World News

Germans banish the Danube blues

Philip Grenard October 23 1978
World News

Germans banish the Danube blues

Philip Grenard October 23 1978

Germans banish the Danube blues

World News

Philip Grenard

If Soviet Major-General Alexander Knyrkov was impressed by the manner in which the West German troops attempted to repulse the “red” invasion, he did not show it. His pudgy face, wreathed in the smoke of countless Russian cigarettes, was as impassive as that of Chinese Red Army General Li Chien, sitting only 50 feet away in the makeshift grandstand on the banks of the Danube.

The two men were guests at NATO’s “Blue Danube” war game in Bavaria, an exercise involving 46,000 troops—some Canadian and American, but the bulk of them German—which climaxed weeks of intensive manoeuvres by Atlantic alliance forces. First, rookies of the German army’s II Korps slung a pontoon bridge across the 400-foot river in 15 minutes, while NATO air force F-llls, Phantoms and Mirages screamed overhead. Then, amphibious vehicles opened out their limbs and interlocked to form a more solid bridge for a trundling procession of tanks and armor. Finally, while anti-tank helicopters hovered in the trees like noisy dragonflies, tanks with long snorkels crossed on the riverbed to the other side.

At a press conference afterward, German army Chief of Staff Horst Hildebrandt was asked what impression he hoped Knyrkov would transmit to the Kremlin. Said Hildebrandt: “I would like him to report that here was an army exercising within an alliance for one reason only—to preserve peace, liberty and democracy.” Seasoned military correspondents, however, believe Knyrkov will have more to say than that. For this year’s war games—under the code name “Autumn Forge”—had an underlying message: That NATO, although a defensive alliance, is prepared to carry the fight to the enemy; and that at the start of yet another decade of confrontation, the chosen instrument to spearhead operations is the German Heer (army).

It is now more than 33 years since Hitler’s Wehrmacht, after coming close to subduing Europe, was driven back inside the borders of the Reich and dis-

banded. For 11 years, until the NATO allies decided they needed a German contingent to help spread defence costs and stiffen the troops facing the overwhelming Warsaw Pact armies, the Bonn government had no military arm. But since 1956, when the new German army accepted its first recruits, it has grown steadily in manpower and efficiency. Today, the German army is the biggest in Western Europe—336,000 men (and 60 women, all in the medical corps) in a Bundeswehr (armed forces) of 495,000. The Bonn government spends about $40 billion annually on defence, equivalent to $337 a head per year, and 23 per cent of all government

spending. In contrast, the U.S. army has 189,000 troops in Germany; Canada has 2,300, a mechanized brigade based at Lahr.

What is more, the Germans now supply about half the combat troops in the so-called “central area,” which NATO considers would be the main battleground if the Kremlin decided on a blitzkrieg. According to General Alexander Haig, supreme Allied commander Europe, NATO’s forces are outnumbered there 2 to 1 on the ground, 2 to 1 in the air and 4 to 1 in tanks. And even these ratios may be outdated. The International Institute of Strategic Studies in London has just reported that this year alone the Soviet Union has commissioned 7,000 new tanks, for a total of 50,000. So the Atlantic alliance relies heavily on the Germans for its conventional capability and that reliance will be enhanced, not reduced, if the Mutual and Balanced Force Reduction (MBFR) talks which resumed last month in Vienna should result in further U.S. troop withdrawals.

The question which inevitably arises is whether the new German army, 60 per cent of it conscripted, is up to its role. Is it as formidable a foe as its two predecessors this century? When a similar question was put to a sample of German citizens a couple of years ago, the majority view was that the former Wehrmacht still provided the model. A good third of the respondents thought military training today was too lax.

It certainly is less spartan than in the old days. Spit-and-polish has been reduced to a minimum and the army has several unions, called “associations,” to watch its interests (though strike action is forbidden). Says the commanding officer of Canadian forces in Europe, Major-General Charles Belzile: “We [the Canadians] have largely held on to the old code of discipline. Democracy is what we are pledged to defend, but democracy may not bé the best tool to defend it with.” So while Canadians are clean-shaven, Germans can wear beards and sideburns, though they are not as hirsute as Dutch soldiers some of whom, with hair of shoulder length or beyond, are hard to tell from hippies.

