RAF Brüggen was established by the British in occupied Germany in 1953. The Cold War had already begun and NATO were rapidly increasing their presence in Germany to counter Soviet militarisation. Based near – and named after – the picturesque town of Brüggen, the RAF base was just a few minutes flying time from the ‘Iron Curtain’.
Jaguars and Tornadoes were based here, housed in reinforced hangars located deep in a pine forest on the German-Dutch border. The infrastructure was vast, essentially meaning that RAF Brüggen was a town in its own right, albeit a town hidden from view by the surrounding forest. Home to thousands of RAF personnel, the base required large housing estates, shops, schools, and a golf course, just to make it work.
RAF Brüggen, along with the two other nearby RAF bases in Germany – RAF Laarbruch and RAF Wildenrath – formed the British Air Force’s strike and attack force in Germany. If the British needed to hit communist targets east of the Iron Curtain, they would use Tornadoes and Jaguars from one of the three bases for that task.
In 1983, with Ronald Reagan in the White House, the Americans announced that they would be disbanding the Mutually Assured Destruction strategy. Instead they would attempt to neutralise the possibility of a Soviet attack via a satellite based defence shield system that came to be known casually as ‘Star Wars’. The Soviets were greatly angered, claiming that Star Wars was a provocation and would, ‘open a new phase in the arms race’. Not since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 had tensions been running so high.
At RAF Brüggen on the 2nd of May, 1984, a nuclear missile fell off the side of a wagon! It was just over a year after the Americans had chosen to dial up the anxiety levels with the Star Wars project, and the whole world was currently living on edge. Following the fall, the missile was X-rayed for cracks and deemed fine. But it was still a close call: in a woods straddling the German and Dutch border a bomb eight times more powerful than the one dropped on Hiroshima could have gone off! What implications that would have had for the rest of the world we will thankfully never know.
A year later, Mikhail Gorbachev was elected the executive President of the Soviet Union. As president, he was unlike any Soviet leader that had come before him. Bold and radical, Gorbachev had ambitious policy aims, both domestic and foreign. He wanted a freer trading relationship with the west. Also, to go along with a more open trade policy, he wanted to see a reduction in the amount of Soviet and American nuclear weapons in Germany and Europe. For this to happen, he sought the support of the US president, Ronald Reagan. Once hawkish, Reagan began to soften following a charm offensive from Gorbachev, and together they started working on freeing Europe from the presence of long-range nuclear missiles.
Set against the thawing of relations with the Western Bloc, Gorbachev spectacularly and unilaterally announced that the Soviet Union would abandon the ‘Brezhnev Doctrine’, the interventionist philosophy which Soviet Union leaders had previously used to keep the Warsaw Pact countries in line with Kremlin thinking. The Eastern Bloc countries, Gorbachev said, were each themselves sovereign, and the Soviet Union would no longer interfere in their internal affairs.
Emboldened by the abandonment of the Brezhnev Doctrine, the latent disquiet that had existed in Poland and East Germany rose to the surface. Free elections took place in Poland, which saw the trade unionist party, Solidarity, defeat the communist, Polish United Workers' Party, and usher in a new era. Meanwhile, in East Germany, the emergent unrest overpowered the government there. They announced, on the 9 November, 1989, that East Germans were now free to travel to West Berlin and West Germany. That was it, the day the Berlin Wall fell.
What was unthinkable just a few years previously had suddenly come to pass. The Cold War was over. A year later, and Germany was reunified. The Soviets began to withdraw their military presence from the east, and the NATO countries started to do the same in the west. For RAF Brüggen, the end of the Cold War meant a vast reduction in its capabilities, with half the aircraft and personnel leaving and returning home. Six years later still, in 1996, the final decision was taken to remove all RAF assets from Germany. RAF Brüggen was slowly run down, eventually closing in 2002.
Upon leaving, the RAF handed the barracks over to the British Army. They stayed at RAF Brüggen – or Javelin Barracks as they called it – until November 2015, when the land was finally returned to the German authorities. The Barracks are currently housing refugees, but the empty hangars and the runway now look sorry and unused.