One of Britain’s enduring legacies of the cold war will end a year earlier than expected when the last British troops leave German soil in 2019.
The government this week announced a speeding up of Britain’s withdrawal from Germany together with a reorganizing of domestic Army bases to deal with a changing military landscape.
Defense Secretary Philip Hammond said all of Britain’s 20,000 troops will be gone by 2019 instead of 2020, while 70 percent will return by the end of 2015 compared with the previous plan of half. Around 4,000 soldiers and their families have already returned to British bases in a project that will cost £1.8 billion ($2.7 billion) but save a projected £240 million ($361 million) a year at a time of continued cost-cutting in Britain.
Initially the force served to shore up Western Europe's defenses during the cold war from the threat of Soviet expansion. After the Soviet collapse, the deployment became a useful training mission for the British and a reassurance to Western Europe at a time when shaky governments in the East were still finding their footing.
“The return of the British Army from Germany marks the end of an era, and I want to put on record the huge debt of gratitude we owe to the German government and the German people for the support, both moral and material, they have shown our armed forces over more than six decades," Mr. Hammond told Britain’s Parliament.
Robert Fleming, a curator at the National Army Museum in London, says the main legacy of the standing Army was deterrence. “By the time the British soldiers leave, the Army will have been there nearly 70 years. At first there was animosity towards them from some of the German population because there had been two world wars but as civilian government took hold, they were welcomed as the bringer of stability.
“At its peak in the early '80s there were around 70,000 British soldiers in the northern sector. They’ve seen through the Berlin Air Lift, Cuban missile crisis, the collapse of the Soviet Union and communist regimes in Eastern Europe. Some people might wonder why troops weren’t brought back then, but there was the threat of instability before an expanded EU and democracies in the east, although there’s still a question mark over the future of NATO.
“British troops helped act as a deterrent and the German people understood that and welcomed them. Although soldiers are trained to fight, the fact that they didn’t but kept the peace is viewed as a success.”
Peter Quentin, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute who also served in the British Army including in Germany, says the withdrawal and re-organization was a bigger issue in Britain than Germany.
“The biggest legacy is peace in Europe. A lot of people say it’s the formation and growth of the EU that’s kept the peace but it’s not – it’s having soldiers on the ground to counter the Soviet threat. Without that show of force, there would have not been a deterrent," he says.
“I’ve spoken to a guy in Germany this morning and what’s interesting is that there’s no clamor for the British Army to leave but equally no clamor for them to stay. A few local politicians are talking about the loss of revenue, but there’s no real debate about them leaving.
“In the past they’ve seen the French leave, the Russians leave, and now it’s the British. Training-wise, Germany is a good place to be, and I think if it wasn’t for budgetary pressures, the Army would probably want to stay.”