Updated: 17-Sep-2001 NATO the first five years 1949-1954

Part 3
Chapter 9

by Lord Ismay

Secretary General



The increase in strength

It would be easier to describe the progress that has been made in increasing the armed strength of NATO during the last five years if this had resembled a line of guardsmen on parade advancing steadily in review order. But it has not, of course, been anything like that. Progress was slow at first, suddenly feverish, galvanised by the shock of the aggression in Korea, then steady and sustained. The point has now been reached at which much has been achieved, but a great deal still remains to be done.

Owing to the multiplicity of human endeavour and the large geographical area involved, progress was faster in some areas and some directions than in others. For instance, fighting units were raised more quickly than the logistic support necessary for them to take part in sustained operations. In our attempt to describe these changes in tempo, and to summarise the achievements of such a considerable undertaking, let us not forget that all figures of divisions or ships or aircraft are only approximations. A division, for example, may consist of anything from 10,000 to 25,000 men, of whom probably half would actually come to grips with the enemy. The rest exist to ensure that the rifleman or the tank crew can be brought to the front line and supplied with ammunition, food, clothing and the necessities of life. If the communications in one division are bad, if the junior leadership in another is poor, or if the Commander of a third proves incompetent, then the value of each formation is lowered: but by how much it is impossible to say. So 'division counters' - those who would judge the fighting quality of armies by the criterion of numbers only - are on dangerous ground.

The strategic concept

In order to determine the size and pattern of the forces required for any particular purpose, the first essential is to have a strategic concept based on an estimate of the intentions and capabilities of the potential enemy. The next step is to determine the broad strategic plan. Thereafter the size and pattern of the forces that are required follow more or less automatically: but the speed with which they are raised depends on a number of factors, foremost of which are the estimate of the imminence and magnitude of the threat, and the economic conditions of the contributing countries.

The strategic concept approved by the North Atlantic Council in January, 1950, laid down that the primary mission of the military forces of NATO was to deter aggression. Only if this mission was unsuccessful were these forces to be used against armed attack. This concept has never changed. It is as valid today as it was four years ago. We saw in Chapter IV that the broad strategic plan resulting from this concept was to hold the potential enemy as far to the east in Europe as possible. Today, this 'forward strategy' is even more necessary in -view of the tremendous range of modern weapons, guided missiles, rockets and long-range artillery - perhaps using atomic heads. German participation in the defence of the West is therefore a stem necessity, and German participation postulates a defence covering as much as possible of Western Germany.

Early in 1950, the Standing Group issued strategic guidance to the Regional Planning Groups and instructed them to make plans on the hypothesis that war would break out in 1954. Needless to say, the reason for the selection of this date was purely| academic: it was sufficiently far ahead for long-range planning, but not too remote to make plans unrealistic. These plans, when completed, were co-ordinated by the Standing Group which then estimated roughly the total aggregate forces required to defend the NATO area. The Regional Planning Groups also produced emergency plans to be used in the event of a sudden outbreak of hostilities.

After the establishment in April, 1951, of Allied Command Europe, the military planning of NATO changed not only in tempo but in character. The Regional Planning Groups had produced plans - the outcome of committee work - at a time when there were no NATO assigned forces. The plans produced by Supreme Headquarters were backed by the personality of a Commander who would himself wield operational control in time of war, who had the prestige necessary to obtain results, and who had forces definitely assigned to him.

The stages of the build-up

A summary comparison of the forces available in December, 1949, (when planning began), in April, 1951, (when SHAPE was activated) and in December, 1951, (eight months later) provide a good illustration of the variations in tempo. In December, 1949, the forces available to NATO were estimated at about 12 divisions, 400 aircraft and a proportionate number of naval vessels. Fifteen months later, in April, 1951, there were only 'fifteen NATO Divisions' and 'fewer than 1,000 operational aircraft'. (1) The increase in forces and aircraft had, in fact, been inconsiderable, although the position from a naval point of view was somewhat better. But eight months later, in December, 1951, the prospect was brighter. By that date the NATO forces were approximately 35 divisions, in varying states of readiness, slightly less than 3,000 aircraft and 700 naval vessels.

