Canadian Forces in Europe During the Cold War | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Canadian Forces in Europe During the Cold War

During the Cold War, Canada stationed army and air force units abroad for the first time during peacetime. Soldiers and airmen began to arrive in the early 1950s, shortly after the Cold War began, and remained until 1993, after it ended. In total, more than 100,000 Canadian military personnel served in France and West Germany in that period.

A Centurion tank from The Royal Canadian Dragoons crosses a waterway, 1973.

4 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group

27 Canadian Infantry Brigade deployed to Hannover, West Germany, in 1951 as part of the British Army of the Rhine. Two years later, it moved to permanent bases in the Soest-Werl-Iserlohn area. Eventually, the Canadian Army commitment became 4 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group (4 CMBG). It was a powerful self-contained force consisting of an armoured regiment equipped with Centurion tanks, a reconnaissance squadron of Ferret scout cars and an observation helicopter troop, an artillery regiment of 155 mm self-propelled guns and observation fixed-wing light aircraft, a surface-to-surface battery of Honest John tactical nuclear missiles, three mechanized infantry battalions, an antitank company of TOW missiles, combat engineers, signals and medical, supply, transport and maintenance units totalling about 6,700 soldiers. It was so strong, the British referred to it as the “light division” (the next formation above a brigade).

When the Liberal government of Pierre Elliott Trudeau came to power in 1968, it reviewed 4 CMBG. This resulted in significant cuts that reduced the formation by about half in 1970. Its three tank squadrons, artillery batteries and infantry battalions were each reduced to two; it also lost its nuclear missiles, and the reconnaissance squadron was incorporated into the armoured regiment. Helicopter assets were increased, however, as the reconnaissance helicopter troop was moved to an air force squadron, which also included utility helicopters. In 1977, the brigade’s aging Centurion tanks were replaced by Leopard 1 tanks. Instead of being front-line troops in northern Germany as a part of the British commitment, 4 CMBG became a rear area reserve force supporting American or German forces in southern Germany. Additionally, 4 CMBG became part of a new formation, Canadian Forces Europe (CFE), which also commanded air force units. The brigade was stationed at Lahr with an infantry battalion in Baden-Soellingen. 4 CMBG was disbanded in 1993, after the Cold War ended.

Leopard 1 tanks in Germany, 1979

ACE Mobile Force (Land)

Canada also committed infantry battalion groups to Allied Command Europe Mobile Force (Land), or AMF(L). This was a multinational, brigade-sized, immediate reaction force established in 1960 and available to the Supreme Allied Commander Europe. Although its permanent headquarters was based in Heidelberg, West Germany, AMF(L) was based on designated battalion groups stationed in their home territory in peacetime. If tension increased between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, AMF(L) units would deploy from their homelands to the region in question on short notice. In 1964, Canada committed two infantry battalion groups to AMF(L), one for each of NATO’s northern and southern flanks. In the late 1960s, this was reduced to one on the northern flank only. Canadian battalions participated in several AMF(L) exercises.

Avro CF-100 Canuck

1 Air Division

Canada formed 1 Air Division (1 AD) in 1951 as the country’s air contribution to NATO in Europe, with headquarters at Metz, France. It consisted initially of four wings of day fighters; each wing had three squadrons of F-86 Sabres. Two of the wings were stationed in France (1 Wing at Marville and 2 Wing at Grostenquin) and two in Germany (3 Wing at Zweibrucken and 4 Wing at Baden-Soellingen). When NATO realized it had a shortage of all-weather interceptors, Canada volunteered to help fill the void. In 1956 and 1957, one squadron of Sabres per wing was replaced by a squadron of CF-100 Canucks. Then, starting in the fall of 1962, the Sabres were replaced by the CF-104 Starfighter and the Canuck squadrons disbanded. The introduction of the Starfighters brought a change of role to 1 AD from day/all-weather interceptor to nuclear strike and reconnaissance.

This changed again in 1964, after the French government demanded all nuclear weapons on French soil had to be under their command. France also withdrew its military forces from NATO in 1966, which resulted in major changes to 1 AD. The division’s headquarters and 1 Wing moved to Lahr, while 2 Wing was disbanded and its two squadrons joined the wings at Zweibrucken and Baden-Soellingen. In 1968, 3 Wing was closed and its squadrons joined 1 and 4 Wings in conjunction with the move of 4 CMBG to southern Germany and the formation of CFE. 1 Wing closed, and the new name for the remaining three squadrons was 1 Canadian Air Group. The Starfighters also lost their nuclear role.

Canadian Air-Sea Transportable Brigade Group

Canada’s NATO allies were critical of the unilateral reduction of its stationed land and air forces in Europe and complained Canada was not pulling its weight. In response, the Canadian government offered a new formation to be stationed in Canada but able to deploy to Norway in times of tension on 30 day’s notice from the Norwegian government. The Canadian Air-Sea Transportable (CAST) Brigade Group was created in 1968. It consisted of three mechanized infantry battalions, an artillery regiment and an armoured reconnaissance squadron, supported by two squadrons of CF-5 fighter aircraft, some 5,000 personnel in total. CAST only deployed to Norway once, on Exercise Brave Lion from August to October 1986. Although units performed well, logistics support was a failure. CAST was reduced in size, ended its active role in 1987 and disbanded in 1989.

Centurion tank during Exercise Regensprung Lahr West Germany


Families of service personnel (known as dependants) also lived in both Germany and France. Besides housing, a full range of facilities was provided, including schools, hospitals, shopping services, sports and recreation facilities, movie theatres, banks, radio stations and newspapers. A posting to Europe also offered unique opportunities for holiday travel throughout the continent and farther afield for service personnel and their families.

Did you know?
Before 1970, when regulations changed, Canadian service personnel and their dependants who died while stationed in Germany and France were buried there, in local civilian cemeteries. Almost 1,400 Canadians are buried in the two countries, with 474 in Werl alone.

Aerial view