By Paul Chrystal

Pen & Sword Books. 128 pages. £14.99. ISBN 978-1-526728-53-1

Reviewed by Jim Burns

I’ll declare an interest before I start to write about this book. In September 1954, as a young, short-term regular soldier – I’d volunteered for three years instead of waiting to be called up for the standard two years National Service – I was sent to Germany, where I served until March 1957. I can’t claim to have done anything of importance and was just one of many who spent time in Germany in the 1950s.

Paul Chrystal’s short, but informative survey of BAOR and its role in the Cold War doesn’t attempt to do more than provide a sketchy account of what life was like for the average soldier (and his wife and family, where relevant) and is angled more to showing how the army was designed to be a part of NATO strategy to confront the forces the Soviet Union could assemble if war broke out In Europe.

The British Army was one of several which, at the end of the Second World War, occupied Germany. The country was then split into four zones under the control of the French, American, Russian, and British occupying forces. The British Zone was in the North and spread roughly from just below Bonn to beyond Hamburg, back to Holland and Belgium, and had the longest border facing the Soviet Zone. It was obvious that the number of British troops needing to be stationed long-term in Germany would require conscription to continue, not to mention the huge expense involved in supporting thousands of troops, the establishments and equipment they required, and in some cases their families.

I’ve often wondered how many young men like myself spent time in Germany in the 1950s?  It was a fairly commonplace experience, and if I was in uniform when home on leave I’d sometimes be approached by strangers who’d recognised the divisional flashes on my sleeves, told me where they had been, and wanted to know where I was stationed. Chrystal says there were 129 different locations where British soldiers were based. I spent time in three of them – Mönchengladbach (Rhine Workshops), Bielefeld (REME light aid detachment with 106 Company RASC) and Lippstadt (2nd Armoured Workshop) – working mostly as a clerk and occasional storeman. At one location I was the unit postman which meant going into the town each day with a German driver to collect and distribute the mail. I liked that job. It gave me opportunities to look in the local record shops while I waited for the mail to be sorted. 

But I’m lapsing into personal reminiscences, and Chrystal’s survey has a much more serious purpose. He provides a great deal of information about armaments and equipment which will surely fascinate  those with an interest in such matters. I had the impression from his comments that, faced with a large Russian presence in East Germany, backed by a strong East German Army and others from Iron Curtain countries, BAOR’s role in the event of a war actually breaking out would be to fight a kind of holding action “to buy time for NATO’S political leaders to negotiate a peaceful end to the crisis without resort to the use of nuclear weapons”.  I can’t say I had any awareness of overall tactics at the time. What does an eighteen year-old know? And Crystal makes the point that “it is unlikely that many troops or their dependents spend that much time agonising over their potentially precarious location”. One just got on with the daily routines and looked forward to going to the NAAFI or the local pubs later.

Chrystal looks into the question of the army’s relations with the local public. Obviously, in the early days, soldiers were seen as foreigners occupying a defeated nation and a degree of resentment was only to be expected. Likewise, soldiers were naturally suspicious of civilians who had supported a regime of such terrifying proportions as the Nazis. Initially, any kind of fraternisation was frowned on, and intense efforts were made to investigate the past activities of many officials. But it soon became impractical to get things like local government functioning again without the co-operation of people who had been involved with such matters under the Nazis. It seems that ninety percent of all lawyers, for example, had been members of the Nazi Party.

Chrystal also points out that, in a race to grab the best brains, “ex-Nazi scientists and engineers from major (ex-Nazi) industrial firms….found their way to the US and Russia…….the slave labour of tens of thousands, the toxic gases they had employed in concentration camps, the tanks they churned out for use against the allies were all quietly forgotten in the name of scientific progress”.  

Once the army had settled in, and certainly by the time I arrived in 1954, military installations employed numerous local people in a variety of occupations. There were drivers, mechanics, administrative staff, and many others. And the presence of British soldiers in towns and cities was generally accepted by most people. There were moments of friction, often caused by the activities of soldiers. Putting young men together and giving them easy access to alcohol inevitably leads to noisy, disruptive and sometimes violent behaviour.

