The big move

Official opening of the new NATO Headquarters in Brussels on 16 October 1967 (© NATO )
François Le Blévennec takes us back 40 years with his eyewitness account of the move of NATO Headquarters from Paris to Brussels.

On 10 March 1966, in a memo addressed to the 14 other NATO nations, the French government announced its intention to withdraw French personnel from the NATO integrated military headquarters, to terminate the assignment of French forces to international commands and to request the removal from French territory of NATO's headquarters, Allied units, and other facilities and bases which were not under French authority. But France did not question the Washington Treaty, and wished for the Atlantic Alliance to continue.

The French announcement hit international relations like a thunderclap. Since returning to power as the leader of the country in 1958, General de Gaulle had wanted to reform the Organisation - in particular, NATO's nuclear policy, integrated command structure and the leadership role of the United States - but not the Alliance itself. The treaty signed in Washington in 1949 had brought together a group of nations to face the threat from the Soviet Union. The Organisation, as it was established between 1950 and 1954 by a decision of the North Atlantic Council (NAC), was to be led by an American general in peacetime. It was tasked with setting up an integrated command structure, drawing up operational plans for the forces deployed in Europe and coordinating the training and integration of those forces.

As early as March 1959, General de Gaulle had refused to integrate France's air defences into the NATO system, had withdrawn the French Mediterranean fleet from NATO control and prohibited the United States from stationing its nuclear weapons and associated launchers in France. In 1960, he tried to review the Treaty as allowed by Article 12, but was not supported by the other member nations.

Thus the decision of March 1966 was not really a surprise, even if it broadly exposed fundamental differences regarding the view of the future of the Organisation between one of the main Allies and the other partners.

It was in the midst of this crisis that, on 15 March 1966, I presented myself at the Porte Dauphine headquarters on the edge of the Bois de Boulogne with a letter of acceptance in my pocket. My intention was to take up a post I'd been offered in the Central Registry. This white building - in the form of a giant A (for Atlantic Alliance) - was known to me, since I had spent 14 of my 16 months of military service with the Standing Group there. The dilemma was what to do with this young Frenchman, with his enthusiasm and good intentions? A solution was quickly found: a temporary three-month contract, with the promise of an indefinite contract if all went well.

So, checklist in hand, I made a small tour around the various services - in the company of Ursel Lorenzen, a quiet, unsmiling young German woman who became famous 20 years later when she appeared on East German television in a different guise: that of defecting spy.

During the second quarter of 1966, the atmosphere in the corridors at "Dauphine" was tense
During the second quarter of 1966, the atmosphere in the corridors at "Dauphine" was tense. As the victims of a situation for which they were not responsible, the French members of the International Staff kept their heads down. Their colleagues from other countries, meanwhile, made laudable efforts to hide any resentment they felt.

At the beginning of June, the NAC decided to transfer the military headquarters out of France, preferably to a location somewhere in the Benelux. In September, the 14 Allies on the Defence Planning Committee agreed that the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) should leave Voluceau-Rocquencourt near Versailles, France and be reconstituted at Chièvres-Casteau near Mons, Belgium as from 1 April 1967.

The deadline allowed for building the headquarters was very short, and hardly anyone believed that it could be met. However the building companies, most of them Belgian, achieved the amazing feat of completing the construction on time, and the inauguration of SHAPE took place on 31 March 1967.

The problem of the Alliance Headquarters remained. For several months of uncertainty rumours were rife. Rome was briefly put forward, but there was not enough accommodation in the Italian capital with its chronic housing shortage. The Netherlands was also mentioned, but here again, the limited housing available could not meet the requirements of the Headquarters staff. For a short while London, where the first headquarters of the Organisation had been, was offered up as the new heart of the Alliance, but was rapidly withdrawn when the Allies showed little enthusiasm.

After lengthy arguments between the countries which wished for the Alliance Headquarters to remain in Paris and those which wished for it to be moved elsewhere, on 26 October 1966, the decision was taken to set up house in Brussels.

The next question was that of a suitable site, with modern transport links and adequate telecommunications facilities - and all had to be up to NATO security standards. NATO paid what was then a substantial option fee for the Namur tower, but a feasibility study concluded that this building in the heart of town did not have sufficient space available, and that the security of the site and its surroundings was found to be lacking.

Time was pressing and a solution had to be found quickly. The Belgian government then proposed the Heysel area, which had housed the Expo '58 (the Brussels World Fair). Everything needed was there: a large area outside the town centre; good tram and bus connections; the telecommunications facilities of the Expo; good housing in sufficient quantity; etc. It was too good to be true!

The clock was ticking, and it was out of the question to keep the Paris headquarters going long enough to build something of equivalent quality. The Belgian government stepped into the breach with a two-stage solution - a temporary arrangement to be prepared very rapidly, and a permanent headquarters to be built at the Heysel within five years.

