The British Army of the Rhine

Sleeve patch of the British 21st Army Group.

Image via Wikipedia

My recent trip to the Nord Rhein Westfalen region of Germany has got me thinking about the role that British forces played in that part of the world for many years during the Cold War. I wrote an article on this subject some time ago, submitted to Britain at War (and apparently vanished into their ether). Sadly it disappeared on a crashed and rebooted PC, so I have to re-write from memory.

21st Army Group ended the War occupying large portions of Northern Germany, from the Dutch border across to the Baltic, with Montgomery receiving the German surrender on Luneberg Heath. Although initially the British Army was very much an occupation force, and involved in de-Nazification and keeping the Germans to heel, as the Soviets became more and more confrontational, western military doctrine in Germany focussed more on keeping the Russians out than keeping the Germans down. The Berlin Airlift, the creation of West Germany and the Deutsche Mark and the formation of NATO polarised the former allies across either side of the Iron Curtain.

British forces in Germany from the late 1940’s onwards were under no illusions that they were there to face the Russians. British Land Forces in Germany came under the command of the British Army of the Rhine. The Commander-in-Chief of BAOR also served as the commander of NATO’s northern Army Group, and as such had Dutch and German units under command in the event of war. British Air Forces in Germany came under the command of RAF Germany.

In the event of the Balloon going up, the BAOR was to face the Soviet 3rd Shock Army. Intelligence reports suggest that the BAOR was heavily outnumbered and seriously in danger of being rolled over very quickly – a likelihood that was not lost upon British squaddies. Documents I have discovered in the National Archives also suggest that there were very few reinforcements available for BAOR – pretty much a few TA Battalions, and two TA SAS Regiments for special forces work. And these units would take days to arrive by air and sea. And from 1969 onwards, the troubles in Northern Ireland proved a constant drain upon manpower in the BAOR. Evacuation of casualties and civilians would be almost impossible due to the lack of transport. But for the first time in British military history, the Army was at the forefront of British defence policy and strategy.

Thousands of British men – and indeed women in children – spent some of the most formative part of their lives in Germany. Imagine the experience a young 19 year old might enjoy being posted to a strange country, going abroad for the first time, and to a country that until relatively recently was the enemy. Only to find that actually, the German Beer and Food is quite to his liking! No wonder many former servicemen look back on their time in Germany so fondly.

Places such as Celle, Hohne, Herford, Hameln, Krefeld, Bielefeld, Paderborn, Detmold, Lippstadt, Sennelager, Soltau, Fallingbostel, Osnabruck and Minden became almost as well known to the British Army as Aldershot, Colchester, Salisbury Plain, Tidworth, Winchester and Catterick. Whole parts of Germany were occupied by thousands of Brits, in virtually exclusive British settlements, on base and off base.

At its height BAOR consisted of over 50,000 men. Add to that the amount of women, children, civilian workers et al, and then consider the turnover of troops every few years, and its no wonder that so many people experienced life in Nord-Rhein Westfalen and Niedersachsen. This experience probably went a long way to establishing Anglo-German relations again after the war.

British Forces in Germany have been in the process of winding down since the end of the Cold War. Few garrisons remain, concentrated mainly around Paderborn and Fallingbostel. There is no military reason for the British Army to be in Germany, but we still have access to some excellent training facilities and the Germans like having us. Indeed, during the Cold War the West German Government paid part of the Army’s basing costs. And until recently, it was cheap to base units in Germany.

Eventually – by 2020 – the British Army in Germany will be nothing more than a memory. We have to hope that this period of history is not lost, simply because the Cold War never became hot. Im particularly interested in the social history of life in BAOR – the human experiences, the impact of living in a foreign country on men, women and children. Sadly the excellent BAOR locations website seems to have gone offline, which is a real pity.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “The British Army of the Rhine

  1. John Erickson

    James- Can you post the name of the BAOR website? Since I have an abundance of time, I can watch for it or search for alternative incarnations.
    I would be deeply interested to read any memoirs from soldiers in the front lines. Most of my information (US-biased, of course) tends to treat the BAOR as a trip-wire, one of several which would have done nothing except cost the Western forces thousands of casualties and turned the conflict nuclear. It would be interesting to see if the British soldiers knew how expendable they were in US eyes, and if they did, how they felt about being sacrificial lambs.

  2. James Daly

    John it was this website here – http://baor-locations.com. It was a fantastic resource, listing all of the BAOR Garrisons, who was based where and when, loads of orbats, maps and photos and with personal accounts from ex-squaddies.

    A website that goes close to it is http://british-army-units1945on.co.uk. This lists virtually every unit in the British Army since 1945, and where they were based and when. You can use this to trace who was in Germany at any given point.

  3. Edna Cahill

    As a Portmuthian, did you manage to get to Pompey’s twin town Duisburg during your trip to the Rhine?? Edna

    • James Daly

      Hi Edna, I didn’t manage to get to Duisburg on this trip, but some years ago now I did have an interesting experience in our twin city.

      When I was younger I was chairman of Portsmouth City Youth Council, and in 2001 I went on the official twinning visit to Duisburg. I spent just short of a week there, visiting the synagogue, the rathaus, schools, old peoples homes, museums, the Portsmouth Dam, taking part in a dragon boat race, and a day trip out in the Nordrhein Geldern area visiting Goch, Kevelaer and Kleve.

      My impressions of Duisburg? Its a vast, industrial city – no frills, but proud in its own way. Not unlike Portsmouth, theres nothing too pretentious about it. Ironically Duisburg is Germany’s 11th biggest city – just out of the top ten, as they say.

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