Chapter 40: North Atlantic Treaty Organisation
One of the excitements of military service, if one has been reasonably fortunate, is awaiting the decision of the Military Secretary, in consultation with one’s tribal chief, about one’s next employment. Earlier success or failures plainly affect the issue. I was selected to take up a NATO appointment in Supreme HQ Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE). I would, once again, be working in a foreign country amongst people of many nations. NATO had been formed in April 1949. A dozen Nations had come together to form a powerful group of like-minded countries who could act together to make a third World War less probable. At the time the main threat came from Soviet communism and there was no quick release from this fear. During the 1950s Greece, Turkey and West Germany were added to the list of participants, with Spain joining in 1982.
There was one defector. General De Gaulle decided to withdraw France from NATO in 1966. He referred to the domination of NATO by the USA and the intrusion of NATO on French sovereignty. France withdrew from participation in the integrated Military command structure and required NATO forces and HQ to leave French soil. Liaison with integrated NATO Staffs would continue. This was particularly unfortunate, as NATO Headquarters had been set up in Versailles with SHAPE nearby. Not only would a new country have to house these important organisations but allocation of land and major building projects would be necessary before the relocation could take place. Negotiation led to Belgium hosting the Headquarters displaced from France. NATO HQ would be located in Brussels itself, whilst SHAPE would be 50 miles to the south-west towards the city of Mons and near the village of Soignies, with its memorial stone recording the first shot of the war of 1914.
The design and building of a major international military establishment of this kind in time of peace was unique. To my mind the result was a great success. The work was going on whilst I finished my stint in Whitehall and the reorganisation was nearing completion when we moved to Belgium to join the new NATO.
We were allotted one of the officer’s quarters in open land, a few minutes walk from the Headquarters buildings. There was no individual fencing, but it was noted that British occupants were the only ones who tended to develop small gardens around their abodes. With three children in boarding school we had plenty of room. Claudia attended the English language military school until she in turn could join Antonia at Sherborne.
I was now in a new world of abbreviated titles. My chief was referred to as ACOS CANDE (pronounced candy) that translates to Assistant Chief of Staff Communications and Electronics. As his Deputy I added a D to the acronym. I could not have had a better chief - German general Eberhardt Henrici was nearing the end of a twelve-year tour in his appointment. He was fluent in English and French, both verbal and written. We soon became close friends. In retirement in later years he would stay with us in England.
There were a higher layers above ACOS, several departmental deputies called DCOS before the level of COS (Chief of Staff) and then at the top the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, five star General Lemnitzer. At this time ‘forty seven years a General’ was an impressive supplement to add to his description.
There was a factor that made our five star commander more accessible to my level than one might suppose. ‘Generals’ at any level were privileged at SHAPE, and in the US Army they had Brigadier Generals, so whilst at SHAPE I was a General. Within this classification there was remarkably little stratification between ranks. Quite early in my time a Signals problem arose. The withdrawal of France separated European members north of the Alps from those in the south, yet good communications from NATO in Belgium to both elements remained essential. At the time tropospheric scatter links were introduced needing antenna systems using dished reflectors some eight metres in diameter to pass transmissions on over mountain ranges by an indirect path. With the French and Swiss Alps in the way, suitably high mountains had to be chosen in NATO countries north and south for the system to work. Application had been made to the German authorities to use the summit of the 5000ft Feldberg in southern Germany. The Lande, the provincial Council, had appealed against this usage.
General Lemnitzer needed convincing evidence that there was no reasonable alternative before asking the German Government to overrule the Lande. I was deputed to brief him. A British Guards Brigadier warned me ‘it will be rather like briefing the Almighty, but it will be all right’, which it was. I came to admire this American approach to senior rank. I was ‘above the salt’ and the trust given to our level was not misplaced. Another odd privilege was that ‘generals’ had special SHAPE number plates on their private cars for ease of recognition. My number was 0043 - nearly 007.
