Hidden in the depths of the archives of the Ministry of Defence is an interesting memorandum that was sent by Field-Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery to the British Chiefs of Staff not long after he became Chairman of the Western Union’s Commanders-in-Chief Committee. The memo lamented the parlous state of the newly established NATO alliance’s defensive preparations in Continental Europe and warned that the West was ‘drifting to disaster’ if nothing was done to alleviate the situation. Dated 30 March 1950, three months before the outbreak of the Korean War, the document reveals in candid detail the private thoughts of an international soldier, a Cold Warrior, during an uneasy period of international tension when the world’s gaze fixated on the cockpit of the Cold War in Europe.
‘Today, the prospects for the future… are gloomy’ the memo began, in that forthright manner so typical of Montgomery. ‘If responsible Ministers knew the true facts they would have cause for the gravest anxiety. If the peoples of Western Europe, and the Press, knew the true facts the results would be catastrophic’. Clearly, not all was well on the Western Front. The problem, Montgomery believed, was a lack of effective mechanisms for joint defence. This was due in large part, he argued, because HM Government was reluctant to state its intentions with regards to European defence. Indeed, the major strategic debates that raged throughout Whitehall during this period centred on the question of what level of military commitment, if any, Britain should make to Continental defence. Britain had agreed to deploy token land and air forces in Germany with the signing of the NATO treaty in 1949 (with, of course, a number of get-out clauses) but, in essence, this was a hollow commitment to protect the peoples of Western Europe if the Red Army rolled across the intra-German border, and had the more politically shrewd intentions of keeping the Americans in Europe, the French happy, and the Germans down.
This was not lost on Montgomery: ‘Europe still waits to know what the British intend to do and, not being able to find out, she assumes they do not mean business’. What the Chairman wanted was a firm commitment from British Ministers that they would dispatch reinforcements if the Cold War heated up. Yet, this would cost money, a commodity in short supply, and it would take more than the pleas of a mere soldier, however decorated and respected, to loosen the Treasury’s grip on the public purse. There were also sound strategic reasons that would make it difficult to dispatch troops to a beleaguered Europe if World War III commenced (see the post on plan SPEEDWAY), but these were by no means insurmountable; the proverbial money talked, and strategic sense walked in 1950s Britain. Ultimately, nobody knew what would happen if the Kremlin ordered its armies to march to the Channel. As Montgomery succinctly puts it in the memo, ‘we have a paper plan. But it is of no practical value and is completely inoperable’.
To make matters worse, the French Army, long seen as being the hard core of the West’s land forces, was in disarray. Here, Montgomery saved his most cutting remarks. The French Army, he stated, still operated on the outdated concept of the levee en masse,was riddled with corruption, possessed senior officers that were completely ignorant about the conduct of modern warfare, and had a training organisation that ‘would be laughable, if it were not pathetic’. Not until a ‘national figure with knowledge, experience and prestige is placed in charge of it’ did Montgomery believe the French Army would ever improve. For those reasons, Montgomery made the bold suggestion that the Alliance’s only hope was to raise national German armed forces. Of course, this did eventually come about five years later, but in 1950 this was unthinkable. If anything, this illustrates how dire the situation really was.
I think this document illustrates the mismatch between official British government policy vis-à-vis European defence in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and the military reality on the ground. During this period national resources for defence, rightly or wrongly, were channelled into the development of an independent nuclear deterrent. Conventional forces contracted considerably and deterrence, not defence, became the cornerstone of British defence policy. Thankfully, Montgomery need not have worried, for the Russians never did put to the test the defensive preparations of the West. Yet, I certainly, like Montgomery, would not have liked to be sat in Brussels if they had.
Having noticed a distinct lack of images on this blog, I thought I would share with you this picture from the Imperial War Museum’s British Army 1945-2000 collection. It depicts Cadets from the Chard School Army Cadet Force, Somerset, being shown the Douglas Aircraft MGR 1 ‘Honest John’ free flight rocket at the School of Artillery, Larkhill. There is no date, but a reader of this blog places it circa 1959/60.
