Collateral damage: British troops are set to finally leave Germany, but what will be the effect of their departure?

After 70 years in Germany, our troops are coming home. But what happens to the places, and people, they leave behind? Kim Sengupta reports from Bergen

Kim Sengupta
Tuesday 26 March 2013 01:00 GMT
British troops on the main street of Bergen. One third of the town’s economy depends on the UK military
British troops on the main street of Bergen. One third of the town’s economy depends on the UK military (AFP)

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The return home of what was the British Army of the Rhine after 70 years is, says the Government, the inevitable consequence of the end of the Cold War and hard economic reality. For those whose lives would be changed by it forever, there are fond memories – but also regrets and recriminations at the parting of the ways.

Under current plans, 11,000 British troops based in Germany will return home by 2016, with the remaining 4,500 back by 2019. It is the responsibility of Major General John Henderson to ensure that the move for the largest British forces overseas – a third bigger than the Afghan deployment at its height – goes smoothly. This applies not just to the 15,500 troops and their families (around another 18,000) but also for the 3,500 local employees and in relations with the German government.

In the UK, up to £1bn will go towards 1,900 new houses and another £800m pounds will be spent on infrastructure and bases. Announcing the huge capital outlay, the Defence Secretary Philip Hammond stressed that the move will, in time, lead to savings of £240m pounds a year as four bases will be shut and three others partly closed under the plans. Critics, among them Jim Murphy, the Labour defence spokesman, have asserted that the Government had reneged on a promise to put more of the troops in Scotland.

Major General Henderson, commander of the British forces in Germany, says the one worry he has is "the infrastructure building won't go according to plan or timetable in the UK. There is no reason to think that will be the case, but you can't be totally certain of everything, and that will be my concern. But then again, I don't think the Germans will mind if we hang on here for a few extra months. We are all aware of the economic implications."

This is the other half of the equation. For some in Germany the pullout was not expected for another 15 years. British forces contribute around £1.3bn a year to the local economy and for some of the communities here the implications are stark. In Bergen, for example, a third of the local economy depends on the UK forces.

Rainer Prokop, the Mayor of Bergen, describes the move as "the most severe upheaval for us since the Second World War". He continued: "We don't know what the effect will be on business; a lot of them will be affected, it could be up to 40 per cent of them.

"The British live among us; they are a part of everything here. They started out as an occupying force, but over time they became military partners, neighbours, friends and many started families here."

One of those was the father of David McAllister, until recently the premier of Lower Saxony, a soldier from Scotland who met his German wife while serving in West Berlin. He had held extensive talks with British ministers, the military and officials as well as their German counterparts to formulate measures to soften the blow.

"It has been a disappointment because not so long ago we expected the British forces to stay here until 2035, but we also have to accept the decisions of the British Government," he said. "It will obviously hit places like Bergen and Fallingbostel very hard and these places will need assistance."

There is a degree of puzzlement at the timescale of the withdrawal; Mr McAllister and Mayor Prokof have noted that new houses had been built for troops in Bergen with 15 year rental agreements; there are the thousands of local employees, many of whom have spent their careers with the British; and also the matter of pollution caused by fuel spillage in RAF Bruggen.

Maj Gen Henderson, who has been stationed in Germany several times in his 30-year career since the age of 19, says he understands the problems being faced by the Germans and the UK will do all it can to help. "Under German employment laws I am personally responsible for the employment of around 300 to 500 people. Some of them have been with us for over 40 years and the average age is around 51. Obviously we need to look after them," he said.

"But it helps that German industrial policies are not confrontational. Also there are very good assistance schemes for supporting the income of those who have become unemployed. We have negotiated that this is paid by the German government rather than us.

"We are hoping that the Bundeswehr [Germany army] takes over some of the accommodation. These are purpose-built single cabins, not the rather old-fashioned multi-occupancy ones the Germans are used to."

Maj Gen Henderson insisted, however, that there will be some hard bargaining and some of the cost could be covered by the complicated issue of unclaimed reparations from Germany. "I am fully aware of the duty I have to the British taxpayer," he said. "We are negotiating on the RAF Bruggen like all the other issues. I have got a very clever lawyer working for me and I am not going to letting go of him."

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