For the temporary headquarters, the old Brussels airport in the district of Haren met all the criteria. At the time this disused airfield was being considered as possible site for a military hospital. It was well situated between Zaventem airport and the centre of town.

There was just one little problem when it came to digging the foundations: the nearly indestructible concrete airstrips had been built during the Second World War by the Luftwaffe for its bombers, which took off from Haren to attack targets in Great Britain. In his book, The Big Show - which sold hundreds of thousands of copies after the war - the French RAF fighter ace Pierre Closterman described how the Luftwaffe later bombed the airfield they had built, after the Allies had taken it from them. On the night of 31 December 1944 to 1 January 1945, at the height of the Battle of the Bulge, the German air force carried out its last significant bombing raid on the site of the current Alliance Headquarters, destroying several dozen Allied aircraft grounded there by poor weather conditions and New Year’s celebrations.

The temporary headquarters at Haren was built as quickly as SHAPE had been, on a similar design free from any architectural extravagance, and the official inauguration was set for 16 October 1967.

The move from Paris to Brussels, which made the fortunes of many moving companies, went without any major hitches - apart from the collapse of the crane which had been brought in specially from Germany to lift the Turkish fresco now situated at the entrance to the Headquarters.

Of course the staff had been evacuated for this tricky operation. From an excellent vantage point on the Place Dauphine, they witnessed the jib failing, the operator fleeing headlong - luckily escaping with his life - and the crane crashing to the ground on the square. An unsolved enigma: the only picture of the falling crane was taken from the roof of the building by a photographer from the Communist newspaper L'Humanité. Nobody knows how he got there without authorisation - and without being noticed.

One of the Secretary General's major problems at the time was the widespread lack of enthusiasm among the International Staff for moving to and setting up house in Brussels. Less than half of staff members responded positively to his proposal.

Some of them - particularly the French, but also other nationalities - were well integrated into French society and had invested in real estate. Their children were being educated in the French school system, and in their view, the move held nothing but disadvantages for them.

Others had serious problems with the salaries. The Belgian scales were lower than the French ones.

Much of the equipment which came from Paris by day tended to disappear at night because not many of the doors had locks
For still others - particularly the large body of British secretaries and typists who responded on the whole unfavourably - the best thing about working for NATO was being able to live in Paris. They did not want to go to Brussels, particularly to draw a lower salary, and especially when they would have no difficulty in finding well-paid work in Paris in a time of strong economic growth and full employment. It was to remedy this problem that the secretarial allowance was introduced.

As far as I was concerned, the exotic aura of Brussels attracted me. For a right-thinking Parisian in the 1960s, Brussels was somewhere on the way to the North Pole - in other words, for me, an adventure. The Belgian capital was not yet the cosmopolitan, multicultural city it has now become. Compared with Paris, it was 'provincially charming'. But on 15 August 1967, when I went to Brussels for the first time with some colleagues to find an apartment, we were the victims of a successful meteorological disinformation operation - we were met by a heat-wave and a tropical sky.

Like many others, in anticipation of the move from Haren I rented a flat in a district close to Heysel without hesitation. That was a big mistake! The move never happened, and the Haren headquarters was to remain what it is today, the Headquarters of the Alliance, whose temporary nature has been aggravated by the addition of a jumble of prefabricated wings which are even more disgraceful than the original buildings.

In October 1966, after passing a concours, I moved to the Press Service. I took up my post at Haren on 9 October 1967, one week before the official inauguration. At that time, the roads inside the Headquarters had not yet been paved. The heat-wave only lasted for a few days in August, and then the typical, incessant Brussels drizzle transformed the entire area into a mud-bath. Inside the buildings, the plaster walls were as yet unpainted. The quality of the construction was clear for all to see, and the head painter, a bearded Bruxellois with the accent and hearty humour to match, insisted that he, his men and their paint were there to prevent the walls from falling in at the first light breeze.

Much of the equipment which came from Paris by day tended to disappear at night because not many of the doors had locks. For the first arrivals the SOP was very simple: DIY! So to speed up the installation process, like an IKEA customer, I armed myself with a screwdriver and an adjustable spanner, and in a few days I had put up the metal shelving needed by my service.

The inauguration ceremony on 16 October 1967, before the brand-new but already rusty statue in the fore-court, was all that one could desire: VIPs clearly visible on wooden stands, and a number of solemn speeches, all watered by a continuous thin rain - just to give a bit of local flavour.

By the end of the morning everything had been completed. The Alliance and its Council were installed in Haren for better or for worse. Indeed, the worse was not long in coming, with the Prague Spring and the invasion of Czechoslovakia just around the corner on 20-21 August 1968.

But that's another story.