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The United Kingdom and NATO

A founding member of the Alliance, the United Kingdom has always been an active contributor to NATO. What role did Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin have in the formation of this post-war alliance? And the Spartan General, Monty?  Find out why the number 13 was lucky for NATO and see what London looked like through the eyes of a NATO photographer in the 1960s.

Today is not only the day of the signature of this pact; it is also a day of solemn thought – and, may I say, of consecration for peace and resistance to aggression. Speaking for the British people, I can assure you that they have agreed to make their contribution to the pool of peace.

The Right Honourable Ernest Bevin, Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom
Speaking at the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty
Washington D.C., 4 April 1949

The British public was quasi unanimous in its support for NATO membership in 1949. Like many countries, it had been heavily afflicted by the two World Wars and faced multiple challenges in 1945. The prospect of being part of an alliance was seen as an opportunity to protect each other, collectively, from future adversaries. The United Kingdom continued to be a strong supporter of NATO throughout the Cold War and never doubted the value of belonging to a collective defence organisation. This support manifested itself in its policies, its willingness to participate in Alliance activities and its steadfast commitment, even during more testing times like the Suez Crisis.

Being an island and an Empire with colonies spread across the globe, the United Kingdom’s defences were heavily reliant on a traditional maritime strategy. The control of the seas was essential in protecting its territories and securing alliances with other powers. However, the two World Wars introduced a greater need for land forces. In the immediate post-war period, the United Kingdom had to maintain troops in West Germany and face the unrest in its colonies and protectorates. And there were still more challenges to come even when the country and its economy had been devastated by the Second World War and was still functioning on wartime ration books (they were suspended in 1954). In 1946, in Missouri, United States, Sir Winston Churchill (British Prime Minister from 1940 to 1945 and from 1951 to 1955) famously stated in his speech, “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.” This marked the beginning of what was going to be a long Cold War.

Ernest Bevin – a man with a plan

A close friend of American presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman, Churchill hoped to join the United States in building a post-war order that would limit Soviet leader Joseph Stalin's communist ambitions. In the United Kingdom, Ernest Bevin, Foreign Secretary under the newly elected Labour government led by Clement Atlee, shared the same hopes and convictions.

Ernest Bevin – a man with a plan

Ernest Bevin was a staunch anti-communist, who fervently believed that the survival of the West depended on a union between Western Europe and the United States. Following the launch of the Marshall Plan in 1947, he was eager to show the Americans that the Europeans were prepared to defend themselves and unite to reduce the risk of another war. In March 1948, Belgium, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom signed the Brussels Pact. It committed the signatories to come to one another’s defence in the event of an attack – a principle that would be at the heart of the future North Atlantic Treaty. The Pact was also a signal to the United States, a way of persuading them to be part of an alliance.

Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, who had had a major role in helping to achieve Allied victory in 1945, was also a true believer in perpetuating the vital transatlantic link that had been established with North America during the Second World War. So when the Brussels Pact was established, he became the Chairman of the Western Union’s Commanders-in-Chief Committee and was based at the military headquarters in Versailles, France. This defence wing of the Western Union was later absorbed by NATO, and Montgomery became NATO’s first Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe (DSACEUR).

Those magnificent men in their flying machines

After the Second World War, the United Kingdom controlled one of the four zones of Berlin. The city was an enclave within the Soviet-controlled part of Germany. When tensions grew between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union in 1948, Joseph Stalin, the Soviet leader, imposed the Berlin Blockade. He decided to block all land routes and waterways in and out of West Berlin in an effort to gain full control of the city. This attempt was foiled thanks to an airlift that was immediately put into place by the Allies. The Berlin airlift lasted almost a year, from 24 June 1948 to 12 May 1949. The Royal Air Force participated in this effort from day one. Indeed the last plane to bring British people home from Berlin immediately filled up with supplies and returned straight to West Berlin.

In spite of ill health, Bevin continued to push for a transatlantic union and ensured that the United Kingdom was involved in the crafting of the future treaty. Eventually, his dream became a reality and on 4 April 1949 he signed the Treaty on behalf of his country.

…it is given to few men to see their dreams fulfilled. Three times last year I know I have nearly died, but I kept myself alive because I wanted to see the North Atlantic Alliance properly launched. This has been done today.

