG have been running six main bases – RAF Wildenrath, Laarbruch, Jever, Gutersloh, Geilenkirchen and Bruggen. RAF Jever was handed back to Germany in 1961, and RAF Geilenkirchen would be deactivated in 1968. The others would remain operational for the rest of the Cold War. In the 1960s tactical nuclear weapons were loaded on the British bombers with a readiness of 15 minutes if called into action. By 1965, the No. 92 and No. 19 squadrons reinforced the British air presence in the country.
The flying units present in Germany in 1989 were based in the four remaining airfields, which were composed of at least four squadrons each. The smallest presence was at RAF Wildenrath, basing two squadrons of Phantom FGR.2, one sq. of Andover transport aircraft and eight Rapier launch stations; the Rapiers were present in every RAF base in the country. RAF Gutersloh had two squadrons of Harrier GR.5, one sq. of CH-47 Chinook and one sq. of Puma HC.1; these two squadrons were supporting the British Army of the Rhine.
RAF Bruggen and RAF Laarbruch were the largest by numbers of aircraft; both had roughly the same numbers and types of units with four squadrons of twelve Tornado GR.1 plus fifteen FV103 Spartans and at least six FV101 Scorpions as support. The only significant difference between them is that one of the RAF Laarbruch sq. of tornados consisted of the variant Tornado GR.1A for reconnaissance.
Therefore, at the end of the Cold War, the British Forces in Germany were relevant both on land and in the air. With the German reunification, the Dissolution of the Soviet Union and the consequent collapse of the Soviet power, the threat posed to the European security by an invasion of Western Europe no longer seemed likely. Thus, the British government sought to adapt its military assets to a new international order with the Options for Change.
The immediate results were cuts on personnel, those stationed in Germany were hit quickly. The British Army of the Rhine, the most significant part of British Forces Germany, left by 1994 – the mentioned I Corps, the primary British combat formation, left Germany and was disbanded in the same year. RAF Germany ceased to be a separated command in 1993 with the remaining RAF forces being amalgamated into No. 2 Group part of the Strike Command, and in 1996 No.2 Group was disbanded as well. These cuts were reducing the personnel strength by almost 30,000 with one division, the 1st Armoured, remaining in the country. By 2004 there were still around 25,000 troops in the country.
Nevertheless, further reductions of personnel would come in the years ahead, especially with the intents of the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR). Under the SDSR of 2010, the British Government is going to rebase the British Army from Germany back to Britain by 2020. According to the Ministry of Defence (MoD), the final Field Army personnel will leave Germany in 2019. Moreover, the Regular Army Basing Plan is following the ‘Army 2020’ plan, confirming the ‘drawdown of all units from Germany by 2020’.
Stations and military complexes – such as the Rheindahlen Military Complex – have been closed and handed over to German authorities. The rebasing of the Headquarters of BFG from Rheindahlen to Bielefeld was finalised in summer 2013. In the following year, units were amalgamated and disbanded, paving the way for the closure of Hameln Station after the 28 Engineer Regiment left the country. In 2015 more stations were closed, with brigades and signal regiments leaving to be rebased in the UK. In 2016 was the turn of the 5 Rifles and the 6 Regiment Royal Logistic Corps to go, allowing closure and release of three barracks and the Kiel Training Centre. According to the Army, ‘the final moves occur in 2019’. The Headquarters BFG will also cease its operations and the last elements of the 20th Armoured Infantry Brigade leaving in the same year – including the Queen’s Royal Hussars – although a small detachment will remain to keep close relations with German Federal Defence forces.
Thereby, the 2020s might be the first decade since the 1940s that Britain will not have a considerable military presence in Germany. The withdrawal from the country where Britain keeps her most significant concentration of forces abroad might have its consequences to British influence over matters of defence and security when dealing with its NATO allies. It is argued that insofar the BFG represents Britain’s capability to deploy large numbers of conventional ground forces overseas, its disbandment if not followed by an equivalent commitment, might suggest that the country has lost the desire of being a leading military partner.
One of the many arguments favourable to leaving Germany is focused on the fact that the country and the world has been changing since the end of the Cold War and even more when compared to its precarious situation of 1945. Germany is now an example of modern democracy and with a Gross Domestic Product that exceeds that of Britain with the German question of defence expenditure heading towards political issues instead of economic restraints. So, the argument proceeds, Britain is right in leaving a country that has the wherewithal to defend itself against any foreseeable threat.
However, in spite of the argument’s correctness, the UK is withdrawing its long-standing deployment of conventional troops in Germany. The next decisions that might be taken regarding those forces moving back to British soil will have a significant chance to define the future of Britain’s standing in the world as well as her military strategy in the years to come.