In a training hangar on the Canadian military base in the German town of Lahr last week, men of the 8th Canadian Hussars stood around and pondered the future. It did not, they agreed, look bright. As members of Canada's only tank regiment, with a history dating back to 1848, the men are proud of their role and traditions. But the regiment's force of aging Leopard C-i tanks is being cut sharply this summer. On top of that, the very existence of the base at Lahr, and a smaller one at nearby Baden-Söllingen, is being questioned as the federal government prepares to publish the results of its first post-Cold War defence policy review. Already, many Canadians serving in Germany express concern that the review will call for a withdrawal of Canadian troops from Europe-where they have been for the past 40
years as part of Canada’s commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. “They’re taking away our tanks and our people, and now they may be taking away the base,” sighed Cpl. Paul Popovich, a 24-year-old tank crewman from Montreal. “I feel betrayed.”
Threat: The 7,500 Canadian servicemen and women stationed at Lahr and Baden-Söllingen—the bulk of Canada’s commitment to NATO in Europe—have never faced a cloudier future. The collapse of the Warsaw Pact has left NATO without an obvious threat. It has also left Canada without a clear policy on what role the Canadian armed forces should play in the 16-nation alliance. For the Canadian troops and their families, that adds up to personal uncertainty and professional worries. For senior officers, it means a continuing battle to keep up
morale. “It’s very difficult,” acknowledged Maj.-Gen. Brian Smith, the 52-year-old commander of Canadian forces in Europe. “Whether the government decides on option A, option B or option C, we want to get on with it.”
If, in fact, Canadian forces are withdrawn from Lahr, it would end a connection that goes back nearly a quarter of a century. Since the Canadian Air Force moved onto the base in 1967—the Canadian armed forces established European headquarters there in 1970—a posting to Lahr has been a plum assignment for soldiers and airmen, a chance to travel in Europe and work closely with other NATO forces. In Germany, the Canadian military community—including soldiers’ families and civilians serving the military—has swelled to some 20,000 people. And in Lahr itself, an
attractive town on the edge of the Black Forest in southwestern Germany, 35,000 Germans live alongside 13,000 Canadians.
The Canadian presence in Lahr is immediately apparent. Every fourth or fifth car on the streets bears a red-and-white Canadian military licence plate. Video stores and insurance offices display maple leaves in their windows to attract Canadian customers. The Bank of Montreal operates a busy branch on the downtown Schwarzwald Strasse, alongside a supermarket that stocks Canadian newspapers, Catelli spaghetti, Aylmer ketchup and packets of Export A cigarettes. A 70-bed hospital for the Canadian community—planned since 1983 and built at a cost of $30 million—opened just last month. The town also boasts a radio station that broadcasts Canadian news in French and English, and even features a square-dancing club where enthusiastic Germans learn to dosi-do alongside Canadians.
Danger: If Canadian forces are withdrawn, the local economy will clearly suffer. In Lahr and Baden-Söllingen, Canadians spend about $400 million a year, on everything from cars to the fine local wine. The Lahr city council is already studying proposals to convert the airfield to civilian use if the base is closed. But many local residents acknowledge that they are worried. If the generally quiet and wellbehaved Canadians leave, they say, the German government may fill their vacant apartments with new immigrants from Eastern Europe or Turkey. “There is a real danger that we could get more and more social problems,” cautioned Lahr Mayor Werner Dietz.
Still, not all Germans would be sorry to see the Canadians go. Some, mainly on the political left, oppose military bases of any nationality on German soil. “Germans basically don’t like the military in general, whether they are Canadian, American or even German,” explained Reiner Hildebrandt, president of the Lahr GermanCanadian Friendship Club. Others have protested the noise and environmental cost of military exercises—especially the roar of CF18 fighters around the Baden airbase. Those concerns increased after April 17,1990, when two Canadian CF-18s collided while on a training exercise over Karlsruhe in southwestern Germany. That accident resulted in the death of one pilot—and sent debris raining down on the surrounding countryside. Canadian fighter pilots, along with their German, American and British colleagues, now face severe restrictions in the skies over Germany—including a prohibition on flying below 1,000 feet. As a result, Canadian pilots go to exercise areas over the North Sea, Wales or even back to Canada to practise low-level flying.