A comparison of numbers alone, however, does not give the full picture of the change in combat effectiveness. By December, 1951, the NATO forces were no longer a mere collection of national units; their training had been substantially improved by a series of manoeuvres held in the autumn and they were beginning to gain cohesion. In addition, a great effort was being made to provide them with better logistic support: this included the construction of airfields, the improvement and extension of communications and the provision of support troops. Finally, not only was SHAPE itself a going concern, but its subordinate Headquarters in the North and South were already functioning satisfactorily, as of course were the Headquarters in the Centre, which had been established in late 1948 under the Western Union Defence Organization.

A new phase in the build-up came after the meeting of the Council at Lisbon in February, 1952. As a result of the consideration of the report of the Temporary Council Committee (2) , the goals to be achieved by December, 1952, were set at 50 divisions (of which 25 were to be active), about 4,000 aircraft, and a large number of naval vessels.

The basic idea was that the active forces should form a shield capable of withstanding the initial shock of any aggression, and that the reserve forces should be mobilised and moved up to support the shield as rapidly as possible.
The position in April, 1952

Two months after the Lisbon Conference, General Eisenhower was able to report (3) ' that substantial progress had been made in the year since SHAPE was activated. 'Already', he wrote, 'our active forces have increased to a point where they could give a vigorous account of themselves, should an attack be launched against us. In terms of army divisions whether in service or quickly mobilisable, our forces in Western Europe have nearly doubled in numbers. The national units pledged to this command a year ago were for the most part poorly equipped, inadequately trained and lacking essential support in both supplies and installations. Because of their weakness on all fronts and the absence of central direction, they could have offered little more than token resistance to attack. Today, the combat readiness of our troops has improved markedly. Readjustments in their deployment have enhanced their potential effectiveness against the threat from the East. Behind them is a steadily expanding supply system, and a command organization to plan and direct their co-ordinated efforts . . . the tide has begun to flow our way and the situation of the free world is brighter than it was a year ago'. This encouraging account of progress was, however, qualified by General Eisen-hower on the first page of the same Report: 'There is no real security yet achieved in Europe; there is only a beginning'.

During 1952, the build-up gathered momentum and as a result the goals which had been set by the Council at Lisbon were for the most part substantially achieved numerically by the end of the year. Nevertheless, the state of readiness of the forces was not in all cases as high as had been planned, and there were still serious deficiencies in support units, equipment and supplies.

As the forces grew, so the military structure of NATO expanded. As shown in Chapter VII, the Atlantic Command and the Channel Command both came into being during the spring of 1952, and later that year Headquarters were set up at Izmir to control NATO forces in Greece and Turkey. In addition the details of the Mediterranean Command were agreed in November, 1952: the Headquarters at Malta did not, however, become operational until the following year.

The great design was beginning to take shape; but there were no grounds for immoderate optimism, still less for any relaxation of effort. For, while the Atlantic Alliance was gaining in strength, so also were the Soviets and their European satellites. The equipment of the Soviet Army was being constantly improved; the Soviet air forces were being largely re-equipped with jet aircraft; airfield construction was proceeding apace throughout Eastern Europe; the Soviet naval programme included the construction of a growing number of ocean-going submarines as well as a large number of surface vessels, and the forces of Russia's satellites were rapidly increasing in numbers and improving in quality. (4) Despite, therefore, the remarkable progress in the military strength of NATO, it was clear that further sustained efforts were required.

This was made abundantly clear by General Ridgway in his Annual Report to the Standing Group of May, 1953:

'. .. Within the strictly military field", he wrote, 'I find the disparity between our available forces and those which the Soviet rulers could bring against us so great as to warrant no other conclusion than that a full-scale Soviet attack within the near future would find Allied Command Europe critically weak to accomplish its present mission'. The disparity of which General Ridgway spoke was not merely a question of numbers. To be equal to their task it was necessary for the forces of NATO to be, not only sufficiently numerous, but also of high quality, properly supported logistically, well-equipped and backed by adequate and efficient reserves. With these considerations in mind the Council decided in December, 1952, that, while there was a continuing need for progressively increasing the number of NATO forces, the emphasis during 1953 should be on improving combat efficiency.