Providing the first building blocks

Number 13, the “lucky” address

Number 13 The first NATO Headquarters was in London at 13, Belgrave Square. NATO remained in the British capital for two years before moving to Paris, closer to where the military headquarters were being constructed. The move was a challenge in its own right: it was the biggest furniture removal operation ever undertaken in the United Kingdom by air. Ninety tons of office equipment and furniture were flown across the Channel. Normal shipping methods were discarded as they would have interrupted day-to-day business for too long.

Field Marshal Montgomery with his dogs. Field Marshal Montgomery with his dogs.

In 1950, NATO appointed its first SACEUR, the American General Dwight Eisenhower, and its first DSACEUR, Field Marshall Montgomery, in 1951. Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, or “Monty” as he is perhaps better known, served NATO as DSACEUR from 2 April 1951 to 23 September 1958 under a total of four SACEURs: General Eisenhower, General Ridgway, General Gruenther and General Norstad.

The second British citizen to occupy a post of significance within the newly formed organisation was Lord Hastings Lionel Ismay. Lord Ismay became the first NATO Secretary General on 12 March 1952. Churchill, who was the British Prime Minister at the time, put forward Lord Ismay’s name for the position. Although he was initially reluctant to accept, he relented, and by the end of his tenure he had become one of the biggest advocates of the Organization.

Lord Ismay

Lord Ismay’s leadership skills were tested in earnest during his tenure. When he took up his responsibilities, some of the Allies had been fighting in Korea since 1950, when the pro-Soviet North crossed the 38th parallel into the pro-western South. General Eisenhower, SACEUR since April 1951, was already touring Allied countries asking for financial and military support to create an integrated military structure and build up NATO’s military capabilities in case the Soviet Union decided to extend its influence in Europe too. General Eisenhower needed Lord Ismay’s support in persuading war-crippled countries to make even more sacrifices for the defence effort. In 1956, Lord Ismay also had to fulfil the role of Secretary General while his country and France were in open disagreement with the United States over the Suez Canal. So the first five years of the Alliance were eventful and Lord Ismay had the foresight to make a record of them. His “NATO’s First Five Years – 1949-1954” was the earliest public record of NATO.

Chubb locks and cutlery for NATO Headquarters in Paris

When NATO moved to its third home in Porte Dauphine, Paris in 1959, each country contributed to the move. All the cooking equipment and kitchens were among items provided by the United Kingdom, as well as furniture for the conference rooms. The well-known British brand Chubb was also contracted to provide safe doors and other security equipment.

Informing the British public

Despite the post-war sacrifices that had been demanded from the British population, they still gave their support to Clement Atlee partly because of the lessons of appeasement, partly because they expected the United Kingdom to maintain its role as a Great Power on the world scene. So sacrificing some of the funds destined for the newly created National Health programme for a rearmament programme was not an issue. Neither were participating in the Berlin airlift, the Korean War or the formation of NATO. Nonetheless, NATO decided to inform its members’ publics on what the Organization was and how it functioned.

In the days before radio and television were commonplace, NATO resorted to other means and one of these was the exhibitions team. They visited member countries to show films, distribute publications and respond to queries. The NATO bus, initially known as the “caravan of peace”, toured NATO member countries, including the United Kingdom.

Films on each one of the Allies were also produced to familiarise members with each other. The one on the United Kingdom explains the country’s maritime background, its economy and trade, inventions, heritage, traditions and people.

NATO photographers captured scenes of daily life in each country, which were also shared with other member countries in an effort to help them get to know each other. London was one of the cities that NATO photographers visited and, as well as the more recognisable icons of the capital, they followed a local family as they went about their routine. These photos show a snapshot of life in London in the early 1960s.

To help distinguish the different uniforms of its members, the British Ministry of Defence produced a poster with uniforms and marking of rank for each member country, including the United Kingdom. The visit to NATO of distinguished guests such as Royalty and movie stars also attracted the public’s attention to the work of the Alliance.

Contributions, commands, Carrington… and cod

The British Army of the Rhine – or BAOR – became the British land force contribution to the Alliance in 1952. It was an occupation force during the First and Second World Wars and then its role gradually evolved. It contributed to the defence of West Germany, together with forces from other countries, in the event of a Soviet invasion. After the formation of the Alliance in 1949 and the creation of the Headquarters of Northern Army Group (NORTHAG) on 29 November 1952, the BAOR was placed under NATO command. However, the commander-in-chief of the BAOR was also the commander of NORTHAG. This was the first time that the British Army was committed to mainland Europe in peacetime. The BAOR was active until 1993.