Despite those restrictions, Canadian commanders in Germany made it clear last week that they would prefer to keep their troops in Europe. Brig.-Gen. Jean Boyle, commander of the air division based at Baden-Söllingen, noted in an interview with Maclean ’s that withdrawing from Germany would leave only two CF-18 fighter bases—one at Cold Lake, Alta., and the other at Bagotville, Que. Without the lure of a posting in Europe, he said, it might be difficult
to attract and keep high-quality groundcrew to keep the planes flying. And Europe, Boyle said, gives his pilots a chance to work alongside U.S., French, British and German flyers—and experience the kind of multinational co-operation evident during the Persian Gulf crisis last fall and winter. “If we close here,” Boyle added, “we’re going to lose the ability to operate with our allies.” Lt.-Col. Christopher Corrigan of Hamilton, commander of the 8th Canadian Hussars, put it even more forcefully. “If we weren’t here in Europe, we wouldn’t be in the big leagues,” noted Corrigan, whose regiment has been stationed at Lahr since 1987. “We’d be a Peru or a Bolivia.” Concerns about impending base closures have already been fuelled by other military cuts. Last fall, Ottawa announced that the number of troops at the Lahr and Baden bases would be reduced by 1,400 this year. As part of
that reduction, the tank regiment’s strength will fall by a quarter—to 466 men from 626— and 16 of its 59 tanks will be mothballed. But even before those cuts, the tank crews were painfully aware that their German-made Leopard tanks, designed in the late 1960s, had long been superseded by more modem and deadlier designs. “What it boils down to is, no matter how well we’re trained, we wouldn’t have a chance if we had to defend ourselves,” said Trooper Jeremy Wrench, 21, from Toronto.
Many of the tank regiment’s young crewmen joined the Forces at the time of the Conservative government’s 1987 defence white paper, which charted a major expansion of the military to counter the Soviet buildup of the early 1980s. The opening of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the retreat of Soviet troops soon made that approach outdated. Now, the young soldiers say, the government has reversed direction and left them with little future. “I joined out of high school,” said Trooper Jeff Brush, 23, of Wat-
ford, Ont. “This is how I wanted to spend my life. Everything I see now makes me wonder if I’ll have a job in five years.” The possibility of closing Lahr, added Trooper Jeff Leier, 22, of Sedley, Sask., is just another discouraging sign. “It makes you wonder whether what we’re doing here is worth it,” he said.
Jelly: Not surprisingly, senior commanders insist that such fears are exaggerated. Maj.Gen. Smith maintained that Canada can still play an important role in a restructured NATO. In late May, NATO defence ministers meeting in Brussels approved a drastic overhaul of the alliance’s forces—cutting their size by a third and reshuffling them into multinational defence corps. Canada was not mentioned in the plan, but Smith said last week that Canadian forces can find a role in the new NATO structure once Ottawa decides on overall policy. “We’re slow, but so is everybody else—and for good rea-
son,” he said. “It’s like jelly on the wall out there: what’s happening in the Soviet Union, who’s taking the lead in Europe. Everybody’s waiting to see who’s leading the dance.”
In the meantime, the Canadians in Lahr and Baden are effectively on hold. Many are delaying buying cars or furniture—concerned that their postings in Germany may be curtailed. Others about to leave have found it difficult to sell their cars because there are fewer people arriving to replace them. Greg Penney, principal of the Canadian high school in Lahr, said that it already feels as though the base is due to close even though no official decision has been made. “Things are starting to shut down bit by bit, without anybody actually announcing anything,” he said. “There’s an atmosphere of imminent doom.” With the defence review expected early this summer, the Canadians in Lahr will soon know whether those fears will become reality.
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