“Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”
Forty years ago I was with the British Army of The Rhine. Now, in my retirement, the changing seasons invoke memories of the military exercises we used to do in Germany in the autumn. The condensation on the outside of the conservatory window, the dampness in the early morning air, together with the smell of harvest, immediately take me back to 1983.
Back then we were still embroiled in the Cold War, a left over from the conflict of WW2. The defence of Europe was still vitally important but, by that time, it was not a war of millions against millions of soldiers on the ground. The technology had moved on, and the army was now there to slow a full-scale attack until the politicians could make the relevant decisions to deploy the battlefield nuclear weapons that had been in safe storage since 1967.
Summer break – all quiet on the eastern front
Summer leave across the British Army of The Rhine has always been in August. Since the end of the war, thousands of families would travel back home to Britain to see family and friends. The last two weeks of August would see fully laden cars registered to British Forces Germany queuing to get into Dover docks ready for the long journey home to their quarters in Rhineland barracks.
Clearly the Soviets had no intentions to gain ground as they would have attacked us during the summer leave period when many bases only had a skeleton staff available.
Autumn is exercise season
In the days following the cessation of cars going back to West Germany, the unit I was attached to would prepare for the “exercise season”. Since we were an occupying force in 1945 the ability to train realistically was possible across the plains of Germany, but this meant crops were damaged. So changes were made whereby exercising in open country was only allowed from the first week of September through to the end of March, to avoid damaging crops and avoid confrontations with angry farmers.
Ready to repel the reds
All the major reinforcement exercises would take place in September/October: Exercise Crusader, Eternal Triangle, and the largest one in the history of BAOR, Exercise Lionheart. Thousands of reinforcements would pour across the channel by ferry and air to simulate the hasty defence of our existing army on the ground, should the Soviet army advance from the East.
On the move
We travelled for hours without rest, refuelling and eating composite food in woods adjacent to motorways all across the area. Eventually we found ourselves, in our case in a valley near the village of Sibbesse, just southeast of the city of Hildesheim. Then we would take up positions and dig defensive trenches. These were the same ones we filled in last year and the one before! We would then sit and wait for the hordes to come along the valley to slow them down.
The reality was, of course, the Soviets would have reached Calais before we had cleared Customs in Dover, such was the might and manoeuvrability of their army.
Looking back in the cold light of day, yes it was scary stuff. The threat of the Soviet Union was not taken lightly. They had far more manpower, equipment and weaponry than we did but couldn’t realistically have managed or run the infrastructure across Europe, which, of course, their government knew.
Was it worth it?
My memory of sitting in a trench overlooking the misty plains below is tinged with satisfaction of a job well done. In reality, the cost to the taxpayer was huge, as large armies are expensive. Yes, we held the line during the Cold War, but at what cost?
The Berlin Wall has been down for 32 years. British soldiers in Germany now number only about 185. Life has moved on. But with the Russian military still just across the borders further east, who knows what will happen in the future in Central and Baltic Europe?
Meanwhile I reminisce, smelling the damp air and putting on an extra jumper as I am now 40 years older and feel the cold!