The atmosphere at the NATO summit in Brussels this year is much more positive than two years ago in London. Where President Trump previously questioned whether America allies would come to the aid of problems, President Biden says very clearly: Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty is sacred. Yet the message remains under Biden: Europe needs to stand more on its own feet. How? A European army is a step too far for many, but most countries agree that much more cooperation needs to be done.
500 kilometres away, in the military practice area near the German Mountains, this collaboration is in full order. There, the Dutch-German tank battalion 414 tests their Leopards 2, which is the last exercise before joining NATO‘s Enhanced Forward Presence mission in Lithuania at the end of July.
A red flag waving on one of the tanks. It means the tank is ready to shoot. In German it is warned: “Gehörschutz auf”, set up your hearing protection. The enormous course focuses on, then slightly down again. The tank fires, a huge bang, the shock wave that follows you can feel all over your body. On the tank is a Dutch corporal, Robin: “This is powerful, say.”
What it sounds like (and what’s so special about the German-Dutch collaboration) you can see in this report by our correspondent:
Battalion 414 consists of about a hundred Dutch and 350 Germans. According to Commander Hagen Ruppelt, it is the most far-reaching example of integrated forces in Europe. “I have a Dutch company under me, but in turn I fall under a Dutch brigade and that one of the German division again. That everything is so strongly intertwined, that‘s unique.”
His deputy, Dutch lieutenant colonel Timo de Borst, calls the collaboration a win-win situation. “They supply the equipment and we are manpower.” The German Bundeswehr has had a huge shortage of staff for years. The Dutch army, in turn, does not have enough money to maintain expensive vehicles like tanks. More than ten years ago, the Army even sold all its tanks, with the idea that they were no longer needed.
They returned to that after Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Now the Dutch lease twenty tanks from the German army.
For many “tankers,” as men and women are called who operate the tanks, today is the first time they can shoot with real ammo. Corporal Robin has done only combat simulations so far. The experience he gained today is indispensable, he says. “You feel the recoil, how heavy it is to turn the shooting tube, it‘s totally different.”
The Borst is also very happy that the tanks are back. “The tank remains irreplaceable. In addition to all cyber attacks, drones, the conflicts of recent years have shown: on the battlefield you need a tank. Even with a mission that is primarily meant to deter, such as in Lithuania, you need tanks to be taken seriously.”
Is this the first step towards a European army, as French President Macron sees, for example, under the command of Brussels? It’s not that far, both De Borst and Ruppelt say. “A European army is a very ambitious goal. There are many tactical, technical and cultural differences.” Yet his battalion can be a role model, says Ruppelt. He also sees a lot of interest from the rest of Europe. “It saves costs and expands your capabilities.”
There are varying stories about the collaboration. The language is German and that “needs to be worn”, but it is not a problem for most of them in the end. When it collides, it often involves different views of own input and a difference in hierarchy. “The Dutch go their own way more often.”
it feel weird fighting with Germans because of World War II? In Bergen, memories of that dark history are everywhere. At the east beach of the training area is former Nazi concentration camp Bergen-Belsen, where Anne Frank and at least 70,000 others were murdered.
Almost eighty years later, the young men in the battalion no longer play a role in the collaboration. The Germans suffer more than they do, one of them says. “They still feel some kind of guilt. But that‘s nonsense to me. I’m not going to pay them on what their great grandpa and grandmothers did anyway.”