I am not aware of any published SHAPE policy on visiting subordinate Headquarters, but it was plainly important that the many nations involved should be made to feel that they were partners in a great new organisation and not mere subordinates. It was not long before my travels started. There had been a SHAPEX, a major Staff Exercise, before I arrived and a Signals exercise, SIGEX, was planned for the future. In my first week I was required to attend a NATO meeting in Brussels to discuss the subject. In a short time it became clear that the total responsibility for organising and running this exercise was being passed to me. It would be necessary for me to visit half a dozen countries to give a warning brief to civil as well as military authorities that would be involved. Civil and military meetings were not always in the same place.
In those days travel was developing well, but the package holiday had yet to make a real impact. It was therefore a great opportunity to spy out new countries as part of my duties. The programme planned for me was not rushed, personal contact in each country having its value. Athens was the first port of call and memories of British wartime activities still raised interest. There was no difficulty in showing appreciation for Greek kindness and skill in showing off major features of the city. A flight took me to Istanbul where I was met by a United States officer who was to conduct me to Izmir. It was a fortunate arrangement. When he checked in for our flight he was told that our seats had been reallocated to someone else. With his knowledge of the ways of the country this was soon put right. Izmir, the classical Smyrna, is a thriving coastal city, but a disastrous fire in 1922 left little sign of antiquity. The NATO Armed Forces HQ is outside the city. Quartered Arms on a paperweight given me shows crescent Muslim moons and Christian crosses. It was to be years later that we were able to explore southern Turkey. It has so much to offer.
A flight took me to Ankara and brought home the knowledge that much of the country is mountainous and rises to a modest 6000 feet in the neighbourhood of the city. Here I was in the hands of the Turkish Army. The officers I met were impressive, forthcoming and excellent company. Business completed I returned to Istanbul with a day to spare and time to get some idea of the immense range of opportunities for future visits in retirement; then it was back to Belgium via Rome.
The northern tour started in Norway and was of greater interest as a country with a fine war record and a continuing Russian threat too close for comfort. A tour had been arranged that would take me right up into the Arctic Circle. My guide wore the medal ribbon of the DSO, given for extreme gallantry as the young officer he must have been at the time of the award. We visited Ryukan, the site of the daring raid on the heavy water factory that set back Hitler’s nuclear weapon programme, and then moved north to Bergen and beyond. For their communications they had mountain-top relay stations. One that we visited had to adjust alignment from time to time to combat movement of the ice on which it stood. It was a happy and interesting tour. As a race we find it very easy to share friendship with the Norwegians and it was certainly so in this case. Contacts made on such tours genuinely build confidence between the Headquarters involved. Welcome was equally warm in Denmark.
Back in SHAPE the family were learning more about the facilities available. The shopping mall met many requirements and favourable pricing had been negotiated for many items including petrol. Entertainment between families of different nations was encouraged in our British brief and was something that we enjoyed. Germans would arrive punctually with the gift of flowers or a bottle of wine. Italians would be late but reliably broke down barriers of excessive formality. The Americans were barbecue kings, which was probably the best solution where language difficulty was part of the problem.
Our children on holiday made excellent use of the hobby facilities, leatherwork, photography, and simple jewellery amongst them. Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg do not take top places in holiday promotion, where sunshine and ‘relaxation’ rate high. In many ways an opportunity to live in the Low Countries is an excellent way to carry out purposeful and active exploration of the many places of interest, particularly for those who have no great ambition to relax.
There might have been time for more, but orders were received for me to move to Mönchen Gladbach in Germany on promotion to Major General.
However there was one last trip. There was a single French privilege left to officers. We could be treated as honorary members of their officers club in Paris. In my mother’s generation contact with Cazenove cousins had continued. With the aid of a cousin we arranged to visit cousins with the distinguished name of d’Hauteville, who looked after us well and matched our children in age. Some of them lived in Algeria, so have presumably now moved to France.