From WWII to the Cold War and today – the British Army in Germany

A James Bond-style armored car and a kettle for cups of tea in a tank are highlights of an exhibition currently on the role of the British Army in West Germany at the end of the Second World war in modern times.

The exhibition is chronological and opens with the allied occupation of Germany, and of Berlin in particular, and highlights not only the official rules of behavior, but also the evolution of attitudes as and British soldiers came into contact with people who were a distant enemy weeks earlier, but were now real starving families struggling to survive in a bombed out town.

Of course, tensions with the Soviets saw the country and the city fall apart as the Cold War cooled relations between East and West Germany until reunification in 1990.

(tip – very good historical series on iPlayer about the plots)

The focus of the exhibition, however, is a rather ordinary-looking car, an Opel Senator from the 1980s, which turns out to have played a key role in the Cold War. It’s here that you learn about BRIXMIS, a little-known deal to put a British military liaison team in East Germany to help keep the lines of communication open between the military in the East and West. A Soviet version worked in West Germany.

Although the British were allowed to travel to East Germany and had to do so openly in uniform, they also spied secretly and at times came close to being captured for espionage activities and had to flee quickly.

The ordinary-looking domestic car on display was modified in a very James Bond style, with four-wheel drive, larger fuel tanks, reinforced suspension and armor. All internal surfaces have been blackened to reduce glare and even the external dull paint color has been chosen to avoid drawing attention to the vehicle.

Despite their semi-diplomatic status, British soldiers operating as part of BRIXMIS have occasionally been shot at or seen their cars hit to prevent them from gathering intelligence.

Elsewhere, a section on Active Edge, the ability of the British Army to deploy units within hours of a call to mobilize.

“The lifespan of a tank commander if the Russians attacked had to be 36 hours. Optimist »Lieutenant Mac Mccullagh 5th Royal Tank Regiment 1959-61

Signs pointing to Berlin and the border crossings to East Germany are dotted. Barbed wire and a fragment of the Iron Curtain recall the divided city. Documents, such as a US Air Mail Day 1 envelope with a Soviet hand trying to grab Germany, sit next to British documents ordering British soldiers not to be dashing with German ladies . A rule that lasted less than a year when it turned out to be unenforceable.

Something that is imposed in the modern covid era is the one-way route around the exhibition, delightfully enforced by German road signs on the ground indicating Einbahnstraße.

Among those in the know, probably the most famous object in the exhibit is a small gray metal box – a boiling vessel supplied to armored vehicles that were unique to the British Army. This is a kettle, which among other things provided that essentially the British demand a steady supply of hot cups of tea. No other NATO army had one and it was said to be a source of considerable envy among other soldiers.

Further on, the exhibit shows life in West Germany for the British personnel stationed there, later not to enforce Allied rule but to act as a line of defense against an invasion from the East. Later, as the Cold War heated up, it was the IRA threats that ended up causing the most concern and more effort was needed to protect themselves from them than from the Soviets. Audio playback next to the IRA screen gives a very strong impression of the effect that had on the families stationed in West Germany.

Social issues for the families who joined the soldiers and how the British Army presence supported the local community are also presented. Sales of Herforder pills, sold in yellow boxes dubbed “yellow handbags”, reportedly fell off a cliff when the British left a garrison in 2015.

The last unit of the British Army left in July 2019, so it’s not just about dusty old history, but very recent events, and unfortunately with the way things are with Russia and China these days, maybe this exhibition of the past is just a prelude to the future.

The exhibition Foe to Friend: The British Army in Germany since 1945 is at the National Army Museum in Chelsea until the end of 2021. Admission is free, but you must book a ticket to visit in advance from here.

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