International Exercises

There are several ways in which the combat efficiency of forces can be improved. Perhaps the most obvious is by training. During 1953, there were approximately 100 exercises of various kinds conducted by NATO Commanders. All of these revealed the spirit of co-operation which has now become characteristic of NATO. Among them were the 'indoor exercises' conducted at SHAPE by Field Marshal Montgomery, on behalf of the Supreme Commander, to study the major problems confronting the Higher Command. There were, in addition. Command Post exercises destined to test the efficiency of subordinate Headquarters. But the vast majority of exercises involved operations by the fighting forces themselves.
As an example of the character and scope of these exercises, let us take the story of Exercise 'Mariner'. This took place at the end of the summer of 1953 and was the largest international naval exercise ever held. It was sponsored jointly by SACLANT, SACEUR and the Channel Commanders. Nine countries, almost fifty different types of ships, and twenty types of aircraft took part. The exercise lasted nineteen days, and included convoy protection, naval control of shipping and striking fleet operations in northern waters. In order to make the training as realistic as possible, the enemy role was taken by surface raiders, submarines and land-based air elements drawn from NATO forces.
In summing up the value of these combined exercises Admiral McCormick (5) stated that the errors which had taken place were fully understandable in view of the tremendous task of co-ordinating international forces of such size and complexity, and that the lessons learned would be invaluable to future planning.
Lest the number and variety of ships and aircraft having undergone NATO training present too optimistic a picture of the forces available to SACLANT for the accomplishment of his mission, it must be placed on record that there is at present a grave shortage of escort vessels and maritime aircraft.

In Allied Command Europe most of the manoeuvres were designed to integrate the forces of countries, unaccustomed to working together, into a co-ordinated fighting machine, and to practise headquarters and staffs in their wartime role. During division and corps manoeuvres the co-operation of air forces with ground forces was stressed, logistical support was emphasized, and inter-allied liaison co-operation practised when possible. The following are examples of exercises held in Allied Command Europe in 1953:

1. Exercise 'Italic Weld' was conducted in the general area of Northern Italy during August. It involved the land, air and naval forces of the United States and Italy, together with the air forces of Greece and Turkey.
2. Exercise 'Weld Fast' was conducted in the general area of Greece, Turkey and the Aegean Sea during October, and involved naval and air forces of the NATO Southern Command and the Greek and Turkish air and land forces. It was designed to test the training and co-operation of assigned and earmarked forces in Southern Europe.
3. Exercise 'Grand Repulse' was held in Germany near Osnabruck during September by the British Army of the Rhine and the Netherlands Corps together with considerable air participation from the Allied air forces of Central Europe.
4. Although atomic conditions had been simulated in earlier exercises, Exercise 'Monte Carlo', conducted by the Central Army Group during September, was the first instance of a NATO air-ground exercise in which atomic weapons were simulated for manoeuvre purposes. The forces included United States, Belgian and French troops, and the area of manoeuvre was in Germany along the east bank of the Middle Rhine.

The combat efficiency of the armed forces of a coalition largely depends on the extent to which the various national components are trained on uniform lines and use the same systems of staff work and the same operational procedures and techniques. As explained in Chapter VII, the Military Agency for Standardisation is responsible, inter alia, for studying and fostering the standardisation of operational and administrative practices throughout the armed forces of all member countries: and international exercises have provided opportunities for these 'back-room' studies to be tested out in practice. As a result, remarkable progress has been made in all directions, particularly in respect of naval and air forces.

It must of course be remembered that the North Atlantic coalition started off with the advantage that many of the member countries had had experience of working together as Allies in World War II; and that there were a number of officers and men still serving in the armed forces of those countries who were available to apply that experience to the new conditions and to place it at the disposal of the Allies as a whole.

The training of reserves

While Supreme Commanders are responsible for international manoeuvres, the training of reserves is a national responsibility. Reserve training liability varies considerably amongst the NATO countries. The importance of this training can hardly be exaggerated, since the successful defence of Western Europe would largely depend upon the combat efficiency of the reserve formations and the speed with which they can be mobilised and brought into action.

The limiting factor is money. Indeed two member states carried out no reserve training in 1953 simply because they could not afford it. On the other hand, the larger proportion of European members of the Alliance did carry out practice mobilisation and training of reserves in varying degrees in 1953 and 1954.