Honest John was the first nuclear-capable surface-to-surface rocket to enter the armouries of the United States and became the backbone of NATO tactical nuclear strike capabilities throughout the 1950s. Honest John was capable of firing a 20 kiloton nuclear warhead at a range of up to 15 miles. Around the same yield as ‘Fat Man’, the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, this was a weapon that could deal out major damage (see the post ‘What’s in a Name’ on this blog for issues surrounding the classification of nuclear weapons). One wonders what would have been going through the young Cadets’ minds as they contemplated service in Britain’s atomic Army.
While I was conducting research in the National Archives recently I came across a rather curious document from 1948. This particular memorandum by the British Chiefs of Staff outlines a joint Anglo-American strategic plan, codenamed SPEEDWAY, for if war broke out with the Soviet Union on or before 1950. I have come across plan SPEEDWAY before, as it crops up now and again in the literature. However, not until now have I been able to cast my own eyes upon it. I think plan SPEEDWAY makes for very interesting reading in that it highlights just how precarious the military balance was between the Western powers and the Soviet Union during the immediate post-war years. In turn, it shows how British and American anxieties about Soviet conventional superiority, both real and imagined, played an important role in shaping thinking about nuclear weapons in those nations.
Plan SPEEDWAY worked on the assumption that at the start of a major war the Soviet Union would launch two major offensives in the Middle East and mainland Europe in addition to mounting other minor actions elsewhere. The Western Allies would be thrown immediately on the defensive, and the only offensive action which they could hope to take strategically in the early stages of the war was from the air. The burden of these strategic missions would fall on the US Air Force since it was the only Service which possessed ‘the equipment required for this task’ i.e., atomic weapons. This air offensive would be carried out by 400 atomic-armed US heavy bombers, operating out of the UK, Egypt, and Okinawa, and would be supported by a smaller force of 160 British medium bombers which did not possess the necessary range to conduct operations over Russia.
The primary task of this combined bomber force was to assist in the defence of the Middle East and the UK. Atomic weapons would have been employed from the outset, although the Chiefs of Staff were uncertain as to how many bombs would be made available, that guarded information remained with their American counterparts. What was clear was that the Allied air forces would not be strong enough to prevent a Russian build-up in Western Europe and at the same time slow an advance in the Middle East.
The situation on the ground looked equally bleak. As British and American airmen took to the skies, soldiers would be fighting a hard battle on the ground. In Western Europe, a total of 11 Allied divisions and 500 tactical aircraft would confront an estimated attacking force of 50 Soviet divisions and 6,000 tactical aircraft. Foreseeing later NATO doctrine, Allied land forces would adopt a Forward Strategy and mount a defence on the Rhine for as long as they could holdout. Considering the lopsided nature of the military balance, however, it is not surprising that the Chiefs of Staff arrived at their rather frank conclusion that ‘if the enemy presses his attack we cannot hold Western Europe’.
Likewise, forces in the Middle East were small – 3 scratch divisions and 300 combat aircraft – and it was unlikely that they could prevent loosing territory and oil. The plan for naval forces appeared more optimistic, yet bittersweet. The Chiefs’ were certain that the Allies had the sufficient strength and skill to keep open the sea lanes of communication and protect its shipping, however, by the time Western Europe was overrun, Soviet tactical aircraft would join the naval-air forces to constitute a serious threat to the approaches to the UK and in the Mediterranean.
Airpower was now seen as the greatest threat. A corollary of this was that the defence of Europe was becoming to be seen as a prerequisite to the successful defence of the UK home islands. If the enemy’s air forces were not held as far to the east as possible, then this would invite air attacks from fixed positions in the Low Countries and Northern France.
So that, in essence, is plan SPEEDWAY. So, what was the predicted outcome if the plan had been implemented in say 1950? If you have not guessed already, it did not look good for the British. The Chiefs of Staff offered two potential outcomes to such a war which would ‘lie between the two extremes of such complete success of the atomic offensive…or failure of the offensive to prevent a critical air situation developing in the UK’. These were not particularly nice outcomes for anybody involved. Yet, the faith in atomic airpower would remain steady throughout the 1950s as nuclear weapons became increasingly to be seen as a panacea to many of the West’s strategic dilemmas.
