In a former British Army camp in northern Germany, tanks are on manoeuvre. Officers watch from a metal gantry as orange flashes light up the heath and the sound of live firing reverberates in the distance.
The German army is training on the latest upgrade of its Leopard 2 battle tanks, but this is no ordinary military unit. The crews operating the tanks are a mix of German and Dutch soldiers all operating under a single command, in what has been called a German attempt to create a European army.
This is no mere joint-training exercise. The Dutch soldiers are fully integrated into the German army’s 414 Tank Battalion, and live and work with their German counterparts. Dutch soldiers take orders from German officers, and vice versa.
If you ask the senior officers what their mission is, you get the official statement: it’s the “defence of Germany and the Netherlands within the framework of Nato”. But if you ask the tank crews, you get a simpler answer. “It’s the defence of Europe,” says Capt Alexander Läufer, who leads a platoon of four tanks…
Critics have accused Germany of trying quietly to create a European army under its own command.
“Whether at the end of this lies a European army or an army for Europe, I cannot say,” Lt-Gen Vollmers says. “That is a political issue for European governments and parliaments.”
But there is no mistaking that 414 Tank Battalion is a showcase for the scheme. There is a steady stream of visitors to the former British Camp Hohne, including the King of the Netherlands, who showed up in uniform and drove a tank.