Tag Archives: British Army of the Rhine

Tracing your Tank Ancestors by Janice Tait and David Fletcher

Some books land on your doormat and you think ‘thank you!’. The Tracing your.. Ancestors series books are most definitely among them, and particularly anything of a military persuasion! This book is published in conjunction with, naturally enough, the Tank Museum in Bovington. The authors are Janice Tait and David Fletcher, resident Librarian and Historian at the Tank Museum respectively.

As we might expect, this book is very strong on the history of Tanks in the British Army.Right from the Corps beginning during the Second World War, its difficult experiences in the inter-war period and the mechanisation of the old Cavalry Regiments, the crucial armoured battles in the Second World War, the era of national service, and then the modern world of the Cold War and the British Army of the Rhine. The history is flawless, as is the coverage of technical issues, tank names and industrial aspects. It is also very good at covering those quirky little historical points that are unique to the British Army – namely the manner in which men consider themselves members of their Regiment rather than the Army as a whole, and the politics of mergers and inter-Corps rivalries.

Each chapter is structured chronologically, looking at the Tank history of a particular era. Then at the end the reader is given pointers towards where to research, be it institutions, documents, websites or books. Even though I consider myself an experience military historian, I learnt a few things here. Perhaps the family history aspect is slightly light compared to the general history, but then again, I’m not sure that there is much more than could be added. I would maybe have liked to have read more about what is held in the Tank Museum’s collections, perhaps some comprehensive listings rather than ‘here are some examples…’

One issue where I feel it does let down the reader, is when the authors allow themselves to become, dare I say it, slightly snobby about family history. Yes, for us experts, we can get frustrated at ‘amateurs’ getting things wrong. But it is their family history, more than it is ours. We shouldn’t expect every person to know the difference between the Tank Corps and the ROYAL Tank Corps. Or fussing over whether someone was actually a ‘Desert Rat’. Such points are not really that important to the reader, I feel. Thats exactly why we ask the experts.

But I applaud Pen and Sword for collaborating with the Tank Museum. It makes sense, in terms of accessing unparalleled expertise, and also gaining access to an unrivaled collection of photographs. This book will be of interest to all military historians, not just in terms of family history – I can imagine it coming in handy when researching any tank-servicemen. It’s going to stay on my bookshelf thats for sure.

Tracing your Tank Ancestors is published by Pen and Sword

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Filed under Army, Book of the Week, Family History, Uncategorized, western front, World War One, World War Two

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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Fast Jet flying club?

Major-General Sir Hugh Trenchard as Chief of t...

Sir Hugh Trenchard, the first Chief of the Air Staff and a former Major-General (Image via Wikipedia)

One of the most common accusations levelled at senior commanders is that once they reach high command, they ‘look after their own’, based on their earlier experience. This is hardly surprising – if a young man joins a service as a teenager, and spends 40-odd years serving within it, being infused with the deepest traditions of it, of course its going to leave a mark. But is this tribalism helpful in them modern, purple-operations era?

It was noticeable during the Falklands War that more than a few of the Naval Commanders concerned were ex-submariners – Fieldhouse, Woodward, and more than a few of the Task Force’s captains. This prominence of the submariner was probably due to the importance of the Submarine to the Cold War Navy. Previous times had seen the Fleet Air Arm provide many senior officers. As for the Army, there have been phases there too – Infantrymen, Guardsmen, and Gunners. Mike Jackson became the first CGS from the Paras.

Yet the RAF has, allegedly, had a lot less diversity than the other forces. The frequent accusation is that nothing more than a ‘fast jet flying club’, thanks to most of its commanders being former fighter pilots. But is this the case? And how does it compare to the other services?