The United Kingdom’s military contributions have taken other forms. It has held the post of Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe since its inception in 1951 to today, with an interlude between January 1978 and June 1993 when there were two DSACEURS: a British and a German commander. The United Kingdom also hosted the NATO Channel Command (1952-1994) and NATO has had a presence at Northwood Headquarters since 1953.

The Allied Command Channel (ACCHAN) was headed by a British Admiral and, as its name indicates, was responsible for the defence, monitoring and surveillance of the English Channel and surrounding seas, which were vital for Allied shipping approaching Europe. NATO also had a number of sub-area commands attached to ACCHAN, which all played an important role in providing a network of defence for the Alliance in the north-western part of Europe. The Commander-in-Chief Channel (CINCHAN) was not subordinate to NATO’s two strategic commands – Allied Command Europe and Allied Command Atlantic – but was considered as NATO’s third strategic command.

In 1966, ACCHAN moved from Fort Southwick near Portsmouth to Northwood. NATO’s presence at Northwood Headquarters effectively dated back to 1953. The existing Royal Air Force (RAF) base in Northwood was headed by the Commander-in-Chief Home Fleet, responsible for the Royal Air Force Coastal Command. He was given the additional responsibility of Commander-in-Chief Eastern Atlantic, and the Eastern Atlantic Command was collocated in Northwood. Eventually in 1969, the RAF vacated the site to the benefit of the Navy. After ACCHAN in 1966, another NATO maritime function relocated to Northwood: the Flag Officer Submarines in 1978. Later, after the end of the Cold War, Northwood became NATO’s sole maritime command: MARCOM.

Did you say Cod War?

At the height of the Cold War from the 1950s to the 1970s, two NATO member countries – Iceland and the United Kingdom – engaged in three “Cod Wars”. These skirmishes started over maritime border disputes affecting the fishing rights of British fishing crews. At times, the Icelandic Coast Guard and the Royal Navy even came to blows, but in the end, the United Nations ruled in favour of Iceland, eventually establishing that a country’s exclusive economic zone would extend 200 nautical miles offshore.

The United Kingdom also secured a NATO ammunitions depot in Argyll and Bute, Scotland, hosted a NATO radio communications system that had ground stations in eight other Allied countries, and participated in numerous NATO exercises, either hosting them in the United Kingdom or simply sending forces to participate in them.

Effectively, NATO was – and still is – a linchpin of British defence. Policies and equipment were often thought through and developed with the needs of NATO in mind. As the United Kingdom went through the gradual withdrawal from its Empire and East of Suez, it developed a nuclear capability. From the first nuclear test on Monte Bello Island in the Indian Ocean in 1952, there was cross-party consensus in developing a nuclear capability. There was, however, resistance among certain citizens who established the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, better known by its abbreviation “CND” in 1957. The nuclear capability was developed in close coordination with NATO so although it has a deterrent role of its own, the strategic nuclear forces of the United Kingdom contribute to the overall security of the Alliance.

The women of Greenham Common

The women of Greenham Common © ceridwen / Greenham Common women's protest 1982
In protest against the installation of American nuclear missiles at the American air base at Greenham Common, thousands of women set up a peace camp in December 1982. They travelled from all over the country and maintained the camp on the outer rim of the air base for 19 years.

Lord Carrington

In 1984, the former Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington was nominated as NATO’s sixth Secretary General. Just as Lord Ismay had been the first NATO Secretary General, Lord Carrington was the last to serve during the Cold War period, holding office from 1984 to 1988. He was also the last surviving member of the 1951 Churchill government. It was during his tenure that the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty was signed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbatchev, 8 December 1987.

View the INF signing ceremony here.

London 1990 – the “hand of friendship”

This overview of the United Kingdom and NATO during the Cold War period closes with the London Summit. On 5-6 July 1990, NATO leaders offered a “hand of friendship” to their former adversaries on the other side of the Iron Curtain. They decided to reach out to countries of Central and Eastern Europe and offer to cooperate with them across a wide spectrum of activities – political and military. This marked the beginning of a new era.