German civilians gather around a British tank, Hamburg station, May 1945

In February 2020, the last British military base in Germany was handed back to German armed forces, following a decision taken in 2010 as the result of a Strategic Defence and Security Review. Thus ended the British Army’s 75-year term of service there, which had started at the end of the Second World War. Over that time the British Army’s relationship with Germany had been through a dramatic series of shifts – transitioning from Foe to Friend, as the title of a new exhibition at the National Army Museum puts it. This photograph, showing soldiers lounging on their tank and citizens going about their daily business, was taken outside Hamburg railway station in May 1945. The relaxed scene belies the stark reality of the events going on around them, although the shattered station building does give a hint of what faced the Army in the war’s final weeks. A few days earlier, Montgomery’s 21st Army Group had occupied Hamburg after crossing the River Elbe – but fierce and dreadful fighting for every last inch of land had been the order of the day since the Allied landings of the previous June, and the liberation of Belsen in April 1945 gave soldiers a horrifying insight into what had been happening under the Nazi regime.

At the beginning of their post-war stay, the British forces – renamed the British Army of the Rhine (BOAR) in August 1945 – along with their allies faced the enormous challenge of administrating and rebuilding a shattered and broken Germany. A workforce was needed almost immediately after VE Day to bring in the harvest, in order to feed the population; then later for all the other tasks involved in rebuilding the infrastructure of the country and returning it to some sort of normal life. After demilitarisation, ex-soldiers had to be ‘de-Nazified’, and war criminals had to be tried, while refugees and displaced persons needed to be repatriated. Resuming the functions of daily life meant there had to be cooperation between the conquered population and the Army.

However, Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery had introduced a strict non-fraternisation policy in March 1945 to impose a sense of defeat on the population: it meant that no non-business interaction between the vanquished and the conquerors was to take place – only slightly relaxed in June 1945, when Army personnel were allowed to speak to small children. And gradually, as work continued to rebuild the country, it became more and more inevitable that social relationships would form – and they did: the first official marriage between a British soldier and a German woman was recorded in 1947.

Over the following years, the relationship between the BOAR and the German populace moved to a different phase. As Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union increased, the size of the force grew as Germans and British faced up to a common threat from the East. In time, families came to live with serving British soldiers and Germany became home to a sizeable expat community. By the time of the first big withdrawal of troops in 2010, many who had lived and worked in the country for years, and had made friends and brought up children there, felt bemused to leave. It really was the end of an era.

The exhibition Foe to Friend: the British Army in Germany since 1945 is at the National Army Museum, London, until August 2024. •
Text: Maria Earle.