Belgium mobilised a complete division, which trained for 30 days and carried out divisional manoeuvres. It also called up certain other non-divisional troops for training. France called up sufficient reservists to bring three semi-active divisions to full strength. These, as well as many corps and army troops, were then engaged in training. Luxembourg called up and trained a brigade headquarters and two battalions. The Netherlands mobilised one division which trained as a complete formation: another division was called up for brigade training. Portugal called up reservists for a divisional exercise. Greece, in this particular period, was only able to call up one battalion. In the United Kingdom, all Territorial Army formations, and some Army Emergency Reserve units carried out annual training, including fourteen days in camp. Early in 1954, Norway carried out winter manoeuvres which involved calling up three reservist brigades, two divisional headquarters with divisional supporting units and certain local defence units. Manoeuvres were then held involving two divisions.

Air Training Problems: To help nations, themselves lacking in the facilities for training aircrews, the United States and Canada have sponsored an important training scheme for pilots, navigators and radar observers from other NATO countries. Up to the end of 1953, approximately 2,200 pilots and 2,400 other specialised aircrew from other NATO countries had been trained in Canada and the United States. The United States has also provided trainer aircraft to enable European countries to expand their own training programmes. Mention has been made in Chapter VII of the Air Training Advisory Group which was established to advise and assist nations on air training problems. All these efforts have been successful not only in meeting the initial heavy demand for aircrews, but also in providing crews for the frontline aircraft which are planned to be available in 1955.

To improve NATO training as a whole, a number of specialist schools have accepted students from other NATO nations which do not have the same facilities. Amongst these are the French Combined Training Establishment at Arzew (Algeria), the School of Land-Air Warfare at Old Sarum (UK), the joint Anti-submarine School at Londonderry (UK), the technical and maintenance schools of the United States Army in Germany and the United States Weapons Schools at Garmisch, (Western Germany), which trains Allied Commanders and staff officers in the military implications of atomic weapons. In addition, SHAPE Military Missions are operating in the Netherlands, Portugal and Luxembourg, which all asked for help in their training problems.

During 1953, considerable progress was made towards improving the logistics situation. For example, reserve stocks of most of the member countries -which had been dangerously low, particularly in ammunition - were increased, although substantial shortages still exist today. The combat efficiency of NATO armed forces has also been considerably enhanced by the progress of the common infrastructure programme, described in the next chapter.

Forces with specialised missions

There are certain military forces not assigned or earmarked to any of the Supreme Commands, but which are nevertheless of great value to NATO. Although, these forces are retained directly under national command their potential contributions to the defence of the West are massive and might be decisive. For example, the United States Strategic Air Command, based largely in North Africa, the British Isles and the United States, is of particular importance as a deterrent force. Similarly, the United Kingdom Bomber Command is equipped and trained for strategic air operations. The United Kingdom also has a large interceptor force for the defence of the British Isles. Finally, each NATO country is responsible for the defence of its own coastal waters, and therefore retains some naval forces primarily equipped for inshore minesweeping, harbour defence and similar tasks.

Progress in 1953

The progress made during the year 1953 may be summarised as follows. In land forces there was little numerical increase, but their efficiency had considerably improved as a result of combined training; while support units increased during the year by 40 per cent.

The number of aircraft increased by about 30 per cent, with again a major improvement in quality, particularly in the provision of modern jet types. At the same time there was a steady improvement in the numbers and quality of air and ground crews.

The naval forces actually in commission, and those immediately available in case of war, did not increase greatly in number during 1953, but they were better trained to work together.

If we now attempt to sum up NATO's accomplishments in the military field, we find that three years after Allied Command Europe began to function, the land forces directly available to NATO have increased to some 100 divisions -both active and reserve - in varying states of combat readiness. It must be realised, of course, that this improvement is due partly to increases in the forces of the original member states, and partly to the addition of the Greek and Turkish forces which joined the Alliance in 1952: this latter contribution must be balanced against the additional responsibility accepted by NATO in South Eastern Europe. The progress is, nevertheless, impressive. In the air, NATO has almost doubled its strength, and there are some 125 air bases available to the NATO squadrons. (6) As regards naval forces, large building and modernisation programmes have been undertaken, with the result that the number of additional ships available for commissioning after mobilisation has increased by some 30 per cent since 1951 and they are of higher technical quality.

On the 15th December, 1953, the North Atlantic Council met to carry out their annual examination of the progress of NATO forces, and to take decisions which would govern the future conduct of policy. They concluded that their assessment of Soviet policy and capabilities required that the military plans of the Alliance should be based on the expectations of a continuing threat to the security of the North Atlantic Community over a long period. Accordingly, they agreed that it would be necessary for member countries to support over a long period of years forces which, by their balance, quality and efficiency of armament, would be a major factor in contributing to the effective security of the NATO area. In other words the Council contemplated a 'long haul'.