Chiefs of the Air Staff

Lets look at the evidence. These are the last eight Chiefs of the Air Staff, and their backgrounds:

Stephen Dalton – Jaguars and Tornados; Director General Typhoon, Deputy CinC Air Command

Glenn Torpy – Jaguars and Tornados; Air Component Op Telic, Chief of Joint Operations

Jock Stirrup – Jaguars and Phantoms; Deputy CDS (Equipment)

Peter Squire – Hunters and Harriers; Assistant CAS, CinC Strike Command

Richard Johns – Hunters and Harriers; CinC Strike Command, Commander Allied Forces NW Europe

Michael Gaydon – Hunters and Lightnings; CinC Support Command, CinC Strike Command

Peter Harding – Wessex; Vice CDS, CinC Strike Command

David Craig – Meteors and Hunters; CinC Strike Command

Interesting stuff indeed. Apart from one, all have a background in fast jets. The RAF’s limited career structure precludes officers moving around within the service, too. How come no-one who has had a career flying, say, the Hercules or Chinook has made it to the top level of RAF command? Would an ex-Chinook pilot be more inclined to joint operations than an ex-fighter pilot? Interesting as well that the current Chief of the Air Staff spent some time as Director General of the Eurofighter programme…

First Sea Lords

Lets take a look at the backgrounds of the First Sea Lords during the same period:

Mark Stanhope – Submarines, Frigate, Aircraft Carrier; Deputy SACEUR (transformation), CinC Fleet

Jonathan Band – Minesweeper, Frigate, Aircraft Carrier; CinC Fleet, MOD appointments

Alan West – Frigate; Chief of Defence Intelligence, CinC Fleet

Nigel Essenhigh – Destroyers; Assistant CDS (programmes), CinC Fleet

Michael Boyce – Submarines, Frigate; 2nd Sea Lord, CinC Fleet

Jock Slater – Frigate, Destroyer, Aircraft Carrier; CinC Fleet, Vice CDS

Benjamin Bathurst – Fleet Air Arm, Frigates; CinC Fleet, Vice CDS

Julian Oswald – Frigate, Destroyer; Assistant CDS, CinC Fleet

The spread of experience is a lot broader here – not only overall, as First Sea Lords come from a variety of backgrounds, but also individual officers seem to have broader experience too. For example, a submariner has to command surface ships if he wishes to progress further in the Navy, as do pilots. This saves officers being compartmentalised in their experience and skills base. Commanders of escorts and of carriers will know a great deal about aviation, thanks to flying One notable absence, however, is amphibious warfare – no First Sea Lord’s in recent history have commanded a landing ship.

Chiefs of the General Staff

David Richards – Royal Artillery, Armoured Brigade; ARRC (inc ISAF), CinC Land

Richard Dannatt – Green Howards, Armoured Brigade; ARRC, CinC Land

Mike Jackson – Intelligence Corps/Parachute Regiment, Belfast Brigade; ARRC (inc KFOR), CinC Land

Mike Walker – Royal Anglian Regiment, Armoured Brigade; ARRC, CinC Land

Roger Wheeler – Royal Ulster Rifles, Armoured Brigade; GOC N. Ireland, CinC Land

Charles Guthrie – Welsh Guards, SAS, Armoured Brigade; 1 Br Corps, BAOR

Peter Inge – Green Howards, Armoured Brigade; 1 Br Corps, BAOR

John Chapple – Gurkhas, Gurkha Brigade; Deputy CDS, CinC Land

Once again, its clear that senior Army officers have a more diverse background than their Airships. Admittedly, they are all infantrymen apart from David Richards, but in turn most of those infantrymen have either commanded armoured units, or served with the SAS or Parachute Regiment. There has for a long time been a ‘one size fits all’ attitude within the Army, and its by no means unknown for an Engineer to command an Infantry Brigade, or a non-airborne officer to command the air assault brigade. Notice as well how the centre of gravity in the Army changed from the British Army of the Rhine to the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps, and as a result they have gained experience of NATO commands, peacekeeping and so-on. In general there has been more real ‘action’ – N. Ireland, Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan.

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