But on an individual level it was often possible to have conversations with individuals without problems arising. I was reminded of one encounter in a bar with a man who had served with the Wehrmacht and told me that Britain should have fought alongside Germany and against Russia. Chrystal refers to SS General Karl Wolff “who was guaranteed immunity at the Nuremberg Trials by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and later CIA Director Allen Dulles when they met In March 1945. The US was considering enlisting Wolff and his forces to help implement “Operation Unthinkable”, basically a secret plan for victorious US and defeated Germany to invade the Soviet Union, a plan which Winston Churchill advocated”. Chrystal says that information about the plan only came to light in 1998 when documents were declassified. The Russians possibly knew about it thanks to the activities of the spy, Guy Burgess.

I suppose a basic anti-German feeling may have levelled off somewhat after 1970 or so. Conscription had ended in 1960, and an eighteen year-old joining the army in, say, 1978 would have been born in 1960, and entered a whole different social world than someone born in 1938. Memories of the war, and the experiences of their fathers and other relatives would have changed a great deal. But Chrystal makes reference to “the innate British xenophobia and insistence on monolingualism, the stereotypical German portrayed as a goosestepping thug in British media and culture” as difficulties that could affect relations between soldiers (bored, and “animated by alcohol”) and civilians. It sometimes occurs to me that, in many ways, the British even now seem obsessed with the Second World War. A friend of mine said that he always knows when it’s Christmas because of the number of war films being shown on British TV.

On the subject of “boredom” affecting soldiers’ behaviour, it always struck me that, outside of a few main centres, little was done to provide cultural and social activities. Even sports facilities seemed fairly sparse on the ground in many places. And, in fact, the overall impulse of officers was to try to force conventional taste and habits on other ranks. Books I had in my locker were looked at askance during inspections. And I recall being stopped from going to a jazz concert in Düsseldorf. “I’d have let you go if it had been classical music”, the officer told me with a smirk on his face.  Perhaps I was just unlucky? On the other hand, I always had a feeling that I was sometimes isolated for stepping out of line at any level. Most of the time I practised blending in. It made life easier.

Chrystal includes a chapter on Berlin, though strictly speaking it wasn’t part of BAOR. I only ever got to the city twenty or so years after my army service ended, but the Wall was still there and seeing how it divided the streets made me realise what a shocking thing it was. A friend served in Berlin in the 1950s and married a German girl. I’m also reminded of another friend who had been in an armoured car patrolling along the then mostly unmarked country border between the British and Russian Zones. The driver made a mistake and they found themselves surrounded by Russian troops. They were held for a few days while the appropriate protocols were followed and they were handed over to the British authorities. He said they weren’t badly treated, though the Russians relieved them of all their cigarettes.   

I have never regretted my time in the British Army, and the two-and-a-half years I spent in Germany, though I couldn’t see myself making a career as a soldier. When I’ve been asked which university I went to, now that so many people assume that if you enjoy reading books you must have been to university, I like to say BAOR. And it’s true, it was my university. I was in a different country, I met different people, I heard a different language. And there were practical reasons for enjoying being in Germany. The German music shops stocked American jazz records I couldn’t obtain in Britain, and the bookshops, even in relatively small towns, often had a section of American paperbacks. The selections were much more adventurous than those in the NAAFI or other military-related retail outlets which never seemed to carry much of interest. And I always turned my small radio to the American Forces Network (AFN) and mostly ignored the British Forces Network (BFN) where the programmes seemed dull and the music pretty dire. On AFN I could catch a range of sounds, from jazz to country-and-western. So, yes, BAOR was very much my university.

I realise that, despite not intending to, I have made this into a subjective review by bringing In my own experiences and interests. It was difficult not to. So many of the names Chrystal mentions brought back memories. He highlights Soest a couple of times, and my thoughts returned to 1956 or so and sitting on a bench with my German girlfriend, waiting for a rail connection. Some years later, in 1962, the first poem I ever had published ended with the lines: “At Soest,/ The Dutch/ Were loading a train/ With tanks/ In the rain”.

Leaving aside my own personal response to this book, I have to say that it is packed with information about the Cold War and the BAOR. Anyone wanting to know about either subject could learn a great deal from It. There are relevant illustrations, including maps, and a useful bibliography.