In furtherance of this policy, the Council resolved that member governments, the International Staff, and the NATO military authorities should have as their future military objectives the development of a balanced collective force, both active and reserve, planned to meet a continuing threat, maintained in the highest practicable state of readiness, and supported by adequate reserves of material. The NATO military authorities were directed, inter alia:

1. 'to keep under continuous review, within the framework of the agreed strategic concept, the size and nature of the forces required to defend the NATO area, taking account of developments in military technology. Soviet capabilities, and the overall strategic situation, in order to provide general guidance to NATO defence planning'.
2. 'to press on with their reassessment of the most effective pattern of military strength in the next few years within the resources which it is anticipated may be made available'.

The future

The problem before NATO in 1954 has changed since the hectic days of early 1951, and even since the balanced appraisal at Lisbon in February, 1952. NATO's present task is not only to maintain the armed strength in being, or coming into being, but also steadily to improve its quality, in spite of the fact that economic difficulties still persist, and that there is perhaps a diminished sense of urgency.

The advent of new weapons has also set a difficult problem, which is now being studied by NATO's Supreme Commanders. When the results of these studies have been considered by the Standing Group and by the Military Committee, the Council will receive their recommendations, and make their decisions. Until this has been done, it would be both unwise and misleading to hazard any guess as to the future. At present it can only be surmised that the existing conventional forces will have to be maintained until and unless it is clearly shown that the advance of science has rendered them obsolete.

This chapter may well conclude with extracts from statements made by NATO Commanders in 1954.

In January, General Gruenther said: 'We have... an air-ground shield which, although still not strong enough, would force an enemy to concentrate prior to attack. In doing so, the concentrating force would be extremely vulnerable to losses from atomic weapon attacks . . . We can now use atomic weapons against an aggressor, delivered not only by long-range aircraft, but also by the use of shorter range planes, and by 280 mm. artillery . . . This air-ground team constitutes a very effective shield, and it would fight very well in case of attack. We think that it is of such strength that the Soviets do not now have in occupied Europe sufficient air and ground forces to be certain of overwhelming this shield. Of course, the Soviets can move in additional forces to overcome that deficiency. But if they do, we should be able to get some warning of an impending attack. As a result of that warning, we ought to be able to increase our defensive strength considerably. In particular, we should be able to alert our air forces'.

In June, 1954, General Gruenther told the English-Speaking Union in London that NATO had available 90 to 100 divisions in varying degrees of readiness, i.e. three to four times as much land power available as when General Eisenhower first took command. 'The air build-up has been even greater'. General Gruenther stated. Indeed, he went so far as to say that, in his judgement, the Soviet would in the end be severely defeated if it attacked the Western Powers in 1954. Nevertheless, he added the warning that this situation might not endure, and that he doubted whether time was on the side of the Alliance.

On the naval side, let us turn to Admiral McCormick's report to the Standing Group in April, 1954. He pointed out the considerable progress which has been made within the Atlantic Command in the last two years. He stressed the mutual benefit derived by all national components from the major NATO naval exercises, and emphasized that, while these exercises provide the means for solving many inherent problems, they also indicate the substantial inadequacy of the forces presently earmarked for SACLANT when related to the mission entrusted to him.

Admiral McCormick, in a BBC address, had previously said: 'The desperate days of World Wars I and II cannot be forgotten. Also I ask you not to forget the tremendous number of ships and aircraft which were finally required in both those wars to bring about the final days of victory. When I compare them to those I now see available to me, I cannot say that I am happy . . . We must continue to exert every pressure ... to continue the planned build-up of NATO strength'.

The increase and improvement, during the last five years, of the forces of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have enabled them to come nearer to achieving their main object - to deter aggression. How much our growing defensive strength has already contributed to maintaining peace in Europe no one can measure precisely. One thing at least is certain, and that is that peace has been preserved.

Related chart:


  1. SACEUK's First Annual Report to the Standing Group, April, 1952. 102
  2. See Chapter V.
  3. SACEUR's First Animal Report to the Standing Group, April, 1952.
  4. For detailed estimate of Soviet and satellite forces, see Annex B, page 97.
  5. Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic until April, 1954.
  6. See Chapter X, NATO Common Infrastructure.

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