A Personal Review of British Forces in Germany: The Lived Experience by Peter Johnston
Profile Editions, 2019
From foe to friend and from enemy to ally, the British Army on the Rhine (latterly BFG) was the longest trajectory of our recent military history. It deserves to be memorialised — and now it has been, thanks to Peter Johnston of the National Army Museum, in a book that is well researched and lavishly illustrated.
This is a story of changing times and balances of power. At the end of the Second World War the number of British soldiers stationed in Germany was ten times that of today’s entire Army. Then the National Servicemen joined too. Field Marshal Montgomery, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, wrote: “We are dealing with a citizen Army; the young soldiers coming into the Army today are not volunteers; in many cases they regard their period of National Service as a necessary evil; they may look at the Army through civilian eyes and are quite prepared to dislike it heartily; on the other hand a great many are prepared to like it.” As a National Serviceman myself in the 1950s, private 23398941 of the Suffolk Regiment, I did both.
Although we were on active service in Cyprus (then a British colony), trying and failing to suppress the EOKA rebellion with internal security operations, we also trained to be an integral part of the NATO force preparing to face a Warsaw Pact invasion. We dutifully went on exercises and studied map reading and compass work. And it was there that I learned the truth of the NCOs’ old adage, that an officer and a map are a dangerous combination. To avoid the attentions of the Regimental Sergeant Major, I volunteered for a compass exercise during Operation Mountain Goat in northern Cyprus in December 1957, and while I was standing on a rainswept mountain, the back bearings told me that I was actually out at sea. Overall, though, it was a great education, and I learned more from my two years in the Army than I did from the three years at King's College, Cambridge which followed. The Army of today is better than the Army I served in, not least because it no longer has Private (later Acting Sergeant ) Bell in it.
Many of our senior officers went on to posts in the BAOR where, in a downsized force, they did not prosper. Our former Commanding Officer, who was more like Captain Mainwaring than Arthur Lowe himself, lasted for only two years. However, BAOR changed many other people’s lives for the good. Monty’s order against fraternisation was soon rescinded. Soldiers were encouraged to learn German and to socialise, and many of them found German wives. (In fact, one of my military friends married his bank cashier.) During the time of the British occupation Germany became a free and democratic country, ultimately reuniting in 1990. I was based in Berlin at the time as the BBC’s correspondent and I remember the British Military Government sign being taken down from an office block next to the Olympic Stadium.
Germany, no longer occupied, now had no need for an occupiers’ garrison. Instead, BAOR became the launching pad for military operations elsewhere, both campaigning and peacekeeping. In October 1990 the entire 7th Armoured Brigade was despatched from Sennelager to the Gulf, following Iraq’s annexation of Kuwait. I found myself in uniform again, after thirty-four years, as an ‘embed’ (a war reporter embedded with the military) attached to the Queen’s Royal Irish Hussars. The intervention succeeded —at least for a while. The next year, as Yugoslavia disintegrated, I lectured to the Cheshire Regiment in Fallingbostel before their deployment to Bosnia. I assured them that they would be as proud of this mission as of any of their battle honours in all their history, and I was proven correct.
However, the British Army is always in a state of change and amalgamations. The Queen’s Royal Irish Hussars have disappeared, as did the Cheshire Regiment — and, long before them, the Suffolk Regiment in which I served. Now the British Forces in Germany are trickling away, and for many of them, Johnston’s book will be a worthy souvenir album. --Martin Bell