The introduction of tactical nuclear weapons into NATO armouries during the early 1950s presented army officers with unprecedented levels of battlefield firepower. By providing a ‘bigger bang for the buck’ tactical nuclear weapons could increase the tactical effectiveness of troops in the field and go some way towards counterbalancing Soviet manpower superiority in Europe – in theory at least. The reality was somewhat different. A lack of precedent on which to base operational planning for tactical nuclear warfare meant that nobody knew what type of war would result from their use. The only way in which military planners could extract some kind of empirical data on tactical nuclear weapon use was through the conduct of war-games and military exercises.
Throughout the 1950s, NATO ground forces were involved in a number of military exercises in an attempt to gain greater insights into the impact that tactical nuclear weapons would have on the conduct of land warfare. Many of these exercises were carried out in the Federal Republic of Germany, whose territory would most likely become the future battlefield in a war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. For political and strategic reasons, West German’s favoured a ‘Forward Strategy’, which stressed the need to defend Western Europe as far to the East as possible. Yet, a forward defence meant that if the Allies were ever going to stop Soviet armoured forces from rolling over the intra-German border and into the industrial heartland of the Western Union, tactical nuclear weapons would have to be employed from the outset, in substantial numbers.
The 1954 NATO field exercise, BATTLE ROYAL, tested the concept of a forward defence of Germany and saw allied forces ‘fire’ atomic shells against a Soviet armoured assault. While much of the attacking force was stopped in its tracks, the exchange resulted in the nuclear ‘contamination’ of a thousand square miles of German territory. The collateral damage caused by the nuclear strikes was a source of great concern, not least for the West German’s themselves who did not relish the prospect of their homeland being subjected to the horrors of nuclear warfare. Ultimately, West German hopes were that tactical nuclear weapons would be used in an escalatory role, whose use would trigger a strategic nuclear exchange between the Superpowers, sparing Europe.
A year later, in June 1955, NATO forces participated in another exercise in West Germany which carried the ominous name of CARTE BLANCHE. The exercise simulated the free play of tactical nuclear weapons directed against airfields and troop concentrations. In just two days, a remarkable 300 atomic bombs had been ‘dropped’ by tactical aircraft. Even without taking into consideration radiation casualties and long term health issues, it was calculated that upwards of 1.3 million Germans would have died, with 3.5 million seriously wounded – more than five times the number of German civilian casualties sustained during the Second World War. The results gained from exercises such as BATTLE ROYAL and CARTE BLANCHE indicated that the battlefield use of nuclear weapons would have a noticeable impact on the relationship between operational policy and political goals. It became clear that if nuclear weapons were used by either belligerent, this would have a devastating impact on the civilian population living in and around the conflict area. In sum, the amount of physical damage caused by tactical nuclear weapons in a theatre of operations would be as great as would occur during a strategic exchange, rendering any sort of military operation meaningless.
The results of these exercises highlight the challenges that confront military organisations when they attempt to increase military effectiveness through the employment of a new, untested weapon system. These issues are heightened further by the unparalleled destructive power of nuclear weapons, and the sensitive political nature surrounding their use. Ultimately, attempting to increase military effectiveness at the tactical level of warfare through the utilisation of greater firepower may conflict with the attainment of increased military effectiveness at another level. For instance, a military force may perceive tactical nuclear weapons to be more powerful forms of conventional artillery, facilitating greater combat power on the battlefield. In this context, the use of nuclear weapons would surely constitute an increase in tactical effectiveness on the field of battle. However, the price to pay – as was highlighted during exercise CARTE BLANCHE – would be high casualty rates among non-combatants, which will almost certainly reduce the political effectiveness of the military organisation. Looking back during the 1970s, a senior American defence analyst described the situation as this: ‘tactical nuclear weapons cannot defend Europe; they can only destroy it…nobody knows how to fight a tactical nuclear war. Twenty years of effort by many military experts have failed to produce a doctrine for tactical nuclear warfare.’
In attempting to find a technological solution to a seemingly intractable military problem, NATO made a dangerous leap of faith during the 1950s in planning to fight a tactical nuclear war in Europe. One might argue that tactical nuclear weapons actually worked, and that Soviet leaders in the Kremlin were sufficiently horrified at the prospect of unleashing global war that no attempt was made to probe the defences of the Western Allies – we will never know. What is certain, however, is that tactical nuclear weapons really did provide a bigger, bigger bang for the buck.
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.