Besides being hairier, Dutch conscripts are better paid than the Germans. But they are the only ones who are and the Bundeswehr’s fringe benefits are legendary in NATO. A conscript receives a $100 bonus each month for his savings, a $40 Christmas bonus, a free return rail ticket each month for home leave, and an $1,800 to $2,000 discharge gratuity. Bonn evidently believes that a properly rewarded soldier is as crucial to the army’s performance as the latest hardware; and the confidence of at least one tank commander was striking evidence of this. He said he considered American equipment five years behind the Germans’ and, as for U.S. troops: “We often surprise them asleep at 8 o’clock during exercises.”

Critics continue to snipe, however. Manfred Worner, opposition Christian Democrat spokesman, said recently that military practice and soldierly skills had been neglected to such an irresponsible degree that not all possible advantage was being obtained from new weapon systems. These, however, are formidable. The Bonn government funnels about 4.5 per cent of the nation’s massive gross national product (GNP) to the Bundeswehr and the army gets a lion’s share because of its crucial role. Next year it starts taking delivery of 1,800 Leopard II tanks, each costing about $1.8 million—Canada this month is getting the first of its 128 Leopard

Is—and a new generation of Leopards is already on the drawing board. The German army’s Tow and Milan anti-tank weapons are the most sophisticated in Europe. Few of the weapons in its inventory ever have time to grow rusty.

Any Canadian who slogged his way along the Channel coast in 1944 may be forgiven for wondering whether such muscle may be building up to something more than a trial of strength with the Warsaw Pact forces to the east. The answer, as the German PR spokesmen never tire of pointing out, is that it just isn’t the same army. “We are a new generation,” says Captain Ulrich Twrsnick. “We are here to defend democracy, not to frighten anyone. We would not follow the orders Hitler gave in 1939.” Some doubt on that point has been raised in recent months. Although the last officers to swear allegiance to the Führer are now collecting their pensions, Nazi sentiments do surface from time to time, notably in the military academies. In the most striking recent incident, lieutenants at the Munich college gave Nazi salutes, shouted “Sieg Heil” and staged a symbolic Jewburning ceremony. The authorities have responded to such incidents by widening political science instruction in the “inner leadership” courses for officers. They also spend $3 million a year on newspapers and magazines for the armed forces, which often carry articles and photos contrasting the role and philosophy of today’s services with the past.

But the simple fact is that while not all Germans are military buffs—18 per cent of those called up last year opted for 18 months social service instead of 15 months military service—a large number still are. There are 350 Bundeswehr fan clubs with a total membership of 3,000 young people aged from 14 to 18. This clearly represents a problem for Hans Apel, 46, who inherited the defence portfolio in March, and there are others. The Bonn government is anxious to preserve its policy of rapprochement with the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries; and it may have been concern that the NATO alliance was “over-Germanizing” its defence posture in Europe that led Apel to wonder in public recently whether the scale of the autumn exercises was not provocative. His parliamentary secretary of state Andreas von Bülow expressed similar reservations.

Such criticisms, however, are lost on Haig. He says: “To be strong is not provocative, to be weak is.” And NATO Secretary-General Joseph Luns backs that view. Understandably, perhaps, NATO’s supreme commander is more interested in the Germans’ military performance. It is a little-publicized but well-known fact that when Canadian forces play the

“reds” (the baddies) they regularly slice through the U.S. formations but are usually held by the Germans. So as “Hot Washup,” the appropriately named and lengthy postmortem on “Autumn Forge” gets under way at NATO’s Brussels headquarters, Apel is likely to get very few marks while the German Heer goes to the top of the class. The simple fact is that political reservations notwithstanding, in terms of the military mind’s “three Ms”— manpower, munitions and morale—it is the best the West has got.