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The British Army in the Cold War

Britain was faced after 1945 with the same dilemma that had haunted her in the inter-war years: she possessed extensive overseas territories yet lacked the resources necessary to defend it effectively. This did not, however, alter in anyway her determination to cling on to her status as a great power. The British, who prepared to fight the Soviets in major combat operations in Europe, instead fought numerous counterinsurgency campaigns, including Malaya. The British Army, in spite of its extensive recent combat experience in World War II, and partially because of it, initially performed poorly; but over time correctly came to understand the nature of the conflict, adapted, and defeated the insurgency.

Throughout the Cold War, the dilemma of imperial defense (policing) andthe continental commitment persistently challenged the British Army. Between 1948 and 1950 the Labour Government increasingly committed Britain to the defense of Western Europe against the Soviet threat. Nonetheless, imperial policing and counterinsurgency placed considerable demands on the British military establishment.

Spurred by the February 1948 Communist coup in Czechoslovakia, in March 1948 Britain signed the Brussels Treaty, which established a mutual assistance pact between Great Britain, Belgium, France, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. This pact signaled Western Europe’s commitment to its own defense as well as Britain’s leadership role in organizing this defense. Britain’s effort to secure assistance from the United States to European defense culminated in 1949 with the establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Britain was not initially required to maintain a sizeable British force on the continent. The British were thereforesomewhat free to use their limited forces elsewhere in support of her empire. In 1950 the British had only two weak divisions in Europe. In 1954, in order to meet increased force requirements and to show its commitment to the United States, Britain committed to permanently stationing four divisions in Europe as a part of the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR). Agreeing to station ground forces in continental Europe during peacetime was a remarkable departure from past British peacetime strategies.

In June 1945 the process began of demobilising the thousands of men and women who had served in the forces during the war. The government had begun preparations for this in 1944 with the Reinstatement in Civil Employment Act which allowed men and women to claim back their old jobs in civvy street, provided their employer was still in business. There was still an urgent need to keep up high levels of military manpower in parts of the world where Britain had strong ongoing commitments – in Germany, Palestine, and India.

The government concluded that these requirements could only be met effectively by continuing National Service in peacetime. This was not, however, popular, especially now that Britain was no longer at war. It was therefore with difficulty that Clement Attlee’s Labour government persuaded Parliament in 1947 to pass the National Service Act. It came into force in January 1949 and meant that all physically fit males between the ages of 17 and 21 had to serve in one of the armed forces for an 18-month period.

They then remained on the reserve list for another four years. During this time they were liable to be called to serve with their units but on no more than three occasions, for 20 days maximum. Students and apprentices were allowed to defer their call-up until they completed their studies or training. Conscientious objectors had to undergo the same tribunal tests as in wartime. After 1945, however, National Service did not extend to women.

In 1950 a further National Service Act lengthened the period of service to two years. During the 1950s national servicemen took part in various military operations in Malaya, Korea, Cyprus and Kenya. National Service ended in 1960, though periods of deferred service still had to be completed. The last national servicemen were discharged in 1963.

By the end of World War II, large numbers of British soldiers and colonial policemen were familiar with the actual conductof guerrilla warfare. Many of the techniques involved in a politico-military insurgency, particularlyguerrilla warfare, were merely adaptations of traditional rebel tactics against which the British had often fought in their imperial past. In addition to its experience in this area, the British advantage lay in a tradition of flexibility, based upon the fact that throughout the colonial policing campaigns of the past they had been forced to make do with only limited resources.

Worldwide responsibilities dispersed a fairly small volunteer army thinly on the ground and pre-vented the maintenance of a strategic reserve. At the same time, financial frugality made soldiers conscious of a need to conserve equipment and ammunition. Therefore, once the British were confronted with a revolt, they were more likely to makea low-profile response, using their armed forces sparingly and searching for solutions that did not necessitate large expenditures of men or materiel. Moreover, the wide range of threats to imperial rule and the different geographical conditions encountered, produced a constant need to adapt responses to fit local circumstances and avoided the development of a stereotyped theory of policing. Thus by 1945, as the British faced a host of threats to their rule and influence, they already exhibited three important characteristics for low-intensity conflict: experience, appropriate military skill, and flexibility.

The British Army fought its post-World War II campaigns in the predominantly rural jungle conditions of Malaya, Kenya, Borneo, Guyana, and Dhofar to the desert conditions of Palestine; Muscat and Oman; Radfan; and Kuwait and was successful in small-scale and medium-scale operations. The British Army helped bring about favorable political outcomes for Britain. In almost every case of devolution, newly independent states allowed the British Army to retain facilities in their countries.

The British were successful in small wars because they were willing to fight like their indigenous adversaries. For example, in Malaya and Borneo, the British Army fought the guerrillas by inserting small patrols that operated like the insurgents, not with air power and artillery. The Army used stealth and cunning. In the few instances when it employed bombers or artillery, it was remarkably unsuccessful.

From 1939 to 1960, the British Army’s social structure, values, and way of life survived with surprisingly little change. The British officer corps was still dominated by the “gentleman” and remained essentially a working-class Army officered by the upper classes. The continued power of regimental loyalties signified that the British Army had survived the social revolutions of the mid-20th century with its traditions intact.

During the 1950s and 1960s the Government allowed the Territorial Army to become seriously under-manned and poorly-equipped. In 1967 a poorly-advised and heavy-handed attempt at reinvigorating the reserves led to a virtual abolition of the regimental system among the reserves. Realising the error of its ways, the government set out in 1971 to increase the size of the reserves, creating many new battalions. Subsequent expansions and reorganizations over the following 20 years meant that, by the early 1990s, the regimental system was almost totally re-established. Throughout this period of fluctuating fortunes, the Territorial Army was never regarded as a particularly useable or effective force, either by the Government of the day or by the Regular Army. With the image of a 'force of last resort', its role was, at least unofficially, seen as home defence.

The Northern Ireland commitment pulled manpower toward the imperial policing mission, with tankers and artillerymen func-tioning as infantry because there was no one to taketheir places. In August 1969, the British Army was called in to give military aid to the civil power. The British Army in Northern Ireland subsequently improved intelligence methods, tactics, and training so that by 1975 it was successfully managing the Troubles with improved tactics and more sophisticated intelligence operations.

Except for the Korean and Falklands Wars, almost all the campaigns the British Army fought during the Cold War were counterinsurgencies. The British Army’s experiences in small wars had been gained over a long period when the Empire was established, maintained, and devolved. The strategic focus on Europe after 1967 and the shift to a maneuver-oriented doctrine in the 1980s notwithstanding, the British Army’s cultural predilection for operations other than war continued unabated.

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Page last modified: 25-04-2013 17:44:04 ZULU