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The West Tests Its Defences (Op. Broadside – 1950 Footage)

Photo: A still showing British Centurions during Exercise Broadside.


In this newsreel from British Pathé, the tanks of 7th Armoured Division are locked in battle with the forces of ‘Northland’, during an exercise held in 1950. Of interest is the motley array of armoured vehicles used by the division.

While the Centurion was the tank of choice, older Cromwells are also seen in the footage. The Cromwell was used in the Korean War and would be in service for another few years, but, by 1950, would have struggled against newer Soviet tanks. A recovery vehicle based on the Churchill and a command vehicle based on the Sexton can also be seen.

The exercise, Broadside, was the first of two so-named operations that took place in West Germany in 1950. Held by the British Army of the Rhine, the exercise was one of a series of large-scale manoeuvres involving NATO troops that took place between 1949 and 1952.

The first such exercises in the series, codenamed Agility, were orientated on the offensive, while Broadside I and II were defensive. A year later, the eponymous Exercise Counter Thrust saw British armour practice manoeuvres intended to check the advance of a superior force.

While later exercises involved multiple divisions and up to 140,000 men, Broadside focused on the rapid relocation and deployment of a smaller force, so they could concentrate and engage an enemy that had won superiority of the air.

As with training programmes in other theatres, such as in Malaya, the exercises highlighted how much had changed since 1945 and revealed shortcomings in equipment, reconnaissance, as well as in communications at higher levels of command. Other concerns included communications security and shortages in artillery, engineers, and the time taken to mobilise and move reserve forces.

British troops, with a 6-pounder anti-tank gun, during Operation Counter Thrust, a major 1951 exercise. (Nationaal Archief/Dutch National Archive)

One historian, David French, notes that the lack of infantry anti-tank equipment forced armour to be deployed in penny packets to support them, rather than in a concentrated mass of tanks for a counter-attack. As history records, the penny-packet deployment of armour – even if the vehicles were superior to those of the enemy – did little for the French Army in 1940.

French also notes the exercises revealed that shortages in junior officers and NCOs, and the inclusion of so many National Servicemen led to the ‘clumsy’ application of battlefield tactics.

However, while the exercises highlighted problems, they were also part of the solution. They were well-suited for redeveloping the combined-arms approaches honed during the Second World War, and they proved the need for the BOAR to be largely self-supporting and quicker to mobilise – as in the nuclear age, there was a fair chance its reinforcements may never have left the UK.

As a result, in addition to being a vital training method, the exercises helped the BAOR to develop a more mobile and fluid approach to fighting should the Cold War have escalated to open conflict. They also no doubt highlighted the importance of tactical airpower, signalling how vital the Second Tactical Air Force (later RAF Germany) was to become.

Dutch troops, equipped with American M1 rifles and carbines and a British M10 tank destroyer, during Exercise Grand Repulse in 1952. (Nationaal Archief/Dutch National Archive)

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