The British Army of the Rhine or: How I Learned to stop Worrying and Love the (Tactical) Bomb

Even a cursory glance at the relevant sections of high street bookshops and university library’s would give one the impression that the activities of the post-war British Army focused overwhelmingly on the challenges of conducting counter-insurgency operations during the uncertain years of Britain’s retreat from Empire after 1945. Of course, the Army was engaged in protracted military operations throughout this period to defeat communist guerrilla fighters in Malaya (1948-60), Mau Mau rebels in Kenya (1952-56) and EOKA independence fighters in Cyprus (1954-59). Yet, while the practice of warfare was characterised by these asymmetric infantry engagements in far-flung overseas territories, the theory of warfare remained centred on the challenges of fighting a high-intensity land war against the Red Army in Europe.

The hub for much of this thinking was the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR). The Rhine Army began life in 1945 as a short-term army of occupation in Germany following the defeat of the Axis Powers. By the middle 1950s, however, it had evolved into a formidable fighting force that was designed to be able to fight and prevail on the atomic battlefields of the future. As an integral component of NATO’s Northern Army Group, BAOR was now a permanent fixture on the front line of the Cold War in Europe.

Since 1954, BAOR had been committed to a nuclear defence of the Western Union as dictated by the NATO strategy document MC 48. Western military planners had reached the conclusion that atomic firepower provided the only means to counterbalance Soviet manpower superiority in Europe. A myriad tactical nuclear weapons found their way into the arsenals of the NATO land forces, from atomic artillery pieces to ground and air launched guided missiles, and even atomic demolition munitions. All of this required that Army tactical doctrine and techniques of warfare be recast to reflect the changing nature of atomic age land combat. Such considerations occupied the minds of some of the brightest military thinkers throughout the 1950s and resulted in some extremely original, and often downright bizarre, concepts that would allow the British Army to operate effectively on the nuclear battlefields of the Cold War.

Ultimately, the British Army of the Rhine never embarked upon the war for which it had prepared. Yet, as the first permanent military contribution to European defence in over 200 years, BAOR’s deployment on the European Central Front raises some interesting questions about British defence policy and the ‘British way in warfare’ at the onset of the Cold War. Furthermore, the manner in which British Army officers attempted to tackle what was perhaps the greatest military challenge of their day reveals just how innovative, forward thinking, and receptive were the professional soldiers who were forced to confront the grim spectre of tactical nuclear warfare.

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