Cold War Days - by Major General David Shaw CBE
Over a month ago
[Cold War Days - by Major General David Shaw CBE]
I hope many of your enjoyed the recent Armed Forces Day and thank you to those who wrote to me about their good experiences. We have skipped a 2-weekly blog because key people being on holiday so while I mentioned last time that I would write about experiences circa 1982 and the Falkland Islands, I shall return to these subjects in the future.
My focus this time is to consider what life was like in Europe as a member of the British Forces during Cold War and post-Cold War days. Many members of Forces Reunited will, like me, have experienced life in Germany and in my case it was a total of 7 years between 1977 and 1998. Memories come flooding back of the grim serried rows of buildings in Kaserne in northern Germany accommodating 4 British armoured divisions, a Corps and Army HQ as well as many RAF stations. Memories linger too of a busy cycle of formation exercises and of sporting and adventurous training opportunities.
[British Barracks in Detmold]
I enjoyed exercise Snow Queen in Bavaria, skiing championships in France and Austria and sailing at Kiel. Life was hectic and fun. We travelled all over Europe and initially we had to change money and wait patiently in the border queues. All that changed markedly when the EU and Euro came into being but it’s a sign of the times that we now seem to be returning to similar scenes.
We lived comfortably, I recall, with sensible Local Overseas Allowances, petrol coupons and tax free cars. The Status of Forces Agreement was occasionally threatened by people who ‘traded’ in tax-free cars, usually the red, white or black Mk 1 Golf GTi, bringing them to UK from Germany. Unless your unit was due a tour in Northern Ireland, the exercise schedule, while it was very busy, meant that a young officer (YO) could develop his or her troop or platoon from individual training all the way up to Corps and Army level exercises. Of course, the larger the exercise, the quieter it usually became except for moments of frenetic activity. We ‘battled’ over the most beautiful farmland, practicing the latest tactics and operational moves; German farmers used to put in bids for attractive compensation after tracked vehicles had stormed realistically over their land at harvest time. Eventually, cost-conscientiousness and respect for our German hosts (as opposed to behaving as occupying powers), and protest from German Green party members led to a decrease in the realism of these exercises. We became more confined to training areas and the British Army Training Unit in Canada or command post exercises (CPX) rather than full-blown field training exercises (FTX).
[An FTX in Germany]
I recall in surprising flashes of detail, exercises Lionheart and Crusader in the 1980-82 period. I used to lie in wait for days under radio silence with my troop in Swingfire 438s admiring sunrises and beautiful rolling hills through vehicle sights and watching the 2nd US Hell On Wheels Division tactical HQ meet up with ours in 2nd Armoured Division – theirs comprising 36 vehicles compared with our 7 or 8. The lowest moments were usually towards the end of the exercise, when we had to don our NBC suits and respirators – but shortly after that we’d hear the welcome word ‘endex’ over our radios.
[Swingfire AFV 438 – the missile could knock out a tank at 4Km]
Occasionally we made trips to berlin by the special troop train or we would drive up the ‘Berlin Corridor’ by car. As I drove through the border and had my ID card snatched away at the hole-in-the-wall counters at check points by an anonymous hand, I always felt I was on enemy territory. Woe betide us if we took the wrong turning on the autobahn to Berlin, authorities would say, and I assumed we’d be locked up as spies. On one occasion I experienced a moment of humanity from the otherwise po-faced Soviet guards – one opened the palm of his hand and offered me a Soviet capbadge in exchange for something. Once we got to Berlin, we noticed the extravagant budget spent in the USA, French and British sectors of Berlin, trying to put gloss on our forces to impress members of the Soviet Union, I suppose. I looked in some trepidation at the Berlin Wall and security system installed to keep the population in East Berlin but it was wonderful to see the extraordinary scenes as the wall was dismantled by people in 1989, enabling them to move freely.
[Brandenburg Gate on December 1, 1989. The structure is already freely accessible from the East, however, the crossing to the Western side will not be officially open until December 22nd - Wiki image]
GDP recces, when we looked in detail at our General Deployment Positions, were exciting as we were told where our troops would be based for real, should we ever fight the Soviet Union. We pored over ‘Secret’ maps and usually dressed in disguise (Barbour jacket and cords for many!) to avoid attracting the attention of SOXMIS, or the Soviet Military Mission. We walked casually, looking at flora fauna and the lie of the land, looking for ideal defensive positions from which to damage the Soviet hoards, or for routes along which we could strike them in the flank.
[We all carried SOXMIS cards, like this]
Had we ever needed to fight, we might have been caught flat-footed in our barracks; we might have been surprised in our GDP and by-passed; but we might have fought determinedly and successfully using the counter-strokes we practiced; we might have had to contend with tactical nuclear battles and more. It is fun to retrospectively assess the potential outcome.
I recall quick reaction exercises, when one battalion at a time was called out at very short notice. These tended to be exciting challenges but sometimes deployment was made absurd by delays caused by apparent shortages and the inevitable hoarding of bulbs and other ‘valuable’ items of equipment. Sometimes we patrolled the Inner German Border within the British-German sector in North Germany, enjoying the scrutiny of the opposing border guards as we peered at them and again, it is quite moving to move freely over that border nowadays. I also recall deployments of forces, Regular and TA, from UK; we drove for days in usually highly disciplined and scheduled convoys to the exercise area. When I was the Adjutant, I recall berating a fellow-captain and convoy commander for using his initiative and leap-frogging other convoys. It is said that some of these convoys of troops tried to get through customs on the way back to UK with tank and gun barrels filled with duty free booze; on occasion, experienced customs officers caused panic on the tarmac as we disembarked from Channel ferries as soldiers tried to ditch the illicit bottles and packets of fags.
All through my periods in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, we experienced the development of the EU, from its EEC and EC phases, through to what we are now trying to extract the UK from. I recall a German friend who had experienced WW2 as a child in Berlin telling me in about 1980 that “we must make this succeed” (ie the EEC, EC and EU) “as it will keep the peace in Europe”. I remember those words and am nervous about the fragmentation of Europe in the future. Add to this disruption Russia’s continuing physical and cyber hostility to the West, Trump’s strange and inconsistent approach to NATO and I feel we should be trying to remain strong and supportive, not necessarily as one Europe, but with a clear grasp of the threats and working together to oppose them. If you haven’t read it, I suggest you look at General Sir Richard Shirreff’s book “2018 – War with Russia” to see how things might unfold (and no, I don’t get a cut!).
If you would like to share memories of Cold War days with me, please feel free to get in touch as I realise I have only scraped the surface of our experiences.
I will discuss aspects of veterans’ charities in my next blog.