NATO Joint Headquarters
The Queens Avenue was the main road in. Starting at the Hardter Strasse, it cut a long, straight path through several fields before disappearing off into the Rheindahlener woods. A sign – in both English and German – stated that German law no longer applied, instead NATO law was supreme. ‘Directions and control measures given by the military police must be obeyed,’ it read. Another sign read that a vehicle search may be possible and that identity documents should be at the ready. After that came the checkpoint. Beyond the checkpoint lay JHQ, the NATO Joint headquarters.
Following its construction in 1954, JHQ irrevocably changed this previously semi-rural part of Mönchengladbach. Seven million tree roots were dug up, and in their place came a mini Britain. In total, as many as 2,000 buildings were built. There were 65 barrack blocks to house the unmarried British army soldiers and German civilian staff, and enough houses to provide homes for over 1,100 married couples. JHQ became a town of 12,000, housing around 7,000 military personnel and 5,000 civilian staff.
Along with the housing came all the necessary infrastructure that a small town requires. There were schools with enough places for up to 720 primary school children and 400 secondary school children. There was a police station, three churches (two protestant, one catholic), two cinemas, rugby and football playing fields, tennis courts, and an Olympic swimming pool. There were supermarkets, banks, travel agents, the lot. In total, over twenty kilometres of road had been built, and over 1,600 kilometres of pipes for water, gas, electricity and sewage had been laid.
Perhaps the finishing touch to this miniature Britain were the quintessential red telephone boxes and post boxes that dotted the JHQ site. This was West Germany, but here the German sounding street names of Eichhofweg and Anton-Heinen strasse had to give way to the likes of Marlborough Road, Sussex Drive, Hertford Way and Camberra Crescent. Without wonder, JHQ became known as Little England to the local Germans. But it was not just Brits that were based at the Joint Headquarters. Here, too, was a German corps and a Dutch and Belgian division.
At the centre of it all was the ‘Big House’, the main office block, just off Wellington Road. At over 300 meters long and over 180 meters wide, the three storey build contained over 2,000 offices. Colloquially it was known as ‘the Kremlin’. The courtyard and parade ground that fronted it, conveyed its central importance. The NATO flag was flown, as was the Union flag, and the tri-colours of Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium.
In 1973 a car bomb exploded at JHQ. It was just a year after Bloody Sunday, and the IRA were seeking to maim the British Army. They planted the bomb on the Globe cinema carpark, and timed it to explode as the film finished and people were leaving the cinema to return home. The bomb went off, causing damage to parked cars. Thankfully, no one was killed or injured. The film had finished early that evening. By a stroke of good fortune, loss of life and injury had been prevented.
That was not the case 14 years later. In 1987, another bomb was planted by the IRA at JHQ. Again, luckily, no one was killed. But this time people were hit, and as many as 31 people suffered from injuries. The bomb was large, 136 kilograms in weight, which upon explosion ripped up the road, and shattered the glass in the nearby buildings and parked cars. Of the 31 people injured, 27 were German civilians and four were British army personnel. Before the bomb went off, all were enjoying the evening at a party. Whether it be the Cold War or the Irish Troubles, all conflicts now seemed to be global.
JHQ was finally handed back to the German authorities in 2013. After 59 years, the world had changed and there were new and different threats. It simply made no sense to keep the vast military base in Mönchengladbach, Germany. Most of the soldiers returned home to the UK, with a few relocating 220 kilometres east to the British army base in Bielefeld.
Because of the site’s relative recent closure (just 3 years ago, compared with over 20 years for some of the former military bases), the housing stock is still in good condition. And although the future of JHQ is currently unknown, the German authorities seem keen on preventing the site falling into a state of disrepair as most of the other former military sites have. German newspapers have reported that it may be used as a police training ground, or as a facility to house refugees, but so far nothing has been decided. In a woods near Mönchengladbach, a ‘Little England’ remains hidden and abandoned.